24 February 2014

Home invasion

Given that I can't stand disruption to my environment, and find it difficult to deal with anyone being in my home, I avoid having workmen in unless the situation is an emergency. I prefer to live with a dripping tap than move everything around under my sink just so that a plumber can turn the water off.

The morning my toilet wouldn't flush was one such emergency. I steeled myself for the plumber's visit to deal with what I suspected would be a simple job. On arrival, though, he noticed that not only did the internal workings need to be repaired, but the cistern itself was cracked.

Cue a second visit to replace that; a much bigger and messier task than anticipated. Also, the new cistern was white, rather than cream as per the existing suite, and smaller than the old one, so a strip of different coloured paintwork was now visible either side of it. I need items to match, and be flawless, so this only added to my growing stress. 

Image courtesy of Rawich/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Then the cistern developed a drip and the plumber had to come back for a third time. A straightforward fix had become an OCD ordeal of three incursions into my space, followed by long and exhausting clear-ups to get things back to normal. My idea of a clear-up is not just vacuuming up debris and wiping away dust in the immediate work area, but checking that everything in my flat is where it should be. It's all about reclaiming my territory.

Three weeks ago, I faced possibly my biggest domestic nightmare yet.

It began when I returned home to find my ageing boiler wasn't working. An engineer visited the next day to fix it, but a few hours later - just as I was getting settled after the upset of his visit - it gave out a second time. 

A different engineer came around the following morning and declared it irreparable. I tidied up yet again, even more stressed now that I knew the boiler had to be replaced. Only to discover, just as I was - finally - leaving for work, that it had developed a drip, meaning the engineer had to return later to tighten a valve. And I had to tidy up once more.

That evening, an independent heating engineer came to quote for a replacement. And the following day, a British Gas rep. And, the day after that, the same rep returned, to sign off the paperwork for the job. Even without any messy work being involved, their visits necessitated a 'clear-up', as they kept touching and moving things.

In the space of four days, four strangers had made five visits to my home, leaving me beside myself with stress and anxiety. As a result, when two friends arrived with spare portable heaters, even their presence in my flat was almost unbearable.

Hence the title of this post, which I initially hesitated over, due to the sensitivities around its US meaning of 'unauthorized and forceful entry into a dwelling'. Then it occurred to me that, while none of these workmen broke into my home, I certainly didn't let them in willingly. Their presence left me feeling deeply unsettled and as if my space had been violated. Clearly not as bad as a burglary, but with definite similarities in my response.

And the challenge of the new boiler being installed? That's a story for another day... 

17 February 2014

Theory and practice

It can be hard to support others with OCD, even when you have the condition yourself and have developed a good understanding of treatment approaches.

Some years ago, I began informally mentoring a young colleague whose compulsions revolved around preventing harm from coming to her family. She lived with her parents and younger brother and her rituals impacted significantly on her daily life, including regularly making her late for work.

We met fortnightly for lunch and she often commented on how helpful she found our chats: she felt that she had finally met someone who understood her situation. We both had anxious personalities and I could appreciate the concerns that lay behind her behaviours, however, her compulsions were very different from mine. 

One of the ways she 'protected' her family was to remove any candles brought into their home; she was convinced that they would spontaneously combust and start a fire. When she came across one, she would put it in her handbag and take it out with her.

Image courtesy of  Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I know as well as anyone that there is no logic to OCD, but couldn't help asking: 'You do know that candles can't just ignite? And even if they could, what's to stop them catching fire in your bag?' 

As soon as I'd voiced these questions, I knew that I shouldn't have. Not only were they pointless, but the latter might have sown the seed of a new fear.

She just shrugged. That point didn't seem to have occurred to her, but nor did it bother her now that I'd raised it. Perhaps, just being in possession of the candles provided sufficient reassurance; even if they did ignite, the fire would be far away from her family and she would be on hand to put it out.

Whatever the OCD logic of this compulsion, I found it frustrating not to be able to convince her of its actual illogicality. It would have been unreasonable to let this show, of course, given how much of my own behaviour is equally nonsensical.

Knowing the theory of how to support someone is one thing; putting it into practice is another. It's all too easy to say or do the wrong thing, or to let frustration overwhelm you. 

No wonder friends and family have a hard time knowing how best to help, if even those of us on the inside of the OCD experience have trouble.

10 February 2014

Time to talk

Last Thursday, 6 February, was the first Time to Talk Day, which was organised as part of Time to Change's ongoing campaign to reduce mental health stigma, and which I flagged up in a post last month.

I was keen to spread the word, so asked if this could be featured on our intranet home page at work. As my employer is a large London Borough, this had the potential to reach a wide audience, so I was delighted when they agreed.

I was already armed with a small pack of Time to Change materials to distribute to colleagues: leaflets, postcards, badges and a couple of pens.

On the big day, I put on one of the badges and applied a temporary Time to Talk tattoo to the back of my left hand, to attract attention and get people talking. 

I began by emailing 80-90 of my immediate colleagues about the campaign, which provoked some interesting responses.

One wrote about the 'embarrassed faces in the office' when she admitted to having post-natal depression. A condition which, she said, 'You would have thought would have relatively little stigma attached.'

Images courtesy of Time to Change
Another commented, 'None of us are "experts" at what life throws at us or our friends, but it doesn't mean we can't do something to help.'

And yet another stopped me in the corridor to tell me about two family members, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which had significantly, and detrimentally, affected their lives. She said that she had always been open in telling people about their mental illness, but other relatives had discouraged her, fearing that this somehow reflected badly on them. 'We can see a broken arm, but no one understands if you have a broken brain,' she said.

There were some rather more comical interactions. 

The manager of one of our on-site caf├ęs asked me if I'd had a good night out. I had no idea what she was talking about until she pointed to my tattoo, which she'd taken for a nightclub stamp.

And I realised, too late, that this might have caught the attention of the interviewee I served with a glass of water; I hope she didn't lose her train of thought as a result.

As the day wore on, I gave leaflets to people who came to me with work queries, handed out my blog details to anyone who didn't already know about it, and awarded my two precious pens as 'prizes' for the most inspiring email responses.

The principles of this campaign can, of course, be applied beyond the mental health arena.

Towards the end of the afternoon, colleague no. 2 above told me, in a follow-up email, about her efforts to help a recently bereaved friend. She said 'That's why I like the Time to Talk campaign - it encourages me not to be intimidated or silenced by the magnitude of someone else's suffering and it also puts value on those small gestures that might not seem earth-shattering from my perspective, but could mean more than I could ever imagine to someone else.'

I couldn't have put it better myself.

3 February 2014

Less is more

Recently, I came across a term in the context of OCD that was new to me: obsessive-compulsive spartanism. 

Spartanism is, essentially, the opposite of hoarding: people exhibiting this behaviour can't tolerate any kind of clutter. They seek to live with the fewest belongings possible, often choosing to keep items only in specific quantities and/or if they fall into a particular category. As a result, they're driven to have ruthless clear-outs, even getting rid of things they still need.

And, in spite of reducing their possessions to the absolute minimum, they may still find their environment unbearable.

Although the article I read defined spartanism as a form of OCD, my subsequent research revealed that this does not yet appear to have been classified as a psychiatric disorder, let alone one relating to this condition.

However, this research did confirm my initial suspicions that I'm prone to spartanism, and that it ties in closely with my ordering compulsions. 

Image courtesy of sattva/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Often, I look around my flat and wish I had less stuff, although I know I have very little compared with most people: I hate clothes' shopping, don't buy the latest gadgets and don't even retain books once I've read them.

The feeling of discomfort at having too many things around me can be overwhelming. Sorting and rearranging helps a little, and getting rid of just one or two things can also temporarily alleviate the feeling.  

I can see how this could get out of hand, though. Throwing away out-of-date food products has, in the past, escalated unintentionally to the disposal of multiple other items around my flat. On occasion, I've even toyed with the idea of getting rid of my photos and boxes of things I've kept for sentimental reasons - I only managed to hold back, because I knew I'd regret it later. 

Being an anxious person, prone to imagining all kinds of catastrophes, I’ve often imagined how I would cope if I lost everything I owned, for example, in a fire. I know it would be traumatic; probably the equivalent of a bereavement, necessitating the same grieving process. Yet, part of me whispers, ‘Think how liberating it would be to start over with nothing.’

Of course, I don't want to put this to the test, but the idea of a clean slate - at least in terms of material things - is appealing. My instinct is that I would accumulate much less second time around. 

Spartanism is characterised by organising, counting, arranging, rearranging and purging. There is a clear fit, therefore, with my need for order, and a mirroring of my desire for control.

I'm glad to have read about this and to have recognised my own latent spartan tendencies. Under the wrong circumstances, these could easily develop into a real problem. Forewarned is forearmed.