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With Obsessive/ Compulsive Disorder, the devil is in the details

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By the time I finish writing this introduction, it will be time for me to pack up and go home. Well, not exactly. It will be time to start getting ready to go home, which, depending on the day and my mood, might make for a quick exit or, more often than not, make me late for dinner.

Before I leave, I'll check the text I've penned for misspellings, grammatical errors, and superfluous words. The Microsoft Word file I'm writing this in will be closed. . .and then reopened, to make sure it saved correctly, then closed again, then opened one last time, just to be sure. I will finally "X-out" of the program, and then check my e-mail one (or five) last times to make sure I haven't missed anything important. I'll gather my things -- CDs, books, sheets of paper with jotted scribblings -- and place them aside. I'll shut down my computer, and check my phone messages. I'll turn off my monitor, checking to be sure the little green light is no longer blinking. I'll walk to the printer to confirm that I haven't printed out something and absentmindedly left it stranded. I will then walk back to my PC, re-check that it's turned off, go back to the printer, check the fax, and return for one last go-round at the desk. Blinking light "off," phone not blinking, everything present and accounted for. Yes, now it's time to go home, time to enjoy the spoils that a career in the lucrative field of journalism has afforded me. After, you know, checking my desk one more time just to be sure.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, commonly known as "OCD," affects anywhere from two to three percent of the world's population according to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Typically, the age of onset for OCD is late adolescence or early adulthood. Recently it's been described in the media as "mental hiccups," which probably gets close to the crux of the disease. With OCD, a person's brain latches on to something -- say, making sure the stove has been turned off -- and can't let go until completely satisfied. That's the "obsessive" part of OCD. The "satisfaction" part comes from the "compulsive" part of the disorder -- washing your hands, counting things, the excessive arranging and re-arranging of things, counting the number of syllables in whatever you're reading, and so on (and on, and on).A person may have one or two of these so-called "hiccups" and still live a perfectly "normal" life. In fact, many people have a few symptoms of OCD, a few specific obsessions they deal with on a day-to-day basis. It's only when the symptoms persist, make no sense to the person having them, or cause distress, that treatment may be necessary.

OCD is starting to get the kind of media attention lavished a decade ago on Tourette Syndrome. Nonetheless, it's still a very misunderstood affliction, even as it becomes more and more common in our increasingly info-driven, packed-schedule society (stress is a major trigger of OCD). The "hook," of course, is the compulsive behavior, which makes for good copy in much the same way as the uncontrollable swearing that sometimes comes with Tourette Syndrome did.

Enter sonorous, TV-style voiceover: "But OCD is no laughing matter, especially to those who have it." Which is true. Like any anxiety-based illness, it often leads to feelings of shame from the afflicted persons. While it might be cute or kooky or off-kilter or "weird" to drive around the block three times before arriving home -- or, say, to check the damn stove another 50 times -- the person experiencing the compulsion also usually feels another emotion: repulsion.

In the last five years or so, many different representations of obsessive/compulsive behavior have made their way into popular culture. There's the Emmy-award winning Monk, a show featuring finicky detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub). In the realm of film, there's As Good As It Gets starring Jack Nicholson as cranky OCD sufferer Melvin Udall. Mostly Martha, starring Martina Gedeck, is the story of an obsessive-compulsive chef at a chic restaurant in Hamburg, Germany. There's also Matchstick Men, with Nicolas Cage as an OCD-impaired con man. The specifics of OCD weren't all that important to Matchstick Men director Ridley Scott, according to the Centre Daily Times: "The disease itself doesn't interest me," Scott said. "What interests me is how it affects his ability to deal with other people."

The trouble is that when the fundamental premises behind a disease are ignored, those shows, books, and movies' credibility falls apart. For instance, it's extremely unlikely that anyone with OCD could function successfully as a detective (Monk) or a con man (Matchstick Men), since both sides of the crime coin involve reacting to unique and strange surroundings almost daily.

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