26 August 2013

It's better to give than to receive

Many people don't like Christmas or birthdays, whether due to a dread of spending time with their so-called 'nearest and dearest', a dislike of being a year older, or fear of a surprise party.

I find these events a challenge for an entirely different reason: the presents. The problem is not that I have to buy them, but that I have to receive them.

I know; most people love getting presents. The issue for me, though, is how to fit these gifts into my immaculately ordered life. Each of my current belongings has a designated - very precise - place in my environment, and is integral to the long-established patterns that I've created around me. 

If I introduce a new item, I have to re-jig those patterns to accommodate it, which is hard to do, when I'm so used to them and so unsettled by change.
Image courtesy of:

Even if I do succeed in shuffling everything around to create a different, but equally acceptable arrangement, there is a mental adjustment to be made. It takes a long time for the new layout not to jar or trigger a feeling of discomfort. This discomfort is the same as I experience if I accidentally knock something out of place, or engage in an exposure and response prevention exercise.

As soon as I've opened any gifts, I make a display of them, devising a unique pattern for each, which provides a degree of integration into my world. My OCD permits these ad hoc displays because it views them as temporary, and because they don't disrupt my existing patterns.

In fact, I often leave these in my living room for months, rather than have to find new homes for the contents. Hidden in a gift bag under a table, I still have a few cards and presents from last Christmas, Valentine's Day and birthday, which I haven't yet managed to put away.

Over the years, I've devised a way of dealing with this dilemma. When preparing the present wish-lists we exchange in our family, I focus on:

1. Things that are replacements for worn-out items - one in, one out, pattern maintained.

2. Products that I regularly use, which are both easily stored - usually out of sight - and quickly consumed, so that they won't become permanent residents, such as wine, chocolate or my favourite face cream. 

3. Vouchers for 'experiences'. Events already tackled, or yet to come, this year are falconry, climbing the O2 and afternoon tea at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. 

Vouchers are my favourite kind of present. After all, whether you have ordering OCD or not, isn't it better to live life and create great memories, than just accumulate material goods?

19 August 2013

A problem shared

At the point at which I first sought help from my very understanding GP, I didn't know what was wrong with me. All I knew was that I was being driven to behave in a way that I didn't want to and that was having a detrimental effect on my life.

After I'd tearfully described the terrible year I'd had to my doctor, she responded, 'Well, no wonder you're in a pickle,' and referred me to an occupational therapist. 

Prior to this, I'd laboured under the misapprehension that occupational therapy was only used for people with physical injuries sustained through work (the 'occupational' bit). Occupational therapists, in fact, not only treat a wide range of physical injuries and disabilities, but also psychiatric conditions, and may elect to specialise in mental health.

I was uncomfortable about explaining my situation at work and covered my absences, for the appointments, with the vague term, 'medical treatment'. There is still stigma around mental health issues today, but an increasing openness. At the time I underwent that initial treatment, in the mid-90s, such issues were cocooned in silence. 

Image courtesy of: Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I was nervous about the first session, being unsure what to expect. Therapy conjured up visions of people lying on couches pouring out their angst - mainly Woody Allen characters.

My trepidation only increased when I met my therapist - let's call him Dan - who appeared to be barely out of his teens. As soon as I heard his American accent, though, I was reassured. Our US cousins were accustomed to therapy and 'shrinks', even back then - whatever was wrong with me, I was sure it wouldn't faze Dan.

I was right. No matter what I presented to him by way of weird behaviour, he had encountered something yet more weird. On one occasion, I described my compulsion to pile my crockery with the pattern facing the same way; he told me that some people wouldn't use their crockery at all, to avoid any disruption to their ordered environment.

In spite of being reasonably comfortable with Dan, I still sometimes held back. 

He first put the name, obsessive-compulsive disorder, to my problem, and, for one homework, asked me to write up a list of my compulsions for us to discuss. I prepared the list - then promptly edited it. Seeing my activities itemised in black and white made me realise, a) just how many there were, and b) how ridiculous most of them seemed. 

A lack of honesty with your therapist is hardly conducive to a good relationship, or helpful to your recovery, but I still had a lot to learn about all that.

At least I'd made a start. And not on a dreaded couch, just an NHS plastic chair.

12 August 2013

Cloud(s) nine

My late friend, Nicki (pictured right), was a talented artist, who loved to paint landscapes, clouds and trees. When one of her beloved cats died, she resolved to produce one cloud painting every week for a year, in her memory.
Photo: Jan Price

When Nicki herself died, after a long battle with cancer, she left me the unexpected legacy of nine of these foot-square canvasses. She had put this particular set up in her living room and I decided to hang them in mine in the same 3 by 3 configuration.

My OCD turned this into a major challenge.

Obviously, I couldn't settle for anything less than evenly spaced, and straight, rows and columns, so splashed out on a two-foot long spirit level. Armed with this, a hammer, nails, pencil, rubber, reusable tack and sheets of blank paper, I set to - already stressed by my flat being a 'mess' of tools and bubble-wrapped paintings.

There was another OCD hurdle to clear first, though. 

I planned to put the paintings above my coffee table and had to move it out of the way to reach the wall. If you're a regular reader, you'll know how difficult I find it to move things out of their usual position. Not only had I now added out-of-place furniture and ornaments to the chaos, but I faced the daunting task of putting them back correctly afterwards. 

Next, I had to decide on the general position of the paintings, which took nine sheets of paper, a wad of tack and several attempts. Key was that they should be centred to the coffee table...which was now on the other side of the room. I had to be guided, instead, by the marks its legs had left in the carpet. 

Then it was just a simple matter of deciding how far apart the pictures should be and measuring out accordingly from the centre one. Simple, except I had to calculate and recalculate this a dozen times - I didn't want to hammer nine nails into my pristine wall, only to have to move them and mutilate it even more.

Once I was sure of my sums, I began measuring up, down and sideways with the spirit level, marking the position of each nail in pencil. For every one, I checked, and re-checked, and checked again to ensure the bubble was dead centre in its tiny glass prison and that my measurements were accurate. No way were any pictures of mine going to be wonky or unevenly spaced. No siree.

At last, I was able to hang the frames. I put each one directly onto its nail, ensuring it was in the middle, to avoid the pictures tilting. Perfect.

I stepped back to admire my handiwork...and realised that the gaps between the pictures were all uneven. How on earth had that happened, after all my efforts?

I couldn't shift the paintings along the nails, to even up the gaps, as they'd just tip sideways, and, as my measuring seemed to be spot-on, I couldn't see how moving the actual nails would help, either. 

The only solution was to slide the frames along the nails and then use tack on each corner to keep them straight.

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
Paintings: Nicki Price

Believe me, I can see the irony in trying to impose symmetry on paintings representing clouds, which produce an infinite variety of patterns, no two ever the same. 

Whenever I see a beautiful cloud formation, I think of Nicki. Tomorrow is the 4th anniversary of her death, so I'm hoping for a special sky to celebrate an extraordinary friend.

* * *

PS I sent this post to Nicki's mum and sister for their approval before publication. Her sister came back with the following crucial information: 'The canvasses are all slightly different sizes and some slightly misshapen. You'd never have succeeded with a spirit level alone!!' Now she tells me...

5 August 2013

Sleepwalking to a cure?

Not only am I a perfectionist, I'm also a somnambulist - a sleepwalker. Strangely, it was my OCD that helped me to realise this.

The first clue was when, one morning, I noticed that a magnetic photo frame was in a lower position than usual on the fridge door. It did occur to me that I might have adjusted it in my sleep, but I quickly dismissed the idea, as moving the frame seemed such a pointless thing to do: I'm too logical to accept that sleepwalking activities might not be. I persuaded myself that it had slipped down the door - yet somehow not fallen off.

Next, it was a floppy toy dog relocating itself overnight from its usual perch, on the back of a chair in my bedroom, to the seat. Occasionally, I do find things out of place, if I've been interrupted during my ordering, so there was a chance I'd left it there. The dog was sitting with its head resting on its front paws, though, so had obviously been placed in position, rather than abandoned.
Image courtesy of: Feelart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Then, again overnight, a mug turned up six inches to the left of its usual place in the kitchen cupboard. This time I knew I hadn't (consciously) put it there, as I'd left it to dry on the draining rack the previous evening, along with other items that I hadn't yet put away.

The night I woke to find myself standing in front of my wardrobe, with no idea why, was proof that I was prone to sleepwalking - and that I had, in all likelihood, moved the frame, dog and mug in my sleep.

The latest incident was a few weeks ago, when the heatwave started. Before going to bed, I folded up the cover I use over my duvet and left it on the floor, with a pillow and plastic bag of new clothes standing on top of it. I woke in the night, baking hot, to find the cover spread over my duvet, with no recollection of how it had got there. In the morning, I discovered the pillow and bag toppled over on the floor.

So, what I've also now realised is that my sleepwalking brain doesn't seem to have compulsive tendencies, and defies my usual 'rules' about where, or how, I place things. The pillow and bag may only have been in a temporary position, but I'd have been compelled to restore them to that position if I'd been awake. In fact, I'd probably have put the light on to ensure I left them standing just as neatly. My sleepwalking brain had no such qualms, happily leaving them any-old-how.

Apparently, sleepwalkers wake in a state of low consciousness that allows them to perform activities they're unaware of. If I could only operate in that state all of the time, it would make fighting my compulsions a whole lot easier.