Are You Nuts? Compare Your Strange Behaviors

Do you twirl your hair? Count ceiling tiles? Can’t ever make a choice?

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.

Question:

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.”

Question:
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.

Question:
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.

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.

Question:
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.”

Question:
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.

Question:
Sometimes I feel like I’m falling. Doesn’t matter what I’m doing — sitting, standing or lying down. I never actually fall, but I feel like I am. Is that nuts?

All our experts have the same advice: Go see your doctor this week. There are a dozen possible causes for your condition, from an innocuous side effect of a medicine you might be taking to a dangerous brain tumor. There’s no way to know unless you see your physician, who may order brain scans and refer you to a neurologist. This is serious. Please make that appointment.

Question:
Why do I waste energy worrying about stupid things that couldn’t possibly happen, especially when I’m lying in bed in the middle of the night? I have full-blown scenarios of how I’ll be captured by insurgents and tortured. I have a plan to survive should the wings fall off the airplane when I fly. And I know exactly what I’ll say if I ever get fired. I know intellectually about the insurgents and the plane wings, and my boss just gave me a raise. So why do I always expect and plan for the very worst?

Psychologists and psychiatrists saw a surge of anxiety about terrorism after 9/11. There really are people trying to kill us, and some measure of anxiety is natural and understandable. In fact, says Joseph Himmelsbach, PhD, a psychologist at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, “to be totally anxiety free is an impossibility. Indeed, part of the work you do in therapy is to handle the stress that’s just part of everyday life.” But it sounds like you may work yourself into more of a lather than you need to, especially if you’re losing sleep worrying in the middle of the night. Adds Himmelsbach, “You’ve developed a fantasy that’s a receptacle for all your anxieties. And you think if you can come up with a solution to these fantasies, you can delude yourself that you can deal with anything that comes along.”

It’s good you can recognize that these scenarios could not possibly happen. Gitlin notes you should also recognize that your plans “wouldn’t work anyway.” He wonders if you’re not like some hypochondriacs, “people who, if they have a cough, think they have lung cancer. Anxious people, probably because of some link in the brain we don’t yet understand, gravitate toward a catastrophic interpretation of events.”

If your worry is occasional, see if you can reason your way out of it. But if you feel it’s more in control than you are, consider talking to a trusted friend or therapist. If your anxiety spikes into panic attacks, see your doctor. There are meds for this.

Question:
I hate choosing things. When I grab a spoon out of the drawer, I have a hard time picking one, even though they’re all the same. Then, when I finally choose a spoon, I feel bad for all the others. I even sort of apologize to them: “Sorry, guys. Next time!” Is this weird?

Hooo-eeee! Our experts made a smorgasbord out of you, and they each picked a different spoon. While Perman sees a wounded soul and “a great sensitivity that has arisen out of being hurt, omitted or neglected,” Wymes thinks you’re awfully self-involved: “It’s narcissistic to think the spoons would want to be exposed to your cuisine.”

Joshua Coleman, PhD, a San Francisco psychologist and author, on the other hand, doubts that you’re standing up for yourself in arenas more vital than the silverware drawer. “To be successful, you have to be decisive about what you want in your life and career. You need to know when to prioritize your own needs,” he says.

And Beresin wonders, “Is this a joke? Do you apologize to rakes in the shed? Pencils on the desk? Products that you don’t buy at the store? Magical thinking — that is, believing that inanimate objects have feelings — is normal for a four-year-old. But it’s definitely not normal for an adult.” Since you’re such a feast for the psychological mind, you might consider talking to a professional. You won’t have to apologize to him.

Question:
Why am I incapable of throwing things out? I still have my full wardrobe from the 1970s. It’d be a movie costumer’s dream if it weren’t all moth-eaten. And I never throw out a computer — our attic houses four of them now. My family makes me throw out the newspapers, but I hate it. I always think, We might need that! Am I nuts?

Well, Freud would call you anal-retentive. You may well have pack-rat syndrome, or pathological hoarding. Pack rats feel the world is out of whack if they don’t have all their things, often meaning anything that’s ever passed into their possession. Pathological hoarding is related to OCD, and in both, it’s a futile attempt to control something in an unstable world.

At the extreme, says Gitlin, “people who are truly pathological hoarders can’t get into their house, they’re crippled by it, not able to find things, making their dwellings into major fire hazards.” Your problem sounds less severe than that, but it’s all a question of degree. Your family may well have a better perspective, and if they say you need help, listen to them.

For this behavior, as for most of the others here, “there are no absolute criteria,” says Nando Pelusi, PhD, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Manhattan. Psychological problems are contextual, “so we have to look at the whole picture. Something might be just an emotional quirk, or it might be truly unhelpful.” Since there are no hard-and-fast rules, you and your family have to decide for yourselves. “When people decide it’s dangerous or disturbing,” says Pelusi, “that’s when they give therapists like me a call.”

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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