23 February 2015

Pattern maker

I've found myself wondering the same thing in relation to a number of my obsessive-compulsive behaviours: is this an extension of my intrinsic personality, or has it become part of who I am only because of my OCD?

For me, the main manifestation of the condition is a need for order and symmetry in my environment. The question is, has this compulsion arisen because I have a good eye for patterns, or has my good eye developed because of this compulsion?

I suspect it's the former, as I've always found it easy to see patterns, for example in sequences of numbers, letters and images, and do well in IQ tests with those 'What comes next?' or 'Which is the odd one out?' challenges. 

A few years ago, I applied for an executive assistant role with a communications' technology company, where I had to take the same reasoning tests at interview as the computer scientists who made up the bulk of their workforce - mostly Oxford and Cambridge graduates. 'Don't worry,' I was told, 'Everybody has to do these.' The implication was that it didn't matter how I got on, but they didn't expect it be well. Instead, a puzzled Managing Director later told me 'Your results are as good as some of our tech guys. I don't know what to do with you...'

This ability to find patterns does, though, cause me discomfort when they're missing or 'wrong'.
I once bought a top with a clear button at the neck and 10 small grey ones underneath, which were of various designs. Using a letter to identify each, the order from top to bottom was: A B D E A A C B C B.

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
I defy anybody to tell me what the next letter in that sequence would be; it has no logic whatsoever. And why should it? It's a cheap(ish) top made in Korea by workers who don't have time to create pretty patterns.

The muddle made me really uncomfortable and I toyed with the idea of cutting off all the buttons and re-ordering them. However, while the top was inexpensive, the buttons were very securely attached; there was a risk I'd damage the material as I snipped them off, rendering the top imperfect in a different way. 

What concerned me more than that, though, was that I couldn't form a pattern I was happy with. The best I could devise, from the 3 As, 3 Bs, 2 Cs, 1 D and 1 E, was: A B C D A B C E A B

Pretty good, but not good enough, and so I left the top as it was - yet another item chafing at my perfectionist, ordered mind.

Mind you, my revised sequence does make for a better question in an IQ test. Answers on a postcard, please - well, OK, the comments' section - as to what the next two letters should be...

16 February 2015

Let it go

As I held the cursor over the Send icon, my heart raced. I was about to submit my novel to my chosen self-publishing company, but it felt like such a final act that my finger might as well have been hovering over the nuclear button.

I'd edited the manuscript countless times during almost 10 years of painful, on-off gestation. Once I'd clicked that mouse, though, there would be no going back, no more changes allowed. 

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It was gone, and I wouldn't review it again until it had first been proofread, then typeset. Or would I?

The publishing director responded a few days later to confirm that she was happy to take my novel on and felt it was so polished that it didn't need a 'human' proofread. She proposed, instead, to run it through a specialist proofreading programme, just as a final check.

From a financial point of view, this was good news. However, I'd been relying on somebody else to pick up any errors I'd overlooked. In fact, that element of reassurance was all that had enabled me to override my perfectionist nature and submit it at all. 

For a start, I knew that my understanding of semicolons was fuzzy. When I'd run the automated spelling and grammar check, it had screamed 'Semicolon Use' at me enough times to indicate I had a problem. As the proofreading software might not catch that kind of thing, the publishing director and I agreed that I would go through the manuscript again - as soon as I'd given myself a grammar lesson in that particular punctuation point.

And that's how I found myself once more trawling through 95,000 words of text that I'd thought I was done with. The 'Ctrl+F' (Find) facility revealed that I'd used 348 semicolons, but I couldn't face reviewing them all, so trusted the automated check to guide me back to those I'd got wrong. 

It took about four hours to find and fix my mistakes - by which time I could have appeared on the quiz show Mastermind with semicolons as my specialist subject. Unfortunately, though, my work still wasn't done. 

While searching grammar advice online, I'd come across an article by author Jonathan Franzen about writers' use of 'comma-then', eg 'Helen checked all of the grammar in her novel, then submitted it to her publisher.' The piece was damning of such 'lazy' writing. Checking my manuscript, I discovered that I was guilty of doing this - a lot - and realised that my work would, indeed, be improved by cutting it out. Several hours later, with the help of my new favourite command 'Ctrl+F', I'd remedied this issue, too.

While I cursed at having to go back over my novel again (and again), being a perfectionist does, at least, give me the stamina to persevere. And as Samuel Johnson said, 'What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.' After the amount of effort I've put in, reading my novel should prove to be a positively blissful experience then!

* * *

PS A few days after submitting the revised version, I was suddenly wracked with doubt as to whether the automated review had picked up all of my semicolon errors - a spot check revealed that it hadn't. So, I had to start all over again and double-check every last one...

9 February 2015

Alternate reality

In the Ladies at work recently, I noticed a woman two basins down using a wad of toilet paper to shield her right hand from touching the tap as she turned it on. She put the paper down to wash her hands and then picked it up again to wipe them, before walking over to the air dryer to finish the job.

Image courtesy of chrisroll/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
We exchanged smiles as she went past and I think she knew that I'd observed what she was doing, but we didn't speak. I longed to ask 'Are you trying to protect yourself from contamination, or others from the germs you think you're carrying?' Either way, I was bemused that she'd dried her hands on the paper, which, in her eyes, was presumably contaminated either from her fingers or the tap.

The following day, as I drove to work, I saw a man on the pavement suddenly step a few feet to the left and reach out to touch a lamppost. I tried to track him in my rear-view mirror, but lost sight of him before he reached the next post. If I'd been able to follow his progress, I'm sure I'd have seen him touch every one he passed.

Later that same day, a close colleague came over to the sink in our kitchen area, where I was making tea, and washed her soft drinks' can under the tap. We exchanged greetings, but I didn't comment until I got back to my desk, which is near hers.

'I hope you don't mind me asking,' I said, 'But when you washed your can just now was it because -'

'Yes, it was,' she said, anticipating that my question was about contamination issues. 'I thought you'd notice that!' She doesn't have OCD, but is aware that I do, and she didn't seem offended by my query; she probably realised that I was more likely to empathise with her than engage in ridicule.

'I suppose it makes sense,' I replied, although it had never occurred to me to do that, in spite of my own concerns about contamination.

She shuddered. 'Well, I've heard all sorts of horror stories.'

I searched online subsequently and the only 'horror story' I found was one that has been circulating for more than 10 years, but has been dismissed as an urban myth: about a woman dying of leptospirosis, allegedly transmitted via dried rat's urine on a drinks' can.

It was odd to witness three people, in less than 24 hours, publicly carrying out the kind of rituals I keep hidden as far as possible. Of course, it may well be that none of them have OCD, just a few compulsive habits that don't unduly trouble them.

Still, the experience made me feel, for that short while, as if I had landed in a parallel universe where compulsions are the norm. Imagine that - an alternate reality where those who don't have a mental health disorder feel like the odd ones out!

2 February 2015

It's good to talk

My heart sank when I read the headline on the Daily Mail article my sister had sent me: 'Thanks OCD! You've been my saviour in the worst year of my life.' Was this going to be yet another misrepresentation of the condition?

It didn't help that the feature was accompanied by a large photograph of a woman wearing black lacy underwear and black stockings, prone on a fluffy carpet...

The woman was Michelle Mone, founder of the Ultimo lingerie brand, and the article was an interview that focussed on her experiences of the disorder.

In fact, the reporter was reasonably well informed and the piece included useful background information and advice.

I also felt some connection with Ms Mone, as our stories are very similar: we're both divorced, both have ordering compulsions, and were both only diagnosed with OCD in our 30s.

The way in which her compulsions had helped her to get through the stress of divorce was something I could also relate to. I wrote last year about how I took the conscious decision to give in to mine, in the face of a series of domestic and personal crises. Using compulsions as a form of anxiety relief, to manage an otherwise intolerable situation, was, at the time, the lesser of two evils. 

However, I shared the reporter's surprise at Ms Mone's pride in what she claimed to be the condition's positive aspects: 'Do I want to stop it? No, I can cope with a hell of a lot more in business because of OCD. I know where things are, I work faster, and I can take on a lot more.'

While there are elements of an obsessive-compulsive personality that may be constructive, such as being organised, this is entirely different from OCD, with its accompanying anxiety and distress.

The dividing lines can be blurry and it takes a professional diagnosis to clarify each individual's status, ie whether they have Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) as well - which may well apply to Ms Mone. Lumping everything together under the umbrella of OCD, as she did, creates misunderstanding, giving the impression that sufferers enjoy what they do.

Her final comment really incensed me: 'OCD defines who I am as a person. I don't think it's an illness. I would say it's what makes me perform so well and makes me unique.'

Of course it's an illness, and one that prevents many sufferers from 'performing' at all - they may be unable to hold down a job, maintain a relationship, or even go out.

Unfortunately, not all high-profile publicity about mental health is good publicity, and, although this article ran more than a year ago, it's still available online.

Image courtesy of Time to Change
On Thursday 5 February, it's Time to Talk Day, which is part of the Time to Change campaign to eradicate mental health stigma and discrimination. This year, they're asking everyone to take 5 minutes to have a conversation about mental health. I hope as many people as possible participate - every little helps to balance this kind of misleading coverage.