29 December 2014

Life stories

Chatting to a friend of 40+ years, I speculated as to what a mutual schoolfriend, whom neither of us had seen for decades, might be doing now.

'Why do you want to know?' she queried. 

'I'm just curious. It would be nice to get in touch and see what he's up to.'

'But why?' she persisted. She's very pragmatic about people: she stays close to those who are important to her, but the rest are of no interest.

The reason I wanted to know was simply that I can't bear loose ends. My innate writer's nosiness may be a contributory factor, but it's my obsessive need for completeness that's mostly to blame for this itch for knowledge.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
I just can't bear the idea that I will never find out what happened to all of those people who have had an impact on my life, whether positive or negative. While I understand, in theory, that friends come and go - and that most other people play only a minor role - it's not so easy to accept in practice. 

Christmas has, of course, brought the usual 'round robin' letters that have filled in some of the gaps. Many people deride them, I know - especially those missives that are boastful from start to finish - but I genuinely enjoy hearing old friends' news. 

Rather that than the Christmas card I received from one university friend years ago, which was missing her husband's name, without a word of explanation. Was she now a widow or a divorcee? In spite of subsequent - gentle - enquiries as to her wellbeing, I never did find out. 

Of course, the problem is that no one's story is finished until they shuffle off this mortal coil (and possibly not even then, if there is, in fact, an afterlife...). If I could, right this second, track down every last person who has come into my orbit, and find out what has become of them, what about an hour from now, or tomorrow, or next week?

Never mind real life, I don't even know how my fictional characters' lives pan out. I may tie up the plot strands of the particular story I've chosen to tell about them, but I then leave them in limbo, their futures unknown. If I don't know their ultimate destinies, which, after all, I have the power to control, why should reality be any different?

My mind might seek order and completeness, but real life is messy, with millions of questions to which we never get answers. 

I have, however, gone online to track down the old schoolfriend who was the subject of my conjecture, and discovered one thing about him: he has worked with the Osmonds!

22 December 2014

Christmas past, present and future

Image courtesy of suphakit73/
Every family that celebrates Christmas develops its own unique set of traditions around the event, dictating everything from when they put their tree up to what they eat on the day. There are countless permutations of the decisions to be made, with these decisions becoming that family's rules for the festive period - and no deviations allowed!

As children, we always opened our presents as soon as we got up, with the whole family in pyjamas and dressing gowns. The first year my parents decided to get dressed and have breakfast ahead of presents, I was genuinely upset, in spite of being an adult by then.

The first Christmas I spent away from them was with my (then) in-laws. I was like a stranger in a foreign land amidst their seemingly bizarre rituals, which included exchanging presents after dinner. At one point, much to my horror, someone even mooted putting this back to Boxing Day, as dinner had run on so late.

For those of us who have enjoyed a happy childhood, these family traditions are a reminder of that, and act as a comfort blanket we can carry into adulthood. Understandably, then, even the most spontaneous, relaxed person may find it hard to let them go. Others, such as myself, who tend towards the inflexible and who like routine, can find it particularly hard to move on. 

Although I have created new Christmas Day traditions with my boyfriend, Pete, I was, until this year, still wedded to certain other festive practices. These included having an advent calendar, putting up an artificial tree and full-scale decorations, sending dozens of cards, and eating a traditional Christmas meal - albeit one largely prepared by Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.

Each of these apparently simple elements generated huge amounts of stress: from hunting down the perfect advent calendar - not too childish, yet not too gloomily religious - to trying to track down the last pack of sausages wrapped in bacon to be had in north London.

After a year overshadowed by anxiety and stress, I just couldn't face ending it with yet more. I didn't know how to avoid it, though, until I spotted a post by a friend on Facebook, announcing that he was going to make a donation to charity in lieu of sending cards. It took a few days of prevaricating - Could I? Should I? What would my friends think? - but, finally, I decided to do the same.

Following that first, rather difficult decision, the rest was easy: I didn't buy an advent calendar; I decorated my flat - in an hour and a half, rather than an afternoon - with a simple display of decorated hazel stems, a mini tree (real), red poinsettia and white kalanchoe plants, scented candles and fairy lights; and, on Thursday, we'll be eating an 'alternative' Christmas meal of chicken and chips. In fact, once I'd accepted the idea of doing things differently, it became quite an exciting prospect.

Exposing myself to this kind of change is a positive thing. It's good mental exercise against my tendency to rigidity and will hopefully help me to tackle the bigger, badder OCD rituals that dominate my life. After all, if I can change Christmas, I can change anything!

However you choose to spend this holiday period, I hope it will be everything you wish it to be.

15 December 2014

Work in progress

At the end of December last year, I wrote a post about my solitary New Year's resolution, which was to self-publish my novel. So, why, nearly a year on, is it still no more than a Word document? - albeit a much reworked one.

In fairness, I lost quite a lot of time to various domestic and personal crises, which also sapped my mental and physical resources. However, the biggest obstacle to progress has been my inability to decide on the best self-publication route to take.

I always knew this would be a challenge. Being indecisive seems to go hand in hand with being a perfectionist, and I often find myself incapable of reaching a decision on the most trivial of questions. My novel is, of course, anything but a trivial matter, which made it even harder to choose a self-publishing provider.

Image courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I actually began the process in 2013, when I requested an information pack from the one I thought I was most likely to use (I'll call them Company A): they were expensive, but had a good reputation. However, the literature I received from them contained so many typographical errors that I immediately lost faith in their ability to deliver a book I'd be proud of.

Once again at something of a loss, I then found what appeared to be salvation, in the shape of a comparison site for self-publishing companies. A few minutes of my time inputting some key information and, bingo! I'd be presented with the perfect provider for my needs - or so I thought. 

The questionnaire was very detailed and I had to guess wildly at some answers: not being a printing expert, choosing a binding style was beyond me. Frankly, one of the options, 'paperback backcomb', sounded more like a hairstyle. 

I figured I could finalise all of that later; this was just to get me started. I clicked through to the end and waited a moment...only to be told 'We have found 133 providers who match some or all of your criteria'. Brilliant. It didn't help that Number 2 on the list was 
Company A.

Next, I found an e-book review of some of the best known providers. This was more useful, as it identified a number to steer clear of, but the top rated company was, you've guessed it, Company A.

Like a never-ending game of snakes and ladders, I seemed to be taking one step backwards for every one forwards.

Then, all of sudden, I came to a decision.

At the end of last month, I attended a self-publishing conference. One of the speakers was from Company A and I didn't much take to him, which only confirmed my instinct not to go with them. Then a fellow delegate recommended Company B, whose name had also appeared high in the rankings both on the comparison site and in the e-book. She rated them so highly that she was placing her second book with them.

And that was it, in an instant I'd made my decision. All it then took to confirm this was a careful review of their website, to verify that their services matched my requirements. They did - and I found only one typo across dozens of pages.

Unfortunately, the next decision-related stumbling block materialised almost immediately: my research of their site revealed that I would have to include an acknowledgements' page with the manuscript I submitted for a quotation. Now, who to thank...???

8 December 2014

Once more won't hurt

Checking compulsions manifest in many ways, but amongst the most common are verifying that doors or windows are locked, or that water, gas or electrical appliances are turned off.

Even those who don't suffer from OCD can relate to these concerns: almost everybody has, at one time or another, found themselves doubting that they've, say, turned the cooker off, and gone back to double-check.

That double-check is the end of it for most people. Those with checking compulsions, however, have to repeat the process multiple times before they're satisfied that they have really completed it. 

For them, satisfaction is measured not by objective evidence, but by a feeling - the feeling that things are now 'just right' or 'certain', or that they are 'comfortable'. Seeing that a cooker knob is in the off position, and being unable to smell gas, is simply not enough.

In a bid to achieve that nebulous feeling, multiple checks can become hours of checks, which, in turn, can become constant. It's all too easy to tell yourself 'Just once more won't hurt'. Such is the insidious, persuasive voice of OCD.

The most common reason for compulsive checking is the fear of causing harm. One former colleague with checking compulsions told me that she hated being last to leave the family home in the morning, as the responsibility for locking up then fell to her. She was, consequently, often late for work, as she found it so hard to achieve the degree of certainty about her home's security that her OCD demanded.

Such compulsions are secondary to my need for order and symmetry, but I do have some, such as verifying that my front door and car are locked, making sure the fridge door is shut, and ensuring the gas rings and cooker are off.

When I leave my car, for example, I always have to check that all three doors (driver, passenger and boot) are locked, even if I have only used the driver side. This necessitates testing all three - by jiggling the handles - one after the other, without a break, rather than separately, as I remove any bags or luggage. Only once the car is emptied, do I circle it, checking one-two-three doors in a row. If I'm not concentrating, or get distracted, it leaves me with a feeling of uncertainty, of things 'not being right', and I have to go around again.

Image courtesy of sixninepixels/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Usually, I can escape this ritual after no more than three checks, but that is still two too many. Better, nevertheless, than one of my neighbours, who returns to his car again and again after parking it, and takes several minutes to satisfy himself about both its security and positioning.

One trick I use to help fight these compulsions is to mentally 'tag' an important action with a word, as I'm carrying it out. If, later, I begin to doubt myself, that word serves as evidence, helping me to differentiate between performing the task on that and previous occasions. Those with checking compulsions tend to have a lack of confidence in their memory, so this really helps. Not only does it save me time and effort, but sometimes even an unnecessary trip back up the stairs to my flat.

You might find it worth a try, too; if only to help deal with those odd moments of doubt that afflict everybody!

1 December 2014

Wash and go

Idly skimming through my OCD self-help book one day, a phrase jumped out at me that prompted me to think 'Oh no, not another compulsion I didn't know I had!'

It was in a section of Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder called 'Goals for Contamination Fears' - specifically 'Goals for Showering or Bathing' - and read: 'As with washing your hands, don't count up to a particular number or wash in a specific order: just allow yourself to be on automatic pilot.'

What concerned me was that I always wash in a specific order - ensuring I soap my entire body - and have done so for as long as I can remember. The way I bathe is almost certainly a result of my obsessive need for completeness, but I wondered whether I was actually engaging in washing compulsions, as I don't wash until I feel 'comfortable' or 'just right'. 

On the other hand, if I were to miss out soaping, say, my left arm - which is unlikely to be particularly dirty - I would feel discomfort, and as if I were then contaminating my towel and clothes. My low level contamination issues undoubtedly influence my approach to washing to some degree.

The book advised that you should aim to finish within ten minutes if you were shampooing your hair, five minutes, if not. I decided to time myself to get a better idea of whether the situation was out of hand.

I was obliged to take a bath - generally a slower process - as I don't have a shower at home, and also stopped to towel dry my hair, so was surprised to finish in 10m 58s. Over the next few evenings, I did this again, finishing in 10m 59s and 10m 56s. 

Being less than a minute off the target time was reassuring, and I had already achieved the goal of being on automatic pilot, through the very way I wash: doing it in a specific order may be something to avoid, but allows me to switch off and think about something else.

Could I do better, though? I timed my next four baths, now going as fast as I could, and managed to finish in under nine minutes on each occasion.

Image courtesy of winnond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
During those tests I realised what was actually slowing me down: lack of concentration. Because bath time is reflection time, I tend to slip into a trance and soap the same bit over and over again: I am simply not mindful of what I'm doing.

Since then, I have tried harder to maintain focus - good mental practice for the mindfulness course I plan to start in the New Year - and my 'personal best' is now 8m 7s; nearly a three minute improvement on the first test and well within the goal time.

This experience shows that diagnosing OCD behaviours is no simple matter. Yes, the condition does play a part in how I wash, but only a bit part. Things are not always quite what they seem and it's important to avoid leaping to conclusions. If in doubt, always seek expert advice.

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How long do you take showering or bathing? And do you wash in a particular order?