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.

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!

Battling OCD on all fronts

At the moment, my OCD isn’t too bad – or so I thought. I’m not particulary stressed at the moment and that’s normally a sign my OCD is going to escalate. However, yesterday I noticed that my hands are getting red and sore – a sure indicator that I’ve been washing my hands too often, so I stepped back and thought about my recent behaviour.

By doing this I realised that for at least some of the time, I carry out my rituals and compulsions subconsciously. They have become such an automatic response that I don’t even realise I’m doing them! That’s what it’s been like for the past week or two and why I’ve got red hands.

When I step back even further, I see myself snapping at people for doing things like walking in the ‘wrong’ place in my bedroom. Thinking about it, I wouldn’t normally have a problem with this, but with Christmas coming up, I like to do all my wrapping on the floor in my room – and I don’t want to sit where someone has walked. Obviously this doesn’t trouble anyone else, so they shouldn’t be expected to realise it, but I do get short tempered with them which later annoys me as I shouldn’t expect them to be mind readers. It’s been worse than usual at the moment because our very old cat is not really very well and has taken refuge under my bed, so my parents keep coming to look at her. I’ve just had a set to with my Dad who came in and walked in the exact place I’d just told my Mum I didn’t want anyone standing. I said ‘please can you not stand there, can you just move over?’ he asked ‘why?’ – but didn’t move. As he knows I have a problem, I was annoyed that he didn’t move first and then ask the question, by standing there longer, it just made me worse. I know the best thing for me is to confront the problem in my head, but sometimes it’s just too difficult.

I should remember back to the time when I used to walk round the house in outdoor shoes and lie on the floor and never got sick, but it’s very difficult. My mind just says ‘that was then, this is now. There are more dangers now then there were’ – which I know isn’t true!

I really thought I was fairly in control at the moment. I was aware I had begun to get up at night more often to check on the noises that worry me, so I’ve not been getting to sleep much before 2am which I know is dangerous for me – a tired mind is less able to combat my OCD. But whilst I was consiously fighting off these compulsions, the others were sneaking in the back door like a distraction burglar. It made me reaslise I have to be aware of all my OCD tendencies at the same time and fight them off from multiple fronts.

I was wondering – does this happen to anyone else? Think you have a grasp on one part of your OCD only to find another has hit you without you realising? It would be great to hear.


Is OCD real?

I’ve just read a forum thread about whether or not OCD is real (you can read it for yourself here). For those of us fighting the battle on a daily basis, or know someone who is, this is a ridiculous question. Of course OCD is real. I’ve been living with it for 10years and it really isn’t a whole lot of fun. I wish it was made up so that I could take the day off from it and do all the fun things that it stops me from doing!

I think some of the problem is that many people still insist on using all mental health phrases incorrectly.

“I’m a little bit depressed” for when someone is just a bit sad for genuine reasons

“They’re schizophrenic” for someone who can be nice one moment and angry the next

“I’m a little bit OCD” for when someone is extra tidy and likes things their way

These, and other such phrases, are the ones that are thrown around general society – I hear them all the time and it doesn’t help those of us with the real problems. The phrases trivialise the issues far too much and put us off from speaking out because we know we’ll be ridiculed and not taken seriously. They also lead to questions like ‘Is OCD real?’

One of my main issues with what this person has written is that he questions whether it is a made up condition from attention seekers who clog up doctors’ waiting rooms pretending to be ill. I can only speak from personal experience, but my OCD makes me hate the doctors and avoid going there as much as possible. Apart from my initial diagnosis I’ve hardly spent any time in the doctors about my OCD. I had to go to yearly appointments to check how I was getting on, but for the past 5years this has been a couple of minutes on the telephone. So I hardly think I’m clogging up his time. More people are taking his time up with colds that he can do nothing for. I have also never taken a day off sick because of my OCD (I know I’m lucky here and that lots of others have had to be signed off from work). I pay for my own prescriptions so I hardly think I’m a burden on society – to myself and my family yes, but not the general world.

I wish there was a way to make those who doubt OCD (and other mental illnesses) experience what it’s like living with one for a week. I think they would soon change their minds. As there’s no quick pill we can give them to induce the horrors, we have to turn to education. My OCD is a constant. Sometimes it has a snooze and I can get on with my life as best as I can, but it’s always there waiting to wake up and paralyse me with fear, my mind going round and round and round with anxiety. I’m jealous of all those around me living what I see as ‘normal lives’, wishing I could be the same.

Mental health needs to be taken seriously. We need to talk about it more and people need to learn the correct terminology. No one would ever say they’re hyperglycaemic when they’ve eaten way too much chocolate. We have to get to a position where they’re using mental health phrases properly too.

I do think mental health should be discussed at school. I’m not aware that it is – it certainly wasn’t in my school. It should also be discussed more openly in the workplace. I don’t mean that you have to stand on a chair one day and shout ‘I have OCD’ but there should be regular days set aside for mental health where someone can go up to a volunteer (could be someone with a mental health problem, knows someone with one, the occupational health officer) and ask questions. It should be encouraged – there could even be a pop quiz making people think more seriously. (We did this at work recently with environmental issues the business faces and people’s eyes were opened).

In the meantime those of us who know the truth, must stand together and support one another. One day attitudes will change. We just have to hold on until then.

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.

World Mental Health Day

It’s odd looking round the office this morning – everyone’s acting ‘normally’, however with the statistics and the numbers in the office, it’s more than likely that someone (other than me) has a mental health problem &/or has a relative with one too. Yet, there is no sign or mention of World Mental Health Day – or even any mental health issues at all. Anyone out there with a condition is keeping it tightly to themselves (like me). I don’t expect people to be running around shouting ‘I have OCD, I have Depression, I have GAD’ or anything, but I certainly know all about it if they’ve got a cold.

That’s why days such as this are so important. Too long has mental health been misunderstood, feared and swept into the shadows. It needs a voice and organisations such as Mind UK and Time to Change are campaigning to get this voice, but it’s a slow process. People need to be educated about mental health conditions – either because they’re going to run into someone with one, a friend, relative, employer/employee or they’re going to be one of the ¼ and suffer from one themselves. What we need to do it to make mental health conditions acceptable, so that people aren’t scared or embarrassed about going to the doctor for help; that they see it just as they would see going to a doctor for a chest infection or sprained ankle.

It’s the 21st Century yet the preconceptions surrounding mental illness – that Depression is just being a bit blue, that OCD is being a little bit tidy – are still common place.

Therefore I urge everyone who can, to speak out, to share their story, to educate. You don’t need to do this face to face, it can be anonymous if you like. Although I know I should speak out to my close friends and my manager, particularly so I get help when times are tough, but I just can’t do it yet. Their understanding of mental health is shockingly poor (even for the one who did Psychology 20years ago), despite me trying to explain things when they come up in conversation. That’s why I started this blog – so I can share and educate both those with OCD and those without.

I hope you can find the strength too and take that step.