Life’s been pretty damn hard but I’m able to deal with it, and despite the obstacles I face I am able to maintain my optimism most of the time. That’s a far cry from my experience of 1987, when I had few external difficulties but could barely tolerate living through the day – despite medication.

Who is this miracle worker you ask? I’m sorry, I can’t tell you, much as I’d like to. When I wrote my first web page about my illness, I had her read it and then asked her if she’d like me to give her name. She said she would rather her name be kept private. I would rather give her the credit she deserves, but I respect her feelings so I won’t give her name.

One of the main objectives of therapy is for one to develop insight into one’s condition. I would like to discuss the many insights I found but I feel I could not discuss them adequately in the space I have here. I would like to discuss just one of them, as the key point I learned also applies to many other engineers and scientists. If you feel that you would like to know more than I can say in what follows, then I encourage you to read David Shapiro’s book Neurotic Styles, especially the chapter on Obsessive Compulsive Style.

One day after I had been seeing my therapist for about seven years, she said to me, “I think it’s time” and handed me a photocopy of the Obsessive Compulsive Style chapter of Shapiro’s book. I took it home to read and found it nothing short of astounding. As I read it I often burst out in hysterical laughter as I came across something that seemed deeply familiar from my own experience. I still find it very embarrassing to find a lifetime of experience so neatly summarized in a single chapter of a book that was published when I was one year old. I just had to read the whole book so I bought my own copy and have since read it several times.

Obsessive compulsive style is distinguished from obsessive compulsive disorder by being a personality trait rather than a psychiatric condition that can be treated with medication. It is characterized by, among other things, rigid thinking and a distortion of the experience of autonomy.

Shapiro says:

The most conspicuous characteristic of the obsessive-compulsive’s attention is its intense, sharp focus. These people are not vague in their attention. They concentrate, and particularly do they concentrate on detail. This is evident, for example, in the Rorschach test in their accumulation, frequently, of large numbers of small “detail-responses” and their precise delineation of them (small profiles of faces all along the edges of the inkblots, and the like), and the same affinity is easily observed in everyday life. Thus, these people are very often to be found among technicians; they are interested in, and at home with, technical details… But the obsessive-compulsive’s attention, although sharp, is in certain respects markedly limited in both mobility and range. These people not only concentrate; they seem always to be concentrating. And some aspects of the world are simply not to be apprehended by a sharply focused and concentrated attention… These people seem unable to allow their attention simply to wander or passively permit it to be captured… It is not that they do not look or listen, but that they are looking or listening too hard for something else.

Shapiro goes on to describe the obsessive-compulsive’s mode of activity:

The activity – one could just as well say the life – of these people is characterized by a more or less continuous experience of tense deliberateness, a sense of effort, and of trying.

Everything seems deliberate for them. Nothing is effortless… For the compulsive person, the quality of effort is present in every activity, whether it taxes his capacities or not.

The obsessive-compulsive live out their lives according to a set of rules, regulations and expectations which he feels are externally imposed but in reality are of his own making. Shapiro says:

These people feel and function like driven, hardworking, automatons pressing themselves to fulfill unending duties, “responsibilities”, and tasks that are, in their view, not chosen, but simply there.

One compulsive patient likened his whole life to a train that was running efficiently, fast, pulling a substantial load, but on a track laid out for it.

My therapist focused on my own rigid thinking starting very early in our work together. My experience now is that I have a sense of free will that I did not possess before I began seeing her. However obsessive-compulsive style is a trait that is so deeply ingrained in me that I don’t think I can ever be completely free of it. However I find that being able to focus my attention so intensively is an advantage to my computer programming. I find that programming allows me to experience being obsessive-compulsive in a way that I find enjoyable, like taking a holiday to go back to a familiar place from my past.

The Reality Construction Kit

And so I come to the most important part of this article. If you take nothing else away from what I have written, take this. This is important whether or not you’re mentally ill. I think we would all be better off if more people understood the following:

Reality is not something that just happens to you. Reality is something you make.