The Programmer Who Couldn't Stop

This post isn’t techy, but talks about an issue that affects many software developers.

Until very recently I suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. I use the word suffer because while I still feel the effects of OCD every day, I no longer feel a sense of suffering. I have read a lot of books on the subject of OCD and mental health, it is a fascinating topic but I finally found a book that I haven’t been able to put down. “The man who couldn’t stop: OCD and the true story of a life lost in thought” is, without doubt, the best book on the subject I have ever read and anybody with even a slight interest in OCD and mental health should read this book right now.

The book makes a clear differentiation between being diagnosed with OCD and being ‘a bit OCD’. A term that has appeared all too often in popular culture. “Sorry, I have to move that there. I’m a bit OCD.” is a stark contrast to the all-consuming fear of the feeling of guilt I would have because I didn’t check if I had unplugged my alarm clock. Because if I didn’t, it would catch fire and kill all of my family. Obviously. Let me give you a window in to that world.

Packed, ready to go. Turn off lights, shut doors, etc. Oh wait, did I turn off the alarm clock? I’d better go and check. Yeah, it’s off. I may as well turn the light off, I don’t want to waste electricity. Did I turn it off properly? I better turn it on and off again, in case the switch didn’t click properly. Oh, I’ll just unplug it to make sure. Is it touching that other plug? I had better make sure they’re not touching each other. Ok, that’s fine now. I’ll leave. Leave the house, lock the door, walk down the road and the feeling of anxiety hits again. I spent all that time worrying about the alarm clock but I’m sure I left the hob on. I couldn’t possibly go home to check it? Well, I’d rather be late for work than burn down my home. I’ll walk back and check. Walk home. Open the door. Check the hob. Tap each hob dial chanting “Off”, “Off”, “Off”, “Off” for each one. And again. And once more. Ok ready… no wait, one more, “Off”, “Off”, “Off”, “Off”. While I’m here, I’m going to check the alarm clock again. Ok, time to go to work. Lock the door. Walk to work. Get to work. Did I leave the door unlocked?

I’m lucky. While OCD symptoms used to run my life. They rarely do anymore. Anybody who’s ever described themselves as ‘a bit OCD’ should read the book. When they’re finished, I hope they prefer to use the term ‘quirky’ from now on.