The Man Who Couldn’t Stop
This is not a book for anxious people, or those with obsessive tendencies. It isn’t a recovery memoir, wherein after an arduous expedition the writer locates a triumph of victory over his oppressor. There is no cure for David Adam’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he concludes rather distressingly that there is no cure for anyone living with the most severe incarnations of this horribly debilitating condition, beyond managing its symptoms. Rather, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop attempts to bring reckoning to what has remained stubbornly constant in the author’s life for decades: the irrational fear that he will contract the AIDS virus. It’s a guidebook for anyone with someone in their lives living with a similar torment.
A writer with Nature, Adam takes in a comprehensive audit of the history of OCD and its changes in treatment, nomenclature and possible origin. Addressing the ongoing disagreements about what it actually is (a mental disorder, a syndrome, an illness, a neurosis) Adam perhaps controversially posits OCD as a disordered thought process that crosses cultures – a universal experience. This would seem to be at odds with his later scepticism of evolutionary biology, but the case examples he provides largely persuade. A conversational, learned tone breaks down meatier theories for a lay audience, though the humour doesn’t always quite offset the darker undertones of the material.
In discussing the self-contagious nature of OCD, Adams draws parallels with the rituals of religion, with edicts to act in certain ways and not others. As with OCD, trying not to think about a particular thought can in itself reinforce the recurring thought, which increases anxiety in a feedback loop. Religious communities display higher instances of OCD. This isn’t reported in contemptuous judgement – Adams reserves that for Freud, whom he takes particular issue with over his counterproductive methods, many of which are still employed to treat OCD entirely hopelessly today.
The Man Who Couldn’t Stop seeks to reassure us that disordered thinking is common to most people (did I turn off the stove?), but that only in a deeply unlucky few does it morph into severe OCD. Why this happens remains ultimately unknown. For those longing for answers, taking comfort in the fact that the mind is mysterious will likely be no comfort at all. BV
Picador, 400pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, David Adam". Subscribe here.