29 September 2014

Antisocial behaviour

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Social media is something I came to late, only joining Twitter two years ago and Facebook last summer. For a long time afterwards, I approached both in a completely unsustainable way, as a result of my 'all or nothing' attitude to every aspect of life.

I resolved to read all of the posts and Tweets from those I was friends with or following, for fear of missing something important. As I don't have mobile online access, this activity was restricted to once a day and, initially, I kept the number of connections low, so that I could scrutinise everything.

At lunchtime, I would log on and work my way backwards through my timelines until I reached the last post and Tweet I'd read the day before. Needless to say, this became quite a chore, even though I only had about 30 Facebook friends and was following fewer than 60 people on Twitter. 

I marvelled at those who followed hundreds, or thousands, of people on Twitter. How did they do it? Feeling a bit foolish, I asked one of them. She assured me that she only went online once or twice a day, too, but saw social media as akin to dipping in and out of conversations at a party - you can't be involved in all of them, or see them all through to the end. 

It took a while to change my perspective and to accept that I couldn't possibly review all of the material coming into my social media accounts. Now, however, I follow 329 people on Twitter, have doubled my friends on Facebook, and have mastered the art of skimming messages - and of knowing when to stop.

I do, though, like to respond to all direct messages and notifications, yet no matter how often, or how quickly, I check, there is always something new requiring a response. Click, click, click, I go, zipping in and out accounts, around and around again, hoping to achieve the holy grail of being entirely up-to-date with all personal messages.

Duplicates of these feed into a dedicated Gmail account, which has helped a little: at least I can read everything in one place, even if it's a never-ending race to keep that Inbox empty. By the time I've double deleted messages from the Bin, another has usually arrived, which leaves me feeling like Sisyphus repeatedly pushing his rock uphill.

And, each time I empty the Bin, Google challenges me 'Who needs to delete when you have so much storage?!' I do, Google, because there is something immensely satisfying, to an ordered soul like mine, in reading the words '0 GB (0%) of 15 GB used'.

Of course, many people without my type of personality find themselves addicted to social media. That need to know and to share everything, that fear of missing out and of not making our own presence felt in the world; it's a modern ailment. In fact, I'd say there's a little bit of the obsessive in almost everybody caught in the social media web.

22 September 2014

Words are not enough

'So, tell me, how does your typical day go? What do you actually do?' The friend who put this question seemed dissatisfied with my hitherto broadbrush description of the way my OCD manifests itself.

I appreciated the fact that she was trying to gain a real understanding of what my need for order and symmetry meant in practical terms, so got down to the nitty-gritty of it.

'Well...after I've cleaned my teeth, the brush has to go back in the holder at a particular angle. It's hard to describe, but it's somewhere between facing forwards and facing sideways. I just know when it looks right. 

'The toothbrush holder has a square base, which I have to check is still at the correct slant to the edge of the basin. That stands to the left of the taps.

'To the right of them is the tube of facial wash, which I also have to put back at the right angle, and the liquid soap has to be centred to the taps and the correct distance from the basin edge.

Photo: Helen Barbour
'Then I have to fold the towel with the edges flush, and hang it so that the two ends are level, with the label edge to the rear of the rail.'

At this point, I noticed my friend's glazed expression. She was obviously already regretting her request, and I was barely ten minutes into the day she'd asked me to describe.

As I caught her eye, she said 'Okay, okay', which I interpreted as a full stop on the conversation: she has a genuine interest in mental health issues, but this level of detail was too much for her - it would be for anyone. Frankly, recapping my day in this way was wearing me out, too.

Yet the reality is that much of what I do is actually indescribable, because it's subjective. The 'right angle' and the 'correct distance' means what feels right or correct, when I look at the object I'm positioning.

Some OCD sufferers persuade their partners and families to participate in their compulsions, perhaps, for example, by observing the same rituals as they do to avoid contamination. I'd never be able to get anyone to copy mine, as the way I carry out most of them is determined by a feeling of 'rightness' that can't be articulated. No matter how detailed the description of my rules, it would never be enough to enable anybody else to follow, or fully understand, them.

Even I showed someone the required angles and spacing for all of my belongings, they would then have to rely on memory, rather than the gut instinct that guides me; and no one's memory is that good - with the possible exception of illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown. Now there's an idea for a show...

15 September 2014

Communication breakdown

You might imagine that modern communications would help to reduce anxiety in those of us who constantly fret about the wellbeing of our nearest and dearest. After all, mobile phones, emails and a host of social media allow us to keep in touch 24 hours a day. Our minds are tricksy beasts, though, and endlessly inventive in finding causes for concern.

One Sunday, my boyfriend, Pete, and I didn't meet up as usual, having just returned from a holiday together. Instead, I spent much of the day online, catching up on Twitter and Facebook, and responding to emails. Amongst the messages I sent were a couple of inconsequential ones to Pete.

While I'm tied to a PC for online activities, he has mobile access and is usually fairly quick to reply. The hours passed, however, and still he didn't respond. I experienced a flutter of concern, but then it occurred to me that he might be on a bike ride. Relaxing, I carried on...until the early evening, when I still hadn't heard from him. Based on past experience, this was unusual.

Photos courtesy of Peter Gettins
If he'd gone out on a ride, he would have texted me to report on his day, or posted something on Twitter or Facebook: either photos - usually of his kit or the scenery - or messages about any incidents en route. He hadn't.

If he'd stayed at home, he would have texted me to report on his day, or posted something on Twitter or Facebook: either photos - usually of his cat, Bandit - or messages about what they were up to. He hadn't.

No texts, emails, Tweets, Facebook posts or photos. All day. The only logical conclusion was that something terrible had happened to him. At that point, I went old school, and phoned him on his landline. No reply. I only managed to wait five minutes before I called again; this time, he picked up.

Needless to say, nothing awful had come to pass. He had just had an atypical day in not communicating with the outside world, and had been in the bath when I had finally phoned him.

When we first became a couple, mobiles were hardly used - and only had the facility for calls or texts - and our usual contact was just one chat, in the evening, on our landlines. Yes, I would immediately panic if Pete didn't answer the phone at the scheduled time, but mutual silence during the day was the norm. 

The pressure to be in touch with everybody, all of the time, is not only stressful in its own right, but also leads to anxiety when somebody seems to drop off the radar.

The coverage of the centenary of the start of World War I has made me reflect on how times have changed. Then, communications with troops were infrequent, slow and unreliable. Families might endure months of uncertainty as to a loved one's status, whether missing, injured or dead. I can only imagine their stress, while they waited for news.

In light of their suffering, it seems somehow shameful that I've allowed my anxious disposition to turn the benefits of 21st century technology to my mental disadvantage.

8 September 2014

Hide and seek

Image courtesy of artemisphoto/
Many people with OCD are able to hide at least some elements of their behaviour, so it can be easy to forget that they have a problem.

At one of OCD Action's conferences, I got chatting to a fellow delegate, whom I'll call Cathy. Although we spent the day together, and talked extensively about our experiences - which included engaging in observable compulsions - neither of us displayed any overt sign of the condition.

We agreed to walk back to the Tube station together, at the end of the event, and both visited the toilet ahead of the journey. I finished quickly and went back outside to wait for Cathy. 

After a few minutes, I began to wonder where she was and re-opened the door. I spotted her at the sink, washing her hands, and assumed that she had just come out of the toilet. A lot of women take a long time in the Ladies, so I didn't think much of it.

I closed the door and carried on waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Then I suddenly remembered the washing compulsions Cathy had spoken of earlier and realised she must have got stuck.

Now I didn't know what to do. I couldn't leave without her, though I was tired and wanted to get home, but I didn't know how to help her. Being on the outside of OCD was an unfamiliar experience and I had little knowledge then of how to support others. 

In spite of this, after a few more minutes, I decided that I couldn't hang on indefinitely and went back inside. As I approached Cathy, all I could think to say was 'Are you OK?' Clearly she wasn't: the anguished look on her face and her teary eyes revealed the depths of her misery and frustration. She muttered something about needing to be alone and so I left her to it, helpless in the face of her difficulties.

Eventually, she managed to break free and rejoined me. As we left, she threw away a carrier bag, which she told me contained soap she had brought with her, but would not be able to use again. Presumably it was now 'contaminated' from its exposure to a public environment; I didn't like to ask, and we didn't talk further about what had happened. 

At the station, we found ourselves in a crush of fellow passengers being held back until the platform below cleared. Bodies pressed against us on all sides and yet Cathy didn't flinch at the contact - surely germ-laden in her eyes? - or become visibly anxious. Perhaps her OCD would hold her hostage in her bathroom later, as payback for her current calm; for now, though, it had once again gone back into hiding.

1 September 2014

Ticked off

One of the first things we do on holiday is visit a tourist information centre to pick up leaflets about local attractions. On our last trip, to Exmoor, one rather alarming publication caught my eye: Tick Bites and Lyme Disease.

Now, I'd heard of both ticks and Lyme Disease - caused by bites from infected ticks - but I'd never worried about either of them before. If you live in Britain, it's not often that you have to concern yourself with the fauna, unless you have a particular allergy, such as to bee stings. We don't have the likes of venomous funnel-web spiders creeping indoors, bears invading backyards, or malaria-carrying mosquitoes plaguing the air. 

In fact, great swathes of the world will remain forever unexplored by me due to their animal inhabitants. Yet suddenly, it seemed, there was a danger closer to home.

I picked up the pamphlet and scanned the text. All I absorbed initially were the scariest words - 'rash...up to 50-75 centimetres diameter', 'facial palsy' and 'cardiac problems' - rather than the reassurances that early use of antibiotics should prevent such serious complications.

Having now added 'bug anxiety' to my list of things to worry about, I went on to read the Prevention section...and immediately re-thought my holiday wardrobe.

Image courtesy of dan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The advice was to cover yourself up as much as possible, with long sleeves (cuffs fastened) and trousers (tucked into socks) the order of the day. This uniform of sealed clothes was required in 'grassy, brushy or woodland areas'. Brushy? I'm hopeless at botany and had no idea what that meant.

So, as we marched up a steep moorland hill to Dunkery Beacon, a few days later, I suspiciously eyed the vegetation either side of the path. Was this what they meant by brushy, and were ticks preparing to leap on me from all sides?

On another sweltering afternoon, as we enjoyed our picnic lunch next to Wimbleball Lake, I decided to tuck my walking trousers into my socks - well, we were sitting on grass, weren't we? We have, of course, done that on innumerable occasions in the past, but that was beside the point. I was prepared to turn myself into a one-woman sauna this time, to prevent any of those marauding creatures from latching onto me.

I drew the line at checking myself every three to four hours for ticks, as suggested. The darned things are so small, that, with my eyesight, I doubted I'd even spot one. And I also decided against investing in a tick extractor tool - available in pet shops across the region - though I'm now wondering whether to add one to my holiday packing list.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, particularly when you're an anxiety sufferer. On the other hand, forewarned is forearmed. A few days on, I resolved that, rather than spend the week worrying about ticks, I should simply keep an eye out for the early symptoms of Lyme Disease. Only to discover that these can occur up to 30 days after being bitten. It was going to be a long wait for reassurance...

That was just over six weeks ago and I'm still in one piece, so now all I have to worry about is my next escape from the city - anyone know what beasties will be waiting for us in Lincolnshire next month?