Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October, 2015

Note: this is a reposted version of something I wrote on my other blog on 12th March 2014. Most of it is still entirely accurate.
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 OCDaction.org.uk:

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.

Edit: Rose Bretécher is doing some great work raising awareness of OCD, and in a recent article criticized a hideous report on Good Morning Britain where Michelle Mone talked about how having OCD was great because it made her more organised. Rose details a list of some of the common intrusive thoughts that OCD sufferers deal with. These include intrusive thoughts about sexual violence, fears that you might want to murder or harm your child and fears that you may be terminally ill. I would also add to the list the fear that someone you love has died (every time the phone rings) and the belief that everything you touch is contaminated.

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

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

We spent a few days in the Lake District at the beginning of September. We camped in Seatoller and took the opportunity to climb Scafell Pike on the Thursday, and then headed to Keswick for some B&B luxury the next day, in time for the Lakeland Trails event on the Saturday. Even before the start of the holiday I’d been experiencing some strange (and pretty nasty) aching in my ankle, and had barely done any running in the two weeks before the event. I climbed the mountain fully aware that it might put an end to my hopes of running that weekend, and when I was able to run I did so with full acknowledgement that I wasn’t doing myself any favours. My ankle was fine for the first few miles, but 9 miles of technical trails were just about enough to make walking painful the following day.

LT Kesiwck2

Photo courtesy of James Kirby

I wasn’t surprised when my doctor told me that I’d need to stop running. What did surprise me was that I was totally ok with that. For the first time, I listened to the advice I was given knowing that I would pay it some heed and not push myself. Something about pushing myself has become old news around here – it no longer interests me, and not running turned out to be one of the most revealing (at times painfully revealing) experiences I’ve had in a while.

Not running allowed me to address all of my reasons for being afraid of not running, and in turn, allowed me to reassess all of the reasons why I run. I realised that running had become much more a part of my life than it should be; my weeks were planned around when I would run and what sort of running I wanted to do; there was a non-negotiable commitment to the plans I had made, and, well I guess I had become a bit boringThe idea of going three consecutive days without a run had become unthinkable – I ran on holiday, on days off, when I was more in need of pyjamas and pizza than exercise…every part of my life was tied to running in some way.

So, when I stopped, the first thing I noticed was relief. I was tired, and actually, I was a bit bored of running; a break was good news. The surprise here was that I didn’t frantically start rushing out to a spinning class or on daily bike rides instead: I upped my weekly swim to twice a week and, if the weather suited, went on a short bike ride at the weekend. I couldn’t really walk far (my Doc advised to avoid walking where possible), so I paid more attention to the unavoidable walks that I had to do, appreciating the time outdoors as much as I possibly could.

I also noticed that I didn’t become depressed. I had been convinced that my mental stability absolutely depended on running: nope, I was wrong. Of course, getting outside and moving is essential for good mental health, but so is coffee with friends, long morning lie-ins, quality husband time, an evening with a great book and furry cat cuddles. And, as the constant pressure on myself to get out running five times a week was no longer there, I felt in a much happier place then I’d been in a while. If anything, not running removed a huge burden from my life. Because running had become a burden; the thing I thought I did to keep myself happy was making me unhappy.

And this leads me to The Space. I would perhaps have been tempted to refer to this as The Gap previously – the idea that stopping running would leave a big gap in my life and I’d just sit feeling sad, getting fat and being bored (I am a bit ashamed to be typing these words, but I think it’s true of how I used to feel). But no, suddenly there was space. I got in touch with the friends I hadn’t contacted in a while, I went to my favourite coffee shop on empty afternoons and treated myself to some reading time, I stayed in my pyjamas until noon on Sundays, I bought myself some new things. I applied for (in one case successfully) some exciting jobs and took part (unsuccessfully) in a baking competition. I made bread for the first time in ages and stocked up on homemade jams and chutneys using veg from the garden and foraged blackberries. I made homemade ketchup – red and green! I visited my family for Sunday dinner and spent an afternoon at a rugby game in my home town. It’s not that I never did things things before, but before they always had to fit in to ‘a busy schedule’ of keeping up what I thought was my favourite hobby. It turns out that grassroots rugby and mushroom pie is really quite fun too. Life became fuller than it’s been in a long time, and at the same time there was more space to sit and breathe, slowly.

IMG_20150914_195146

The best loaf of bread I’ve ever made

Of course, there were moments when I desperately wanted to run. This is the best time of year to get out there, and the weather has been perfect for long Sunday runs. It was those moments when things were most difficult that I was able to find something new and exciting. This is where I was able to really question myself – am I a runner or not? Do I ever want to run again? For about three weeks I was convinced that I had to stop running altogether, and those moments were the only glimmers of what the future might hold as a runner, and not as a non-runner. On many an occasion I sat on the floor with my eyes closed, in a sort of meditation I suppose, and just listened to what my thoughts were telling me. This non-running existence is slower, unpressured; life is fuller, more peaceful; I am happier and more whole. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that this weird paradox where we run marathon after marathon as a way of justifying or finding worth in our actions and existence – well, it’s just another excess of modern life. To a certain extent running has become a consumer product, like a designer handbag, perhaps. We want more and more, because the getting, rather than the having, feels so good. It does feel good – there’s no denying it – but it also makes us feel bad, guilty, not good enough. And thus the cycle begins. I half-speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Finally, eventually, I came to the place that I’d been looking for. I realised that the important part of my non-running journey had passed, and I was left with a sensible balance of wanting to get out running and not wanting to ever feel pressure ever again about doing or not doing something that I choose to do for fun. It took four weeks for the thought processes to gather in a happy place where I no longer felt fear about not being injured any more, or about starting running again (and having to make the decision about whether or not I would). Finally I was comfortable about starting again with a new ‘only when it feels good’ approach.

20150905_125214

Four weeks isn’t a long time – could you do it? It was one of the nicest four weeks I’ve spent in ages. Oh, and in answer to the inevitable question, I don’t own a set of scales, but my slightly-too-tight-to-wear jeans now fit nicely; I wonder if this is my body’s response to relaxing and being allowed to regulate itself without constantly fighting for energy? It was hard to accept that I was feeling this way about running, and I’m glad that I was forced into it with an injury because I never would have taken the time to stop otherwise. After the break (and still with an ankle that needs caring for) I was glad to start running again, but now my sole goal for a run is to feel good and shake off the day (I’m yet to manage a morning run – I’ve become too fond of lazy breakfasts with my husband). So far I’ve been paying attention constantly to how I feel when I’m out, and questioning my reasons for getting out there. Never again do I want to find my running schedule on auto-pilot, where a hobby turns into a burden and thus a drain on my quality of life.

Read Full Post »