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You say idiosyncrazy, I say idiosyncrasy

“You look crazy.” People used to say that a lot in my family. I think they feared appearing crazy almost as much as they feared appearing poor. When I was a kid, I had this habit of saying the alphabet over and over and over and over… via sign language. In retrospect, it was obviously a compulsion. I thought that the Earth might spin off its axis if I stopped. And so I did it in the background of my life. My right hand was busy signing while my left hand ate dinner. Or my left hand was doing homework while my right hand was saying the alphabet.

If I was good at anything at all ever, it was signing the alphabet. I would actually race myself, trying to get faster and faster and faster like there was a cash prize awaiting me if I signed all 26 letters in less than 15 seconds. And, by the way, I didn’t know a single person who was deaf. Knowing the ABCs in American Sign Language was not a necessity. Or a class project, for that matter. I’d found this new alphabet in a set of encyclopedias at my grandmother’s house one unusually boring day and taught it to myself out of sheer determination. I LOVED that I knew a kind of language that nobody else around me knew. I LOVED that I could say, “Bite Me!” to Mrs. Allen and she’d never hear a sound.

The trouble started when the adults in my life finally took heed. “What are you doing?” my grandmother asked one day, swatting at the letters f, g, and h. “Stop that. You look crazy!”

And then there was the day that I walked out of the junior high school, a remnant laugh trailing from my mouth, something funny lingering in my mind from seventh period. The problem was that I was alone. So I suppose laughing to myself looked, well… crazy. My mother was parked outside the school waiting for me on this particular day. Not only was I laughing but, reflexively, signing the alphabet. This was bad. Very, very bad. “You look crazy!” my mother hissed when I got into the car. “You look like Uncle Eddie.” It really hurt my feelings.

I had (have) a schizophrenic uncle. I haven’t seen my uncle since he was permanently hospitalized and I moved to Colorado, so I will use the past tense because I’m not sure what he’s like these days. In the old days, my uncle did many disconcerting things, like cussing out the TV and accusing total strangers of spying on him. But one of the more disturbing behaviors was his habit of smirking/giggling/laughing for no apparent reason. Poor Uncle Eddie. He went to great lengths trying to camouflage his laughter through the jokes we weren’t privy to, trying to ignore the naked guy breakdancing on the table, or the giant monkeys poking their noses, or the paisley-print elephant hiding in the kitchen sink, WHATEVER was giving him such fits of laughter. But the more he tried to stifle his laughter, the more it begged to be released until somebody would finally shush him and he’d excuse himself altogether.

We, as children, were amused by his silliness. And then we became adults whom he eventually accused of peeping through his keyholes. OR. We were forced to sit near him during something somber like a funeral service. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I understood how crazy I must have appeared to my mother walking out of the junior high school smirking and stifling my laughter as I signed the alphabet with my free hand. The fear that must have run through her head, the idea that maybe her daughter had inherited something as scary as schizophrenia.

I have kids now and totally get my mother’s fears. But I also remember what I was feeling, too, and I try to keep it close to me when Emma compulsively picks at her lips. Or when Kyra refuses to stop spinning in circles. Or when Toni decides to shower at four in the morning. Or when Jonah swings his head from side to side to side to side to side.

They’re peculiar. Blessedly peculiar. And that’s okay in my book. It would be even better if they knew the alphabet in sign language. Because it’s great when your craziness is actually practical.

Let’s hear it: what are some of your “idiosyncrazies?”


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  1. I think we all have our “idiosyncrazies.” I used to do the same when I was learning how to type. I remember being in bed at night and furiously flying through the keyboard in my head. I did this for YEARS. Must be why I am such a great typer today. 🙂

  2. I did the same when I was learning how to drive a stick-shift. I would practice (with or without the car) for hours. I still find myself doing it sometimes!

  3. I used to fingerspell compulsively as well. My grandmother was deaf so I learned the letters as a child out of curiousity. When I got to college, I worked at the State School for the Deaf for a year. As such, I practiced fingerspelling constantly and began to subconsciously pick novel words out of veryday conversations and spell them compulsively until I could do it as quickly as possible. This resulted in my being able to spell words very quickly, but people constantly stared at me as if I had the plague because my fingers were constantly, what I’m sure in their eyes, twitching. My wife (then girlfriend) used to go crazy because when my arm was around her she could always hear my fingers brushing against one another as I spelled random words over and over again. I don’t do it quite as compulsively as I used to, but I still find myself doing it when I am stressed out or nervous.

  4. First of all, I would love to know sign language!

    I’m a very anal/ocd type person and so when someone moves something that I’ve arranged ‘just so’ – I’ll go behind them and put it back in it’s place, the way I want it. I suppose that could come off as crazy – I mean I drive myself crazy doing it.

  5. One more thing we have in common, except I write in cursive with my index finger. In the air, on my leg, or on a table top and I can’t get that word, whatever word it is, out of my head until I write it out in cursive with my finger. Crazy!

  6. Thanks for sharing, everyone. I’m happy to know I’m in such good company!

  7. Every Sunday in church I would count in my head, to see just how high a number I could get to in that hour. When that got boring, I would integrate a pattern by tapping my toes, left, right, right left, into a bigger and bigger pattern. Gosh, that sounds really crazy just trying to explain it.

  8. Wait, did the signing ever stop? Because, ya know, odd as it is, I STILL do it, although not all the time, only when I’m stressed, which is, well, crap, all the time. Argghhh!
    How crazy is it that we have the same little ticks?

  9. My daughter did the signing thing, and then moved on to spelling out every word she said or heard in sign language. I have to check that the doors are locked, even if I know they are locked, before I can sleep. Oh, and I can’t share my drink with anyone unless they ask first. If they ask I can look at their mouth first and decide if they are clean enough. If they just drink without asking I won’t drink from it anymore (this includes my husband). I have had to hide this because, for some weird reason, people get offended that I don’t want to share their germs.

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