16 November 2015

No surrender

When news broke on Friday evening about the terrorist attacks in Paris, the scale of these was so shocking that it seemed unreal: the number of deaths at that stage was around 40. I went to bed upset, but determined to push it to the back of my mind - I had a big day ahead of me, with my first talk at a local library, and needed a good night's sleep.

However, when I turned on the radio first thing Saturday and heard that nearly 130 people had died, my stomach flipped and my heart began to race. As the day wore on, and I continued to monitor the news, my distress grew, along with my need to perform compulsions.

My OCD is exacerbated not only by bad news close to home, but also by upsetting events further afield that don't directly affect me. The more crazy and out of control the world becomes, the stronger the urge to order my environment: exerting even a little control eases my anxiety.

Over the years, all kinds of horrific incidents have triggered the same response, including the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris earlier this year. Although natural disasters usually cause more deaths, it's the instances of human evil that disturb me the most.

I'd already had a difficult couple of weeks, with the sudden death of a friend's wife and a burglary at my boyfriend's flat. Factor in my rising anxiety about performing in public and I was in a pretty wobbly state. The Paris attacks were the final ingredient in a perfect storm of mental distress.

By early afternoon, when I had to leave for my talk, my compulsions were as bad as when my OCD was at its worst, 20 years ago: I was unable to leave my flat until everything was exactly where it should be. These days, I usually only find myself in that position when I'm going away for a prolonged period, not for an absence of a few hours.

On the news yesterday, countless people were saying we shouldn't be frightened and should go about our business as usual, or the terrorists would have won. I couldn't help being frightened, though, and as for carrying on as normal... 

Only days earlier, I'd been thinking of treating myself to a trip on the Eurostar to Paris. Now I was suddenly scared even to go into central London - into any big city. I just wanted to curl up in a ball in my flat, where I may not be immune to all harm, but would most likely be safe from terrorists.

Then it suddenly came to me: I could fight back, in spite of my fear, by reining in my now rampant compulsive behaviours. The terrorists may have wormed their way into my mind, but I wasn't going to let them take it over.

I began to work on reducing my compulsions to their usual mild level, but soon found myself taking this further, using exposure exercises (ie deliberately leaving things out of place) to tackle my most entrenched - and 'accepted' - habits.

Image courtesy of 9comeback/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
All day, I put stuff down without positioning it, thinking 'F**k you, terrorists': you may have frightened me, you may have temporarily terrorised me off this city's streets, but you will NOT terrorise me in my home. In my own small way, je suis Paris.

RIP to all the victims.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Helen, and good for you!!!! i hope your talk went well!

Helen Barbour said...

Hi ocdtalk, yes, the talk went very well, thanks. All the nerves that had been building evaporated at the last minute and I really enjoyed doing it!

Anonymous said...

Well done you, for your action, your talk and for sharing your experience with others. You're a winner! X

Unknown said...

I experienced the same feeling and had a relapse to. Being afraid is all they want. I am afraid, but go on with life. As always recognizable blog Helen. Tanks for sharing.

Helen Barbour said...

Yvonne, thank you so much for your lovely feedback!

Helen Barbour said...

Ineke, well done for carrying on as normal, too. I find that the anxiety gradually diminishes after such events, but it's good to try to speed up the process by tackling it head on.