I’m a Teen Obsessed with Adults’ Ages

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Reader’s Question

I am a teenager with many obsessions, the most prominent being adults’ ages. Every time I see a new adult, I want to know his or her age. I’ve done stupid things because of this, including anonymously e-mailing my teacher who was lying about her age to tell her I knew the truth and threatened to tell everyone at school. I later told her who I was and apologized. Needless to say I get very upset when people lie about their ages. I can’t describe how important ages are to me; there are just no words to explain it.

Even though my absolute biggest obsession is ages, and I’ve had that one for more than four years, I also have multiple miscellaneous obsessions including specific incidents. I hold grudges against myself and others for things that happened years ago, things that most people have forgotten about a long time ago. Then there’s the episode of major depression I had last summer and I’m still trying to understand why I broke down. My major thing at the moment is I want to stop obsessing.

Psychologist’s Reply

Obsessions are intrusive thoughts that we simply can’t control. They’re considered a clinical problem when they interfere with our functioning or we are bothered by them. That certainly seems to be true for you, and the fact that you have multiple types of obsessive thoughts, and have so for years, strongly suggests the presence of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The predominant theories as to the root of OCD involve the assumption that some people, due to their genetic make-up, have brains in which the sense of impending danger is triggered without an external reason for it. In other words, if a typical person sees an infant crawling precariously close to the edge of a cliff, that person should feel a sense of anxiety, which would motivate the individual to do something to remove the infant from harm. But what if those same sorts of feelings were triggered during routine life?

To make sense out of the feeling of anxiety, the person with OCD naturally channels that anxiety through obsessions, which very often involve potential harm (from accidents, germs or contamination, leaving an appliance on so that it catches fire, etc.). The anxiety motivates the individual to perform whatever behavior would logically remove the harm (e.g., washing, checking the appliances). The problem is that the source of the anxiety is not the actual situation, but the faulty switch in the person’s brain. So, the anxiety continues despite engaging in the compulsive activity.

Each person’s experience of OCD is different, as are their obsessions and compulsions. For example, for you, seeing a new adult is attached to experience of anxiety over not knowing that person’s age, which prompts the compulsive behavior of trying to find the answer. The important point to recognize is that the obsessions originate in brain chemistry, and that intervention starts there with appropriate medication. The typical medications for OCD increase the functioning of the serotonin receptors, which is the same approach for treating depression (which may help explain both the cause of your recent depression and how to prevent recurrences). Behaviorally, it will be important to eventually practice not giving into the obsessions, to ignore them, but that is usually not possible without the aid of medication.

I hope that you consider seeking treatment from a psychiatrist with whom you feel a sense of comfort and trust. Psychiatrists, being specialists in treating problems with brain chemistry, are well-versed in treating OCD, and there are multiple medications with proven results. Please take advantage of the fact that we are fortunate enough to live in a period of history in which we have such safe and effective treatment at our disposal.

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