Tortured by your own thoughts

Every mental illness comes with its own baggage of public perception. In traditional societies, they continue to carry social stigma, though that is beginning to change. For instance, depression has achieved a degree of social understanding and acceptance thanks to several celebrities — from Chimamanda Adichie to Deepika Padukone — ‘coming out’ about their battles with it.

Similarly, other disorders such as autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are now becoming a part of the cultural mainstream. One such illness, which is considered manageable in its moderate manifestations but could also prove truly debilitating, is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It doesn’t help that OCD is often seen as little more than an eccentricity or a personality quirk.

In The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD, and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought , journalist David Adam writes about his battle with OCD and his attempt to overcome the illness by understanding it, only to realise that “no pathology of thought can be solved with more thought”.

Adam begins by differentiating between obsession (where you are still able to identify the obsessive thought as intrusive and foreign), possession (where you no longer can), and compulsion (where you act out as a result of your obsessive thoughts), and draws on scientific research, medical history, and his own life experiences to illuminate a little understood ailment. From a girl who eats an entire wall of mud to Kurt Gödel, the brilliant mathematician who starved himself to death, to his own obsessive fear of contracting HIV, Adam details numerous cases where an ‘obsession’ first makes its appearance as a single, harmless thought, then gradually takes over the mind, which then tries to assert its control by unleashing a ‘compulsive’ behaviour that in many cases rapidly spins out of control, sometimes ending in suicide or self-harm.

He comes up with arguably the best metaphor to describe the mind of someone suffering from OCD: a computer with many windows open but where, all of a sudden, it becomes impossible to close or minimise a particular window.

Narrated with humour and lucidity, the book is a fascinating exploration of “how the brain, our closest ally and biggest asset in millions of years of evolution, can turn against us.” It might be enlightening to follow it up with Johann Hari’s Lost Connections , which connects depression to cultural norms, and Sarah Wilson’s First, We Make the Beast Beautiful , a memoir about chronic anxiety.