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.