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OCD, Always an Adventure

December 12, 2013

I’m not afraid of heights because I think I might fall. I’m afraid of heights because I think I might jump.

That’s not as bad as it sounds. It is crazy, but not the kind you need to worry about. Aren’t you ever nervous that you’ll accidentally do something that is altogether unlikely, but would be altogether disastrous? Or worse, that you’ll be compelled to do something of the sort? Not that you’ll fall down the stairs, but that you’ll throw yourself down them, the Rhett to your own Scarlett? For years I lived thinking this was just me, and indeed most people I’ve asked have initially denied having similar thoughts. But if I persist – maybe throwing in a few examples – they always come around, and with fears that never even crossed my addled mind.

Once, for instance, I rode with a coworker to pick up a large lunch order placed in a rare moment of workplace camaraderie. I sat in the passenger side, window way down on a gorgeous summer day, wallet in my lap, when suddenly I was wracked with a very specific fear: What if I throw my wallet out the window? Now let’s pause here to take note of the active verb in that sentence. Throw. I might throw my wallet out a car window. So I sat, hand in lap, wallet in hand, paralyzed with fear. Paralyzed with the fear that I would stop being paralyzed and would launch my wallet out of the car window into the street. I quickly assessed my options, as one might when confronted by such immediate danger. I could move my hand, divorcing compulsion from the scenario and hence seemingly reducing the risk of any such spasm, but then I would have to trust gravity to hold my heavy, change-laden wallet to my lap while gravity is clearly busy holding everything else in the universe together. No good. I couldn’t possibly trouble gravity with my petty needs. So I moved my hand to the top of the wallet and pressed it against my leg. That would have to do. And then, in a hopeless bid to feel less hopeless, I asked Coworker The Question.

He scoffed. For about 12 seconds, as I silently begged my brain to come up with something incontrovertibly sane to say to him to change the subject. Before poor, overwhelmed Brain could oblige, however, Coworker recanted.

“Well,” he said, “do you mean like… well like at that intersection, when that guy crossed the street with the stroller. I wondered if I might move my foot from the brake to the gas pedal right when he pushed the baby in front of the car. Do you mean like that?”


He went on to explain that one of his friends actually fell prey to such a lapse. He was stopped peacefully at a red light, saw a cop, got flustered (for no apparent reason – he was a law-abiding chap), and went through the light. Yeah, he got pulled over.

In one of my previous jobs, the Big Boss had a boat. After successful completion of a particularly grueling project, he took our team for an afternoon cruise on said vessel. As we were preparing to launch, my immediate manager stepped over the railing to untie the boat from the dock. As he did so, I heard him mutter “I’m not going to jump. I’m not going to jump. I’m not going to jump.” My kind of guy.


I once drove a friend to an event in a town with which I was not familiar, and she, only somewhat so. We had written directions, complete with a highway exit number. When we approached the exit immediately before our own, she instructed me to get off the highway. I obliged, believing her to know a better route to our destination. As soon as we hit the ramp she confessed that her fear of passing her exit is so strong that she typically gets off at an earlier one knowing it’s wrong. Crazy, as it turns out, is an adventure you can share.

Many of us go through so much of life on autopilot that those rare moments when we become present, when we are suddenly and completely aware of ourselves and our surroundings, surprise the shit out of us and completely overwhelm. So when Coworker feared he would gun his Corolla into a baby, I don’t fear any infanticidal tendencies on his part. He probably just came to from a haze to find himself on an unfamiliar street corner with a blind man pushing a stroller in front of his car and was subsequently flummoxed by the suddenly very real task of Driving (so many little movements and decisions, who wouldn’t want to stamp their foot and give up?). 

Likewise, when I stand in the elevator at work, hands gripping my thighs for dear life, stricken with terror that I might be compelled to grab the ass of my neighbor, perhaps it’s because I’ve just shaken loose from a reverie to find myself in a tiny moving box filled with strangers, all of us propelled hundreds of feet into the air within a narrow shaft that plunges beneath us into oblivion. Maybe. Because that ass is almost never grab worthy. 

Or maybe that’s a crock and I just know a bunch of quants with low-grade OCD, as I myself probably have (Wait – did I unplug the coffee pot? Am I sure? Am I really sure? Did I just check, or am I remembering checking yesterday?). But see, that’s just it. I’m a Checker, and maybe a recovering Counter. But I’m not a Toucher. Those people are nuts.

Regardless of the pathology or lack thereof, here are the foremost fears that haunt and taunt me: 

  • That I’ll say something really offensive to a stranger. No, worse. Worse than that. Keep going. Keep going until you come up with something so mean that you’re sickened at what just flowed forth from the brain you thought you knew. Stop only when you get to something that cannot be said to any human in any scenario, not in jest nor in anger; not even in traffic. Stop when you are mortified that you were able to string such foul words into an even fouler sentiment. That’s the thought that’s running through my mind when I’m introduced to you. The one that stops up the very neural pathway I wanted to utilize to learn your name.
  • That I’ll put a cigarette out on another person due to an involuntary hand spasm. [edit: this is no longer a specific concern, having quit smoking several years ago, but I am still terrified that I will dump my coffee/tea/lunch/wine/giant bowl of red food coloring on you. All of you. Especially you in the white sweater.]
  • That I’ll drop or throw something really important that’s in my hand. Not for nothing, I do drop a lot of things, but I rarely throw them out windows, and I haven’t actually ever dropped my car keys down a sewer grate, nor have I thrown a newborn ever. Not even one that’s spitting up. But it doesn’t mean I’m not sure I will. That’s why it will take me four minutes and at least one accidental boob grab to transfer your pride and joy from my terrified arms to your sure ones.
  • That I’ll launch myself head first over a guard rail from a dead stop. Really. I won’t go within 10 feet of a scenic overlook if the guardrail doesn’t reach my center of gravity. 


Wow. My palms are actually a little clammy just thinking about that last one, and I’m safely on my backside in a chair on a floor with no where to fall.

Thinking about your own wackadoodle paranoia? Here’s a primer to get started: “The worst thing I could possibly do right now is ______.”

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