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.


Anonymous said...

This resonates with my own experiences. I think that, thanks to stigma/lack of awareness, an awful lot of people have undiagnosed mental health issues. I've heard mental health professionals talk about - and in some cases seen with my own eyes - people (often parents) who dismiss others' (often their children's) mental health concerns as being 'nothing to worry about' despite or rather because they themselves suffer with the same problems! It seems 'normal' to them because they've lived with it for so long without 'making a fuss'.

Helen Barbour said...

Hi Ruth,it's really interesting that you should say that about the parent/children scenario. My dad has always been a worrier, so for me being anxious is just a normal way of life! It was only in his 60s that he began having panic attacks, which finally drove him to seek medical help - which was very hard for a man of his generation to do. He admitted that he'd have much preferred to be battling a physical illness than a mental one.