I’m studying obsession at the moment, and I’ve some questions:
Good or bad? Obsession describes a scientist working all hours to prove a theory. It describes a person exclusively focused on a finely defined ‘compulsive behaviour’. It speaks of single-mindedness and eccentricity. It describes the hunter, the detective, the art collector and the painter, the perfectionist, the musician. It describes an unbalanced person, someone who cannot stop, who is driven forward by an inability to get closure.
What is the difference between obsession and strong passion? Or between compulsion and exceptionally high motivation?
In my field, obsession is associated with the word ‘disorder’, which in and of itself has judgement attached, as if ‘order’ is good, and ‘disorder’ is not. Yes, you’ve got it: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, a psychiatric label attached to a group of actions that constitute a ‘syndrome’ that seems to give a certain satisfaction to the bearer, who clearly loves order more than me.
Let’s deal with those words separately.
Compulsive? Compulsive behaviour includes many of the fatherly and motherly actions we associate with family life – things like picking up a crying baby or protecting the said infant from ANY sort of perceived harm. (Consider the parent compelled by love to rescue their drowning child?) It includes our own desire to conform to norms like wearing clothes and eating. Compulsion is built in to us, an unconscious Auto-Response to many of the things we experience in life.
Obsessive? Yes, obsessive behaviour, as we have already discussed, is demonstrated by every committed adventurer, explorer, inventor and scientist. Obsession can be VERY productive. You and I are alive because people have obsessed about our welfare. Obsession is very very important to human safety, as any obsessive Health and Safety officer will tell you.
Disorder? So when was ‘order’ such a good thing? And who decides what that ‘order’ might be? Public ‘disorder’ has produced massive sociological changes to bring us freedom down the ages.What about the person who is so obsessive about getting the highest grades in their exams or determined to get an Olympic Gold that they willingly sacrifice their emotional health? Or maybe it is their parents and motivational coach who are obsessive, compelled and… disordered?
Perhaps we need to ask the question, ‘Who decides?’ Please don’t leave that to your GP or psychiatrists – they are some of the most compulsively and obsessively ‘ordered’ people in the world! And don’t leave it to writers, artists and others practising the creative arts. They seem to be the ones who, some would say, are obsessively and compulsively ‘disordered’.
Maybe we are using those negative-sounding words to describe someone whose world has a different focus to our own, and who we are inconvenienced by, or somehow their differentness offends our sense of what ‘order’ is, or should be?
Maybe in our obsessively prescriptive, authoritarian world where compulsion comes in the form of a soldier with a gun, and where conformity is the way to acceptance and non-conformity the way to prison, we could make a case for more disorder, not less? Just maybe the ones with the disorder are those so obsessed with their own standardised version of ‘order’ that they are compelled, by their own fear of a society out of their control, to suppress, bully, section, incarcerate, treat, drug, mock, and otherwise dis-empower those they don’t understand.
Such people, given the power, may obsessively and compulsively attempt to force their environment, perhaps even the climate, to shrink from any semblance of disorder.
OCD appears in all sorts of different guises, doesn’t it?