Word of the day: arithmomania

I learned a new word today: arithmomania, which means a compulsive desire to count things.

I found this word on Wikipedia, where I was reading about vampires. Among the practices used to keep vampires from emerging from their graves, people would sprinkle poppy seeds, millet, or sand over a grave. They believed that the vampire would stop to count these many small objects and, consequently, would not leave the graveyard.

I was instantly reminded of Count von Count, a character on Sesame Street. To help children learn their numbers, this Count would always stop to count things. He had a pale face, pointed teeth, and a long black cape—indeed, he was based on Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula. The joke that Count von Count loved to count was one of the many amusing things the writers of Sesame Street inserted into their educational programming for their own benefit and for that of parents and other guardians who had to sit through such programs with their children.

It is, of course, possible that the creators of Sesame Street knew about the European custom of tricking vampires into counting small objects in the cemeteries. It is more likely that they were unaware of the custom and simply liked joking about the title Count. It is even possible that the sentences attributing arithmomania to vampires are a prank that someone added to the Wikipedia entry. One can never be sure. J.

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Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
I should think, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J. (originally posted May 5, 2015)

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.

Magical thinking and sports superstitions

[Note: this post was written a few days ago, but I waited to post it because I did not want to jinx my team.]

The phrase “magical thinking” has slightly different meanings when it is used in different contexts. In the context of mental and emotional health, magical thinking is a symptom of various disorders, including OCD. A person who expects things to change just because of thoughts in that person’s head or actions that person does, in spite of the fact that there is no connection between the thoughts or actions and the expected change, is subject to magical thinking. Let me add two thoughts to this paragraph. First, I am not an expert in psychology, and other people can explain this symptom better than I can. Second, I am in no way mocking anyone suffering from a disorder that includes magical thinking. What I am writing is sincere, and it is largely based on observing my own thoughts and actions.

In the sports world, many athletes have customs so ingrained that they are considered superstitious. Some pitchers, for example, will be careful to enter and leave the baseball field jumping over the chalk line instead of stepping on it. Some batters will continue to wear the same socks every game as long as they are in a hitting streak. It is considered bad luck to talk to a pitcher who is pitching so well that the other team has not gotten a hit. Many other customs are followed by athletes, even though their customs should have nothing to do with their performance. Some studies indicate that these superstitions become self-fulfilling prophecies. People perform better in sports when they have been convinced that luck is on their side.

The athletes are not the only ones who are superstitious. Fans can also believe that their traditions or actions might affect the outcome of a game. If two fans go to the ballpark and their team is losing, they might exchange seats to see if that changes the team’s luck. Many fans, in the ballpark and watching on television, believe that the clothes they are wearing will bring their team luck. Some fans even choose not to attend the games because “they lose every time I come to the ballpark.”

The Chicago Bulls won enough games this season to enter the basketball playoffs. Their first opponent was the Milwaukee Bucks.  I was able to watch the first two games, both of which the Bulls won. The third game was not available where I live, but I checked the internet for the score a few times during the game, and the Bulls won that game too.

The Chicago Bulls won six championships back in the 1990s when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on the team. My children and I watched the games on television, and we had a bowl of pretzels for a snack. To keep the children from emptying the bowl early in the game, I limited the number of pretzels each could eat. Somehow we started the custom of each eating one pretzel after one of the Bulls players had done something especially well. “Give that man a pretzel,” I would say, and we each would eat a pretzel.

So, after the third victory, I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of pretzels. During the fourth game, I ate a pretzel for every basket and every good defensive move by a Bulls player. The Bulls lost that game, but it was a close game. For the next game, I watched again with my bag of pretzels, again eating a pretzel for every good play. They lost again.

For the sixth game, I decided to leave my pretzels upstairs. This time the Bulls won, meaning that they would next play the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the first game of that series, I again left the pretzels upstairs. The Bulls won the game.

Can you see where this is going? There is no way that my eating pretzels or not eating pretzels can change the course of a professional basketball game. Even so, I want the Bulls to win, and if they lose while I am eating pretzels, then I will not eat a pretzel on game day.

For this reason, when the Bulls lost their second game to Cleveland, I went upstairs after the game and ate some pretzels. Magical thinking or not, I will do everything I can to help the team win another championship.

J.

[Postscript: The day after I wrote this post, the Bulls began a three-game losing streak that knocked them out of the playoffs. Feel free to tell me that it’s not my fault; I won’t believe you. J.]

Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
It seems likely, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J.