How I Use OCD to Make Decisions Or, how to reduce anxiety by embracing unknowability


I almost posted this message the other day on Facebook:

Google+ keeps telling me someone else has added me back to their Circle. But I never knew I was in their Circle, or that they had dropped me, or what a Circle really is.

Seems pretty innocuous, which could be an argument both for sending or not bothering. Like a lot of things on Facebook, I’m not sure posting that message would have helped anybody, added to the world’s storehouse of knowledge, or made one person smile. On balance, I’d say my decision not to post that little experience was correct.

But those considerations have nothing to do with why I did not post the message. The real reason I did not post it was the time of day.

In the lower-right corner of my computer, the time said 1:27 p.m. Seven is the second highest odd number, and odd is negative. Can’t send on a seven. I waited for the 7 to turn into an 8, feeling like I was bending the laws at the corners of the universe in so doing.

Of course it did not change. Now I was only making the gods angry. I decided to wait.

More than 2% of the population suffers from OCD.

The same article where I found that number also says that most people at one time or another “experience obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors.”

People might display OCD symptoms because of their genetics, like something is messed up in their frontal lobes. Whatever the “rituals” are, they are often divided into counting or checking. (Is the door really locked? Better check again, even though you’ve already checked seven times.)

These rituals give comfort to people with a certain rigidity of thinking. I believe that I am not in the certifiable 2%, because ritual has not disabled my life. My habits, which I actually use to make many decisions, mostly involve counting, rather than checking.

I do a lot with serial numbers on dollar bills. I consult them when I need to make a decision.

The decision must not be major. I would never subject a major purchase or relationship situation to serial numbers. But I also place a lot of stock in the numbers because little decisions, such as choosing the exact moment to hit “Send,” or not, can have major consequences.

I ask questions in a yes/no format, or sometimes as a two-option multiple choice test: An even number represents confirmation of what I had wanted to do; odd means I should rethink it. The higher the even or odd number, the greater the significance. Eight is a great response, but 7 is bad and 9 is very bad.

If I am about the send an instant message or e-mail, I check the clock. If it is an odd number, I have to wait until it turns even. If that takes most of a minute, I have still found the delay useful because I can always find something to tighten up or remove.

On the bills, I pay attention to the next-to-last number, as well—whether it is even or odd, and how high. For example, to see “88” at the end of a bill that has been asked to render a yes/no decision is the best possible encouragement. But if the number were 98, a yes preceded by an even stronger no, it means “yes, tempered with caution.”

If you’re curious, zero means indifference. So even an eight preceded by a zero means yes, do whatever it is you’re considering, but it’s really not that big a deal.

Which is why I perform my OCD ritual in the first place.

To convince myself that the niggling decisions that don’t matter—yet need to be made and without agony—fit some orderly pattern. I know of course that they don’t, yet somehow throwing it all up to the numbers also amounts to a recognition of ultimate ambiguities and moral relativism.

As the philosopher Robert Ringer wrote in his 1974 best-seller, Winning Through Intimidation (which is actually a pretty good read), think into the very distant future. The sun will cool, losing its ability to warm the earth, which will basically become a giant ball of ice. And at that point, Ringer asks, what difference will worrying about any of these things make?

I guess any dictator or mass-murderer could use Ringer’s “iceball theory,” from Hitler down. Dahmer, the guy who killed and ate kids, he could justify his acts by the iceball theory. But it’s still worth considering. I know that whether I send the e-mail or post the message now, or 11 minutes from now, really doesn’t matter.

So in this way, relying on random numbers to make small decisions is not just a frantic effort to control the uncontrollable, it’s also a nod toward absurdity and unknowability. And if it is both an effort to control the universe and an acknowledgment that even the most serious effort at control will fail, then I have those bases covered, and can take some measure of comfort.

In the meantime, I am at least making decisions.

If there is no bill to look at, no digital clock, and I don’t have my phone handy (the stopwatch on the iPhone is quite useful; just hit it blind and follow the numbers), I will improvise with whatever else is in the room. Most often I use number of lights or squares of ceiling tile.

When I was younger I had an intermittent gambling problem. One night I wanted to go to the dog track but knew I couldn’t afford it. I resigned myself to go by the odometer reading. While driving, I paused until I felt ready and then looked down. The last two numbers: 99. I did not go.

I know there are problems with this approach.

For example, I was doing this for a while before it occurred to me that I was playing with more negative integers than positive, because there are more negative, non-zero numbers between one and nine than positive. I started tossing out 1 as an acceptable response to make it even—three, five, seven, nine vs. two, four, six, eight. But then I would forget and start taking one seriously again. These little reminders—that the very system I designed to reduce anxiety, and bring order to the world, is flawed—are not pleasant.

My sister, a working philosopher, has challenged my random decision-making, calling it an abdication of my moral responsibility. To which I say (and I’m glad for this word, to counter just this sort of argument), “Whatever.”

I continue to calibrate the wisdom of small, interpersonal acts by the serial numbers on my dollar bills, the stopwatch function on my phone, and the number of light fixtures in the room, because doing so makes me feel better.

After tabling my Facebook message about Google+ for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time, I revisited the issue. Whereas before the clock had said 1:27, now it was 1:35. I never posted that message or anything like it.

In fact, at the moment it doesn’t look good for sending this story to Pyragraph. It’s 11:57pm.

Oh, wait, it’s 11:58. We’re good to go.

Photo by Andrew Meacham.

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About Andrew Meacham

Andrew Meacham is the chief Epilogue writer for the Tampa Bay Times, writing obituaries about people from all walks of life. His subjects can be rich or poor, with lengthy or plain resumes. The premise behind the Epilogue is everyone has a story.

Andrew was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., and has lived in St. Petersburg, FL most of his life. He worked eight years in construction, then spent six years as an associate editor at Health Communications, a self-help book publisher. He has an undergraduate degree from Eckerd College and a master’s in journalism from University of South Florida.

He is the author of Selling Serenity (Upton Books, 1999). Andrew has been on its staff since 2005. Two of his stories — on the “sexting”-related suicide of a 13-year-old girl and a dishwasher’s hit-and-run death — each won awards from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. He also received a best-body-of-work award in 2010. In 2012 Andrew became president of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, which covers North America.

1 Comment

  1. Suzanne Dameron on November 20, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Maybe if I applied your process to my phobia about driving over the Skyway Bridge which I haven’t done in more than a decade, I would get the occasional nod (2,4,6,8, right?) that it’s sometimes OK to drive across the bridge.

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