TEENAGE GIRL'S OBSESSIVE HEALTH FEARS

picture of book cover of Adler's book
Adler's book is still in print

A woman possibly living in Austria wrote an autobiographical account of obsessive and compulsive symptoms she suffered as a young girl and teenager, including an obsession she might catch the disease lupus after seeing someone in the street who she felt must have had the disease. Her account eventually came into the hands of Dr. Alfred Adler, an influential Austrian psychotherapist, who published it along with his comments about her "compulsion neurosis" in a short book published in 1929. The excerpts below are from her autobiographical account.

My family frequently had to go through the dangerous street. I asked them repeatedly to be careful not to touch anything there. Although they promised it over and over again the suspicion would not leave me that they did not pay any attention to my caution [and were bringing contamination into the home]. . . . One day, during house cleaning, my water glass with my toothbrush in it was accidentally put on the table. When I saw that I grew furious . . . . Such scenes occurred practically every day. Then my parents would wrangle about me. Father would accuse mother of not having been careful enough and thus having excited me. Mother would reply angrily that she could not keep all my caprices in mind, that she had other things to think of. . . .

My teeth became brown from continual rinsing. When the soap or a brush fell on the floor I did not use it again. Not for a kingdom would I have picked up something from the floor. Mother also had to wash her hands ceaselessly. I watched her narrowly, especially before she started to cook. If she forgot to wash her hands I did not eat one morsel, however hungry I may have been. The restrictions I imposed on her irritated her and she complained to father. He begged her to indulge me.

I had the most inconvenient difficulties with my shoelaces. If one of them touched the soles of my shoes or the floor mother had to pull it out immediately and buy a new one. I had assembled a whole collection of infected shoelaces in a drawer. I also had a full line of hair pins, soaps, toothbrushes and dental creams. Father was already considering consulting a physician. My delusion was kept secret from outsiders. . . .

Lina [her sister] told me that one could get lupus not only on the face but all over the body as well. I did not dread that so much as the image of a face full of holes. I brooded ceaseless on the lupus disease . . . .

One day I began to imagine that the trolley lines J and J2 would bring me misfortune. By and by I added to them the numbers 13, 3, 63, 43, and the letters A, Ak, B, Bk, D, and C, from the outskirts of the city to the center. It became absolutely impossible for me to use these lines. I often walked many blocks, even when the weather was bad. . . . The members of my family were also forbidden to ride in the cars with the unfortunate numbers, or walk through streets taboo for me. If I found out that they had done it anyway I did not let them come near me. I remembered with great care the clothes they had worn in those cars and streets and did not touch them again. And if I accidentally came in contact with them, I swore and fretted, tore off my dress and underwear, placed myself in front of the open window without a bit of clothing on in order to catch pneumonia and die, and finally threw myself in complete desperation on the bed. . . .

The streets abhorrent to me bred as rapidly as rabbits. There was already a whole district which I detested. When people from this forbidden district came to see us, I felt as if I were in a room with persons infected with the plague, whose mere breath brought ruin and who infected everything they touched. . . . One day mother was making hash. I was delighted in spite of the fact that it was horsemeat. While she was serving some of the hash to me, she accidentally brushed her arm against the armrest of a chair on which a forbidden person had been seated a short while before. I was furious and did not eat one bite of hash. That made mother so angry that she almost threw the whole pot on the floor.

Alfred Adler, The Case of Miss R.: The Interpretation of a Life Story, Eleanore and Friedrich Jensen, trans. (New York: Greenberg Publisher, Inc., 1929), 210-15, 282-85.

NOTE: Adler interpreted Miss R.'s symptoms within the school of thought for which he became well-known, which he called individual psychology. It bears mentioning she was not his patient; rather, he printed and commented on her autobiographical account to help illustrate his ideas. "I want my reader to see how a psychologist armed with a store of experience listens to, apprehends, works over, and understands an ordinary and otherwise insignificant life story," he wrote (p. 304), probably meaning no offense with the "insignificant life story" comment.

See also R. R. Greenschpoon, A famous case of compulsion neurosis, Psychoanalytic Review, 1937, 24:165-178 (pertaining to the same person).

 

OCD History Home