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Tuesday, August 7, 2007WHY SHE KEEP LAPTOP IN THE OVEN?
Sometimes life is like the movies: just when you think the world is going end, a deus ex machina steps in and magically everything is okay.
Today I come rushing home because it's the end of the semester and I have finals coming up and I need to write two papers tonight so that I can go camping this holiday weekend with peace of mind so I get home and GIL says, hey honey, you're just in time! I'm cooking french fries!
Oh that's good, I say, because I haven't eaten yet and I have all this work to do. Let me just put my bike away. I walk into the kitchen and notice my computer's not on the kitchen table. Which. Means. It's.... oh, SHIT!!!!
I open the over door. No fries. Just one miserable looking laptop. (STOP: EXPLANATION OF WHY I KEEP MY LAPTOP IN THE OVEN: I keep it there because I live in a high crime area in a house with windows that don't even lock. I figure the oven's actually a very safe place. Who would think to look there for valuables? and if the house burns down the computer'd be okay. The system worked just fine when I was living alone.)
My screams cause GIL to drop his book and come running.
I accomplish all of the following in under 3.8 minutes:
think of all the data I lost in addition to the machine itself
wonder how I'll get my papers done
hate myself for thinking the oven would be a good storage place
hate GIL for not remembering that I keep it in there (I told him TWICE! you'd THINK he'd remember something like that!)
fall to the floor beating my fists on my legs
pace the room
plan how to get a new laptop before the end of the semester even though both of us are so broke we can't even buy enough groceries to get us through the month
resolve not to permanently ruin GIL's relationship with my parents by telling them that he cooked the laptop they gave me for Christmas
yell at myself
yell at GIL
cancel our weekend plans
It's 2:30 in the afternoon. I just got home from class have tons of work to do before we leave for the Thanksgiving holiday and I nearly lost my computer. It was cooked. In the oven. At roughly 300 degrees. For about five minutes.
Here's what it looks like:
But the story's not over. I'm happy to report that I am not typing this from my boyfriend's computer.
I'm working from the melted laptop you see above. When we set it on the table to inspect the damage and noticed that the little green light was flashing. We pressed the button. Welcome, it says. Then it starts Windows. We breath a sigh of relief until it goes to a black screen and displays the following message:
"Your computer powered off because it overheated. This may be caused by... [list of a number of things I don't remember just that oven cooking was not one of them]. Please wait while we readjust your settings". Then the desktop appeared and it was back. It even found the wireless signal and connected.
Can you believe it? IT'S FINE!!! The thing is completly fine! Apparently, for as awful as it looks, the only melted thing is the casing. I'm told we could just buy a new case for it.
I have never felt such raw, pure emotions as I felt then. When you literally feel all the cliches associated with a particular feeling. A flood of relief swept over me. I felt weak at the knees. I think I am still shaking.
Even the most stable brain operates just a millimeter from madness. In such a finely tuned cognitive engine, only a small part must start to sputter before the whole machine comes crashing down. When that happens, reason and function come undone, rarely as dramatically as in the neurochemical storm that is obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Say you leave work at 6 p.m. for what should be a 12-minute drive home. Say just as you're pulling onto the street, a child on a bicycle crosses in front of you. A few feet later, you feel the thump of a pothole. But what if it wasn't a pothole? Suppose you hit the child. You look in your rearview mirror, and all is clear, but can you be sure? So you circle back around the block. Still clear--except for a lumpy bag of leaves on the curb. But is it a bag or a child? So you circle once more. Four hours later, you finally arrive home, mutter something to your spouse about a late meeting and go to bed spent and ashamed. Tomorrow you'll do it all over again.
Devoting an entire evening to a 12-minute drive is not the only way to know you've got obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). You know it when you shrink from the sight of a kitchen knife, worried that you'll inexplicably snatch it up and hurt yourself or a family member. You know it when leaving the house consumes hours of your day because the pillows on your bed must be placed just right. You know it when you can't leave the house at all for fear of a vast and vague contamination that you can't even name.
We all think we know what OCD is, and most of the time we're all wrong. It's the nervous guy from Monk; it's cranky Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. In the end, though, things usually work out for them. They even get the girl, who sees them as a kind of adorable emotional fixer-upper.
But OCD isn't adorable. About 7 million adults, teens and children in the U.S. are now thought to have it in one form or another, and their pain is far worse than you probably know. What's more, since one family member disabled by the disorder can destabilize an entire household, a single diagnosed case can mean several collateral victims. Worse, OCD is a condition that often masquerades as other things. It is routinely labeled depression, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, even schizophrenia. Victims often conceal their problem for years, ensuring that no diagnosis--right or wrong--can begin to be made.
With the twin obstacles of secrecy and mislabeling, the average lag time between the onset of the disorder and a proper diagnosis is now a shocking nine years, according to surveys of doctors conducted by the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, a 21-year-old organization with headquarters in New Haven, Conn. It takes an average of eight additional years before effective treatment is prescribed. If the disorder strikes a young person, as it often does, that can mean an entire childhood lost to illness. "OCD has had a slow research start," says Gerald Nestadt, co-director of the OCD clinic at Johns Hopkins University. "It's behind schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and ADHD."
But all that is changing. A burst of new genetics studies is turning up insights into the causes of the disorder. Scanning technologies are pinpointing the parts of the brain that trigger the symptoms. New treatments are being developed. And refinements of old treatments, like talk and behavioral therapy, are proving more effective than ever.
"Everyone has intrusive thoughts, but most people consider them meaningless and can move on with their lives," says psychologist Sabine Wilhelm, associate professor at the Harvard Medical School and director of the OCD clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. "For people with OCD, the thoughts become their lives. We can give those lives back to them."
THE ROOTS OF OBSESSION
ON THE WHOLE, A LITTLE ANXIETY IS A VERY good thing. It was not enough for humans in the state of nature to know there was no lion near the family cave; they also had to be able to imagine all the other places a lion could lurk. The same is true for other eccentricities of human behavior. Our anxiety about all the ways harm may befall someone else keeps us mindful of the safety of family and community. "There's a creative, what-if quality to this thinking," says clinical psychologist Jonathan Grayson of the Anxiety and Agoraphobia Treatment Center in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. "It's evolutionarily valuable."
Something woven so tightly into the genome is not likely to be shaken loose by a few thousand years of modern living. But that doesn't mean every person with eccentric traits--the woman in the office next to yours who keeps her desk impeccably neat and gets edgy if something is moved out of place, for example--has OCD. "Having these OCD-like traits is a universal experience," says Judith Rapoport, author of the landmark book The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing and chief of child psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health. "I sometimes count on my fingers when I have nothing to count." The key to diagnosing whether such behavior is authentic OCD is how great an impact the behavior has on your life. "You have to show longstanding interference with function, and that eliminates most people," Rapoport explains.
What causes some people to suffer that interference and most not? Why does their internal alarm keep shouting "Lion!" long after they've checked every place a lion could plausibly be? The answer has always been thought to lie principally in a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain called the amygdala--the place where danger is processed and evaluated. It stands to reason that if this risk center is overactive, it would keep on alerting you to peril even after you've attended to the problem.
As it turns out, the amygdala is indeed a big player in the pathological process of OCD but only one of several players. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other scanning technologies have allowed researchers to peer deeper than ever into the OCD-tossed brain. In addition to the amygdala, there are three other anatomical hot spots involved in the disorder: the orbital frontal cortex, the caudate nucleus and the thalamus--the first two seated high in the brain, the third lying deeper within.
"Those areas are linked along a circuit," says Dr. Sanjaya Saxena, director of the OCD program at the University of California at San Diego. It's the job of that wiring to regulate your response to the stimuli around you, including how anxious you are in the face of threatening or frustrating things. "That circuit," says Saxena, "is abnormally active in people with OCD.
Why would David Vitter, a U.S. senator with four young children, have gotten involved with a seedy escort service? Why would Michael Vick, a gifted NFL quarterback, get mixed up with the sordid world of dog fighting? Why would Bill Clinton, a Rhodes scholar, six-time governor and president of the United States at 46, have an affair with an intern in the Oval Office?
It isn't just men behaving badly. Remember Lisa Nowak, the married NASA astronaut who drove from Houston to Orlando (wearing diapers so she wouldn't have to make bathroom stops, police said) allegedly in order to kidnap her rival in a love triangle?
Whenever these scandals break, the rest of us shake our heads and ask, "What were they thinking?"
That feeling of incredulity is now the subject of a growing body of research. It isn't just that people find it difficult to understand or empathize with others who do crazy things. People find it very difficult to imagine how they themselves would behave when strong emotions are involved.
Studies have found that, for some reason, an enormous mental gulf separates "cold" emotional states from "hot" emotional states. When we are not hungry or thirsty or sexually aroused, we find it difficult to understand what effects those factors can have on our behavior. Similarly, when we are excited or angry, it is difficult to think about the consequences of our behavior -- outcomes that are glaringly obvious when we are in a cold emotional state.
Vitter (R-La.), for example, demanded in late June that the Title V Abstinence Education program be reauthorized: "These programs have been shown to effectively reduce the risks of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by teaching teenagers that saving sex until marriage and remaining faithful afterwards is the best choice for health and happiness," he declared.
A little more than two weeks later, Vitter was apologizing for a "serious sin" in his past, after his telephone number was found among the telephone lists of the alleged D.C. Madam. Hypocrisy? Possibly. But if the research is accurate, what it suggests is that Vitter-the-policymaker probably finds Vitter-the-escort-service-
client as incomprehensible as everyone else does.
"We tend to exaggerate the importance of willpower," said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied the phenomenon of hot and cold emotional states and the surprisingly diverse implications of the gulf that separates them.
Many health resolutions, for example, are made when people are in a cold state. But while they may intellectually grasp the temptation of a potato chip or a cigarette, they do not appreciate in advance how visceral the desire can be -- which is why many resolutions fail when put to the test.
Psychologist Louis Giordano once asked heroin addicts on a maintenance course of the heroin substitute buprenorphine whether they would prefer an extra dose five days later or a sum of money. He found that when addicts were asked the question right before they got a dose -- when their craving was highest -- they valued the extra dose more than twice as much as addicts who had just taken their buprenorphine. The addicts who were in a craving state viscerally understood how much they would want the extra dose later; the satiated addicts, on the other hand, overestimated how easily they could do without the fix.
Similarly, when cancer researcher Maurice Slevin quizzed medical professionals about whether they would endure grueling chemotherapy to extend their lives by only a few months, fewer than one in 10 said it was worth it -- they were evaluating the question in a cold state. When he asked patients who actually had cancer the same question -- these were dying people who were in a very hot state -- nearly half said a few more weeks of life was worth the pain of chemo.
The empathy gulf between hot and cold states, Loewenstein said, might also explain why many patients are undertreated for pain. Patients viscerally experience their agony; doctors who are coolly evaluating the situation have to make a leap of imagination across the gulf that separates hot and cold states.
Other experiments have found that shoppers at grocery stores spend more when they are hungry than they do when they are full.
The empathy gap between hot and cold states not only keeps people from realizing how prone they can be to temptation but from enjoying things as much as they could: Marriage therapists, for instance, find that couples who report being uninterested in sex are usually surprised to find how much they enjoy intimacy once an encounter takes place. Couples in a cold state don't realize how they will feel once they are in a hot state.
Loewenstein said his research made it difficult for him to serve on a university disciplinary committee, because he now empathizes with students who make mistakes in the heat of the moment. And when big public scandals break, he automatically thinks about the empathy gap that prompts so many people to be judgmental of others.
"Most people have their own vices," he said. "When we are dealing with our vices, we are shortsighted, impulsive and make ridiculous sacrifices to satisfy our vices. But when we see other people succumbing to their vices, we think, 'How pathetic.' "