Distraction: How Occasional Escapism Can Help With OCD

With OCD, a trip to the Marvel Universe or the Jurassic period can help.

Posted Sep 29, 2013

When I was a kid, I loved dinosaurs.  Actually, when I was a little kid I was obsessed with dinosaurs.  I couldn’t stop thinking about them and I wouldn’t shut up about them. 

I loved dinosaurs because they were huge and powerful, but they were also classifiable, and I could master them and control them in my mind. My mother tells me that when I was in nursery school, I would line up plastic dinosaur figures in order of their evolutionary period (Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous), and I’d get extremely upset if other kids moved them out of order, or had the herbivores eating the carnivores. Although I was only 3 years old, my thinking was already starting to become rigid and inflexible—you might say it was starting to fossilize.  And while that seemed innocuous at the time, it would cause me a lot of trouble later on, as my OCD symptoms continued to develop. 

I outgrew my dinosaur phase, like most kids do, but my fascination with them became the model for a recurring pattern of behavior through my childhood. Every year or two, I would find a new subject to fixate on the way I’d fixated on dinosaurs.  My later collections/obsessions started with those floppy plush Beanie Babies—I’d get a new specimen and fawn over it for a week or two and then remorselessly shove into my closet as soon as I found a new favorite. After that came Transformers, specifically the wild animal-oriented “Beast Wars” characters, and I spent hours designing and drawing my own transforming animals. My addiction to corporate childrens’ entertainment hit its nadir in 1999, when Pokémon: Red Version was released for the Game Boy; though I was enthralled by the games, at 12 I recognized I was a little too old for them, and I hung my preadolescent head in shame at card tournaments and anime movie premiers.  As I entered my teens, I still played videogames and followed Marvel Comics with a little more passion and intensity than most.

The thing is, the toys and games themselves never really mattered—it was the collection in my head that was important.  By memorizing facts and rules I found a way to be rewarded for my obsessive thinking (what, mathematically speaking, was the best possible Pokémon team?) and a framework for creativity (I remember participating in a local toy store’s design-your-own Beanie Baby contest, and overwhelming the judges with two-dozen entries).  It was like having a wonderful toy box in my mind, full of objects that I could take out and play with whenever I was bored or sad or hurt.  Each of my fandoms gave me access to complicated alternate universes, with its own rules, where I could play as long as liked—and sometimes, when my brain started down the path of OCD, I could hit the brakes and send it into one of these alternate realities instead.

I recently read a fascinating article by Helen Rittelmeyer about one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, and his similarities to the great poet Samuel Coleridge. Rittelmeyer observes that both men loved using intricate footnotes and digressions to try to capture the stream of human consciousness in their writing…and that both men were alcoholics. She writes:

"These men could not have a thought without twelve sidebars, citations, and quibbles popping up from their mental recesses. The result: footnotes and digressions. The other result: an overwhelming desire, when the stimulation became too strong, to power down the machine for a while.

'He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the voices in his head,' Wallace’s best friend told a reporter. 'He said when you’re writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices.' And alcohol shuts up all the voices."


Now, obviously my situation isn’t entirely comparable. Clearly, my writing is nowhere in the league of Foster Wallace and Coleridge, and thankfully, I don’t share their vice, either.  But I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t see some similarity between their addiction and my own habit of “self-medicating” with toys and books and videogames. And though it’s never been as big an obstacle as alcoholism, my relationship with geek stuff has caused me a few problems of my own. There’s one thing that Pokémon addiction and alcoholism actually do have in common: neither of them will actually help you face your problems. They can help you hide from them for a little while, but sooner or later you’ll get bored or sober and you’ll be right where you started. 

With those caveats, I have found geek stuff to be a helpful distraction. The trick is knowing when you can face the hurt and deal with it productively, and when to use escapism to check out of reality for a while.  OCD can be a terrible burden, and there’s no shame in occasional escapism; though I’ve found medication and therapy to be the most effective treatment, in a pinch - a trip to the Marvel Universe or the Jurassic period can help too.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013.

Author of Triggered:  A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012”.

Read my Psychology Today blog:  Triggered