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'.

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