Compulsions, and reverse compulsions, and even weirder.


I haven’t talked to a whole lot of people about compulsions, and I’m curious if anyone’s experienced anything like this. I used to have a lot more of them when I was younger, including the classic one about stepping on a line in the sidewalk. I would go to great lengths to avoid stepping on lines in the sidewalk, and was terrified if I missed.

But it did not end there. In reaction to that, I became just as studious about stepping only on lines on the sidewalk. Sort of a reverse of the first compulsion.

And it didn’t even stop there. Then I got a compulsion to very carefully measure my walk so that it appeared that I was walking normally and without regard to lines and spaces, but where I was actually keeping careful track of lines and spaces, and keeping careful track of my stride to make sure that I was just perfectly not-concerned-about-lines-and-spaces in my walking pattern.

I have read not much on the stuff that psychiatry calls OCD (and I’m using psychiatric terminology because I know no other), but I’m curious about whether other people’s compulsions have followed that weird pattern of “compulsion to do something,” “compulsion to do its opposite,” and “compulsion to act as if neither the thing nor its opposite matter”, often switching between all three of them in different orders over time.

Also if anyone’s ever experienced a fascination with a particular (innocent) thing that turns into a revulsion that can’t be shut off. That fascination might be like, watching the particular way cats turn their head when they eat and the sound they make, and insisting on watching it over and over and even imitating it, and then suddenly being so repelled by it that you can’t stand to be in the same room with it or anything that even vaguely resembles it. But where it’s at first an irresistible fascination, then an equally irresistible revulsion, and even worse, a revulsion that you can’t possibly turn away from and find yourself compelled to repeat (such as lip-smacking, where I used to be fascinated by it, now can’t stand it, but sometimes find myself stuck “having” to lip-smack over and over or something because I can’t stand it).

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

23 responses »

  1. I’ve had the EXACT same progression of obsession of not only sidewalk cracks but floor tiles as you have. If I find myself walking on small tiles I can become agitated due to my inability to successfully regulate my walk without drawing attention to it.

    As far as fascinations with innocent things… I was obsessed with the texture of wet gyp rock or generally chalky semi-liquids. I would think about them often and eventually it got to the point where I’d imagine eating them. At this point my brain was able to fill in this imaginary taste with something completely abhorrent and despite how unpleasant it was I couldn’t stop thinking about eating such material. I still flash back to those impulses on occasion which usually results in bouts of nausea that lasts for hours.

  2. I’ve done the walk thing almost exactly as you’ve described it.

    I wonder if its related to obsessively poking a wound to see if it hurts, knowing its going to but ‘having’ to anyway.

  3. I’ve done the stepping very carefully in the squares on pavements, but I think that was more me pretending about the bears :D. More definite compulsions, which still continue today, are making sure I finish on a right side in terms of thinking about numbers or a rhyme. In other words, if I’m walking and I’m thinking about counting, or reciting a poem in my head I have to finish on my right foot. Then I start thinking that if I do, maybe it’ll be bad luck, but I’m not sure whether I should stop, so I tentatively keep going.
    Luckily no-one knows what I’m thinking so I don’t have to try and hide it if I’m on my own.

  4. Wow…I’ve done the line on the sidewalk thing so many times…

    In fact sometimes I find myself doing one of them and realizing about halfway down the block that I’m doing it and have been without noticing for sometime.

    But then I sometimes start to stim without noticing I’m doing it either.

  5. I definitely have experienced the compulsions thing before. Also, if I accidentally came into physical contact with someone I was sitting next to, I would force myself not to move away no matter how much I want to; probably to where I would refuse to move away in situations even someone who didn’t mind touch would have moved! As if a part of me was really concerned about them taking it personally. And yet, when standing, even people I like touching I will try to move away from. Hmm, what about aversions you eventually end up almost craving? And yet one is still ingrained with the habit of avoidance?

  6. Okay, for a period of possibly months when I was about four years old, I somehow equated mere *breathing* with being, uhh, gassy . . . and upon nearly every exhalation when I was awake and alone whispered “Excusemeexcusemeexcusemeexcuseme” under my breath.

    Also (and this is me *currently*), I can “feel” the smell of something I’ve touched on my fingertips, and if it’s a smell that’s offensive to me I can’t think of much of anything else until I scrub off the feeling. And it’s not a germophobe thing; it’s a synaesthesia thing, I suppose.

    (I also have a young cousin who evidently thinks that bad outside smells can invade his food; he’ll cover his food with his hand when he smells something unpleasant — and I kinda have the impulse to do the same thing myself)

    And I do something similar to your thing with the cat eating, only it’s with humans and their tongues. I absolutely abhor watching people do anything with their tongues — and especially if those things they’re doing are intended to be sexy or something. Yet I find myself imitating the motion of the tongue to reinforce how gross it is.

    (Funny thing: my bird’s taken to leaning in close to my face and making a lip-smacking sound — not a kissing sound; he does that too and it’s different, but a beverage-sampling kind of lip-smacking sound. It’s odd, because I’m not a lip-smacker and don’t think either of the other two people in my household is either, so I don’t know where he picked it up. But now we do it together for fun.)

  7. I wonder if that’s some kind of primal reaction, to imitate the source of revulsion to, I dunno, counteract it. I’m thinking specifically about animals displaying territorial behaviors, i.e. dewlap-raising and back-arching in response to dewlap-raising and back-arching . . .

  8. !
    I know what you mean. I’ve never done the first thing you mention, the cycle of three compulsions (at least, not to my knowledge), but I do the compulsion/repulsion thing all the time. Usually it’s with a particular food or music. I’ll want to be constanhtly eating eggs, and then suddenly, eggs make me feel like barfing. And I’ll feel that repulsion for years sometimes. It’s worse with music because I’ll listen nonstop to onje CD and then suddenly that music starts making me feel antsy, edgy, and nervous, but- I still like the music. So it becomes difficult for me to avoid listening to it, but I’m upset when I do listen to it.
    I didn’t know anyone else did that.

  9. Oh, and “compulsion to act as if neither the thing nor its opposite matter” is pretty much what I’ve got going all day long. Except I call it “trying so hard to not look like a weirdo that I look like a weirdo”.

  10. I have the same thing with sidewalks.
    I had a compulsion to walk on lines. Then it changed to a compulsion not to walk on lines, which evolved into a compulsion to step only once on each tile (causing large steps in some cases, to the point where I almost fall over). On some very small tiles, it is instead a compulsion to walk along a line of tiles, diregarding the dividers between tiles on that line but unable to step over the line dividing this row from the next unless I switch to walking along columns.
    All these compulsions can be stopped by looking away from my feet, at which point I walk normally.
    I’m also sometimes bothered by watching other people walk because they don’t follow my rules.

  11. Answer is yes. I have done just that with the lines in the sidewalks. Both stepping and not stepping and later, skipping squares. In Houston, there are few and I miss the clear square sidewalk paths. Some of them would be raised and I knew exactly where they were because I would jump my bike on them. Biking took up a huge amount of my time as a child and I can still remember a few of my favorite sidewalk areas both for irregularity and smoothness.

    Furthermore, I wonder if anyone has had breathing issues compound from having breathing compulsions. That is broken inhales and exhales. It’s something that’s compulsive but really quite aweful and so I think it’s obsessive. Another has to do with fingers for some people in my family. That is, ordered opening and closing.

  12. Some of us have OCD. And we have the stepping on cracks things. When we were 5 we had a dream (probably as a result of watching the Land Before Time) that we were walking and both of our parents were holding our hands, and a crack appeared between our feet, getting bigger and bigger because it was an earthquake and we had to choose quickly between the parents, which we’d stay with and which we’d never see again. We couldn’t choose. So we’ve been very meticulous about cracks ever since, despite knowing full well that stepping on them won’t cause earthquakes, and despite having lived through a mild one which wasn’t frightening or disturbing at all, sort of pleasant almost. (It was quite mild).

    But if we do step on a crack, then we have to step on it with the other foot in exactly the same way. And generally when we walk we do, now that we’re adults and try to keep up some semblage of a normal appearance, try to pace our walking so that it’s not obvious what we’re doing.

    There are even more complicated rules beyond those mentioned involving cracks and tiles and walking but it’d be too long to get into them all.

    Also, having OCD, our compulsions tend to get more and more complex over time, getting more and more complicated as they gradually evolve and take on new meanings or lose meanings until they take hours to do and become so complicated that it would take pages to explain all the intricate and detailed rules involving them. Or sometimes I’ll have an OCD ritual that I do, and then I gradually stop over time, only to have it come back as a new ritual, outwardly completely different but with the same inner purpose.

    As a child, I used to line up my crayons before colouring with them, pick the first two, choose the one that most matched my feelings, put the other one back in the box and colour with the one that matched, the put it at the end of the line and went through it again and again and again until there was only one crayon left and then I knew that I was feeling blue violet or sea green.

    Now as an adult I spend hours doing almost the exact same thing with a playlist of music on my computer, with a playlist setup from ever more complicated rules, all in a specific order (the computer is smart enough to sort them for me), then starting with the first song, choosing a song in a limited set (the exact number dependent on complicated rules) of songs and removing it, then when the next song starts playing, sorting the songs either by alphabetical order or tracklength (depending on something that would take pages to explain) and then removing another song, and so on and so forth until I’m ideally (Though with sometimes upwards of 150 songs in the starting playlist i rarely get there anymore) left with one song, and then I’ll know that that songs matches what I’m feeling, so I’ll know what I’m feeling. and since music is coloured, I’ll also know what colour is the music that I’m feeling, and since colours have feelings too, I’ll gain more insight. into my feelings. this music business started very simply with one or two rules and a desire to listen to more variety on my computer and to have the songs i like have a higher play count.

    oh and the thing that Farsons mentioned, I totally do things like that.

  13. Oh, yeah — and I was on a kick for a while, and still am occasionally, of speaking or thinking words in syllable groups of five, counting them out on my right hand, pinky finger to thumb, and always insisting on ending on the thumb. (Though I conceded to allowing really momentous words a count of the full five fingers as one, which permitted six-syllable phrases, i.e. “God save those born to die”, with “God” getting the whole hand.)

    Augh, man, thanks so much for this post! I don’t think I’ve ever confessed these compulsions to anybody before . . . it’s so freeing!

  14. These things have faded a lot as I’ve gotten older, but I have done the cracks in the concrete thing, and with the progression from pattern to intentional non-pattern. (One I is called “eye contact,” heh.) And, sometimes there’d be an intermediate phase of more complicated patterns; like a 5:4 ratio of steps to cracks.
    Also walked on curbs a lot. And light switches had to be cycled 3, 5, 7 or 9 times (like the guy in “As Good as it Gets” does with door locks.)

    Transitions to from fascination to revulsions I don’t recall having. I can’t stand the sensation of wood on my teeth (i.e. popsicle sticks), but that feeling of that would pop into my mind over and over. I never liked that sensation, but I suppose I was kind of fascinated by it. Also, for a time, there was a really unpleasant image of a needle piercing my finger tip (like clear though and out the other side). There’d be a jolt, and flash of pain. What’s odd is that never happened, so I don’t know where the imagery came from.

    There were so many other things — my handwriting is bad, so if a letter was mis-formed I’d have to erase it and start over, but then the fuzziness of the erased-on paper would make the letter look sloppy, so I’d erase & re-draw again and again until there’d be a hole in the paper. If I didn’t get started doing that I wouldn’t seem to get stuck in the compulsion, though.

    Nowadays all that is 95% gone, though.

  15. Okay, I don’t have autism or Aspergers or OCD or ADD or anything,


    There’s certain kinds of patterns (most strongly a semi-regular pattern full of holes, like a chestnut burr with the spines taken out) where I feel an intense urge to stare and at the same time this bizaare irrational fear of staring, like if I look too long and too deeply something awful is going to happen. I almost always wind up looking away, forcing my eyes to avoid the whatever, so I don’t get sucked in. Irregular honeycomb-looking things are the worst. I have absolutely no idea why.

    I also occasionally sort things for relaxation. Pick through a mix of beads and separate them by color, alphabetize my music collection, things like that. It’s not a compulsion, just a comforting thing to do. And while I can eat colored candies (like M&Ms) without sorting them by color, I really prefer to.

  16. The description of the fascination/revulsion thing sounds very familiar to me pattern-wise, but I don’t think I’ve experienced anything exactly like that. I have, however, experienced OCD-like stuff, especially as a kid — for example, I was extremely emetophobic, to the point of having counting rituals I would do silently every night in the hopes that somehow they would keep me from throwing up. I’m still not a big puking fan (I’ve actually only done so once since I was 7 years old…I’d had a 14-year “record” I was weirdly proud of until I got mono at age 21) but I am nowhere near as fearful about it as I was as a kid.

    I actually think a lot of that fear was tied into the fact that I never knew when I was sick until it was, um, really obvious, so I developed all these superstitions about what was likely to make me sick and what made me sick, etc. Like, if I got sick when wearing a particular shirt I’d never want to wear that shirt again, because I’d think it was “cursed” or something like that. Eventually I realized I was being superstitious and that there was no empirical evidence that clothing or rituals could actually have any effect on whether I got sick or not, so that was the end of that, but it did last a number of years in childhood.

    I also used to be afraid of certain buildings — like a local discount store in CT, and (for a while) the public library where I grew up. At the time, all I knew was that I didn’t want to go into them and that I had a horrible feeling of dread associated with them. I do remember, though, at one point realizing that my issues with the library had to do with “the lighting”, and looking back, I remember that that building did have some nasty horrid flickery fluorescent illumination. So I sort of wonder if whether in my case, the OCD-ish-ness was mainly related to (a) trying to feel like I had control over my body (since being sick was a very traumatic experience for me), and (b) having sensory issues but not knowing what they were. Either way, I don’t doubt that I may have been diagnosably OCD as a child, but I don’t think I’m that way now…perseverations feel very qualitatively different from obsessions. :)

  17. Yeah, we have had a few times where we tried to ‘cancel out’, sort of, a compulsion to do a certain thing by doing its opposite. Gone from avoiding stepping on cracks to deliberately stepping on them, etc. Sometimes it seemed to evolve over a long period of time– a few years down the road, we’d find ourselves doing just the opposite of what we had started out having to do or not do.

    I wish I could say more about this, but it’s hard to open up about it, partly because at one point we had a lot of ‘delusional’ (in the sense that they’d be perceived that way by psychiatry, not that I myself find the word particularly useful) ideas around what would happen if we did and didn’t do certain things, ideas that we could control whether people lived or died and affect things in other parts of the world. Hard to get close to that. Not because I am ashamed. It is just personal, and tangled, and complex, and hard to explain in the details.

    …and then, also, there’s the fact that since we no longer do most of the things we did when doctors considered us to have “very bad OCD,” and can generally predict when we’re going to start tending towards those behaviors again, we fear talking about it at all because of that entire business about “Well, if you really have stopped feeling/doing those things, and you went off your medications, and don’t see a therapist about it, then you must not have ever had real OCD or ever have been severely afflicted. You obviously never had the real version of it.” …even if our “fake version” at one point resembled ideas of the “real version” in every way, from washing our hands dozens of times a day to spending hours doing certain things to try to keep certain thoughts and mental images away.

  18. I have breathing compulsions during flashbacks (breath-holding until I force a breath past then holding again, alternating with really fast breathing). I suspect is sometimes aggravates my asthma, but it’s hard to tell because my asthma is really mild.
    On a tangent, for several days I’ve found my asthma is really bad when I’m trying to get to sleep, and then yesterday I noted little black spots of mold on my pillow.

  19. Oh, totally sort the M&Ms by color. You’re supposed to, right? ; ) I also have an M&M hierarchy, the green ones (though I alternately adore and abhor the blue ones) being by far superior. I think experts and laymen alike would agree.

    I was talking to Leif about how I once wasted nearly 45 minutes at work because I couldn’t stop admiring the aesthetics of a curl in a piece of clip art — and he told me that the idea of those Celtic crosses with all the ornate patterns carved on them was to assist people in achieving some kind of spiritual trance — y’know, by staring at ’em. I did not know that.

    And O convenient woe to us — we both have very curly hair!

    Oh, AND — gonna shut up real soon — I must, upon creating any text document, hit at least one (preferably two) returns before I begin typing letters. I also skip down a number of spaces on handwritten notes. I can’t stand any written document that doesn’t have a nice fat letterhead. I even skip down a couple of spaces when I enter comments on this site, though I don’t believe it ever translates in HTML. Though I’m still fairly satisfied with the spacing on these pages . . . nice’n’even. : P

  20. I don’t have the revulsion thing.

    My compulsions have decreased as I’ve gotten older.

    One thing that’s happened in the past 8 months or so is that when I’m walking with my 5-year-old son, who is paying attention to the sidewalk and either avoiding cracks or stepping on all of them, I need a few steps to observe his pattern, and then I match it, or we get all out of sync in the walking. And there’s something relaxing about getting into his pattern, joining him in his compulsion.

  21. Yeah. We do. Not sure who has a more pronounced case of that, myself or Athena. It’s nice to find our common experience typed out so articulately. Most of it is a common experience at least for Athena……….what happened was, things that she/I felt compelled to do when we were younger, we can’t stand them now, or at least I can’t stand them from a logical or some other point of view……….

    Sometimes being too logical is a setback for being able to chill out and just simply be. I’ll very openly admit that.


  22. I don’t know about the cycling of compulsions, but I’ve got some compulsion-type things of my own that I keep getting reminded of because people think, when they notice them, that they’re so out there. Like how, when I’m out walking, I can’t step on metal things (like manhole covers or sewer grates) that are on/part of the ground. And when I have no choice but to do so (like when I have to go up or down an escalator and thus have to step on the metal grating at the top and bottom, plus the steps themselves), even inside my shoes or sandels my feet automatically arch so that the least amount of foot possible “touches” (since my actual foot is only touching the shoe or sandel itself) the metal. Stepping on metal things like that makes me feel so very uncomfortable, as does watching others do so. Oddly enough, I shudder even when the vehicle I’m driving or riding in goes over something metal on the road.

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