23 March 2015

In the beginning

Many children adopt habits that mimic OCD behaviours, but are unrelated to the condition. For example, several parents, on hearing about my ordering compulsions, have worriedly told me that their child insists on lining up toys in a specific way. 

This type of ordering is, in fact, very common, part of normal child development, and one of a number of recognised 'schemas' - patterns of repeated behaviour. It's understandable, though, that parents might become concerned about this kind of activity.

It's equally understandable that they might miss signs that could actually be a precursor to OCD, or other mental health disorders.

During my childhood and adolescence, I engaged in a number of behaviours that showed a tendency towards OCD, perfectionism and generalised anxiety, including health worries.

For example, I had designated positions for the ornaments in my bedroom, which I'd established according to what 'felt right'. When my mum dusted, she'd knock them out of place, which left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. Before I could do anything else, I'd have to restore order, by angling all my knick-knacks correctly again.

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An early indication of my perfectionism was that I wasted hours over the presentation of my schoolwork, which had to be immaculate. Rather than cross out errors in my homework, I'd rip out the offending page and rewrite the whole thing - providing this was in the first half of the exercise book, so that I only sacrificed a blank page on the other side of the staple. Needless to say, I had a lot of very thin books.

However, if I'd gone past the halfway point, I'd have to use correction fluid instead. This was a satisfactory solution, so long as, a) it hadn't gone lumpy, and b) I let it dry properly before writing on it. Otherwise, I had to resort to Plan C: glueing a clean piece of paper over the whole mess. By the time I handed in my work, it often looked like an arts and crafts project.

As for my anxiety, one incident stands out amongst many. After watching a film in which a woman found a lump in her neck that turned out to be terminal cancer, I spent a sleepless - and tearful - night convinced that I had a lump in mine. Actually, I did, and I still do: it's a muscle that pops up if I turn my head a certain way!

In fact, my OCD didn't fully manifest until my late 20s and it would have been impossible for anybody to join the sparse - and mostly hidden - dots when I was younger and realise the direction my mental health might take. All that these clues showed was a possible genetic predisposition, which is just one of a number of factors that can contribute to the development of the condition.

And, in those days - the 1970s - there was limited awareness of any kind of mental illness. At least now there is more knowledge, more openness, and a better chance of parents, teachers and health care professionals identifying youngsters with a potential problem. The situation isn't perfect, but it's better than it was, and work continues to make it even better.

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Help for under 25s with OCD, and their families and friends, is available from the OCD Youth network, which is a branch of the charity OCD Action.


Anonymous said...

I really like his post, Helen, and it's easy in hindsight to see your "warning signs." I also wrote about rituals in childhood: https://ocdtalk.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/children-and-rituals.

The topic is very interesting, and I agree that so much more is understood today than in the "olden days." :)

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks, ocdtalk, I'll check out your post!