Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Problems on a Spectrum

I was driving to the airport last week, setting off on my first business trip to Europe, and as I did so I was mentally running through the list of things that I had meant to do before departing and trying to think if I had done everything. It was thus that I realized that while the other toiletries that I had needed to use one last time and then pack (toothbrush, deodorant) had made it into my bag, the hair gel had not. Oh well, I would find some while I was traveling. Then I began to think about pulling my final things together downstairs. I remembered putting my laptop on the table and then bustling off to grab some other things. Had I put it into my backpack? I couldn't recall, and if there was one thing that I couldn't get through the trip without, it was my laptop. Better to check while I was still only ten minutes from home. I pulled into a parking lot, checked the backpack (where the laptop was indeed safely stowed) and then continued on to the airport only two minutes to the worse.

Someone may be thinking, "that sounds pretty OCD". I have a close relative who has actual, diagnosed OCD. Having lived with the experience of that person's serious OCD, I can tell you that it's actually very different. Not totally different in feeling, perhaps, but very, very different in effect. My mind likes to run through lists of things that may have gone wrong or been forgotten, especially when I'm already under stress. It will throw up questions like "Did you forget to pack that?" But when those questions come up, I have the ability to answer them clearly in my mind, and decide whether it's worth the time to check them based on a quick cost-benefit analysis. For my relative with diagnosed OCD, that ability to control worries such as that is much less developed. He'll end up doing and checking things multiple times because he can't shut down the concern that he might not have done them, or done them right, or done them enough. Getting out the door can take an extra twenty minutes as everything is done and checked multiple times. It's close to paralyzing. So what is really being talked about is not just having a mind that constantly runs through details and asks, "Is this right?" it's lacking the ability to keep those questions in their place and prevent them from taking over your life.

I think this is probably the case with a lot of mental conditions. In some ways, it can make those conditions feel more familiar: Oh yeah, I have those feelings too! But in another sense it's very different from actually having the debilitating effects of one of those conditions.

Often the feelings or thoughts we might associate with a particular mental problem are common, if not to everyone, at least to a lot of people. But what makes that condition a problem is when one not only has those thoughts but also has a decreased ability to dispatch them. On the one hand, this can give us a sense of common sympathy for those who suffer debilitating effects from some particular mental condition. Often we can see in ourselves similar thoughts and think, "Yeah, I kind of suffer from that too." And yet, while there are genuine similarities, it's important to remember that it's the ability to control these thoughts and feelings that is often what turns a mode of thinking into an actual debilitating problem. If you haven't suffered the overpowering feeling that you must give in to OCD-type questions, checking something again and again, you may have felt the stimulus of worrying about some topic, but you haven't felt what it is that people with serious cases of OCD actually suffer from.

Of course, the ability to resist giving in to problematic feelings is itself something that exists on a spectrum. Some people simply find it takes a lot of energy to overcome some particular set of fears, thoughts, etc. Others find it nearly impossible. But I think recognizing both the urging and the ability to manage it as two separate aspects of a mental condition is key to understanding whether one has the condition oneself or simply shares a few tendencies that way.

No comments: