All posts tagged OCD

Genius or Medical Condition?: The Compulsive Mr. Jefferson

Published July 3, 2013 by Tabby

What we medicate today was seen as genius in history. For the Fourth of July, this article analyzes the compulsiveness of Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers.

David DiSalvo, “The Compulsive Mr. Jefferson and America’s Obsessive Origins,” Forbes.com http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2013/07/02/the-compulsive-mr-jefferson-and-americas-obsessive-origins/ (accessed July 3, 2013).

While waiting for his draft of the Declaration of Independence to come to the floor of the Second Continental Congress for a history-making vote—Thomas Jefferson was thinking about the weather. More specifically, he was thinking about a list that would comprehensively capture variations in the climate at minimum three times daily, for as long as…well…for as long as it needed to be captured (which turned out to be a good long time).

On July 4th, three days after his climactic list was launched, he recorded four readings (Philadelphia was 68 degrees at 6 a.m. and eventually hit a tepid 76 by early afternoon), and—despite a few other things going on that day—also managed to squeeze in a walk to a local gadget store to buy a new thermometer fit for the mission.

Jefferson, like so many prodigious thinkers before and after him, was an obsessive—or what we’d later come to call a sufferer of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). And as argued in Joshua Kendall’s insightful new book, America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation, we should be happy that he was.

In Kendall’s telling, Jefferson’s preoccupation with the weather during what was the most momentous series of events in his life (and in the fledgling nation’s existence) made incredibly good sense. Jefferson knew that the best counterweight to the massive strain and anxiety filling his days was to indulge an obsessive proclivity that would fill his mind—or at least enough of it to make the stress bearable.  For this he chose one of the many scientific pursuits that grabbed his attention from childhood on: a fascination with the weather. And like any good obsessive, he employed a list—a three-column list in this case—to track and analyze data…lots and lots of data.

This was but one of Jefferson’s countless obsessive fascinations, and but one of countless lists.  He was a man addicted to list-making, “addicted to his routines,” and equally addicted to mathematical precision, though the amount of money he compulsively spent to feed his obsessions, and the resulting debt, is legendary.

Kendall’s book covers a range of American thinkers and achievers–from across an expanse of topics, politics to sex to sports–and meticulously pulls out the threads in each of their personalities that evidence an undeniable interweaving of the obsessive and the brilliant.

Jefferson is the author’s emblematic choice for obsessive thinking (what he calls “obsessive innovation”) in American politics. Other categories include Marketing represented by ketchup mogul Henry Heinz, described as “more than just quirky…a mentally unstable man who lived close to the edge for most of his life”; Sexuality, embodied by the good sex doctor Alfred Kinsey, behind whose “inner torment was a lonely child’s terror”; Beauty, whose standard bearer Este’e Lauder openly admitted that “obsession is the word for my zeal”; and Sports, represented by baseball icon Ted Williams who embraced a bat, in part, to balance the formative angst of “growing up with a domineering mother whom he feared.”

These and other personalities—each flavored by doses of obsessive thinking that radically changed everything they touched—are for the author symbols of a driving force that benefits all of us. Without the compulsiveness of a Jefferson or a Jobs, America wouldn’t just be different, but arguably shades less promising.

Kendall drives home this point especially with respect to Jefferson by observing how the statesman’s limitless compulsive energy—energy that regularly woke him throughout the night—pushed him toward excellence even when the payoff was unclear.

When the Declaration of Independence was finally published and read aloud in town after town—hardly anyone knew who penned it. Crowds of cheering Americans didn’t care that a man named Thomas Jefferson had authored the document that grandly signified their broken ties with the mother country. It wasn’t until 1784 that Jefferson was mentioned in a newspaper article as the document’s primary author—and, more remarkably, it wasn’t until the 1790s when he ran for president that Jefferson even claimed authorship.

While our nation’s history isn’t littered with so many examples of obsessive greatness cloaked in humility, the author’s portrait of Jefferson (who fittingly leads off the book) gives us plenty of reasons to be glad that it has occasionally happened.  Amid compulsive bouts of indexing and labeling his expansive library, fine-tuning myriad data points underlying his inventions, and finding new ways to perfect gardening techniques—Jefferson invested his energy in a project that changed the world.

Kendall’s book is a tribute to the paradox captured by another slightly eschew genius, John Dryden, who wrote: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide.” America’s obsessives may all qualify as at least a little mad; for some “mad” wouldn’t begin to cover it.  But the plain truth is that their mad energy—applied with precision and chaos in unequal measure—is a key ingredient in what makes America, America. Especially in the case of Mr. Jefferson, that statement couldn’t be more true.


Mental Illness and Greatness

Published June 12, 2013 by Tabby


Lately as I’ve been struggling more with ADHD, depression, OCD tendencies, and corresponding medication, etc. I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of people have mental illness. Contrary to societal stereotypes, we are not all people rocking in the corner muttering to ourselves and unemployable. Some have struggles that interfere with their lives more than others.

I had some sort of an epiphany this week. I had always felt quietly bad about myself about starting medication when I reached the point that I had difficulties functioning without it. Then last week, out of the blue (as is always the case with my revelations), I realized that some of my most favorite and most educated, intelligent, hardworking people I know have some form of mental illness. I read an article that argued those with ADHD usually have a slightly higher IQ than the average population. I am curious as to why that is. Sure, I used aspects of my ADHD and anxiety to finish a master’s degree in eight months but I always thought it was an obstacle-that everything in my life is harder for me than everybody else because of the mental illness I live with. But after these realizations I started thinking, what if these “issues” are part of what makes me successful? Where would I be if I didn’t have ADHD that forces/enables me to seriously multitask? What about the anxiety that keeps me from procrastinating? The fact that I have to be super organized to function? Even though I still have days that I am frustrated when I can’t focus or have to take medication, maybe this is part of what makes me “me.”

I saw this article on another blog and it furthers my revelation. A study believes that 49 percent of former US presidents had a mental illness. I wonder if with greatness comes mental illness, or, the one I prefer, that despite issues one can still reach great heights. The study is listed below.

Hoffman, Haley. “Study Posits Presidents Had Mental Illness.” The Chronicle. February 21, 2006. http://www.dukechronicle.com/articles/2006/02/22/study-posits-presidents-had-mental-illness (accessed June 12, 2013).

“No one would ever expect the general who led the Union army to victory in the Civil War to have a debilitating fear of blood. But Ulysses S. Grant was among the 49 percent of former U.S. presidents afflicted by mental illness, according to an article published recently by psychiatrists at the Duke University Medical Center.

Jonathan Davidson, professor of psychiatry and director of the Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Program, has a particular interest in history, especially U.S. presidents. After culling data from presidential biographies, Davidson was joined by Kathryn Connor, associate professor of psychiatry, and Marvin Swartz, professor and head of the social and community division of psychiatry, to analyze the information. Together, they diagnosed the commander-in-chiefs from 1776 to 1974.

According to the study, published in January in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, of the 37 presidents researched, 18 were found to suffer a mental illness of some form. Depression was the most prevalent disorder among presidents, occurring at a rate of 24 percent. The researchers wrote that the 49-percent rate mirrored national mental illness statistics, but the rate of depression was high for a male population.

“A fairly high number of people have mental disease at some level, so it would be surprising if presidents didn’t,” said John Aldrich, professor of political science. “Certain things, like depression, are associated with artistic accomplishment.”

Other diagnoses included anxiety, alcohol abuse, bipolar disorder and social phobia. Howard Taft apparently suffered from sleep apnea.

At least 10 presidents were affected by episodes while in office, and the study found evidence that symptoms interfered with their performance in almost all cases.

To make their diagnoses, the researchers used the criteria of the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual all psychiatrists use to treat patients. They examined the data to identify symptoms, determine if they were persistent and caused dysfunction and then establish their own levels of confidence that mental illness existed.

Such remote diagnosis through secondary research, however, can be problematic. “Using biographical materials may be an imperfect way to gauge mental illness,” Aldrich said. Swartz explained that detailed analysis of primary sources, while ideal, was outside of the scope of the study but that the published article elaborated on its own relevance and weaknesses. “You have to rely on what historians reported based on their research,” he said. Still, Swartz estimated that their sources erred on the side of undercounting illness among presidents.

The troubles of certain presidents are already very well known. Abraham Lincoln famously suffered from symptoms of depression, though he triumphed politically more than Franklin Pierce, whose more modest legacy the study attributed greatly to his illness.

Having witnessed the violent death of his son in a railway accident just before he assumed office, Pierce suffered from symptoms indicating depression or post-traumatic stress during his term. The study noted that his associates accused Pierce of being a different person than the one who had energetically campaigned for office.

While personal tragedy and the weight of the presidency may have incited the problems of some presidents, others were apparently afflicted long before they moved into the White House.

According to the article, contemporaries of Grant, James Madison, Rutherford Hayes and Woodrow Wilson who watched them as young men would have thought that these men would do very little with their lives based on their seeming mental problems or deficiencies.

Whether they were suffering from an illness before they entered the White House or not, presidents’ afflictions raise questions about their ability to do the executive job.

“The extensiveness of Richard Nixon’s alcohol abuse was pretty remarkable and alarming, given the authority he had,” Swartz said.

Though Calvin Coolidge’s hypochondria may not have had the most profound effect on affairs of state, Coolidge, Grant and Thomas Jefferson were diagnosed with social phobia by Davidson and his associates.

“Social phobia is kind of remarkable in a president. It meant he was shy and avoided social circumstances, and yet he was president,” Swartz said.

The study noted among its implications that no national calamities seem to have been a result of presidential mental illness.

It also considered the possibility that knowledge of these afflictions might lessen the stigma of psychological treatment. But there remains a question about the public’s right, and need, to know the psychological state of the president, in an age of increased psychological vigilance.

“It’s obviously about as stressful and physically demanding a job as there is for mature adults, so it has to at least exacerbate any [already existing] problems,” Aldrich said. “You know, the president is not a person, he’s an institution…. There are a lot of checks and redundancies to make sure he doesn’t do anything foolish.”

What do you think?

We are not alone 😉

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