27 October 2014

Challenges on tap

The domestic emergencies that hit earlier this year made me resolve to get things repaired or replaced as soon as problems became apparent, to avoid - as one insurance company ad used to say - turning a drama into a crisis. 

After all, if I'd invested in a new boiler when my old one became so noisy that it was almost drowning out the television, I wouldn't have spent 12 days without heating or hot water - in February. Although I hate the disorder that results from having workmen in my home, putting off their visits is really only putting off the inevitable.

Image courtesy of Mister GC/
So, when the bathroom basin cold tap developed a persistent drip, I texted the plumber immediately, before I could change my mind about the urgency of the situation. Both of my mixer taps had already gone the same way, and none of them would stop, unless I tightened them so much that I could hardly turn them back on again. No doubt this problem was the result of years of chronic overtightening: one of my checking compulsions is verifying that the taps are off and, in my case, seeing is never believing. 

In spite of my prompt action, I hoped the plumber would be slow to respond - I could feel good about trying to confront my fears, but not actually have to do so...at least, not straightaway. Unfortunately, he replied within minutes, asking me to send him photos of the taps. I can't take pictures with my phone and, as it happened, my compact camera was at work, where I subsequently kept 'accidentally' leaving it.

Several days of stalling later, I sent him the photos and he offered to come over the following week. Although I would be on leave then, I planned to spend the time editing my novel, so fobbed him off until the week after, to avoid having to break off from my writing. Yes, another delaying tactic, but this time verging on legitimate.

On the day, I cleared my belongings from the areas where he'd be working and emptied the lower shelf of the cupboard under the kitchen sink, so that he could reach the stopcock. Only for him to start shoving things on the upper shelf out of the way, thinking it was higher up. My stomach churned at the sight, and continued churning as he 'helpfully' pushed everything back. Yet more items for me to reposition, once he'd gone.

My anxiety peaked again, when he started banging at one of the bathroom taps that was stuck; it sounded as if he was bringing down the partition wall. 

When he'd finished, though, he told me that I'd have had a real problem on my hands, if I'd left things much longer. I spent the rest of the evening on a high, proud of myself for facing the challenge, avoiding a crisis and only taking half an hour to put things 'right' afterwards.

I did feel a bit silly asking him how tightly I should turn off the new taps, but it was hard to know what was normal, after decades of overdoing it: 'Until you feel the pinch' was the answer. If I stick to that approach, the new sets should last a lot longer than the old ones - and reduce the number of visits I need from him in future! 

20 October 2014

Life imitating art

A strange thing happened when I started work on the final edits of my novel: I found myself resisting my ordering compulsions, without having made the conscious decision to do so. 

At first, I assumed pressure of time had driven me to this unaccustomed 'laziness' with regard to positioning my belongings. I'd just read my novel again, ahead of taking a week off for rewrites, and wanted to get through as many chapters as possible, while it was still fresh in my mind.

In fact, there was a more creative reason behind this behaviour, which I only realised a few days later.

Some members of my writing group had fed back that they'd like to see more of an emotional response from my protagonist, Clare, whom I've given the same form of OCD as me, ie a need for order and symmetry in her environment. They wanted to get a better sense of how disordered surroundings affected her and how she felt when trying to resist her compulsions. 

It seemed my sub-conscious had pushed me into resisting my own, to give me fresh insight into how this really feels. It can be hard to draw on emotions you've experienced in the past - like physical pain, they become abstract over time. Now, I had the opportunity to tap into these feelings anew, and translate them into my writing.

With fingers hovering over the keyboard, and eyes closed, I visualised all of the objects that I'd left out of place. Thinking of them made me restless and uneasy; like when you know you've forgotten to do something, but can't pinpoint what. My mind felt frayed and my body twitched with the urge to leave my desk and put things right.

Image courtesy of scottchan/
Suddenly, I found it much easier to explain Clare's experience of OCD - at least, insofar as anybody with the condition can explain it to anyone else. I still struggled to find the right words, but every writer faces that literary battle, with every sentence they create.

In the past, I've sometimes enacted actions to be sure that what I've portrayed fictionally is actually possible - it's all too easy to devise a scenario where, say, a character would need three hands to do what you've asked of them. Such role-play has always been deliberate, however, and only used in the quest for physical, rather than emotional, accuracy. 

Writers' lives would be a lot simpler, of course, if we could go through everything we describe.

One of the characters in my novel cheats on their partner and I've have had difficulty getting to grips with their feelings of guilt. I've tried to put myself in their shoes, but can't bring myself to imagine doing the same thing (something I'm sure my boyfriend, Pete, will be relieved to hear). That is definitely one activity I won't be enacting in the interests of research - consciously or otherwise!

13 October 2014

Guest appearance

The most recent query from one of my readers began 'I've been reading your blog and I'm worried...' before going on 'How do you manage when Pete [my boyfriend] stays at your flat?'

It certainly must seem strange that I can cope with his fortnightly visits - we alternate weekends at each other's homes - when I need to have order and symmetry in my environment, and view any object that is so much as half an inch out of place as a 'mess'. Guests are bound to have an impact on how I usually maintain my space, even if they don't actually make a mess.

Image courtesy of nuchyless/
When Pete comes over, in fact, I need to rearrange things just to accommodate him physically. I only have a two-seater sofa, so items that live on the spare seat - including the TV guide and remote controls - go onto the floor, so that we can both sit comfortably. After all, I can hardly make him perch on a dining chair, just to avoid relocating my belongings - which would be no solution, anyway, as I'd have to shift the chair from its usual spot...

I also have to bring the bathroom stool into the living room, to act as our snacks' table, and even sacrifice my neat lines of products in the fridge, in the face of all the extra food (and beer).

In spite of the fact that Pete is very respectful of my home, it takes me as long to put things right after he's left as it does for him to travel back to his flat: about 45 minutes. The need to reclaim my territory is so strong that I even feel obliged to wash the crockery from our afternoon tea and cakes, which could easily wait until I clear up after dinner. 

But it's the tiny adjustments that are the most time-consuming element of restoring order. These include correctly positioning the slippers that Pete keeps on the rug in the hall - which have to be centred to it, with the toes up to the edge - and ensuring that the sofa is parallel to the wall, by using the length of my hand and forearm to measure the distance between them at various points.

How is it, then, that I can defer effecting these compulsions, when they drive me to such nit-picking lengths? It's because, during Pete's visits, there's always an end in sight: I know that within 24 hours or so, I'll be able to get everything back to normal. Like running a race, it's easier to find the stamina to keep pushing on, when you know where the finish line is; I'm able to draw on my mental strength, but only for a finite amount of time.

The occupational therapist I saw 20 years ago suggested I adopt a similar approach to help me during treatment exercises, ie exposure and response prevention. Remember, he told me, nothing is irreversible: I could always clear up any mess I made, whenever I chose, if I really couldn't handle the anxiety it induced. That way, although the 'finish line' was moving, it was always within my reach. 

Perhaps next time Pete visits, I should try to push that line back a little more; see if I can stand to wait, say, another 24 hours. If I keep pushing, who knows how far I might get?

6 October 2014

Freak show

Many a time when I've told someone I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, their response has been 'Oh, have you seen Obsessive-Compulsive Cleaners?' The answer is yes, unfortunately, I have.

This Channel 4 television programme, which begins its third series tomorrow night, both misrepresents OCD and takes advantage of sufferers. For those who aren't familiar with the show, it goes something like this...

Image courtesy of Nathan Greenwood/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
First, present a selection of people who clean obsessively, many of whom have been formally diagnosed with OCD, and invite viewers to gasp in amazement at their extreme behaviours.

Next, present a selection of people who live in a mess of belongings and dirt, many of whom appear to be hoarders, and invite viewers to gasp in horror at their disgusting surroundings. 

Finally, take one cleaner to the home of one messy person, ask them to restore order, and watch as mutual mental distress ensues.

The show encourages viewers to ridicule the cleaner's habits and yet also side with them and share in their revulsion at what they face: the implication is that, in this battle of wills, their way is the right way.

Ironically, as hoarding is commonly viewed as a form of OCD, the programme is simply pitting one kind of sufferer against another, in a scenario no better than a fairground freak show. Neither is actually 'right' and both need help.

I have rarely seen an episode where either party acknowledges that they need to change their behaviour and I have never seen one that reveals the distress the condition can cause. Admittedly, I haven't watched them all: I couldn't bring myself to.

The programme also feeds into the misconception that OCD is only about cleaning and little mention is made of treatment options. Some participants are, in fact, already under medical supervision, and a few have gone on to seek help. That doesn't take away from the fact that the set-up is designed purely to provide entertainment, rather than enlightenment, either to those taking part or viewers.

The show is so misleading that some people have phoned one of the national OCD charities, asking to be put in touch with sufferers, to get help cleaning their own homes!

Many experts in the field, including the very highly regarded Professor Paul Salkovskis, have spoken out against the programme and refused invitations to assist in its production.

Image courtesy of Ambro/
The shame of it is, Channel 4 has produced some excellent mental health documentaries, including The House of Obsessive Compulsives, which Professor Salkovskis appeared in. They are now tarnishing this good work with Obsessive-Compulsive Cleaners: entertainment at the expense of those with mental health issues.

If you have access to Channel 4, whether on screen or online, I would urge you not to tune in. Both this channel and the production company involved (Betty) have ignored the voices of OCD professionals and sufferers; perhaps only viewer power will finally get this programme taken off air.