Who, aside from those of us allergic to self-reflection, hasn’t ever wondered whether our nutty behavior means that we’re, well, nuts?
For me, the moment of doubt arrived several years ago when I found myself in a conference-center ladies’ lounge, anxiously unwrapping a whole smoked mackerel. I can’t — that is, won’t — reveal any more, except to say that the mackerel offered little guidance to my dilemma at the time, and I wrapped it up again. Then, neither more enlightened nor less composed, I returned to the conference.
My point: None of us is quite as sane as we seem, but neither is every weird thing we do irrefutable proof of insanity. In fact, a lot of our quirks prove that we’re just that — quirky, not certifiable.
How to tell the difference? Start by reading the letters below, submitted by readers just like you, which have been analyzed by our panel of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists. Recognize anyone?
NORMAL OR NUTS?
Lately, after I read an unusual name, place, or phrase — Reince Priebus, Burkina Faso, schadenfreude — I often can’t get it out of my head for days, sometimes weeks. I silently repeat the words to myself, often spell them, and even wake up in the night with the words ringing in my head. Is my brain on the fritz?
Compulsive but normal
That sounds like a minor obsession, say our experts: Your brain feels that for some reason it must repeat these words. “But compulsions aren’t abnormal in and of themselves,” says psychiatrist Franklin Schneier. So unless this one is taking up more than an hour of your day or truly interfering with your life, Schneier would consider it “an annoyance but not serious.”
To stop the compulsion, embrace it. “Accept that it’s happening,” says Schneier, and that it’s not the world’s worst thing, just a personal idiosyncrasy. “If you say, ‘Oh, my God, there it goes again! I’ve got to stop thinking about that word!’ that’s not productive.” (And then try not to obsess about the word idiosyncrasy.)
Should the Zen strategy fail, try a more aggressive approach, says Schneier: Set aside ten minutes a day to repeat the word over and over again. Make a mental tape loop of it, and play it 100 times a day. Do it so many times that you finally get sick of it.
As an added benefit, you will probably learn these new words very well, says Schneier. You’ll stun dinner guests with your erudition in describing a recurring dream in which you’re overwhelmed by schadenfreude when Republican Party head Reince Priebus declares Burkina Faso to be his favorite Italian dish. “So maybe there’s a silver lining,”
NORMAL OR NUTS?
I sometimes have strange dreams when taking a nap, and I think they’re real when I wake up. Then, as I come around, I realize they aren’t. Is there something wrong with me?
What’s wrong is that you get to take naps and most of us don’t! But are you unhinged? The unanimous consensus among our panel: no. We all have wild dreams, and it’s normal, upon waking, to be fuzzy for a little while or even not remember where we are, especially if we wake up someplace unfamiliar, like a hotel. (Or a crater on Mars filled with unfinished Spanish homework.) Confusion is “normal because it lasts only a few seconds,” says psychologist Margaret J. King, who studies behavior across cultures to see what’s universal and what’s not as head of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia. “What’s abnormal is if you don’t snap out of it.” Since you did — at least long enough to write a letter — you’re fine.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
I just turned 50 and am having trouble recalling names — even those of people I’ve worked with for years. Recently, I drove to work, parked my car in the lot, and at the end of the day couldn’t remember where I’d left it. Should I be worried?
Worried about what? Oh, right, forgetting things. That’s par for the course for someone your age, says psychologist Alan Hilfer, chief of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. “That’s why people in their 50s and 60s start calling everybody sweetie or champ or buddy. Because they have no idea what the person’s name is.”
Forgetfulness is not even a sign of impending dementia, Hilfer says, unless you can’t remember where you put your shoe “and you open the refrigerator and it’s on the first shelf.” When something like that happens, you should consult a neurologist.
As for not being able to remember where your whatchamacallit is — the thing with wheels, that you drive? That’s so normal, it has become sitcom fodder. “Didn’t you ever watch Seinfeld?” asks Hilfer.
If you don’t remember who Seinfeld is, then maybe it’s time to see one of those guys who wear a white coat and a stethoscope.
NORMAL OR NUTS?
When people are eating, I can’t stand the sound of a fork or spoon clanking on a plate or bowl. I get chills, nauseated, and a headache. I’m also sickened by the sound of people chewing with their mouths open. Is there something wrong with me?
It’s tempting to suggest there is something wrong with everyone else you know. How come they don’t eat with their mouths closed? At the least, you are overly sensitive to minor irritations, says psychologist Pauline Wallin — a sensitivity she understands too well: “When I hear Diane Sawyer’s voice on TV,” she confesses, “I have to run and turn it off, it’s so annoying.”
Minneapolis internist Archelle Georgiou says you may also be suffering from an obscure malady called misophonia. First described in 2001 by Emory University scientists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff, the condition is characterized by a loathing of a range of sounds, such as those made by trains, musical instruments, and people (their breathing, for instance). According to British support group Misophonia UK (misophonia-uk.org), people with the disorder can feel an overwhelming desire “to escape the vicinity of the sound at all costs.”
Try refocusing your attention away from the irritant, Wallin suggests. Concentrate as hard as you can on something else when you eat with your friends: the music in the background, the scene out the window, even — what a concept! — what they’re talking about. You may be able to train yourself to be less bothered by the noise.