Monday, July 23, 2012

Read, reread, again and again: Reading OCD

  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?

44 comments:

  1. Thankfully, I have not really had an issues with this, but I know people who have. It seems torturous. The only thing I've struggled with that came close to this, is that when I had to do reading for my college classes and I didn't understand what the textbook said. That was frustrating. I finally just allowed myself to read through it and I would hope that the teacher would explain the important stuff. It usually worked.

    Books are VERY important to me. During the pit of my deep depression when I felt nothing but despair, they were a lifeline. I'm very grateful to many authors for providing a place of escape and refreshment for me.

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    1. Sunny, I like your use of the word "lifeline" for books--I feel the same way!

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    2. Tina, I know you've been feeling kind of blue and down lately. I've been a little worried about you. Are you OK? Just wanted to let you know that I care.

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    3. Thank you, Sunny, for your caring. I'm doing OK, hanging in there. Things are getting better.

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    4. Good! I'm glad. Got your message. Sending you a hug!

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  2. I don't have a problem with reading books, but I have trouble writing/reading Emails. I read the first sentence that I've written, write the next one, reread both, write the third one, read all three etc etc. When it's finished I reread everything another couple of times, send it and read it again, put it in the right folder and read it again. And I still manage to miss some mistakes, ha ha!!

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    1. Klaaske, I do the same thing with my writing a lot of times--write, read, reread, write, read, reread, and on and on. And, yes, I still make mistakes! :-)

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  3. Hey Tina, If reading is on your side today, I talked about the whys (from that comment conversation on June 25th post). And tagged you. Hope you like it.

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    1. Jodi, great post! I loved it--you explained when it's a good thing to know "why" and when it can get in the way of healing. Thank you!

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  4. I was really stunned when I first started therapy and my therapist asked me how I read a book. I didn't quite know what he meant and then he asked me if I re-read paragraphs and sentences, if I skip words etc. He asked if I felt I had to read every word etc.

    Oh yes, I have reading OCD and it's the reason why sometimes it takes me forever to get through a simple book!

    I have been working on it lately though and fighting the complusion to re-read to make sure I have read every word. I feel like I'm cheating if I am not 100% sure I've read every word. In fighting the compulsions to re-read and re-read again and hunt for passages I had already read to make sure I understood them... I am able to read books much faster! In fact, I have just completed two 600 page books in record time for me because I just fought through those compulsions and kept moving forward rather than back.

    It really encourages me to continue to fight those compulsions which when you think about it are a form of checking.

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    1. Elizabeth, Thank you for sharing your story. That gives me hope and inspires me to keep working at it! And to address your comment below, that's a great way to describe reading OCD--I think it is a combination or "marriage" of checking and scrupulosity, at least for me.

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    2. Have you tried every possible medication option out there? The only reason I can think of for you to have to "fight it" on a daily basis is if the medication doesn't work for you. This is the 21st century, not the 18th- for many people (including myself) there is a pill out there that will CURE YOU so that the unwanted thoughts go completely away and you're just yourself. I strongly urge you to talk to a psychiatrist and get some treatment! I hate the idea of a woman out there silently suffering when she could be enjoying her life.

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  5. Actually, thinking about it a bit deeper, do you think reading OCD is actually the marriage of scrupulosity and checking?

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  6. Hi Tina :)
    I see that book shelf in the picture and 'fall in love.' I LOVE BOOKs! Not knowing OCD, but I do know anxieties that have hindered things that I love, or love to do -I have a deep compassion for you.

    When I would homeschool my son, as he is now a bit older, I had to read aloud all of the time for him. He's hearing imapaired, and so suffered with language and speech greatly (now's he's improved.) But, what I discovered as one who used to cringe at the thought of spending my time reading anything for that matter - is: reading aloud in return helped me. I began to see the words on the page no longer intimidating, I began to 'see' the story being told. Reading for years aloud to my son slowly conquered some of my fears, and cultivated a love I never used to have -reading.

    Of course though, if I am finding myself in the midst of a depression spell -all organization in my brain becomes scatterd and I have the hardest time to concentrate on the simplest of things.

    ***
    I don't read aloud when it's just me I'm reading to. So I wonder if it may feel strange to hear oneself read aloud when not reading to someone else. But, as that is an option Dr. Greyson suggested perhaps it could help??? ... I do agree though, it would be mighty painstakingly hard for me to tear out a page from the book.

    God bless you dear friend! Thank you for sharing. I am actually very thankful to read your posts about OCD as it is creating an awareness for me and I greatful for that :)

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    1. Thank you, Deanna, you're so kind! I don't know if reading aloud would help me or not, but I may try it if I get to a difficult place. I don't think I can tear out pages though!

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  7. I have experienced reading OCD, but it was only on a couple occasions in the past couple years and I feel like when it occurred I immediately picked up on that it was OCD and I needed to STOP. For some reason, I was able to nip that one in the bud - knock on wood. For me, if I catch an OCD behavior quickly, I am able to squash it much, much easier than if it has become an ingrained habit or something I have been doing for years. I think if I had understood I had OCD and been treated in the beginning I would have less compulsive behavior because over the years I have habituated to much of it.
    I value books and reading above any other of my pleasurable activities. Reading is a hobby for me and the fact that reading is educational is a super bonus. My husband does not read for pleasure - he has other great hobbies and interests - but I cannot even imagine life without books.
    Wonderful post Tina, not only did you explain an aspect of OCD but gave some good ideas and references to combat reading OCD.

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    1. Thank you, Krystal Lynn! I'm glad you were able to stop the reading compulsion and nip it in the bud. The reading OCD started so young with me, I think it did get ingrained. But at least I know it for what it is now and can fight it.

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  8. That sounds really miserable :-( I can't imagine. I love reading so much, and that part of the OCD stuggle would be heartbreaking.

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    1. It is heartbreaking, Lisa--one of the worst aspects of OCD for me. But I am finding ways to push through it--nothing will stop me from reading!!

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  9. That's terrible for you! I love reading, I couldn't imagine...

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  10. Hi Tina, I experience the same thing, but never knew it was called "Reading OCD". I've read and re-read this post from you 5 times, and re read parts of it countless other times. On rare occasions I can read a book, if it is a small novel, or flick through a non fiction. Other times I try to read, get past two sentences then re read them, focus on certain words, and can never finish more than 2 pages, then I still haven't got the gist of the book. I guess I'm somewhat relieved that I'm not the only one who experiences this, I thought it was just me. Thanks for sharing Tina. Susan.

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    1. Susan, I'm sorry that you suffer from this, too. Maybe some of the techniques suggested by Dr. Grayson would help.

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  11. Hi Tina,

    I found this randomly, and well, I have to respond/comment as I suffer from this beyond imagination. I'm a professor, so reading is my life. Even more so, my specialty is in the psychological processes of sentence processing while reading, but I acquired this OCD behavior long before I started studying psycholinguistics (and I don't actually research this issue at all--I study how normal people read). Anyway, I used to read avidly, fiction and non-fiction alike. But now I read only what I absolutely have to in order to keep my career & research up. I usually suffer from severe headaches after a 'reading session'. For instance, today it took about 5 hours to read 40 pages of an introductory textbook, whose content I basically knew before reading. I remember vividly re-reading the last line of 'The Bluest Eye' for 3 hours straight once. I was nearly crying because I wanted to stop so bad but couldn't quit re-reading the sentence --- it was like someone else was pulling my strings.

    The solution is obvious. Ignore the twitch, the compulsion, whatever the feeling is. But you ignore it at the peril of it growing loud beyond belief. It can shake you with a ferocity that belies sense. Sometimes I try and resist and there's unbelievable feeling of something surging, it creates this sensation of your head splitting, even though it's formless and empty. Still, I think the solution is probably as obvious as it could be. Don't do the compulsion. What can it do to you? Is everything actually junk if you cataclysmically fail to read one word correctly? So what if you don't read the sentence, the page, the whole book? No one will care. Not even you.

    The real 'art' is finding ways not to do the compulsion. For instance, at my better moments, I breathe in at the end of a sentence, and realize internally that the OCD 'pulse' is going to come, it comes, and I just let run through me. And then it's gone. I breathe out. Next sentence.

    What makes this form of OCD so insidious and unlike other OCDs is that the temptations are endless. If you have a hand-washing compulsion, well, it takes a lot of effort to not wash your hands, but it's a very conscious behavior to wash your hands. Eye movements, although they are generally subject to conscious control, are subject to unconscious thoughts & cognitive processes. And even if you can resist re-reading 100 sentences or 100 pages, just one sentence or one page can really set you back.

    Wish there was a happy ending here. Ultimately, I do believe there's a way to suppress the compulsion, but it takes a lot of time, energy, and a willingness to suffer.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I am so sorry that you suffer from this form of OCD also. I was an English major in college and did my graduate work in English, so I can relate to having to read a lot and it being frustrating. You're right--the trick is to not to the compulsion, but it's not easy to resist something that can be so subtle. I try forcing myself to continue reading and sitting with the anxiety, putting up with it until it subsides, which it always does. Sometimes easier said than done!

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  12. Thank you for writing this. Now I know I've been suffering reading OCD in last two weeks which is not good. At first, I keep on checking the meaning of the words I feel I understand, but I check it anyway in the dictionary just to make it sure. Because English isn't my first language. But now I keep reading each paragraph for couple of minutes. Last night I force to finish my book-only 50 pages left- and it took me almost 5 hours. Now I want to read a new book but scared with my reading OCD. IT's frustrating

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    1. Fina Sofiana, I'm sorry that you're having this problem. Your description of your symptoms sounds so familiar to me because I have had the problem off and on for years. I know how frustrating it can be. I hope you can get some help for it soon.

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  13. Thank you for writing this, Tina. I just happened to come across it via a Google search. I've struggled with this to varying degrees along with a form of writing & thinking OCD since I was a teenager. Between this and social phobia, I barely graduated from high school, and dropped out of college about 7 years ago. For the past couple of years I have been seriously considering returning to school, but I still struggle and am afraid of failure. I've also found the more important the material the worse it gets, so the hardest times for me have been while I was in school. I am doing better now, and have probably read more in the past two years than the previous 10, but it's still difficult and it takes me a lot longer to read a book than most people. Interestingly, I rarely read fiction. Sometimes it flows and I get pleasure out of reading, other times it is a punishing process. I usually have to read aloud or at least mouth the words, and they have to sound perfect in my head including the pronunciation, otherwise I have to go back and reread the phrase or sentence again & again until I feel satisfied that I understood it or thought about it sufficiently. Sometimes I get stuck on a word, a sentence or a paragraph and I just have to stop and decompress for a time. My thinking will follow the same dynamic. I have to think out loud about what I've read and it has to sound right. I am self-conscious about all of this, so reading around other people is painstaking most the time. It can seem like the more I read the worse it gets. With writing, I find myself going back and rereading what I've written over & over again, making corrections, etc. Sometimes it will take me hours just to write an email. I spent two hours the other day writing a Facebook post about something I just wanted to share, not being able to find the right words or doubting what I had written. Like someone commented above, I also go back and reread what I've written over & over again even after I've sent it or posted it, and I still make mistakes. It becomes exhausting, especially if a dialogue follows.

    I had thought that perhaps all of this was obscure, or at least it's been hard up until the past year trying to describe it, and get clinicians and therapists to understand. I've had it brushed off so many times in the past. I don't seem to fit the diagnostic criteria for OCD or OCPD, as I've never been able to identify specific obsessions, just these compulsions. I am a perfectionist, likewise a couple people mentioned scrupulosity, which was a major problem for me during my teenage years. I had religious scrupulosity and became obsessed with controlling my thoughts, and have wondered if that is where this all began.

    Anyway, I appreciate your blog post and everyone's comments as well.

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    1. Robert, thank you for reading and commenting. I can empathize with your struggles with reading and writing. It's very frustrating, I know. Have you tried any of the techniques mentioned in the post? If you haven't read Grayson's book, I would highly recommend it because it has helped me tremendously.

      For me, at the heart of the reading compulsions is an obsession with reading and understanding the material perfectly. Scrupulosity is also mixed in because I don't want to say I've read something if I haven't done it "right." So there are obsessions behind the compulsions for me. Perhaps you have similar obsessions.

      Please don't give up on trying to get help from clinicians and therapists. It might be helpful to print this post and your comment and take it to your doctor as an example of what you're suffering from.

      I wish you the best in working to overcome this reading/writing problem. I was able to overcome a lot of it, and you can too.

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    2. Hi Tina, thank you for the advice. I'll have to check out Grayson's book. One of the first things I did after posting my comment was print this out to share with my therapist and doctor, who have actually both been great.

      For me, it seems like I'm overcompensating because nothing is ever good enough, but the obsession / compulsion is similar to what you're talking about. I have to read every word and make sure I understand and remember it perfectly. My thinking is very rigid and controlled, and maybe the fear is that I will disrupt something and mess it up. I've found that I have a hard time just relaxing and experimenting because everything has to be perfect. It's either all or nothing, so I can't just read for the fun of it.

      With the writing, it definitely feels like I'm trying to overcompensate and I want people to think I'm intelligent, and I have been officially diagnosed with a Learning Disorder of Written Expression (didn't know such a thing existed)... My reading was dismissed at the time I was evaluated because my reading comprehension was fine (this evaluation wasn't done by my current therapist or doctor).

      I'm starting to work on challenging automatic thoughts and think more rationally about things. With the reading, it helps to read out loud, but it can also make it worse. I've found that skipping words here & there helps. I started reading books on my smartphone. It doesn't display as much text, so once I go to the next page I'm less likely to go back. I like the idea of using an index card to cover up what you've read, and will have to try that. Sometimes it helps me to follow along with my finger, or a pen or bookmark and just keep it moving. Other times I have to tell myself to just let go of a sentence and push through the discomfort. I don't know if I could ever tear pages out of a book. The thought of it scares me.

      Again, thank you for your post and the encouragement. It's nice to know that I'm not the only person who is dealing with this.

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    3. Robert, I am so glad to hear about the positive steps you're taking. I've found that it can take a combination of things to get past obsessions and compulsions.

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    4. I have been diagnosed with ADHD, but my mom has OCD and over the years ive noticed a few OCD tendencies in myself. I think this is an insidious combination of disorders because the stimulant meds they give me for ADHD work in some ways but aggravate the OCD. I got no classic symptoms like washing hands or checking doors. Just obsessive worrying thoughts about my academic performance and my social interactions with others.
      I too like Robert have spend hours editing a simple email or facebook post. I am getting very good marks at uni but no body can imagine the struggle i go through to get there. A 2000 word essay will generally take me 3 weeks sitting at a desk 10 hours a day, i spend more time editing words that really comming up with ideas. Reading a 30 page academic text will sometimes take me 5 hours to read. I have a real thirst for learning and so many interests that I cannot focus on one thing and follow through with it. I have lots of books which i started and never finished. I set daily goals and targets for myself but i never reach them. Right now I have about 40 internet pages open, like some sort of manic information collector but my attention just jumps from one thing to the other. The harder i try to stay focused on one thing the sharper the impulse to escape to something else. I color code the information i highlight in my books because I dont trust my brain to remember it and to remember it in the right order or remember which information i wanted to use for which argument.

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  14. I have a slightly different form of this I guess - I'm fine with reading the paragraph but I feel the need to always go back and reread the last 5 words of the last sentence. Sometimes I find myself repeating those 5 words over and over because they 'don't sound right' in my head. Somedays it's worse than others and I've never been able to get past the rereading stage until I'm satisfied with the 'sound'. Luckily it's not all the time - usually just ~3 or 4 days a week and during exam time (yeah, stress is so so counter productive -.-). I'd try your rip the pages our theory except most of my books are ebooks -.- *sigh* Just glad I don't have to reread entire pages at least I guess :)

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I'm glad that you don't have to deal with the rereading issue all the time. I have found that stress can make the OCD worse, too. Other times, I don't know why the reading compulsion is so strong.

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  15. In searching for information on how to stop rereading, your article came up and I have to tell you this was a breath of fresh air. I thought I had Adult ADD and currently take Strattera. While the effects of the medication have yet to kick in I understand now the root of my problems. And yes, I read your article more than once but not because of my fear of misunderstanding or not getting every word in but for the reason that this really hit to the core. Now I have a name for what I've been going through all these years. Your descriptions were on point, like you I have books in my library, on my kindle, in my room waiting to be read. Thank you :)

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    1. I am so glad that you found this helpful. Before I knew that OCD was causing the rereading, I was so confused and scared about what was making me do such a frustrating routine. I wish you all the best and hope you can get some relief from this very soon.

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  16. This article explained exactly what I've been experiencing! Thankyou! I think it started for me when I was about 13 and began high school. Now I'm 20 and I'm just getting so frustrated with it. There are times when it gets worse and times when it's not so bad... at the moment it's not too bad, but it still ruins my love of reading books! I don't exactly feel dishonest with not re-reading the book, but I have that fear that I won't remember! Which is frustrating because I know nothing will happen, but I still re-read. At it's worse I have to repeat the paragraph or summarise what I have read so far, by saying it in my head. And if I struggle I even have to write it down so I feel I will remember what I'm reading...
    But thankyou for this article, it really described what I'm going through and gives me hope I can overcome it with determination!

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  18. I am 15 and experiencing all of this. It is espeically hard for school because I am unable to read the books we are assigned. But I have tried to force myself to not go back and re read but as I do so I am so focused on every word that I have found that the image that you usually get when you read a book had shattered. It no longer forms the way it used to and I miss that desperately. I haven't finished a book since July and it is very hard for me. My parents are always talking to me about how they wish I would read as much as I did but I don't know how to tell them it's impossible at the moment. I am trying hard to push past this. I have thought about using audiobooks but I can't do that forever and I can't do it everywhere I go. Thank you for posting this. It makes me feel hopeful and confident that I will be able to finish a book, or maybe a few!, before the end of the year.

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  19. I've really really been struggling with this one, it takes me forever to read a page and I'm in college and its been hard this first semester. The thing is I love reading lol

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  20. Thanks for writing this! I was trying to find some more info on why I feel compelled to read sentences and entire paragraphs over and over again and, more importantly, what I can do about it. I also always have to read the title and author's name that are usually listed at the top of every page, plus the page numbers at the bottom (probably to ensure I don't skip a page).

    Unlike you though, this started happening to me as an adult, and is really only a problem when I'm reading novels. I run a book blog and have often wished I was able to read faster so that I could post more reviews.

    I'd heard of the trick of covering up previous lines that you have already read. The only problem with that is it's harder to do on a Kindle, as the slightest touch can turn the page. I'm not sure that I'm disciplined enough to "Just Say No". :) Still, I have to try something.

    Is Reading OCD a legitimate term?

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  21. Hi, I thought I was the only person like this! I've been trying to read "Gone Girl" for months! I did recently get through an audio book, and only backed it up about a minute every time I started (just to be sure!), so that may be easier for you too. I have the same problem with television shows, and movies. If a series has already started, and I have missed episodes...I won't watch the series EVER. And if an episode has already started, won't watch it ;P. Same goes for movies. I also overuse the pause button if anyone dares to talk at the same time I'm watching something. I just feel that it is very important that I do not miss one word of anything or I might miss something important, and then be confused later in the book/episode/movie. So exhausting. And this is only one kind of OC behavior for me. I've got some other doozies.

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  23. Tina,

    I can't even put into words how much it means to have found this article. For years (maybe even since I first learned to read) I have struggled with this problem and only recently have I been taking steps to try and "cure" my condition. I didn't even know what to call it for the longest time, but now seeing it written as "Reading OCD" it all makes so much sense.

    I couldn't believe how spot-on your description of the difficulty was to mine, especially since I've struggled for so long just to put it into words. My reading speed is so impaired that I can only manage maybe 30 pages a day on average; 50 if I REALLY try. And reading is one of my favorite things to do! I constantly feel I need to read every word, and sometimes spend whole chunks of time on the final word of a book because I feel I didn't read it "right" in my head. For the longest time I thought I had to read the word properly in my head in order for it to be "right", but recently I've managed to overcome this.

    I also can't read at night because for some reason exhaustion also impedes my comprehension and attention. I also have this type of OCD with tv and movies where I constantly pause and rewind because I feel as if I didn't hear or see every part of a certain frame.

    It can be quite annoying and quite a hindrance to productivity. I do believe there is a "solution" out there. I don't want this to just be something people like us "have to live with". I wish we could all get more support out there, perhaps start a group and try to find a way to combat this thing.

    Thank you so much Tina, this was such a refreshing read!

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