17 December 2016

Good enough

'Her life's ambition is to figure out what "good enough" means' - so says my author biography. It's a goal I've been reflecting on a lot recently, as the year hurtles to an end and I look back on what I have - and haven't - achieved in 2016.

The trouble with being a perfectionist is that, whatever you accomplish, it never seems to be enough. I'm not ambitious in terms of career or money, but I am incredibly driven in other ways and give my all to any project I undertake.

So, when I brought out my novel, it wasn't in the pursuit of fame or fortune, but to share my writing and my experience of mental health issues - albeit entirely fictionalised. In fact, I doubt I'll ever break even from my publishing journey! Especially given the way this year has panned out...

In January, I found myself unemployed after the conclusion of a temporary contract, but began a new part-time job in mid-April. The salary wasn't enough to manage on, but I planned to top it up with an unused redundancy payment and review my position when that ran out. 

Time was more important to me than money: I intended to devote my two days off mid-week to promoting my book and giving talks about living with OCD and anxiety. Mental health advocacy has become very important to me and is vital to raising awareness and reducing stigma.

Except, four months later, life intervened. Since August, my sister and I have devoted most of our spare time to supporting our parents, as a result of their declining health. For every item we tick off our 'to do' list, another two replace it, and there is no end in sight to the constant problem-solving. In spite of my wish to do whatever it takes to help my parents, it has been frustrating to have to put my own life and plans on hold

Feeling particularly gloomy one day, I decided to review my writing year up to August, to establish exactly what I had achieved. Amongst other things, I have:

  • Written 23 blog posts, totalling more than 12k words.
  • Given two author talks in local libraries and three about mental health for Barnet Council staff.
  • Delivered a 2-hour course on self-publishing at a writing conference - my first tutoring experience.
  • Got my book into four libraries in Barnet.
  • Recorded an interview for Barnet TV.
  • And secured an indieBRAG medallion award for my book and seven great reviews from book bloggers.

At the end of my talk at North Finchley Library
And I don't think I've done enough?! I need to give myself a break.

I heard a quote once along the lines of 'When you die, there will still be things to do in your in-tray.' In other words, stop trying to do it all. I have nearly two weeks off over Christmas and the New Year, so what better time for me to put that advice into effect?

Wishing you all a happy and restful festive season.

* * *

My novel waiting to be shelved
at North Finchley Library
If you'd like to help kick start my advocacy work in 2017, why not buy a copy of my book for yourself, or your family and friends? - see my 'Novel' page for purchasing options. And don't forget, a book is not just for Christmas! 

Please do also post a review, on whichever is your preferred forum - Amazon, Goodreads etc - to help spread the word.

You can check out all my news from 2016 here.

17 November 2016

Eye strain

Occasionally I'm stricken by health anxiety, though this rarely slides into fully-blown hypochondria - fortunately for both me and my doctor! I only ever seek help for actual, rather than imagined, symptoms, and usually manage to stop obsessing about them as soon as a medical professional has provided reassurance or a diagnosis. It's the uncertainty of not knowing that I can't stand.

So, when I noticed an intermittent blurry patch in my left eye, I immediately booked a check-up at my opticians. This blurriness coincided with the appearance of a larger than usual 'floater' in that eye and I thought they might be connected - floaters are lines or spots that drift across your vision, caused by tiny bits of debris floating about in the vitreous humour and casting shadows on the retina.

I fully expected the optician to tell me that there was nothing wrong, however, at the end of the examination, she said, 'Well, I can see a white patch on the retina, but I don't know if it's new or if you've always had it. It might be a retinal tear.'

Image courtesy of Pixabay
My heart pounded.

'I'll give you a letter to take to the hospital today,' she continued.

'Today!' That must mean it was really bad.

'Or tomorrow,' she said. 'This weekend, anyway.'

Maybe not really bad, but definitely not good.

As instructed, I set off straightaway to make the Tube trip into central London, to the walk-in centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Amazingly, the place was heaving. It looked as if half of Greater London had gone to the opticians that afternoon and been despatched for further tests. The electronic information board provided updates as to how many were in the final waiting area - always around 21 or 22 - and, at 8.35pm, stated that 188 people had been seen that day.

It was some small consolation that I wasn't the only one whose Saturday had been ruined and at least I was spared the 4 hour 58 minute wait that the board threatened when I arrived.

For the whole 3 hours that I was there, however, my heart was racing with anxiety as to what might be wrong. With everything that has been going on with my family of late, I couldn't afford downtime for an operation. And what if it was worse than that? - what if I had a condition leading to sight loss?

With no one to talk to and nothing to distract me, all I could do was worry.

Finally, though, I was summoned in to see the consultant and, less than five minutes later, given the all-clear. I practically danced home, in spite of my exhaustion.

The experience helped me to put things in perspective. Yes, I am under huge stress at the moment, but at least I have good health and am in a position to support my parents.

I often talk in my blog posts about 'lessons learned' and one of my followers recently asked if I retain those lessons. The sad truth is that, no, I don't. Before long, I inevitably find something else to worry about. 

Perhaps, then, it's a good thing that life keeps throwing me curveballs - it seems I need these regular wake-up calls to remind me just how lucky I really am.

20 October 2016

Catalogue of woes

A month on from writing about my stress over my parents' declining health, it's become apparent that the last few weeks have turned my situation into a microcosm of this blog.

It's as if I'd received the secret instruction 'Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to demonstrate to your readers as many of your issues as you can in as short a space of time as possible.'

Firstly, and almost inevitably, there has been an exacerbation of my OCD, as any distressing event is liable to have this effect. Increasing my ordering compulsions creates an illusion of certainty and control in largely uncertain and uncontrollable circumstances. 

Coming a close second is a flare-up of my generalised anxiety. These days, my body seems to be in a state of almost constant 'fight or flight'. Not only is my mind buzzing with worry, but I'm also experiencing the classic physical symptoms - mainly heart palpitations, a churning stomach and a sporadic loss of appetite. 

Even my tendency towards obsessive-compulsive spartanism - the opposite of hoarding - has reared its head again. When I cleaned my flat last week, it was all I could do not to throw away a whole heap of stuff in the process. I always find getting rid of things cleansing: it's as if I'm making space in my brain as well as my home. Fortunately I managed to avoid binning anything important.

Image courtesy of artur84/

Worst of all, however, has been the escalation of my insomnia. Even if I get to sleep quickly, the moment I wake in the night, my heart is racing. Before my mind has time to pick a worry to focus on, my body is on the case - it knows I'm anxious even when I'm asleep, which is reflected in the troubling dreams that make any rest I do get unrefreshing. Once awake, it can be up to an hour before I settle again. Multiply that by two or three times a night and it's no wonder I spend my days feeling like a zombie.

In addition, I've always had a propensity to tears - I've written previously about how some of us are 'highly sensitive people' - and tiredness only makes me more fragile. Barely a day goes by now when I don't cry at least once. 

The only respite from the mess in my head has been the couple of occasions when I've drunk slightly too much wine and inadvertently achieved a pleasant state of relaxation. However, I know self-medication is no solution. In a post last year, I expressed my concerns about that 'treatment' and, once again, I find myself having to make a conscious effort not to tread that path.

I have, at least, rediscovered sudoku puzzles, which I found to be a great distraction earlier this year, but had stopped doing. 

But puzzles are not enough. 

Reflecting on all of this, I've realised that I can't afford to wait for the cognitive behavioural therapy I've been promised, as that's likely to be at least three months away. I'll end up having a full-scale breakdown without some earlier intervention. 

So I'm considering paying privately for neuro-linguistic programming and/or hynotherapy sessions and also plan to seek - somewhat reluctantly - a prescription for sleeping pills.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear if any of these options have helped those of you who've experienced similar issues?

21 September 2016

Going pro

Image courtesy of cbenjasuwan/
A couple of weeks ago, I did something that I haven't done in decades: I sought professional help for my mental health issues - specifically, my generalised anxiety.

Those of you who regularly read my blog will know two things about me. The first is that, every now and again, I experience a period of exceptionally high anxiety, more often than not over some anticipated problem, rather than an actual crisis.

The second is that I've got by with little professional help - just one short course of treatment from an occupational therapist more than 20 years ago, when my OCD first took hold.

Although I've read a lot of books and online resources, I've never properly tackled my anxiety. My default approach is to grit my teeth and drag myself through difficult times hour by hour, managing to hang on only because I know I've survived them before.

The reason I'm seeking help now is that there's no end in sight to my current stress, as the cause is my parents' declining health and corresponding difficulty in managing on their own. 

My sister lives half an hour's drive away from them, so does what she can on the ground, while I - being 100+ miles away - have tried to make myself useful with research on care options, funding, Power of Attorney and so on. It's a steep learning curve, but being proactive and getting informed creates an illusion of control amidst all the worry, sadness and frustration.

Tearfully telling a friend about it all, I said 'I feel such a wuss. I mean, everybody goes through this, don't they?' 'Yes,' she said, 'but everybody goes through it with tears and anxiety.' A friend once again being kinder to me than I am to myself. 

She's right, of course, just because everybody goes through it, doesn't make it any easier at an individual level. In the same way, everybody experiences bereavement, but that doesn't make your own losses any more bearable. 

Having closely followed this year's Paralympics, it occurs to me that, likewise, you wouldn't expect somebody who had lost an arm in an accident to take it in their stride just because millions of other people are amputees!

When I found myself wailing to another friend 'I can't imagine ever feeling happy or relaxed again', I realised that I needed to do something; I had to arm myself with some proper tools to cope.

After my GP had listened to my woes and my response to them - or, at least, what she could hear of it all through the sniffing and the crying - she said, 'I had another patient in almost exactly the same position and cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT] really helped'. I left the surgery with a self-referral form for the Mind Matters Barnet service.

The form is largely taken up by an Anxiety and Depression Questionnaire, which asks how often you feel, for example, 'Little interest or pleasure in doing things' and 'Down, depressed, or hopeless'. I scored a lot of 3s, ie 'Nearly every day'. 

A telephone assessment quickly followed, once again accompanied, on my part, by sniffing and crying that rendered me almost incoherent at times. A few days later, I was told that I had been approved for CBT...but that there was a four month waiting list.

So, in the meantime, it's back to the teeth-gritting and getting through life hour by hour - with just the tiniest of lights visible at the end of the tunnel.

17 August 2016

Anxiety on wheels

Driving is one of those apparently straightforward day-to-day activities that causes me anxiety for a whole host of reasons.

My biggest fear is the perhaps rather obvious one of being involved in a crash, though this generally only rears its head when I'm on roads where high speeds are permitted. 

The main issue is my lack of control over the vehicles around me - I'm worried not only about other drivers' competence (or lack thereof), but also the risk of mechanical failure that might send tonnes of metal hurtling into my path.

It doesn't help that my car - a striking copper-coloured Micra - is nearly 19-years-old and only has a 1 litre engine. I can't even overtake speedily, let alone nip out of the way of trouble.

Up until the beginning of this month, I hadn't driven on a motorway in more than 18 months, although I had often been on busy - sometimes 3-lane - A roads. This was due to circumstance, rather than avoidance, but I was starting to worry that I would lose my nerve completely, if I didn't get in some practice.

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As it happened, I had to travel to the Midlands a couple of weeks ago and I was nervous as I set off on my journey of 100 miles or so up the M1.

Once in the flow of fast-moving traffic, I was plagued by visions of doom. I imagined every high-sided lorry that passed toppling onto my car and crushing me. I expected a tyre to blow out, or my engine to fail, at any moment. And every time the traffic slowed and began to bunch up, I envisioned a multi-vehicle pile-up.

Also, I couldn't help thinking of the neighbour whose car was written off, when a wheel came off a lorry on the opposite carriageway and bounced across the barrier onto her car bonnet. She and her passengers escaped with minor injuries, but it could have been a different story, had the wheel landed a split second later, on the roof.

It's this kind of unpredictability that those of us with OCD find hard to deal with. We seek comfort in compulsions that give a sense of control and seem to establish a degree of certainty over our environment and our lives. Certainty is an unachievable target, however, and trying to carry out compulsions while driving is likely to be counterproductive!

Other anxieties also come into play when I'm driving. Every time I smell smoke or burning, I assume it's a problem with my car. The same goes for any unusual noise. A couple of days ago, as I parked up, I noticed that my engine was 'roaring' - only to get out of the car and realise the sound was coming from a motorbike further up the road.

As an anxiety sufferer, my senses are on permanent high alert for problems, whatever the situation, but I've become even more nervous about my car, now that it's so old. My recent journey 'up north' has, at least, helped me to regain some degree of confidence on motorways. 

And I very much appreciate the convenience and freedom that driving affords me. Those benefits more than make up for all the associated anxieties: as is so often the case, facing your fears definitely has its rewards.

20 July 2016


Image courtesy of blackzheep/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
While I wouldn't wish OCD on anybody, if I see someone experiencing similar anxieties and responses in a non-OCD context, I welcome this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the condition by drawing parallels to 'normal' life.

Take, for instance, reaction to the recent EU referendum. 

I live in London, where the vote was in favour of 'Remain', and everybody I know was devastated by the result. The ensuing uncertainty about this nation's future was - and still is - the cause of most people's distress. And uncertainty is something that those with OCD find difficult, if not impossible, to tolerate. 

It's that inability to tolerate the unknown that leads to compulsions such as excessive hand-washing, to avoid contamination and illness, or repeatedly checking the front door is locked, to prevent a burglary. 

The disorder causes a myriad of other less well-known behaviours, many of which appear utterly illogical, having no basis in common sense or practicality. We all wash for sanitary reasons and lock up for security, but most of us don't, for example, feel compelled to perform actions a set number of times.

So how does all of this translate to the EU referendum result? 

In the immediate aftermath, the government's silence as to the way forward fuelled anxieties. One colleague repeatedly said - almost wailed - 'What's the plan? Why hasn't anybody told us what they're going to do?' 

A week or so after the result, she circulated an email with a link to a petition to 'Prosecute Nigel Farage* under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006'. Now clearly this petition wasn't going to provide clarity as to our future, but as she said 'I know there are so many [petitions] at the moment. I think signing them might be helping my feelings of helplessness.'

She wasn't the only one. People across the country have been driven to take action - any kind of action - to regain some sense of control. The uncertainty is just too great to sit idly by waiting for something to happen.

There's a very clear parallel between how all of these people are feeling and reacting in the wake of the referendum and how those with OCD feel and react on a day to day basis.

And so how was I faring in all of this? - surprisingly well, as it turned out.

My ordering compulsions are often triggered by distressing events on the world stage and I was certainly upset by the result. However, within a few days, I had resigned myself to it, concluding that there was little I could do to change things. 

I admit, I was quite surprised by this response, as I frequently worry about things I can't change. When I reflected on it, though, I realised that those anxieties are generally about situations where I can, at least, imagine the possible outcomes and consequences, such as, say, my car passing or failing its MOT.

In relation to 'Brexit', I don't know what all of the repercussions will be and, as a result, there's no clear focus for my anxiety. The uncertainty is just so huge that it's beyond comprehension and so - perhaps strangely - I've been able to stop worrying about it.

If you also now feel helpless and anxious in the face of an uncertain future, I'd ask you to spare a thought for those of us who live with that constant tyranny. It's really no fun at all, is it?

* * *

*Former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who fought for the country to leave the EU for years.

16 June 2016

Madam Speaker

Public speaking is an activity that fills many people with dread, not just those of an anxious nature. My own fear has its origins in an incident that took place when I was 17-years-old. 

At my secondary school, the upper sixth-form pupils had to take it in turns to read a bible passage at the lower school assembly. This meant joining the head teacher up on the stage, in front of hundreds of 11 to 14-year-olds. As a teenager, I was an introvert and the last thing I wanted was to be centre of attention. 

We were given no guidance as to how to deal with this challenge and by the time I stood up to deliver my reading, my heart was racing; my voice trembled so much that I was almost unintelligible. That experience was a poor foundation for handling similar situations in the future.

So intense is my dislike of speaking in public that I even avoid asking questions in group settings, unless I absolutely have to. Then I become so dizzy with nerves that I barely register the answer anyway.

I'm not much better in social environments. While I love to chat and to make people laugh, I can only cope with an audience of up to three. If a lull in surrounding conversations means more than that tune in to mine, I'm instantly uncomfortable. I'd be a great stand-up comedian, if only I could hold all my gigs in a wardrobe.

However, as a writer, giving talks is a great way to raise your profile and promote your work, so it was something I had to face. Not least because I also wanted to share my experience of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, in order to raise awareness and to help address the ongoing stigma around mental health.

Image courtesy of North Finchley Library
The first couple of talks, at local libraries, were as nerve-wracking as I'd expected. I had to put my glass of water on a shelf behind me, so that nobody could see my hand shaking when I took a sip. However, they seemed to go well and I received a good reception at both.

Last month, I gave three presentations for staff at my local council, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, and was surprised to find that my anticipatory nerves had gone. By the time it came to the second, I was actively looking forward to the event.

All the usual speakers' tips had failed to calm me previously, so what had changed? My increasing familiarity with my material probably helped, but I think the key factor was the positive response to my earlier talks. Now, at least, I was going in with the confidence that my audience wouldn't be bored rigid.

At every event, I've ended up chatting to people who either have a mental health problem themselves or know somebody who does. It's rewarding to be able to steer them in the direction of appropriate resources, or just to reassure them that they're not alone.

And I'm grateful that overcoming one of my anxiety demons means I can now do more to help others tackle their issues.

19 May 2016

Solitary confinement

When my last temporary assignment finished a week before Christmas, I resolved to give myself a month off before looking for permanent work. Fortunately, I received a job offer two months later and took up a new role three weeks after that.

Altogether, then, I was at home for just under four months - and the experience nearly sent me over the edge mentally.

The downslide began soon after I signed on. In the past, I've been short-listed for almost every job I've applied for and haven't been rejected for any that I really wanted, ie post interview. Now the only response to most of my applications was resounding silence.

Understandably, my stress levels rose, in spite of the fact that I had sufficient funds to tide me over for several months. My main concern was that my age might have catapulted me onto the employment shelf. And so long as I was out of work, I felt in limbo and unable to move on with the next phase of my life, which was immensely frustrating.

As the weeks passed, all sorts of old anxieties resurfaced - and were joined by new ones on a daily basis. I ricocheted from one obsessive thought to another with no let-up. People talk about losing their minds and that was exactly how it felt. It seemed as if mine had become a separate entity, with my thoughts running amok like a bunch of crazed Gremlins.

This period coincided with a sudden growth in my boyfriend's pet-sitting and dog-walking business, which meant he was working seven days a week. We live in different parts of London, so our time together dwindled almost to vanishing point.

Not only had I lost my work routine, but also my weekend one, and, as a result, all the associated people contact. I didn't see much of my friends, either, as I felt unable to relax and socialise when I didn't have a job. Often days went by when my only face-to-face human contact was with supermarket cashiers - and with Aldi's high-speed service, even that was fleeting.

I became aware that being home alone so much was contributing to my mental decline; I simply had too much time to think. Although I've always been happy in my own company, and never short of projects to occupy me (even when not job-hunting), I began to feel very isolated.

I'm now in the sixth week of my new part-time position, which means I'm out of the house for at least three days a week, which has definitely improved my mental state. In addition, learning new processes has occupied my brain to the extent that there's no room for my usual anxieties - at least, not while I'm at work.

Isolation is often a feature of mental health conditions and my recent experience has shown me how that isolation can actually make such conditions worse.

Image courtesy of sakhorn38/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Of course, it takes great effort and courage to break out of that situation, especially if you suffer from, say, depression or social anxiety. 

However, whether that break-out means securing a job, taking up a volunteering role, or just arranging to see a friend for coffee, the pay-off is definitely worth it.

4 May 2016

We've got talent

I spent a couple of months unemployed earlier this year and became very despondent at the initial lack of response to my job applications.

On reflection, it's likely that this was because I was targeting administrative positions in schools, for which competition is fierce and where preference is, naturally, given to those with past experience in that environment. 

My job centre advisor, however, asked me if I thought age discrimination was at play. Although that hadn't occurred to me, I had been speculating as to whether my mental health status was to blame.

I mention both my blog and my novel on my CV and in applications, as I feel my writing achievements demonstrate some good skills and personal qualities. Anybody checking out my website or my book would quickly get an insight into my 'issues'.

Eventually, I began receiving invitations to interview and I made reference to having OCD at all three that I attended; later I wondered if that contributed to the first two rejections. However, these were also for school jobs and feedback on one second place outcome was that it was due to my lack of experience within education.

It would, in fact, be hard for me to conceal the truth of my situation. An internet search of my name - a common practice amongst employers these days - would soon throw up the same information as I choose to share.

Given my relatively high profile online, an employer would inevitably find out about my background sooner or later, and if they don't like it, then we're probably not the right fit for each other anyway.

All kinds of health conditions can lead to talented people being overlooked, as the BBC programme Employable Me demonstrated. This three-part documentary series focussed on five men and one woman, who all had disorders that were impossible to hide face to face: Tourette syndrome, autism and Asperger syndrome, which is a form of autism.

For these individuals, job-hunting had proved a soul-destroying experience and most had failed ever to secure an interview. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
Yet tests revealed they all had astonishing talents that could easily be put to good use in the right setting. Happily there was a positive outcome for each of them, either in terms of identifying a suitable career direction or in finding work.

Many of us have great skills to offer because our brains are wired differently, whether these skills are directly related to our condition or not. 

In my case, I'm extremely well organised and have an excellent eye for detail, which may have developed as a result of my OCD - which is focussed on order and symmetry - or vice versa. Either way, these abilities are part and parcel of my slightly unusual make-up.

For others, simply experiencing a mental illness - or any other challenging health condition - gives them a greater empathy for their fellow human beings, which can be helpful in a variety of work environments.

Employers will never know what they're missing unless they give a chance to those of us who are a little different.

4 April 2016

A new beginning

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
This post is another landmark one for me, as it heralds not just an anniversary, but also the end of an era and a new beginning. 

On 8 April 2013, I launched The Reluctant Perfectionist with a piece called 'Straighten It Like Beckham' and resolved to publish an article every Monday from then on. Today rounds off three years of weekly posts, delivered through life's rain, shine and sometimes boulder-sized hailstones.

Over the years, I've written not only about OCD, anxiety and perfectionism, as I'd intended, but a whole host of other conditions, such as body dysmorphic disorder, compulsive skin picking, spartanism and misophonia. I've also discussed the impact of world events, such as the Paris terror attacks, and covered television documentaries and reality shows featuring mental health.

Writing these pieces has been a reflective process, which has taught me a lot about myself and my behaviours, as well as providing me with the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world who are undergoing similar experiences.

During this time, it's been great to see the profile of mental health being raised, particularly in the political arena, with movements like the Equality for Mental Health campaign - led by MP Norman Lamb - gaining a huge amount of support. 

Having reached this milestone, I've made the difficult decision to stop posting weekly. My perfectionist nature wants me to keep going - and going and going - but I know that the time will inevitably come when I miss my target for reasons beyond my control. I prefer to stop while I have both an unbroken record and three complete years of posts under my belt. It feels so much tidier, and more satisfying, than giving up after, say, three years, four months and two weeks.

So, 157 posts and 81,382 words on - a novel's worth, in fact! - it's time for a change.

In future, I plan to post at least once a month, but not on a set day or week - quite a radical departure for someone like me, who loves routine and order and structure. It feels a little scary, but also liberating. If you want to be sure never to miss a post, you can sign up to receive these by email - see the top of the menu bar to the right.

I'll be keeping the other pages of my website up-to-date, so look out for future events and book news. And if you're an individual wanting information, or an organisation or member of the press seeking an interview or a guest post/article, please do contact me at helenbarbourblog@gmail.com.

I toyed with the idea of giving up blogging altogether, but I know I'll have information and stories to share with you in the future and I wouldn't want to 'retire' and then, like some ageing rock star, make a shuffling and embarrassed comeback.

The timing is perfect for another reason: I have finally found a new part-time job, which I begin next week, so it's an ideal moment to redirect my energies into promoting my novel and securing more paid writing work.

Wish me luck - and I'll see you in May!

* * *

You can use the 'Search this blog' facility in the menu bar to the right to find posts on any of the topics mentioned above.

28 March 2016

Nothing personal

One factor that undoubtedly exacerbates my anxiety and stress levels is that I'm inclined to take negative experiences personally, even when these affect a far wider audience.

Let's say, for example, that I plan to attend an open-air theatre performance. Ahead of this, I'll obsessively check the forecast, fearful of bad weather spoiling the event. And, sure enough, it pours down on the day in question - which is no surprise really, given that rain is the default meteorological condition on our sodden little island.

Nevertheless, I'll moan to myself about why this had to happen today of all days, as I perch on my protective plastic bag and huddle under an umbrella. Why did my evening have to be ruined like this?

My evening - as if Mother Nature had specifically targeted me. Never mind the actors on stage exposed to the elements or the rest of the audience shivering in the damp and cold; I'm the only one who's really suffering. Or so it seems. 

Image courtesy of Aduldej/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One of my all-time favourite films is The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, the unwitting star of a reality show that has tracked his life since birth. Unbeknownst to him, he's living on a massive studio set, surrounded by actors, and everything that happens in the 'town' of Seahaven Island revolves around him.

I sometimes seem to labour under a similar illusion that everything revolves around me. What do I really imagine, though? - that the equivalent of The Truman Show's producer, Christof, is orchestrating my life down to the last raindrop? That would be a strange view to hold, considering I have no religion and don't believe in fate.

I only came to the realisation of this selfish, inward-looking approach when I got caught in a traffic jam on the way to visit my parents a couple of years ago. 'Not again,' I thought, as my stress levels began to rise. 'Why does this always happen to me?' 

With nothing else to distract me, I began scanning the other cars on the motorway. As I looked at the occupants of those cars, I registered that this wasn't just happening to me, it was happening to thousands of other people: there were hundreds of vehicles both in front of and behind mine.

And many of these people were undoubtedly in a far worse predicament than I was: perhaps travelling with a baby or an elderly and infirm relative, or with a plane to catch or a wedding to get to. Suddenly I felt stupid for taking this unexpected delay so personally. 

In spite of that epiphany, I still frequently fail to see the bigger picture when faced with an unfortunate turn of events. Those of us of an anxious disposition spend so much time inside our own heads that it can be hard to look outward. Hard, put simply, to prevent that anxiety from making us utterly self-centred. 

All I really need to remember is that there are more than 7 billion people on this planet - it is categorically not all about me, me, me.

* * *

I love this clip from The Truman Show, in which the studio's rain machine briefly malfunctions and the rain falls only on Truman.

21 March 2016

Uncertain times

Back in January, I found myself looking for a new job for the first time in more than 7 years, which proved to be a task with special challenges for a perfectionist with obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

The first was fighting the temptation to spend an inordinate amount of time on every application. Yes, these required care and attention if I were to stand a chance of being short-listed for interview. No, it should not take two days to complete each one - could not, in fact, given that I was actually unemployed and needed to pursue as many opportunities as possible.

Once I'd despatched an application, the next difficulty was the waiting. Many employers don't respond unless you're short-listed, but how do you know when to give up hope? Most don't indicate time frames for their recruitment process and, even when they do, these often slip, so it's difficult to know where you stand.

OCD is a condition characterised by a need for certainty, so I found this indefinite waiting hard to tolerate. And never mind messing with my head, it messed with my filing systems, too - how could I be sure when to move the related documentation from the 'Current' sub-folder to the 'Unsuccessful' one? 

Even if employers do tell you 'Thanks, but no thanks', they don't have time to explain why, which becomes a new grating uncertainty.

Calls to interview can create problems, too, as these sometimes come at very short notice. I was summoned to my first with less than 24 hours' warning, leaving me with a single afternoon and evening to review the entire internet and prepare an answer for every conceivable question they might ask. Because, of course, that's what the perfectionist in me dictated I should do.  

Fortunately, three websites into my research, I realised that there was a lot of commonality across the different lists of 'Top 10 Interview Questions', with only a few rogue entries. Mind you, these included the following: 'If you were an animal, what kind would you be?' Great, now they expect an indecisive perfectionist to make a choice from the entire animal kingdom. 

Image courtesy of M - Pics/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In the end, I plonked for a chimp, because they're smart, inquisitive and playful - and then remembered a natural history programme I'd seen in which a group of chimps hunted down a smaller monkey and tore it apart limb from limb. What might that say about me? I'd run out of time to worry.

Post-interview is no better.

Many people who suffer from OCD go over and over conversations in their head, analysing, for example, if they might have upset somebody, or if they could have expressed themselves better. Interviews are rocket fuel for this kind of rumination...especially when you then find out you didn't get the job.

You can't help wondering if the vague reason they give you - 'Another candidate had more experience' - is true or whether you somehow messed up. And so you ruminate on and on.

Happily, since first drafting this post, I've secured a position - as of three days ago, actually - which meant changing all the verbs from the present to the past tense in this final version! A new job brings new uncertainties, of course, but right now I'm just relieved to be released from the particular traumas of job hunting.

14 March 2016

Door to stress

Although I've lived with anxiety all my life, sometimes I surprise even myself with what I find to stress about. The latest unlikely focus for my concern was the door between my living room and kitchen.

As I was getting ready for bed, at around midnight, I noticed that the screws securing the handle plate to the wood were loose. The repair could have waited until the morning, but I hate leaving jobs undone, so fished a screwdriver out from under the sink.

Once I'd tightened the screws, I turned the handle to test it...only to discover it was emitting a horrible grinding noise. I loosened the screws a little, but it made no difference; the internal mechanism sounded as if it were about to seize up. 

My mind raced ahead to worst-case scenario: the door would jam shut and I'd have to call someone in to repair it, which would cost a fortune. They were bound to make an mess and they'd have to replace the handle with one that didn't match the rest. These wild imaginings did have some grounds, mind you: I know of two people who have had internal doors become stuck shut.
Image courtesy of nattavut/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The only way I might avoid all of that inconvenience was to tackle it myself - and immediately. Back I went under the sink for a can of WD40 spray: 'an answer for every challenge' say the manufacturers, though opinions seem to differ as to appropriate uses, so don't try this at home.

After much experimentation - and dripping and mopping up with copious amounts of kitchen paper - I managed to get enough of the product inside to loosen the mechanism and stop that awful noise. Problem solved...except now it seemed that the handle itself was loose within the plate. Was this a new issue or had it always been like that?

It was already half past midnight, making this an excellent time to go around my flat and test how wobbly the other door handles were, for comparison's sake. What I established was that a) No, they weren't, so there must be something wrong with the kitchen one, but b) Two of them were also stiff to turn. I naturally concluded that they were about to seize up, too.

There's something about anxiety that can create this domino effect; the more you seek reassurance, the more you find to worry about. And once anxiety gets a grip, there's just no reasoning with myself.

At this point, though, a modicum of sanity did prevail. I couldn't face spraying all of the door handles at this late hour, with the attendant dripping and mopping up. Besides, the resulting stink of WD-40 would hardly be conducive to a pleasant night's sleep.

To be on the safe side, I left every door ajar, for fear they would all somehow jam shut overnight, and re-located one set of screwdrivers to the hall, in case of future problems. 

The next day I sprayed inside all of the handles and now every one turns beautifully. 
This all happened recently, however, and I haven't yet dispelled this particular anxiety. I still open and close the doors in nervous anticipation of something going wrong...and, yes, the spare screwdrivers are still in the hall!

7 March 2016

Measuring up

In the last few months, I've given an author talk at a couple of my local libraries. This talk is in two parts: the first about how and why I wrote my novel, and the second about OCD and my personal experience of the condition.

During the latter section, I use an A3-sized version of the photo below to demonstrate what I mean by ordering. This shows one of my kitchen cupboard shelves and is an example of how it might look at any given time - the exact contents vary from day to day.

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
At the last event, this prompted some rather challenging questions.

As soon as I held up the sheet, a woman at the back called out 'What's wrong with that?' The challenge was not so much in what she said, as how she said it: her tone was definitely tetchy. If I'd been a comedian, I'd have called it a heckle.

I responded indirectly by explaining my very precise rules for arranging such items: the labels must face forward, be centred and lined up vertically, and the products must be centred to each other from front to back.

As I told the audience, being able to identify the contents of these containers is practical; positioning them with millimetre precision isn't - it's pointless and time-consuming.

My new friend wasn't satisfied. 'Do you use a ruler?' she asked. The question could have been intended as a joke, but, again, I didn't get that sense from her tone.

'No, but there's an idea!' I said lightly, to deflect any implied criticism. In fact, I don't need a ruler, as compulsions are all about what 'feels right' and that internal measure is more accurate than any physical tool.

To further lighten the mood, I commented that I could see from this photo that some things were actually a little off-centre and not up to my usual standards. In fact, that's actually hard to judge from this shot: as the picture was taken head on, the items to the left and right appear to be on a diagonal.

'Yes, they are!' my friend agreed, with an air that somehow combined both reproach and smugness. By now, I really felt as though she were questioning my credentials as an OCD sufferer.

She concluded by asking 'Do you use a spirit level?' Again, the answer was 'no', as most of the time I'm ordering items sitting on flat surfaces.

Since then, I've reflected on this exchange and realise that I may have misjudged my inquisitor. Although I felt under attack, her comments could just as easily have been interpreted as defensive.

She may well have OCD herself, perhaps undiagnosed, so the fact that I was attributing my behaviours to a mental illness - and openly acknowledging how ridiculous they were - could have been quite challenging to her.

She left before I could speak to her one to one, but I do hope, if my suspicions are correct, that she gets help - and manages to resist the lure of the ruler and spirit level.

29 February 2016


The more I watch the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, the more I find myself relating to Dr Sheldon Cooper's quirks.

For those who aren't familiar with the show, it focusses on the lives of four scientist friends - including Sheldon - who are all afflicted by varying degrees of social inadequacy. Although his behaviours are never named, he displays not only obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but also traits common to those on the autistic spectrum.

One episode that I particularly identify with is The Werewolf Transformation, which is about his adherence to routine. This all unravels when his regular barber is taken ill and is unavailable to give him his scheduled haircut.

What upsets Sheldon most is that his routines are designed to prevent a descent into chaos, yet this disruption to his plans doesn't have any dire consequences. 

'I have spent my whole life trying to bring order to the universe, by carefully planning every moment of every day,' he tells his friend, Penny. Now, he fears, he has been wasting his time.

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
To a degree, of course, we all find routines comforting and it can be unsettling when they break down, whether they were seemingly ordinary activities or something rather more special. 

My boyfriend and I used to celebrate Bonfire Night with the same friends every year, enjoying drinks, dinner and a firework display in their garden. Until the year we woke in the early hours of the following morning to find their neighbours' shed on fire. 

Although the neighbours blamed the electrics, our guilt-ridden hostess attributed the blaze to one of our rockets and swore never to light another firework - and that was it, the sudden death of a fun-filled tradition that I'd thought we would carry on forever.

It may not even be our own routines that we miss when they change. I've lived in my flat for 21 years and so have become accustomed to my neighbour's patterns of behaviour and have been quite upset when various people have moved on.

When the elderly couple opposite left, oh, how I missed their over-the-top Christmas lights that signalled the start of the festive season and welcomed me home like a beacon on dark December evenings. When the new residents, in turn, moved out, I missed their cat for weeks afterwards - I was so used to seeing it in the living room window.

There is still the comfort of the familiar all around, however, such the barking of a neighbour's excitable dog as she heads out for her evening walk and the jangle of the rag and bone man's bell as he drives down our street every Monday morning. 

And now I have a new neighbour across the road, who is a night owl like me - probably because he's an astrophysicist. We've never spoken, but I feel a strange companionship when I look over and see him working at his computer late at night. 

Perhaps, in the end, that's why these routines are so significant: they don't just provide stability in our lives, but also a connection to the world around us. Even those that seem mundane or peripheral to our existence play their part, though you may not realise how important they were until they're gone.