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 fiancĂ©. 

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.