18 November 2013

Read it or weep

It hadn't occurred to me that my OCD influences the way I read, until I came across a blog by another writer with the condition.

Tina Fariss Barbour (not related) talks in one post about her compulsion to re-read until it 'feels right to move on'. Although I only do this occasionally, if my concentration wavers, Tina's experience made me think about my own reading habits.

I've always read quickly. At school, we sometimes had to share books in class, and I often had to wait - and wait - to be able to turn a page I'd long since finished. 

One primary school report also noted my 'insatiable appetite for reading'. As a child, I slept next to a window and, in the summer, would use my elbow to hold up the lower edge of the curtain so that I could read. When the daylight faded - or during the winter months - I'd sit in the doorway of the bedroom I shared with my sister, to benefit from the landing light. I preferred to miss sleep and risk hypothermia, than stop reading. Only the sound of my parents coming upstairs would send me scampering back to bed.

But, as I got older, that healthy appetite for reading turned into something more of a nuisance. 

When I started to read newspapers, I felt compelled to read every word. I'd plough through articles from beginning to end, on subjects I wasn't interested in, or barely understood. In spite of reading quickly, each newspaper became a project occupying two or three days. Tackling one of the heavyweights was out of the question: it would have taken me weeks to finish. 

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
Over the years, I managed to cut this down to reading only the first few lines of a story, to see if it was of interest, or skim-reading to get the gist of it.

However, the compulsion resurfaced later in relation to magazines. I'm a regular reader of the monthly Writing Magazine and Writers' News and took to scrutinising articles on every kind of writing imaginable: tanka, haiku, horror, travel... You name it, if I wasn't going to do it, I read about it. Magazines piled up unread, month after month. That pile finally forced me to accept that, if I wasn't going to engage in a particular form of writing, I didn't have to read about it.

It goes further than papers and magazines, though: I can't stand half-reading anything. 

If I walk past a shop and only absorb part of something written on a sign, I have to go back and read the whole thing. No matter if the information conveyed is of no interest or use to me.

When I'm with someone else, I try to resist doing this. Otherwise, I'll have to come up with an explanation as to why I've reversed up the pavement to stare at the window of, say, a kebab shop.

This urge is not just about the fear of missing something; it's also about achieving a sense of wholeness. That same sense of wholeness I seek when eating

A reading compulsion may be a less well-known manifestation of OCD, but it just goes to show the wide variety of insidious ways the condition can control someone’s life.


Tina Fariss Barbour said...

Helen, you described so well what reading OCD can be like. I, too, have times when I feel like I have to read the entire article, entire story, entire sign, etc. even if I don't need to. I agree that it is some kind of need for wholeness. I have found that the more I can resist this compulsion, the better off I am. Easier said than done, of course. I do try to plow ahead and deal with the resulting anxiety in ways other than compulsions.

Helen Barbour said...

Hi Tina, thanks for your comment, and thanks also for providing the original inspiration for me to write about this kind of compulsion.

Jodi Aman said...

Awareness is the first step!

Helen Barbour said...

Hi Jodi, I agree. If you're not aware of what you're doing, or that it's become a problem, you'll never be able to tackle a compulsion.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Fascinating. I had not realised obsessive compulsive behaviour comes in so many forms. Thanks for great post :)

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks, Marianne. I'm still discovering just how many ways OCD can manifest itself, and each sufferer's experience is very different.