On the flip side of obsessions

It would seem that my fidelity to this little corner of the Internet is in doubt. Once again, I have become the harbinger of neglect by staying away for so long. Thus, for the umpteenth time, I extend an apology to my readers (here, once again, I assume plurality). However, my conscience isn’t as burdened this time around as it was the past few times, as my absence has been more due to factors beyond my control as opposed to procrastination on my part.

In fact, the entity which caused said preoccupation is a huge contributor to the contents of this post. By a stroke of good fortune, and strenuous effort on my part, I managed to secure a month-long internship at one of the best research institutes in the country (bragging rights must be awarded here). Said internship was supposed to train me in basic laboratory protocol and techniques which may be of use to me later on in life when time came for me to take up science professionally. Things, by yet another stroke of luck, took a steep turn for the better. It so happens that I am now as involved in research as one could possibly be at this stage of their scientific education.

That more or less lays the background for the post (and gives me an excuse to feel better about myself), and so I feel confident when I launch into this post, which discusses one of the greatest ills which plagues me.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with “mixed obsessive-compulsive disorder”. The small black ink writing was definitive proof of a suspicion which I’d been harbouring for a few years, and it was bittersweet seeing that diagnosis officially confirmed: on the one hand, it told me that there was something the matter with me, something which would require an effort to overcome; on the other hand, it told me that a lot of my shortcomings were not entirely my fault. The latter, I think, was more therapeutic than the months of therapy that followed.

For years, the obsessive-compulsive tendencies had been getting on my nerves, and the glorification of “OCD” by western television had done nothing to help. All around me, people claimed to have, or worse – be, OCD, thinking that somehow having an all-consuming mental disorder made one “cool”. It bothered me that something which made daily tasks an ordeal for me was being mimicked and mocked around the world. You don’t pretend to have cancer to be cool, I’d say to anyone who would listen, so why OCD?

Until my internship started this Monday, I had always given a negative connotation to obsessions. Having been incapacitated by them all my life, it was only natural that I should have a sour feel about them. However, this week changed things, hopefully for the better. I realised the value of obsessions as I saw my guide poring over anomalies in the data which we had obtained from our experiment. He ran the same test multiple times, always getting visibly distressed, and intrigued, with the anomalies which repeatedly cropped up.

The following days involved me getting involved with the data analysis too, and I found myself obsessing over the data as well. There were times of introspection when I would curse my obsessive nature for causing me to get hitched on to trivialities, but then a rationalisation would intervene. I realised that this maniacal obsessing was essential for scientific advancement, and the ability to get hung up on tiny things which people wouldn’t normally give a second glance to was perhaps the greatest asset of anyone hoping to be anyone in science.

I’ve always been fond of dramatics and have been justly accused of melodrama and exaggeration of circumstance, and so maybe it’s me tapping into the inner drama queen when I say that this realisation was accompanied by the world spinning all around me.

Scientific research is inherently a slow process; it consists of visiting and revisiting of the experiments and the data, reviewing of basic principles and concepts, and so much more. Science demands reproducibility and repeatability. The simplest of experiments must be conducted over and over again to ensure that the results obtained aren’t anomalies but follow a pattern. I realised that obsessiveness plays a vital role in science (something which was reinforced today when I had to weigh out an infinitesimal amount of a compound, and obsessiveness wouldn’t let me go even a little over or under).

I have undergone many regimes to help me overcome my obsessive tendencies, none of which have had much success. Usually, I’d be awning for something therapeutic to come along and put my mind at ease. Recently, however, I’ve realised how big an asset obsessiveness can actually be. At the end of the day, it’s all about realising what you want to be obsessed with, and coming to terms with the fact that your obsession will consume you utterly.

Of course, things never really work that way. Despite this realisation, I found my obsessions just as disabling as they were before. I still spend half an hour this morning deciding what I would wear to the lab, and a further ten minutes deciding which route to take. However, these are quirks which have been an annoyance for years, whereas the positive spin is new, and by virtue of it being new and positive, it is more dear to me than the regular rigmarole. For a long time, I plan on revelling in the benevolence of my obsessive nature, and to channel as much of that obsessiveness in my work as possible.

As a poster in my lab proudly proclaims: “Research requires dedication and money”. Thanks to the obsessive tendencies, the dedication part is taken care of by itself.