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How does OCD affect your life?
It’s been a while since I blogged about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have been receiving intensive Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and here is an update on my progress.
From work with my therapist, I now think my OCD started in about 1993. It is often latent in children so it may go back further but I first noticed something was strange – I didn’t think of it as ‘wrong’ then – when I gave up full-time busking in 1993. I was just about to complete my second music album as a 12″ vinyl record. I was very proud of this but I knew that my career in music would have to be put on hold. We were in a deep recession in the UK then and I was not making any money. Worse, musicians were abandoning the cause like flies and I couldn’t even find musicians good enough and dedicated to continue performing with a band.
My last performance in London was at the Jazz Club in the basement of the Pizza Parlour in Wardour Street. I had written a blues song years before and a next-door neighbour turned out to be a jazz/blues singer of some reputation, having recorded quite a lot with Marc Bolan late in her career. She recorded my song and then asked me to make a guest appearance at the Jazz Club one night in late 1993. I wasn’t even going to go. I remember eating my dinner and then saying:
“What the fuck! Let’s do it!”
I had seen a girlfriend, who was an excellent Jazz singer, perform there a few years before. The club was a smokey, cramped basement and all the great and good from the jazz world made informal appearances there; people like Andy Summers (ex-Police guitarist for those of you who are old enough to remember them), Jeff Beck and Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes (I think it was called The Flamingo in the 60s). A house band provided backing for any song you elected to sing and you took your turn on stage. In short, it terrified me! However, I wanted one last blast so I climbed on stage when my time came and sang an experimental song I had just written. The house band gave up after a few bars but I had a big round of applause and felt elated. Since then, I haven’t performed in public.
Perhaps my life, after that, seemed boring and that is what sparked the OCD. I remember cleaning the windows, as I did religiously every Monday, and having to repeat it because I didn’t feel I had done it ‘right’. I thought it odd then, but the thing with OCD is that it is so insidious. It creeps up on you. Over the next ten years, I gradually had more difficulty doing basic tasks like cleaning and using public transport. It came to a head when I started working in a very prestigious position within the IT industry. I had lost contact with many of my musician friends, especially the buskers because buskers never give real addresses or telephone numbers; it’s an illegal profession. Many of my friends from school and my previous career in graphics had settled down and no longer ventured out at night, even for drinks. I was lonely. My mind had plenty of time to dwell on past successes and failures and perhaps there seemed to be more failures than successes. In any case, I found that I was doing the laundry two or even three times, was avoiding letting my trousers touch weeds or curb-stones and washing up took hours, when I could actually face it. My biggest fears were of dust and dirt on items in my flat. Both were significantly different.
Fear of Dust
The fear of dust may well come from busking; I had to sing for up to ten hours per day, seven days per week, to pay for my rent, and food for myself and my cat, Beep. As any opera singer knows dust can aggravate a sore throat, or if you are really pushing your voice, make a voice sore. I used to spray water around the top of the room at night to keep the dust down. That may be where my fear of dust was born. However, there is also the little story of how I used to get frustrated painting my plastic model aircraft as a kid. There would always be a speck of dust on a wing and I would want to repaint it. I tried using an expensive airbrush, using the garage and spraying the garage with water (Aha! That’s where that technique came from!) but nothing worked. Eventually, I would become dissatisfied with a model and would lose interest. I rarely finished any of them. My dad said I was too much of a perfectionist. Perhaps I was but other modellers didn’t seem to have the same problem. I once watched a friend paint a model. He did nothing special but the paint went on smoothly; no dust at all!
Fear of Dirt
The fear of dirt in the flat doesn’t seem to have been so bad until my marriage in 2006. For some reason, since my wife left, I don’t like touching anything she might have touched.
As I said, my OCD peaked in the early 2000s. I knew something was wrong and I started to make efforts to get to grips with it. It was clear to me it was ‘all in my mind’ because when I went to Kyrgyzstan for 6 weeks, getting to know my future wife, I didn’t seem to have OCD anymore. Let’s face it, in a country where people wash their hands in puddles and some flats don’t even have running water, let alone soap, I didn’t have much choice. Things seemed to slowly improve after this.
It was when stress mounted at work in about 2010 that things started to deteriorate. Then somebody noticed my ‘sensitivity to dirt’ and the HR team sent me to see an occupational therapist. The conclusion was that I had OCD but that it was not too severe, in fact remarkably mild considering the length of time I had struggled with it, and that the prognosis was good. Using the private health scheme I was paid up to, I referred myself to one of the best therapists in the country; Dr David Veale. He has written an excellent self-help book on OCD so if you are interested, it’s on Amazon here. I am going to create a permanent page here for OCD sufferers which will have the link to David’s book and a little bit of information.
He then referred me to another therapist who I saw for 4 months during late 2012. My health scheme only gave me funding for about 8 sessions. During the last few I made a plan to carry out over the next year: I would employ a proper cleaner and get my flat cleaned regularly. This certainly seemed to help but then I was made redundant! I could no longer afford a cleaner. I was still useless at cleaning myself; either to fussy or simply afraid to do it.
Then I met my new partner and it was quickly clear that the OCD was going to damage our relationship. Something had to be done. I went to my GP and told him I needed more help. They recommended me to a clinic nearby so that I could get treatment on the NHS. The waiting list was about 3 months but since then I have been under intensive CBT. This is every week and very different to the previous therapy. It is focused on giving me practical tools to deal with the OCD myself rather than simply focusing on understanding the root of the problem. I have two weeks left to go of the current course and again, I am developing a plan to help me carry on recovering after the course starts.
So what has changed?
Am I recovering? Yes, I think I am. This week I drank from a cup which I know contained dust. How do I know this? I took a torch with me into the kitchen, and after I rubbed my hands (which I always do to remove dust before touching food) I shone the torch over the cup and sawdust! What is more, I saw dust going into the cup. It proves to me that no matter what I do, there will always be dust everywhere. I cannot stop it going in my mouth. Strangely, I have found that science often helps me overcome OCD (Perhaps this is because I had a scientific upbringing; my dad was an engineer and fascinated by science).
Several times my arms have touched parts of the flat which I felt were dirty and I have not given in to the urge to wash that part of my body. This would have been impossible a few months ago. My therapist says that when I touch something which I feel is dirty and I am trying to counter the urge to clean, I should consider that I am ‘cleansed by life’. This certainly seems to work for me.
Furthermore, I have decided to take a pragmatic idealist approach to hygiene. I think I am possibly a pragmatic idealist (if you are interested look up Josiah Royce), although perhaps I am in a subdivision: those who aim for a vision or ideal but can accept less than this (pragmatic approach) for a limited amount of time to get from A to B. I apply this principle to most of my life but I never applied it to hygiene. I don’t know why but now I will try. This will mean accepting the concept of ‘degrees of cleanliness’ rather than having a black and white view; ‘there was a speck of dust and therefore everything is dirty’. I hope this will help. Today I am going to try another exercise to put this idea into practice.
I have also managed to make progress with ‘hesitation’, which is a common problem for people with OCD and is sometimes referred to as brain-lock. It is well known, though not understood, that OCD sufferers have great difficulty going from a static state (ie thinking, sitting, sleeping, watching tv) to an active state (moving, walking, using the remote control). The moment of decision often produces a disconnect in the chain of thoughts and leads to a kind of hesitation. This can be very bad and sometimes force people to repeat tasks over and over again, or complete rituals to escape the disconnect.
Finally, I would like to end on a funny story: OCD can be really very funny sometimes. Last night, I had to clean my mouth out because of a mistake. In the old days, this would have been with hand soap, but now we have good quality mouthwashes (incidentally, like most OCD sufferers, I used to use pure bleach to clean my hands but my life has changed now with anti-bacterial hand lotions and soaps). Anyway, part of this ritual is to stand absolutely stock still in the kitchen for twenty minutes. Now you have to know here that we have had very occasional visits by mice to our flat for years. Our block is old and full of dodgy plumbing, with holes in the walls around poorly-fitting pipes. So I am standing there, stock still, and, after only two minutes, I see a little black shape emerge from behind the washing machine and scuttle across the floor. I nearly jumped out of my skin, but then that would be moving so I controlled it and tried to remain calm. Guess what? The little bugger decided to investigate my feet and came right up to my slippers. I could just see him out of the corner of my eye – I am trying to look straight ahead you understand – sniffing around my slippers. He walked right around this giant ‘human statue’, as he must have thought it was. I actually flinched and he was gone in a flash.
“Thank God!” I thought.
But a minute later I saw him peeping out of a cupboard and then he came back! And I still had over fifteen minutes left! This time he went behind me, out of view, and then I felt something tickling my ankle. The little bastard was either nibbling my ankle – God knows why cos I don’t think I taste that nice – or trying to climb up my socks. I wasn’t actually wearing any trousers so the thought occurred to me that if he was going to get any higher he would have to dig his little claws into my flesh.
‘Argh!’ I thought. “Please God, no!” For any human, this would be bad enough, but for an OCD sufferer, it is beyond your wildest nightmare.
‘And what will happen when he gets to my underpants?’
Anyway, I was relieved when I didn’t feel the dreaded claws in my flesh and then I saw him regain the safety of the open cupboard. I was careful to wiggle my toes every minute after this and so we reached a sort of truce, a peace treaty, which lasted until the twenty minutes were up. Of course, I tried to find him at the end but he had gone, through whatever dark passage he used to get into the flat.
So that is my OCD. I know that post is a little long, but I hope in being as honest and open as I can, I might help other people who are suffering by showing that they are not alone. Perhaps a few of them will recognise some of the situations and this will help them.
Are you an OCD sufferer? If so, what course are you taking to manage or recover from it? Please get in touch by leaving a comment.
I don’t want to disappoint my regular visitors, who are not OCD sufferers, by only speaking about OCD this week so here is another sneak preview. This one is from my new project, provisionally entitled December Radio. I am hoping this will be published sometime late in 2014.
Copyright © 2013 by Lazlo Ferran
All Rights Reserved.
Carl deliberately arrived at the ball with Frida on his arm. Carl had paid a premium to have his one suit pressed on the ship’s only press in time for the party. It was held in a section of the Tivoli’s hold which he leaned on the Commodore to convert for the Countess. Makeshift stairs led down to a makeshift floor but a big effort had made the rest of the space look grand. Bunting hung between girders and the ship’s frame. Two large mirrors had been hung above a stage which was draped in blue cloth. Chairs and tables were placed around the edge of a dance space, each draped in a white tablecloth, courtesy of the ship’s stores. There was even a large chandelier which somebody had fabricated from bits of iron truss and spare chain. The inner sides of the hold had been given a lick of white paint, with blue decoration to resemble panelling and loud music blasted from the gramophone.
At the entrance, a grinning Hans Edelmann, dressed in a black tuxedo, handed out a pamphlet and glasses of champagne.
“Well, well!” Carl whispered in Frida’s ear. “This is fun! Champagne too. I must admit, Schumann and the Countess know how to organise a party.”
“I doubt Schumann has much to do with it. The Countess practically runs the show now! That’s probably why the rolling has eased. She personally asked the Commodore to seek calmer waters for tonight!”
“What does the sheet say?”
“Nicely printed! It says there will be a beauty pageant at 10 pm which will include bathing suits; a dance competition at 9 pm: three dances including a waltz, a foxtrot, and one step of your choice; a beauty competition for men at 11 pm – wear your best suit and at midnight a talent contest. All competitions are for prizes. And the culmination of the evening is a surprise at 1 am.”
“I wonder what that is? Are you entering any of the competitions?”
“Of course. The beauty competition! The Countess wouldn’t let anyone off, even a Jewess! Actually, I don’t think anybody has told the ignorant bitch I am Jewish!”
“You have a fine figure, Frida! Very fine!”
“Oh, it’s not bad for my age. Not as good as your Maria’s!”
“She’s not my Maria anymore!”
“Have you told her?”
“No. No chance but she will know by the end of tonight. Watch out for her Frida. She can be nasty.”
“You’re warning me?”
“Good. We should enter the dance contest.”
“Yes! And you must enter the male beauty contest!”
“Oh you must! With those eyes…”
“I’ll think about it.”
They had hardly sat down to the hor deuvres of avocado and eggs when Maria, dressed in the fabulous red dress, tapped Carl on the shoulder. He ignored her. Roth quickly took the vacant seat at the table next to Carl.
“You don’t mind?”
“No. Of course not. Frida. This is Robert Stengler, a Luftwaffe pilot. He will be rescuing us if we need to make a quick getaway, back to the Third Reich! We first met in Trauen, some months ago now. Max; Frida Zimmet.”
“Charmed, I’m sure, Max said curtly to Frida. He didn’t even glance at her. I fancy I saw the lovely Maria at Trauen too. But I may have been mistaken! Carl, she seems to have the eye for you. What is your secret?”
“Ha! What is yours?”
“Touché, as I think the lovely French say.”
Carl’s game of cat and mouse with Roth continued until the beauty contest. Half way through a five course meal was not the best time for the beauties to put on their new navel-baring swim suits but the women gamely put on a show. Carl had to admit Maria looked the best but he reserved his smiles only for Frida. Nonetheless Maria won, the Countess came a dubious second and Frida, third.
2 thoughts on “How does OCD affect your life? (updated)”
I also have OCD tendencies. Fortunately, it is sub-clinical, and it only affects my thought processes but not leading to ritualistic behaviours which can be paralyzing. Cognitive BHT is important. They key is to be insightful about one’s behaviours, and that it is due to an organic issue, much like high blood pressure, and NOT due to something being wrong with YOU. You are fine just the way you are. Medications have been proven to provide significant help with OCD, and this should be explored. I also have had my constant OCD make me pre-occupied with my own thoughts, and it has hurt relationships. CBHT can help in allowing you to have some ritualistic tasks every day that soothe the mind. Then, when done, the challenge to the OCD sufferer is to work on controlling the repeating thoughts of feeling that more has to be done. The mind can be distracted by having a simple repetetive task to occupy you, say, flicking a pencil, rubbing those Chinese ‘relaxing’ balls around the hand, or a rubber band that is around your wrist, and snapping it against your skin, giving you a negative reinforcement every time you have the intrusive thoughts. This should be discussed with your therapist before starting. As for me, I concentrate on how this is an organic thing in my brain, and that I am a good person despite these thoughts, then I try to deflect my thinking into something else…but that is very difficult for me to do, with only limited success. As for relationships, I’m working very hard on slowing down my actions and what I say so I can analyze my thought before I share it with someone I care about, which can be hurtful.
I have heard about the rubber band idea. I tried it but it didn’t work for me. You seem to have some good techniques for managing your low-level OCD and thanks for sharing them. Have you ever experienced brain-lock? (the disconnect when you go from inaction to action?
btw the right person will be supportive of you in your life.