24 November 2014

Can't sleep, won't sleep

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One consequence of suffering from anxiety is that I also experience chronic insomnia. While some people may have difficulty falling, or staying, asleep, and others find themselves waking too early, I experience all three problems...often on the same night.

My main obstacle to falling asleep is the mental vacuum created by bedtime. When nothing else is occupying my mind - be it work, writing or simply an absorbing television programme - my current worries flood in to fill it. I replay that day's confrontations, fret about challenging events to come, plan my future; anything but still my mind ready for sleep.

Listening to the local talk radio station, on a very low volume, is a great way to counter this void. Providing an alternative focus deflects anxiety-inducing thoughts and usually I don't even realise I'm drifting off until I wake an hour later. Unfortunately, by the time I've turned the radio off and put in my earplugs, I'm as wide-awake as when I first went to bed.

Outside causes certainly contribute to my repeatedly waking up. Even with earplugs, flat-living can be noisy: from the front door slamming at all hours, to upstairs' neighbours thudding about like clog-wearing elephants. Once I'm awake, anxieties immediately crowd into my head, to prevent the return of sleep. 

I do know that my 'sleep hygiene' could be better: I always eat late and am usually still doing chores until just before I go to bed. No wonder my body doesn't know what's going on, when it suddenly finds itself horizontal and stationary. 

Although the problem is mostly in my head, I've tried all the usual physical tricks, in a bid to alleviate the situation: avoiding stimulants, using herbal medications, sprinkling lavender on my pillow, and so on. Nothing has ever provided a guaranteed solution. Comparing notes with a fellow insomniac, she told me she sometimes sleeps best after indulging in a 'perfect [insomniac's] storm' of wine, coffee and chocolate. There seems no rhyme or reason as to what might help or hinder sleep.

The combination of insomnia and anxiety creates a classic vicious circle. Anxiety stops me sleeping, which leaves me exhausted and less able to cope with the stresses of the day, which exacerbates my anxiety and renders sleep even harder to find. 

After a few days of particularly bad sleep, I then also become anxious about the fact that I'm not sleeping. That anxiety causes my heart to race as soon as I lie down and is made worse by the subsequent middle-of-the-night clock-watching and constant recalculations of 'How much sleep I'll get if drop off right now'.

As a youngster, I frequently complained to my parents about being unable to sleep, which means I've endured more than 40 years of sleep deprivation. On any given day, I am either tired, really tired, or exhausted. The fatigue makes me irritable and unable to concentrate, and saps me of the energy I need to make the most of my waking hours. I often wonder what kind of a person I might have been, and how different my life, without insomnia. 

Of course, until I address the underlying cause - once and for all - I'm destined never to find out.

* * *

Do you suffer from insomnia? If so, what - if anything - helps you to sleep?

17 November 2014

Beady eye

Photo: Nicola Lawson
My need for symmetry manifests itself on a daily basis and across many areas of my life: from the way I position my belongings to how I shape my eyebrows and nails. Sometimes it emerges in other, ad hoc situations.

One of my favourite tops is a blue and cream patterned tunic, with a tie closure at the neck. The closure's two cords are finished off with short strings of beads - in two different sizes and shades of blue - topped off with sequins. The last time I wore this top, I suddenly spotted a sequin on my hall floor and realised one string had come apart.

Somehow, I managed to find 10 out of 13 of the tiny beads - which had contrived to bury themselves in the intricate weave of the hall rug - leaving me with the following options:

1. String together those I'd found and re-attach them to the cord.
2. Cut off the other string and divide the beads from both strings across the cords (leaving one - irritating - spare bead).
3. Cut off the other string and leave both cords bare.

Option 1 would have left the cords unacceptably asymmetric and Option 3 would have completely spoilt the look of the top. Option 2 it was.

It took 45 minutes to devise a new pattern from the reduced number of beads, string them, and attach the strings to the cords - due, in part, to my middle-aged eyesight. Eventually, I dangled the cords in front of me, to admire my neat repair...only to realise that the strings of beads were different lengths.

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
Looking at them up close, I realised that there were actually more than two different sizes and colours of beads - obvious with the benefit of an expensive camera lens (see left) but not with my reading glasses, from half a metre away. As (bad) luck would have it, the smaller ones had all ended up on one string, leaving it half a centimetre shorter than its partner.

My heart sank; I'd have to unpick all of my handiwork and start again. Yet I had too much to do that day to repeat this job. I prevaricated for several minutes, torn between my compulsion to achieve symmetry and the knowledge that satisfying that compulsion would waste time and effort.

Then my perfectionist's voice chirped up with a new set of worries: 'You know how clumsy you are. If you cut the beads off again, you'll probably lose some. And you stitched the strings on so securely, you'll damage the fabric if you try to pick the knots out. And, after all that, you still might not get the strings the same length.'

To be honest, I couldn't even be sure they'd been the same the day I bought the top, because I'd never looked. Just because I knew differently now, I didn't have to dwell on it. Certainly, nobody else would ever notice,

Eventually, I admitted defeat, hung the top up in the wardrobe, exactly as it was, and got on with my day. 

That was in August and, since then, I've managed to resist fixing it. If you ever see me wearing this top though, feel free to check that I haven't caved in to temptation...

10 November 2014

Add 'P' for Personality

Images courtesy of Keerati/
Many people get annoyed when they hear someone claim 'I'm a little bit OCD' just because, for example, they store their coffee mugs with all the handles at the same angle. The main gripe is that the term is bandied about without any real understanding of the condition. 

As I've written previously, for me, this proclamation provides an opening to talk about my own experience, improve awareness and explore whether the person making it might, in fact, be a sufferer themselves. 

I confess, the grammatical inaccuracy of the sentence bothers me more than the sentiment behind it - you can no more be 'a little bit obsessive-compulsive disorder' than you can be 'a little bit depression'. 

To compound the layman's confusion, another condition exists, called Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), which appears to have similar traits to OCD, but actually has quite different foundations.

OCPD - which I can't help feeling sounds like an American crime drama series - is also known as Anankastic Personality Disorder or, perhaps more commonly, as being 'anal retentive' (thank you, Freud, for that one). 

David Veale and Rob Willson outline some of the accompanying behaviours in their book, Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These include:

  • Constantly making lists
  • Being a perfectionist
  • Being excessively tidy
  • Being excessively concerned with rules

Sufferers may also be 'somewhat inflexible, unemotional, and overly devoted to work' and may have OCPD on its own or as well as OCD. 

There are key differences between the two conditions. Those with OCPD are not troubled by how they behave and believe their way is the right way, while OCD sufferers are distressed by their intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours and are generally aware that these make no sense. 

I certainly recognise some of the above characteristics, and others detailed in this book, in myself. As well as being a perfectionist, tidy and 'somewhat inflexible', I love a good list. I'm the kind of person who, after completing a task that wasn't actually on my 'to do' list, will add it, just to have the satisfaction of immediately crossing it off. And I always follow rules, however petty, sometimes to my disadvantage... 

On the other hand, although I have a good work ethic, I'm by no means a workaholic, and I'm definitely a very emotional person: I cry at the proverbial drop of a hat and am far too sensitive for my own good.

Image courtesy of tiramisustudio/
According to Veale and Willson, OCPD traits can be hard to change, though if the condition exists alongside OCD, overcoming the latter may bring about some improvement. 

You don't need to exhibit all of these traits to have OCPD and the key factor in making this diagnosis is whether these have a significant and detrimental effect on lifestyle and functioning. 

So, just because you're obsessed with lists, it doesn't mean you suffer from this disorder - oh yes, and 'a little bit OCPD' is still a grammar crime, even with the addition of 'P' for Personality! 

* * *

You can find out more about OCPD, including causes and treatments, in this brief factsheet from the US-based organisation, The International OCD Foundation.

3 November 2014

The art of delegation

Everything I've learnt about planning a holiday, I've learnt from my dad. He conducted meticulous research into all of our trips, including detailed comparisons of prospective hotels and rental cottages, which took into account every conceivable element: from cost and facilities to local sights and amenities. Dad was a one-man comparison machine long before the likes of GoCompare and Trivago appeared on the scene.

I always take the same approach, in a bid to ensure we have The Perfect Trip. It's not just a question of identifying the right destination and perfect accommodation, but also making sure I know about every last little thing to see and do in the area. After all, I'd hate to have someone ask, upon our return, 'Oh, did you visit...?' and go on to name somewhere fantastic that we missed for want of a bit of research and a 100m detour.

One such (somewhat longer) detour occurred during a trip to Rome in 2004. In addition to visiting the obvious sights, I dragged my boyfriend, Pete, on a quest to find a 4ft long marble foot, which had formed part of a much larger sculpture and was supposed to be quite impressive. It would have been, had it not been somewhat neglected and located in a scruffy, litter-strewn alley, which took us ages to find. Even I had to laugh at the fact that my careful planning had led us to this less than scenic spot*.

If we're self-catering, my research extends to where the nearest big supermarkets are, as well as potential pubs and restaurants for meals out. Ahead of our last trip, to Lincolnshire, I was short of time, so phoned the owner of our holiday cottage, to see if he could recommend some places for dinner on our first night, which I could then check out online before booking.

'What kind of thing are you looking for?' he asked.

'Just a good, pub meal would be fine,' I said.

He named a couple of venues, which I jotted down to investigate.

However, he then continued, 'I'll book The Heneage Arms for you. What time would you like?'

'Oh, that's all right,' I said, 'We don't want to put you out.' I couldn't delegate the decision to him - what if we didn't like what was on the menu, or the pub was just plain horrible?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
'It's no trouble,' he said.

'Honestly, I'm happy to do it,' I persevered.

'But I usually do it for people.' The forlorn tone of his voice betrayed his disappointment.

He was being so kind; I didn't have the heart to resist any longer. 'OK, then, that would be great, thanks,' I said, with fingers tightly crossed.

As it turned out, The Heneage Arms - a community-run pub - was lovely, and the food and service great. Certainly a vast improvement on a couple we've ended up at in the past, including the noisy, crowded one on Anglesey with a menu apparently inspired by a 1970s Little Chef. I still have no idea how that one got past my researcher radar.

Placing my trust in somebody else paid off this time, even though I felt as if I were taking a huge risk. In fact, for those of us who need to control situations in order to manage our anxiety, the art of delegation really is the equivalent of an extreme sport!

* * *

*I see here that this foot has had a revamp since our visit - it's still in the same alley, though.