An update & moving forward

I can’t believe my last post was back in March, so here’s a brief update on how I’ve been getting on.

The year started well, but then I’ve had a little blip. Strangely I’ve found myself worrying about things that I worried about when I was first diagnosed 11years ago; things that haven’t bothered me in years.

My OCD has cycles and they’re usually stress related, but this recent blip didn’t seem to be. I wondered whether it was anything to do with paying it too much attention – blogging about it, tweeting about it, comparing notes etc so I took a step back from social media to see if it had any effect. It didn’t.

The other big factor for me is sleep. I know I haven’t been getting enough sleep these past few months and as such I think I’m too tired to mentally and physically challenge these behaviours.

Last night I finally caught up with ‘Extreme OCD Camp’. I’d been a bit worried about watching it wondering whether it would trigger me, or give me new ideas of things to worry about. I’m also scared of exposure therapy, so watching other people with OCD being forced into doing it was not going to be pleasant viewing. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the show. It was very well done and for once showed the variety and severity of OCD and the emotional turmoil that an individual goes through when triggered. I identified with so much of it. I thought every single one of the participants was so brave and strong for even agreeing to do the show, let alone all the amazing exposures. The exposures were terrifying – I particularly felt for Jack doing his first exposure in the bathroom – not sure I could have done that – but the guys leading the camp weren’t ogres. I felt they had a true understanding of the condition and its effects as well as being compassionate. They made everyone do their exposures, but they allowed the individuals to have a say in our far it went and they were there for them at all times. I’ve not seen another programme where the therapists have been so supportive.

It certainly got me thinking. Whilst I’m not going to go on that particular camp, there are things I can do myself. Exposure, I realised, doesn’t have to be the worst thing first, I can set myself a small challenge and see how I go. At the start of the year I began trying to get rid of a ritual a month and had some success, so now I’m going to try a little bit of mild exposure. Perhaps I won’t wash my hands for 5minutes after touching a newspaper, perhaps I’ll leave it 5minutes before I go and check on family at night and extend this minute by minute. I’ll still be able to ritualise eventually, but hope that over time I’ll do this less.

A quote I’ll remember from Extreme OCD Camp is “Do something that scares you everyday”. I might not make it everyday, but that’s something to aim for. I’ll keep you posted!

Today’s Achievements

I did 2 things today that I wouldn’t have done normally & I admit, I feel a small sense of achivement, as they are 2 things that previously my OCD would have stopped me from doing.

Firstly, we had an ice-cream tasting at work. Everyone in the office knows I have a sweet tooth and I was clearly very excited about the tasting. Last time we had a number of flavours and could have a whole pot to ourselves. Some people shared, if they wanted. Today, as I gathered round with everyone else, my heart sank to see 12 small pots of varying flavours, but all had been tried! Everyone was waiting for me to tuck in for my ‘expert’ opinion. So, in I went. I avoided the ones that had been eaten a lot, and focussed on those with patches that hadn’t been touched. I know technically any germs could be all over the pot, but I did it anyway. Then pots were being passed around more and people were even swapping spoons and cleaning out the pots.

Secondly, I had a small pot of chocolate sponge for pudding. When I took the film off the top, it came off too easily and before I had absolutely double checked that it was properly sealed. I decided that as it was only a tiny bit that would have been unsealed & I was going to put it in the microwave at full power, I would eat it – and I did.

Yes, I am slightly freaking out about both of the above, but there’s an overriding sense of pride. I’m glad I was able to do both of these scary things today. I know I’ll have bad days when I won’t be able to, but one day at a time. It was nice to be in the middle of a group and doing something everyone else was; something ‘normal’.

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Update for February

It’s been a month since I began my little ‘experiment’ and so far, it’s kind of gone well – at least with respect to what I had planned. In fact it’s gone better than I hoped. I had anticipated that I would give up one of my nightly routines gradually – a bit each month, hoping to be free of it by June. However, I was able to give up slightly more in February than I thought I would and last night (1st March), I went further and gave up the whole thing. It’s the first night in about 5 years, when I’ve not done any of it. The funny thing is, I wasn’t nervous, or anxious I was excited, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to be free of it and I felt so liberated last night. I now have to think of the next thing to ‘give up’ or change. My success so far as given me great encouragement that this, or at least bits of this, can be overcome and I can get my life back.

On the other side to this, my nightly checking that my family are okay and still breathing escalated – sometimes, I wouldn’t even make it back in to bed before I ‘heard’ something. As a result my sleep has suffered and I’ve been back to getting a maximum of 6 hours a night (which isn’t enough for me, especially to keep my OCD in check). I suppose this is my OCD finding an outlet one way or another – if I wasn’t doing my nightly routine in the old way, it had to find something else to do.

I think, that this will be March’s challenge – to consolidate what I have already done and resist the temptation to go back to it, and then to get the nightly checking back under control along with my sleeping.

Whilst searching for some motivational quotes earlier for a friend who is going through a really tough time at the moment, I came across this and just wanted to share it as I think we could all do with remembering this sometimes:

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Taking the first steps

Tonight will be my 4th night of cutting back on the bedtime routines. I’m pleased to report that things are going well so far. In fact I’m almost ready to cut it down a bit further already. It’s really only a tiny thing to be cutting down on, but it has been quite satisfying none the less. If I can keep this up then I could be free of my bedtime routine by Easter – much earlier than I thought!

Yes, I acknowedge that I picked an easy target for my first ‘experiment’ but it certainly gives me hope that I will be able to tackle the other issues I face. I know that the routines and rituals are going to be easier to cope with than my contamination fears but I think with the confidence I’ll get from overcoming these first few hurdles, I’ll be in a stronger place to fight those things further down the line.

The only difficulty I’ve found so far, is remembering not to do the things that have been routine for so long!

The weekend also saw me take another massive step. As regular readers of my blog will know I’m moving out of the shared house I’ve lived in for a year with a friend mainly because of my OCD. They will also know that I’ve never spoken of my OCD to anyone outside my immediate family and medical professionals. I came to realise at the end of last week, that although I gave my friend 2 valid and genuine reasons for my leaving,  this wasn’t enough.

Though I tried to tell her a couple of times in person, things didn’t go according to plan and things get left up in the air on Friday night with her worrying what was wrong. So, I wrote a short note explaining I have OCD and how I wanted to get a better grip on it this year. I didn’t go into too many details so as not to complicate matters but the few lines still took a couple of hours to write. Surprisingly the email made me cry – a lot. I don’t know why, but it did. I then had an awfully anxious wait to see if she would say anything in return. I had asked her in the email not to tell anyone but to keep it secret but I had no guarantees she would. I was extremely nervous and didn’t sleep well that night.

I got a message back the next morning. She thanked me for telling her, promised never to tell a soul and reassured me I could trust her. She said she wished she had known earlier so she could have helped me. Today we were back at work together and it wasn’t mentioned and she didn’t treat me any differently at all – it’s almost as if it never happened.

It is quite surreal to be honest, to know that out there there’s someone who is not family, that knows my big secret. Although we haven’t spoken about it (the opportunity hasn’t arisen), I think I could talk to her about it if something was particularly troubling me, and it will be easier to explain some of the things I do.

It’s taken me over 10years to find the courage to tell a friend and I don’t yet know the full consequences, but it has made me feel better. We need to start ending the stigma surrounding OCD and other mental health issues now. It has gone on too long. Everyone who has a mental health condition has the power to do this – even if it is just one person at a time.

My scientific experiment against OCD

My background is scientific – I like facts and figures, I love biology and human chemistry, I’m logical and practical; a great lateral thinker. That’s one of the things I find most annoying about myself and my OCD. I know logically that most of the things I worry about are scientifically ill-founded, and I know the scientific realities. However, my OCD mind has been the one in control over the past several years and its voice drowns out my scientific one.

In earlier posts I’ve already declared that I’m upping the fight against my OCD this year, but what I haven’t specified is how I’m going to tackle it. I’m going to record how I plan on doing it and what success I have with it in the hopes that if it works, it will be useful to others. As I find ‘exposure’ terrifying, I am instead, going to treat this battle as a scientific experiment.

As a scientist I know that when conducting an experiment, it’s not a good idea to change more than one variable at a time and to do it gradually so effects can be recorded. If you change more than one thing at a time you won’t know which variable was the one that actually made a difference. If you shift something too much, you might miss the fact you didn’t need to go so far – or you might end up in a much worse position than you were. This is the method I’m going to use on my OCD.

My OCD has many layers including my safety, family safety, security and contamination. I am going to pick one of these things to tackle at a time and I’m going to start small. For example, I have a certain bedtime ritual, which can take almost 45min-1hour to complete and can put me off wanting to go to bed. My first ‘experiment’ is to take this ritual and reduce it, bit by bit. I’ve set myself marker points of the 1st of each month. ie on 1st February I will start the reduction in the ritual and see how I cope and adjust – scientifically I expect to prove to myself that whether I do a certain ritual or not, will have no effect on me or my family – except I might get to bed earlier! With this proof and knowledge, come 1st March I will be able to take the next step and reduce another part. I plan to be clear of this bedtime ritual, which must be about 5 years old, by June.

It doesn’t sound much, but this is the first time I’ve felt strong enough to actually consider getting rid of this particular routine. Then, when that one is out of the way and with much more ‘evidence’ I will pick another issue (perhaps changing all my clothes every time I go in and out of the house, even just to pick up a pint of milk) and do the same month by month reduction.

It does mean that getting over all of my OCD will take a long time (I have numerous worries, fears, compulsions & obsessions), and there maybe elements that won’t ever go. What  I hope to achieve is freedom from quite so many obsessions and compulsions. If I can get to this point, I think I will be less stressed (as I will have less things to look out for and worry about) and I’ll be less tired (less things to fight in my head, as well as getting to bed earlier and easier) and maybe then I will feel in a position to tackle the really, really big 2-3 things.

Until then, watch this space!

Retreating but better armed

As I explained in a post last June, I took a big step in December 2011 by moving in with a friend and I explained why this was such a big step.

This Christmas I made another big decision – and that was to move out and back in with my parents. A big part of me didn’t want to do this as it felt like a backward step for someone of my age, but in the end I know it’s the right decision for me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in the house, however it’s not been somewhere I’ve really been able to relax. In fact it’s felt like I’ve been living in a self-catering holiday cottage & if you read my post on why holidays for me are not restful, you might understand why this has been a problem.

Every time I went into the house I had to be on the constant look out for stains or marks. My housemate would wear her shoes in the house and even put them on the coffee table, setting my anxiety levels soaring. Every time I ate a meal I would have to check the plates and cutlery thoroughly. My housemate had a habit of leaving washing up for several hours without even putting things to soak, so even when they went in the dishwasher they would come out encrusted in old food. The same would often be true of glasses, mugs saucepans & baking trays. This meant that even making dinner or getting a drink would be stressful. In the bathroom she would frequently hang her towel so it draped over the handle, meaning I had to touch it every time I opened the door.

I have to say that my security OCD at the house wasn’t a problem – I just needed to check the doors once and I was fine, but my contamination OCD spiralled. Living with that much anxiety on a daily basis just got too much and it spilled over into the rest of my life. I was generally stressed all the time, my OCD when I was at ‘home, home’ got worse.

One of my New Year’s challenges was to overcome 3 of my OCD rituals and more than that, I really want to get to grips with my condition. I’ve done it before, so I know I can get back there. However, I knew that at the levels of anxiety I was living at last year, this wasn’t going to be possible. Therefore by retreating back to my ‘home home’ my anxiety levels will reduce and I will become mentally stronger and that’s always a good thing in this fight against OCD.

I know many people will say I could have told my housemate that I have OCD and explain what my problems were and I did think about this, but ironically she sees herself as a ‘clean freak’ and very, very tidy. As it was her house I could hardly have expected her to change her lifestyle so I would have had to live with those things anyway as well as hurting her feelings. We’re still good friends, and maybe one day I will tell her about my OCD, but the timing is not quite right at the moment.

I’ve technically got a couple of weeks left at the house, but I’ve only spent a couple of nights there and will be mainly based at home. I have to say, my anxiety levels have already fallen substantially and I’m in a much better place to fight my OCD. So yes, I have retreated, but I feel much better armed now and that was the plan.

Diagnosis. Is it a blessing or a curse?

For many, getting a diagnosis may just be regarded as being given a label, assigning them to a particular group, assigning them to be viewed as ‘mentally ill’. Others find it reassuring, that they have a recognised medical condition, one that they can find specific help for.

Some people are scared of going to their doctor, admitting their symptoms and getting that diagnosis. Mental health is misunderstood by the public in general and there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions that even a diagnosis won’t help anyone understand the condition any better. People fear that the diagnosis will become known and they will be viewed in the light of those misconceptions. There are so many labels out there these days and people are all grouped together as the same. For anyone with a mental health problem, you know that each case is different. It can be dangerous for everyone with ‘depression’, ‘OCD,’ ‘anorexia’, ‘anxiety’, ‘bipolar’ to be treated in the same way, so people recoil from being given that name. Most of the time when mental health is covered in the news it’s often because someone has committed some terrible crime. It’s hardly encouraging then to want to be given the same diagnosis.

There are others for whom a diagnosis comes as a relief. They finally have a name to their problems, that it is something that is recognised, something other people go through too. With a diagnosis there is also the hope that the problem can be helped. Not all mental health conditions can be cured, but a lot can be managed. A diagnosis means an individual can research their condition, find out all the possible things that might help and start finding out which is best for them. They can find other people with the same diagnosis, compare notes, use them as examples to try and explain to others what it is they struggle with. Doctors may offer medication or therapy. A diagnosis doesn’t always mean the right therapy, or there might be long waits. Mental health is seriously underfunded and there isn’t enough of the right help out there. But there is more hope the right treatment will come once diagnosed.

For me, I certainly found my diagnosis a relief. I knew already, before going to the doctors, what it was – but to hear a medical professional confirm it for me was a huge reassurance. I was able to have medication, I was able to get relief. I wasn’t alone and it wasn’t my fault. I’m well aware that every other person’s OCD is different from mine, but there are also great similarities and, although I don’t wish OCD on anyone, I find it comforting that I’m not alone. I’ve researched my condition further over the years and am finally really beginning to understand it. With this understanding comes the weapons for me to fight the battle.

I do understand people’s fears about getting a diagnosis, but in my experience it has only helped. There’s no need to tell anyone if you’re not ready, but I found strength in knowing. I would be most interested to hear what you think – are you scared of getting diagnosed? Have you got a diagnosis and did you find it helpful?

Today’s draw with OCD

Today, for my sister’s birthday, I went indoor skydiving. I’m not much of an adrenalin junkie, but this is one of the few things I could consider, so I said yes and went along. Obviously, I had seen the photos on the website and knew I would be wearing a jumpsuit and helmet – but where this would normally freak me out, I wasn’t bothered. I was more concerned about remembering what I had to do and not looking stupid in front of the audience! I was doing really well – even when they told us to take our shoes off and stand on a public floor in our socks (something I can barely do at home!), but then I noticed a ‘bad’ mark on my jumpsuit and I was back in that twilight zone of not knowing how to react. I felt my panic surge, but because of where I was and who I was with, I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t even take it off to see if the mark was on both sides. I had to spend the next 40minutes or so in the jumpsuit – my only comfort was that I was in long sleeves underneath. At the same time I wanted to have a rational reaction to it, be just like everyone else.

I have been in a similar situation before and it’s brought on a panic attack, but this time, I was okay. That’s not to say I wasn’t worried – I was, very much so, but the fact I didn’t have a complete melt down was improvement. I controlled my breathing and tried to focus on the here and now – and the challenge of indoor skydiving. The worry didn’t go away completely except for the couple of minutes I was in the wind tunnel, but the important thing was that it didn’t stop me from doing what I had planned on doing.

I’m so glad that I didn’t let my OCD ruin my day or my sister’s. If I had let it have its own way, I would have been out of that jumpsuit, out of my top, scrubbing down with hand sanitiser and on my way home to wash thoroughly and burn my clothes. But if I had done that, it would not only have cost me money, but would have ruined a very special day for my family who were all there together (a fairly rare occurence). I also would have missed out on a great experience. OCD has cost me too many great experiences, and now I want to get them back.

Okay, so when I got home I had a shower and washed my hair. My clothes have gone in the wash, except for the long sleeve shirt I was wearing. The jury’s still out on that. It was the only thing to have direct contact with the mark, and I’m wavering between just washing it and wearing it again and throwing it out. I don’t want the OCD to make me throw another thing away, but I’ve been here before – thinking that tomorrow I will be strong enough to make the right choice, but I usually end up giving in. I’m not there yet and the worry is still there, but I think we could call this battle a draw, which makes a nice change.

I haven’t yet overcome any of my OCD issues, but if I can stay as strong as I did today, there may be hope that I will reach my goal.

OCD – my self sabotage

Just a warning – this might be a trigger for some people, so read with caution.

The latest way my OCD is taunting me is my paranoia about what is in my drinks. I’m fine if someone makes me a drink (although it does have to be in my mug at work and I don’t drink the tea), but I find it hard to make my own drinks. If I can get away with making it once, that’s fine, but if I have a problem with the first drink it usually means I’m in for trouble.

I know this sounds utterly bizarre. I know logically that there is nothing wrong with any of my drinks, and that what I see are shadows, air bubbles or light refracting from what I can see through the glass or air bubbles of the surroundings – but I am absolutely convinced it’s something bad. There’s no logic to it – I will often throw away the drink only to pour more squash out of the same bottle. It doesn’t usually work for milk – but hot chocolate, sugar, teabags, pretty much anything else.

There was one time when I saw a mark on a tea-bag that should not have been there and ever since then I’ve been checking every tea bag. I hate being asked to make tea for family as it means confronting this fear and looking to make sure it’s safe to use. This happened probably a couple of years ago and stayed at that until a few months ago when it got ridiculously out of control and transferred itself to all types of drink. It always seems that when I make a drink for someone else everything is fine and I very rarely have to remake it. When it’s a drink for myself I can remake it 5-6 times, sometimes I give up. It is easier when I’m “home, home” and not at the house I share in the week or at work. I think that’s because I’m more relaxed and comfortable at the place I’ve lived my whole life.

When I give up making myself a drink (even getting tap water) is when it becomes self-sabataging. I know logically that the drink is fine, however I don’t drink it – I can’t. I put off making or getting drinks for myself. This means:

1) I end up buying bottled water
2) It’s costly – because I have to buy a lot of bottled water & even then this is ‘contaminated’ so I have to throw it away and open another
3) I get dehydrated. This in itself then leads to dry skin (I have very sensitive, dry skin as it is, so hydration is important), lethargy, my brain function decreases and with this I’m less able to fight my OCD so it spirals out of control. If I’m not careful, in hot weather it could even lead to kidney trouble.

As I wrote in my previous post – I’m aiming to combat 3 rituals I have – I’m really hoping that I can control this OCD issue as it has other implications other than just time and money.

Are any of your OCD rituals self-sabotaging in this way?

New Year, New Me – Same Old OCD

With the dawn of a new year, the tradition is to set lots of New Year’s Resolutions, mostly along the same old lines of trying to become thinner, fitter, a better person, to stop smoking, to drink less. The majority of these will be forgotten before we get to February. I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions a while ago because I ended up disappointing myself. I now give myself ‘objectives’ for the year.

This year they look something like this:

1) Go horse riding
2) Help raise £100 for charity
3) Go somewhere I’ve never been before
4) Read 15 books
5) Overcome at least 3 of my OCD rituals
6) Continue to spread awareness help in the understanding of OCD

Overcoming just 3 OCD rituals doesn’t sound much, especially compared to reading 15 books (I usually manage about 5-6 a year), but I think it will be a significant challenge for me – I usually just add more rituals.

We’ve just had Christmas at our house and over the holidays we had at various points, my sisters, their husbands, my 6 nieces & nephews and my grandmother. I love seeing them, but it always makes my OCD spiral – my grandmother insists on wearing her shoes around the house (one of my biggest bug bears) and then the kids put everything on the floor including themselves and then put everything on chairs, tables etc. I did my best over Christmas, but it was more about avoidance or by doing things such as putting a quilt over ‘my chair’ which I could then remove when I wanted to sit in it.

I remember the time when that wouldn’t bother me at all – when I would be lying on the floor with them. I’ve recently unearthed some old family video footage that’s 10 years old. That was the significant start of my OCD but I saw the times when I still wore shoes round the house – it’s very alien to me. Now, I’m not suggesting that 2013′s objective is to start wearing shoes in the house again, I’m not entirely sure what rituals I’m going to work at, but I’m ready to take the challenge head on.

I would love it if you would join me on this challenge and fight a ritual or two of your own. Let me know and we can do this together!