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?

9 September 2013

Matching parts

In terms of my appearance, I'm as low maintenance as it gets. I don't bother with make-up or manicures, don't have my hair dyed, and have no interest in clothes or shoes.

Unfortunately, there's no escaping a degree of essential body maintenance, which my need for symmetry can make 10 times more time-consuming than it should be.

One such job is cutting and filing my nails. My OCD sets me one goal, which is that exactly the same amount of white should be left visible on each nail. The easiest way to accomplish this, is to aim for a white edge about a millimetre wide. 
Image courtesy of Praisaeng/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Except, all too often, I get carried away and one nail ends up with no edge at all, which means I have to file them all down to nothing to match. This carries the risk of intruding into the area where the nail attaches to the skin. Before I know it, I'm sawing into my flesh, half my fingertips are bleeding, and I can't hold anything properly for the next three days. Opposable thumbs are no use whatsoever, when they throb with pain every time you pick something up.

An even harder job is getting my eyebrows the same shape. Arguably, eyebrow topiary is veering out of essential maintenance into pampering, but I'm at risk of developing a monobrow without some pruning. I've already been called 'sir' half a dozen times in the last year - I assume because tall + short hair = man - and don't want to be mistaken for Noel Gallagher.

This task has been taking me longer and longer in recent years, the time increasing exponentially with the diminishment of my near sight. For a while, I managed by kneeling next to the window, for the best light, and using a mirror with the greatest magnification available. Finally, though, I had to admit defeat and resort to the services of a beautician.

Control of my eyebrows' symmetry was now in the hands of a stranger: a daunting prospect, made worse by the fact that she was proposing to thread them and I had no idea what that entailed. I lay back, closed my eyes, and tried not to panic, while peculiar twanging noises emanated from my brow area. The threading alone wasn't enough, though. I felt her tweezing and then heard the snip of scissors - from the amount of activity, I must have been pretty close to a career as a Noel Gallagher lookalike.

At this point, I was worrying less about whether my eyebrows would match, and more about whether I would have any left at all: although that look would, at least, have had the merit of unequivocal symmetry.

Finally, she invited me to sit up and inspect her handiwork. Wonder of wonders, my eyebrows were perfect. Somehow, even the fact that one is slightly higher than the other was less obvious.

So, it seems symmetry can be achieved, and all it costs is £8...and giving up just a bit of that control I'm so wedded to.

2 September 2013

Resistance is not futile

When I first went for occupational therapy, back in the mid-90s, I didn't know what was wrong with me - possibly my doctor wasn't sure either. Nor did I know anything about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is the recognised treatment for OCD. 

As a result, I'm unsure whether my therapist, Dan*, used CBT in my treatment: he certainly didn't name it as such. However, a key element of CBT is exposure and response prevention (ERP), and he did encourage me to do that.

Essentially, ERP entails exposing yourself to your fears until your anxiety subsides on its own, rather than falling back on your usual compulsions to reduce that anxiety - which forms the 'response prevention' part of the process.

The main cause of anxiety for me is a lack of order and symmetry in my environment. Exposure doesn't, though, mean creating a mess in the normal sense of the word. As I need to have objects around me positioned very precisely, it can suffice simply to push something half an inch out of place. 

Image courtesy of:

It's usually necessary to build up the length of exposure over a period of time; to try to resist responding as long as you can, and gradually increase this period of resistance.

In encouraging me to engage in ERP, Dan provided one reassuring piece of advice: if I really couldn't tolerate the 'mess', I could always put things straight when I reached my limit of endurance. This suggestion was, no doubt, intended to help me lengthen my exposures.

I'm sure he also meant for this carrot - of being able to cave in to my compulsions - to be a temporary prop. Unfortunately, I've never managed to relinquish the idea that I can fall back on my OCD when the going gets tough.

I'm sure that I'll be fighting - or managing - my condition for the rest of my life, and will have constant slides up and down the scale of compulsive behaviours. However, there is a subtle, but crucial, difference, between acknowledging occasional remission as part and parcel of OCD, and using it as an acceptable excuse to give up the fight.

An apparently contradictory proposal from Dan was that I might, sometimes, be happy to engage in my compulsions and, if so, not want to resist them. He told me, 'If you recognise what you're doing, and you're happy to spend your time, at that moment, on that activity, that's fine.'

It’s true that one distinguishing feature of OCD, compared to OCD-type behaviours, is the distress that it causes. If you’re not distressed, it’s not a problem – and not defined as OCD. I still don’t know whether it’s healthy, though, for someone diagnosed with OCD to succumb willingly to any compulsion, for any reason. It seems on a par with an alcoholic claiming one drink won’t do them any harm.

On the other hand, everyone has their own form of stress-relief: perhaps drinking or eating, shopping or exercise. The challenge with any of these is the same as for OCD: keeping them in check, so that they don’t take over, or ruin, your life.

*name changed