Imagine opening up a book to begin reading it. Chapter one. You read a paragraph. Then you reread it. Then you move to the second paragraph, but you realize that you may not have read the first paragraph well enough. So you go back and read paragraph one again. Then you read and reread paragraph two several times. You finally make it to the end of the page, and in turning the page, you think, “I’ve read page one adequately.”
But you can’t be sure. Did you understand everything you read? Will you remember it?
So you reread page one, reading and rereading the paragraphs again. After an hour of being on page one, you get tired and decide to put down the book. You’ll get through the book someday. It’s only the third time you’ve tried to read chapter one.
That’s reading OCD. That’s how difficult it is to read when you doubt that you have “really” read the paragraph or page and feel compelled to go back and reread again and again.
When OCD first affected my reading, I was about 12 years old, in seventh grade. At first it affected mostly reading that I had to do for school. But as I got older, the OCD invaded my pleasure reading. And I felt betrayed.
The obsessions and compulsions were affecting the heart of me, what I loved the best: reading a good book.
What was I obsessing about? Why was it so important to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had read every word? Because I believed if I missed a word, or a paragraph, or a page, I would be dishonest if I said I read the book. This was especially true if the book was a classroom assignment.
I also wanted to make sure I understood what I read and would remember it once I got further into the book.
This symptom of OCD has followed me throughout my life. Sometimes, I don’t want to pick up a book because I know what a struggle it will be to read it. Other times, I can fly through books and enjoy the experience with no OCD problem.
Not too long ago, I went through an OCD reading problem time, and it wasn’t fun. I have books lined up in my Nook and on my bookshelves, waiting for me to read them. But I avoided it because of the pain of trying to get through a page.
Very recently, though, the OCD has lifted enough to enjoy reading again, and I’ve been playing catch-up.
My method of getting beyond the reading OCD is to force myself not to go back and reread. This takes a lot of discipline, and I’m not always successful at it.
Jonathan Grayson Ph.D. discusses reading OCD in his book Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Personalized Program for Living with Uncertainty. He calls it a reading and understanding problem and refers to it as “one of the most insidious OCD problems you can have” (p. 168). He further explains it:
“The core of the problem is having the feeling that you don’t understand what you read. As a result, you reread a sentence or a word over and over before going on to the next sentence. Unfortunately, this contributes to destroying the flow of what you are reading, so the feeling of understanding becomes even more unattainable. Generally, the more important the material, the greater the anxiety. Schoolwork becomes torture.” (p. 169)
However, sufferers understand more than they think they do, said Grayson. When he has patients read something in his office, they usually understand the main points. “However, when this obsession is left untreated, perception is everything. If you have this reading problem, it feels as if the feared consequence has taken place: Your ability to understand what you read has been compromised” (p. 169).
Some people with reading OCD also have obsessions about good and bad numbers and words, which just complicates the whole process of reading, Grayson said.
In order to move forward from the reading rituals, sufferers “have to be willing not to understand portions of what was read or perhaps miss material that might be important” (p. 169).
Grayson listed some reading exposure aids: read aloud, cover the lines already read with an index card, use a marker to cross out random words so you will miss some material, and tear out pages once they have been read.
If the material to be read is school or work related and is very important to understand, then rereading is allowed, but not until you reach the end of the chapter or the work itself, Grayson said.
I can’t see myself tearing out pages of books as I read them, but I can appreciate that an index card covering up the words I’ve already read may be helpful. And I like the “permission” to reread under certain circumstances.
I suspect I will be dealing with reading OCD off and on for the rest of my life. What I can do is apply what I’ve learned and do the best I can until the full joy of reading returns. And it always does.
Have you ever experienced reading OCD? How did you deal with it? How important are books to you?