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.


Tina Fariss Barbour said...

I think making the changes and then having to get used to them is a great way to practice cognitive behavior therapy. Perhaps you're not completely preventing compulsions, but you're making changes that you don't WANT to make and then have to get used to them. I would say, keep it up! :-)

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks for your support, Tina - will do!