Preparing for a meltdown

Most people my age have their own home. I don’t. Partly because I simply can’t afford it – being single means there’s only 1 income. It’s also partly because of my OCD. I don’t really want to rent because of who might have been there before and I also have a huge feeling of responsibility for my parents.

At Christmas however I took the massive step of moving in with a friend and work colleague. It’s only weekdays not weekends but it was a huge thing for me. It still is.

My housemate has no idea about my OCD. Also because it’s actually her house (she had the mortgage with her boyfriend) I don’t have a huge amount of say in how things are done. She can clean things how and when she likes, she can wear shoes in the house and not wash down the sink or shower. All of these things she does and all of them stress me out. At home I’m much more free to perform my comfortable rituals but here I have to do them by stealth.

I’m getting better and obviously I have good days (eg when I can use the general cutlery) and bad days (eg when I have to use my secret store of knives and forks). It’s still all quite stressful for me which is one of the reasons I think I’m so tired even though I get more sleep As I now live closer to work.

However, this weekend is my housemate’s boyfriend’s birthday and they’ve invited over 60 people to a Barbecue. This would not be a problem if they were all outside. But this is the UK and it’s bound to rain. Even if it doesn’t they’ll go inside to sit, get drinks, use the bathroom (we only have 1toilet -upstairs next to my room). That means 60 people (50 of which I’ve never heard of let alone met) will be going through the house and using the bathroom, touching everything and with their shoes on (I have a real issue with shoes, just in case you didn’t realise).

I know this is going to be hugely stressful for me. So much so I don’t really want to be here to see the things that happen – I just want to live in blissful ignorance. But I can’t skip it. It would be incredibly strange and one of my other bestfriends has made me promise to be here as she doesn’t know anyone.

How can I get through this on the day and the week after?(This amount of stress will set all aspects of my OCD back for a few days at least). Other than hiding in my room on the day I need practical tips on a coping strategy. I’m hoping if I come prepared it won’t hit me as badly as it could and the recovery time will be quicker.

Any tips greatly appreciated.

Thank you!

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

If, like me, you suffer from OCD it’s more than likely you’ll have more than one type of obsession / bad thought.

Those of you who have read my other posts will know mine fall into 2 broad categories – contamination & security. That doesn’t mean I face 2 thoughts. Each category has several things I worry about, although some will be stronger at different times. Let me give you a few examples:

Contamination
1) stains
2) food
3) drink
4) door handles
5) public toilets

Every day any of these could come into play. Some of the time they’ll sit there in the background and I’ll deal with them. Some days I’ll deal better with one than another.

One of the therapies for OCD is exposure & prevention of response. It works for a lot of people. I’m not ready for that yet – my illogical thoughts are still too logical for me.

Instead I try to do it by myself. OCD can be awfully overwhelming at times especially when more than one type of thought hits. There’s no point trying to eliminate them all at once. It’s like giving up all food except lettuce in order to lose weight. It’s only going to lead to failure and a sense of guilt. It takes a lot of strength and energy to battle against your inner voice which is telling you bad things so you’ll get tired and then less able to take on the fight. If you feel guilty you’ll likely give up.

Instead take it one obsession at a time. Pick one, an easy one, to start with and gradually make yourself face up to whatever the issue is. At the moment I’m having issues with drinks so I’m challenging myself to take a proper look at my drinks to see what is actually there not what I imagined is.

Over time you’ll get stronger and more importantly you’ll get out of the habit of your compulsion. You will break the cycle. In a few weeks you’ll be doing them less, maybe you’ll even have stopped doing it completely. With this will come satisfaction and evidence that you can overcome the thoughts. The less compulsions you have to do, the less tired you’ll be and the stronger you will become to win the war.

Don’t beat yourself up when you fall off the wagon (notice I said “when” not “if” – I’m afraid it will happen). Remind yourself it’s okay. It takes a lot less time to make a habit than it is to break one and some of our compulsions have been with us, in some format or other, for a while.

Take a breath and say you’ll try again. Don’t let the OCD win!

“Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.” – Doug Firebaugh

Why role models are important to end mental health stigma

This week saw quite an important moment in politics. I’ll admit now – I believe most of what comes out of politicians’ mouths to be crap or lies. This week however, 2 MPs came forward and spoke honestly about their mental health problems.

Charles Walker admitted he has been living with OCD for 30years and Kevan Jones talked about his depression. Mr Jones also commented on the ‘difficult’ decision to open up. This reminds me of the stigma and difficult gay people face about ‘coming out’. Nowadays most people in the UK don’t see sexuality as an issue at all, whether someone is ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, and believe it’s ridiculous people are nervous about owning up to their feelings. I’m not saying everyone finds it easy and that there isn’t stigma left – there is (there are no ‘outed’ Premier League Footballers for example), but I do think progress has been made. There are now several, fairly high profile, public people to act as role models – Stephen Fry, Graham Norton, John Barrowman, Martina Navratilova, Neil Patrick Harris, Elton John, Sue Perkins, Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen Degeneres, Will Young, Jessie J. David Starky. Where’s my role model for OCD? (See here for a list of people with OCD – see how long it is). I know at least 10 people at work who are homosexual – I know no-one with a mental health issue, yet the statistic of 1-in4 makes the odds of several people falling into that category, very high. In today’s world I think it’s harder to come clean about your mental health than it is about your sexuality.

I believe people in the public eye are in a very powerful position in helping to end mental health stigma. They have access to a huge number of fans, the TV, radio, magazines, interviews – they have the opportunity and the means to get people to listen. That’s what we need. Usually you mention ‘mental health’ to someone and are then subjected to all the stereotypes and myths they’ve heard of with them thinking they know it all – or they clock out completely and stop listening. If someone famous and respected does it – people listen; they pay attention. Then they start to understand.

I wouldn’t say Charles Walker and Kevan Jones are role models for their day to day jobs but I think they are for speaking up about their mental health. I for one am not ‘brave’ enough to come clean, but if more people in the public eye did so, and it became a lot more accepted as part of life, I would be encouraged to.

Another good thing about Charles Walker’s admission is that it’s got my Mum and Dad talking to me about my OCD more. In fact they both eagerly and separately told me about what he’d done just in case I’d missed it – I think they wanted to show me it’s okay to talk about it, that it has made his life easier by opening up and that this might work for me. They’ve had to live with it with me for 10years and have been incredibly supportive. They have some understanding, but once they’d heard Mr Walker’s speech I think it hit home a bit more what it’s like, particularly my Dad. We had a 30minute car journey together the other day and were able to have a fairly frank and open discussion about what it feels like for me, what the anxiety levels are like and why I do the things I do. I also mentioned there was a great piece on OCD-UK‘s website about living with OCD and he said he’d be really interested to read it and he really wants to help me in whatever way he can. We have a good relationship anyway, but it was the admission by Charles Walker that gave him the opportunity to broach the subject with me. Sometimes it can be hard for either side to start talking about mental health issues. Sometimes we need someone else to give us the opportunity to start a conversation.

Have you managed to own up to your mental health issue? If so, how have you started the conversation?

A treat for some, is hell for others

On Friday I had to go to London for work reasons. I was going to a plush hotel and a posh dinner, something most people would see as a treat. It wasn’t for me. It was completely the opposite.

I hate going to London – I find it incredibly stressful. To me it’s dirty, full of people pushing into my personal space and there are millions of unknown stains. All of this contributes to my OCD spiralling out of control leading up to, during and for a time, after the visit. I try and avoid London as much as possible. It takes something really special to get me there and then that makes going through the torment of thoughts more worthwhile. The work do I had to attend wasn’t one of these really special things so I found the whole things incredibly difficult.

I had to travel down by train – another thing I have issues about. I got myself into quite a state whilst I was waiting to get on board the build up of the train & what was to come later caused me to start panicking – my breathing got quicker and shallower, my heart was racing and my hands visibly shaking. I ended up buying a newspaper to sit on for the journey. Usually I don’t have to do this, I’m with friends which means I’m forced into doing the ‘normal’ thing and my family somehow get me through it. This time I was on my own and being bombarded with so many of my fears all at once that I opted for an easy way out to avoid a complete meltdown. I met a colleague once we got to London so had to face the tubes with her. Yes you’ve guess it – another real problem for me & one that resulted in me experiencing my first major panic attack a few years ago on arriving home.

The hotel seemed plush enough on first view but for anyone that’s read my blog ‘Why Holidays Aren’t So Restful‘ will know how I feel about staying away from home. As I wasn’t sharing a room I was able to deal with this in my own way, using as little of the hotel things as possible and living out of my suitcase.  Having already faced 3 of my greatest troubling scenarios, I still had to face dinner. Fortunately this wasn’t as stressful as it could have been and everything seemed relatively clean (which was amazing) and I soon got carried off in the fun of the dinner and entertainment, though the thoughts were still running in the background of my mind.

It was back in my room when I began to really struggle again. It was 2am and I was tired having used up a lot of adrenalin making it this far. I checked both sides of the bed and although there were no major marks in them to completely freak me out, but there were marks (probably oil from washing machines) & they were enough. There was also a door that linked through to the next room. My side of the door was not lockable at all and opened on to what looked like a blank door – no handles, no locks. In my head the controls were all on the other side meaning anyone could come into my room at any time. I made the decision to stay up all night. But I got cold and really tired (again exhausted from the anxiety) – I  knew I wasn’t going to be able to stay away. I then had a brainwave and pushed some furniture in front of the door and plucked up enough courage to lie on the bed and get some sleep.

It seems strange and may sound melodramatic to others to talk of ‘plucking up courage’ to sleep in a hotel bed, especially when my colleague next door was relaxing in a bubble bath! But for me, that’s what it’s like. I have to fight my irrational, bad thoughts which I know aren’t founded in any logic but they fight straight back. It’s Ali vs Foreman in ‘Rumble in the Jungle’.

I shared some of my fears on Twitter before and during the trip and found some amazing support and some great ideas on h0w to cope better. This was the first trip when I’ve actually been able to express the thoughts going through my head with anyone. Usually I just say ‘it’s difficult’ for me. Talking about my OCD is helpful – if not in actually ‘fixing’ me, but sharing the experience making me feel less alone. I took up some of the advice – things like allowing a bit more time, so I could pause before each step and regroup and I had my ipod with me full of stories and music to help keep me distracted.

Now out the otherside I’m still mentally exhausted from the trial (getting less than 5hours sleep didn’t help) but I’m patting myself on the back for getting through it. It won’t necessarily make the next time any easier, but I can at least remind myself if I’ve done it once, I can do it again.

One of my favourite quotes for getting through times like this is ‘this too shall pass’. I know that whatever dark moment I am in, time still ticks on, the world still revolves around the sun and I’ll get out into the light again.

Night time isn’t relaxing

Sleep is the one thing I need to get the right amount of to help keep my OCD at bay.

Unfortunately I find nights & going to sleep really difficult. I’m much more of an night owl than morning lark but I think my issues around sleep compound that.

I often find when I’m tired and before I get into that chilled out zone of semi sleep and dreams my negative thoughts can hit me badly. It’s one of the times I’m most vulnerable.

Therefore my mind doesn’t want to go there, it doesn’t want to let go of control for fear of what it might let in.

As compulsions to quell any of my long running obsessions I have certain things I have to do in addition to normal things like cleaning my teeth, washing off make up and putting on PJs:

1) write diary (this can be stressful in itself if I’ve had a bad day because I don’t want to relive it)

2) watch certain clips from tv shows (these add up to about 20 mins though I now let myself do other things at the same time)

3) check all the doors are locked an the keys where thy should be

4) check the gas is off

5) check the windows are locked

6) check on any of the family who are staying in the house

7) say my prayers

Points 3-6 may be done any number of times and are a major contributing factor to the late nights and lack of sleep.

I mentioned in a previous post that I offer up little prayers throughout the day when faced with troubling thoughts to ask for everything to be okay etc but in addition I have to say an ever increasing list of them before I go to sleep each night. The problem with these can be:

a) every now and then one will jump out at me for no reason and I will relive the incident that caused me to start saying it in the first place just as if it had just happened.

b) because I’m tired or saying them too quickly I’ll get muddled and end up saying the wrong thing. Then I panic the wrong thing is going to come true.

All of this adds up to me putting off going to sleep. Unfortunately that means I put off the rituals even though I know I won’t be able to go to sleep until they’re done. You would have thought by now I would have learnt to get them out of the way early on and remove the stress surrounding going to bed. But I haven’t. I do try and some days are better than others, but because the rituals have become firmly embedded in my mind as connected to bed time I put them off. I’ll happily do anything at night not to go to sleep.

It’s strange then, come morning I hate leaving my bed. I think by then I’m over the danger zone where my thoughts are concerned and am so relaxed they rarely bother me. I like that feeling and want it to last which is one of the reasons I hate getting out of bed (the other is because I’ve usually go to sleep very late and haven’t had as many hours sleep as people think I have).

Taking the stress out of bedtime is going to be one of my new priorities. I’m going to try spreading the rituals out over a few hours and start much earlier. This way they’re done before bedtime and haven’t had to be given a set hour all of their own. There’ll be less stress and hopefully the rituals will become less of a hurdle to have to cross before I’m allowed to sleep.

I’d love to hear if other people find night time as difficult and what you do to help yourself.

A little something that centres me

When I’m having a bad day or going through a rough patch, I read this, the Desiderata, and it centres me and makes me see more clearly. As it helps me I thought I would share it with you.

“Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.”

What it’s really like when the thoughts hit

Having recently has a bit of a bad patch with my OCD I thought I’d write a little blog about what it’s actually like for me. Hopefully this will help others understand that it’s more than someone liking things near and tidy.

I experienced a double whammy last weekend. I was facing both contamination fears and security fears.

With both of them, when a thought gets into my head it lodges there and no matter how much self-talk about the logical side of things will shift it.

My heart rate increases, my throat constricts and my breathing gets shallower and more difficult. I can become like Lady Macbeth wringing my hands as an outlet. It often feels like a metal ring is tightening around my heart. My hands shake and I feel nauseous.

If it’s to do with contamination then the only way to readily relieve these symptoms will be washing my hands in hot water with antibacterial hand wash. If this isn’t an option then the gel will suffice. I have also been known to wash my hands, use antibacterial spray and wash my hands again. If necessary I will change what I’m wearing. On rare occasions it might mean throwing stuff away. Last weekend wasn’t too bad and putting them in the wash was enough.

All the time my mind is whirring with the negative thoughts that usually centre around bad things happening to my family. It stops me thinking about anything else, it’s like I have blinkers on. I’m only thinking about the issue and how to fix it.

The only way to get relief for my security fears is by checking, be it the doors, gas, or my family. At the moment this is only at night when I worry that my family need my help and I keep getting up to check on them. I lay in bed trying to convince myself the only noise I’d heard was my rustling my sheets or my iPod’s earphones playing. But it’s no good, my mind will not let me sleep until I’ve got up and checked. The panic comes into play and at it’s worst can make me cry.

Probably an unusual compulsion is offering up little prayers asking that everything will be okay, the stain wasn’t what I imagined, that everyone is alive and well and that no one will contract any deadly diseases. It’s a comfort, although the compulsion to say them more than once is great. In fact I’ll continually keep saying them. As I need to close my eyes whilst saying them thus can be very difficult and the stress of not being able to say them is awful.

Eventually I’ll fall asleep or will think the rituals have been sufficient or I’ll get distracted. That’s really the best thing.

How I distract myself:
Distraction

Being 1 in 4 & how social media can help

The oh so familiar statistic – 1 in 4 of us will have a mental health problem at some point on our lives.

Look around at your friends and family. Using that statistic, that’s probably quite a few.

Now multiply it to apply to the people at work, at university, at school, at the football or on the streets. People with mental health problems are all around us.

Then why does it feel so lonely?

Stigma and a lack of understanding of what mental illness actually is means those of us who suffer from it don’t tend to speak out.

Social media is a great thing – at least for me. I’ve only recently begun to use Twitter to admit I have OCD and to connect to others with mental health problems. It allows me to be who am. It allows me to express my thoughts any time, anywhere.

My family are great but I don’t always want to trouble then especially if I’m just letting of steam. Twitter has opened a door for me in this respect. Often times when a thought or trouble is voiced (or tweeted) it can seem less problematic.

I’m still wary of reading too many other OCD problems in depth in case they then become mine in addition to the myriad I already have. But slowly, slowly, one step at a time I’m making progress. No doubt I’ll take several steps back at various points, but it’s a new avenue that has so far been worth going down.

Twitter has let me find others with different conditions to my own as well as fellow OCD sufferers. What has surprised me is that how, on the face of it, the conditions are all so different yet in the end they’re so similar. All of us have our own daily battles to get through. We all have problematic feelings or thoughts.

I’ve come to realise there really are others out there that truly understand.

It’s nice not to feel so alone.

Why holidays aren’t so restful

My OCD can make me extremely worn out, physically, mentally and emotionally. So, it’s important for me to recharge.

When most people need to recharge their batteries they go on holiday. For me it’s a different matter. For me holidays are extremely stressful.

Leaving the house unattended makes me worry the whole week about whether it’s safe, secure, still standing. If one member of my family stays behind to look after things I worry all week about whether they’re okay or not.

Staying anywhere, be it a hotel or self catering is phenomenally hard. Other people have stayed there and with my issues over hygiene and unexplained stains anything left behind by others is a problem. Even if it’s an oil mark from a washing machine on the sheets it’s too much to handle.

We tend to stay self catering for many reasons. I’m very glad as it means I can have more control over my environment. On arrival the only way I can deal with it is to pretty much wipe down everything I can, put out a sleeping bag for myself on the bed and blankets on the sofa. It’s not as thorough as I would like but it helps. I have somewhere I can relax and touch without having to wash my hands immediately after.

You can always guarantee though that I will find some marks somewhere at some point. Often it’s part way through the holiday and that can be worse. At least in the beginning you can avoid or work round it, if you haven’t noticed it and you’ve been using / touching that item – it’s too late, the contamination (or imagined contamination) has already happened and you can’t do anything about it.

It takes 3-4 days to be able to overcome the worst of the OCD and begin to enjoy the holiday.

My best holidays are staying with friends and family. At their houses I don’t worry and I can relax. Sadly none of then have homes in France, America or New Zealand where I really want to go!

Do holidays stress you out?

Distraction

When I began this blog I was coping quite well with my OCD. Unfortunately it’s reared its really ugly head over the past few days and it’s got quite bad. Not the worst it’s ever been, but I’m stressing out over all sorts of things across my entire spectrum of worries.

For the past 4 nights I haven’t got to sleep before 2.30am because I’ve been up checking on the imaginary noises I hear. Clearly this makes me tired and then my brain becomes weaker and can’t fight off the thoughts as easily.

So, how do I get myself out of this part of the cycle? Good question. I’ve not really logged it before, but I am going to monitor it this time because I know it will get better. One of the things I know works is distraction. I need to give my brain something else to think of, something quite powerful and quite absorbing. Right now I don’t think gardening, baking or doing a jigsaw will help. I need something active rather than to zone out to.

Having a good song in the background I can sing along to helps; if I can’t resist the urge to sing the words, I can’t be having those thoughts. Currently I’m singing along to Gary Barlow & the Commonwealth Band’s ‘Sing’ which is proving very catchy.

Television is also a good distraction – if it’s something good then I can’t zone out and it’s a form of escapism; I’m transported to another world – one where my problems don’t exist. Reading is another great way to lose yourself into another world.

If I can find a time when my brain isn’t having to fend off too many thoughts (ie not late at night) I find meditation quite good too. For that half an hour my brain is active but resting. It feels like it’s repairing itself and it’s so absorbing that there are no negative thoughts and can sometimes break the specific cycle of the day. I’ve found the ones by Deborah Kerslake particularly good and there’s even a free one you can download and try for yourself on her website (just scroll down towards the bottom).

My other weapon is writing. I love to write. I’ve wanted to be a famous author for as long as I can remember. I’m under no illusions about my skill – I know I’m not actually that good and I’m not going to be the next JK Rowling, but it doesn’t stop me dreaming. One of the best things to distract me from my OCD is to throw myself into a story – then I have other problems to focus on. What are the characters names, their backstories, how do they come together, what are their strengths, weaknesses, what is the landscape they’re living in? To me all these questions are highly important and I find I can’t just pick out anything, it has to fit with the same sense of ‘rightness’ as a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. These questions go round and round in my head until I figure them out. The great thing about this is, not only creating something, but also it means there’s no room left for those obsessions or compulsions.

None of these distractions actually cure my OCD, but they do give my brain the chance to rest, recharge and come back stronger to fight those thoughts.

What ways have you found to distract from the thoughts?