Sunday, 23 January, 2005

Habit or compulsion?

Definitions are slippery things. The word "habit," for example, is defined as "an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary." A "compulsion," on the other hand, is "an irresistible impulse to perform an irrational act." I wonder what you'd call an irresistible impulse to perform a rational act, but I digress.

The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is ... ummm ... well, the second thing I do every morning is brush my teeth. Almost without fail. This is behavior born of long practice. Some people can get up, go for their morning walk, and have breakfast before brushing their teeth. I can't. Really. If I don't brush my teeth right when I get up, it throws my whole rhythm off. I've learned not to fight it. I've often wondered if my need to brush first thing every morning is bordering on compulsive behavior. Certainly there's no logical reason why I couldn't wait until after my morning bike ride.

That's not the only behavior I sometimes wonder about. Before I turn the ignition key off in the car, I always turn off the lights, radio, windshield wipers, back window defroster, air conditioner and anything else that's "on." I even turn the fan control off and move the temperature dial to its lowest setting ("off" if you view it as the heater control).    I developed this habit during years of flying in private planes with my dad, and then as a pilot myself. The checklist says to turn off all electrical devices, turn off the ignition, and then turn off the master switch. This is absolutely essential in most airplanes, because gyros and other things will draw current if the master switch is on. Many a pilot has had to have the FBO come jumpstart his airplane because he left the master switch on. But it's more than a habit for me now.  It's an irrational ritual in a modern automobile where everything's keyed to the ignition switch, especially when you consider that the first thing I do when I start the car is turn on the radio, air conditioner, lights, and windshield wipers.

I haven't had a locker and closet inspection since I left the Air Force Academy in 1982, yet I still hang my pants (you have no idea how long it took me to stop saying "trousers") with the zipper facing out and the legs hanging to the left. When Debra and I first got married, she caught me re-hanging some pants that she'd hung wrong. Let's just say that I don't let her catch me doing that anymore.  Habit or compulsion?

So am I twisted? Do these and other behaviors indicate a mild form of obsessive compulsive disorder? I've come to accept that they probably do. I've also come to believe, that everybody exhibits signs of one or more "disorders," and that complete normalcy is a myth. A person who had no idiosyncracies would be incredibly dull. The most creative, dynamic, driven, or productive people I know all are slightly unhinged in one way or another. Society wouldn't change otherwise. Striving for "better" or "different" when what you have is "good enough" isn't entirely rational.

The line between idiosyncratic behavior and mental illness is pretty fuzzy. I accept and even embrace my little weirdnesses, but I also keep them in check. I'm not sure my friends would understand if I rearranged their closets the next time I came for a visit.