A review of The Man Who Couldn’t Stop—OCD, and the true story of a life lost in thought by David Adam

Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop—OCD, and the true story of a life lost in thought
by David Adam
Picador

‘Have you ever had a strange urge to jump from a tall building, or steer your car into oncoming traffic?
You are not alone.’

Like Chicken Little, I spent several sleepless months in 1979 convinced the sky was falling—specifically, my fear centred on the earthbound space station, Skylab. I don’t know how, or why my fifteen-year-old brain came to the conclusion that Skylab was destined to fall on my house. Thankfully this intrusive thought, which took up so much of my time in a year that should have been dedicated to thoughts of fun-filled weekends and the cute boy in the back row of my English class, vanished as soon as Skylab broke up over Western Australia. Only now do I realise that this odd obsession may have been just the beginning of something more serious.

‘It is hard, if not impossible, to supress unwanted thoughts. And to try leads to an increase in the thoughts later on, after someone has stopped attempting to supress them. The latter effect appears in psychology textbooks as the rebound effect of thought of suppression. Most psychologists call it, the white bear effect.’

Psychologist David Wegner, ran a series of thought experiments on his students at Trinity University Texas in the 1980s to show how suppressing specific thoughts—in this instance, thoughts of a polar bear—can cause a rebound effect. Not surprisingly Wegner (who died in 2013) will be forever remembered as the white bear guy.

Intrusive thoughts aren’t unusual. Most of us have them, but for some of us the unwelcome thoughts are followed by compulsions. These can be mental, as in reciting a mantra, or involve a physical action. Whatever form the compulsion takes it appears to be the only treatment that relieves the sufferer’s anxiety. What began as a random thought has now become a full-blown Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Opinions are divided on why this happens to some and not all. As Adam explains, like Autism, OCD is seen as a spectrum of related syndromes. Some psychologists will argue that Autism is, in fact, an OCD spectrum disorder because many Autistic behaviours are ritualistic in nature.

As recently as the 1980s, psychiatrists thought that clinical obsessions and compulsions were extremely rare. They now believe that between 2 per cent and 3 per cent of people suffer from OCD at some point in their life. That means more than a million people in Britain are affected directly, and five million more in the United States. OCD is the fourth most common mental disorder after the big three—depression, substance abuse and anxiety.

Interestingly, it’s likely that we would not have made it this far along the evolutionary road without our tendency for ritual. The grape-sized basal ganglia, deep within our brains is the storehouse for the ritualistic behaviours that were probably necessary for the survival of our early ancestors. Birds, too, possess a basal ganglia, which is evidenced by many species’ complex mating dances and nesting rituals.

Psychologists have identified three types of dysfunctional belief important in the development of OCD. The first is an inflated sense of threat and personal responsibility. The second is perfectionism and intolerance of uncertainty. The third is a belief in the over-importance of thoughts and the need to control them.

In The Man Who Couldn’t Stop,David Adam provides a compelling history of mental dysfunction, its various treatments and cites numerous cases of the miraculous and downright bizarre. But far more than being a book filled with facts and figures, this is a story about Adam’s own battle with OCD, which began early in his childhood. No one understands the effect OCD has on a life quite like a sufferer, and it’s this unique insight that sets this book apart from others of its ilk.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop is an entertaining and informative read. Disorders of the mind, whatever their label, exist and affect a large number of the population either directly or indirectly. Everyone owes it to themselves and those they love to read books such as this. Knowledge, as they say, is power. And on that note, I will leave you with a thought:

Take a moment, if you will, to imagine a polar bear—its sleek head, rounded body and thick legs. Imagine it lumbering across a frozen landscape, dark eyes alert for prey. Now, go about your business and whatever you do, DON’T THINK ABOUT THAT WHITE BEAR. Good luck.

About the reviewer: Jenny Mounfield is the author of three novels for children and YAs In addition, several of her short stories and articles have appeared both in print and online. She has regularly reviewed children’s books for e-zine Buzz Words since 2006 and is currently working on her first adult novel.

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