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How OCD affected Howard Hughes

written by: Rene Wolf • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 7/31/2011

The movie mogul and industrialist Howard Hughes was an extraordinarily gifted man, but one whose life was stricken by the symptoms of OCD.

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    Early Signs Of OCD

    The signs of OCD in Howard Hughes began as early as the 1930s. Close friends observed his obsession with peas, particularly his habit of separating them by size with a special fork. In other areas he became so upset over a flaw in a blouse worn by Jane Russell that he wrote a detailed memorandum about how to fix it (a section of bunched fabric along a seam) with demands to the crew for immediate repairs.

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    Assigning Compulsive Behaviors To Staff

    In the early 1940s his obsession with germs became so out of control that he insisted on using several tissues as insulation between himself and germs when picking items up. He would spot imperfections, stains and/or dust on someone’s clothing and demand that the problem be taken care of.

    He also began to “assign" his compulsive behaviors to his staff. He had a complex set of instructions for them regarding the handling of objects. For example, before a servant could hand Hughes a spoon the handle had to be wrapped in tissue paper, sealed with cellophane tape and a second piece of tissue had to be wrapped around the first piece. When the spoon was given to Hughes he would use it only with a covered handle.

    Other bizarre instructions for his staff included the details for removing his hearing-aid from a bathroom cabinet. Before it could be removed staff had to use between six and eight new tissues as a barrier when turning the bathroom door knob, then they had to throw away the tissues, and use six to eight new tissues for opening the cabinet and removing a new bar of soap. Then they had to wash their hands with the new soap, use six to eight new tissues to reopen the cabinet door and remove the hearing-aid. The hearing-aid which was in a sealed envelope was to then be removed with both hands and fifteen tissues in each hand.

    To open a can of food, members of staff were instructed to use their bare hands and turn on the bathtub faucet, adjust the water to a warm temperature, use a brush and one of two specials soap bars to create a lather and remove the label from the can. The label had to be removed two inches from the top of the can, and then the can was soaked to remove all dust, dirt and germs. After this, the bottom of the can had to be cleaned in the same manner as the top. Staff members were not permitted to put the can down under any circumstance. The indentations of the can had to be thoroughly scrubbed with soap and rinsed.

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    Surviving on Candy Bars & Milk

    In December of 1947, Hughes holed up in a studio near his home for about four months where he sat naked in a chair watching numerous movie reels daily. He stayed in the darkened studio’s screening room without leaving and ate only chocolate bars and drank milk. The empty milk bottles and containers were used by Hughes as containers for relieving himself. Hughes surrounded himself with tissue boxes that he was continuously stacking and rearranging. When he needed to communicate with his staff, he wrote any detailed instructions on yellow paper along with instructions that they should never look at him, nor should they speak to him unless in response to him speaking to them first.

    Hughes left the screening room in the spring of 1948 with terrible hygiene due to not bathing or cutting his hair and nails for a number of weeks. He then moved to the Beverly Hills Hotel where he rented a bungalow for himself and several rooms for several girlfriends, his wife and his staff. Hughes continued to sit naked in a chair in the bungalow watching movies and spending excessive amounts of money. It has been estimated that he spent more than $11 million while staying at the hotel.

    In 1968 Hughes became so obsessed with a film, the “Ice Station Zebra" that he had the film running on a continuous loop and watched it about 150 times. Having a disregard for finances is a typically symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder and Howard Hughes, with his extensive wealth, was no exception. Howard Hughes and OCD typically behaviors such as spending money without considering the consequences, were most likely the reason he became so obsessed with his home state of Texas that he began to buy all of the four star hotels and restaurant chains that were founded within the Texas borders. The majority of the businesses he purchased during this time are no longer operating.

    His OCD had turned him into a recluse who neglected his health. When he died in 176 his body as emaciated that observers liked it to that of a Japanese prisoner of war.

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    References

    International OCD Foundation: What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) http://www.ocfoundation.org/whatisocd.aspx

    BBC Science: Howard Hughes http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/disorders/gallery/gallery_case6.shtml

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