28 December 2015

A testing time

Every December I enter appointments for the upcoming year in my new hard copy diary. As I filled these in for 2016, one made my heart sink.

Based on your own experience, which of the following do you think it was?:

1. The doctor, to discuss an embarrassing problem.
2. The dentist, to have a filling.
3. The optician, to undergo a routine eye test.

I'd lay odds on most of you answering 1 or 2, but it's actually 3 - I find my biennial visit to the optician by far the most stressful of these events.

I've never been at all concerned about what I bring up with the doctor, or about having intimate examinations or tests. This probably harks back to my health anxiety: I'm happy to talk about anything, and endure any number of unpleasant procedures, in order to identify and address what's wrong with me. I much prefer knowledge and action to avoidance.

As for fillings, I don't understand why people say these are painful - unless, perhaps, they're using the dentist from Marathon Man? The injection only hurts for a few seconds and after that, for me, it's a case of 'lie back and think of England'.

No, it's the optician that really makes me nervous.

A contributory factor is that I had glasses from an early age and was the only one in my class who did. In the 1970s, there was just one kind of NHS frame for children and the only choice was the colour, ie blue or pink. The photo below shows a replica of mine. I hated them and used to stand books up on my desk to hide behind.

Museum image reproduced with 
permission of The College of Optometrists
More than that, though, I hated failing at the eye test. I was a perfectionist even then and wanted to do everything well, even when it was physically impossible.

And I really, really hated the optician's questions, because I could never be sure I was answering them correctly - a need for certainty is characteristic of OCD.

First he'd clamp on the heavy, metal test frames - they were like an instrument of torture, digging painfully into the bridge of my nose and the tops of my ears. Then he'd slot in a combination of lenses and tweak them again and again, asking in a monotone, 'Is this better? Or this?'. 

I was always anxious about giving the wrong answer. Was I contradicting what I'd just said? Would I end up with ineffective glasses because I hadn't directed him properly?

Now, at least, those metal frames have been replaced by a machine that swivels into place in front of your face. That may have eradicated the physical discomfort, but not the agonies of indecision. My eyes often water and blur with the effort, making it even harder to decide which lens provides a sharper image.

I begin every visit gibbering my apologies for my nerves at the optician; he must think I'm an absolute idiot. Dentists might be prepared with sedatives for nervous patients, but I doubt opticians are...

Mine tells me that, in recent years, children have been faking poor eyesight, in the hope of being prescribed glasses and emulating Harry Potter! Hopefully his popularity - and the great range of frames now available - means youngsters these days are less likely to end up with my strange hang-up, even if they aren't blessed with 20/20 vision.

 * * *

This is an interesting page about NHS glasses, from The College of Optometrists - the first and third-from-last paragraphs sum up my experience!

21 December 2015


Christmas can be a particularly stressful time for those with mental health problems, but they're not the only ones who struggle. The song may claim 'Tis the season to be jolly', but more often than not this so-called holiday means a lot of extra work and pressure.

Our increasingly materialistic society has somehow ended up dedicating an inordinate proportion of the year to preparing for a single day. I try to avoid thinking about it until December, but that still means more than three weeks of intense activity - and rising panic - as I plough through my festive 'to do' list.

It doesn't help that advertisers start their promotions at least a month earlier. If you don't get on board then, you can feel as if you're playing chicken with time - how long can you resist without crashing, unprepared, into The Big Day?

For the first time last year, I opted to cut back on some of the more time-consuming elements: making a charitable donation rather than sending cards, putting up minimal decorations, and replacing the usual expansive dinner with a more simple meal.

We also reduced the number of presents exchanged within my family, giving gifts only to my young nephews and our respective partners. This year, I managed to do all of my shopping online, which seemed far too easy. I felt guilty for getting off so lightly - clearly I'm indoctrinated into believing the whole experience should be as challenging as possible.

I'm not the only one. On Saturday, the BBC news channel interviewed a number of people at a shopping centre. One middle-aged man's response was 'It's misery, complete and utter misery. But, hey, it's Christmas.' In other words, misery is only to be expected.

All of this effort is in pursuit of an idea of Christmas as sold to us by the media - no, not the trauma-filled Eastenders' version, but the kind depicted in all those feel-good films and supermarket ads. Airbrushed models might make us feel unattractive, but airbrushed Christmases can make us feel equally inadequate. If ours doesn't measure up to one of these perfect visions, it can feel as if we have failed somehow.

And it's hard not to follow the crowd, especially if friends and family aren't on the same page: people sometimes take offence if you want to do things differently. Fortunately, mine are supportive of my choices.

Image courtesy of Apolonia/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Which is just as well, as this year I'm volunteering at a Christmas Day lunch for old folk who would otherwise spend it alone. A couple of friends have commented on how 'good' I am to do this. Not a bit of it. This is by no means a wholly altruistic gesture (is there any such thing?); I'm in it for myself, too, as I hope that the event will re-ignite my fading festive spirit.

Because, when all's said and done, there is joy to be had. Whether from a rousing carol service, or good food and drink, or time spent with family and friends...even if you do have to eat sprouts and you feel like strangling someone by the end of it!

Wishing you the most joyful possible of Christmases, however you choose to spend it.

* * *

If you are struggling over the holidays there's help available - check out mental health charity Mind's website.

14 December 2015

Crosses to bear

This week, I'd like to share with you my interview with Rodger Hoefel, of Like-Minded Magazine, which you can read here.

Rodger set up this online magazine to take an in-depth look at a variety of mental health conditions, with the aim of increasing understanding - something I can very much relate to! 

'Like-Minded Magazine was established to...demonstrate that individual potential can still be reached despite not leading a "normal" life, and offer insight and inspiration with an emphasis on honesty and connection.'

Image courtesy of Rodger Hoefel
Rodger is a 34-year-old Australian living in Amsterdam, and working as an art director, who battles with OCD, social anxiety, tinnitus and the ongoing effects of injuries he suffered in a serious car accident as a teenager.

His interviewees come from around the world and conditions covered so far include borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

A list of all interviews is on Like-Minded Magazine's home page and you can also follow this publication on Facebook.

7 December 2015

Good twin, bad twin

It can be very hard when you have OCD to know what constitutes normal behaviour, ie how most people behave in a given situation. Often obsessions and compulsions have become so ingrained that sufferers can't remember life before them.

In Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, David Veale and Rob Willson introduce the 'as if' principle as a strategy to help tackle the disorder: trying to think and act 'as if' you didn't have it. A case of fake it till you make it.

Image courtesy of radnatt/
One of the associated techniques is to imagine that you have an OCD-free twin - who is identical to you in every other way - and then imagine how they would act and follow suit.

Of course, this isn't as simple as it sounds. 

Since the start of my 'f**k you' rebellion in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, it's been a lot easier to resist my compulsions. Every time I've gone to place an item carefully, I've reminded myself 'If you do this, you're letting the terrorists win.'

Not only does this provide a solid reason for modifying my behaviour, but it also means that I'm no longer battling myself: it's now me against them, instead of me against me. 

I've heard of sufferers anthropomorphising their OCD as a means of fighting back, treating it as a real-life bully and sometimes even giving it a name, but I've never tried that trick myself. Directing my resistance at the terrorists - an actual third party - seems to have had the same effect.

Nevertheless, I'm still sometimes stumped as to the right way to do things. 

In my bathroom, for example, I started plonking toiletries on the shelf without arranging them, initially choosing not to look at what I'd done - or, rather, not done - but just walk away.

I began to worry, though, that I was simply avoiding the 'mess' rather than facing it and dealing with the resulting anxiety, which is the tenet of exposure and response prevention, the recommended treatment for OCD. 

So I decided to continue putting things down without any thought, but then deliberately look at them. However, I quickly realised that this wasn't the correct approach either, when considered in the context of my OCD-free twin. Would anybody who didn't have the condition stand looking at something after they'd put it down? Of course not!

Besides, it's impossible to place items with millimetre precision by accident, so even if I don't look, I know that I'm leaving things in what I would consider disarray. While I might not know exactly how bad that disarray is, I can visualise it and that alone causes me discomfort.

My twin is still silent in some situations, and that's where Veale and Willson recommend the 'survey' technique: asking your family and friends what they do. So, if I suddenly start quizzing you about how you put your socks away, please don't be perturbed, it's all in a good cause!