31 March 2014

Planes, trains and automobiles

In several posts, I've mentioned that I have contamination issues, but that these are secondary to my need for order and symmetry. I've realised, though, that these impact on my life more now than when my OCD was at its worst.

This is particularly apparent with regard to travelling on public transport, to which I apply a hierarchy of cleanliness. For example, I will happily sit on a plane or overground train without feeling 'dirty'. Using a bus or Tube train, however, necessitates washing any clothes that come into contact with the seat.

If I have to travel that way, I make sure I wear something washable. So, in winter, I'll put on multiple layers topped with a fleece rather than my down jacket, which is actually much better suited to cold weather. And if I suspect the inner layers have been 'contaminated' by brushing the seat, they go into the wash, too.

This hierarchy may arise from my perception of the clientele using each form of transport - the more expensive the ticket, the better the class of passenger, perhaps? Yet who hasn't encountered a drunk on an overground train, spilling beer everywhere?

Visibility to those in authority is another possible factor. On a Tube train, anything can happen; on a plane, an air steward is likely to intervene if someone starts peeing in the aisle. 

I didn't always have this problem and happily commuted to a previous job by public transport - I currently drive. I can't pinpoint exactly when or why my attitude changed, though I do remember once getting up from a Tube train seat, to find my jeans were damp...
Image courtesy of Feelart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This year, I've made an effort to catch up with some old friends, which has meant using the Tube and buses more than usual.

One get-together only entailed taking a bus two miles up the road, but even that proved problematic. I chose to stand, holding on to the metal pole, to avoid the usual clothes' washing later. All was well until one of the canvas hand straps overhead swung into my just-washed hair. The strap was filthy and its touch made me recoil. The incident also made me consider washing my hair again, when I got home, rather than have my now contaminated head touch my pillow. In the end, I didn't, but I was concerned that the thought had even crossed my mind.

It also now makes me uncomfortable if people brush against me in the street. The discomfort is fleeting, but such feelings can grow and, before you know it, a fear of contamination could stop you going out at all.

The first step for me, in avoiding that fate, is to acknowledge the true level of my contamination fears, rather than downplaying them as a secondary issue. If I don't, OCD might shrink my world and my life, and I value both too much to let that happen.

24 March 2014

Home invasion! Part Deux

‘So, the new boiler will be delivered the day before installation,’ the British Gas sales’ rep blithely announced. I’d taken him for a nice man at our previous meeting; he was obviously, in fact, a torturer. 

Now I would have to brace myself for yet another person to invade my flat and tolerate a huge box in my kitchen. Only for a day, admittedly, but new objects in my home always make me uncomfortable. I need time to adjust to them, even those I want or bring in myself – and I definitely didn’t want this one.

As it turned out it was more than just one box: it was one massive box, two small cartons, a large, plastic bag of random materials and a 12-15ft long piece of narrow, plastic pipe. 

Photos: Helen Barbour
‘They’ll only use a bit of that,’ the delivery man told me. Why, then, did I have to accommodate this monstrous length? The pipe was so long that I could only fit it in the kitchen if I leaned it diagonally across the cupboards. Instead, I wiped it down with a damp cloth and lay it behind the sofa in the living room, where it was neither out of sight nor out of mind.

I’d booked the engineer for a Friday, so that I had the following day free to devote to tidying up and reclaiming my territory. That Friday happened to be St Valentine’s Day. I asked the sales’ rep if the engineer would bring me chocolates; I think he thought I was serious.

In the end, I was the one handing over chocolates; or, at least, chocolate biscuits, to accompany the tea and coffee I’d left out. This hospitable gesture was really a silent bribe for him not to mess up my flat any more than he had to.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to stay during the installation; I wouldn’t have been able to bear seeing what was going on. As soon as the engineer was settled, I escaped to work, where I spent the day thinking about what I’d find when I got home.

It was pretty much as I’d feared: bare plaster was now visible around the new, much smaller boiler, and, underneath it, a mess of piping that the old boxing no longer covered. The floor was gritty and there were scuffs in the paintwork on a number of walls and a couple of door frames. And, of course, everything I’d packed away, to make space, was still in boxes. 

In spite of my worst fears being realised, I learnt one key thing from this experience: there’s no point in rehearsing this sort of difficult event in my mind. 

I’d spent 12 days picturing the boiler installation. By visualising it over and over again, I'd experienced it - virtually - dozens of times, when I could have just waited to go through it once. Yes, it proved to be every bit as horrible as I'd imagined, but why torment myself before it had even happened? 

That's a lesson I should apply to managing my anxiety in all kinds of situations.

17 March 2014

Unfinished business

Mental clutter is as hard for me to tolerate as the physical kind, and so I become very stressed if I'm unable to get on top of my 'to do' list. All of those unfinished jobs swirl around in my head, creating an internal mess that is impossible to tidy. 

Writing tasks down, and prioritising them, brings a degree of order, but doesn't reduce my anxiety at tasks being incomplete. Of course, the demands of day-to-day existence inevitably mean that non-urgent correspondence goes unanswered, holiday photos remain unsorted, minor DIY jobs aren't dealt with, and so on.

Sometimes, the tasks are goals that I've set arbitrarily, which are neither essential nor urgent, such as my resolution to refresh my foreign language skills by watching at least one French film a month.

Nevertheless, failure to achieve any aim leaves an 'untidy' feeling in my mind.

One task that had been hanging over me for a very long time was to catch up with my writing magazines: Writers News, Writing Magazine and Mslexia.

Not only do I read these, I also mark up websites or contacts that are worth checking out, along with articles to be torn out wholesale and filed for future reference.

Until recently, I was holding 32 magazines for research and filing to be done. I hadn't actually finished reading the oldest, which dated from October 2009, and hadn't started four of them. The pile would have been even bigger, if I hadn't already cancelled the subscriptions.
Image courtesy of bplanet/

My perfectionist nature led me to hang onto these magazines: I just couldn't get rid of them until I'd completed the tasks I'd set myself. Finally, though, I'd had enough of looking at this constant reminder of my failure; they now reside in the bottom of our flats' communal recycling bin.

I only managed to throw them out after some internal argument and justification, though. I reminded myself that, since marking up items in these magazines, I've changed writing tack - I'm planning to self-publish - so my interests have changed accordingly. Also, a lot of the information would have been out-of-date and could probably be found online if I needed it.

In a way, it was also my perfectionism that provoked me to dispose of them: if I can't do a job properly, I'd rather not do it at all.

The clunk of the magazines hitting the bottom of the bin was very final; the bin is too deep to retrieve anything from it, without triggering a host of contamination issues. 

It was also very liberating. Sometimes, you just have to accept that you can't do everything.

10 March 2014


During the 11 days between my old boiler breaking down and the new one being installed, I lived in a state of such high anxiety that there were moments when I feared I'd break down myself.

I just couldn't bear the thought of having a stranger in my home for a day, with the associated disruption to my ordered environment.

Friends and colleagues were sympathetic, but mainly about the lack of central heating and hot water and the expense of the new boiler. Very few mentioned the installation itself.

Although the cost was painful, I'd gladly have paid five times the amount if the work could have somehow been done without any intrusion on my space.

As for the heating and hot water, for a crazy five minutes, in the middle of yet another sleepless night, I toyed with the idea of managing without a boiler. The portable heaters I had on loan were effective; I could buy my own. And the kettle was sufficient for washing up and filling the bathroom basin. There was the small question of bathing - I couldn't use my neighbours' showers forever - but I was sure I could work something out...

Image courtesy of idea go/
In the cold light of day, I realised what a ridiculous idea that was, but the fact I'd entertained it at all shows how desperate I felt.

The anxiety left me with a perpetually churning stomach and dry mouth. I was light-headed, unable to focus and too nauseated to eat: I lost 3lbs in weight in the first week alone.

The impact on my OCD was also significant, with old compulsions quickly renewing their hold on me. Some I'd given up only recently, while others hadn't troubled me for years. I felt myself sliding back to the lowest point in my life; a time when I couldn't leave my flat unless every last thing was in its rightful place.

I recognised, though, that this was an unavoidable slide. Compulsions shouldn't be a solution to anything, but sometimes they seem the lesser of two evils. On this occasion, either I caved into them, or I'd lose it completely.

Other events in the early part of February contributed to my fragile mental and emotional state: an operation I'd been expecting to have was declined, and a close colleague unexpectedly resigned and left days later, leaving our team shell-shocked and short-handed.

Life seemed to be just one piece of bad news after another. I became fearful of what might be next and clung onto my compulsions as the only thing I could be sure of. 

And all of that was before the boiler was even installed.

3 March 2014

Flood defences

I often potter around my flat with the television on in the background to catch the latest news. Recently, Channel 4 ran a feature presenting children's accounts of the widespread flooding in the UK. 

The cameras followed various youngsters, as they talked about the circumstances in which they'd fled their homes and showed the crew around their new, temporary accommodation. 

I wasn't listening closely, though, until I heard one boy say, 'I'm just worried about everything.' My heart went out to him; he had endured so much at such an early age.

And his comment made me wonder what the long-term effects might be on him and others like him.

I don't know whether that particular boy was already an anxious child, or whether this trauma had provoked a hitherto unknown anxiety in him. It struck me, though, that this is exactly the kind of experience that might trigger OCD, which feeds on uncertainty, anxiety and fear.

As I've mentioned before, scientists have not yet identified a definitive cause of the condition, but it's thought to be the result of a combination of factors, which can include traumatic life experiences.

Seeing your family in danger could easily trigger a compulsion to protect them. Witnessing your home being engulfed in sewage might well lead to contamination fears. And simply realising the fragility of existence could provoke a need to control your environment.

Image courtesy of sakhorn38/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
My OCD is all about such control and three childhood events, where I felt very much out of control, have stuck in my memory.

When my mother took our guinea pig to the vet, but returned without him, as he'd had to be put down.

When I suffered my first migraine with intermittent loss of vision and was left alone and scared in the medical room at school, not knowing what was wrong with me.

When my sister and I were kept away from my grandmother - at her request - after she became terminally ill.

None of these situations are unusual for a child - children's lives are, by and large, out of their control - but they may have had a cumulative effect on me. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour seems to run in my family and perhaps these incidents, and others, served to build on that genetic foundation.  

Certainly, nothing I went through compares to being forced out of your home and seeing it destroyed. No amount of sandbags or barriers can protect against a flood's mental and emotional ravages, and even the most resilient child, who appears to view it as an adventure, may not be immune.

I hope people remember, in the midst of the clear-up, that physical damage is not the only kind that needs to be addressed.