Devil in the Details (Book Review and Musings)

Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig

I’ve been on a near obsessive quest to find all the books I can about Obsessional Compulsion Disorder, or OCD. Stemming from a center of the brain called the the basal ganglia, OCD is a brain disorder related to Tourette’s syndrome. If you’ve ever lived with someone with OCD you would immediately see the connection as people with OCD are compelled to practice rituals to stave off obsessive thoughts, while people with Tourette’s are compelled to shout words. In “Devil in the Details,” Jennifer Traig recounts her childhood struggles with OCD and scupulocity- which is a form of obsessive religiosity.

“When my OCD was flaring, it truly felt like a rodent had burrowed its way into my brain, my basal ganglia like a scrabbing animal, each movement of its tiny claws compelling me to do things against my will. A flick here made me inspect the juice glass; a flick there, and I was sterilizing all the flatware.”

OCD is not a psychosis, because sufferers do not lose touch with reality. Most all people with OCD will admit that that their obsessions and compulsions are crazy, and do not believe in their thoughts fully but just can’t shake the idea that if they play into their compulsions they will be safer. And though giving into compulsions is something a person with OCD will always give into from time to time, they also recognize it’s a trap because this just makes the obsessive-compulsive cycle spirals tighter and tighter. Seeking reassurance about safety from family, friends or the internet also reinforces this spiral.

“It’s a thousand tiny impulses, building on one another. First you decide it’s a good idea to check the oatmeal bin for bugs. Next you’re going through all the canisters, and before you know it, you’re wearing a hazmat suit and examining frosted flakes for ground-up glass. Each action further enforces the obsessive-compulsive circuit. When the disease is full-blown, sufferers are firmly entrenched in neural loops that make them repeat thoughts and actions over and over,” Traig writes.

Cross culturally and throughout history, people with OCD have the same obsessions: details, doorknobs, germs, blood, bugs, electrical sockets, locks, light switches. And most everyone in the OCD world loves to write lists to excess, according to Traig. I was recently trying to explain to a friend what the difference is between a person with OCD, and a person with general anxiety. She said that she could understand sheer panic and making lists and not being able to stop thinking about something. I asked her how often this happens though- and she said every once in awhile. I then said that it becomes OCD when it becomes a part of the fabric of your thoughts- the panic reactions taking up a good 90% of your day and making its way into all your daily routines.

That’s why it’s so frustrating for OCD people when they are “caught” performing a ritual- rituals are the visible part of OCD, but probably only account for 3% of the time spend with the disease during the day. The other 97% the OCD person keeps hidden, but when it bubbles to the surface in ritual they are ashamed and are upset with themselves that they couldn’t resist. But that’s the nature of the disease- they can’t always resist. Compulsive actions are the tip of the iceberg, and the obsessive thoughts are everything that lies beneath that the world doesn’t see. Traig’s book helps to flesh out the mental state of mind more- OCD is a disease, but it’s a disease for life and we might as well stop trying to “get it out of people” and learn to exist with it. Traig never stopped being religious, but her scrupulosity comes in waves now instead of being a constant.

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© Copyright 2018 Annie Windholz