I joked to a friend this week that living with a toddler is like living with someone with OCD. I think that's not even a particularly original joke because, really, toddlers are a funny little bundle of strange obsession and mystifying compulsion. As someone who experiences mild to moderate symptoms (god, I bristle at even writing that...first writing it in quotes, then changing it to "behaviors", then back to symptoms...jeez, ambivalent much?...well, more on that in a second) of OCD, I look at my baby's new found and strongly held beliefs about how the world should work with amusement, with recognition, and (I'm realizing) with something like envy. No, not something like envy, let's be honest. Envy.
Envy because when he won't even consider eating a bite of yogurt unless he's holding a cracker in his left hand (not his right hand!!! Good god, mother, what are you thinking?), when he is wracked with sobs because he can't get the blocks lined up just exactly like he wants them, when he spends a half hour blissfully absorbed in the important task of transferring a bowl of blueberries, one by one, into a cup and back and again, when he does these things they are natural, they are normal, they are cute, they are appropriate, and a sign that his brain is developing just as it should.
When I am similarly engaged, it is not cute, it is not appropriate, and it is not a sign of a brain working the way it should. And yet. I have no evidence for this but I would guess that most people who experience OCD at the level that I do -- that is as something that occasionally disruptive but, largely, controlled or experienced in a way that doesn't take your life off the rails -- feel some ambivalence about curing/treating/controlling their behaviors. By their nature, our weird little compulsions are soothing. That's why we do them. You've scratched an itch recently? It's like that. When I give in and just allow myself to, say, touch every other tile on a long smooth tile wall as I walk by, I feel a tremendous sense of well-being. The blank quietness of my mind when I allow myself to just do the weird thing its telling me to do is sublime and a state unreachable in other ways. But, speaking for myself, I know I'm just a sad weak junkie when it comes to this stuff. Sure, today I can feel the sweet silence of my mind when I take my key on and off the key ring for five minutes but tomorrow it will feel less optional and the day after that it will be mandatory. And then, maybe, five minutes won't be enough to get that feeling of peace. I know the only way too keep things from going off the rails is to just say no. So, envy.
But the whole toddler OCD thing does underscore to me how natural it is for a brain to want to behave in this way. Sure, with some of us it can go a little off the rails. But the brain is a scientist and it runs experiments to see what makes it feel good. And brains feel good when they find patterns, brains feel good when they explore repetition, brains feel good when they exert control over their surroundings. So, you know, my scientist brain discovered these things and brings me back to those activities and ways of thinking at times when it needs a break from stress or sadness or any of the many things that make brains feel bad.