20 October 2016

Catalogue of woes

A month on from writing about my stress over my parents' declining health, it's become apparent that the last few weeks have turned my situation into a microcosm of this blog.

It's as if I'd received the secret instruction 'Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to demonstrate to your readers as many of your issues as you can in as short a space of time as possible.'

Firstly, and almost inevitably, there has been an exacerbation of my OCD, as any distressing event is liable to have this effect. Increasing my ordering compulsions creates an illusion of certainty and control in largely uncertain and uncontrollable circumstances. 

Coming a close second is a flare-up of my generalised anxiety. These days, my body seems to be in a state of almost constant 'fight or flight'. Not only is my mind buzzing with worry, but I'm also experiencing the classic physical symptoms - mainly heart palpitations, a churning stomach and a sporadic loss of appetite. 

Even my tendency towards obsessive-compulsive spartanism - the opposite of hoarding - has reared its head again. When I cleaned my flat last week, it was all I could do not to throw away a whole heap of stuff in the process. I always find getting rid of things cleansing: it's as if I'm making space in my brain as well as my home. Fortunately I managed to avoid binning anything important.
Image courtesy of artur84/

Worst of all, however, has been the escalation of my insomnia. Even if I get to sleep quickly, the moment I wake in the night, my heart is racing. Before my mind has time to pick a worry to focus on, my body is on the case - it knows I'm anxious even when I'm asleep, which is reflected in the troubling dreams that make any rest I do get unrefreshing. Once awake, it can be up to an hour before I settle again. Multiply that by two or three times a night and it's no wonder I spend my days feeling like a zombie.

In addition, I've always had a propensity to tears - I've written previously about how some of us are 'highly sensitive people' - and tiredness only makes me more fragile. Barely a day goes by now when I don't cry at least once. 

The only respite from the mess in my head has been the couple of occasions when I've drunk slightly too much wine and inadvertently achieved a pleasant state of relaxation. However, I know self-medication is no solution. In a post last year, I expressed my concerns about that 'treatment' and, once again, I find myself having to make a conscious effort not to tread that path.

I have, at least, rediscovered sudoku puzzles, which I found to be a great distraction earlier this year, but had stopped doing. 

But puzzles are not enough. 

Reflecting on all of this, I've realised that I can't afford to wait for the cognitive behavioural therapy I've been promised, as that's likely to be at least three months away. I'll end up having a full-scale breakdown without some earlier intervention. 

So I'm considering paying privately for neuro-linguistic programming and/or hynotherapy sessions and also plan to seek - somewhat reluctantly - a prescription for sleeping pills.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear if any of these options have helped those of you who've experienced similar issues?

21 September 2016

Going pro

Image courtesy of cbenjasuwan/
A couple of weeks ago, I did something that I haven't done in decades: I sought professional help for my mental health issues - specifically, my generalised anxiety.

Those of you who regularly read my blog will know two things about me. The first is that, every now and again, I experience a period of exceptionally high anxiety, more often than not over some anticipated problem, rather than an actual crisis.

The second is that I've got by with little professional help - just one short course of treatment from an occupational therapist more than 20 years ago, when my OCD first took hold.

Although I've read a lot of books and online resources, I've never properly tackled my anxiety. My default approach is to grit my teeth and drag myself through difficult times hour by hour, managing to hang on only because I know I've survived them before.

The reason I'm seeking help now is that there's no end in sight to my current stress, as the cause is my parents' declining health and corresponding difficulty in managing on their own. 

My sister lives half an hour's drive away from them, so does what she can on the ground, while I - being 100+ miles away - have tried to make myself useful with research on care options, funding, Power of Attorney and so on. It's a steep learning curve, but being proactive and getting informed creates an illusion of control amidst all the worry, sadness and frustration.

Tearfully telling a friend about it all, I said 'I feel such a wuss. I mean, everybody goes through this, don't they?' 'Yes,' she said, 'but everybody goes through it with tears and anxiety.' A friend once again being kinder to me than I am to myself. 

She's right, of course, just because everybody goes through it, doesn't make it any easier at an individual level. In the same way, everybody experiences bereavement, but that doesn't make your own losses any more bearable. 

Having closely followed this year's Paralympics, it occurs to me that, likewise, you wouldn't expect somebody who had lost an arm in an accident to take it in their stride just because millions of other people are amputees!

When I found myself wailing to another friend 'I can't imagine ever feeling happy or relaxed again', I realised that I needed to do something; I had to arm myself with some proper tools to cope.

After my GP had listened to my woes and my response to them - or, at least, what she could hear of it all through the sniffing and the crying - she said, 'I had another patient in almost exactly the same position and cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT] really helped'. I left the surgery with a self-referral form for the Mind Matters Barnet service.

The form is largely taken up by an Anxiety and Depression Questionnaire, which asks how often you feel, for example, 'Little interest or pleasure in doing things' and 'Down, depressed, or hopeless'. I scored a lot of 3s, ie 'Nearly every day'. 

A telephone assessment quickly followed, once again accompanied, on my part, by sniffing and crying that rendered me almost incoherent at times. A few days later, I was told that I had been approved for CBT...but that there was a four month waiting list.

So, in the meantime, it's back to the teeth-gritting and getting through life hour by hour - with just the tiniest of lights visible at the end of the tunnel.

17 August 2016

Anxiety on wheels

Driving is one of those apparently straightforward day-to-day activities that causes me anxiety for a whole host of reasons.

My biggest fear is the perhaps rather obvious one of being involved in a crash, though this generally only rears its head when I'm on roads where high speeds are permitted. 

The main issue is my lack of control over the vehicles around me - I'm worried not only about other drivers' competence (or lack thereof), but also the risk of mechanical failure that might send tonnes of metal hurtling into my path.

It doesn't help that my car - a striking copper-coloured Micra - is nearly 19-years-old and only has a 1 litre engine. I can't even overtake speedily, let alone nip out of the way of trouble.

Up until the beginning of this month, I hadn't driven on a motorway in more than 18 months, although I had often been on busy - sometimes 3-lane - A roads. This was due to circumstance, rather than avoidance, but I was starting to worry that I would lose my nerve completely, if I didn't get in some practice.

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As it happened, I had to travel to the Midlands a couple of weeks ago and I was nervous as I set off on my journey of 100 miles or so up the M1.

Once in the flow of fast-moving traffic, I was plagued by visions of doom. I imagined every high-sided lorry that passed toppling onto my car and crushing me. I expected a tyre to blow out, or my engine to fail, at any moment. And every time the traffic slowed and began to bunch up, I envisioned a multi-vehicle pile-up.

Also, I couldn't help thinking of the neighbour whose car was written off, when a wheel came off a lorry on the opposite carriageway and bounced across the barrier onto her car bonnet. She and her passengers escaped with minor injuries, but it could have been a different story, had the wheel landed a split second later, on the roof.

It's this kind of unpredictability that those of us with OCD find hard to deal with. We seek comfort in compulsions that give a sense of control and seem to establish a degree of certainty over our environment and our lives. Certainty is an unachievable target, however, and trying to carry out compulsions while driving is likely to be counterproductive!

Other anxieties also come into play when I'm driving. Every time I smell smoke or burning, I assume it's a problem with my car. The same goes for any unusual noise. A couple of days ago, as I parked up, I noticed that my engine was 'roaring' - only to get out of the car and realise the sound was coming from a motorbike further up the road.

As an anxiety sufferer, my senses are on permanent high alert for problems, whatever the situation, but I've become even more nervous about my car, now that it's so old. My recent journey 'up north' has, at least, helped me to regain some degree of confidence on motorways. 

And I very much appreciate the convenience and freedom that driving affords me. Those benefits more than make up for all the associated anxieties: as is so often the case, facing your fears definitely has its rewards.

20 July 2016


Image courtesy of blackzheep/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
While I wouldn't wish OCD on anybody, if I see someone experiencing similar anxieties and responses in a non-OCD context, I welcome this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the condition by drawing parallels to 'normal' life.

Take, for instance, reaction to the recent EU referendum. 

I live in London, where the vote was in favour of 'Remain', and everybody I know was devastated by the result. The ensuing uncertainty about this nation's future was - and still is - the cause of most people's distress. And uncertainty is something that those with OCD find difficult, if not impossible, to tolerate. 

It's that inability to tolerate the unknown that leads to compulsions such as excessive hand-washing, to avoid contamination and illness, or repeatedly checking the front door is locked, to prevent a burglary. 

The disorder causes a myriad of other less well-known behaviours, many of which appear utterly illogical, having no basis in common sense or practicality. We all wash for sanitary reasons and lock up for security, but most of us don't, for example, feel compelled to perform actions a set number of times.

So how does all of this translate to the EU referendum result? 

In the immediate aftermath, the government's silence as to the way forward fuelled anxieties. One colleague repeatedly said - almost wailed - 'What's the plan? Why hasn't anybody told us what they're going to do?' 

A week or so after the result, she circulated an email with a link to a petition to 'Prosecute Nigel Farage* under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006'. Now clearly this petition wasn't going to provide clarity as to our future, but as she said 'I know there are so many [petitions] at the moment. I think signing them might be helping my feelings of helplessness.'

She wasn't the only one. People across the country have been driven to take action - any kind of action - to regain some sense of control. The uncertainty is just too great to sit idly by waiting for something to happen.

There's a very clear parallel between how all of these people are feeling and reacting in the wake of the referendum and how those with OCD feel and react on a day to day basis.

And so how was I faring in all of this? - surprisingly well, as it turned out.

My ordering compulsions are often triggered by distressing events on the world stage and I was certainly upset by the result. However, within a few days, I had resigned myself to it, concluding that there was little I could do to change things. 

I admit, I was quite surprised by this response, as I frequently worry about things I can't change. When I reflected on it, though, I realised that those anxieties are generally about situations where I can, at least, imagine the possible outcomes and consequences, such as, say, my car passing or failing its MOT.

In relation to 'Brexit', I don't know what all of the repercussions will be and, as a result, there's no clear focus for my anxiety. The uncertainty is just so huge that it's beyond comprehension and so - perhaps strangely - I've been able to stop worrying about it.

If you also now feel helpless and anxious in the face of an uncertain future, I'd ask you to spare a thought for those of us who live with that constant tyranny. It's really no fun at all, is it?

* * *

*Former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who fought for the country to leave the EU for years.

16 June 2016

Madam Speaker

Public speaking is an activity that fills many people with dread, not just those of an anxious nature. My own fear has its origins in an incident that took place when I was 17-years-old. 

At my secondary school, the upper sixth-form pupils had to take it in turns to read a bible passage at the lower school assembly. This meant joining the head teacher up on the stage, in front of hundreds of 11 to 14-year-olds. As a teenager, I was an introvert and the last thing I wanted was to be centre of attention. 

We were given no guidance as to how to deal with this challenge and by the time I stood up to deliver my reading, my heart was racing; my voice trembled so much that I was almost unintelligible. That experience was a poor foundation for handling similar situations in the future.

So intense is my dislike of speaking in public that I even avoid asking questions in group settings, unless I absolutely have to. Then I become so dizzy with nerves that I barely register the answer anyway.

I'm not much better in social environments. While I love to chat and to make people laugh, I can only cope with an audience of up to three. If a lull in surrounding conversations means more than that tune in to mine, I'm instantly uncomfortable. I'd be a great stand-up comedian, if only I could hold all my gigs in a wardrobe.

However, as a writer, giving talks is a great way to raise your profile and promote your work, so it was something I had to face. Not least because I also wanted to share my experience of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, in order to raise awareness and to help address the ongoing stigma around mental health.

Image courtesy of North Finchley Library
The first couple of talks, at local libraries, were as nerve-wracking as I'd expected. I had to put my glass of water on a shelf behind me, so that nobody could see my hand shaking when I took a sip. However, they seemed to go well and I received a good reception at both.

Last month, I gave three presentations for staff at my local council, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, and was surprised to find that my anticipatory nerves had gone. By the time it came to the second, I was actively looking forward to the event.

All the usual speakers' tips had failed to calm me previously, so what had changed? My increasing familiarity with my material probably helped, but I think the key factor was the positive response to my earlier talks. Now, at least, I was going in with the confidence that my audience wouldn't be bored rigid.

At every event, I've ended up chatting to people who either have a mental health problem themselves or know somebody who does. It's rewarding to be able to steer them in the direction of appropriate resources, or just to reassure them that they're not alone.

And I'm grateful that overcoming one of my anxiety demons means I can now do more to help others tackle their issues.