17 August 2016

Anxiety on wheels

Driving is one of those apparently straightforward day-to-day activities that causes me anxiety for a whole host of reasons.

My biggest fear is the perhaps rather obvious one of being involved in a crash, though this generally only rears its head when I'm on roads where high speeds are permitted. 

The main issue is my lack of control over the vehicles around me - I'm worried not only about other drivers' competence (or lack thereof), but also the risk of mechanical failure that might send tonnes of metal hurtling into my path.

It doesn't help that my car - a striking copper-coloured Micra - is nearly 19-years-old and only has a 1 litre engine. I can't even overtake speedily, let alone nip out of the way of trouble.

Up until the beginning of this month, I hadn't driven on a motorway in more than 18 months, although I had often been on busy - sometimes 3-lane - A roads. This was due to circumstance, rather than avoidance, but I was starting to worry that I would lose my nerve completely, if I didn't get in some practice.

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As it happened, I had to travel to the Midlands a couple of weeks ago and I was nervous as I set off on my journey of 100 miles or so up the M1.

Once in the flow of fast-moving traffic, I was plagued by visions of doom. I imagined every high-sided lorry that passed toppling onto my car and crushing me. I expected a tyre to blow out, or my engine to fail, at any moment. And every time the traffic slowed and began to bunch up, I envisioned a multi-vehicle pile-up.

Also, I couldn't help thinking of the neighbour whose car was written off, when a wheel came off a lorry on the opposite carriageway and bounced across the barrier onto her car bonnet. She and her passengers escaped with minor injuries, but it could have been a different story, had the wheel landed a split second later, on the roof.

It's this kind of unpredictability that those of us with OCD find hard to deal with. We seek comfort in compulsions that give a sense of control and seem to establish a degree of certainty over our environment and our lives. Certainty is an unachievable target, however, and trying to carry out compulsions while driving is likely to be counterproductive!

Other anxieties also come into play when I'm driving. Every time I smell smoke or burning, I assume it's a problem with my car. The same goes for any unusual noise. A couple of days ago, as I parked up, I noticed that my engine was 'roaring' - only to get out of the car and realise the sound was coming from a motorbike further up the road.

As an anxiety sufferer, my senses are on permanent high alert for problems, whatever the situation, but I've become even more nervous about my car, now that it's so old. My recent journey 'up north' has, at least, helped me to regain some degree of confidence on motorways. 

And I very much appreciate the convenience and freedom that driving affords me. Those benefits more than make up for all the associated anxieties: as is so often the case, facing your fears definitely has its rewards.

20 July 2016

Brexiety

Image courtesy of blackzheep/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
While I wouldn't wish OCD on anybody, if I see someone experiencing similar anxieties and responses in a non-OCD context, I welcome this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the condition by drawing parallels to 'normal' life.

Take, for instance, reaction to the recent EU referendum. 

I live in London, where the vote was in favour of 'Remain', and everybody I know was devastated by the result. The ensuing uncertainty about this nation's future was - and still is - the cause of most people's distress. And uncertainty is something that those with OCD find difficult, if not impossible, to tolerate. 

It's that inability to tolerate the unknown that leads to compulsions such as excessive hand-washing, to avoid contamination and illness, or repeatedly checking the front door is locked, to prevent a burglary. 

The disorder causes a myriad of other less well-known behaviours, many of which appear utterly illogical, having no basis in common sense or practicality. We all wash for sanitary reasons and lock up for security, but most of us don't, for example, feel compelled to perform actions a set number of times.

So how does all of this translate to the EU referendum result? 

In the immediate aftermath, the government's silence as to the way forward fuelled anxieties. One colleague repeatedly said - almost wailed - 'What's the plan? Why hasn't anybody told us what they're going to do?' 

A week or so after the result, she circulated an email with a link to a petition to 'Prosecute Nigel Farage* under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006'. Now clearly this petition wasn't going to provide clarity as to our future, but as she said 'I know there are so many [petitions] at the moment. I think signing them might be helping my feelings of helplessness.'

She wasn't the only one. People across the country have been driven to take action - any kind of action - to regain some sense of control. The uncertainty is just too great to sit idly by waiting for something to happen.

There's a very clear parallel between how all of these people are feeling and reacting in the wake of the referendum and how those with OCD feel and react on a day to day basis.

And so how was I faring in all of this? - surprisingly well, as it turned out.

My ordering compulsions are often triggered by distressing events on the world stage and I was certainly upset by the result. However, within a few days, I had resigned myself to it, concluding that there was little I could do to change things. 

I admit, I was quite surprised by this response, as I frequently worry about things I can't change. When I reflected on it, though, I realised that those anxieties are generally about situations where I can, at least, imagine the possible outcomes and consequences, such as, say, my car passing or failing its MOT.

In relation to 'Brexit', I don't know what all of the repercussions will be and, as a result, there's no clear focus for my anxiety. The uncertainty is just so huge that it's beyond comprehension and so - perhaps strangely - I've been able to stop worrying about it.

If you also now feel helpless and anxious in the face of an uncertain future, I'd ask you to spare a thought for those of us who live with that constant tyranny. It's really no fun at all, is it?

* * *

*Former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who fought for the country to leave the EU for years.

16 June 2016

Madam Speaker

Public speaking is an activity that fills many people with dread, not just those of an anxious nature. My own fear has its origins in an incident that took place when I was 17-years-old. 

At my secondary school, the upper sixth-form pupils had to take it in turns to read a bible passage at the lower school assembly. This meant joining the head teacher up on the stage, in front of hundreds of 11 to 14-year-olds. As a teenager, I was an introvert and the last thing I wanted was to be centre of attention. 

We were given no guidance as to how to deal with this challenge and by the time I stood up to deliver my reading, my heart was racing; my voice trembled so much that I was almost unintelligible. That experience was a poor foundation for handling similar situations in the future.

So intense is my dislike of speaking in public that I even avoid asking questions in group settings, unless I absolutely have to. Then I become so dizzy with nerves that I barely register the answer anyway.

I'm not much better in social environments. While I love to chat and to make people laugh, I can only cope with an audience of up to three. If a lull in surrounding conversations means more than that tune in to mine, I'm instantly uncomfortable. I'd be a great stand-up comedian, if only I could hold all my gigs in a wardrobe.

However, as a writer, giving talks is a great way to raise your profile and promote your work, so it was something I had to face. Not least because I also wanted to share my experience of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, in order to raise awareness and to help address the ongoing stigma around mental health.

Image courtesy of North Finchley Library
The first couple of talks, at local libraries, were as nerve-wracking as I'd expected. I had to put my glass of water on a shelf behind me, so that nobody could see my hand shaking when I took a sip. However, they seemed to go well and I received a good reception at both.

Last month, I gave three presentations for staff at my local council, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, and was surprised to find that my anticipatory nerves had gone. By the time it came to the second, I was actively looking forward to the event.

All the usual speakers' tips had failed to calm me previously, so what had changed? My increasing familiarity with my material probably helped, but I think the key factor was the positive response to my earlier talks. Now, at least, I was going in with the confidence that my audience wouldn't be bored rigid.

At every event, I've ended up chatting to people who either have a mental health problem themselves or know somebody who does. It's rewarding to be able to steer them in the direction of appropriate resources, or just to reassure them that they're not alone.

And I'm grateful that overcoming one of my anxiety demons means I can now do more to help others tackle their issues.

19 May 2016

Solitary confinement

When my last temporary assignment finished a week before Christmas, I resolved to give myself a month off before looking for permanent work. Fortunately, I received a job offer two months later and took up a new role three weeks after that.

Altogether, then, I was at home for just under four months - and the experience nearly sent me over the edge mentally.

The downslide began soon after I signed on. In the past, I've been short-listed for almost every job I've applied for and haven't been rejected for any that I really wanted, ie post interview. Now the only response to most of my applications was resounding silence.

Understandably, my stress levels rose, in spite of the fact that I had sufficient funds to tide me over for several months. My main concern was that my age might have catapulted me onto the employment shelf. And so long as I was out of work, I felt in limbo and unable to move on with the next phase of my life, which was immensely frustrating.

As the weeks passed, all sorts of old anxieties resurfaced - and were joined by new ones on a daily basis. I ricocheted from one obsessive thought to another with no let-up. People talk about losing their minds and that was exactly how it felt. It seemed as if mine had become a separate entity, with my thoughts running amok like a bunch of crazed Gremlins.

This period coincided with a sudden growth in my boyfriend's pet-sitting and dog-walking business, which meant he was working seven days a week. We live in different parts of London, so our time together dwindled almost to vanishing point.

Not only had I lost my work routine, but also my weekend one, and, as a result, all the associated people contact. I didn't see much of my friends, either, as I felt unable to relax and socialise when I didn't have a job. Often days went by when my only face-to-face human contact was with supermarket cashiers - and with Aldi's high-speed service, even that was fleeting.

I became aware that being home alone so much was contributing to my mental decline; I simply had too much time to think. Although I've always been happy in my own company, and never short of projects to occupy me (even when not job-hunting), I began to feel very isolated.

I'm now in the sixth week of my new part-time position, which means I'm out of the house for at least three days a week, which has definitely improved my mental state. In addition, learning new processes has occupied my brain to the extent that there's no room for my usual anxieties - at least, not while I'm at work.

Isolation is often a feature of mental health conditions and my recent experience has shown me how that isolation can actually make such conditions worse.

Image courtesy of sakhorn38/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Of course, it takes great effort and courage to break out of that situation, especially if you suffer from, say, depression or social anxiety. 

However, whether that break-out means securing a job, taking up a volunteering role, or just arranging to see a friend for coffee, the pay-off is definitely worth it.

4 May 2016

We've got talent

I spent a couple of months unemployed earlier this year and became very despondent at the initial lack of response to my job applications.

On reflection, it's likely that this was because I was targeting administrative positions in schools, for which competition is fierce and where preference is, naturally, given to those with past experience in that environment. 

My job centre advisor, however, asked me if I thought age discrimination was at play. Although that hadn't occurred to me, I had been speculating as to whether my mental health status was to blame.

I mention both my blog and my novel on my CV and in applications, as I feel my writing achievements demonstrate some good skills and personal qualities. Anybody checking out my website or my book would quickly get an insight into my 'issues'.

Eventually, I began receiving invitations to interview and I made reference to having OCD at all three that I attended; later I wondered if that contributed to the first two rejections. However, these were also for school jobs and feedback on one second place outcome was that it was due to my lack of experience within education.

It would, in fact, be hard for me to conceal the truth of my situation. An internet search of my name - a common practice amongst employers these days - would soon throw up the same information as I choose to share.

Given my relatively high profile online, an employer would inevitably find out about my background sooner or later, and if they don't like it, then we're probably not the right fit for each other anyway.

All kinds of health conditions can lead to talented people being overlooked, as the BBC programme Employable Me demonstrated. This three-part documentary series focussed on five men and one woman, who all had disorders that were impossible to hide face to face: Tourette syndrome, autism and Asperger syndrome, which is a form of autism.

For these individuals, job-hunting had proved a soul-destroying experience and most had failed ever to secure an interview. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Yet tests revealed they all had astonishing talents that could easily be put to good use in the right setting. Happily there was a positive outcome for each of them, either in terms of identifying a suitable career direction or in finding work.

Many of us have great skills to offer because our brains are wired differently, whether these skills are directly related to our condition or not. 

In my case, I'm extremely well organised and have an excellent eye for detail, which may have developed as a result of my OCD - which is focussed on order and symmetry - or vice versa. Either way, these abilities are part and parcel of my slightly unusual make-up.

For others, simply experiencing a mental illness - or any other challenging health condition - gives them a greater empathy for their fellow human beings, which can be helpful in a variety of work environments.

Employers will never know what they're missing unless they give a chance to those of us who are a little different.