[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.

4 Replies to “obsessions”

  1. Likewise, this is true for depression, bipolar disorder, and most of the other so-called ‘mental illnesses’, which i’d prefer to call ‘brain diseases’ or something less stigmatizing.

    Many of these ‘diseases’ make it difficult to function ‘normally’ (but in my opinion, defining ‘normal’ is like walking on a tight-rope). Instead, I think it’s more realistic to understand normal by imagining a bell-curve–there is such a wide range.

    To me, these diseases only become ‘abnormal’ when the person is actually ‘suffering’ and cannot function without some kind of intervention. As you know, in many cases, even intervention doesn’t completely resolve the problems.

    So, was Roget ‘normal’? Probably–most certainly–yes. We are all unique and most of us have some kind of disability or ‘scar’ that noone else can visually pick up on. Unless the outward behavior, or physical wound, or mental/emotional disease is so obvious that it’s not able to be ‘hidden’ or ‘channeled’ into socially acceptable avenues, everyone who carries these diseases and scars is ‘normal’, in my opinion. And even then, I’m not sure the word ‘abnormal’ accurately defines everyone who is outwardly struggling.

    As far as stigma, it most definitely still exists–and I’m not sure how we’re ever going to erase it. No matter how far treatments and understanding of brain diseases advance, there are always going to be people who doubt, ridicule, judge and/or otherwise belittle anyone who is just a little ‘different’. And, that is unfortunate, isn’t it. But still not insurmountable…and definitely NOT a reason for ANYONE with any type of brain disease to be ashamed or embarrased. Frustrated, yes. Until someone feels ‘good’ they will be frustrated. But never ashamed.

  2. Having read Pajama Girls last week, it helped a big whole lot to go through a relative’s panic attack this week – potential heart attack, clammy skin, 911, emergency room, etc. Bet you didn’t think you’d be helping one of your readers, huh?

    Somewhat on the lighter side of a panic attack, if there is one…. I earned claustrophobia having been in 2 life-threatening confined spaces. Sooo, on a plane over Idaho, it started. Luckily the young man in the same row was having trouble understanding calculus. So rather than run screaming down the aisle to open the door, I gave him a 30-minute overview of the continuum of integral and differential calculus. Just thought you’d like a laugh, so to speak.

  3. I can’t say that I was expecting to be of direct assistance, asdfg, but it’s nice to know that you were able to put the novel to work for yourself.

    I’m going to post some questions on the PG discussion page to see if I can get things going.

  4. just want to mention that there’s a big difference between OCD and OCPD. (Roget had OCPD. You can find this info. by doing some research/googling, etc.)

    The following blog explains the distinctions very clearly:

    first, OCD, is an Axis I disorder, meaning the symptoms of the disorder can make the person who has them feel sick. The second, OCPD, is an Axis II disorder, a Personality Disorder, meaning the symptoms make EVERYONE ELSE sick, especially the people who live with the person who has the symptoms. But the symptom bearer is relatively comfortable.

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