29 December 2014

Life stories

Chatting to a friend of 40+ years, I speculated as to what a mutual schoolfriend, whom neither of us had seen for decades, might be doing now.

'Why do you want to know?' she queried. 

'I'm just curious. It would be nice to get in touch and see what he's up to.'

'But why?' she persisted. She's very pragmatic about people: she stays close to those who are important to her, but the rest are of no interest.

The reason I wanted to know was simply that I can't bear loose ends. My innate writer's nosiness may be a contributory factor, but it's my obsessive need for completeness that's mostly to blame for this itch for knowledge.

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I just can't bear the idea that I will never find out what happened to all of those people who have had an impact on my life, whether positive or negative. While I understand, in theory, that friends come and go - and that most other people play only a minor role - it's not so easy to accept in practice. 

Christmas has, of course, brought the usual 'round robin' letters that have filled in some of the gaps. Many people deride them, I know - especially those missives that are boastful from start to finish - but I genuinely enjoy hearing old friends' news. 

Rather that than the Christmas card I received from one university friend years ago, which was missing her husband's name, without a word of explanation. Was she now a widow or a divorcee? In spite of subsequent - gentle - enquiries as to her wellbeing, I never did find out. 

Of course, the problem is that no one's story is finished until they shuffle off this mortal coil (and possibly not even then, if there is, in fact, an afterlife...). If I could, right this second, track down every last person who has come into my orbit, and find out what has become of them, what about an hour from now, or tomorrow, or next week?

Never mind real life, I don't even know how my fictional characters' lives pan out. I may tie up the plot strands of the particular story I've chosen to tell about them, but I then leave them in limbo, their futures unknown. If I don't know their ultimate destinies, which, after all, I have the power to control, why should reality be any different?

My mind might seek order and completeness, but real life is messy, with millions of questions to which we never get answers. 

I have, however, gone online to track down the old schoolfriend who was the subject of my conjecture, and discovered one thing about him: he has worked with the Osmonds!

22 December 2014

Christmas past, present and future

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Every family that celebrates Christmas develops its own unique set of traditions around the event, dictating everything from when they put their tree up to what they eat on the day. There are countless permutations of the decisions to be made, with these decisions becoming that family's rules for the festive period - and no deviations allowed!

As children, we always opened our presents as soon as we got up, with the whole family in pyjamas and dressing gowns. The first year my parents decided to get dressed and have breakfast ahead of presents, I was genuinely upset, in spite of being an adult by then.

The first Christmas I spent away from them was with my (then) in-laws. I was like a stranger in a foreign land amidst their seemingly bizarre rituals, which included exchanging presents after dinner. At one point, much to my horror, someone even mooted putting this back to Boxing Day, as dinner had run on so late.

For those of us who have enjoyed a happy childhood, these family traditions are a reminder of that, and act as a comfort blanket we can carry into adulthood. Understandably, then, even the most spontaneous, relaxed person may find it hard to let them go. Others, such as myself, who tend towards the inflexible and who like routine, can find it particularly hard to move on. 

Although I have created new Christmas Day traditions with my boyfriend, Pete, I was, until this year, still wedded to certain other festive practices. These included having an advent calendar, putting up an artificial tree and full-scale decorations, sending dozens of cards, and eating a traditional Christmas meal - albeit one largely prepared by Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.

Each of these apparently simple elements generated huge amounts of stress: from hunting down the perfect advent calendar - not too childish, yet not too gloomily religious - to trying to track down the last pack of sausages wrapped in bacon to be had in north London.

After a year overshadowed by anxiety and stress, I just couldn't face ending it with yet more. I didn't know how to avoid it, though, until I spotted a post by a friend on Facebook, announcing that he was going to make a donation to charity in lieu of sending cards. It took a few days of prevaricating - Could I? Should I? What would my friends think? - but, finally, I decided to do the same.

Following that first, rather difficult decision, the rest was easy: I didn't buy an advent calendar; I decorated my flat - in an hour and a half, rather than an afternoon - with a simple display of decorated hazel stems, a mini tree (real), red poinsettia and white kalanchoe plants, scented candles and fairy lights; and, on Thursday, we'll be eating an 'alternative' Christmas meal of chicken and chips. In fact, once I'd accepted the idea of doing things differently, it became quite an exciting prospect.

Exposing myself to this kind of change is a positive thing. It's good mental exercise against my tendency to rigidity and will hopefully help me to tackle the bigger, badder OCD rituals that dominate my life. After all, if I can change Christmas, I can change anything!

However you choose to spend this holiday period, I hope it will be everything you wish it to be.

15 December 2014

Work in progress

At the end of December last year, I wrote a post about my solitary New Year's resolution, which was to self-publish my novel. So, why, nearly a year on, is it still no more than a Word document? - albeit a much reworked one.

In fairness, I lost quite a lot of time to various domestic and personal crises, which also sapped my mental and physical resources. However, the biggest obstacle to progress has been my inability to decide on the best self-publication route to take.

I always knew this would be a challenge. Being indecisive seems to go hand in hand with being a perfectionist, and I often find myself incapable of reaching a decision on the most trivial of questions. My novel is, of course, anything but a trivial matter, which made it even harder to choose a self-publishing provider.

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I actually began the process in 2013, when I requested an information pack from the one I thought I was most likely to use (I'll call them Company A): they were expensive, but had a good reputation. However, the literature I received from them contained so many typographical errors that I immediately lost faith in their ability to deliver a book I'd be proud of.

Once again at something of a loss, I then found what appeared to be salvation, in the shape of a comparison site for self-publishing companies. A few minutes of my time inputting some key information and, bingo! I'd be presented with the perfect provider for my needs - or so I thought. 

The questionnaire was very detailed and I had to guess wildly at some answers: not being a printing expert, choosing a binding style was beyond me. Frankly, one of the options, 'paperback backcomb', sounded more like a hairstyle. 

I figured I could finalise all of that later; this was just to get me started. I clicked through to the end and waited a moment...only to be told 'We have found 133 providers who match some or all of your criteria'. Brilliant. It didn't help that Number 2 on the list was 
Company A.

Next, I found an e-book review of some of the best known providers. This was more useful, as it identified a number to steer clear of, but the top rated company was, you've guessed it, Company A.

Like a never-ending game of snakes and ladders, I seemed to be taking one step backwards for every one forwards.

Then, all of sudden, I came to a decision.

At the end of last month, I attended a self-publishing conference. One of the speakers was from Company A and I didn't much take to him, which only confirmed my instinct not to go with them. Then a fellow delegate recommended Company B, whose name had also appeared high in the rankings both on the comparison site and in the e-book. She rated them so highly that she was placing her second book with them.

And that was it, in an instant I'd made my decision. All it then took to confirm this was a careful review of their website, to verify that their services matched my requirements. They did - and I found only one typo across dozens of pages.

Unfortunately, the next decision-related stumbling block materialised almost immediately: my research of their site revealed that I would have to include an acknowledgements' page with the manuscript I submitted for a quotation. Now, who to thank...???

8 December 2014

Once more won't hurt

Checking compulsions manifest in many ways, but amongst the most common are verifying that doors or windows are locked, or that water, gas or electrical appliances are turned off.

Even those who don't suffer from OCD can relate to these concerns: almost everybody has, at one time or another, found themselves doubting that they've, say, turned the cooker off, and gone back to double-check.

That double-check is the end of it for most people. Those with checking compulsions, however, have to repeat the process multiple times before they're satisfied that they have really completed it. 

For them, satisfaction is measured not by objective evidence, but by a feeling - the feeling that things are now 'just right' or 'certain', or that they are 'comfortable'. Seeing that a cooker knob is in the off position, and being unable to smell gas, is simply not enough.

In a bid to achieve that nebulous feeling, multiple checks can become hours of checks, which, in turn, can become constant. It's all too easy to tell yourself 'Just once more won't hurt'. Such is the insidious, persuasive voice of OCD.

The most common reason for compulsive checking is the fear of causing harm. One former colleague with checking compulsions told me that she hated being last to leave the family home in the morning, as the responsibility for locking up then fell to her. She was, consequently, often late for work, as she found it so hard to achieve the degree of certainty about her home's security that her OCD demanded.

Such compulsions are secondary to my need for order and symmetry, but I do have some, such as verifying that my front door and car are locked, making sure the fridge door is shut, and ensuring the gas rings and cooker are off.

When I leave my car, for example, I always have to check that all three doors (driver, passenger and boot) are locked, even if I have only used the driver side. This necessitates testing all three - by jiggling the handles - one after the other, without a break, rather than separately, as I remove any bags or luggage. Only once the car is emptied, do I circle it, checking one-two-three doors in a row. If I'm not concentrating, or get distracted, it leaves me with a feeling of uncertainty, of things 'not being right', and I have to go around again.

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Usually, I can escape this ritual after no more than three checks, but that is still two too many. Better, nevertheless, than one of my neighbours, who returns to his car again and again after parking it, and takes several minutes to satisfy himself about both its security and positioning.

One trick I use to help fight these compulsions is to mentally 'tag' an important action with a word, as I'm carrying it out. If, later, I begin to doubt myself, that word serves as evidence, helping me to differentiate between performing the task on that and previous occasions. Those with checking compulsions tend to have a lack of confidence in their memory, so this really helps. Not only does it save me time and effort, but sometimes even an unnecessary trip back up the stairs to my flat.

You might find it worth a try, too; if only to help deal with those odd moments of doubt that afflict everybody!

1 December 2014

Wash and go

Idly skimming through my OCD self-help book one day, a phrase jumped out at me that prompted me to think 'Oh no, not another compulsion I didn't know I had!'

It was in a section of Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder called 'Goals for Contamination Fears' - specifically 'Goals for Showering or Bathing' - and read: 'As with washing your hands, don't count up to a particular number or wash in a specific order: just allow yourself to be on automatic pilot.'

What concerned me was that I always wash in a specific order - ensuring I soap my entire body - and have done so for as long as I can remember. The way I bathe is almost certainly a result of my obsessive need for completeness, but I wondered whether I was actually engaging in washing compulsions, as I don't wash until I feel 'comfortable' or 'just right'. 

On the other hand, if I were to miss out soaping, say, my left arm - which is unlikely to be particularly dirty - I would feel discomfort, and as if I were then contaminating my towel and clothes. My low level contamination issues undoubtedly influence my approach to washing to some degree.

The book advised that you should aim to finish within ten minutes if you were shampooing your hair, five minutes, if not. I decided to time myself to get a better idea of whether the situation was out of hand.

I was obliged to take a bath - generally a slower process - as I don't have a shower at home, and also stopped to towel dry my hair, so was surprised to finish in 10m 58s. Over the next few evenings, I did this again, finishing in 10m 59s and 10m 56s. 

Being less than a minute off the target time was reassuring, and I had already achieved the goal of being on automatic pilot, through the very way I wash: doing it in a specific order may be something to avoid, but allows me to switch off and think about something else.

Could I do better, though? I timed my next four baths, now going as fast as I could, and managed to finish in under nine minutes on each occasion.

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During those tests I realised what was actually slowing me down: lack of concentration. Because bath time is reflection time, I tend to slip into a trance and soap the same bit over and over again: I am simply not mindful of what I'm doing.

Since then, I have tried harder to maintain focus - good mental practice for the mindfulness course I plan to start in the New Year - and my 'personal best' is now 8m 7s; nearly a three minute improvement on the first test and well within the goal time.

This experience shows that diagnosing OCD behaviours is no simple matter. Yes, the condition does play a part in how I wash, but only a bit part. Things are not always quite what they seem and it's important to avoid leaping to conclusions. If in doubt, always seek expert advice.

* * *

How long do you take showering or bathing? And do you wash in a particular order?

24 November 2014

Can't sleep, won't sleep

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One consequence of suffering from anxiety is that I also experience chronic insomnia. While some people may have difficulty falling, or staying, asleep, and others find themselves waking too early, I experience all three problems...often on the same night.

My main obstacle to falling asleep is the mental vacuum created by bedtime. When nothing else is occupying my mind - be it work, writing or simply an absorbing television programme - my current worries flood in to fill it. I replay that day's confrontations, fret about challenging events to come, plan my future; anything but still my mind ready for sleep.

Listening to the local talk radio station, on a very low volume, is a great way to counter this void. Providing an alternative focus deflects anxiety-inducing thoughts and usually I don't even realise I'm drifting off until I wake an hour later. Unfortunately, by the time I've turned the radio off and put in my earplugs, I'm as wide-awake as when I first went to bed.

Outside causes certainly contribute to my repeatedly waking up. Even with earplugs, flat-living can be noisy: from the front door slamming at all hours, to upstairs' neighbours thudding about like clog-wearing elephants. Once I'm awake, anxieties immediately crowd into my head, to prevent the return of sleep. 

I do know that my 'sleep hygiene' could be better: I always eat late and am usually still doing chores until just before I go to bed. No wonder my body doesn't know what's going on, when it suddenly finds itself horizontal and stationary. 

Although the problem is mostly in my head, I've tried all the usual physical tricks, in a bid to alleviate the situation: avoiding stimulants, using herbal medications, sprinkling lavender on my pillow, and so on. Nothing has ever provided a guaranteed solution. Comparing notes with a fellow insomniac, she told me she sometimes sleeps best after indulging in a 'perfect [insomniac's] storm' of wine, coffee and chocolate. There seems no rhyme or reason as to what might help or hinder sleep.

The combination of insomnia and anxiety creates a classic vicious circle. Anxiety stops me sleeping, which leaves me exhausted and less able to cope with the stresses of the day, which exacerbates my anxiety and renders sleep even harder to find. 

After a few days of particularly bad sleep, I then also become anxious about the fact that I'm not sleeping. That anxiety causes my heart to race as soon as I lie down and is made worse by the subsequent middle-of-the-night clock-watching and constant recalculations of 'How much sleep I'll get if drop off right now'.

As a youngster, I frequently complained to my parents about being unable to sleep, which means I've endured more than 40 years of sleep deprivation. On any given day, I am either tired, really tired, or exhausted. The fatigue makes me irritable and unable to concentrate, and saps me of the energy I need to make the most of my waking hours. I often wonder what kind of a person I might have been, and how different my life, without insomnia. 

Of course, until I address the underlying cause - once and for all - I'm destined never to find out.

* * *

Do you suffer from insomnia? If so, what - if anything - helps you to sleep?

17 November 2014

Beady eye

Photo: Nicola Lawson
My need for symmetry manifests itself on a daily basis and across many areas of my life: from the way I position my belongings to how I shape my eyebrows and nails. Sometimes it emerges in other, ad hoc situations.

One of my favourite tops is a blue and cream patterned tunic, with a tie closure at the neck. The closure's two cords are finished off with short strings of beads - in two different sizes and shades of blue - topped off with sequins. The last time I wore this top, I suddenly spotted a sequin on my hall floor and realised one string had come apart.

Somehow, I managed to find 10 out of 13 of the tiny beads - which had contrived to bury themselves in the intricate weave of the hall rug - leaving me with the following options:

1. String together those I'd found and re-attach them to the cord.
2. Cut off the other string and divide the beads from both strings across the cords (leaving one - irritating - spare bead).
3. Cut off the other string and leave both cords bare.

Option 1 would have left the cords unacceptably asymmetric and Option 3 would have completely spoilt the look of the top. Option 2 it was.

It took 45 minutes to devise a new pattern from the reduced number of beads, string them, and attach the strings to the cords - due, in part, to my middle-aged eyesight. Eventually, I dangled the cords in front of me, to admire my neat repair...only to realise that the strings of beads were different lengths.

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
Looking at them up close, I realised that there were actually more than two different sizes and colours of beads - obvious with the benefit of an expensive camera lens (see left) but not with my reading glasses, from half a metre away. As (bad) luck would have it, the smaller ones had all ended up on one string, leaving it half a centimetre shorter than its partner.

My heart sank; I'd have to unpick all of my handiwork and start again. Yet I had too much to do that day to repeat this job. I prevaricated for several minutes, torn between my compulsion to achieve symmetry and the knowledge that satisfying that compulsion would waste time and effort.

Then my perfectionist's voice chirped up with a new set of worries: 'You know how clumsy you are. If you cut the beads off again, you'll probably lose some. And you stitched the strings on so securely, you'll damage the fabric if you try to pick the knots out. And, after all that, you still might not get the strings the same length.'

To be honest, I couldn't even be sure they'd been the same the day I bought the top, because I'd never looked. Just because I knew differently now, I didn't have to dwell on it. Certainly, nobody else would ever notice,

Eventually, I admitted defeat, hung the top up in the wardrobe, exactly as it was, and got on with my day. 

That was in August and, since then, I've managed to resist fixing it. If you ever see me wearing this top though, feel free to check that I haven't caved in to temptation...

10 November 2014

Add 'P' for Personality

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Many people get annoyed when they hear someone claim 'I'm a little bit OCD' just because, for example, they store their coffee mugs with all the handles at the same angle. The main gripe is that the term is bandied about without any real understanding of the condition. 

As I've written previously, for me, this proclamation provides an opening to talk about my own experience, improve awareness and explore whether the person making it might, in fact, be a sufferer themselves. 

I confess, the grammatical inaccuracy of the sentence bothers me more than the sentiment behind it - you can no more be 'a little bit obsessive-compulsive disorder' than you can be 'a little bit depression'. 

To compound the layman's confusion, another condition exists, called Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), which appears to have similar traits to OCD, but actually has quite different foundations.

OCPD - which I can't help feeling sounds like an American crime drama series - is also known as Anankastic Personality Disorder or, perhaps more commonly, as being 'anal retentive' (thank you, Freud, for that one). 

David Veale and Rob Willson outline some of the accompanying behaviours in their book, Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These include:

  • Constantly making lists
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Being excessively tidy
  • Being excessively concerned with rules

Sufferers may also be 'somewhat inflexible, unemotional, and overly devoted to work' and may have OCPD on its own or as well as OCD. 

There are key differences between the two conditions. Those with OCPD are not troubled by how they behave and believe their way is the right way, while OCD sufferers are distressed by their intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours and are generally aware that these make no sense. 

I certainly recognise some of the above characteristics, and others detailed in this book, in myself. As well as being a perfectionist, tidy and 'somewhat inflexible', I love a good list. I'm the kind of person who, after completing a task that wasn't actually on my 'to do' list, will add it, just to have the satisfaction of immediately crossing it off. And I always follow rules, however petty, sometimes to my disadvantage... 

On the other hand, although I have a good work ethic, I'm by no means a workaholic, and I'm definitely a very emotional person: I cry at the proverbial drop of a hat and am far too sensitive for my own good.

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According to Veale and Willson, OCPD traits can be hard to change, though if the condition exists alongside OCD, overcoming the latter may bring about some improvement. 

You don't need to exhibit all of these traits to have OCPD and the key factor in making this diagnosis is whether these have a significant and detrimental effect on lifestyle and functioning. 

So, just because you're obsessed with lists, it doesn't mean you suffer from this disorder - oh yes, and 'a little bit OCPD' is still a grammar crime, even with the addition of 'P' for Personality! 

* * *

You can find out more about OCPD, including causes and treatments, in this brief factsheet from the US-based organisation, The International OCD Foundation.

3 November 2014

The art of delegation

Everything I've learnt about planning a holiday, I've learnt from my dad. He conducted meticulous research into all of our trips, including detailed comparisons of prospective hotels and rental cottages, which took into account every conceivable element: from cost and facilities to local sights and amenities. Dad was a one-man comparison machine long before the likes of GoCompare and Trivago appeared on the scene.

I always take the same approach, in a bid to ensure we have The Perfect Trip. It's not just a question of identifying the right destination and perfect accommodation, but also making sure I know about every last little thing to see and do in the area. After all, I'd hate to have someone ask, upon our return, 'Oh, did you visit...?' and go on to name somewhere fantastic that we missed for want of a bit of research and a 100m detour.

One such (somewhat longer) detour occurred during a trip to Rome in 2004. In addition to visiting the obvious sights, I dragged my boyfriend, Pete, on a quest to find a 4ft long marble foot, which had formed part of a much larger sculpture and was supposed to be quite impressive. It would have been, had it not been somewhat neglected and located in a scruffy, litter-strewn alley, which took us ages to find. Even I had to laugh at the fact that my careful planning had led us to this less than scenic spot*.

If we're self-catering, my research extends to where the nearest big supermarkets are, as well as potential pubs and restaurants for meals out. Ahead of our last trip, to Lincolnshire, I was short of time, so phoned the owner of our holiday cottage, to see if he could recommend some places for dinner on our first night, which I could then check out online before booking.

'What kind of thing are you looking for?' he asked.

'Just a good, pub meal would be fine,' I said.

He named a couple of venues, which I jotted down to investigate.

However, he then continued, 'I'll book The Heneage Arms for you. What time would you like?'

'Oh, that's all right,' I said, 'We don't want to put you out.' I couldn't delegate the decision to him - what if we didn't like what was on the menu, or the pub was just plain horrible?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
'It's no trouble,' he said.

'Honestly, I'm happy to do it,' I persevered.

'But I usually do it for people.' The forlorn tone of his voice betrayed his disappointment.

He was being so kind; I didn't have the heart to resist any longer. 'OK, then, that would be great, thanks,' I said, with fingers tightly crossed.

As it turned out, The Heneage Arms - a community-run pub - was lovely, and the food and service great. Certainly a vast improvement on a couple we've ended up at in the past, including the noisy, crowded one on Anglesey with a menu apparently inspired by a 1970s Little Chef. I still have no idea how that one got past my researcher radar.

Placing my trust in somebody else paid off this time, even though I felt as if I were taking a huge risk. In fact, for those of us who need to control situations in order to manage our anxiety, the art of delegation really is the equivalent of an extreme sport!

* * *

*I see here that this foot has had a revamp since our visit - it's still in the same alley, though.

27 October 2014

Challenges on tap

The domestic emergencies that hit earlier this year made me resolve to get things repaired or replaced as soon as problems became apparent, to avoid - as one insurance company ad used to say - turning a drama into a crisis. 

After all, if I'd invested in a new boiler when my old one became so noisy that it was almost drowning out the television, I wouldn't have spent 12 days without heating or hot water - in February. Although I hate the disorder that results from having workmen in my home, putting off their visits is really only putting off the inevitable.

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So, when the bathroom basin cold tap developed a persistent drip, I texted the plumber immediately, before I could change my mind about the urgency of the situation. Both of my mixer taps had already gone the same way, and none of them would stop, unless I tightened them so much that I could hardly turn them back on again. No doubt this problem was the result of years of chronic overtightening: one of my checking compulsions is verifying that the taps are off and, in my case, seeing is never believing. 

In spite of my prompt action, I hoped the plumber would be slow to respond - I could feel good about trying to confront my fears, but not actually have to do so...at least, not straightaway. Unfortunately, he replied within minutes, asking me to send him photos of the taps. I can't take pictures with my phone and, as it happened, my compact camera was at work, where I subsequently kept 'accidentally' leaving it.

Several days of stalling later, I sent him the photos and he offered to come over the following week. Although I would be on leave then, I planned to spend the time editing my novel, so fobbed him off until the week after, to avoid having to break off from my writing. Yes, another delaying tactic, but this time verging on legitimate.

On the day, I cleared my belongings from the areas where he'd be working and emptied the lower shelf of the cupboard under the kitchen sink, so that he could reach the stopcock. Only for him to start shoving things on the upper shelf out of the way, thinking it was higher up. My stomach churned at the sight, and continued churning as he 'helpfully' pushed everything back. Yet more items for me to reposition, once he'd gone.

My anxiety peaked again, when he started banging at one of the bathroom taps that was stuck; it sounded as if he was bringing down the partition wall. 

When he'd finished, though, he told me that I'd have had a real problem on my hands, if I'd left things much longer. I spent the rest of the evening on a high, proud of myself for facing the challenge, avoiding a crisis and only taking half an hour to put things 'right' afterwards.

I did feel a bit silly asking him how tightly I should turn off the new taps, but it was hard to know what was normal, after decades of overdoing it: 'Until you feel the pinch' was the answer. If I stick to that approach, the new sets should last a lot longer than the old ones - and reduce the number of visits I need from him in future! 

20 October 2014

Life imitating art

A strange thing happened when I started work on the final edits of my novel: I found myself resisting my ordering compulsions, without having made the conscious decision to do so. 

At first, I assumed pressure of time had driven me to this unaccustomed 'laziness' with regard to positioning my belongings. I'd just read my novel again, ahead of taking a week off for rewrites, and wanted to get through as many chapters as possible, while it was still fresh in my mind.

In fact, there was a more creative reason behind this behaviour, which I only realised a few days later.

Some members of my writing group had fed back that they'd like to see more of an emotional response from my protagonist, Clare, whom I've given the same form of OCD as me, ie a need for order and symmetry in her environment. They wanted to get a better sense of how disordered surroundings affected her and how she felt when trying to resist her compulsions. 

It seemed my sub-conscious had pushed me into resisting my own, to give me fresh insight into how this really feels. It can be hard to draw on emotions you've experienced in the past - like physical pain, they become abstract over time. Now, I had the opportunity to tap into these feelings anew, and translate them into my writing.

With fingers hovering over the keyboard, and eyes closed, I visualised all of the objects that I'd left out of place. Thinking of them made me restless and uneasy; like when you know you've forgotten to do something, but can't pinpoint what. My mind felt frayed and my body twitched with the urge to leave my desk and put things right.

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Suddenly, I found it much easier to explain Clare's experience of OCD - at least, insofar as anybody with the condition can explain it to anyone else. I still struggled to find the right words, but every writer faces that literary battle, with every sentence they create.

In the past, I've sometimes enacted actions to be sure that what I've portrayed fictionally is actually possible - it's all too easy to devise a scenario where, say, a character would need three hands to do what you've asked of them. Such role-play has always been deliberate, however, and only used in the quest for physical, rather than emotional, accuracy. 

Writers' lives would be a lot simpler, of course, if we could go through everything we describe.

One of the characters in my novel cheats on their partner and I've have had difficulty getting to grips with their feelings of guilt. I've tried to put myself in their shoes, but can't bring myself to imagine doing the same thing (something I'm sure my boyfriend, Pete, will be relieved to hear). That is definitely one activity I won't be enacting in the interests of research - consciously or otherwise!

13 October 2014

Guest appearance

The most recent query from one of my readers began 'I've been reading your blog and I'm worried...' before going on 'How do you manage when Pete [my boyfriend] stays at your flat?'

It certainly must seem strange that I can cope with his fortnightly visits - we alternate weekends at each other's homes - when I need to have order and symmetry in my environment, and view any object that is so much as half an inch out of place as a 'mess'. Guests are bound to have an impact on how I usually maintain my space, even if they don't actually make a mess.

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When Pete comes over, in fact, I need to rearrange things just to accommodate him physically. I only have a two-seater sofa, so items that live on the spare seat - including the TV guide and remote controls - go onto the floor, so that we can both sit comfortably. After all, I can hardly make him perch on a dining chair, just to avoid relocating my belongings - which would be no solution, anyway, as I'd have to shift the chair from its usual spot...

I also have to bring the bathroom stool into the living room, to act as our snacks' table, and even sacrifice my neat lines of products in the fridge, in the face of all the extra food (and beer).

In spite of the fact that Pete is very respectful of my home, it takes me as long to put things right after he's left as it does for him to travel back to his flat: about 45 minutes. The need to reclaim my territory is so strong that I even feel obliged to wash the crockery from our afternoon tea and cakes, which could easily wait until I clear up after dinner. 

But it's the tiny adjustments that are the most time-consuming element of restoring order. These include correctly positioning the slippers that Pete keeps on the rug in the hall - which have to be centred to it, with the toes up to the edge - and ensuring that the sofa is parallel to the wall, by using the length of my hand and forearm to measure the distance between them at various points.

How is it, then, that I can defer effecting these compulsions, when they drive me to such nit-picking lengths? It's because, during Pete's visits, there's always an end in sight: I know that within 24 hours or so, I'll be able to get everything back to normal. Like running a race, it's easier to find the stamina to keep pushing on, when you know where the finish line is; I'm able to draw on my mental strength, but only for a finite amount of time.

The occupational therapist I saw 20 years ago suggested I adopt a similar approach to help me during treatment exercises, ie exposure and response prevention. Remember, he told me, nothing is irreversible: I could always clear up any mess I made, whenever I chose, if I really couldn't handle the anxiety it induced. That way, although the 'finish line' was moving, it was always within my reach. 

Perhaps next time Pete visits, I should try to push that line back a little more; see if I can stand to wait, say, another 24 hours. If I keep pushing, who knows how far I might get?

6 October 2014

Freak show

Many a time when I've told someone I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, their response has been 'Oh, have you seen Obsessive-Compulsive Cleaners?' The answer is yes, unfortunately, I have.

This Channel 4 television programme, which begins its third series tomorrow night, both misrepresents OCD and takes advantage of sufferers. For those who aren't familiar with the show, it goes something like this...

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First, present a selection of people who clean obsessively, many of whom have been formally diagnosed with OCD, and invite viewers to gasp in amazement at their extreme behaviours.

Next, present a selection of people who live in a mess of belongings and dirt, many of whom appear to be hoarders, and invite viewers to gasp in horror at their disgusting surroundings. 

Finally, take one cleaner to the home of one messy person, ask them to restore order, and watch as mutual mental distress ensues.

The show encourages viewers to ridicule the cleaner's habits and yet also side with them and share in their revulsion at what they face: the implication is that, in this battle of wills, their way is the right way.

Ironically, as hoarding is commonly viewed as a form of OCD, the programme is simply pitting one kind of sufferer against another, in a scenario no better than a fairground freak show. Neither is actually 'right' and both need help.

I have rarely seen an episode where either party acknowledges that they need to change their behaviour and I have never seen one that reveals the distress the condition can cause. Admittedly, I haven't watched them all: I couldn't bring myself to.

The programme also feeds into the misconception that OCD is only about cleaning and little mention is made of treatment options. Some participants are, in fact, already under medical supervision, and a few have gone on to seek help. That doesn't take away from the fact that the set-up is designed purely to provide entertainment, rather than enlightenment, either to those taking part or viewers.

The show is so misleading that some people have phoned one of the national OCD charities, asking to be put in touch with sufferers, to get help cleaning their own homes!

Many experts in the field, including the very highly regarded Professor Paul Salkovskis, have spoken out against the programme and refused invitations to assist in its production.

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The shame of it is, Channel 4 has produced some excellent mental health documentaries, including The House of Obsessive Compulsives, which Professor Salkovskis appeared in. They are now tarnishing this good work with Obsessive-Compulsive Cleaners: entertainment at the expense of those with mental health issues.

If you have access to Channel 4, whether on screen or online, I would urge you not to tune in. Both this channel and the production company involved (Betty) have ignored the voices of OCD professionals and sufferers; perhaps only viewer power will finally get this programme taken off air.

29 September 2014

Antisocial behaviour

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Social media is something I came to late, only joining Twitter two years ago and Facebook last summer. For a long time afterwards, I approached both in a completely unsustainable way, as a result of my 'all or nothing' attitude to every aspect of life.

I resolved to read all of the posts and Tweets from those I was friends with or following, for fear of missing something important. As I don't have mobile online access, this activity was restricted to once a day and, initially, I kept the number of connections low, so that I could scrutinise everything.

At lunchtime, I would log on and work my way backwards through my timelines until I reached the last post and Tweet I'd read the day before. Needless to say, this became quite a chore, even though I only had about 30 Facebook friends and was following fewer than 60 people on Twitter. 

I marvelled at those who followed hundreds, or thousands, of people on Twitter. How did they do it? Feeling a bit foolish, I asked one of them. She assured me that she only went online once or twice a day, too, but saw social media as akin to dipping in and out of conversations at a party - you can't be involved in all of them, or see them all through to the end. 

It took a while to change my perspective and to accept that I couldn't possibly review all of the material coming into my social media accounts. Now, however, I follow 329 people on Twitter, have doubled my friends on Facebook, and have mastered the art of skimming messages - and of knowing when to stop.

I do, though, like to respond to all direct messages and notifications, yet no matter how often, or how quickly, I check, there is always something new requiring a response. Click, click, click, I go, zipping in and out accounts, around and around again, hoping to achieve the holy grail of being entirely up-to-date with all personal messages.

Duplicates of these feed into a dedicated Gmail account, which has helped a little: at least I can read everything in one place, even if it's a never-ending race to keep that Inbox empty. By the time I've double deleted messages from the Bin, another has usually arrived, which leaves me feeling like Sisyphus repeatedly pushing his rock uphill.

And, each time I empty the Bin, Google challenges me 'Who needs to delete when you have so much storage?!' I do, Google, because there is something immensely satisfying, to an ordered soul like mine, in reading the words '0 GB (0%) of 15 GB used'.

Of course, many people without my type of personality find themselves addicted to social media. That need to know and to share everything, that fear of missing out and of not making our own presence felt in the world; it's a modern ailment. In fact, I'd say there's a little bit of the obsessive in almost everybody caught in the social media web.

22 September 2014

Words are not enough

'So, tell me, how does your typical day go? What do you actually do?' The friend who put this question seemed dissatisfied with my hitherto broadbrush description of the way my OCD manifests itself.

I appreciated the fact that she was trying to gain a real understanding of what my need for order and symmetry meant in practical terms, so got down to the nitty-gritty of it.

'Well...after I've cleaned my teeth, the brush has to go back in the holder at a particular angle. It's hard to describe, but it's somewhere between facing forwards and facing sideways. I just know when it looks right. 

'The toothbrush holder has a square base, which I have to check is still at the correct slant to the edge of the basin. That stands to the left of the taps.

'To the right of them is the tube of facial wash, which I also have to put back at the right angle, and the liquid soap has to be centred to the taps and the correct distance from the basin edge.

Photo: Helen Barbour
'Then I have to fold the towel with the edges flush, and hang it so that the two ends are level, with the label edge to the rear of the rail.'

At this point, I noticed my friend's glazed expression. She was obviously already regretting her request, and I was barely ten minutes into the day she'd asked me to describe.

As I caught her eye, she said 'Okay, okay', which I interpreted as a full stop on the conversation: she has a genuine interest in mental health issues, but this level of detail was too much for her - it would be for anyone. Frankly, recapping my day in this way was wearing me out, too.

Yet the reality is that much of what I do is actually indescribable, because it's subjective. The 'right angle' and the 'correct distance' means what feels right or correct, when I look at the object I'm positioning.

Some OCD sufferers persuade their partners and families to participate in their compulsions, perhaps, for example, by observing the same rituals as they do to avoid contamination. I'd never be able to get anyone to copy mine, as the way I carry out most of them is determined by a feeling of 'rightness' that can't be articulated. No matter how detailed the description of my rules, it would never be enough to enable anybody else to follow, or fully understand, them.

Even I showed someone the required angles and spacing for all of my belongings, they would then have to rely on memory, rather than the gut instinct that guides me; and no one's memory is that good - with the possible exception of illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown. Now there's an idea for a show...

15 September 2014

Communication breakdown

You might imagine that modern communications would help to reduce anxiety in those of us who constantly fret about the wellbeing of our nearest and dearest. After all, mobile phones, emails and a host of social media allow us to keep in touch 24 hours a day. Our minds are tricksy beasts, though, and endlessly inventive in finding causes for concern.

One Sunday, my boyfriend, Pete, and I didn't meet up as usual, having just returned from a holiday together. Instead, I spent much of the day online, catching up on Twitter and Facebook, and responding to emails. Amongst the messages I sent were a couple of inconsequential ones to Pete.

While I'm tied to a PC for online activities, he has mobile access and is usually fairly quick to reply. The hours passed, however, and still he didn't respond. I experienced a flutter of concern, but then it occurred to me that he might be on a bike ride. Relaxing, I carried on...until the early evening, when I still hadn't heard from him. Based on past experience, this was unusual.

Photos courtesy of Peter Gettins
If he'd gone out on a ride, he would have texted me to report on his day, or posted something on Twitter or Facebook: either photos - usually of his kit or the scenery - or messages about any incidents en route. He hadn't.

If he'd stayed at home, he would have texted me to report on his day, or posted something on Twitter or Facebook: either photos - usually of his cat, Bandit - or messages about what they were up to. He hadn't.

No texts, emails, Tweets, Facebook posts or photos. All day. The only logical conclusion was that something terrible had happened to him. At that point, I went old school, and phoned him on his landline. No reply. I only managed to wait five minutes before I called again; this time, he picked up.

Needless to say, nothing awful had come to pass. He had just had an atypical day in not communicating with the outside world, and had been in the bath when I had finally phoned him.

When we first became a couple, mobiles were hardly used - and only had the facility for calls or texts - and our usual contact was just one chat, in the evening, on our landlines. Yes, I would immediately panic if Pete didn't answer the phone at the scheduled time, but mutual silence during the day was the norm. 

The pressure to be in touch with everybody, all of the time, is not only stressful in its own right, but also leads to anxiety when somebody seems to drop off the radar.

The coverage of the centenary of the start of World War I has made me reflect on how times have changed. Then, communications with troops were infrequent, slow and unreliable. Families might endure months of uncertainty as to a loved one's status, whether missing, injured or dead. I can only imagine their stress, while they waited for news.

In light of their suffering, it seems somehow shameful that I've allowed my anxious disposition to turn the benefits of 21st century technology to my mental disadvantage.



8 September 2014

Hide and seek

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Many people with OCD are able to hide at least some elements of their behaviour, so it can be easy to forget that they have a problem.

At one of OCD Action's conferences, I got chatting to a fellow delegate, whom I'll call Cathy. Although we spent the day together, and talked extensively about our experiences - which included engaging in observable compulsions - neither of us displayed any overt sign of the condition.

We agreed to walk back to the Tube station together, at the end of the event, and both visited the toilet ahead of the journey. I finished quickly and went back outside to wait for Cathy. 

After a few minutes, I began to wonder where she was and re-opened the door. I spotted her at the sink, washing her hands, and assumed that she had just come out of the toilet. A lot of women take a long time in the Ladies, so I didn't think much of it.

I closed the door and carried on waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Then I suddenly remembered the washing compulsions Cathy had spoken of earlier and realised she must have got stuck.

Now I didn't know what to do. I couldn't leave without her, though I was tired and wanted to get home, but I didn't know how to help her. Being on the outside of OCD was an unfamiliar experience and I had little knowledge then of how to support others. 

In spite of this, after a few more minutes, I decided that I couldn't hang on indefinitely and went back inside. As I approached Cathy, all I could think to say was 'Are you OK?' Clearly she wasn't: the anguished look on her face and her teary eyes revealed the depths of her misery and frustration. She muttered something about needing to be alone and so I left her to it, helpless in the face of her difficulties.

Eventually, she managed to break free and rejoined me. As we left, she threw away a carrier bag, which she told me contained soap she had brought with her, but would not be able to use again. Presumably it was now 'contaminated' from its exposure to a public environment; I didn't like to ask, and we didn't talk further about what had happened. 

At the station, we found ourselves in a crush of fellow passengers being held back until the platform below cleared. Bodies pressed against us on all sides and yet Cathy didn't flinch at the contact - surely germ-laden in her eyes? - or become visibly anxious. Perhaps her OCD would hold her hostage in her bathroom later, as payback for her current calm; for now, though, it had once again gone back into hiding.

1 September 2014

Ticked off

One of the first things we do on holiday is visit a tourist information centre to pick up leaflets about local attractions. On our last trip, to Exmoor, one rather alarming publication caught my eye: Tick Bites and Lyme Disease.

Now, I'd heard of both ticks and Lyme Disease - caused by bites from infected ticks - but I'd never worried about either of them before. If you live in Britain, it's not often that you have to concern yourself with the fauna, unless you have a particular allergy, such as to bee stings. We don't have the likes of venomous funnel-web spiders creeping indoors, bears invading backyards, or malaria-carrying mosquitoes plaguing the air. 

In fact, great swathes of the world will remain forever unexplored by me due to their animal inhabitants. Yet suddenly, it seemed, there was a danger closer to home.

I picked up the pamphlet and scanned the text. All I absorbed initially were the scariest words - 'rash...up to 50-75 centimetres diameter', 'facial palsy' and 'cardiac problems' - rather than the reassurances that early use of antibiotics should prevent such serious complications.

Having now added 'bug anxiety' to my list of things to worry about, I went on to read the Prevention section...and immediately re-thought my holiday wardrobe.

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The advice was to cover yourself up as much as possible, with long sleeves (cuffs fastened) and trousers (tucked into socks) the order of the day. This uniform of sealed clothes was required in 'grassy, brushy or woodland areas'. Brushy? I'm hopeless at botany and had no idea what that meant.

So, as we marched up a steep moorland hill to Dunkery Beacon, a few days later, I suspiciously eyed the vegetation either side of the path. Was this what they meant by brushy, and were ticks preparing to leap on me from all sides?

On another sweltering afternoon, as we enjoyed our picnic lunch next to Wimbleball Lake, I decided to tuck my walking trousers into my socks - well, we were sitting on grass, weren't we? We have, of course, done that on innumerable occasions in the past, but that was beside the point. I was prepared to turn myself into a one-woman sauna this time, to prevent any of those marauding creatures from latching onto me.

I drew the line at checking myself every three to four hours for ticks, as suggested. The darned things are so small, that, with my eyesight, I doubted I'd even spot one. And I also decided against investing in a tick extractor tool - available in pet shops across the region - though I'm now wondering whether to add one to my holiday packing list.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, particularly when you're an anxiety sufferer. On the other hand, forewarned is forearmed. A few days on, I resolved that, rather than spend the week worrying about ticks, I should simply keep an eye out for the early symptoms of Lyme Disease. Only to discover that these can occur up to 30 days after being bitten. It was going to be a long wait for reassurance...

That was just over six weeks ago and I'm still in one piece, so now all I have to worry about is my next escape from the city - anyone know what beasties will be waiting for us in Lincolnshire next month?