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“For Those Who Deserve an Explanation”: Review of The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam

Loulwa Soweid By Loulwa Soweid Published on April 8, 2016

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“Don’t think of a white bear.”

A relatively simple instruction, yet in social psychologist Daniel M. Wegner’s 1987 experiment, students given the order found that no matter how furiously they attempted to abstain from doing so, a snow-colored ball of fur lumbered into their minds and made itself comfortable. This aptly-named “white bear effect” makes an appearance in David Adam’s 2014 The Man Who Couldn’t Stop as an embodiment of the nature of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a crippling and much-misunderstood anxiety disorder consisting of unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and subsequent actions carried out in an attempt to relieve the anxiety brought about by these thoughts (compulsions).

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The tweaked namesake of Judith Rapport’s 1991 The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing (which also revolves around OCD) has been described as “a fusion of science, history and personal memoir,” and intertwines anecdotes, statistics, DSM definitions, empirical studies, and allusions to both renowned and everyday people who have suffered from anxiety disorders with an explicit retelling of Adam’s personal twenty-year struggle with OCD. Readers are exposed to a brutally honest account of human vulnerability as Adam begins to perceive what to others are simple scrapes or paper-cuts as potentially life-threatening dangers and becomes a frequent caller on the National AIDS Helpline (so much so that he changes accents per phone call in an attempt to disguise his identity from NAH workers who are growing annoyed with him), and an enthusiastic blood-donor in the hopes that he will be contacted should antibodies that respond to HIV be detected in his samples.

However, while The Man Who Couldn’t Stop lays unashamedly bare a first-hand account of OCD, it contains certain components that ironically render it not a choice pick for readers struggling with the disorder. As one who has grappled with OCD for more than ten years, I picked up this memoir in an effort to better understand my condition and to take comfort in the fact that I was not alone, but quickly realized that Adam portrayed OCD at its most extreme, recounting a story about a 14-year-old girl who refused to open her mouth for ten months due to an irrational fear of worms entering her body, a tale about a woman itching a hole into her skin, and vivid descriptions of a patient’s thoughts revolving around torture, among others. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with portraying the debilitating nature of OCD, especially as the media tends to portray it as more of a cute quirk revolving around cleanliness and symmetry, such examples contain potentially triggering ideas or images for those who already struggle with their own intrusive thoughts. 

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Furthermore, Adam opens the memoir by quoting an unknown source warning readers to “watch your thoughts, for they become words/watch your words, for they becomes actions/watch your actions, for they become habits/ watch your habits, for they become character/ watch your character, for it becomes your destiny,” and I appreciate the attempt to emphasize the extent to which obsessive-compulsive thoughts can come to control one’s life. But I can’t ignore the fact that it also unintentionally plays into an ultimate fear of OCD-sufferers: that their obsessive, disturbing thoughts will eventually translate into tangible harm to themselves or the people they love. A last wince-worthy quote is Adam’s declaration in Chapter 1 that “I turned [my thoughts] into OCD,” which suggests that some element of choice is involved is mental illnesses, and could have been more sensitively-worded, especially since one of the most common accusations directed towards people with disorders is the infamous “you’re doing this to yourself; you can snap out of it if you really wanted to.”

Regardless, Adam has effectively done his part in providing the public with much-needed insight into the world of obsessions and compulsions, and he is definitely the man for the job. The very fact he published The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, and that he is the science-savvy and well-versed current writer and editor for the leading science journal Nature, makes for more than just an impressive resume: his achievements debunk the misconceptions that those who suffer from disorders are “crazy”, unproductive or lack the ability to contribute positively to society. As such, Adam is not seen through the lenses of a label, but can be viewed as a published author who just so happens to have an anxiety disorder.

In a world where mental illnesses are ferociously stigmatized, Adam’s parting words, “this book and the journey it involves have proven to me that OCD no longer holds my thoughts captive. They are free to dissolve to glorious mess. And from that, they can begin again,” deliver a sanguine and much-needed message to those who the memoir is dedicated to, “those who deserve an explanation.” Be they people who struggle with OCD, those who suffer indirectly as the friends, spouses, and family-members of individuals with OCD, or anyone and everyone who has been affected by a psychological disorder, the happy ending of Adam’s own tale reassures them that it’s going to be alright.

Psychology graduate with a love of all things literature, poetry and theater!

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