27 January 2014

Last Christmas (I gave you my flat)

It's hard to get through Christmas without stress, but for those with mental health problems, this can be an especially difficult time.

Last year presented a new challenge for me, as, for the first time, my boyfriend, Pete, and I spent Christmas and Boxing Day at my flat. 

Photos: Helen Barbour
I'm used to Pete staying overnight at weekends, and can always hold off until he's gone to put things 'right'. All that distinguished this occasion from an ordinary weekend was that I'd have to clear the dining room table, so that it could actually be used for dining, rather than writing - usually we manage with trays, but that's hardly festive.

I only had to remove a few items from the top of the table and replace the office chair with the dining chair that lives in the bedroom. Not a big deal for most people, but I might as well have been moving house, for the emotional turmoil this caused. 

I concealed most things down the side of the table or behind the sofa, but couldn't forget that they were out of place, even though I couldn't see them. As I took the precaution of doing this on Christmas Eve, to avoid hassle on the day, I also had to live with the disarray that bit longer.

...and after
Setting the table was the big challenge the following morning, because, of course, it had to be perfect, with everything positioned symmetrically. I got so stuck doing and re-doing the layout, that Pete had arrived before I'd finished all of the other preparations...and then my OCD found additional ways to kick in.

I hadn't got around to making the bed, so when Pete dumped his coat on it, the outside of that was touching the inside of the covers, which he didn't realise was a contamination issue for me. I tried to put out of my mind what his coat might have been in contact with - Tube train seats being the worst of my imaginings.

Then I realised that I'd forgotten to put any Christmas music on. While the table looked beautiful, the tree lights were lit, and an orange and clove scented candle was burning, I still felt as if I'd ruined the morning. I nearly despatched Pete back outside, to come in again, so that I could start things over properly. 

Finally, I dropped a chunk of parsnip down the side of the cooker, while serving lunch, which meant we had 31/2 pieces each - not at all in line with my need for wholeness in my food.

It took me 21/2 hours to put things straight the following evening, including arranging my presents neatly next to the tree; a tidy display being the only way I can cope with new items in my home, until I find a permanent place for them. 

While I was doing all of that, I had the BBC 24-hour news on, with its reports of flooded homes, power losses and lengthy flight delays. For thousands of people Christmas had genuinely been ruined. It was a salutary reminder that my OCD can easily make me lose perspective.

At least I'd managed to host the festivities at my flat - albeit on a small-scale - and tolerate the ensuing 'mess' for 48 hours. And, do you know what, I even enjoyed myself!

...and after

PS The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed that one knife and fork are set incorrectly - in fact, I'm left-handed and that's just the way I like my cutlery!

20 January 2014

Every little helps

Today marks the launch of Time to Change's new national advertising campaign, with its message that, for people with mental health problems, 'It's the little things you do that can make a big difference.'

When they say 'little', they mean little: sending someone a text, giving them a call, or inviting them over for coffee and a chat. 

For many, though, that is harder to do than it sounds.

People often find it difficult to know what to say to someone with a mental health problem, so they don't say anything at all. Yet they wouldn't hesitate in the face of a physical illness. If a friend or colleague had undergone an operation, broken their leg or were even just recovering from a cold, they'd ask how they were. Why not when it's a mental illness?

Time to Change's work is focussed on ending the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health conditions.

Their latest survey into levels of discrimination revealed an increase in the year to 2012, with 9 out of 10 questioned reporting that they'd experienced this.

Image courtesy of Time to Change
In contrast, their survey of public attitudes towards mental illness showed a small improvement over a four-year period; prior to that the trend had actually been in the opposite direction.

Time to Change's research has shown that: 'Social contact, or knowing someone who is open about having a mental health problem, has a clear and positive impact on public attitudes and behaviour.'

So, talking about these issues helps.

The same survey revealed that nearly two-thirds of people knew someone with a mental health problem. 

In reality, I'm sure we all know somebody - we just don't necessarily know it yet. Sometimes, perhaps, neither do they, if the problem has not yet been formally diagnosed. They may be suffering in silence, unaware of what is wrong with them, or that help is available.

It's surprising how many people mention their own mental health difficulties, as soon as I tell them I have OCD. Often these are close acquaintances, yet I had no idea of their problems - just as they had no idea about mine! There is still so much shame, embarrassment and secrecy around illnesses of the mind.

As part of Time to Change's new campaign, they've nominated Thursday 6 February as the first Time to Talk Day. Their aim is to encourage conversations about mental health to take place on that date, to show that these problems are common, and that talking about them doesn't have to be hard.

Why not check out their website and see how you can help? I plan to use my action pack to spread the word at work.

And don't worry if you're reading this outside of the UK - there's no reason why we can't turn this campaign global!
Image courtesy of Time to Change

13 January 2014

If in doubt

On occasion, in the past, I've had cause to doubt that I suffer from OCD. 

Media coverage of the condition contributed to this, as articles and television programmes tend to focus on its more extreme manifestations. This is understandable from an editorial point of view, as such cases present more of a hook to readers and viewers. It is also, of course, important to show the devastating impact it can have.

I've reached a different point on the OCD scale, though, so seeing others in a worse predicament can make me feel something of a fraud; as if I no longer have a claim to the condition.

This is, I appreciate, ridiculous. It's like saying that because I only get occasional, mild eczema, I don't suffer from eczema at all. Any illness can present differently in different people, and can also vary in severity from day to day.

However, my uncertainty over whether I even had OCD was mainly due to the difficulty I had in pinpointing the exact nature of my obsessions.

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom/
Many can be concisely expressed, and it's clear how compulsions have developed out of them. For example, somebody might have an obsessive fear of becoming sick, which leads to them constantly cleaning their home or washing their hands.

Compulsions usually arise out of a desire to prevent some kind of harm, either to the individual concerned or a third party. 

So what is the obsession that drives my compulsive ordering? What harm could possibly be averted by ensuring my possessions are positioned with military precision?

In Overcoming Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, David Veale and Rob Willson explain, 'Sometimes it is difficult to work out how the content of your obsession relates to what is important in your life. It may just be self-preservation and not losing control or going crazy.'* 

Some sufferers, they say, become 'so good at OCD that [they] never get sufficiently anxious to acknowledge explicitly what is [their] fear.'*

It took me a long time to realise that my compulsions were about reducing my anxiety at living in an unpredictable world, where accident, illness or disaster can strike at any moment.

Sorting my glasses by size, or turning the labels on tins to face the same way, is not, of course, going to prevent me from being in the middle of a motorway pile-up, developing cancer, or falling victim to a terrorist attack.

As I've mentioned previously, though, ordering creates an illusion of control that helps to allay the anxiety of an inevitably precarious existence. The harm that I'm trying to prevent, therefore, is actually to my own mental well-being. It's ironic, then, that my efforts have only made things worse.

One thing I can now be certain of is that I do have OCD. And, for any sufferer, acknowledging that is the first step to dealing with it.

* * *

*p59, Overcoming Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, David Veale & Rob Willson

6 January 2014

And the award goes to...

Being a typical Brit, I don't like to blow my own trumpet, so it's nice when someone else does it for me.

In December, I received an email from a fellow blogger ('Emily'), who also writes about OCD and anxiety, saying she had nominated me for a Blog of the Year 2013 award. Alyson Sheldrake, an artist based in Portugal, set up this scheme, which encourages people to share details of blogs they enjoy. I was delighted that Emily valued mine enough to include it amongst her nominations.

The award requires me to select my own favourite blog or blogs - there is no limit - which presented me with something of a dilemma: I'm hopelessly indecisive and there is a lot of good writing out there. Although I follow blogs on a variety of topics, I decided to narrow it down, by selecting from those chiefly concerned with mental health issues, in line with my own. 

I also decided to nominate just one, but did want to mention two others.

Image courtesy of Simon Howden/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The first is Emily's own blog, Dreams to be anxiety free. She writes very openly and her post on intrusive thoughts about paedophilia was particularly moving and courageous. It's not an easy thing to admit to, but I'm sure that, in doing so, she will have achieved her aim of helping others.

The site ocdtalk, which provides the perspective of a mother of a child with OCD, is also excellent. The posts are informative and a good resource for both sufferers and their carers/families.

My current favourite blog, though, is that run by Tina Fariss Barbour, called Bringing along OCD

Not only do Tina and I share a surname, but we are both writers, suffering from OCD and anxiety. Tina also experiences depression.

What I love about her blog is that it covers many other aspects of her life, in Altavista, Virginia, USA, including: her work as a reporter on a small-town, weekly newspaper; her relationship with her lovely, supportive husband, Larry; and the activities of their beautiful cat, Chase Bird. All of these posts contribute to provide a context for her mental health battles.

Her descriptions are detailed and charming and create a vivid picture of her home, her town and her lifestyle, which are so very different from my own. Tina and I may live nearly 4,000 miles apart, but it feels as if she is a friend just around the corner.

I hope that you will take the opportunity to check out these blogs and that you will enjoy them as much as I do.