One of my most disruptive symptoms is a kind of obsession, rumination, or perseveration that goes on in my mind in which I cannot stop thinking or talking to myself (out loud, unless I think someone is listening) about some particular topic. Although, provided I’m not sleeping, I am virtually always more or less obsessed with something – a language I’m learning, a problem I’m having, a book I’m reading, etc. – under some fairly common conditions these perseverations can become quite intense and frankly disabling. Although I don’t have any problems with “walking and chewing gum”, so to speak, by which I mean that while lost in my thoughts like this I can still, for example, wash dishes without difficulty, drive a car, brush my teeth, etc.; but with respect to any activity that requires me to attend mindfully, maintain focus, and think carefully about what I’m doing – exactly the kinds of tasks associated with pretty much any white-collar job – I can become quite incapacitated.
As a general principle, the more I perseverate, the more I write. I don’t always write down my perseverations, and some topics of perseveration (e.g. learning Spanish) just don’t lend themselves well to being written about, but decades ago I discovered that when possible, writing can reduce the amount of time that I perseverate on a given topic. Somehow, the act of writing down a thought releases me from having to keep thinking it over and over again, allowing me eventually to move on from it (to some other topic). Although in this way I have written many unfinished books and unpublished essays, a good deal of my perseveration-writing has taken the form of letters or emails to individuals who play some key role in the given perseveration, often conflictual, but not necessarily.
For an immediate, concrete example, consider that the very blog post you are now reading, as a matter of fact, is the product of such perseveration. As I write this very sentence you are presently reading, I have been working on this blog post in one way or another non-stop for over a week now. Every day, for the past nine days in fact, from the moment I wake in the morning, till the moment I drift off to sleep at night, if at any point I haven’t actually been writing or revising some draft of it, then I have almost certainly been thinking, mulling, ruminating, obsessing, etc. on the question of what I’m going to write when I can finally get back to working on it. For nine days now everything else in my life – my kids, my job, my other interests (e.g. learning Spanish) – has been pushed aside for this blog post. And that only covers what has happened till now, as I approach the end of this paragraph. No doubt many, many other sentences and paragraphs will follow the present one, although most won’t make the final draft, just as most of what I’ve written these past nine days has also been cut.
Note: one can never know from the length of a given piece, just how long it took me to write it. I might breeze through 10 pages in a day, or struggle through 1 paragraph in a week, depending on, among other factors, the topic of perseveration.
One thing I should explain here is that my perseverations never actually compel me to behave in any particular way, no matter how intense they may get. With writing, for example, I never feel like I absolutely must write, or that I simply cannot stop myself from writing, or perhaps sharing the final product with others. One of the main reasons I write — aside from enjoying it and often appreciating the final product (occasionally so much so that I want to share it with others, like I’m doing with this blog post) — is because writing tends to reduce the amount of time I perseverate on some given topic. Writing is a partial solution to the general problem of my perseverations. Writing down my perseverations ultimately allows me to move on from the topic in question and to perseverate about something else.
I don’t write because I “have no choice” or because I feel inexorably compelled to. I write, because writing works.
But what I cannot control is the basic fact of the perseveration itself. It’s the perseveration that I feel compelled to do, which I have no choice but to do. One way or another, whether I choose to write it down or not; whether it goes on for a long or a little while; whether I choose to sing or dance while perseverating, or to cry, scream, smile, hide under the blankets, take pictures or whatever; once I start perseverating on some given topic, I am mostly helpless to stop myself from continuing.
That’s mostly helpless. Because depending on the reason for doing so, I actually can redirect my attention for short bursts, say, in order to check my mirrors while driving, or in order to pretend to pay attention to someone who is speaking to me, but maintaining the shift in focus is difficult to the point of distraction. In moments like these my real choices are simply to perseverate, to write down my perseverating thoughts, or to struggle against the powerful current of my perseverations. What is definitely not possible for me in these situations is any sort of stable shift of attention to any other topic than the current topic of perseveration.
Nor can I simply choose an arbitrary topic and begin to perseverate on it, like one might choose to redirect the beam of a flashlight. How useful it would be to be able to do that! If I had such flashlight-control over my capacity for perseveration, I could just pick something extremely useful – finding a cure for cancer, say – and then dedicate my life to perseverating about that. Of course, I’m not seriously boasting that I would ever actually find a cure for cancer, but I’m quite sure I could be quite useful with the search, if I could just get my brain to perseverate about cancer.
But I cannot, and believe me I’ve tried. Not with cancer maybe, but definitely with other useful fields of endeavor. For example, I once spent three years prepping to take the series of exams needed to become an actuary, and although I did pass two of them, I failed the third exam twice before abandoning the project. Not because I couldn’t learn the core exam material, mind you, but because that was all I could do, and that’s actually only part of good exam preparation. Good actuarial exam prep also involves working plenty of practice problems, and I was just never able to perseverate about that. I did some practice problems, but nothing like enough. My attention kept returning to the core exam material, which I found irresistibly fascinating, and when exam time came I was unprepared and choked.
A frustrating complication of this phenomenon is that anyone who doesn’t personally struggle with a similar issue finds it difficult to believe that I do struggle with it. Also, with respect to any given topic of perseveration, I can seem perfectly coherent, articulate, intelligent, functional, etc., which makes it seem utterly implausible to naive observers that I might actually be totally disabled with respect to anything else I have to do and which involves more attention, say, than ironing a shirt, or carrying out the recycling. So in addition to struggling against the basic forces of my own runaway mind, whenever my mind does runaway with itself like this (like it is doing, even now, as I am writing this blog post), I cannot simply excuse myself and withdraw (e.g., “call in sick”) in order to deal with it like one might with a broken leg or fresh surgical wounds. Any attempt to do that sort of thing is met with the kind of hostile skepticism and accusation — implied if not explicit — of faking or exaggerating or blowing things out of proportion that is inevitably leveled at all of us struggling with so-called “invisible disabilities” (migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, PTSD, etc.).
Ah, yes, “invisible” disabilities. Don’t get me started on that…