People Say I’m Weird; I Do Feel Quite Strange

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Reader’s Question

I am a 16-year-old girl and it has recently been pointed out to me a lot how…weird I am. People say I’m too paranoid and I’m too much of a perfectionist. I’m also noticing other things that I’m beginning to feel freaked out about.

First, I have ‘quirks’ that are quite strange. The things I do…well…I eat chips in order of size, small to big; there’s no reason. I eat things like peas in even numbers. I don’t like odd numbers except multiples of 5, and the number 3. Volumes on TVs have to be even or a multiple of 5.

I like to count a lot, and touch. I walked by a candle display once and stopped to count them, tapping them in a rhythm: 1 2 3, 4 5 6, 7 8 9… If it didn’t end on the third number or an even number or a multiple of five, it would feel ‘off.’

I like symmetry and neatness. Everything has a place and it stays there. Like in school, pens at the top right then, moving left, pencils, rubber and ruler. Sheets on the left, parallel to the edge, with the one I’m writing on in the middle of the table.

I’m a very ‘paranoid’ person. If I can’t get something right about myself and leave the house, then people are staring at me; they are laughing and whispering. They laugh at a scuff on my shoe or a wrong colored hair slide from the rest. Other people don’t care how people see them; but they could have weapons, looking to kill someone — and why not the weird girl?

I freak out if people follow me when I’m walking. When they start to catch up I get worse. I close my eyes as they pass. I’ve not been jumped yet though.

There is someone in my room. I keep…’feeling’ him, and can’t get to sleep; or I wake up, heart pounding.

I think people don’t like me and think me weird. Can you blame them? They are loved ones who don’t love back. Could this explain the thoughts I’ve had? ‘Your best friend is dead.’ ‘Kick your 1-year-old cousin in the head.’ ‘Stab your sister with that knife you’re drying.’ I hate these thoughts! They appear suddenly and won’t leave until I do things like clean or organize things and revise my schoolwork.

I think about death sometimes. “Am I better dead?” “How would I do it?” Or I think of myself in accidents or murdered. Today a thought went through my head, “Someone kill me. Someone kill me. Someone kill me.” Why?

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I can’t keep still. People tell me to stop bouncing or swinging, but I can’t help it! And I get songs stuck in my head all the time! They don’t leave until new ones replace them.

I haven’t been diagnosed with anything, nor taken drugs or alcohol.

Am I normal?

Psychologist’s Reply

You ask if you are normal, and that is an interesting question. Some might say that it is ‘normal’ to have problems or even mental health concerns, because it is such a common experience. However, I know that you are wondering whether the thoughts and behavior patterns you have noticed are typical of all people. Without discussing what you are experiencing with you in person, there is much room for error. Perfectionism or paranoid thoughts by themselves do not mean that you are abnormal. If we met in person I would be exploring with you how strongly you believe the thoughts (e.g. “there is someone in my room” or “I must look perfect or they will kill me”) and how these thoughts affect you on a daily basis. I would encourage you to discuss your experiences with a professional if the paranoia becomes so overwhelming that you are feeling too fearful to function as you need to. Also, if you are aware of hearing or seeing things that others do not hear or see, you would probably benefit from consulting with a mental health professional.

The other pieces that you described in your post sound like obsessions and compulsions, which are typically part of an anxiety disorder called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). (Again, it is always a good idea to take my one-shot opinion to a professional who knows you well!)

Obsessions are repeated, unwanted thoughts and images that enter the mind. People can have obsessions about various things, including contamination, violence or aggression (e.g. hurting someone), or the need to have things just right. Obsessions can also be religious or sexual in nature. One thing all obsessions have in common is that they are very upsetting to the person who is having them. In your case, one example of an obsession would be the thought about harming your sister.

You also mentioned that you are counting in your head, sorting objects, eating in a ritualistic way, checking, and touching things. These behaviors sound like compulsions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) defines a compulsion as a repetitive behavior or mental act that one feels driven to perform in order to prevent or reduce distress, or to prevent some dreaded situation. Some common compulsions are hand washing, touching something, checking (e.g. to see if something is closed or off), counting, or repeating words silently. Again, in your case, the distress that you feel related to the thought about harming your sister is reduced once you have organized or cleaned your possessions.

Obsessions and compulsions go hand in hand. For example, if someone obsesses about contamination, he might compulsively wash his hands after touching anything, up to hundreds of times per day. Washing reduces the perceived likelihood of contamination, and therefore relieves anxiety (temporarily). In other cases, the connection between the obsession and the compulsion does not make intuitive sense. For example, your thoughts about harming family members create the need to clean or organize until it ‘feels right.’

You did not mention how often the obsessions and compulsions occur or how long they last. Part of having OCD is that the presence of the obsessions or compulsions themselves causes distress, they take more than one hour per day, or they significantly disrupt your daily routine. The good news is that OCD is a highly treatable disorder, with both therapy and medication. If you would like to seek professional help, it would probably be best to find a therapist who specializes in treating OCD. The particular type of cognitive behavioral therapy that a specialist would likely provide is called exposure and response prevention (ERP). With this treatment, you would learn to cope with the discomfort triggered when things are not just right (exposure) without engaging in the compulsion to sort, order, or touch things (response prevention). This will take some practice and persistence on your part, but many have successfully learned to manage their symptoms of OCD.

Another treatment option is psychotropic medication. Your medical provider could be a first stop for a referral to a psychiatrist who can talk to you about what you are experiencing and find the right medication for you. People can begin with therapy or medication, or do both together.

If you would like more information about OCD, check out the International OCD Foundation. You can find referrals for therapists, recommendations for self-help books, and information about whether there are support groups in your area.

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