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I had some big successes in 2015: getting a PhD, running an ultra marathon, starting a job that was both satisfying and challenging. But, while I’m proud of all these things, life is so much bigger than all of them, and none of them guarantee stable happiness and well-being for any decent length of time. Alongside these big successes, there was a slightly larger number of small successes; I managed to fix a few good habits in place over the course of the last 12 months, which have improved my happiness bit-by-bit, and which I can carry with me through the weeks, months and years regardless of whatever else life might throw at me.

I ummmed and ahhhed about new year’s resolutions for 2016. Part of me felt as if I should want to improve myself in some way, and so I resolved to drink more water and cut out sugary food just before bed. Both lasted almost the entirety of January (almost), but neither made me happier, and while I might be more hydrated, possibly a little thinner and saving more on dentist bills (see below), the effort required to do both of these things took something away, rather than adding something good to my life. As a used-to-be-overweight person I know that any real changes need to be easy to implement, make you feel good, and have some sort of measurable outcome. And they need to be enjoyable eventually, if not right away, in order to continue with them long-term. Aside from the satisfaction of ticking off glasses of water each day in my head, there was no real carrot to these two sticks. Inevitably I gave up, and I now continue to enjoy late-night sugar fixes thank you very much, no guilt required.

But onto the good habits – the things that really are making me that bit happier each day, and which bring stability and meaning to even the glummest and hardest weeks. Here is my small list: they’re all works in progress, but they have shown me how making positive changes reaps benefits in the long- and short-term.

Pilates
For a long time I did yoga almost every day. Everyone seems to talk about how great getting ‘on the mat’ is; how spiritually invigorating and healing it is, how in touch everyone feels with their bodies. Years of yoga later and I started to feel totally out of touch with it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved yoga in places, and had an amazing teacher when I lived in Bradford who just about saved me. But we moved to York and I just couldn’t reconnect with it; it wasn’t right for me anymore.

Daniel had been attending a pilates class for some time, and so, intrigued, I decided to give that a go instead. One class later and I was adamant that it wasn’t for me. It made bits of me hurt that I didn’t know existed, and I didn’t see the point in doing strange movements that I never had to do in normal life. I knew it was good for me, but it wasn’t fast-paced or sweaty enough to keep me interested. But then I started training for an ultra marathon, combined with excessive amounts of PhD-related stress. I forced myself to go by paying for 7 classes up-front, so I attended those 7 classes, always a little bit reluctantly. And then I paid for 7 more. After 14 classes I could do this:

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This might not seem a big deal, but no kidding, I have never in my life even been able to sit with my legs out straight, never mind bending forwards and touching my toes on top of it all. I could see the benefit, and I was sold. Now, I look forward to pilates. It’s become an hour in my week that is solely for me – all about doing good for myself and tuning in with my body. A hard-won habit, but one I’m sure I’ll stick with.

Flossing
I know it’s really gross to not floss. I’ve tried and tried to become a nightly flosser since meeting my dental-health-freak husband, but my OCD makes it incredibly difficult to floss owing to the hand-to-mouth proximity that it requires. Last August I had to have my second filling, which my dentist put down to eating chocolate before bed. I knew that if I wanted to stick with my chocolate and avoid any more fillings, this had to change. I found a way to make it work for me without excessive hand-washing practices beforehand, and as I kept doing it, I noticed time and time again how great it feels to go to bed with a lovely fresh mouth. Better sleep, (hopefully) cheaper dentist bills, fewer fillings, more chocolate: what’s not to love.

Meditation
Veggie Runners’ review of Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier totally changed my life. Convinced by their enthusiasm, I bought a copy for myself and laughed and cried my way through it. Only a few chapters in and I started to try out meditation for myself: first three minutes, then five, and now I’m up to seven minutes most days. It’s totally imperfect: most of the time my mind wanders to a place where I’m simply unable to observe my thoughts, and sometimes the alarm goes off without my having experienced a second of mindfulness. But just showing up to do it is enough for me; I am more aware of my thoughts, and it’s led me to some pretty soul-shifting revelations about myself and my thought processes. And, I’d agree with Dan, it’s made me around 7% happier for now – there is still a lot of work to do!

Walking
In the midst of my PhD I found myself routineless and lost. I was staying in my PJs for way too much of the day, feeling useless and without direction. I decided that I’d go out on a morning walk each day, before starting work. I’m lucky enough to live right by the River Ouse, where we have the wonderful New Walk, which was built for wealthy Georgians to promenade after their evening meal. It’s lined with huge trees, and there are two bridges crossing the river a convenient mile apart, making it a perfect 2-mile morning circuit, totally free from traffic. I walk this circuit almost every morning, come rain or shine, and it is wonderful. It never gets old: the light through the trees is different every day, the birdsong changes with the seasons and the light. And it’s valuable fresh air, headspace, and time for myself; it didn’t take long for me to reach the point where I simply couldn’t start work without my walk.

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Writing
For years I have kept diaries, and written in them sporadically at best. Last year saw the start of this becoming an almost daily occurrence – something I’d been striving towards for a long time. I didn’t force it, but like the walking habit, it became a daily need. A time each day for me to reflect on what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling, what I’m hoping for. I know I’ll be grateful for it in years to come when I can look back, but it’s also helping me look forwards too, as I try to make sense of where I’m going, and balance up the various things that I want from life. Writing each day is probably the best gift I’ve been able to give myself: I don’t plan what to write, but the words fall from my head as if they’re desperately trying to escape into reality.

Swimming
This was a good habit, but I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit in the new year as everyone in York seems to have made ‘swim at 7am every Monday’ their resolution, and they’re sticking with it, too. But I used to hate swimming, and now I love it. Again, it’s an OCD challenge, but just facing these challenges makes me more powerful. I also used to hate it because I’m rubbish at it, but now I love it because I’m still rubbish at it. I love how tired I feel afterwards: how easy it is for me to run 1km, but how difficult I find it to swim the same distance. I love watching the super swimmers tearing down the pool as I potter around in the slow lane doing breaststroke. I love admiring them yet not feeling rubbish about my own incapacity to swim well in response. It allows me to drift away in my thoughts, one repeated stroke after the next. Wonderful.

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I’m pretty happy with this bunch, but they are all works in progress. As life changes, no doubt some will fall away, but hopefully I’ll gain new habits in their place. There are a few new ones creeping in that I’m keen to get established:

  • Parkrun – I’ve done Parkrun on 3 out of 5 weekends this year so far, and I love it. I really want this to become a regular weekly ‘thing’, as I love the sense of community. It’s so great to be part of something so positive!
  • Blood donation – I’ve done it twice, and I fainted the second time so now I’m scared to go back. I want to make it to five times and see how I feel after that. We’ll see.
  • Shopping local – more to come on this, but it’s our challenge for February, and I am really enjoying connecting with local producers when buying my food.

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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

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