The internet and OCD

I initially saw this article on The Passive Voice blog.

What It’s Like Using the Internet When You Have OCD

Morgan was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) 20 years ago. While a combination of medication and therapy has kept it mostly under control, she says, it still comes back occasionally in an incredibly frustrating manner.

“There have been flare-ups that have slowed me down because I had to type a sentence, erase it, and type it until it was ‘safe,’” she says.

What Morgan is experiencing is an emerging manifestation of OCD: When symptoms express not in the physical world (for example, when a patient repeatedly, and in a way that interferes with their life, checks their oven to ensure that it’s off), but on the internet instead.

This is interesting to me partly because everything about psychology is interesting, partly because seeing how OCD can manifest in the context of the internet and writing is interesting, and partly because I’m clearly one of the many people who occupies space in the penumbra of OCD.

I went through a brief period decades ago where I did indeed feel compelled to go back to my apartment and make sure the oven was turned off every single time I left the apartment. Soon enough I said to myself, “This is turning into a compulsion,” and I made myself stop. I never went back to check again, ever. Being able to stop is what I mean by “being in the penumbra of OCD.”

More recently, after people leaving gates open and dogs getting out twice in the past couple of years, I often check the gates several times a day to make sure they are closed. This urge to check the gates got much stronger after Honey was lost in St Louis that time. Even though I didn’t lose her personally — even though I got her back after 7 hours and she was fine — I still wound up very strongly sensitized to the whole idea of dogs getting lost. I don’t always give way to the urge to check both gates twice or three times a day, but I feel it. If it gets to be a problem, I’ll eventually padlock both gates and then I bet I will be able to make myself stop checking.

It is not at all unusual to be in the penumbra of a serious condition. Reading Peter Kramer’s books has made it clear to me that a lot of people experience something that is somewhere near the edge of, but not nearly as extreme as, a real disorder. Sometimes I wonder whether that’s more commonly the case than otherwise.

This phenomenon of OCD manifesting as various problems using the internet is interesting. Like this:

Saxena says he has patients who have trouble sending emails at all, concerned that they might write something offensive or use foul language, even though such modes of communication are totally out of character for that person. These “checking behaviors,” he says, “can sometimes take hours and hours and hours out of a day. 

Fascinating. This one is hard for me to wrap my mind around, even though I know that obsessive thoughts about hurting people — especially your own children — is rather a common manifestation of OCD and this fear of writing inappropriate things in emails sounds somewhat similar.

This all makes me think of the only SFF novel I know of where obsessive / compulsive disorder is very important to plots or characters: Xenocide by Orson Scott Card. In that one, as you may all recall, many of the people on the planet Path were deliberately engineered to be intelligent (to make them useful) and also to have OCD (to make them easier to control). This is still the novel that I think does the best job of showing the reader the experience of OCD.

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