Wednesday, 12 March 2014

My Own Version of Normal.

There has been a lot of dedicated time for discussion about mental health issues in the media recently. From #timetotalk day at the beginning of February, to Eating Disorders Awareness Week a couple of weeks ago. Appropriately for me, there was also an OCD week of action recently. OCD is something I rarely talk about outside the comfort of my own home/CBT session, but its presence in my life is becoming more noticeable as I see people rising to address mental health issues via social media, and I feel I owe it to myself as well as any other OCD sufferers out there to acknowledge OCD for what it is, which is probably way more than most people think it is. According to the OCD week of action is was "time to act", but in my case I've been acting (knowingly) for more than 12 years, and I realised that it's probably time to stop acting. Contrary to the usual mantra, it may, finally, be time to stop acting and start talking, so here we go.

I don't feel any need to 'come out' about my OCD - no reason to apologise or confess anything in particular. Those who matter to me never ask me to, and never question why I behave the way I do. It's not something I've purposely hidden, but have instead come to keep sealed under an ever-tightening lid of reflexive excuses. After all, it's not something that arrives easily into conversation, and while in retrospect I wish I'd had the guts to say 'it might seem like I'm a bit weird but actually it's OCD' to every new friend I've made over the years, somehow that doesn't quite work in reality. I know that to a large extent it's down to the endless stereotypes of neatness, checking the front door twice, using hand sanitizer, and so on, and partly down to the trivialization of the condition by so many people who self-define as being 'OCD-ish' because they like to iron their shirts in a certain way. Anyway, it's obvious that the general public's idea of OCD is completely misconstrued, so maybe it's time to explain.

OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. According to
intensely negative, repetitive and intrusive thoughts, combined with a chronic feeling of doubt or danger (obsessions). In order to quell the thought or quieten the anxiety, they will often repeat an action, again and again (compulsions).
I would also use the word 'irrational' here. Often intensely, ridiculously irrational but perfectly sensible and obvious to the obsessive compulsive person. There is nothing obsessive, compulsive or indeed irrational about washing hands before eating. I think that actually comes under 'good personal hygiene'.

As this is a condition that is very much grounded in behaviours, OCD symptoms are unlike the symptoms of many other mental health issues because they are (often) visible. You need to look closely, but they are there. It has been my preoccupation over the past 12 years to make them as invisible as possible, and while in some ways this has been a therapy in itself, it's also caused a whole load of compulsive behaviours to stay locked up as habits and reflexes. I should add here that at the moment I'm more on top of these habits and behaviours than I have been in a long time - some days I'm not even aware of the presence of an OCD in my life, and I know that this makes me one of the lucky ones. But when I think back over time and how the behaviours that I see as 'mine' have mutated, largely alongside the periods of life that have been the most difficult, I'm generally pretty amazed by the way this thing has taken hold of me. Strangest of all, some of the things that I could never have faced back in the early days of my OCD diagnosis are perfectly fine for me now, while back then I was able to do things that I wouldn't dream of doing now. And when I see other people doing those things (which I do, every single hour of every single day), my insides recoil in horror and I experience just a prickle of the fear that stops me from doing them myself. Weird eh? However, this also gives me hope that one day I might not be this weird at all - maybe one day I'll be able to do it all, and that would be awesome.

A little mantra that I go by is 'get out of your comfort zone'. Usually I'm referring to PhD-related activities, or to running or climbing or even trying a new kind of food or music genre, but in reality outside my comfort zone is my default setting, and it's when my comfort zone is completely out of sight that the OCD behaviours really take hold; generally during periods of high pressure, stress or upset, or when there are lots of people to deal with all at once. There are other times when I'm able to push those comfort zone boundaries as far as I can, and naturally this is during periods when I'm especially chilled out or having fun - it's the reason I can run in races (pre-marathon toilets are no one's idea of a safe environment) and that I've surprised myself so much on occasions at friends' houses when all of my OCD behaviours go out the window and I can chill out with a glass of wine. Those days are the best.

The worst thing about having OCD is that it's all-consuming; there are very rarely periods of down-time, even when I'm well within the boundaries of my comfort zone. It's a bit like being stuck in a cage, which shrinks and shrinks as anxiety increases, until the bars are squeezing in too tight and the noise is too loud and I'm pretty sure the only option is to self-combust. There have been times when I've rushed out of a shop halfway through buying something at the checkout, or thrown out large quantities of food 'just in case', or whole days when I haven't had a glass of water or something to eat, just because I was too stuck in that tightening cage to be able to grab on to anything rational to help pull me back out. It's here that I quietly recognise the very tiny number of people (n=2) who I've shared my thought-processes in detail with - one of whom has meandered slowly out of my life, and the other who has committed to putting up with me for life - and their patience and resilience in the face of these unpredictable reactions to normal life situations. Living with someone with OCD is pretty tough - walking on eggshells would be an appropriate expression - as OCD eyes and ears are constantly looking out for threats to the safe (for me) environment of home. I've trained myself not to look as Daniel hangs out the towels or empties the dishwasher, but there's still that rush of fear when I hear him going about these perfectly normal jobs without my standards being imposed on him as he does so. Imagine having to do every task yourself in order to make sure everything conforms to the rules of an OCD. Exhausting. Equally exhausting are the myriad 'normal' tasks that come with being an independent human: I could write a whole blog post on the intricacies of making a cheese sandwich with OCD.

Most people have to face their biggest fears at certain times in their lives. Some people choose to do it - climbing the Eiffel Tower and peeping over the edge of the top balcony, doing a sky dive - while others just go for it when presented with the opportunity - picking up a spider and popping it safely out of the window, stroking a dog - and then there's the awful, unavoidable things that sometimes force people to face what they're most afraid of - taking a trip on a plane, speaking in public. That feeling of relief when you face something that terrifies you and realise that you're ok, that you've survived at the end of it, is not comparable to anything else. Relief combined with pride combined with the aftershock of terror, sort of like being drunk momentarily - it's quite a good feeling, from what I can tell from my own experiences of jumping off things or peering over things or talking in front of large numbers of people. Similarly, while it's been a while now since I 'faced' door handles, and over a year since I mastered the technique of eating a tangerine without touching it with my hands, still every time I do these things (every day) I notice, and my stomach sort of flips and the cage bars rattle, and then I remember that it's ok because I've 'survived' it now hundreds of times in a row*, and then my heart and my head do a little victory dance together, and slowly those bars get a little bit further away. I call these moments small victories, comparable to jumping out of a plane time and time again, forever grateful for surviving, yet always aware that next time I might not. So then I touch the nearest chair or doorframe, just in case, and continue on my way.

If you like to laugh while learning about OCD then check out my friend Adam's stand up set, OCD Octopus!

*here I pause to tap on the coffee table, just in case