26 January 2015

Lucky for some

Superstitious behaviours differ from OCD compulsions, and are generally more socially acceptable, but there are definite similarities between the two.

Compulsions often arise from a desire to prevent harm, either to oneself or others, and can take many forms, such as performing a task a certain number of times or enacting particular rituals. Of course, doing everything four times, or tapping every lamppost you walk past, can't possibly prevent illness or death, and this kind of behaviour must seem ridiculous to other people.

Be that as it may, it's not so very different from the avoidance behaviour and rituals that arise from superstitions, which tell us the same thing: that bad luck or harm will befall us if we, say, walk under a ladder or break a mirror.

Image courtesy of chrisroll/
Some superstitions become so culturally ingrained that they lead to absurd, or even detrimental, consequences. For example, there are streets and blocks of flats where there is no property numbered 13, and multi-storey buildings that leap from the 12th to the 14th floor. And animal rescue centres report that black - and black and white - cats are the least popular candidates for adoption.

Cultural differences come into play, of course. The Chinese consider several numbers to be unlucky, but particularly 4; apparently because the word is similar to the word for 'death'.

And some professions have developed specific superstitions, like those relating to sailors and fishermen, which some still observe. You may be familiar with many of these, such as no whistling or women on board, but did you know that bananas are also a no-no?

Individuals may engage in their own unique practices, as well. One friend recalls being told, as a teenager, that if you walk under a sign on a pavement - ie between the two posts holding it up - you should touch your head to ward off bad luck. She was also advised not to step on three manhole covers in a row, for the same reason. To this day, she tries to avoid walking under signs - or touches her head, if she does - and makes sure to hop over that third cover. She's a keen runner and even does this when exercising! She claims to have seen others do the same, although I've only found a couple of online references to either of these.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/
Meanwhile, another friend and her husband have carried a 'lucky pie' - a Fray Bentos one in a tin - on their self-catering holidays for the last 40 years, just because they had great weather on the first two trips that they packed it as an emergency meal. Apparently the tin is now 'blown' and I fear it will prove to be rather less lucky when it eventually explodes.

David Veale and Rob Willson, in their book Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, say that they deliberately avoid superstitious behaviours, to encourage their patients to resist their compulsions. They make the point that these activities all fall on the same spectrum, with compulsions being more intrusive and upsetting.

So, the next time you find yourself touching wood or refusing to bring an open umbrella indoors, remember all of those OCD sufferers fighting their battles...and see if you can resist, too.

Oh, and don't panic, but Friday the 13th is coming to a calendar near you very, very soon...

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Are there any superstitions that particularly trouble you? And how easy would you find it to ignore them?

19 January 2015

Strange ways

Although I've spoken openly about having OCD for many years, it isn't always easy to explain to family, friends or colleagues that I'm dealing with a serious illness rather than just being a 'neat freak'.

The initial response of many people is to share some of their own ordering habits; probably through a desire to demonstrate that they identify with me and to make me feel better: the inference is, I shouldn't worry too much, because they do the same sort of thing.

As I've written before, this kind of comment can be a useful way in to discussing the disorder and may well predispose the listener to a better understanding. And, of course, I would in no way wish to denigrate a genuine attempt to empathise.

I've often found, however, that it's only by revealing some of my strangest behaviours that I can persuade someone I really have OCD; but that's not easy to do, either.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
We sufferers usually have insight into our condition and are aware that our behaviours are irrational, so keep them hidden as far as possible. We know how crazy they must seem to others, because they seem pretty crazy to us, too. It takes a lot of courage, therefore, to expose yourself in this way. 

Open as I am, even I have sometimes hesitated mid-sentence, unsure whether I'm actually prepared to reveal that much of myself. Articulating my compulsions only makes me even more aware of how ludicrous they are, and I find myself prefacing every revelation with 'I know it's ridiculous, but...'

So, yes, I know these are ridiculous, but...

I like to make sure that when I settle down in the living room of my flat, I've left the bathroom and bedroom doors open by the same amount. Standing in the living room doorway - which sits between them - I look quickly left and right a couple of times, to check that the gaps are the same, and also that the size of the gap 'feels right'. Getting them perfect usually means skipping backwards and forwards across the hall several times to adjust them.

And when my compulsions were at their worst, I used to touch the front of every cupboard door and drawer in my kitchen before exiting the room. This meant carrying out 12 taps, moving in a circuit from left to right, and zigzagging up and down between those on the wall and those below. Or, at least, it was 12 taps so long as I wasn't interrupted and I 'felt right' at the end of the process. Otherwise, I'd have to do it again...and again, and again, taking it up to 24 taps, or 36, or 48... You get the picture. Sometimes, it seemed I'd never escape.

The reason I use these examples is that they have no basis in practicality or common sense. While many compulsions are an extension of normal acts that we all perform, such as locking our car or washing our hands, people don't usually adjust doors or tap cupboards.

It's important to remember, though, that it's OCD that's strange, not the person - please judge it, not them.

12 January 2015

No laughing matter

British comedian Jon Richardson is well known for his perfectionist and compulsive behaviours, which have previously made him the butt of jokes by fellow panel members on comedy quiz shows such as 8 out of 10 Cats and Mock the Week.

Inevitably, they tended to bandy the term OCD about, but he didn't appear to see himself as having the disorder. While his comment 'It's not OCD, it's just the right way of doing things' might have been made for comedic effect, it seemed that he genuinely believed it.

Image courtesy of Pixomar/
This was apparently borne out by a documentary he presented, in 2012, about the condition. He met a number of people with extreme obsessions and compulsions, in the face of which he demonstrated great understanding, compassion and sensitivity. In the course of the filming, he was professionally assessed and it was concluded that he was not a sufferer himself. I was surprised by this - as, I'm sure were many other viewers - as it was apparent from what he had revealed that his behaviours severely restricted his life.

For example, at the time he was sharing a house with friends, and he refused to let the camera crew film his bedroom, even from the door. That was his sanctuary and he couldn't tolerate the intrusion, albeit one that wasn't even physical.

He shared one anecdote that was particularly telling. His flatmates knew that he liked spoons to be stored in a particular way, so, for a joke, they scattered them around the house instead. This upset him so much that he elected to sleep in his car, rather than stay under the same roof as the now disordered cutlery.

Nevertheless, Jon professed to take pleasure in ordering things in this way, which is no doubt why the expert's verdict was that he didn't have OCD: for that diagnosis, behaviours have to be unwanted and to cause distress.

By the end of the programme, I was quite concerned for him. He claimed to enjoy what he did, and maintained that his compulsions didn't control him, but would there come a day when he didn't, and they did? I hoped he wouldn't look back, 10 years on, and realise how much of his life he had wasted because of them.

So I was relieved to observe a change of attitude in recent interviews: Jon now talks of actually having OCD, although he says he has it under control, apart from the odd flare-up. 

He also refers to it starting when he was a teenager, which makes me wonder about the truth of his status when he presented that documentary. Perhaps he was unwittingly deceiving himself as to how comfortable he was with his compulsions? - and, therefore, inadvertently misled the person who assessed him. He has admitted in one interview that the programme was 'the best piece of therapy I've ever had', so it obviously proved to be a turning point.

It's clear from what I've read elsewhere that he has a real understanding of what having OCD means and how serious it can be, and I hope he'll continue to raise awareness in this way. Mental health conditions need all the well-informed, high profile support they can get.

5 January 2015

Things can only get better?

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As 2014 drew to a close, I noticed a lot of people online expressing the same sentiment: that it had been a difficult year and they looked forward to a better one in 2015. 

Last year was certainly a challenge for me: with every week that passed, a new crisis seemed to materialise. The lowest of the lowlights were... 

Two surgical procedures, one of which necessitated two weeks off work, and both of which were more trying than expected, with longer convalescences than anticipated.

My boiler and washing machine having to be replaced, forcing me to face my worst (OCD) nightmare of strangers coming into my home and causing upheaval and mess. 

My boyfriend, Pete, breaking his collarbone in a cycle accident.

And, to cap it all, taking redundancy under the latest restructure of our team (if anyone is looking for a writer/executive assistant/project manager from 1 April, you know where to find me...)

There were numerous other, more trivial causes for anxiety and stress in the course of the year and my immediate response, therefore, would be to sum it up as a bad one.

But was it really? I've certainly had worse: being made redundant, splitting up with my husband and moving house in 1994, and losing one of my best friends to cancer in 2009, to name but two.

And to say it was a bad year would take away from all the truly memorable moments I enjoyed.

At least a dozen fantastic days stand out in my memory, including: three afternoon teas (the first featuring a sighting of ex-Take That member Jason Orange); two belated birthday lunches with friends and an amazing dinner on the day; climbing the O2 and 'flying' on the Emirates cable car; and celebrating Pete's birthday, just before Christmas, at the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.

Then there was the publication of my article about OCD in Complete Wellbeing magazine, the rapidly growing support for my blog, and the successful completion of two projects at work that I asked to take on to broaden my career horizons, as well as many other simple pleasures.

I once read a quote along the following lines: the trouble with humans is that we expect always to be happy and view misfortunes as somehow unfair. I know I do this, yet railing against problems only exacerbates the stress they cause in and of themselves. Likewise, expecting things to change for the better at the stroke of midnight on 31 December is, surely, setting yourself up for disappointment?

Whilst looking, in vain, for this quote, I came across this comment, from the Dalai Lama:

'As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but every one who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles.'

And so I enter 2015 wishing not for an easier or better year, but for one where I will have the strength to deal with whatever adversity I face, and where I can create more wonderful memories with my loved ones. In fact, a year just like the last one.