Voices of Gatsby: OCD, Tech, and Me

Sergio Saenz
December 10th, 2020

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Hello, my name is Sergio and I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. For me, OCD manifests in my inability to stop a project, thought, or task until it is absolutely complete. Not partially complete, not mostly complete, but absolutely complete. As you might imagine, there are both upsides and downsides to being wired this way.

OCD and me

As a kid I would tinker, explore, and generally take things apart so that I could understand how they work. But this wasn’t the usual child’s “How do things work?” curiosity: I would sit — for days at a time if necessary — working at it until I got it right. (This tendency was actually one of the main drivers that got me into hacking, but I am skipping ahead a bit). 

Maybe the people around me thought I would outgrow this, but that never happened. I am hardwired to be this way. Whenever I get started on something, I have to finish. If I read a book, even when I hate it, I have to read it all the way through anyway. If I try to stop, the book just haunts me until I can’t stand it anymore,  give in, and complete it (still hating it all the while). If you hand me a puzzle I have to work at it, again even if I truly don’t want to.  A new game, I’ll memorize the rules, a new craft, I’ll run out of supplies. My mind worries at things, like fingers on a knot. It keeps me up at night, always has. When I was growing up I always figured everyone was like this, just super intensely focused, and never really questioned it. 

It’s not just the relentless compulsion to solve and complete, though. I also have always had little things that I did before a task, or very specific ways that tasks must be completed. For instance, to this day I have to make sandwiches in a specific order (peanut butter is put on first, jelly goes on top). My left shoe goes on before the right, always. When I hang pictures I have to measure from  the ceiling, because I can’t sleep knowing they might be uneven. I don’t really know why, but to do it any other way unsettles me. 

Unfortunately for me, puzzles and even many regular everyday tasks are like traps. Once I see it, once I start, there is no not working on the thing till it’s done. As I have gotten older I have learned better how to avoid the traps, to not start on the project unless I am ready to commit to it fully. It’s a strange situation, and I am sure that it raises a few eyebrows the way I will dance around something that, to everyone else, appears a trivial task that should be quick to complete. If they only knew 😂.

Applied OCD

So how does OCD affect my work in tech? Well, as you can already imagine, I am certainly a problem solver!

I don’t just solve the problems I’m specifically assigned to, either. When I am providing cybersecurity consultation in a large project, and I see engineering problems, or program management challenges, etc, I solve those too. I solve them whether I need to or not, whether I am asked, or even whether my input is desired. In fact, I lie awake at nights solving them, and I get great satisfaction when they are solved. In my professional career I have learned when I can share my discoveries, and when I should just keep them to myself. I probably learned the hard way (and bruised a few egos along the way, haha).

In regards to cybersecurity and hacking, which I am very passionate about, my OCD has absolutely been a boon professionally. It drives me, requires me, to unravel that knot, to understand a vulnerability so thoroughly and completely that I know how to exploit it in a dozen different ways — and how to then protect against them. I am methodical, my mind relentlessly marching on, regardless of what is going on at the moment. Fly wheels and gears spinning without rest. My mind works and works and works, and I wish I could say that I know when it considers a task done, but I don’t until it finally, blessedly is. All I know is that I will revise, update, rework, edit, and re-write white papers and reports until they meet some arcane standard of perfection. The sign that I’ve reached it at last is the silence, when the machinery — the flywheels and the gears — goes mercifully still…on this particular thing, anyway. And, when the dust settles, I am proud of my work. 

My OCD has always been a two-sided coin. My inability to stop, and the praises heaped on me for my “thoroughness.”  My irresistable need to solve problems, and my “go-getter attitude.” This has led to many achievements and accolades in my career, and I am genuinely proud. But those same people praising me have no idea how many sleepless nights I worked and drove myself relentlessly to attain that perfect standard…Nor why I get so frustrated when others don’t see a task to its end. 

I don’t want you to think that I hate my OCD, though there were times in the past when I certainly did. Gradually, however, I came to accept that it is an indelible part of how I am, who I am.  And I have come to appreciate how OCD has made me better at a lot of things that are important to me. I am a writer and an artist as well as a computer geek, and in all of these things my OCD pushes me. I look deeper, I work until I truly see all there is to see about something, and know all there is to know. This is a kind of peace anyone not having OCD will never know.

Sergio Saenz
Written by
Sergio Saenz

Hacker, Writer, Soldier, Father, Artist.

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