28 April 2014

Just do it

Spontaneity is something that I find very difficult; I just can't seem to master the art of doing things off the cuff. This rigidity is, no doubt, rooted in my need for control - of things and situations - and it can have a negative impact on both my personal and professional relationships. Although I am able to adjust to new ideas, it takes time, and that period of adjustment can come across badly to others.

On the last Sunday in March, my boyfriend, Pete, surprised me by suggesting we have a picnic lunch and a walk in the Olympic Park, a mile or so from his flat. Forecasters had predicted temperatures of 20ÂșC and he thought it would make a nice change from our routine of beans on toast followed by an afternoon of natural history documentaries. It would also be the first time we'd been back there since our two visits during the Paralympics in 2012.
Image courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What a lovely idea, how romantic, I hear you say. And that was my immediate response, too. 

Two seconds later, though, Captain Inflexible chirped up:

You're wearing the wrong clothes and footwear for a walk and a picnic - you'll be horribly hot and uncomfortable.

You're already really hungry - if you go out, it'll be at least another hour before you eat.

You don't have a hat or sunscreen - you'll burn once the sun comes out.

So, although I agreed to the picnic, I felt compelled to voice a whole range of concerns, which just made me look ungrateful. 

Of course, we resolved most of the problems. Pete had sunscreen and lent me a pair of walking trousers, a tee shirt, a long-sleeved shirt and a baseball cap. I got changed, while he prepared the picnic and made us toast to keep us going. The only issue we couldn't resolve was my footwear: I'm a size 6, while he's 11.

Sure enough, my feet got very sore in my thin socks and ankle boots, but we had a lovely afternoon in spite of my best efforts to sabotage it.

Equally, at work, if I'm given a new project or responsibility, I immediately ask questions about it, which can translate as resistance. Being a perfectionist doesn't help; I assume that I won't be up to the task, even though past experience has proved I'm capable of rising to a challenge. That insecurity fuels my need for a full understanding of what's required of me. As a result, I know that I can come across as difficult.

I don't know whether this rigidity set in as my OCD took hold, or whether it was an inherently rigid personality that dictated the way the condition manifested itself. Either way, I'm trying to learn just to say 'yes' - and keep my worries to myself.

21 April 2014


The way I create patterns from objects is determined by what 'feels right', making it impossible for anyone else to understand how I order my environment. It's like a giant jigsaw where only I know how the pieces fit.

Occasionally, 'rules' do emerge, but they all arise from that same gut feeling. If I position items according to size, for example, they must descend from left to right. It just looks - and feels - wrong to do the reverse.

Objects also have to be evenly spaced, or centred, or parallel to one another, but each group will require a different arrangement. I don't know myself what that will be until I've started putting it together.

The effect of changing these often long-established patterns is as unsettling as having no patterns at all.

The day after my new boiler was installed, I embarked on a deep clean of my kitchen surfaces and took the opportunity to get rid of some unused appliances, empty storage jars and bottles of spirits with only dregs left. I thought this would help me to reclaim my territory, after such a distressing intrusion on my space.

Image courtesy of Anusorn P nachol/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In fact, the clearout made me feel worse. Not only did I have to get used to the unsightly area around the boiler - bare plaster and pipes now being visible - but also the new-look worktops. Instead of re-stamping my presence, I felt like a stranger in my own home; it took weeks to stop noticing the changes.

My patterns may 'feel right', but sometimes they're highly impractical. 

I've lived in my flat for 19 years and have always stored my deodorant and face creams on the chest of drawers in my bedroom. Every morning, when I get washed, I take one face cream into the bathroom and, in the evening, when I bathe, a different one, together with the deodorant. Afterwards, back they go down the hall to the bedroom. All this, in spite of the fact that there's an almost empty shelf available in the bathroom.

During my last flat clean, I finally acknowledged how ridiculous this was and braced myself to change some of my patterns. 

It took me 10 minutes to decide how best to accommodate these items on the bathroom shelf around the existing three: a hairbrush, nail scissors and tweezers. Eventually, I settled for placing them on the end of the shelf near the door, but they caught my eye every time I went in or out of the room. My second attempt - the middle of the shelf - was equally offensive, as it broke my 'descending size' rule. Eventually, I went back to the first arrangement and resigned myself to having to get used to the rather obtrusive positioning.

As a result, of course, I also had to rearrange the chest of drawers: with many more objects on display, this was an even longer job. The good news was that it only took a few days for me to become accustomed to the changes, unlike in the kitchen.

This made me wonder whether my mind was learning to adjust more quickly to change and whether effecting it more frequently might be beneficial; not as helpful as completely resisting my compulsions, but still a valuable mental challenge. If I can get used to varying my patterns, maybe, one day, I won't need them at all.

14 April 2014

Lady Luck

Of all the crises that struck this February, the worst was my boyfriend, Pete, breaking his collarbone in a cycle accident.

Initially, he simply told me that he'd hit a pothole and been thrown off. A picture formed in my mind of his bike plunging into a hole and him flying over the handlebars and landing in the gutter.

I wasn't as upset as I might have been. That month's run of misfortune had habituated me to receiving bad news, so I was somehow unsurprised that Pete had had an accident.

When we met up a few days later, I was shaken to discover that he had actually been catapulted sideways into the middle of three lanes of heavy, fast-moving traffic, after his bike wheel had got wedged in a narrow pothole. The photos and video footage he'd taken of that section of road only emphasised the danger - the offending pothole is in the foreground of this shot. 
Photo: Peter Gettins

It seemed unbelievable that he hadn't been hit by a car and that I hadn't taken a phone call from a policeman rather than him. My mind raced with what might have been; I could hardly breathe.

Pete's injury was not the only thing that made this incident the worst to happen that month; it was all those 'what if' scenarios that it conjured up.

While talking about the accident again, a few weeks later, he admitted 'I never really thought about that aspect of it.'

And that's the difference between him and me - and most people with OCD. Sufferers dwell on what could have happened, or might happen. We can't cope with life's uncertainties and so seek ways to assert control and reduce our anxiety; in my case by ordering my environment. For others, this might lead to compulsions such as cleaning to avoid illness, or checking doors to prevent a burglary.

Life is, of course, full of stories of near misses. Every time a disaster happens, tales emerge of those whose good luck meant that they avoided injury or death. Such as a friend of mine, who found himself in the Tube train carriage next to the one that blew up at Edgware Road, in the London bombings of 7 July 2005.

We make thousands of apparently inconsequential decisions every day, never knowing which might be the one that turns our life around, for good or bad. If, for example, Pete had spent 2 seconds more - or less - playing with his cat before leaving home, perhaps he would have ended up in the path of a car. 

No amount of compulsions can ever mitigate against the possible consequences of every - often unthinking - decision we take. And any illusion of control a compulsion provides is precisely that.

7 April 2014

Happy Birthday!

Warning: this post contains lines of self-congratulation and sentiment which some readers may find distressing (though probably only the British ones).

On 8 April 2013, this blog was born, making tomorrow its first birthday.

After 52 weekly posts, I have a confession to make in this, my 53rd: I only started blogging under duress - more The Reluctant Blogger than The Reluctant Perfectionist. Again and again at writing events, though, I'd heard that agents and publishers expected authors to have an online presence. If I were to stand any chance of securing either representation or a publishing deal for my novel, I needed to build an audience first.

Image courtesy of mrsiraphol/
My novel's central character suffers from OCD and I really did want to get her (hopefully page-turning) story on shelves to promote greater understanding of mental health issues. But I feared blogging would eat into the time I needed to put together submission packages and to keep up my fiction writing.

What I hadn't anticipated was how much I would enjoy writing non-fiction and also the impact my blog itself would have in terms of raising awareness. 

It took a few months for me to see the light. By then, I had engaged with the fantastic mental health community on Twitter, was getting great feedback on my posts and gaining more followers every week. And I'd discovered that I loved the whole blogging process - from the research and writing, to sourcing photos and engaging with readers, and everything in between.

My blog was no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself.

It has led to other opportunities, too, such as writing a guest blog post for the charity Mind, featuring twice on the website of Emily Benet (whose blogging workshop got me started), and giving me the confidence to ask my workplace to promote Time to Talk Day.

At the risk of sounding like a Miss World contestant, I have to say it has also been immensely rewarding to know that my blog has helped people.

Last Christmas, I jotted a note about my website in the cards of anyone who wasn't already aware of it. An old school friend, whom I haven't seen for 20+ years, subsequently texted at length to tell me about her son's diagnosis with OCD. She said my posts had helped her and her husband, and added 'I thank you so much for what you do and for letting us know. It is so important to talk openly.' Her words made me cry - in true Miss World style.

The highlight of my blogging year came this January, when a magazine based in Mumbai, India - Complete Wellbeing - found my site and asked me to write a feature about OCD for them. The resulting two-page article was in last month's issue of the magazine, which has a circulation of about 50,000 in print and 5,000 online. Unexpectedly, I have ended up reaching an audience of a size I could only dream of in book sales.

Writing as The Reluctant Perfectionist has been a wonderful journey so far. Thank you for sharing it with me.