Habit, addiction, and OCD

When I woke up this morning, I thought it was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. A little later, I learned that it was actually Groundhog Day, arriving more than a week later than the calendar promised. What, you may ask, does that have to do with habit or addiction or OCD? Bear with me, and I will arrive at those topics.

My morning routine is fairly set. I wake up to the sound of music. I brush my teeth. I take a shower and dry myself. I comb my hair. I take five pills: one for blood pressure, one for pain, one for allergies, and two for anxiety. I always take them in the same order. I put on my clothes in the bathroom. I leave the bathroom, grab a pair of socks and a pair of shoes, and sit down to put them on. (I put on my left sock, my left shoe, my right sock, and my right shoe, always in that order.) I unlock and open the front door to pick up the day’s newspaper. I get myself two granola bars and a glass of cranberry juice and read the paper. I drink a mug of coffee, pack my lunch, grab my badge, and drive to work. Aside from a few uninteresting details, that describes nearly every morning, except that on Sundays I drive to church instead.

When I read the newspaper, I start with the two comics hidden on the second page of the want ads section. Then I start with the front page of the paper and work my way through to the other comics. It appeared that this morning the newspaper had reprinted yesterday’s comics among the want ads, which has happened a few times before. But when I got to the front page, the first two articles seemed strangely familiar. Finally I checked the date of the newspaper, and it said February 11. Sure enough, the delivery person had left a day-old newspaper on my doorstep this morning. (Hence the Groundhog Day reference.)

Clearly I am a creature of habit, following the same routine every single morning. Some people might accuse me of being obsessive/compulsive. My therapist and I agree that I have some obsessive/compulsive tendencies, but we also agree that I do not have a disorder—I am not OCD. My reaction to having the wrong newspaper this morning was humor, not fear or dread. I don’t like it if something throws my routine out of order, but I don’t let it ruin my day. If for some reason I was to put on my right sock before my left sock, I would not expect terrible things to happen the rest of the morning.

Having some obsessive and compulsive tendencies actually helps me through the day. My badge has a magnetic card attached to it that opens certain doors at my workplace, including the room where I do most of my work. When I stand up from my desk to go somewhere else in the building, I always touch my badge before I leave the room. As a result, I have never left my magnetic card behind, locking me out of the room. When driving to work, I check the seat next to me once, or sometimes twice, to make sure that I have not forgotten my badge or my lunch. When I park my car and turn off the engine, I always check to make sure the headlights are off. I always lock the car door, but I always hold my keys in my hand before I close the door.

Some of my OC tendencies are not so useful. Driving to work from home or driving home from work, I observe the other cars, hoping to spot at least one car of each of the following colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, reddish orange, yellowish orange, yellowish green, bluish green, bluish purple, reddish purple, white, light gray, dark gray, and black. Pink and brown are bonus colors. I do not expect anything good to happen if I see cars of all sixteen colors. I do not expect anything bad to happen if I do not see all sixteen colors. I just have the habit of looking for all sixteen colors, and even when I try not to notice the colors of the other cars, sooner or later I start keeping track of what I have seen.

In my personal library I have a fascinating and useful book, Addiction & Grace, written by Gerald G. May and published in 1989. Dr. May writes about chemical addictions, but his more interesting observations describe behavioral addictions. The difference between a habit and a behavioral addiction is small but important: someone with a behavioral addiction is so attached to that behavior that he or she has symptoms of withdrawal when that behavior is prevented. One of Dr. May’s examples is reading the morning newspaper. If the newspaper is not delivered, an addicted person would be upset, possibly angry, because of the missing newspaper.

Dr. May suggests that people generally have about five addictions, most of which they do not notice. If you can “go with the flow” when your usual behavior is prevented, then you are not addicted to it; but if a change in circumstances makes you badly upset, you probably have an addiction.

Many other interesting things are in the book, but the interesting application today is for me to observe my reaction to receiving the wrong newspaper. I was amused and not angry; I call the newspaper to report the error, and they promised to send a copy of today’s paper. The deliverer was at the house fifteen minutes later with a newspaper and an apology. Meanwhile, I had eaten my breakfast and drank my coffee without a newspaper, and it didn’t bother me at all.

I will continue to follow most of my habits, both those that are useful and those that provide no benefit at all. Having a break in the routine is good for me, though, if only to confirm that I am not OCD or addicted to my morning newspaper. Just don’t try to stand between me and my morning coffee. J.

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