The Man Who Couldn’t Stop

July 6, 2015

Man who couldn't stopDavid Adam has written a wonderful book about his decades-long struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Adam, a journalist for several years with The Guardian and who now writes for Nature, has written both a personal account of his OCD and a factual and historical account of this debilitating mental condition.

For him the OCD centred around an irrational fear of getting HIV/ Aids. In practice this meant that every possible public surface was a source of fear. However much his rational mind told him that he couldn’t get HIV from a door handle, the irrational fears won out (with crippling consequences).

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop (Picador: 2014) is open, engaging, punchy as well as very interesting. There were moments when I could have done with less history (e.g. on lobotomy and leucotomy) and more personal narrative. But given that this must have been a very difficult book to write, Adam has done incredibly well. The parts I found most interesting were those in which he described the genesis of his own OCD, the description of his treatments (both drug and CBT), as well as the discussions about neuroscience and the difficulties of categorisation. As with all the best Science writers, Adam manages to be interesting, knowledgeable and very accessible.

I do have a few gripes though, and perhaps the first one is his dismissal of Freud and psychodynamic therapy. He gives a shortish account of Freud’s famous OCD case (the “Rat Man”) and then laughs off Freud’s emphasis on the psychosexual origins of the Rat Man’s obsessions and compulsions. Psychodynamic psychotherapy has moved a long way from Freud’s original ideas and the emphasis these days tends to be far more on the early bond and relationship with the mother (or primary caregiver) than on any sexual rivalry with the father. Interestingly, while CBT is the psychotherapeutic treatment of choice (together with SSRIs) for OCD, the current research on the importance of primary attachments means that psychodynamic therapy is still incredibly relevant here as well.

Adam provides a glimpse of possibilities (admittedly quite dismissively) in his final chapter:

This should be … the point … where it all comes together. Having discussed the possible causes of OCD – the genetic, family, social, Freudian, environmental, infectious, psychological, medical, traumatic and just plain unfortunate pressures that might contribute – I should reach a triumphant and emotional conclusion. … It was my parents what did it or my childhood fear of dogs … [the] betrayal by the boy who I thought was my friend … [that] my mother had a stroke and couldn’t hold me as a baby …

I couldn’t help noticing that this was the only mention of his mother in the book. Similarly, his wife is only mentioned in the acknowledgements. Surely Adam’s OCD must have been incredibly difficult for this relationship as well? But I can also well understand the reluctance to go there. It’s one thing admitting that you have a mental illness without dragging your nearest and dearest into the mix as well.

Jenny Turner, reviewing in the Guardian, writes:

His fear … seems to be some sort of death-fear, associated with blood and sex and other usual suspects, triggered perhaps by his misfortune in having reached sexual maturity just as an emerging disease became the focus for a massive moral panic. So Adam’s Aids fear, too, makes most sense when looked at sensitively and symbolically, as a story.

It’s easy, I suppose, to say that we would like Adam to be able to look at the symbolic side of his crippling fear. What he has done is extraordinary enough.

Julie Powell, the World Cup Draw and Freud

December 6, 2009

What do the above three have in common? I’m tempted to say that the best answer wins some delectable prize but I think I should save the giveaway for a more deserving question. (And no, I won’t accept that they’re all a fraud. You’ll find an answer at the end.) The more mundane truth is that I felt like blogging about all three and so have lumped them together.

First up, Julie Powell. Are you feeling cheated that the feel-good image you had of Julie Powell is now having to be revised with the news that her latest book (Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession) carves up, you guessed it, her marriage (as well as meat)?

I’m not a regular Village Voice reader but I enjoyed Rebecca Marx’s excellent carve-up of Cleaving here.

I liked this paragraph:

How much you’ll enjoy Cleaving depends on how sympathetic you are to Powell’s dilemma, which, when it comes down to it, is a bit much to swallow: the act of trying to choose between one’s bottomlessly loving husband and one’s snakey-sounding lover, all while having the financial freedom to hang out with butchers just for the hell of it, is accompanied by the sound of the world’s most miniscule violin.

Friday’s Fifa 2010 World Cup Draw in Cape Town was a big deal. Huge street party with 50,000 people and the TV event was pretty good to my relatively untrained eye. I did wince a little when Sepp Blatter told the presenter Carol Manana that it was easy to fall in love with Africa when he looked at her. No, really – he said something as inane as that.

And then there were the countless repetitions of how wonderful the World Cup is going to be next year in South Africa and how historic it is that Africa is hosting the event. Granted. But given that hot air is one of Africa’s biggest exports, I could have done with less hype and more analysis. Some practical discussion of which game will be played where and which ones are likely to be the most popular.

For witty commentary you can’t beat Barney Ronay of the Guardian who was live-blogging the event. After commenting on Charlize Theron’s ditzy blonde routine and observing that her accent went quite mad he notes:

“Yes, Charlize, four teams in eight groups. Where has she been? Doesn’t she read the papers? Oh. It’s a kind of act. I see. Jerome is now explaining what a ball is and how you kick it and what “a goal” means. Or something. Who do they think is watching this? Martians?”

Nice. The best headline I’ve seen on the draw so far was from the Sun newspaper in the UK: Best English group since the Beatles.

England are apparently brimming with confidence after drawing Algeria, Slovenia and the USA. By contrast, South Africa “have a mountain to climb” after drawing Mexico, Uruguay and France. I wonder if the South African public will let Thierry Henry forget about his “Hand of Frog”?

And then, since this is supposed to be partly a psychology blog, I will add in a quote I read yesterday on Freud by Joan Raphael-Leff, a psychoanalyst at Unversity College in London.

My thesis is that for Freud Egypt plays an ambiguous and complex role as (unconscious) representation of the ‘dark continent’ – repudiated realm of the uncanny archaic mother / primordial ‘eternal feminine’. I suggest that his periodic preoccupation with ancient Egypt constitutes a particular form of unconscious repetition, which he called ‘return of the repressed’, and today we would link with revival of a filigree of implicit configurations, or dissociated memories. Association with traumatic events relating to his own earliest years induced avoidance of the Isis / Osiris / Horus myth with its evocative reminders of generational confusions, incestuous passions, fragmentation and fratricidal violence. This terrifying narrative rooted not in the phallic supremacy Freud chose to privilege but in maternal magic and integration of feminine powers of intuition as aspects of the masculine self. (from the journal parallax, 2007)

I know this is probably difficult to read without the surrounding context and discussion but I found it fascinating to read how Raphael-Leff uses Freud’s prehistory to explain his subsequent neglect of the feminine and the development of his (in)famous Oedipal theory.

Incidentally, one theme which brings all three together is that of Africa. Julie Powell visits Africa towards the end of Cleaving, the World Cup is being staged in Africa next year and this article was about Freud’s obsession with Egypt (which is still in Africa).

Freud, low schlurp threshholds and the Election

April 20, 2009

I was planning to review In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm today but it will have to wait. Not quite in the mood after a typically rushed Monday and with general moodiness about. Some bullet points instead:

• South Africans will be voting in our fourth post-1990 general election on Wednesday. I am hoping that the ANC doesn’t get a two-thirds majority and that their support drops to below 60% for the first time since 1994. It’s rather depressing knowing that 60% of the electorate have a totally different political outlook to me, but encouraging perhaps that 40% are unhappy with the idea of Jacob Zuma as president. (I could add that I voted ANC in 1994 but that since then I’ve been rather disappointed with the lack of progress on a number of issues including crime, corruption, healthcare, Zimbabwe and others. I’m voting for the opposition.)

• On the reading front it felt almost surreal to begin reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot in election week. With so much buzz around Jacob Zuma and the ANC vs the rest, it was also refreshing though to step into George Eliot’s 19th century England where attention to detail is everything. I was not really expecting to get pulled into the story so quickly but I’m admiring Eliot’s subtle humour, her keenly-observed dialogue, her long descriptions and her gently meandering plot. I also like the way that she deftly blends the individual and the social with subtle reflections on the position of women. I’m interested to see how the story of Maggie and Tom develops but I’m already frustrated that the bright Maggie apparently won’t be getting the advantages of her older (and duller) brother.

• I really enjoyed In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm this weekend. Malcolm writes so well and so thoroughly that even if I wasn’t interested in the history of psychology I would have been fascinated with the inner goings-on of the Freud inner circle. I’ll hopefully review this later this week but in the meantime here’s a quote:

“To be an analyst and to be certain – they don’t go together. You have to have doubts. You have to be capable of certainty, too, but it has to be hedged with doubt.” — Leonard Shengold

• My dear and slightly demented dog had me losing my temper this weekend with her obsessive licking. Unfortunately we share a room and she got it into her brain to lick her paw obsessively (with insistent schlurpy sounds) at 3am on Sunday morning for about three hours. I know I shouldn’t have smacked her nose and shouted at her to “Just Stop It!” before grabbing her collar and marching her downstairs but in mitigation I was tired and I’m really not at my best at 3am on a Sunday morning. P was not impressed and I also felt bad for not having more patience.

• The irony of the situation was that I was feeling pretty good before that. I’d been to the gym and I’d found good books to read and P and I were having a relaxing weekend. Perhaps Joschka felt left out or just anxious or something. Maybe she’s worried about the approach of Winter and her arthritis was playing up. I don’t know, but the schlurping felt like Chinese water torture. I clearly have a low schlurp-threshhold. (How does one work on that?)