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...


Tina Fariss Barbour said...

I understand totally how detailed we would have to be in trying to explain a typical compulsion, and how boring it would probably be! And you describe perfectly how we have to have the "right" feeling or sense about something. It's not even something I can understand completely or predict.

Cynthia St-Pierre said...

Hi Helen,

Does your sense of "right" have any resemblance to a sense of "beauty" in everyday things and actions?


Anonymous said...

I will be raising money for OCD action next month at the Great South Run.

If you would like to make a donation to the charity or know anyone that would please feel free to share my page.

Thanks :)



Helen Barbour said...

Tina, thanks for your comment - I guess it is only fellow sufferers who can really grasp what that feeling is like!

Helen Barbour said...

Cynthia, thanks for your question - which is a tricky one to answer! In terms of things feeling right cf things appearing beautiful, these are both certainly very subjective experiences and equally hard to explain to an outsider.

Helen Barbour said...

Sam, good luck with the run - I'll share the link on Twitter (as a member of OCD Action, I already donate to them).