STARRED REVIEW
January 20, 2015

When obsession crosses the line

By David Adam
Review by
Obsessive-compulsive disorder has become a joke in our culture. We label ourselves OCD if we prefer our socks folded a certain way or our desktop arranged just so. In The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought, David Adam exposes the insensitivity of these casual mentions by sharing his own struggle with this crippling mental illness. His book puts the OCD diagnosis in historical context, but he combines this broader frame of reference with his personal story, which adds humor, pathos and authority.
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Obsessive-compulsive disorder has become a joke in our culture. We label ourselves OCD if we prefer our socks folded a certain way or our desktop arranged just so. In The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought, David Adam exposes the insensitivity of these casual mentions by sharing his own struggle with this crippling mental illness. His book puts the OCD diagnosis in historical context, but he combines this broader frame of reference with his personal story, which adds humor, pathos and authority.

Adam, an editor at Nature, applies his curiosity and skills as a science writer to investigate his experience with OCD. For the last 20 years, he has struggled with obsessive thoughts about HIV infection. By revealing his own experiences, as well as a number of other sufferers’ accounts, he demonstrates that actual OCD is more severe than being extremely neat or particular about our surroundings. “As a journalist,” he writes, “I meet a lot of people and shake their hands. If I have a cut on my finger, or I notice that someone who I talk to has a bandage or a plastic over a wound, thoughts of the handshake and how to avoid it can start to crowd out everything else. . . . I know that I can’t catch AIDS in those situations. But still the thoughts and the anxiety come.”

As his book describes, OCD has been around for many years, but only recently understood. Not too long ago, it was even treated with lobotomies. If you are a healthy person who considers those with mental illness to be weak or fragile, I encourage you to read this book and discover the strength it takes to live a productive life as Adam does while coping with a diagnosis such as OCD.

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