Often you only find out by accident that other people might consider aspects of your behaviour odd. For me, that realisation came when I first saw the film Sleeping with the Enemy at the cinema.
The movie features a man who subjects his wife to physical and psychological abuse, before attempting to kill her. He is also obsessed with order and control, and his habits include arranging food tins with military precision and ensuring that towels hang at the same level.
When the audience gasped at this, I wondered why. Didn’t everybody organise their things that way?
Later, I kept quiet, while my friends discussed these ‘weird’ habits. Although I was pretty sure I wasn’t a murderous sociopath, I didn’t dare admit to engaging in the same obsessive ordering. Tins and towels were the least of it for me.
That was in 1991. It was another five years before a therapist told me I had obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD]. It took several more for me to understand that the condition is ‘just’ an anxiety disorder. Yes, some murderers happen to have OCD, but having OCD does not make you a murderer.
In fact, there is no ‘just’ about having this condition, which can be completely debilitating in its most extreme form. Sufferers may be unable to work, maintain relationships, or function in any way that might be considered normal.
At its worst, my need for order and symmetry in my immediate environment prevented me from having anybody else in my home. I was also unable to leave my flat without everything being exactly where it should be, to the millimetre.
These days, although I live on my own, I’m able to have people visit and even stay over—which is just as well for my boyfriend. I’m still compelled, though, to put things ‘right’ as soon as I’m alone.
‘Right’ means replacing all of my belongings in the precise position I’ve allocated for them. Some are arranged by size, as well as being centred, evenly spaced or aligned with existing lines, such as the edge of a table. Different patterns work for different groups of objects, depending on their size, shape and general location.
So, the toiletries on top of my chest of drawers are equidistant from each other, my drinking glasses are ordered by size, and items placed in the fridge follow the lines of the shelving racks.
The positioning rules are, by their nature, specific. The glasses, for example, must descend in size from left to right. A friend, who also ranks glasses, has them ascending in that direction. To me, that’s as wrong as not ordering them at all!
Rules apply, equally, to larger items, like furniture, and those that are hidden, such as clothes, which have to be folded or hung in a particular manner.
It’s all about what feels right; a feeling that’s impossible to explain, hard to achieve and that can lead some sufferers to repeat the same compulsion for hours.
It’s impossible, also, to explain OCD’s contradictions, certain of which I experience in relation to my contamination issues.
Contamination fears are a better known form of the condition, although they’re less of a problem for me—and I actually avoid cleaning, because it means moving things—but they are evident.
For example, I won’t pick up, and eat, food that falls onto an uncovered table in a restaurant, and I have to wash my hands immediately after stroking my boyfriend’s cat. However, I will eat food that drops onto my living room floor and will happily bury my face in my cat’s fur.
Most of us with OCD recognise that such behaviour is illogical—like all of our compulsions.
My urges are driven by a need for control, which helps to reduce my anxiety at living in an often scary world, where disaster can strike at any moment. Yet, clearly, spacing my clothes’ hangers won’t stop terrorists, train accidents or tsunamis.
I only need to control what belongs to me, so friends and family needn’t worry if their homes, cars or desks are a mess. My colleagues’ desks could look like landfill sites and I wouldn’t care, so long as I can maintain my oasis. These small corners, where order prevails, are my sanctuaries against that big, bad world.
Although I have my condition under better control than when it was first diagnosed, occasionally it takes over. Moments of great stress can provoke ordering compulsions that I just can’t stop. That inability to stop then creates more stress, triggering further compulsions, and still more stress… and so I go on, until I’m worn out, and beyond.
An event directly affecting me might have caused the initial upset, but so might one far removed from my own life. Watching the news is an activity fraught with possible triggers.
Even on a good day, my habits permeate everything I do. All those seconds of straightening and positioning add up to minutes, and those minutes to hours. Just an hour a day—a conservative estimate—would mean I’m wasting more than 15 days a year. Frankly, I’d rather spend that time on a fortnight’s holiday.
While these compulsions are distressing and time wasting, they’re also very hard to resist, as resistance itself provokes anxiety.
Lying behind all of this is an anxious personality, which has me conjuring up visions of death and destruction on the basis of almost nothing. If someone doesn’t answer their phone, they must be dead. If I find a new freckle, it must be a melanoma. If I smell burning, something of mine must be on fire. I don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, I make the Himalayas.
Scientists don’t fully understand what causes OCD, though it’s believed to result from a combination of factors. These include genetics, psychology, life experiences and even possibly a chemical imbalance in the brain. The mix varies from one individual to another.
For me, it developed after a particularly bad year, during which I was made redundant, separated from my husband and had to move house. As my doctor said, when I finally approached her, “No wonder you’re in a pickle.”
With the help of an occupational therapist, a support group and a self-help book, I eventually learnt to manage the condition.
Some people question whether a full recovery is ever possible. What is not in doubt, is that even those most severely affected can get their lives back.
I, for one, am determined never to let OCD take mine.
This was first published in the March 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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