Our over-sized plastic mailbox has an extra plastic tab that pops up every time the door opens.
Ding! You’ve got mail!
The tab is adorned with a bright yellow sticker you can see from the house. A glance from the window prevents a fruitless lap to an empty mailbox. That tab is a terrific life hack as long as everyone who fetches the mail remembers to lower the flag.
Everyone doesn’t remember.
Obsession: an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind
If I see the yellow flag is up, I have to check the mail. It makes me nuts to drive home 22.3 miles in my car with the broken air conditioner after a 12-hour slog to stumble through the yard weighed down with my computer bag and empty coffee mug and the stress of the day because the yellow flag is up and there is no mail.
Why couldn’t they just put the flag down? They know it’s empty. Why are they making me check an empty mailbox?!
Compulsion: an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, esp. against one’s conscious wishes
Obsession drives compulsion.
Insanity is hereditary
When I was growing up, my mom had a faded green t-shirt that said “Insanity is hereditary. You get it from your kids!” That shirt cracked me up, but maybe I was cracking up in more than one way. Things mom still says today:
“For the life of me, I can’t remember if I turned the curling iron off.”
A classic example of OCD at its most basic. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for her to turn around and drive back to check it. It was always off.
“I can’t go anywhere looking like this!”
She always looks great, like she has a perpetual secret plan to go somewhere.
“I’m sorry the house is such a wreck.”
My mom’s house always looks like the maid just left (she doesn’t have a maid), meticulously clean and everything resting perfectly in place. And my family wonders why I always see the messes in our house before I see the clean parts? I know I have hurt their feelings more than a few times after they have worked on the house and I still see the messy parts. I can’t help it.
Yeah, I’ve got issues.
My favorite podcast, Back to Work with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin, recently spent all of episode 83 “Way of the Future” talking about how obsession and compulsion drive our lives. They got me to thinking.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” –Albert Einstein
The more I think about my behaviors–some may say unnecessary behaviors–the more I think I may have bigger problems. Or do I? Am I seeing patterns where there are? Am I feeding some kind of hypochondria? Maybe. Should I dismiss all of this as hypochondria, or would that dismissal in itself be a paranoid symptom of denial of problems I have either ignored or overlooked for years?
I have spent of a lot of my life wondering why I feel so scatterbrained. It is often difficult to focus on any one topic for long at all. I feel like the microbursts of information and entertainment served up on the Internet, an endless buffet of diversion served up on a boundless network of shiny platters, have only exacerbated the problem.
You had mail, an example
Email is something I use every day, and I occasionally test the waters by trying out some other email clients to see if I’ve missed something that may work better for me. While dabbling with several email clients the other day, a new mail alert sound caught my fancy. I enjoyed the change for a couple of days before cleaning out the latest round of programs that didn’t make the cut and returning to my complicated relationship with Apple Mail.
At some point after that I realized the new sound I liked was–poof–gone.
This was not a “big deal,” but it presented a considerable problem for me. I realize email notification sounds are an incredible distraction to my wandering mind; however, not knowing how that particular sound vanished was worse. I spent hours searching for the sound.
Obsession drives compulsion.
I finally found it, but what was the real cost? Is my life better for it? No, it isn’t.
Tracking down the email sound was an unusual situation. Don’t worry. I’ve got plenty of other examples.
- Closing the curtain to our laundry room
- Keeping the sheets on our bed tucked in correctly
- Making sure cabinets and drawers are closed all the way
- Nothing should be hanging on the stairwell bannister (or door knobs for that matter)
These add up to another quick example of how my issues impact my family. Let’s say I walk by my son’s bedroom that may be more or less clean; however, his comforter is on the floor or sideways on the bed and his drawers are open with clothes hanging out.
Yes, he is 13. I know, but I can’t help that it makes me crazy and I tell him how crazy it makes me and we agree it takes less than 60 seconds to fix and sometimes we end up arguing about the 1-minute fix for an hour or longer. By the time it’s over we are both upset, and for what?
And once one thing has caught my eye, everything catches my eye. Why is that scrap of paper in the floor? Why can’t anyone close the curtain to our laundry room in the hall? Who left bread crumbs on the kitchen counter? Why is there peanut butter on the outside of the jar? Who left a dirty glass in the living room? Why is the TV still on with nobody in the room? Why are the remote controls on the couch when they should be on the table?!
They look at me like I’m bonkers no matter how simple my requests seem to me, but it is incredibly important to me. I cannot unclench until those things are taken care of; therefore, I am perpetually clenched. I rarely feel relaxed. That carries over into my attitude and my insomnia because I cannot stop thinking about it.
I try to keep my household guidelines simple to help them help me.
- Be respectful.
- If you open it, close it.
- If you turn it on, turn it off.
- If you drop something, pick it up.
- If you make a mess, clean it up.
Noisy places frustrate me. Crowded restaurants. High school football game. All of the individual sounds gather together into a single cacophony of white noise before entering my brain leaving no discernible stream that makes sense to me. As a result, I look down and avoid eye contact to prevent conversations I know I won’t be able to hear. Some probably wonder why I am so rude. “Did he really just walk away while I was talking to him?”
I eventually reach a point where I even get angry that people try to talk to me. I am angry, but that rage is focused on my broken brain that won’t let me join in the fun. I begin to feel trapped and want nothing more than to escape.
Several years ago my doctor confirmed my armchair diagnosis of adult Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
ADD: any of a range of behavioral disorders occurring primarily in children, including such symptoms as poor concentration, hyperactivity, and impulsivity
I may focus intently on one thing (like trying to find an email notification sound). The intensity of my focus isn’t some preternatural ability; it is compulsion driven by obsession. Focus isn’t something I’m good at. It’s something I have to do for some reason.
My issues are typical nerd behavior and align with Michael Lopp’s field guide, The Nerd Handbook.
“These control issues mean your nerd is sensitive to drastic changes in his environment. Think travel. Think job changes. These types of system-redefining events force your nerd to recognize that the world is not always or entirely a knowable place, and until he reconstructs this illusion, he’s going to be frustrated and he’s going to act erratically. I develop an incredibly short fuse during system-redefining events and I’m much more likely to lose it over something trivial and stupid.” —The Nerd Handbook
Lopp, aka @rands on Twitter, also describes Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder.
Folks, I’m a nerd. I need rapid fire content delivery in short, clever, punch phrases. Give me Coupland, give me Calvin’n’Hobbes, give me Asimov, give me The Watchmen. I need this type of content because I’m horribly afflicted with NADD (Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder). —N.A.D.D.
Thanks to Merlin and Dan, my eyes are a little more open to my issues. After tinkering with this article for several days I’m putting it to rest unresolved. I appreciate their comments and hope by following some of Dan’s advice about mindfulness and meditation with new understanding, that I can find some rest.