Pure O: Obsessing about obsessions

Obsessional thought is a form of OCD. My experience is that obsessional thought goes with compulsive behaviour, and therefore it does make sense to talk about OCD, and the amount of obsession and compulsion is a ratio on a continuum. When I was young I was more compulsive; now I am more obsessional.

Do you just find yourself sometimes obsessed, thinking about the same thing and can’t stop? There was an interesting article in the (UK) Times on 2 September 2020 about George Ezra’s struggle with his “pure obsessional” thought disorder. The article then covered the debate about whether it is a distinct category of mental illness from OCD. As you might know, my view is that diagnostic criteria for mental illness are pretty messed up, and we don’t have much idea about what is going on in terms of brain dysfunction, genetics, and the effects of experience, and one of the best things about psychiatrists is that they can prescribe drugs (although even then some claim some drugs may do more harm than good). I think it’s very hard to disentangle different types of mental illness, and depression and anxiety disorders are one big blob of unwellness that manifests itself in different ways in different people at different times.

I am definitely inclined to “Pure O”, but I still have some compulsions, albeit currently weak ones that are not too dysfunctional (such as checking the door is locked in multiples of three). The key thing is that the compulsions don’t trouble me, but the obsessive thinking is horrible. When I was younger though my compulsions were much worse – going downstairs in the middle of the night when I was 12 or so checking that the front door was locked maybe a hundred times (although it would have been 99, a multiple of 3, or 81, a nice power of 3, and once or twice 243 times). I was also obsessed with the idea that other people could read my thoughts, even though I knew they couldn’t. I sat in the back of my uncles’ cars and worried that a passing driver would misinterpret my hand posture as a V-sign, and would then track me down, so I would mentally say “sorry sorry sorry” (again some power of 3 times). It was the different world then. I’d never heard of mental illness and had no idea what a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist was. There was nothing like a counsellor at school (I think i might be wrong here: there might have been a nurse in case we broke our leg in break – might).

I’m not so bad now, but I am still pretty obsessive, and occasionally something comes along that I just can’t stop thinking about. I know everyone has their worries but talking to other people about worry, obsessional thinking is completely different. It’s all consuming. It can be dangerous. It can be a form of self-harm. Mostly now I just have a “completeness obsession” – the idea that if a read a certain book or hear a particular piece of music I will be a better person. That isn’t unnatural, but then comes the idea that just owning a certain book, or worse all books in a series, or all pieces of music, will do the job. Or having every track on a music programme. That can work out to be quite expensive, and it takes a bit of time, but it doesn’t make me very unhappy. When I was 12-13 I was very, very unhappy about it all.

My experience is that obsessional thought goes with compulsive behaviour, and therefore it does make sense to talk about OCD, and the relative amount of obsession and compulsion is on a continuum. When I was young I was more compulsive; now I am more obsessional.

I wish I could be optimistic about treatment. There are no specific drugs; SSRIs and anxiolytics are usually prescribed, but they don’t seem to do much for me, and neither has CBT (although of course you might argue I’d be even worse without these).

You might also be interested in Rose Cartwright’s book Pure. Personally it didn’t tell me much new, but you might have a different view.

If anyone has come across a reliable way to stop obsessing about something, please let me know. It might be extreme, but sometimes I wonder if giving myself an electric shock every time I had a bad thought would work.

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

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