Dear readers, thank you for sharing. After our first “Normal or Nuts?” article ran in April 2006, hundreds of you submitted the strange little things you do, and we can now say with confidence: You are one crazy bunch of cats. Some of you harbor irrational fears. Some have an overwrought sense of guilt; others, an overarching sense of privilege. You suffer from anxiety, calm, depression, elation, anger and love. But, of course, we all do, for we are all human, flawed and colorful in our own way. When you get right down to it, there’s no such thing as “normal.”
But we should distinguish between unusual behaviors we can tolerate and troublesome patterns we should try to fix. The line between quirk and crisis is very thin. To help us out, we presented your submissions to top psychiatrists and psychologists for analysis. So here, dear readers, is the professional assessment of just how nuts you are.
Why do I twirl my hair with one finger whenever I read? I never do this except when I’m reading. What’s up with that?
Just be glad you don’t have trichotillomania, the impulse to pull out your hair in clumps — from your head, eyebrows and other fuzzy body parts. Your behavior is just a quirk, not harmful and probably quite helpful. Chances are you developed your bookish hair twirling as a body-language clue to people around you. What does your finger in your locks say? It says, “Leave me alone! I’m reading.” According to Yale psychologist Marianne LaFrance, PhD, “Self-manipulation habits like hair twirling are a subtle message to others to stay away. If someone is constantly checking fingernails or tapping a toe, you get the idea she doesn’t want to talk to you.”
I’m 47, and I love to rub satin. As a child, I would rub the satin on my blanket while sucking my thumb. Now I carry a satin hankie with me everywhere, and I can rub it in my pocket. It always calms me down. Is that nuts?
Not at all, says Lori Perman, PsyD, a licensed therapist with a private practice in Santa Monica, California. “Most of us never outgrow the need for comfort — we just get it in ways more ‘adult’ than dragging around a baby blankie like Linus.” Indeed, if we didn’t find ways to relax in this stressful world, we’d go nuts. And plenty of adults pursue unhealthy comforts such as smoking or overeating. A little private satin rubbing never hurt anyone.
I count everything: the stairs at work (23), tiles on the ceiling (96), ruffles in the curtain (14). At the dentist, I even count the repetitions of the flowers on the wallpaper! I know I must be nuts.
A love of counting can be just a quirk, even a beneficial one, notes Doris Wild Helmering, a psychotherapist and author in St. Louis. “What better way to distract yourself from the picking and grinding than counting the flowers in the dentist’s office?” But some people find that obsessive counting (arithmomania) interferes with their lives and that they can’t control it. These poor Count von Counts probably suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), says Eugene Beresin, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard.
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The real question is whether you’re in control of your counting, or it’s in control of you. Beresin suggests, “Ask yourself, What would happen if I stopped counting? Would bad things happen? Would you feel anxious?” For some people with OCD, the most effective treatment is a combination of antidepressants and behavioral therapy with a trained psychiatrist.
Whether I’m walking in the mall or driving on the highway, I can’t stand to be next to people going at the same pace. I have to speed up to pass them or slow down to let them move ahead. Is that weird?
Nope, not at all. Or in the more formal language of Michael Gitlin, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, “I’m unaware that that’s related to serious psychopathology. I’ve had the same experience myself.” LaFrance notes that “finding yourself being right next to someone feels like intimate behavior, and when that person is a stranger, that intimacy is unnerving.”
I’m a teenage girl, and it drives me crazy to have my food touching! I need separate plates for the meat, the potato, the veggie — and a different fork too. My mom says it’s annoying for her to make all those arrangements, but it’s my food, right?
Mom wins our sympathy on this one. Almost all our experts think that you should seek help. This isn’t normal, and it’s not harmless, because your mom is put out by it. Given just your three sentences, our experts came up with several possible reasons for your behavior:
You may have a form of anorexia nervosa, notes Beresin, who specializes in eating disorders and says aversion to foods touching is a common symptom. Or you might be suffering from OCD. Yet a third possibility, notes Michael Wymes, MD, a psychiatrist for Kaiser in Vallejo, California, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You’re not autistic, per se, but you may have autistic tendencies. While people with OCD may fear contamination from food touching, these ASD sufferers have no logical explanation for their aversion. People with ASD make idiosyncratic rules about the universe, such as “Food must be separated,” and it drives them nuts when it isn’t.
Whatever the cause of your behavior, it may get worse as you age and likely won’t be resolved without treatment. Ask yourself what will happen when you go out on a date. Will you demand that the kitchen send you five plates and five forks? Good luck getting a second date.