Results – Mental Health in Families Poll

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my interest in the nature vs nuture debate in mental health issues and I set up a very unscientific poll to try and do a spot test to see if people on Twitter and in the blog world, had relatives with mental health issues. The results are now in:

Almost 75% of those who responded who have a mental health condition also have at least 1 other member of their family with a mental health condition. In face 60% of them have more than 1 relative with an issue.

This does seem to suggest there is some family link and this could, of course, be genetic. However, it is also possible to be learned behaviour so I asked the second question – ‘is the mental health condition the same or different as yours?’

The results for this question were much more even:

33% = same as theirs

37% = had members of the family with both the same and different conditions

30% = different condition

This suggests to me that whilst some mental health condition behaviours can and might be learned, that this is not always the case. With one-third of people having a relative with a different mental health condition you could ask how is their condition learned? However, you can also ask where did the genes come from? With mental health being so little talked about, I do wonder if we know all there is to know about mental health in our own families.

I’m a firm believer that you can’t take either nature or nurture on their own. I do believe there is an important mixture that plays a part. However I will leave you with this puzzler:

I know a family that had identical twin boys. They had exactly the same genes and exactly the same upbringing. In their 20s one was diagnosed with schizophrenia and 20 years later committed suicide, whereas the other brother never had any form of mental health issue. It would seem here there is no nature or nuture involved. Perhaps just an anomaly? What do you think?


My Week with OCD

This past week has been rather full of OCD so I thought I’d do a review – there’s been some highs and lows.

My recent post “When Conditions Collide” explained that last weekend I had a few run ins with one of my greatest fears. I have to say this set my basic anxiety levels soaring. I jumped everytime I saw a shadow or a hair brushed my skin. That didn’t bode well for my OCD. Monday passed off without too much of a hassle – just the usual, but Tuesday was a roller coaster.

First of all there was great excitement and pride when my blog post ‘The Loneliness of OCD” was published by Mind. I’ve got my own blog of course, but this was an opportunity to reach more people. I was delighted that people read it, retweeted it and I was over the moon when it was mentioned by @SocietyGuardian and on the Guardian website. So the daytime was full of highs. It changed when I got home. I arrived back to the house without my housemate to discover a swarm of fruit flies in the kitchen. It was horrific. Probably more so because of my OCD (my housemate took it in her stride when she came home). It set me off. It took me 5 times to boil a kettle of water because when I poured it out I thought it looked discoloured – even though it was fine when I put it in. Eventually I got my sweetcorn bubbling away and then opened a can of potatoes and popped them in too. Then I noticed something sticky on the can. Logically I knew that this had just come off the tin opener because it had the same substance on and I had had difficulty opening the tin. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go through with eating the potatoes – or now the sweetcorn which was in the same pan. I think if I hadn’t had the issues with the flies, and my anxiety levels hadn’t been so high to start with, I could have accepted this and eaten my food. But I couldn’t. It went in the bin. I was so frustrated with myself because my logical side was telling me it was fine. I didn’t give up completely – I still needed my dinner. I cooked pasta instead and only needed 2 kettles of water this time.

By the time I had finished my dinner I was exhausted and ready for bed – but I had to stay up late for the Channel 4’s programme ‘A Little Bit of OCD’ and I was desperate to see it. I wasn’t disappointed – you can read my full review here. Wednesday came and I had been asked by Mind to do a review of the show, which I did and another wave of pride washed over me when this too was published. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen to me. I didn’t want to go back to the house that night. What if I had another meltdown? What if I struggled to cook dinner again? What if the flies were still there? My housemate was away for the night. In a way this was good – I would be able to boil as many kettles as I wanted without her wondering why – but sometimes this observation helps – it forces me to get on with things. I wanted to scarper somewhere safe. But I was determined not to and through the help of my Twitter support group I made it back to the house. It wasn’t easy but I’m so glad I did it. Thank you guys. Dinner was much easier that night which also helped.

Thursday was generally fine, nothing too major to deal with – no additional meltdowns. It was nice to have this relief. The day was made even better as I read some lovely comments about my blog and review. I was so glad to have resonated with others. As my blog for Mind said – I find OCD rather lonely. I also got a lovely comment from the mother of John – the teenager featured in ‘A Little Bit OCD’, who said I’d inspired her to write her own blog from a parents’ perspective. This was one of the nicest things that happened this week. I was rather touched and thrilled that my blog had had an effect on someone – that’s one of the reasons I started it – to encourage others to talk about it.

Then Friday I was faced with one of my triggers. My boss had to update me on some sensitive issues at work and decided that as it was a nice day we would go outside onto the front lawns. There are 2 benches out there and as she’s pregnant I thought she’d opt for one of these because of getting back up again. But she opted for sitting in the shade – on the lawn. There was no way out. I couldn’t go back in and get my rug that I sit on at lunchtimes, and this was not the time or place to explain why I had an issue. I had to sit on the lawn. We chose an area that isn’t walked on that much which I tried to reassure myself with. I tried to go with it and not to panic. Following other people’s examples sometimes helps – she was sitting on the lawn, most of my friends sit on the lawn rather than rugs and most of them even touch the bottom of their shoes which is an absolute no no for me. I managed to get through it knowing that my long skirt had already touched stairs despite trying to keep it off them, and I knew that when I got home I would be able to put the skirt in the wash and change my clothes. I’m very proud of myself for overcoming this. It doesn’t mean that I’ll do it on a regular basis – I will still opt to sit on a rug, but I didn’t have a meltdown.

So this week has been exhausting with some great highs and some lows. I faced some fears and came out the otherside. A couple of battles against my OCD have been won, but the war rages on. Let’s see what next week holds.

Jon Richardson’s “A Little Bit OCD” – Review

Ever since I heard about Channel 4’s “4 Goes Mad” season, there was one show I was particularly looking forward to watching – Jon Richardson’s ‘A Little Bit OCD’. If I’m honest I was a little cynical about it. Whenever I’ve seen OCD tackled on TV before, it’s usually been about extreme tidiness and for all of us with OCD, we know that there is so much more to it than that. Despite my cynicism I had high hopes. I’ve recently learnt about Jon Richardson’s own issues and thought that he would at least go into the making of the show with an open mind and perhaps an understanding of how compelling some of the behaviours are.

Even after a goodnight’s sleep, the programme is really all I can think about and my mind is still buzzing with it. It’s definitely going to require watching again.

The show saw Jon talk honestly and openly about his own compulsive behaviours that began when he was at university. He told how, some nights he would be so distressed that he would go and sleep in his car rather than face what his flatmates and done. Although I’ve never done precisely that, it still struck a chord. I have been known to give up entirely on a situation and done something else instead because it’s too hard. In the end his behaviours made him so unhappy he dropped out and moved into a house on his own where he could live exactly how he liked. The viewers weren’t shown into his bedroom because it’s the only part of the world that he can truly control and have just the way he likes it. I know this resonated with a lot of the audience as it is a tell-tale sign of OCD. There are times that I wish I lived alone because then I could do exactly what I want and no one would query my behaviours. But like Jon discovered, I know this isn’t a good idea. If I’m alone for long periods of time, my OCD can escalate as it’s too easy to give into it.

Refreshingly, the 3 other stories told did not shy away from the severity of OCD and how it can have a major disruptive effect on lives: John a teenager whose obsessions and compulsions can literally paralyse him (something I’m only too familiar with), Gemma’s fear of contamination which has almost ruined her relationship and left her housebound and Joyce who also lives with contamination OCD and who lost her son when he committed suicide because he could not live with his own OCD.

The show then went one step further and showed a hospital for people with acute OCD. Even though I’ve had OCD for 10years and studied Psychology, I didn’t even know about these places. I didn’t know that OCD could make someone incontinent either through fear of toilets or from their compulsions taking so much time. Even at a distance, I found the section involving the toilet seat very uncomfortable viewing and from what was being said on Twitter at the same time, I know I’m not alone. Exposure therapy does work, but as the psychiatrist eventually got round to saying, she wouldn’t start with that level. For me I found this a bit of a scare tactic. I know this is a therapy that works, but is not one I’m able to contemplate at the moment and this didn’t help. I found it both uncomfortable to watch Jon’s own anxiety and issue with being made to take part in this with no warning, but at the same time reassuring I’m not the only one who would have an issue with that.

The visit to the hospital proved that this condition really isn’t talked about enough, and that shows such as this do have a place on primetime TV. 10pm on Channel 4 is a good slot for a programme such as this – but I think a 9pm slot would have been better and reached more people.

The title of the show ‘A Little Bit OCD’, is something I’m sure everyone has heard in passing. Jon mentioned that it seems to be quite cool now to say things like ‘I’m a little bit OCD about my pens’ – just meaning someone likes their desk to be tidy and it’s true. It’s a phrase that is thrown around quite carelessly. I often hear it in the office – but it’s always to do with keeping things tidy, or colour coded. Most people don’t understand OCD comes hand in hand with severe anxiety and distress and is not something to be proud of.

I found the conversation Jon had with his mother to be of great interest. Having studied Psychology myself I have always been fascinated by the nature vs nurture debate for the causes of mental health. Here we learned that Jon’s mother had started to display contamination OCD shortly after his younger sister was born. We have no evidence whether it was her behaviour that Jon picked up on, or whether it’s in the genes – or perhaps both. I’m trying to do a bit of unscientific research in my poll about mental health in families. Again, this won’t prove whether it’s nature or nurture, but it does get the mind thinking.

Jon was given a 2 hour assessment to determine if he has OCD. This didn’t really give a good indication of the usual diagnosis for people. Very few have the luxury of an expert giving them a full assessment. For me, my diagnosis was 10minutes and for many it takes repeated trips to their GP before they finally get diagnosed. Due to his low levels of distress it was concluded that Jon does not have OCD despite having many of the traits. In fact, throughout the show he said that his compulsions make him happy which is very different from OCD. Yes, my compulsions relieve anxiety but I wouldn’t say they made me happy. At least this proved that it’s the distress that accompanies this disorder that is its defining trait. I do find it sad that he was scared of being diagnosed with OCD because he thought if he had it, it would get worse as he got older. That’s not always the case. I found being diagnosed a relief. It meant I knew what it was and that it was treatable, that I could learn to manage my life with it. I hope this doesn’t put people off seeking a diagnosis as it can really make a positive difference.

For me, Jon handled the subject with sensitivity, compassion and understanding. In many documentaries I’ve watched, the presenter repeats lines given to them in interviews with experts, passing them off as their own views, but this was not the case this time. Jon understood without being told that it’s not something someone can ‘snap out of’, that eating out in a café for some would be an impossibility, that OCD can be managed with medication and therapy and he handled the requests of John, Gemma and Joyce with warmth and tact. I find that people aren’t very understanding, that they think it’s something you can pull yourself together over. It gave me hope that a true understanding is possible.

I think the fact that he’s had similar thoughts and experiences himself helped and he had a real desire to know more. Rarely has a programme so close to my own heart been so moving. I almost cried at the end when he said his one wish for OCD sufferers were that they could get to a place where their behaviours made them happy, like his did for him. I have that wish too. I liked that he sees himself as having ‘Obsessive Compulsive Order’. Although I’m not a psychiatrist, from what Jon said I imagine if he’d gone for assessment whilst as university that the diagnosis would have been different. This does show that OCD can improve and from my own experiences I know it comes in waves – the good times and the bad. It’s what helps me get through the bad times.

I’m hoping that those who watched the show now have a better understanding of what OCD is really like and that it will help us stamp out the stigma attached to it. It was one of the best documentaries I’ve seen for years. Bravo Channel 4, Jon Richardson, John, Gemma and Joyce – thank you for helping to show there’s more to OCD than being tidy.

When conditions collide

Here’s something else about me. I have severe arachnophobia – I mean pretty much any size (even money spiders), I can’t even look at a picture and I’m not overly keen on writing the word.

I am absolutely terrified. I can be frozen with fear, unable to decide which way to go, or I can bolt out of there like lightning. I shake, my heart races – all the usual symptom of true fear. I’ve been known to dash out of my own bedroom leaving all the lights on, the TV blaring and move into the spare room. Last year I moved out of my room for 3-4 nights because of one. I even made my parents help me move everything out of my bedroom to find the bugger. Still, I couldn’t go back in there to sleep for a while. I have also occasionally been known to come in from the garden and head straight for the drinks cupboard for a sip of something to steady my nerves after I’ve come across a particular kind unexpectedly.

As you are all probably aware – I have OCD and one of my compulsions is to check the doors, windows, TV, gas etc before bed – usually more than twice. The trouble comes when my phobia collides with my OCD. Tonight as I was unloading the dishwasher I heard my Mum exclaim there was a very big spider in the lounge – Dad went in to help her get it out, but it moved too quickly and it went under some furniture. This means it’s still there. When lights go out and the house quietens down – they come out more often (certainly in September). I have done my checking once (and I tried to do it mindfully and methodically) but now I’m in a dilemma. My phobia is keeping me from going downstairs to do any additional checking but my OCD will kick in as I get sleepy and will urge me to go downstairs and check.

This is not the first time this conflict has arisen. Sometimes the OCD wins, sometimes it’s the phobia. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see it this time so in my mind it’s enormous, but I have a feeling the phobia might win out. Not sure though.

Anyone else ever had a conflict like this?

How do I explain OCD to others?

I put out a tweet asking if anyone had any questions about life with OCD. One person asked ‘How do you try and explain it to others? Do you try?’ This is a very good question, not just for people without OCD who are trying to understand, but also for those of us with it who are trying to get that understanding.

Generally speaking I’m a very private person. I don’t really open up very easily and nearly always reply ‘I’m fine’ even if I’m in a bad mood or feeling crappy. It’s not surprising therefore, I don’t talk about my OCD very often. However, it has been necessary to explain it to people closest to me.

The question reminded me of my converswation with my Dad a few weeks ago when he picked me up from the station after my trip of hell to London. He was prompted to talk to me about my OCD following Charles Walker’s open discussion in the Commons about his OCD that week. Dad asked honest and fair questions in an attempt to get a better understanding and find a way of helping me. In return I was trying to be as honest as possible and find ways of explaining what it’s like what I have an ‘episode’. He knows I struggle with things – things that he can’t quite get his head around because he doesn’t see why anyone would worry about them (like most people out there), and he knows I get worked up and anxious, but I don’t think he quite understood how hard and exhausting it can be.

We’ve just enjoyed watching ‘Touch‘ together – the Kiefer Sutherland show about a singler father of an austic boy who doesn’t speak or touch anyone. His only contact is through numbers. In the story someone explains to him that his son is in extreme pain until the sequence of numbers is complete / the problem is solved. I used this to try and explain that the feelings of anxiety and stress I get when I’m in an eposide aren’t superficial, they are deeply rooted and can cause great distress and discomfort. They are physical symptoms and not just thoughts in my head. I think this comparison (though based in fiction) helped him get that more clearly.

When I’m trying to explain my OCD to people it’s mainly about getting them to understand the feelings my body is experiencing, rather than being too specific about incidents. I don’t go ‘I’m throwing away this notebook I’ve spent weeks filling with lovely things, because it’s been in contact with this book, which has a stain that looks like blood on it, and I don’t know if it was there when I got the book or if it’s something I’ve done to put it there and this is causing me great anxiety.’ Instead of specifics I will say what the trigger has been but focus on the feelings I’m going through.

My other useful tool to help describe my OCD is a picture like this:

We’ve all seen it in cartoons, the devil sitting on one shoulder telling you what to do and an angel sitting on the other telling you to do something else. For me, that’s what living with OCD is like. The OCD is the devil, whispering that bad things are going to happen, that things are contaminated and should be thrown away, that I need to scrub my hands clean etc. The angel is my logical brain telling me that the doors are locked, I have checked them already, the gas is off, that the germs will have died off by now.

I also explain that my brain isn’t like everyone elses’ – it can’t filter intrusive thoughts like other people can. A lot of people get bad thoughts but most just brush them away – my brain can’t do that. I have to consciously try and distract myself to move on without worrying. Although there’s no agreement to the cause of OCD, I often liken it to diabetes. A diabetic has problems with the level of insulin their body produces. I explain my body has problems with its amount of serotonin. This is a neurotransmitter that is involved in reducing anxiety through chemical messages. One theory is that people with OCD have less serotonin available, so pills such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors help there to be enough serotonin available by preventing its reuptake. This helps reduce anxiety. I’m on these pills and they do help.

Of course it’s important for the people I live with to understand my triggers; and my family do. This is important so they are aware of what might make me struggle and not be surprised if I have a meltdown. But it’s also been important to try and explain the sheer hell of anxiety, panic, fear, that I go through in an episode.

My family get that it’s my OCD and I’m not doing to it out of choice (although when I’m being particularly irratating I think some of them forget). On occasion it has been necessary for me to remind them of the emotional side of what I face day to day. They have a general understanding now of what OCD is and why I do the things I do, though I don’t think it’s complete. I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t had first hand experience of OCD can 100% understand, but we should never stop trying to improve people’s understanding. With increased understanding should come increased tolerance. If there’s more tolerance around for mental health conditions, people would feel more able to talk about them.

Poll – Mental Health in families

Even before I studied Psychology I always had an interest in the subject. One of my favourite debates is “nature vs nuture”. I will say here, I don’t think anything is solely one of the other – I think it’s a blend of factors.

However, interacting with lots of people on Twitter with mental  health problems has got me thinking. How many of them have family members with a mental health issue? Whilst this won’t tell me whether the cause of their’s is genetic, or because they’ve grown up surrounded by it; it will get the ball rolling.

I’d be really grateful if you could spend a few seconds completing the poll below and sharing it with your friends / contacts.

Many thanks!

Coping techniques to help you fight your OCD

I’ve been living with OCD for 10years this summer. Every now and then I contemplate going to therapy, or doing something more proactive to help myself get better. Then my so called ‘logical/scientific’ brain kicks in and tells me I have valid reasons for concern over the issues I do, so getting better might actually be the wrong thing to do. Stupid, I know – but it’s true.

As such I’ve been happy to sit back, take my pill every day, accept my OCD comes in cycles and that bad times with it will pass. Since starting my blog and my @girlwiththehat Twitter account, I’ve been interacting with lots of other people on their own mental health journey. Many of them are doing (or have done) proactive things to improve their situation. It’s helped me realise it’s time for me to do more.

Whilst I’m not nearly ready for therapy I have begun to develop techniques that at least help make me mentally stronger and face my OCD rather than hiding away from it. I have only just started doing these techniques consciously (and I’m not always in the mood – I might be too tired, or it might be inappropriate) but I have noticed a difference already. It’s slight at the moment; but at least I’m starting to recognise the thoughts for what they are and that’s an important first step.

These techniques aren’t cures. They’re not going to fix your OCD overnight. What they are, are coping strategies – things to have in the back of your mind to bring out to attack your OCD when confronted with an issue. Hopefully as you get used to them, they will become second nature and the OCD will catch you off guard less often. This way you can build up your strength against it and get to a point where  you can take the next step – be it that therapy, reducing your medication, talking to others more about it.

I thought I would share with you all the techniques I’ve found useful and I hope you find them helpful too.

The poem above my desk

Whenever I get stressed, either through OCD (which is quite often) or by everyday life, I find strength & comfort in the poem “Invictus” – written by William Ernest Henley (1875). I find it so valuable that I have it printed out and blu-tacked to the wall directly above my computer monitor. I discovered it through the film of the same name, staring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

It was an important poem to Nelson Mandela who used to recite it to fellow inmates on Robben Island as it gave him great inspiration. Not only are the words powerful and inspiring, but it reminds me that so many people are going through difficult times. And if someone can survive what Nelson Mandela had to, and come out as strong as he did, then surely I can get through my latest episode of OCD.

Here’s the poem. Enjoy!


Stealthy OCD

Sometimes my OCD is stealthy. By this I mean when I focus on one aspect of my OCD and start getting some control of it, it begins to subside lulling me into a false sense of security. But before I’ve noticed, another side of it has flared up out of my control. It seems it’s out to get me one way or another.

Now I know this isn’t true. I know it’s just my subconscious mind finding another outlet for anxiety. It seems it likes being in a constant state of anxiety (I guess it’s used to it after 10 years) and if I prevent one path it finds another. It’s much like a stream of water would create another route if the usual path was dammed.

What I have to learn is to keep that other channel under control somehow at the same time so it doesn’t sneak up on me unexpected. Guess it’s like driving – you have to have your main focus on the road in front whilst also being aware of what is behind you and coming in on the side roads. At the same time you have to keep an eye on your speed and gears. It’s all about maintaining several streams of awareness going at the same time. It’s not easy, but if I learnt to drive surely I can learn this to?

Does your OCD sometimes seem to have a mind of its own & if so how do you tackle it?

How habits become Obsessions by mistake

I’ve always been the type of person who has phases of tastes. ie I’ll listen to the same album (even the same 2-3 songs) for 6months without change, or watch the same TV series for 5months, with nothing else quite capturing me as much, then move onto something else for a year, before returning to it again.

Because of this, I’ll get into the habit of watching something before bed, or going to sleep listening to certain music – every night. Before I know it it’s become a habit I can’t break and straight into my nightly routine. It means I have to always see that TV show, that movie, listen to that song before I go to sleep or something bad will happen. I’ve managed to get it down to clips of certain things and I’ve made myself a compilation DVD for ease – but it still takes 20minutes to get through. This has been going on for several years now. Gradually I am changing things (and by gradual I do mean the speed of glacial ice). I can now watch my DVD & the various clips on my ipod at the same time, so I get through things quicker, I can have them on in the background, so not paying a lot of attention to them. I also have a clear out at the start of each year so that any I’ve accidentally added to the list can be taken out so I’m back to the core few. (It’s supposed to be every month, but I found that come the critical time I would be away from home, or something big was happening so I didn’t want to change things in case there was an effect).

I know it’s ridiculous, because honestly and scientifically – how can me watching anything have any effect on anything else other than keeping me awake longer than I should? Recently I had fallen into the trap of watching a new short clip of something everynight (it started out, because I wanted to, it kind of inspired my imagination) but then I didn’t want to anymore but had to anyway. This past week has been a real struggle for me sleep-wise and I’ve only just realised that for the past 2-3 nights, I’ve missed this bit out of my routine. Even thought, it’s probably saved me 40seconds, in a way I’m quite relieved. Although I do kind of want to watch it again, because as I said, I like the clip, I’m trying to avoid it – certainly at night, so it dosen’t get added to the routine, which is quite long enough.

It’s not just with TV or songs, it can also be checking new things, like the gas or certain lights etc and this just leads to longer and longer routines each night. Then they act this huge hurdle between me and bedtime because I don’t want to do them because of the time they take. Then I get to bed later and later and then I get more and more tired which sets of my OCD even more. It’s a never ending spiral.

The challenge I have to give myself is not to form the habits in the first place and if see a pattern forming I need to get out of it immediately. Then, gradually I need to let go of some of the habits I already have – maybe just concentrate on 1 at a time.

It would be great to hear from anyone else who has similar experiences or any tips.