26 May 2014

Fight club

Like many OCD sufferers, I also experience general anxiety, which can exacerbate the condition. If anxiety - and its opposite number, reason - were people, here's how one of my recent mental battles might translate into 3D.

* * *

Reason is having a pretty good day until he goes into the kitchen to make a camomile tea and finds Anxiety leaning over the kitchen counter. His ear is close to the electrical socket next to the microwave, in which a ready meal slowly turns.

Reason stops, leans against the doorframe and folds his arms. 'What on earth are you doing now, Anxiety?' 

Anxiety flaps his hand. 'Shh! Can you hear it?'


'There's a funny noise coming from the socket. Listen! I think the electrics are going.'

'Not this again.' Reason sighs, unfolds his arms and walks towards Anxiety. 'Look, you haven't put the plug in properly.' He reaches over the counter and pushes the plug firmly into the socket.

'Oh.' Anxiety straightens up. 'I can still hear something.'

'That's the vibrations from the microwave.'

'Mmm, maybe. I don't think it sounds right, though.' Anxiety frowns. 'And what about all those light bulbs that went? First it was the kitchen spotlights, one after another, then the living room light, then the lava lamp.'
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Reason rolls his eyes. 'You can hardly call two months "one after another", and how long is it since the last one blew? It must be at least three months. Don't you think they'd have gone again, if there were an electrical problem, or has that somehow fixed itself since then? And when had we last changed the bulb in the living room?'

'Can't remember.' Anxiety pouts.

'Precisely. As for the lava lamp, you have it on all the time; no wonder the bulb keeps going. What is it with that, by the way?'

'It helps me to relax.'

'This is you relaxed? I'd hate to see you stressed.'

Anxiety sniffs, turns to peer into the microwave, then spins back around. 'What about the computer monitor? That started flickering really suddenly. I tell you, the electrics are going and we'll have to get them replaced and it'll cost a fortune and make a terrible mess and -'

'What happened when we replaced the monitor? Did the new one flicker?'

Anxiety mumbles something.

'What was that?' says Reason.

'No, it didn't.'

'So, it was the monitor that was broken, then? Which is hardly surprising, given that it was secondhand and about a hundred years old. I don't know why we can't buy something new once in a while.'

'Because I can't choose. How do I know if I've found exactly the right thing? With secondhand, you take what you're given; you don't have to decide. Anyway, it could hardly be a hundred years old when they didn't have monitors then.'

'I know! I was exaggerating for comedic effect. You take everything way too seriously, Anxiety.'

The microwave pings. Anxiety turns to open it and pull out the plastic container. He stops suddenly and stares at it. 'Oh no, the plastic lid has come loose! I wonder if it was like that before? Maybe even in the shop. I mean I usually check, but I could have forgotten. What if it's been open for days? I'm going to get food poisoning!'

Reason shakes his head and makes for the door. It'll take more than camomile today; maybe a brandy instead.

'Wait, Reason, don't go!' Anxiety pulls the film right back. 'Does this stew look off to you?... Reason? Reason?...'

19 May 2014

Spot the difference

Years of carrying out compulsions related to order and symmetry may have honed my eye for detail; alternatively, that eye for detail might be the very reason those particular compulsions developed, rather than a different set of behaviours. As with my tendency to inflexibility, it's impossible to know what came first.

Being aware that things are out of place is occasionally useful, sometimes entertaining, but mostly a curse.

Under the useful category is that I hardly ever lose anything: you're more likely to find an item again, if you quickly notice that it's missing from its usual spot.

As for the entertainment... When I was married, I could, with Sherlock-like skill, walk into the flat I shared with my husband and figure out exactly what he had done in my absence, simply from the objects he had moved.

The curse element frequently manifests itself when I'm watching television, in that I pick up even the tiniest continuity lapses.
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Beneath every film entry on IMDB, you'll find a log of continuity errors. Some are obvious to all but the most unobservant: Bruce Willis's vest changing colour from white to dark green in Die Hard springs to mind. The problem for me is that I spot everything, which can be hugely distracting.

The most frequent 'errors' occur when scenes are shot several times, or from different angles, then intercut. If someone's head tilts a little more in one take than another, the end result is like watching one of those nodding toy dogs that sit on car parcel shelves. Then there are the arms that fold, unfold and fold again. The glasses that fill, empty and re-fill. And so it goes on. Whatever the lapse, it catches my eye and drags me out of the story and the action.

The most glaring continuity errors I've spotted recently were both paper related.

Caught up in the tension and gloom of the film The Woman in Black, I was quickly brought back to real life when Daniel Radcliffe's character unfolded a bundle of paper from his pocket, which then didn't have a crease in it when we viewed it over his shoulder.

Likewise in the American crime drama series, Person of Interest, a sheet of paper screwed into a ball, and thrown into a bin, looked as if it had been ironed when it was shown to someone later.

Sometimes I don't immediately realise what's wrong, but just feel a visual jolt, which prompts me to rewind to check what's caused it, even if that means going back half an hour or more. It's a wonder I ever get to the end of anything I watch, given that I'm also compelled to ensure I catch every syllable of dialogue.

Perhaps I've missed my vocation, of continuity checker. Then again, my nit-picking would probably annoy everybody so much that I'd be fired faster than you can say 'Take Two'.

12 May 2014

Invasion of the body snatchers

'For someone with OCD and a need for control, this is hardly an ideal scenario,' I told the radiologist who was about to conduct my surgical procedure.

He laughed. 'So, tell me, how many times do you check your front door? I do it five or six times.'

'Ah, well, the thing is, my OCD is mainly about order and symmetry...' And so, as I lay there, dosed up on morphine, waiting for him to begin, I tried to explain my experience of the condition. It was all rather surreal.

In fact, I really wasn't enjoying being in a situation that was entirely new to me and where everything was out of my control. I'd never been an inpatient before, so, in spite of reading up on this particular procedure, was unfamiliar with the detail of hospital processes.

I'd been busy unpacking and arranging my things in my room - making this new environment my own - when a doctor arrived unexpectedly to put a tube in my arm. She was quickly followed by a succession of nurses checking my vitals and administering one drug after another.

Eventually, I was forced to abandon my nest-building, instead directing my boyfriend - from my bed - as to where I wanted things. Applying order via a third party didn't satisfy my OCD, but I didn't have much choice.

The fact that the procedure was to be done under local anaesthetic exacerbated my anxiety. If I had to surrender my body to the medical profession, I'd rather have done it completely, even if a general anaesthetic did carry greater risks. I didn't want to be awake to hear them say 'We're losing her!' Possibly I've just watched too many TV medical dramas for my own good.

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And then there was the pain. No amount of research could predict how my body would react. In the end, the procedure was less painful than I'd expected, but the immediate post-op pain significantly worse. The treatment was designed to trigger a process in my body that would take months to conclude. The pain was, apparently, a good thing; a sign that my body was responding as it was meant to.

'Think of tomorrow!' the radiologist urged me. 

I gritted my teeth and hit the morphine pump as often as it would let me. Even that didn't feel like control, as the waves of pain just kept coming.

Afterwards, I had to remain flat on my back for 8 hours. As if that wasn't bad enough, I'd overlooked that all the equipment I was hooked up to would also restrict my movement - you'd think I'd have been better prepared, after all those medical dramas. Now I couldn't even determine my own position, let alone that of the objects around me in my temporary home.

As time wore on, the side effects of the drugs began to exert their own hold over my body. The morphine made me so sick I couldn't even keep down water, my digestion went haywire, I lost my appetite and the antibiotics brought me out in a rash.

In the depths of my misery, however, I kept reminding myself of all those who live with chronic or life-threatening conditions, who have to endure long-term, often toxic, treatments, and possibly far more difficult surgeries. My discomfort, and the restrictions placed on me, were, after all, only short term. I emerged from the experience with a new-found appreciation for my relatively good physical health and for some of the simple pleasures that we so often take for granted, such as eating and freedom of movement.

I also found myself strangely grateful that the medical condition that dominates my life - OCD - is, at least, within my power to control, even if that control is often hard to achieve.

5 May 2014

Buyer beware

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I loathe shopping for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because of my need for absolute certainty that I've identified the perfect product to match my requirements.

Once I've homed in on a product, I also have to ensure that the example I buy is flawless. The consequence of these dual, perfectionist obsessions is that, at best, shopping takes ages and, at worst, I go home empty-handed.

I find it so difficult to commit to buying anything that, as far as possible, I simply avoid the process. I don't replace anything - big or small, cheap or expensive - until sheer necessity forces me to, and impulse shopping is almost unheard of in my world.

On the rare occasion I do find myself buying something without deliberation, it gives me a strange thrill; as if I'm engaging in an extreme sport. It is, though, a thrill tinged with fear that I'm making a terrible mistake, however trivial the item I'm buying.

Necessity has now driven me on a quest for new rugs for my flat: the carpet is so thin that I can feel the lumpy concrete floor underneath but, with plans to move out of London, want to avoid the expense and upheaval of new flooring.

Two nearby, and adjoining, retail parks - with Next Home, Carpetright and Ikea close to one another - allowed me to shop around without travelling too far.

My first stop, Next Home, only had a limited display and the assistant directed me to their catalogue instead...where I got stuck scanning the same dozen or so pages again and again and again. I just had to be sure I hadn't overlooked the perfect rug.

It didn't help that the catalogue was on a stand next to the tills. The customers queuing nearby distracted me and prevented me from conducting my review properly - that OCD experience of things having to 'feel right'. Every time I was diverted, I had to go back to the first page.

The same thing happened in Ikea, where there were dozens of rugs on show. Up and down the aisles I went, over and over again, to make sure I hadn't missed a single one. Many were also hung on the walls and I walked past them multiple times, touching each one and mentally ticking it off as a 'no' or a 'maybe'.

There was so much to consider: size, pile depth, colour, price. Around and around I went, until I began to worry what the assistants would think - and to wonder whether I'd ever be able to extricate myself from there.

Somehow, I did. And, somehow, I managed to leave with two rugs and a runner, in spite of trying to avoid an actual purchase, by telling myself they were too heavy for me to carry and too big for my car (neither of which was true).

I still have one rug to find, but felt a great sense of achievement at buying anything at all. My idea of retail therapy is simply winning the battle with perfectionism.