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.

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!

Sick Days

I have OCD. I’ve had it for 10years this summer. For me it’s very much like a rollercoaster. Sometimes, it’s at a nice low level, so although I have to still do all my rituals, it’s manageable – particularly in my head. However, there are times when it spirals out of control. Most of the time there’s a specific trigger for this, but there are times when there isn’t and I put it down to stress or overtiredness. There are times when I’ve been up pretty much all night fretting, trying to fight off the compulsions, but inevitably dragging myself out of bed to perform them. I wake in the morning to go to work and I’m just so mentally and physically exhausted that I can’t face it. But to this day, I’ve never had a day off sick because of my OCD.
In a way I’m proud of this (and know I’m lucky), that I won’t let it beat me but in a way I wish I could just have the odd day off just to regroup. I know a lot of people at work take time off when they’re feeling under the weather – be it because they’ve eaten something or because they have a bit of a cold, or even a migraine. That’s perfectly accepted by them and by others. No one other than immediate family, a couple of medical practitioners and the occupational health advisor at work know about my OCD and at the moment it’s going to stay that way. It shouldn’t, but it does take bravery to open up about a mental health problem, and I’m just not there yet. Therefore I would end up lying about why I’ve been ill and that’s not going to work. I sit next to my housemate at work so she would know instantly whether or not I’d been coughing all night or throwing up. I’m not that good an actor that I can pull that sort of thing off just to take a day off to help me catch my breath during a particularly bad phase.
That’s why I think it’s so important to have days like World Mental Health Day, where mental health can come to the front for a bit and be spoken about. Education is the most important part of dealing with it. How mental health conditions are not someone’s choice, any more than it would be for them to choose to have epilepsy or asthma. How it can turn someone’s life upside down. My life would be so much easier if I could choose not to have OCD. I would be able to go out with friends without constantly checking the cutlery at dinner or the glasses in the pub. I would be able to sit on a train without my anxiety levels soaring. I would be able to go to the park and sit on the grass and I might even be able to walk about bare foot again. I wouldn’t be up half the night worrying about whether I’ve checked doors and windows and whether my family are okay. I wouldn’t dread going to bed because of the thoughts that will wash over me and I wouldn’t hate going on a holiday. If I could choose not to have had OCD and all these worries about ‘what’s out there to get me’ then I would. Now I’ve had those thoughts though, I know the ‘dangers’ and I can never go back. OCD is all about the ‘what ifs’ and they play in my mind like a broken record. All I can hope is that I can manage my OCD through relaxation, meditation, distraction and medication. I’m much more aware of it now and that it is the OCD causing me a problem and that I can fight it. Social media has helped me learn I’m not alone and together we can fight this. If you’ve got OCD I urge you to talk about it with someone who understands – even if, like me, you do it anonymously. It really does help.

This week’s battle with & tiny victory over OCD

I realise I’ve neglected Twitter and my blog over the past week or so. Part of this has been because I’ve had family staying but the bulk of it is to do with my OCD.

Last Thursday I went to the dentist and was told I needed one of my wisdom teeth out. This was a big blow – not because I particularly need it, but because of the repercussions. I had to have 2 wisdom teeth out at hospital once and it was not a very nice experience at all and there was a threat of having to go in again. This sent my anxiety levels soaring. I also have a major issue with sterile conditions – ie I have major doubts. Even going to the dentist had stressed me out so much that I had already increased my medication to prepare for the onslaught of bad thoughts & obsessions.

Having the family over generally helped – they kept me distracted most of the time. Saturday wasn’t brilliant – everything the kids did added to my spiral as I mentioned in my last post. My pills make me more sleepy so I was trying to make sure I went to bed on time (ie by 12.30) and I was having a few lie ins. I know everyone else was thinking I was being lazy but I didn’t care – I knew I needed that sleep.

Tuesday and the day of the dentist came. I’d never been to this dentist before. In fact I hadn’t been to Thursday’s dentist before either, but his wife who has left to have a baby. But my Mum goes to him and is a nervous wreck at dentists and rates him highly. I don’t hate dentists as such. In fact as a child I loved going and never minded if I needed treatment or even extractions. It was the experience in the hospital and my OCD worries about cleanliness that have made me hate going so much. I admit I was better than usual. I didn’t shake in the chair as much as I was expecting and was told that was likely to be the adrenalin in the anaesthetic. I was comforted by the fact I could hear packets being opened before tools were used. I’m always in a quandry do I try and ignore things in the belief ignorance is bliss, or do I try and see everything to remove as much doubt as possible?

But with OCD there is always doubt. And there is this time. I carried on taking my full dose of medication rather than the half dose that I’m normally on. My pills help me stop thinking. I think that’s the point – they stop the bad thoughts and generally the limited time I’ve been on the full dose has helped. However, the amount of thinking space that’s been taken up by trying to not think about the bad things, plus the amount that has been quietened by my OCD medications, plus the strong painkillers I’m on because of my tooth – hasn’t left much space for much else! That’s why I’ve been so quiet. I haven’t had room in my brain to think about good blog subjects or to keep up on Twitter.

I’ve now reduced my medication again and although there is always a few days lag time (depending on how long I’ve been on full dose for) I feel like I’m waking up again. So, hopefully I should be a little bit more present in the weeks coming.

I don’t know whether it was because of the increase in OCD medication or just trying to copy what my friends do and be more relaxed in the house I share with my friend, but yesterday we had a group of friends over. It was a happy occasion – celebrating one of my friends going off on maternity leave. Unlike the last time we had a party at the house I didn’t freak out this time. It may have been that it was more confined and there was less of them – plus I knew everyone there, but I coped so much better. I didn’t mind they were sitting on the part of the sofa I normally sit on, I didn’t mind they had their handbags on the chairs, I didn’t mind them having their shoes on and I didn’t mind eating the crisps from the bowls the packets had been in. The only time I really had a ‘moment’ was when a friend put one of my cookbooks on the floor. As I’m loaning it out to my housemate I’m sure similar things will happen again and again, but as long as I don’t see it, it doesn’t bother me so much. It was only a small victory but a victory none the less. The week that started with quite major OCD issues ended up with me having a small triumph over it!

Keeping it from the kids

I’ve had a week off work as holiday. It’s been marvellous – lots of Olympics and a few lie ins. We’ve had family staying too. My sister and her 3 boys. They’re great kids really and my sister has some similar ‘rules’ that I do. ie the children have to take their shoes off when they come into the house and wash their hands.

However, the boys, being boys & children, don’t always do what they’re told. They forget to wash their hands, they crawl all over the floor where their shoes have been – they set off my OCD. When we’re out they’re often picking up things I wouldn’t, again they touch floors in shops, collect random things from paths in woods, lie all over various things we come across on day trips – be it chairs, tables, shop displays, country house furniture. All the time red alert lights are flashing in my mind as I desperately resist the urge to shout at them not to do it. Sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes it’s more valid than others – there are some things they shouldn’t touch when we’re out, but not for the reasons my mind is screaming. So, somethings I can get away with. But I can’t get away with everything. This means my stress levels sore & I don’t cope with my OCD very well when I’m stressed – it’s a negative spiral.

Being 6, 6 & 10 the boys don’t understand about OCD. They know there are a few things ‘Aunty’ doesn’t like, but although educating youngsters about mental health is important, I don’t want to force too much onto their brains just yet. The oldest in particular is already showing some signs of obsessive behaviour – he likes to wash his hands a lot – so I don’t want to make things worse. I’m hoping this is just a phase and he’ll grow out of it. He doesn’t seem to be exhibiting any of the instrusive or bad thoughts yet so I don’t want to give him ideas.

One of them is currently counting coins on the floor. I hate handling all kinds of money – I just see it as covered in germs. It is stressing me out considerably. Most of the coins probably haven’t been out of the house for several weeks but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help much that he’s counting it in amongst the shoes – one of my other real hates.

The only way I can really handle things is to take myself out of the situation completely. I feel quite antisocial sometimes, or like I’m sherking my responsibility of looking after the kids – but at times it’s that or me shouting at the kids over something no one else has an issue about, or having a complete meltdown myself. At the moment I’m already struggling a little bit, and have decided to up by medication slightly for a few days – because I’ve got to have a tooth out at the dentists in a few days (I’m highly worried and anxious over the cleanliness of the instruments) – so I’m trying to get back onto an even keel. Sadly the boys right now aren’t helping. I have taken myself off to my own room and am trying to distract and calm myself.

It’s so difficult trying not to display too many OCD behaviours in front of children. We don’t know if it’s genetic or learned or even a combination. Whichever it is, I think they’re a bit young to be exposed to it at the moment, I don’t want them picking up by bad behaviour (and they do copy me quite a bit) and it’s not their fault they’re doing things I don’t like. There’s nothing wrong with most of what they do, and if there is, they get into trouble. I hate losing my temper with them because of the OCD but I do find myself doing that from time to time.

Have you had a similar situation when you’ve tried to keep your OCD (or other mental health issue) from young children? How have you coped?

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?

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?

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.

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.