obsessions

[asa left]0399154620[/asa] The New York Times has a review of a new biography of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), the man behind the original thesaurus.

I am interested in this biography for a lot of reasons, the first one being the simple lure of the footnote. Historians and biographers like footnotes. Historical novelists love them. Footnotes are usually a treasure chest of the good details that make a story come alive. When I was researching the eastern Great Lakes during the War of 1812 I came across footnote descriptions of the role clergy played in the fighting, and I used some of it in Lake in the Clouds.

In the case of this biography, my interest in historical detail is actually secondary to my interest in Roget’s personal demons. He was obsessive-compulsive, with a full range of symptoms. The Med-Net definition:

A psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking, counting, or hoarding. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), one of the anxiety disorders, is a potentially disabling condition that can persist throughout a person’s life. The individual who suffers from OCD becomes trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors that are senseless and distressing but extremely difficult to overcome. OCD occurs in a spectrum from mild to severe, but if severe and left untreated, can destroy a person’s capacity to function at work, at school, or even in the home.

Roget’s whole family suffered from what sounds like a range of brain chemistry related problems. What’s interesting to me, personally, is how his OCD was perceived in his time and place because my sense is, not much has changed in two hundred years.

Clearly Roget was able to channel most of his obsession in socially acceptable directions, with the end result being the thesaurus. It was the nature of his time and place that he could set the rules for himself, and as long as his list-making showed some kind of profit, live the way his disabilities required him to live.

OCD is an invisible disability — that is, there’s no outward signs that there’s something physically wrong. Nor are there scans or  blood tests to diagnose based on brain chemistry, or how much serotonin you have or should have. An OCD diagnosis is based on observed and reported behaviors — the same way appendicitis or heart disease was diagnosed a hundred years ago when laboratory and imaging sciences were in their infancy.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that public opinion doesn’t seem to have changed much. I have to think about this some more.