30 December 2013

A novel resolution

I don't usually make New Year's resolutions, so 2014 will be an exception. I've only made one, but it's significant, as it will test my perfectionism to the limit: I'm going to self-publish my novel.

In spite of the increased legitimacy of self-publishing, I've resisted this until now. Partly because, like most authors, I'd hoped for the validation of a traditional publishing deal. Mainly, though, because the wealth of choices surrounding the self-publishing process is overwhelming. The fact that I will have to make all of the decisions is both an advantage and a disadvantage of taking this route to publication. 

The first, and possibly hardest, decision will be which company to use out of the many currently operating.

This won't be easy, given that I always research everything to the nth degree, whether household goods, holidays or a car, to ensure I select the best possible product. For something as important as my novel, it's imperative I get it right.

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
I'll also need to decide which of my chosen provider's packages is most appropriate: they all offer a wide range of services, from which authors can pick and mix. This will be determined both by my budget (as yet unknown) and by whether I have the time and expertise to tackle any elements myself - or with a little help from my friends. 

The next biggest hurdle will be letting go of the manuscript. Saying, once and for all, that it's 'good enough' will be extraordinarily hard, even after a professional copy edit and proofread. Knowing when to stop tinkering and checking is a problem I've written about before.

There are so many other choices to be made, too. I had trouble finalising the design of this blog and that isn't even set in stone. A hard copy book is an altogether different matter: I have no idea how I'll ever agree to a cover.

I plan to read as much about the process as I can - though I'll have to be careful not to turn that into never-ending procrastination - and to seek advice from existing self-published authors. Word-of-mouth recommendations and others' experience should help me to avoid some of the pitfalls.

The prospect of self-publication, and the many decisions it will entail, is daunting. It's also very exciting. Much more so than the alternative, of adding to my collection of rejections from agents and publishers: 45, if you include the 8 who never replied. 

I also have enough positive feedback to encourage me: from professionals, readers and, indeed, many of you who follow this blog. 

If I can accept, from the outset, that my novel won't be perfect - are any, after all? - I think I might just make it.

* * *

I'd love to hear your recommendations, tips or advice on self-publishing, if you've had experience of this.

23 December 2013

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree

It's that time of year again: time for the battle between my need for symmetry and perfection and the realities of putting up, and decorating, a Christmas tree.

My tree is artificial, but by no means symmetrical, and the decorations are a motley collection from which no patterns can be contrived.

All I can do is fall back on a set of rules I've developed that enable me to create as aesthetically pleasing a look as possible out of an unavoidable asymmetry:
Photos: Peter Gettins Photography

  • Cover the entire length of the fairy light wires with tinsel.
  • Ensure baubles of the same colour and/or design don't hang close to one another.
  • Hang each decoration at a different height to those adjacent to it.
  • Put larger decorations lower down the tree.
  • Make sure decorations depicting the same festive character/item aren't next to one another (this has the bonus of preventing any of the Santas from discovering - like Buzz Lightyear - that they're not the only one).

The lights make the process even harder. I have two strings of them and, whichever way I twist them around the tree, the same colours end up together. Last year, I tried to resolve this by moving some bulbs around, but that simply resulted in different clashes - there are only five colours and it's a small tree. 

This year, I decided to reinstate the default light order on each string - red, orange, blue, pink, green - to guarantee at least one pattern...even if it did lead to clashes on the tree. Which was fine until I got to the end of the strings and realised I'd previously had to replace a number of dead bulbs with spares of the wrong colour. Pattern aborted. 

It can take hours to achieve a look I'm satisfied with, although the moveable branches do help. Two baubles hanging at the same height?: twist one branch up and the problem's solved. 

The job isn't done then, though. For days afterwards, I'll keep spotting badly placed decorations and be compelled to drop what I'm doing to fix them. 

The evening of the day I put the tree up, my boyfriend, Pete, and I watched Die Hard yet again - it's almost compulsory at Christmas. Even Bruce Willis in a vest wasn't enough to stop me noticing wonky angels and wayward tinsel. I had to make mental notes of what to move during the ad breaks, rather than drive Pete potty by repeatedly leaping up and down from the sofa.

There is, nevertheless, some pleasure to be had from this difficult task. 

My decorations include a number of gifts and holiday souvenirs. As I hang each of these, I think of the person who gave them to me, or the associated trip. Those happy memories keep me going through the challenge.

Souvenirs (left to right) from the Peak District in England, Reykjavik in Iceland, and Longyearbyen on Svalbard (the Arctic archipelago also know as Spitsbergen) and. below, a gift from Pete

And, actually, I like the final, 'chaotic' result better than those trees that are themed with one colour and one type of bauble, and which ought to appeal to my OCD. My tree makes for a homely corner in an otherwise regimented environment.

Wishing you all happy holidays.

16 December 2013

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

One of the hardest things to explain about OCD is its contradictory nature.

How can a man with severe contamination issues have multiple tattoos? How can another, with the same problem, share his home with a cat? I've seen both examples in recent documentaries.

Photos: Peter Gettins Photography
The explanation is, actually, quite simple: OCD makes up its own rules. It dictates what is, or is not, acceptable.

This can confuse and upset friends and family, and may lead them to believe a sufferer is putting the condition on when it suits them. 

Some of my behaviours exhibit the same illogicality.

Whilst my OCD is mainly about order and symmetry, I also have a number of contamination-related compulsions.

For example, I won't eat anything that falls off my plate onto an uncovered table in a café or restaurant - or even a covered one if the tablecloth is less than pristine. However, I'll happily eat food that has fallen on the floor at home...providing it happens in the living room, rather than the kitchen. My OCD tells me that the carpet is clean, but the tiles aren't, in spite of the fact they get cleaned with the same (in)frequency.

And, as mentioned in a previous post, I wash the cutlery and crockery in holiday rental properties before using it, yet have no concerns about the silverware and plates when eating out.

Such contradictions are epitomised in my relationship with my boyfriend's cat, Bandit (pictured above and below, with me). 

I'm happy to have her sit on my lap, and to stroke her, but will then be compelled to wash my hands before I touch anything else. My clothes don't feel contaminated - although they're covered in fur - yet my hands do.

I also love to receive her damp, velvety nose rubs, but have no urge to wash my face afterwards. Incidentally, this is a form of greeting between cats who are friends, so is a real honour. 

Stranger still is the pleasure I take in burying my face in her fur, given that this is groomed by a tongue that regularly wraps itself around cat food (and mice and bugs). Without the aid of any fancy products, her fur is wonderfully soft and smells lovely.

I don't understand why I have to wash my hands after contact with Bandit, but not my face or my clothes. Or why I don't worry about 'germs' when I'm rubbing my nose and mouth over her fur. If I don't understand, I can't expect anyone else to.

What I do know, is that the rules and boundaries are different for each and every one of us with OCD.

* * *

If you have OCD, do you exhibit any contradictory behaviours? Or, if you know someone with the condition, perhaps you've witnessed this?

9 December 2013

A mark of disgrace

The first time I went to Winchester Writers' Conference was the first time I'd shared my novel with anyone. In the course of the event, I engaged in several 1 to 1s, including one with an agent, who had reviewed the synopsis and first chapter of my manuscript.

Her opening words were less than promising.

'I don't get this,' she said, scowling at me.

'I'm sorry, what do you mean?'

'Why hasn't she told her boyfriend she has obsessive-compulsive disorder?'

'Oh, I see. Well, because there's stigma around mental health conditions.'

'I don't think so, not these days,' she said. 'And why hasn't he asked her about it?'

'He's not aware of it. She hides what she does.'

This time her only response was a snort of disbelief. 

Image courtesy of Time to Change
My protestations that the story was based on my own experience - and knowledge - of OCD were to no avail. 

She did go on, however, to pass a number of compliments on the sample chapter and suggested I rewrite the novel to explore OCD in a different way.

'If you take that approach, I'd like to see it,' she encouraged me.

The trouble was, her initial comments had put me off. I'd like to think that she simply hadn't had any experience of this kind of stigma. She might not even have had any direct experience of mental health disorders. Or she might have just been an open-minded woman, who didn't entertain discriminatory thoughts, and couldn't imagine anyone else doing so. 

It was hard to see, though, how she could be oblivious to the existence of such stigma. 

The online Oxford Dictionary even uses mental health as an example in its definition of the word:

'A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. "the stigma of mental disorder".'

I decided not to rework my manuscript to her requirements, as I felt her view of any revised novel would always be coloured by a rather naïve perspective.

That was five years ago, and there is still, undoubtedly, stigma around mental health conditions, in spite of an increasing openness by sufferers, including many high-profile celebrities.

Across the media, I see reports from people experiencing discrimination. Ill-informed or tasteless comments, found everywhere from Twitter and Facebook to online news articles, serve only to prove the point.
Image courtesy of Time to Change

The Time to Change movement certainly wouldn't exist, if mental health stigma had been eradicated. You may have seen their television campaign earlier this year, encouraging people to talk about their conditions. Led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, they have the backing of tens of thousands of people, including numerous big names: from Gok Wan and Gary Lineker, to Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry.

Hopefully, with the help of such campaigns, generations to come will be able to look back on mental health stigma as a thing of the past.

2 December 2013

I don't want to miss a thing

Not only do I have a reading compulsion, but also a listening one, which means I go to great lengths to ensure I don't miss a word of conversation or dialogue. As with my reading and eating compulsions, it's all about a need for wholeness.

Face to face, I might ask people to repeat things, if I wasn't concentrating; even if what they said wasn't important and I've already caught the gist of it. 

It's trickier if I miss part of a lecture or talk, perhaps because I lose focus, or because, say, someone behind me coughs. I can hardly keep putting my hand up to interrupt the speaker.

It's equally important to me not to miss dialogue on screen. Modern technology renders television an easy medium to manipulate - and so makes it almost impossible to resist this aural compulsion. 

With the facility to pause and rewind even live television broadcasts, I find myself going back over the same short section of programme again and again, trying to catch exactly what was said. 

Sometimes even this doesn't help. Increasingly, actors seem to mumble, and if they also have an accent, I might as well be listening to Swahili. Regional accents can be hard enough, but I also watch a lot of American series, which only compounds the problem.

Frasier Crane in Frasier: Motor Skills (Season 8, Episode 11)
Photo: Peter Gettins Photography

That's where technology comes in once more; with subtitles. If a couple of re-runs of a scene don't help, I switch on the subtitles, rewind and have another go. Often, though, they're slow to kick in and I reach the sticking point before the words appear on screen. I have to rewind yet again, a bit further, to reveal the mystery dialogue.

At which point, I often discover that this has:

1. Contributed nothing to the plot (or the comedy, if the show has a comic element), or
2. Is still incomprehensible, as the words are an Americanism, a made-up science-fiction term, or specialist terminology in a subject I know nothing about.

This happened recently during an old episode of Frasier, where the scrambled words transpired to be 'shoulder noogie'. From an internet search, my best guess is that a 'noogie' is a painful poke or jab. Perhaps one of my readers Stateside can confirm?

Inevitably, this habit drags out the time it takes to watch anything and also ruins a story's momentum. So, lately, I've been trying to resist this urge and just pick up what I miss as the story unfolds.

Besides, it's only television: how much of it is really of any importance? No doubt I'm better off spending the time I reclaim in the real world.

* * *

I haven't encountered another OCD sufferer with this compulsion. If you have OCD, is this something you can relate to?

25 November 2013

Street life

Take my writer's curiosity and love of people-watching, add the fact that I live in a first-floor flat overlooking a busy road, and you have the makings of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Unlike James Stewart's character in Rear Window, I can't claim to have witnessed a murder - fortunately. I have, however, noticed a few people displaying OCD-style behaviours.

One man, whom I've seen several times, appears to have various compulsions associated with parking his car.

Our road is in a controlled parking zone, so is marked with bays, and the one opposite is only big enough for one large car, or a small car and a Smart car-sized vehicle. 

This particular driver is obsessed with fitting his small car centrally in this space. He repeatedly gets out to check its position, walking all around the car, before getting back in and moving it backwards or forwards. He does this several times before he's satisfied. 

Once the car is parked, he then sits in it for ages, scanning the inside, apparently checking the contents. 

And he is unable just to lock up and walk away. He comes back again and again, repeatedly circling the car and rattling the door handles. Sometimes he even gets back in to move it, or to check the interior once more.  

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
He can be stuck in this cycle of parking, checking and locking up for 10-15 minutes. As I go about my own business, I feel compelled to keep an eye on him, until he breaks free.

Meanwhile, one of the tenants in the house opposite often returns to check the front door is locked. 

Recently, he came out, locked up and disappeared out of sight down the street. He reappeared a moment later, jiggled the door handle and walked away again. This time, he only made it to the pavement before going back. He tested the handle again, removed his hand and turned away. Almost immediately, without taking a single step, he twisted back and tried it for the fourth, and last, time. 

Above, I described these behaviours as OCD-style, because I have no idea if either of these men actually has the condition.

However, an estimated 2-3% of the population do - making something in the region of 1.27-1.91m people nationally, based on the latest population figures (63.7m in August 2013). 

What if you take that down to street level? 

Internet research reveals there are 133 properties in my road. Assuming an occupancy of 2 people per household - probably somewhat low, as many are large family homes - that means an average of between 5 and 8 could have OCD just in this one quarter-mile stretch of London. 

That figure somehow makes the condition's impact more real to me than any national or global statistics. It also makes me feel a lot less isolated in living with it: maybe just a few doors away, so is someone else.

18 November 2013

Read it or weep

It hadn't occurred to me that my OCD influences the way I read, until I came across a blog by another writer with the condition.

Tina Fariss Barbour (not related) talks in one post about her compulsion to re-read until it 'feels right to move on'. Although I only do this occasionally, if my concentration wavers, Tina's experience made me think about my own reading habits.

I've always read quickly. At school, we sometimes had to share books in class, and I often had to wait - and wait - to be able to turn a page I'd long since finished. 

One primary school report also noted my 'insatiable appetite for reading'. As a child, I slept next to a window and, in the summer, would use my elbow to hold up the lower edge of the curtain so that I could read. When the daylight faded - or during the winter months - I'd sit in the doorway of the bedroom I shared with my sister, to benefit from the landing light. I preferred to miss sleep and risk hypothermia, than stop reading. Only the sound of my parents coming upstairs would send me scampering back to bed.

But, as I got older, that healthy appetite for reading turned into something more of a nuisance. 

When I started to read newspapers, I felt compelled to read every word. I'd plough through articles from beginning to end, on subjects I wasn't interested in, or barely understood. In spite of reading quickly, each newspaper became a project occupying two or three days. Tackling one of the heavyweights was out of the question: it would have taken me weeks to finish. 

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
Over the years, I managed to cut this down to reading only the first few lines of a story, to see if it was of interest, or skim-reading to get the gist of it.

However, the compulsion resurfaced later in relation to magazines. I'm a regular reader of the monthly Writing Magazine and Writers' News and took to scrutinising articles on every kind of writing imaginable: tanka, haiku, horror, travel... You name it, if I wasn't going to do it, I read about it. Magazines piled up unread, month after month. That pile finally forced me to accept that, if I wasn't going to engage in a particular form of writing, I didn't have to read about it.

It goes further than papers and magazines, though: I can't stand half-reading anything. 

If I walk past a shop and only absorb part of something written on a sign, I have to go back and read the whole thing. No matter if the information conveyed is of no interest or use to me.

When I'm with someone else, I try to resist doing this. Otherwise, I'll have to come up with an explanation as to why I've reversed up the pavement to stare at the window of, say, a kebab shop.

This urge is not just about the fear of missing something; it's also about achieving a sense of wholeness. That same sense of wholeness I seek when eating

A reading compulsion may be a less well-known manifestation of OCD, but it just goes to show the wide variety of insidious ways the condition can control someone’s life.

11 November 2013

Tug of war

I posted recently that Week 2 of my attempt to reduce my compulsions had begun with a fresh set of rules: dropping some habits and adopting a new, 'one touch' only approach to putting things down.

No sooner had I started following these rules, than my OCD told me I needed more. What it suggested, though, would have served only to draw me back into its trap of obsessive order and symmetry.

The first time I put the soap back on the corner of the bath, I placed it diagonally across the space. As I let go, it swivelled through 90 degrees, to point into the bath. My hand moved back towards it, but, no, I wasn't allowed to touch it again; I'd just have to tolerate the soap's wonky position until I next used it. When no doubt the same thing would happen, as it would be equally wet and slippery. My OCD had an idea: create a new rule to cover the soap's unpredictable behaviour. I thought about it, but everything I came up with seemed to be just an excuse to bow to my compulsions, so I resisted.

Then the shampoo bottle slipped out of my grasp, as I went to replace it in its designated spot, which left it standing askew. My OCD tried again: of course, you can have another go, if you drop something, it said.

On another occasion, as I put one item back, I nudged something else out of place, which I hadn't even used. That doesn't count, my OCD reassured me, feel free to put it straight.

Image courtesy of meepoohfoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
All week, I battled with that nagging voice, continually trying to twist things in its favour. Somehow, I managed to stick to my original rules, but it wasn't easy.

An email from a fellow writer, Doug Allwright, helped to spur me on through these challenges. Doug had read about how I turn the wooden light pull in my bathroom so that a particular pattern in the grain faces me. In response, he wrote, 'Think of all the grain being beautiful rather than just a part of it. After all it was the life of the tree.' A lovely thought, which I was grateful he had shared.

On into Week 3, during which a combination of work and personal factors led to both increasing anxiety and insomnia. Tired, and with my mind elsewhere, it was hard to focus on breaking my habits, and I found myself slipping back into my old behaviours.

My boyfriend and I went on holiday the following week, so I was away from my usual environment and forced to put my efforts on hold until we got back.

However, when I returned home, I had an urge to re-stamp my authority on my territory and took the conscious decision to give in to my compulsions until I'd unpacked. I just couldn't cope with any more 'mess' alongside the muddle of bags and boxes littering my flat.

So, four weeks on, had I simply arrived back at square one? Not quite. The exercise had been a useful learning experience, and I'd developed both a clearer idea of my goals and new tactics to achieve them. 

The tug of war with my OCD continues.

4 November 2013

Criminal representation

My heart sometimes sinks at the way OCD is misrepresented on screen; as in a recent episode of the American crime drama, CSI: New York

On this occasion, the crime scene investigators are pursuing a serial killer, who is using the board game Cluedo (Clue as it's known in the States) as the basis for whom he kills, where and how.

As the story develops, it transpires that he's been seeing a psychiatrist since he was 13, and has fallen in love with her. As an adult, he reveals his feelings to her, but becomes angry when she explains that she doesn't - and can't - reciprocate his love. She's forced to refer him to another doctor and he seeks revenge for her rejection by killing people she cares about: two of the three victims are also her patients and his last, failed target is her fiancé. 

So far, no complaint from me.

In the course of the investigation, though, the team finds out that the psychiatrist was treating the killer for depression and OCD. This is mentioned in passing, as a throwaway remark. Anyone who is unfamiliar with these conditions might, therefore, conclude that they were to blame for his becoming a killer. No other psychological explanation is offered as to how his behaviour has escalated to murder. We know that he's angry with his therapist, but that doesn't seem enough to explain such cold, premeditated killings. Viewers are bound to latch onto any named condition as the real reason for them.
Image courtesy of Kittisak/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I'd like to think that the writers of the show knew better, and that this wasn't their intention. However, tossing OCD and depression into the mix was bound to leave some viewers with the impression that homicidal tendencies are part and parcel of these conditions.

It's true that many people with OCD suffer intrusive thoughts of a violent nature, for example, pushing someone under a train or stabbing a loved one. Research shows, though, that people without OCD have these, too. Most of us, however, can easily dismiss them for what they are, ie just thoughts. 

Someone experiencing these as a manifestation of OCD places far greater meaning on them and fears that having the thought means they will act on it. The fact that this notion causes them great distress proves they won't - to everyone but them. 

Of course, there are real-life incidences of murderers who happen to have OCD, but that doesn't mean having OCD makes you a murderer!

This kind of casual, unthinking reference to mental health conditions is immensely damaging. No wonder there is still stigma and fear surrounding many of them, if people associate them with murder.

Thank goodness we have OCD sufferer, Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler, in ITV's Whitechapel, to help redress the balance in favour of the good guys.

 * * *

A couple of days after publishing this post, I Tweeted the two writers of this episode of CSI: New York - Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt - seeking their comments.

Bryan Wynbrandt replied: 'OCD is why he was being treated. He killed because he was misguidedly in love. Apologies if u were offended.'

I appreciate that it's difficult to respond fully in 140 characters, but I can't help feeling he has missed the point. I live in hope that my post will make him think about how he writes about mental health conditions in future.

28 October 2013

Rules of engagement

Towards the end of last month, I embarked on a fresh attempt to reduce my compulsions and promised to report back on how this went.

I started by setting some ground rules, ie I would:

1. Restrict this exposure and response prevention (ERP) exercise to the bathroom.

2. Put things down with no attempt to position them.

3. Only be allowed to check that the window was locked once before I went out and once before I went to bed.

4. Only be allowed to verify by sight that the taps weren't dripping (rather than by tightening them so hard that I could hardly turn them on again).

These guidelines led to a number of unexpected challenges over the next few days.

Firstly, in restricting my efforts to one room, I effectively had to turn my OCD off and on. This proved difficult, but I couldn't risk extending the 'messing up' to other areas, for fear I'd be overwhelmed - as has happened before.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
Then I began to wonder whether it was avoidance to put something down and walk away without looking at it. Most people probably do that, but ERP means actively facing your discomfort and anxiety, so I forced myself to linger and look at the wonky shampoo bottle, liquid soap dispenser, etc.

Their displacement didn't initially trouble me. The mind is a tricksy beast, though. Later, I realised I was unconsciously trying to straighten the dispenser while using it; watching my fingers adjusting the container was like an out-of-body experience.

I resolved to pay more attention to what I was doing. It became apparent, however, that I would have to re-learn how to just put things down, rather than position them. I'd lost sight of what normal behaviour was and had nothing to judge mine against.

Until my boyfriend came over for the weekend. Going into the bathroom after him, and seeing the towel ruffled up and the soap dispenser and toothbrush holder askew, I was reminded: this is what normal looks like.

The question was, did I really want that?

A colleague had asked me why I was trying to change my behaviour. I'd been thinking about this and had realised that only certain habits troubled me: the ones I got stuck on, or which had no grounding in practicality or logic, such as leaving the door open a certain amount.

And so, I revised my rules. I identified the compulsions I wanted to drop completely and, for the rest, adopted a 'one touch' only approach. Returning to items again and again was, by far, the most time-wasting feature of my habits. Now I would permit myself to position objects as I put them down, but there would be no going back once I'd let them go.

Although I've heard it said that even quick OCD is still OCD, key elements distinguishing the condition are the distress it causes and the time it takes up. It seemed reasonable to me, therefore, to refocus my efforts on the compulsions that bothered me most.

Week 2 started with my new rules of engagement. Watch this space to find out where they took me.

* * *

Please note that the above is a personal strategy for dealing with my OCD, which may not be suitable for other sufferers. If you think you have OCD, please consult your GP for professional advice.

21 October 2013

Trigger unhappy

With OCD, you never know what might unexpectedly exacerbate it, or even trigger new compulsive behaviours.

In the years since my diagnosis, I've watched many a documentary about the condition, without any adverse effect. Lately, though, a couple of programmes have put ideas into my head as to potential new 'risks' and associated compulsions.

On one, a woman was shown wiping down every item of shopping before putting it away. I'd never thought to do this, and I don't propose to start, however, it did make me think about my approach to food preparation. I always wash my hands beforehand - as, I imagine, does everyone - but then, inevitably, have to touch the packaging of various products. While watching this woman, it suddenly occurred to me that this contact must, surely, undermine that initial hand-washing?

Even just making a cheese sandwich necessitates handling a bread bag, cheese wrapper and margarine tub, yet I don't wash my hands again before touching the actual food. In spite of doing this all my life - without suffering repeated stomach upsets - I now felt the need to wash my hands more frequently. So far, I've resisted doing this, but the seed of the idea has been sown.
Image courtesy of akeeris/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

More recently, a participant in BBC3's excellent Extreme OCD Camp had to face his fear of drinking from a glass in a café. Seeing the difficulty he was having, I found myself thinking, 'That really is revolting. Why would anyone drink from a glass someone else's lips have been on? What if it hasn't been cleaned properly?' You'll know from last week's post that I don't usually have issues with using crockery in public venues. Again, I haven't changed my behaviour, but the thought could resurface at a later date and lead to a new compulsion.

It's not just programmes about mental health that are a hazard. On a recently broadcast edition of QI, a question came up as to what was the most effective element of hand-washing in terms of killing bacteria: the answer was the vigour with which you rub your hands. For weeks afterwards, I rubbed mine harder, once more ignoring the fact that I generally have good digestive health. Fortunately, I've since been able to go back to my usual level of hand-washing.

While broadcasters use content warnings to protect viewers from unwittingly coming across subject matter that might provoke upsetting or damaging memories or reactions, they could hardly be expected to predict that a comedy quiz show might be a risk.

I certainly didn't anticipate that these programmes would mentally ambush me in this way. It just goes to show how little it can take to push someone further along the OCD spectrum.

14 October 2013

Cruel to be kind

The friends and family of OCD sufferers can often end up pandering to their compulsions, in a bid to relieve their distress. Sometimes, this even leads to the non-sufferer enacting these themselves.

One television documentary about the condition featured a woman who engaged in constant checking to avoid losing things. Her husband spent hours going through the contents of bins with her, to reassure her that she hadn't thrown away anything important. He was completely embroiled in her OCD behaviours, which occupied so much of their time that neither of them was able to work.

Providing reassurance, at a lower level, may seem the kindest, most expedient, course of action: how could it possibly do any harm, for example, to reassure someone that a door is locked? In fact, it's the worst thing to do, as OCD feeds off reassurance. The condition makes its victims constantly doubt what they see, believe or are told, and drives them to seek an absolute certainty that can never be provided. Reassurance only leads to the need for more reassurance.

As I live alone, there is rarely anyone available to provide this, even if I were to request it. In fact, I have to trust my own eye as to whether things are symmetrical or ordered correctly, as only I know my 'rules'. 

I do, however, also suffer with some contamination issues, and my boyfriend, Pete, complies with a related compulsion that I engage in to deal with one of them.
Image courtesy of patpitchaya/

We take a lot of self-catering holidays in the UK, always staying in good quality rental properties. Yet, no matter how clean our holiday home is, I can't bring myself to use the crockery, cutlery, pans etc until I've washed them. Otherwise, I'm plagued by the worry 'What if that knife/glass/plate is dirty? What if it makes me ill?' 

Before we can even have our first cup of tea after our journey, I'm up to my elbows in hot water and washing-up liquid. Pete will then also wash subsequent items we use, knowing how I feel about this. I'm still likely to ask 'Have you washed that?', if I see him cooking, or laying the table, with something new.

As with many OCD compulsions, this is quite illogical, as I happily use crockery and cutlery in restaurants, where I have no way of guaranteeing their cleanliness.

It wasn't until our last trip, in June, that I realised there was an obvious solution to this problem. As most of our cottages have a dishwasher, why not simply load it up as soon as we arrive? 

So, that's what we did, filling it with a large selection of items we were likely to need. We left the machine to do its work, while we enjoyed our first dinner in the local pub...with me happily using their plates and cutlery.

As I opened the dishwasher at the end of its cycle, the steam billowing out was all the reassurance I needed.

This time-saving tactic will make it hard - if not impossible - to give up this compulsion in future, but it will, at least, reduce its impact on my nearest and dearest.

By the time you read this, we'll be on our next holiday, in Dorset. And, yes, the cottage is equipped with a dishwasher.

7 October 2013

Decisions, decisions

One consequence of being a perfectionist is that you can be hopelessly indecisive about the most trivial things. 

I have trouble, for example, choosing from a set menu of three starters, three mains and three desserts, for fear I won't like what I end up with, and will ruin my evening out. Of course, that kind of menu only offers 27 possible permutations for my meal. Give me a multi-page one and my dining partner is likely to have expired from starvation by the time I've made up my mind.

I didn't think creating this blog would entail too many decisions. Blogger is a free service, so I assumed I'd have a very limited range of designs to choose from.

Not a bit of it; I was presented, at every step of the way, with a wide array of formatting options. First, there were dozens of choices for the basic background and layout. Then a multitude of font types, sizes and colours - in fact, the entire colour chart was at my disposal. I had to select a font not just for the blog heading, but also the post headings, post text, link text, tab text... The font features alone must have generated a billion permutations.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
And I was determined to explore every level of every formatting and design menu, to ensure I didn't miss anything crucial to creating the perfect look. Every one of those avenues generated thousands more permutations.

For guidance, I went back to the blogs I'd previously researched, but that only confused me more, revealing new elements I hadn't yet considered. That earlier research really should have given me an appreciation of the vast range of designs that would, in fact, be available to me.

All this was before I'd even started installing Blogger's 'Gadgets' - special features - on my site. The initial list offered 27, from which I began with the basics, such as 'Subscribe by Email', 'My Blog List' and 'Links'. 

'There must be more,' I moaned to my boyfriend - though why I wanted more choices to complicate matters, I don't know. He spotted the 'More gadgets' link...which then gave me a mere 871 to peruse. I resolved to review them all: if I didn't, who knew what gems I might overlook? By the second page, I'd given up: 'The Daily Puppy', 'Body Mass Index Calculator' and 'Darth Vader Quotes' weren't quite what my blog needed.

Eventually, sense prevailed and I resolved that, providing I liked what I'd produced, I should stop tinkering. If I hadn't, I'd still be designing the site now, half a year on. 

I'm happy with its final, uncluttered look, in spite of realising, too late, that I'd inadvertently emulated my work's corporate colour scheme.

* * *

My blog is six months old this week. I'd love to hear what you think of it and whether you, too, like the look of it.

30 September 2013

Location location location

Earlier this year, I received news at work that sent my anxiety levels sky-high. 

Was I under threat of redundancy? Did they expect me to take on extra responsibilities? Had a colleague resigned? 

No, the news was that they proposed to move our team of six to another bank of desks.

For most people, the idea of shifting 30ft to the left would probably be no more than mildly irritating. For me, it was a truly daunting prospect. I had no desire to uproot myself from the comfortable nest I'd created: after nearly two years, the patterns of the objects on my desk, and in my drawers, were well established. 
Image courtesy of cbenjasuwan/

Prior to transferring to that area, I'd worked a split week of two days there and three in my old office, which had enabled me to prepare gradually for the permanent move.

I'd spent a huge amount of time, after office hours, cleaning all the surfaces with antiseptic wipes, emptying out the previous occupant's belongings, and deciding where to put mine. That quiet time had given me the privacy to straighten and order for as long as I'd needed to, without attracting odd looks or irritating others. I wouldn't have the luxury of doing that, if I had to relocate again.

For weeks, I hoped against hope that the move wouldn't happen. It wasn't actually practical, as it would take us further away from the managers we worked with. Maybe somebody would see sense and the decision would be reversed? 

It was not to be.

The move was complicated by the fact that I would be on leave at the time. So, not only did I have to wind up my work for my holiday, but also pack my stuff into boxes. I would then return to a muddle, while my colleagues would already be established in their new homes, having moved the day before. 

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono/
And I'd have to create my new order in front of them. Ideally, I'd have copied the layout of my old desk, but the new one was a different shape, necessitating a complete re-think as to what went where. 

I dreaded going back to work.

The first task, when I returned, was to wipe down my desk and all of the equipment. I felt I needed to explain myself, but my colleagues reassured me that they had done the same. They also admitted to having spent most of the morning getting settled in. Time-wise, at least, that took the pressure off.

Predictably, of course, they were all too busy to pay attention to what I was doing, which also reduced my stress. 

In the end, I managed to set up my new nest in less than an hour and a half, and feel comfortable enough in it to get on with tackling the holiday backlog. It took me months, though, to get used to the new patterns and to stop reaching for things in the wrong place. 

Thank goodness we don't have to hot-desk like most of our colleagues: setting up my desk from scratch on a daily basis would hardly be conducive to getting through the 'to do' list.

23 September 2013

Four steps forward, three steps back

In mid-April, I posted that I was going to tackle some of my compulsions and report back on progress. Five months on, I'm sorry to say that this has been almost non-existent.

I started small: with the wooden light pull in my bathroom. You might recall that I'm compelled to turn this pull around so that a particular pattern in the grain faces me. The first time I resisted doing this, it was surprisingly easy to walk away. That single, tiny mutiny against my OCD felt good. 

For about five seconds. 

As I settled down in front of the TV, a vision popped into my mind of that teardrop of wood hanging any old how. I managed to fight the urge to get up and adjust it, but the image kept coming back to me and I could hardly concentrate on what I was watching.

Over the next few days, I took on my compulsions in three other areas: the way I put clothes away in my sock drawer and my wardrobe, and how I store my keys.

For the sock drawer, I replaced my 'fingertip ironing' with a 'pair-'em-up-and-drop-'em-in' approach. In the wardrobe, I kept the hangers facing the same way, but didn't tweak them to ensure they were sitting straight on the rail without touching each other (as in the photo).

Photo: Peter Gettins Photograghy
My keys, which are held on three fobs and kept in an internal pocket in my handbag, are subject to even more fiddly rules. I usually lay them out along the pocket, with the keys facing the same way, and a specific one in each bunch resting against the back wall. The connecting metal ring is also rotated so that the fobs sit at the notch. I gave up all that palaver and settled for checking only that all three sets were in the pocket.

Unfortunately, I've resumed all of these compulsions, except for those relating to the keys.

My failure to resist the others has mostly been down to lack of effort. Sometimes, though, I've engaged in them deliberately, as a treat. I find myself thinking, 'Go on, you've been doing so well. Turn the pull around, just this once. It'll make you feel better.' Because, the truth is, everything still feels wrong when I don't apply my usual order to my environment. 

Exposure is supposed to reduce anxiety, but, so far, mine has never completely disappeared. I may be able to walk away from the so-called mess I've made, and even leave it like that for several days, but the consequence is a constant niggling in my brain. My mind is left as frayed as my environment looks. 

And then there are those days when I tell myself, 'Hey, don't worry, you can start another day/week/month. You can give this up whenever you choose.' Like a smoker or overeater, alcoholic or drug addict, who doesn't realise the hold their vice has on them.

It's true that I can give up my OCD behaviours, but only if I really try. Recovery won't happen just because I say it can. It also won't happen easily, or without some discomfort and anxiety.

So, I've resolved to start again. This time, I'll focus on the bathroom - until I'm up to taking the battle further afield - and I promise to post about this again by the end of October. That pledge will, in itself, help me to stay on track.

And next time you eat a doughnut, telling yourself 'the diet starts tomorrow,' I hope you'll think of me trying to resist my compulsions.

16 September 2013

Getting it write

The sub-title of this blog is 'life as a writer with obsessive-compulsive disorder', and a fellow writer has asked me how I think the condition affects my creativity.

The first challenge for any writer is to generate ideas and every writing tutor encourages the practice of noting these down as and when they occur, to provide a stockpile for days when inspiration is in short supply.

Sure enough, I have notebooks and folders and loose sheets of paper full of snatches of conversation and descriptions, settings and plot ideas. And sometimes I do, indeed, dip into them.

But what of all those nuggets that I'll never turn into stories or incorporate in a novel? As I hate things to be incomplete, these niggle away at me and create a kind of mental mess. This mess has, in fact, become so overwhelming that I now only add to the physical pile if the idea seems an absolute gem, which I'm sure I'll have time to develop.

Image courtesy of Nutdanai
And yet, I've read other writers complaining that they, likewise, have so much material they either can't decide what to write next, or can't find that great, partially developed idea they know is somewhere in the morass.

We're led to believe writers have to be messy to be truly creative - which was what provoked my friend's question in the first place. Messiness is indicative of a mind full of ideas, a mind that is uninhibited and open to anything. Too much mess, though, and you're in trouble: whether it's because you can't focus, or you've simply lost that vital piece of research.

When it comes to the actual writing, I'm slow, oh, so slow. I need to structure a story in my head before I put finger to keyboard. I have to do all my research and think about it, and then think about it some more. 

This may be a result of my methodical, perfectionist way of thinking; that desire not to miss anything, or get anything wrong. However, I'm not the only one who plans like this. I've heard countless published authors speak: some profess to be planners, others not. Most are, at one time or another, subject to procrastination, which sometimes disguises itself as planning.

Perfectionism certainly has pros and cons when it comes to editing. That determination to get things right carries me through numerous re-drafts, where others might give up before a piece is ready for submission. 

Image courtesy of bplanet/
The difficulty for any writer is knowing when to stop tinkering: too much reworking can destroy a piece's freshness. I suspect I find this letting go harder than most.

Much of my experience is possibly, therefore, just part and parcel of the writer's lot, rather than a result of my OCD.

Sometimes, though, I think I'd be better suited, as a perfectionist, to an activity with more objective measures of completion and success. Like archery, for example. I suppose it's not too late to try...anyone got a bow and arrow?

* * *

If you're a writer, how does your experience of the process compare with mine?