25 May 2015

Too much information

OCD is a condition characterised by the need for certainty, so reaching decisions can be particularly hard for sufferers, who have to be sure of making the best possible choice in any given situation. 

You'd think, then, that the wealth of information available these days would make matters easier; in fact, all it's done is complicate things.

Take holidays, for example. In the past, information about a destination, or specific accommodation, was only available in a brochure, and was likely to consist of a few lines of spin text and a solitary photo, which had been taken from an angle designed to hide the unsavoury surroundings.

There was no TripAdvisor, where fellow travellers could spill the beans about the noise from the dual carriageway next to that apparently beautiful hotel. There were no Google Maps, with aerial and street views to allow you to see for yourself the sewage works behind that seemingly perfect villa. It was pot luck whether your trip turned out to be the holiday of a lifetime or an unmitigated disaster.

Likewise with any significant purchase for your home. In the absence of online reviews, the best you could do was try to track down the relevant issue of the consumer magazine Which? in your local library. Nowadays, you can find a review of anything in seconds - and I mean anything. Think of a product, any product - let's say, pencils...and sure enough, here are 141 reviews* of a 12-pack of pencils, which numerous potential buyers have judged 'helpful'.

Increasingly, we rely on others' opinions to shape our decisions, which only makes the process harder. If we feel the need to solicit advice before spending 99p on a dozen pencils, then how much consideration do we have to give to the purchase of a television or a washing machine?

Image courtesy of John Kasawa/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
When my kettle sprang a leak earlier this month, I immediately went online to research a replacement. My criteria were simple - it had to be cheap, white and easy to source - and I immediately homed in on one that fitted the bill. The 997 reviews (yes, 997 opinions to 'help' me) gave it a solid overall rating of 4.6 stars out of 5. Decision made, then? No, because, of course, I had to check the 21 1-star reviews, just to be sure it wasn't a dud.

That opened a proverbial can of worms. One reviewer claimed that the lid kept opening when the kettle was boiling. Another said that steam poured from the on-off switch. A third insisted that hot drinks tasted of plastic, even after numerous boils. And on and on it went: a catalogue of woes that some of the 2-star reviews echoed. Oh, yes, I checked those, too. 

Eventually I decided life was too short to waste any more of it dithering over whether to splash out  £11.99 on a particular kettle, so I went ahead and bought it.

And no, the lid doesn't open of its own accord and my drinks don't taste of plastic, but, yes, there is a little puff of steam from that switch...which I've decided just to ignore. I'll put up with anything rather than resume the torturous hunt for the perfect alternative.

* * *

*An increase of 2 reviews since I drafted this post just a week ago, and be warned, the price has also gone up...if you need pencils, you'd better get in fast.

18 May 2015

Sound and fury

Flicking through my OCD self-help guide recently, I paused to review my answers to a questionnaire called the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale and noticed that, under Miscellaneous obsessions, I'd put a tick against 'I am bothered by certain sounds or noises'. It must have been at least 10 years since I'd filled in this questionnaire and, in the interim, I'd forgotten ever coming across the issue of sound sensitivity in the context of OCD. 

I did research this problem many years ago, but the only online reference I found then was in relation to autism. I'd been forced to conclude that my agitation in response to certain sounds was simply the result of an impatient nature.

Coming across the issue in this questionnaire, however, prompted me to dig deeper. This time, searching the phrase 'sensitivity to sound and OCD' immediately threw up multiple websites and introduced me to the term misophonia - 'hatred of sound'. The condition is also known as Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome. Whilst there doesn't appear to be a definitive link between OCD and misophonia, these conditions often seem to go hand in hand.

The right - or, rather, wrong - noises take misophonia sufferers beyond mere irritation, into stress, anger or disgust. They can even become physically sick or incensed to the point of feeling violent towards the perpetrator. I can relate to this: as I become angrier, I'm unable to concentrate on anything else.

I read dozens of accounts from people describing the different sounds that troubled them, many of which mirrored my own pet hates. These include: 

  • Whistling - only last week I had to race around the supermarket to complete my shopping and escape a phantom whistler, whom I could hear no matter where I went in the store.
  • Plastic bags rustling - though only when someone else is fishing about in one.
  • People clicking pens or tapping their fingers.
  • Repeated sniffing or throat-clearing.
  • Repetitive speech habits, such as saying 'like' or 'you know' - offending callers to my local talk radio station drive me to switch off.
  • Repetitive melodies or song lyrics and long drawn-out words or notes - Bill Withers' Lovely Day springs to mind.

It may seem laughable to get so upset by sounds - which, incidentally, don't even have to be loud to cause a problem - but I was relieved to know I'm not the only one who feels this way. It was also strangely reassuring to find that it's not a personality failing, but an actual disorder.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

The problem is exacerbated for me by my particularly acute sense of hearing - no doubt Mother Nature's way of compensating for my terrible eyesight. I once found myself driven to the edge by an incessant 'clicking', which I eventually realised was bubbles popping in a glass of Buck's Fizz - on a table three feet away from me.

I long ago adopted the habit of wearing ear plugs at home when doing work that requires concentration, to block out the noises that take me to the brink: I live on a busy street and car doors slamming is another of my auditory tortures.

Misophonia is new to me, but it's a condition I'll definitely be investigating further.

11 May 2015

Big deal

My need to position objects with military precision increases the time it takes to complete even the smallest job and can create the impression that I've actually accomplished a major project.

Take, for example, a simple repair that requires the use of glue. The glue is in a small toolbox on the top shelf under the kitchen sink, wedged between other household items. I have to shift some of these to reach the box, and then remove a number of things from the box to get to the glue. 

It's not moving all this that's the problem, though: it's putting it back. I have to replace everything in the box exactly as it was, restore the box to the same position on the shelf, and align the items around it just as before.

A two-minute repair job can lead to five minutes lost to compulsions, as I adjust and readjust things until they look - and feel - right.

Image courtesy of Keerati/
I try to move as little as possible in the first place, in order to minimise this wasted time, but somehow this never goes to plan. It seems the more careful I try to be, the more likely I am to create an even bigger 'mess'.

To reach the glue, for example, I'll try to extricate the tool box without dislodging the Tupperware container to its left or the two hammers sitting on top of each other to its right - like some weird version of Jenga. Inevitably, though, the box bumps the hammers, which knock over an aerosol, which brings down another canister, which falls off the ledge and scatters half a dozen things on the shelf beneath. And then it takes me ten minutes to put everything right, instead of five! 

These ordering compulsions interfere with whatever I undertake, and, as a result, my day can easily fill up without achieving anything of any significance. Every tiny task becomes a big deal, from cleaning the bathroom mirror to putting out fresh toilet rolls - yes, even they have to be stacked 'just so'. By the end of Saturday - my usual day for chores - I may feel as if I've done a lot, but it's just an illusion created by my OCD.

This is often driven home when my boyfriend and I get together later and compare notes on what we've been up to. He'll have completed the same kind of small-scale chores in his flat, yet also fitted in a 30-mile bike ride, spent an hour playing his guitar, taken his cat to the vet for a check-up, washed his car and established world peace. All right, I'm exaggerating a little - he might not get to world peace until Sunday - but he's certainly far more productive than I am. 

While he can look back on a day well spent, I've wasted half of mine on restoring a very rigid and completely unnecessary order. Any satisfaction I get from my fake accomplishments is both hollow and fleeting - whatever I do in the name of this horrible condition, it always demands more.

4 May 2015

Office nomad

After taking voluntary redundancy early in February, I recently returned to my old workplace as a temp in a different team. Although this provides the comfort factor of being in an organisation where I know both the people and the processes, one aspect of this new role has presented a challenge: my immediate physical environment.

In my previous team, we enjoyed one special perk due to the nature of our work: we each had a dedicated desk, while the majority of our colleagues had to 'hot desk' - though, in reality, most gravitated to the same spot every day and many got upset if someone sat in 'their' seat.

As a result, I was able to cave in to my need for order, knowing that my belongings would remain exactly where I'd so carefully placed them. On my Mondays off, it was rare for anybody else to use my desk, and I only faced any real disruption when I returned from leave. Then I would have to clean all the surfaces and equipment with sanitising wipes and tweak everything back into position, before I could settle down to any actual work.

My new team, however, are required to be flexible about where they sit and I was dreading how I'd cope with these arrangements.

On my first day, I was shown into the office by someone who, as far as I'm aware, doesn't know I have OCD. My embarrassment about asking for wipes overrode my revulsion at having to use a phone, keyboard and mouse that I hadn't cleaned. Although the wipes are provided for that purpose, very few people bother with them, and I'm always self-conscious about being seen using them.

As well as contamination issues, I also had to deal with the clutter left behind by previous occupants - hardly anybody adheres to the corporate 'clear desk' policy and many leave out personal belongings, such as family photos. 

In the past, when I was seconded to another team and faced the same problem, I simply pushed back the mess to create a tiny semi-circle of clear space, which became 'mine'. My compulsions have only ever applied to my flat, my car, my desk. Now I just restricted those boundaries still further, to my space. Providing I kept control of that area, I could - just about - block out what lay beyond. I would have to take the same approach in my new job.

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The next day, I found the wipes and resolved to arrive at the office early from then on, so that I could select, clean and tidy a desk in time to start work at 9am. It's a compromise, but one I'm happy with - 10 minutes of compulsions in order to reduce my stress for the rest of the day. Frankly, just having to operate as a nomad is quite enough exposure for me!

In fact, a new office accommodation policy takes effect tomorrow, under which the existing rules have been tightened up: staff won't be allowed to lay claim to a particular desk or display any personal items, and will be obliged to leave their work area clear at the end of the day. 

This will make my life a little easier, but I wonder how my colleagues will cope now that they have to break their routines?