What OCD is Like: First in a Series of Videos

by Matt B. on May 27, 2011

What OCD is Like: Personal Experiences with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder from Matt Bieber on Vimeo.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

lava May 27, 2011 at 2:37 pm

great video. really useful to understand how this happens so that those of us who don’t have OCD but hear the term mainly as a glib minor insult (“god man, you’re so OCD”) can have a better sense of what the experience is like.

Matt May 27, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Ha – thanks man.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that phrase is tossed around so casually.  On one hand, yeah, it’s kind of trivializing.  On the other, though, it opens up a window.  People ascribing OCD tendencies to themselves, (“I’m so OCD!”) even if they’re exaggerating, strikes me as better than people not talking about it at all.  It often feels like a kind of half-readiness to play with concepts of dysfunction and disorder in our lives, and that feels like a positive step.

Lian May 27, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Yah, great start!  Just one suggestion: tripod.

I’m also curious about what disorders come to stand for.  Asperger’s and autism have become well-known, and even fashionable, in a Bill Gates era when computers and other technologies rule the world.  Manic depression is associated with artists in the popular imagination. And we could make a case that there is on one hand an association between aptitudes and one’s neurological make-up; but that on the other hand, culture plays a role in what we diagnose, treat, and celebrate.  Example: artists were understood differently before the romantic era, when the idea of ‘genius’ wasn’t so interiorized and when there wasn’t a hard line between art and more general craft production. 

This is getting rather far from the content of your video.  But suffice to say that I thought the content was great in its specificity (the teeth story is really illuminating, well told) while also sparking so many questions and tangents.

Matt B. May 27, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Thanks L! Yeah, I’m curious to follow the thread about what OCD represents in the popular imagination, too. I mentioned a TV show (Monk) and a movie (As Good As It Gets), but I’m sure there are other portrayals out there – I’ll need to track ’em down. My sense, too, is that OCD is being seen in a softer and softer light – a kind of crazy-making quirk of smart people, say. I can’t tell you how many times people have suggested that OCD has an upside because it’s helped me do well in school.

Pelger May 30, 2011 at 10:18 am

Excellent start on the series Matt. I look forward to hearing more. I’m curious about the positive impacts of OCD on your life as well. Part of the reason you could succeed so well in high school and college and perhaps the reason you never could figure out the spoon game at wrestling camp (and yes, Coach McDonald still tells that story every time I see him).

I feel like I am on the OCD spectrum (albeit on the light side) which can mean wasted hours having to complete every award in a video game that I don’t even enjoy anymore. On the other hand, it also drives me to keep a hyper detailed personal wiki that contains all the important notes from every book, blog post and random fakt that I’ve come across over the years which can be very useful.

So thanks and keep up the good work.

Matt May 30, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Great to hear from you, Ned – and I’m really flattered that you’re watching. (I’ve wanted to maintain better contact with you these past years, and I’m always regretful that I haven’t.) 

I guess my stock answer to this kind of question is that while OCD has pushed me in ways that have yielded lots of goods, it seems to me that one can have most (and perhaps all) of those goods without the debilitating dysfunction that comes with intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.  Without OCD, it’s true – my life would be very different, and I might well have been less ‘successful’ along some of the standard metrics, but I suspect I’d be happier, less fearful, and more balanced as well.  And that the absence of OCD would have made room for lots of other parts of me that haven’t gotten a ton of room for full expression. 

As you can probably tell, then, I don’t really think of OCD as the fuel for creative fires or anything like that. (Again, perhaps if I were more creative, I’d feel differently.)  But based on my experience, I’m hesitant to give much ground on this; I think of the OCD bit my personality as precisely the part that takes good impulses and turns them in on themselves.  Still, I’d be keen to hear more from you about your experiences.

Funny you brought up the spoon game – I was just thinking about that the other day.  I still get a big kick out of playing it with new people, probably because it messed with me as much as it did :)  Hope Lex and the gang are doing well!

Matt May 30, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Thanks!  You’re right – I’ll lock down the mechanics more next time.

As for the way that OCD plays in the popular imagination, this is something I’m keen to explore much more.  I actually got around to watching ‘As Good as It Gets’ for the first time the other day, and I think they do a decent job of portraying at least one of the ways it can manifest. (The real challenge, I think, is finding ways to externalize what can often be a very internal – and inward-looking – set of experiences.  In my case, for example, there aren’t too many rituals that I have to deal with – locking and unlocking doors multiple times, etc.  It’s much more purely mental – painful, obsessive thoughts running on constant loop.  Portraying THAT would be incredibly difficult, I think.)   

Lian May 31, 2011 at 4:16 am

When you first announced the video project, I wondered if you might be experimenting with videography in a way to put your viewer in the mindset of someone with OCD… first-person camera view, narrating the repetitive thoughts, etc.  A different kind of project.

But the route you’re taking, the way you told the teeth story, was really good–I could relate to it, and it’s the kind of thing that probably many people could empathize with, but you were also able to convey how what you experienced was also very different, and much farther beyond, what peeps w/o OCD would experience.

Anonymous May 31, 2011 at 4:38 am

I’m really glad you say so, Lian, because that’s exactly what I want – for people to get some sense of what it is and how it’s different.  Lots of times, I’ll try to describe it to people, and they’ll say things like, “Oh yeah, that happens to me sometimes.  You know, worrying about things too much.”  I don’t want to be boorish or to insist on my special suffering, so I tend not to push back real hard; I’ll say things like, “Yeah, it’s kind of like that, but the thoughts tend to be more persistent and more painful.” Which is true, but probably doesn’t capture the experience.  There is a gap between ‘normal’ worry or anxiety and the kind of thing that can come with OCD.  Here’s how the DSM describes OCD symptoms: 

“The key features of this disorder include obsessions (persistent, often irrational, and seemingly uncontrollable thoughts) and compulsions (actions which are used to neutralize the obsessions).  A good example of this would be an individual who has thoughts that he is dirty, infected, or otherwise unclean which are persistent and uncontrollable.  In order to feel better, he washes his hands numerous times throughout the day, gaining temporary relief from the thoughts each time.  For these behaviors to constitute OCD, it must be disruptive to everyday functioning (such as compulsive checking before leaving the house making you extremely late for all or most appointments, washing to the point of excessive irritation of your skin, or inability to perform everyday functions like work or school because of the obsessions or compulsions).”

My sense is that there’s a spectrum – that you can fall into the space described above (as I clearly do), but that you can also be damn close.  My guess is that diagnosing border cases is pretty tough (though I’m by no means an expert).  And I would never want to withhold my sympathy just because someone fell short of what is necessarily an arbitrary definition.
As for the first video idea, it’s intriguing, but I don’t think it’s something I could handle.  I spend enough of my day living in that kind of space for real – I think it would be a real risk to try to recreate it. (Though I surely would love to see someone else do it – perhaps someone without OCD but with a hell of a lot of acting ability.)

Lian June 1, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Yeah.  There’s a problematic romanticization of disorders.  I’ve seen young people who want to be artists, and who have the impression that you have to be emotionally imbalanced to be an artist.  I do know some profoundly creative people who happen to also be bipolar, and surely there’s some relation between their abilities and their disability.  But they do not wish their problems on anyone else. And there are many artists who are not bipolar.   So who would recommend nurturing one’s out-of-control emotional tendencies as a route to becoming an artist?  It’s a silly idea, yet it’s easy for people to think this way. 

So we can notice a parallel between productive urges that many people feel (to check up on things, or to create something) and a destructive situation when those urges take someone over, in OCD or mania.  I guess it’s logical enough, if mistaken, to think that if I do some pretty good editing work when I’m feeling particularly attentive to detail, or if I do a nice drawing when I have a burst of creative energy, then one who feels these states in their extremes must be so much more productive.  So it’s really useful that you’re teasing out why this is not the case.

Now this is a major tangent of the kind that I’m prone to as an academic, but this convo reminds me of how one might typify the Greek gods.  Each one stood for some trait or power, magnified, without the burden of other traits that would have a balancing effect.  They were worshiped for what they stood for.  Surely this would have been meaningless to the Greeks, but today we could imagine a story that tells the inner lives of some of these gods, showing how they secretly envied humans, with their petty mortal concerns and their mundane balances of strengths and (mostly) weaknesses–which allowed them, after all, to take real risks and leaps of faith that were not available to immortals. 

Matt Bieber June 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Exactly.  Sometimes I think of OCD as precisely the point when I become UNproductive – when all my energies and drives and desires slow their outward expansion and get turned in on themselves, vortex-style.

I like your idea about the Greek gods.  I can imagine them being jealous of us for our capacity to die, too.  This article by my friend Todd says it all, I think: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/02/happy-ending/

Lian June 3, 2011 at 3:16 pm

That is a really lovely piece by Todd May!  

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