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A campus full of weirdos begs the question: What is normal?

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I watched MTV a lot over winter break, which, in retrospect, was very unhealthy. I wanted to keep channel surfing, but like an accident on the side of the highway, the prospect of something appalling was too much to resist. And appalled I was: scantily clad coeds, jackasses diving off cliffs, mean-spirited practical jokes, SuChin Pak, the whole bit. There was one show, however, that appalled me for a different reason. I was watching True Life: I Have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. For those of you who don’t watch the “Music Television,” True Life is one of the better shows on the channel. Of all the fake reality they put out, True Life is the least fake. Anyway, I started to get worried as three people with OCD started to explain their obsessions and compulsions. Most were extremely distinctive, but others were things that some my friends and I do on a regular basis: having to eat certain foods in even numbers, having to brush your teeth with a regular procedure, or having to touch surfaces with both sides of the body.

Do we have OCD?

Everyone who goes to CMU soon realizes that the students here are all eccentric (some more than others), but until now I did not realize how many of us are moved daily by compulsions and obsessions. Even as I sat discussing this article with the lounge rats on my floor, my friend Joey said that he too has to touch things with both side of his body. “It’s hard to resist,” he said. “I mean if this hand touches something, the other one has to, too. Why should it be mistreated?” Why, indeed?

I’m not implying that CMU is starting to admit students from mental wards, nor I am saying that all of my friends have OCD. We throw that term around like it’s candy. I constantly hear: “God, you’re so OCD!” Aside from the fact that it uses a proper noun as a modifier, that is most likely a grossly inaccurate statement. OCD is a very serious disorder, in which obsessions and compulsions become the focus of a person’s life, in some cases consuming him or her to the point where normal functioning is barely possible. No; what I am talking about are common idiosyncrasies.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has something to say on the subject of what is and isn’t OCD: “The phrase ‘obsessive-compulsive’ has worked its way into the wider English lexicon, and is often used incorrectly in an offhand sense to describe someone who is meticulous or absorbed.... A person who shows signs of infatuation or fixation with a subject/object, or displays traits such as perfectionism, is not necessarily stricken with OCD, a specific and well-defined disorder.”

Okay, that’s good to know, but are individuals prone to certain actions or procedures “stricken” with OCD? I don’t think so. The people who show these weird traits like eating food in even numbers or having to touch surfaces with both sides of their bodies are some of the most — to use the words of Wikipedia — meticulous and absorbed people I know. They get good grades, study regularly, and participate in clubs and organizations. They are, in short, perfectly normal, despite the fact that, well, they really aren’t normal at all.

Internationally renowned modern artist Jonothan Borofsky used to obsessively count and write down numbers. One of his most famous pieces of art is a stack of papers on which he handwrote all the numbers from 1 to 3,227,146 (it’s three feet tall). Now he has sculptures and art installations in every major city on Earth and soon his artwork will be installed on our campus. Why should you care about Borofsky? Because he went to CMU, just like you, and his obsession made him one of the world’s foremost modern artists.

I’m not saying that I’m the next Borofsky because I obsessively clean my sink, but I don’t think it’s wrong that the minds of certain people cause them to do unusual things. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. A recent article in The New York Times “Health and Fitness” section announced the arrival of a new guidebook to the field of psychology. The new book, unveiled by the American Psychoanalytic Association, puts emphasis on individual personality patterns which can only be construed as disorders in extreme cases. Basically, the idea is to find out what’s really going on in someone’s mind and why before automatically diagnosing him or her with a disorder. I think it’s a big step forward to seek out the underlying causes of certain behaviors instead of taking them at face value.

I think the reason I see weird stuff in myself, my friends, and others on campus is that the students here are so focused on the innumerable facets of their lives that some of their mental energy is unleashed in peculiar ways. A combination of unique personalities, strong work ethics, intense pressure, and extreme stress manifests itself in the form of habits and quirks that resemble obsessions and compulsions. For me, obsessive cleanliness and a fixation on hygiene helps me deal with stress and keeps me from getting too wrapped up in frivolous pursuits like “homework” and “going to class.”

I wish I could take it easy and be cool in any situation. I am envious of people who sit still for long periods of time and don’t fidget or show any sign of even the slightest idiosyncracy. I’d like to be that chill, down-to-earth person that doesn’t have a care in the world, who probably couldn’t even spell obsession (if he even knew what it meant). But frankly, that’s just not normal.