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.

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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.


Anonymous said...

It's so interesting to read about your approach to your own therapy and how it is evolving. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to your next update!

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks for the comment and support, ocdtalk, and also for your continuing interest in my blog.

Gina Soden said...

Saw your blog on Twitter which was retweeted after the Bedlam program last night. It is great to see on tv and explain to the masses and understand about how OCD can greatly affect people's lives. I look forward to your next update

Helen Barbour said...

Hi Gina, good to hear from you. It's great to see increasing discussion of mental health in the media. Hopefully, this will slowly, but surely, make a difference, by increasing understanding and reducing stigma.