26 October 2015

Feel the fear

My boyfriend, Pete, and I often take self-catering holidays in the UK, which is the only significant time we spend together under one roof, and his presence always encourages me to suppress the worst of my ordering compulsions.

Not only would I be self-conscious about him witnessing my most extreme behaviours, but it would be unreasonable to arrange his belongings, meaning some elements of my environment are out of my control, unlike when I'm at home. 

So I might, for example, place my books and magazines in a tidy pile, but I won't line up the corners. A small behavioural shift, yet a significant one, in light of the recognised treatment for OCD, ie exposure and response prevention (ERP). For ordering compulsions, ERP means leaving items out of position, and even just a fraction of an inch can prove effective.

My holiday cottage
Photos: Helen Barbour
This year, we've been unable to take a break due to work and, by last month, I was desperate to get out of London, so made a last-minute booking at a cottage on Mersea Island, off the Essex coast. Although Pete was able to join me for one night, I'd be alone for much of the six days. Nevertheless, I resolved to try to adopt the same more 'relaxed' approach as when we travel together. 

Initially I was excited at the thought of some much-needed downtime, but I began to worry about anything and everything as the date of departure drew near. Would I get lost on the way and miss the one-hour window for key collection? Would I be able to get my heavy bag up the tiny spiral staircase? Would I manage to figure out how all the appliances worked? Most importantly, would I feel safe at night?

View from the east end of West Mersea
- spot the power station
Although I arrived on time, my anxiety levels remained high. I was tired from the journey and carting luggage about, dismayed by the unexpected view of a nuclear power station across the estuary, and downhearted at exploring a cold and echoing house on my own.

By the time I came to unpack, I'd given up any hope of resisting my ordering compulsions - I needed them more than ever, to help reduce my stress.

As for my other fears...I almost fell down the stairs hauling my bag up them, and the promised central heating transpired to be storage heaters, which took three days to master. I did, however, feel very secure in the small community of West Mersea.

Then, a couple of days in, I suffered a flare-up of some recent digestive problems, which left me feeling quite unwell. Being unsure what exactly was wrong served to stoke my anxiety - and my compulsive behaviours. 

Seal close to the jetty in West Mersea
On the penultimate evening, I was in such discomfort that I toyed with the idea of going home a day early. The prospect of being in a familiar environment, with friends nearby, was very tempting. In the end, I stuck it out, which perhaps qualifies as some kind of achievement, even if I didn't reduce my compulsions as planned. 

And, in spite of everything, I somehow had a great week! Once I'd settled in, the house became a cosy and comfortable base, I met some lovely people, and saw some amazing scenery and wildlife. As the saying goes, 'feel the fear and do it anyway'.

19 October 2015

That sinking feeling

My family has adopted the habit of prefacing non-emergency phone calls made out of the blue with comments along the lines of 'There's nothing to worry about...'. Often, however, such reassurance is followed by a 'but', which roughly translates as 'Something bad has happened, but we're all still alive.' 

On a day off a few weeks ago, I received a mid-morning call at home from my parents' number. A surge of adrenaline immediately set my heart racing and Dad's opening words didn't help: 'There's no problem now, but...'

He went on to explain that he'd had to call an ambulance at 4am, after my mum woke up with severe and unexplained back pain. The paramedic could find no serious underlying cause and the pain had, in fact, subsequently eased. A follow-up visit to their GP confirmed that this had been a muscular problem. Sighs of relief all round.

Late afternoon on the same day, I received a text from my boyfriend, Pete, which began 'Don't panic, but...' As he's a keen cyclist, this introduction usually means he's had a crash. This time, though, the 'crash' had been in his back garden; he'd tripped and fallen face first onto the concrete path, breaking two front teeth and suffering nasty grazes. By the time he contacted me, he'd already been to the dentist for emergency repairs.

Dad and Pete both did the right thing in only telling me what had happened once the initial crisis was over. There was, after all, nothing I could do to assist in either situation and I'd just have spent hours helplessly worrying.
Image courtesy of Mister GC/

Receiving two calls of this kind in one day unsettled me, though. They reminded me that, as I potter about my mundane, day-to-day business, something terrible might be happening to my nearest and dearest. At any moment, a genuinely bad news bomb might explode into my life and change it forever.

I know full well that dwelling on what ifs is pointless and saps the joy from existence, however, pushing such thoughts away is a struggle for those of us of an anxious disposition. 

Actually, I sometimes wonder how anybody manages not to worry - as it says in the theme song* of the television show Monk (about a police detective with OCD), 'People say I'm crazy, 'cause I worry all the time. If you paid attention, you'd be worried, too.' The reality is, life is busy priming bad news bombs for all of us.

Sinkholes are the epitome of this. Earlier this month, a hole more than 30ft deep opened up in a road in St Albans, which is about 20 miles north of where I live. The 60ft wide crater also swallowed part of a drive and front garden, but luckily nobody was injured.

To me, this incident is a metaphor for life: a succession of 'sinkholes' that we can't anticipate - it's best just to make the most of the firm ground while you still have it beneath your feet!

*It's a jungle out there by Randy Newman - you can view the opening credits to Monk, including this very catchy song, here.

12 October 2015

Open season

I've been candid about having OCD for many years, so I'm prepared for a variety of responses when I discuss this with somebody for the first time. Most people are interested to discover what the condition really entails, as it's often misrepresented in the media. Most, equally, are sympathetic about the difficulties that it causes me. 

The odd person, however, reacts in a less helpful way. One former colleague - for context, female and senior to me - initially seemed understanding, but then began to make highly inappropriate references to my mental health status.

One day, I was emptying a cupboard in my boss's office ahead of his move to another part of the building. As I shoved pile after pile of documents into confidential waste bags, my colleague suddenly called, from the open-plan office outside, 'Oh look, Helen's having one of her OCD clearouts!' The observation was made in front of numerous other staff and delivered with a laugh. 

Through gritted teeth, I responded, 'Actually, I've been asked to do this. I wouldn't be wasting my time with it otherwise.' Guessing that any elaboration would fall on deaf ears, I chose not to explain that, in fact, my OCD only applies to my own environment - my desk, my car, my home. I have no desire to arrange anybody else's belongings and can happily exist alongside others' mess, providing I'm able to preserve my own oasis of order.

Image courtesy of aopsan/
It struck me as strange that an intelligent woman, who claimed to have a therapy qualification of some sort, would come out with such a comment. After all, if you were aware of a colleague's physical ailment, would you draw attention to a flare-up? Imagine shouting across a room, 'Oh look, Helen's having an eczema outbreak!' - and laughing about it.

Even if I had, in fact, become caught up in a compulsion, I can't imagine why anybody would feel it necessary to point that out. For some reason, those with mental health issues seem to be fair game for ridicule.

No doubt it is partly due to fear of the unknown. Some might see a person who looks different, or who behaves differently, to them, and be unable to handle the discomfort this causes. Sadly, there are far too many reports of those who are disabled, or disfigured, being abused by complete strangers - essentially for something they can't help, and which isn't doing anybody else any harm.

Or perhaps it's the abusers' low self-esteem that drives them to such unkind, pointless and incomprehensible attacks, which can sometimes even become physical. In order to feel better about themselves, they have to point out others' 'faults'.

Explanations of OCD can't prepare the layman for the reality of the condition, and observing compulsive behaviours can certainly be an uncomfortable experience. Rest assured, however, that it will never be as distressing to witness compulsions as it is to be caught in their grip.

5 October 2015

Material world

I'm often surprised at which of my posts generate the most interest and comment: frequently it's those that are about something I'd thought to be a 'niche' area of mental health.

A prime example is 'Less is more', a post about obsessive-compulsive spartanism (OCS) that appeared in February 2014, and which is by far the most frequently viewed on my blog.

Spartanism is the opposite of hoarding, in that sufferers can't bear any clutter and continually seek to dispose of their possessions, often including items they actually need. This can be detrimental both to them and their families.

Having stumbled across an article on the condition, and recognised mild spartanistic tendencies in myself, I decided to investigate further. This was all new to me and so I didn't expected the flood of feedback that followed publication of my own piece on the subject.

Some readers described vividly how they felt when they had too many things around them:

'I get a physical sensation as though I'm being crushed.' 

'It literally feels like gears grinding in my head.'

Others talked about the losses they'd suffered: 'I've even left stuff behind when I've moved - on purpose. I've lost some good things that way.'

Image courtesy of  Matt Banks/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One spoke of the battle between her minimalism and her husband's hoarding, and another of the devastating impact of her husband's spartanism: 'He recently gave away the last few sentimental items I had left. I don't know how to move forward since they're not replaceable. I understand his mind and empathise with him, however, it feels like basic trust is gone.'

Yet another expressed a sentiment common to many with mental health disorders: 'It's comforting to know that others do similar things.' In fact, from this anecdotal evidence - from an international readership - it seems that a lot of people are affected by this condition.

This set me wondering whether this kind of behaviour is on the increase as a natural, and inevitable, reaction to the rampant consumerism and materialism of most first-world countries. Perhaps 'stuff is the new stress' for many of us? As one reader commented: 'I find that it's just too much for me to keep up with and take care of.'

A Canadian journalist recently asked me to contribute to a feature on OCS. It seems that, across the pond, decluttering has become a massive phenomenon. The gist of her piece was that, as a result, those with spartanism often find it difficult to make others understand that this is a real problem. 

The UK frequently adopts US trends, so I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we follow suit with decluttering. I for one would welcome that societal shift, as I feel much the same as one of my blog readers, who wrote: 'Clearing the physical space has created some much needed mental space and clarity...I didn't feel that I needed the possessions to be happy and the idea of a simpler life was so attractive and liberating.'

We'll have to find a balance between materialism and spartanism, though, or we'll only end up exchanging one problem for another!

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