North London, UK → Writer & Mental Health Advocate → OCD & Anxiety → Therapy, ERP.
R: Hi Helen, tell us a little bit about yourself… Who are you? Where do you live? What do you do?
H: I’m the wrong side of 50(!), I live in north London – with a partner living in east London – and work in office and project support. I’m just coming to the end of a temporary contract, so am currently seeking a new part-time job that will leave me time to write.
R: When did your OCD and anxiety begin? How would you describe these conditions? How has your experience with them evolved?
H: I’ve always been a worrier and, looking back, can also see OCD tendencies from childhood, but that condition only really took hold in 1994/95, i.e when I was 30: in one year, I went through redundancy, separation from my husband and a house move. Life events can be a trigger for OCD and this was certainly true in my case.
For me, these conditions are like a constant gnawing at my brain; they leave me feeling as if my mind is frayed at the edges. It’s exhausting – and that exhaustion is exacerbated by the fact that my anxiety also causes insomnia.
When my symptoms were at their worst – 20 years ago – they were moderately bad, but never stopped me functioning, i.e holding down a job, having a social life and so on. Now they veer between moderate and mild, tending towards the latter.
R: Which OCD behaviours do you exhibit? How does the disorder affect your daily life and would your life be different without it? If you could lose these two conditions, would you?
H: The condition manifests mainly as a need for order and symmetry, however, this only applies to my own environment – my flat, my desk, my car. This need is about far more than just being tidy; I become very uncomfortable if anything is even a few millimetres out of place. I’m compelled to place my belongings very precisely and to ‘put things right’ if they’re nudged just slightly out of position. This urge is with me all the time, though I’ve noticed that I put things back in the wrong place when I sleepwalk!
Unlike a lot of sufferers, these compulsions aren’t driven by a specific fear such as harm coming to a loved one if I don’t do A, B or C, but purely the fear of the anxiety that results if I don’t carry them out.
I also have contamination issues, particularly around food hygiene and using public transport, as well as some checking behaviours, especially relating to safety and security at home.
Although my OCD affects everything I do, I keep it hidden as far as possible. I’m open with others about having the disorder, but don’t let anybody see me carrying out my compulsions. Like most sufferers, I have insight into my condition and know that what I do is ridiculous, so it would be embarrassing to have witnesses!
I’m envious of those who aren’t worriers; life would be a lot easier if I were more laid back. And If I didn’t have OCD, I’d certainly have a lot more spare time…
Yet there is a positive side to these experiences, in that they have given me empathy for others with mental health issues. Until you’ve gone through something like this, it’s easy to think people should just ‘get over’ these problems…as if we can somehow control our brain more easily than any other internal organ.
We all have our crosses to bear and, on balance, I’m content to bear those that I’ve been given.
R: You’re a writer – how do OCD and anxiety affect your work? I imagine they provide great material, but might also cause procrastination and doubt?
H: They definitely provide great material for my blog, The Reluctant Perfectionist, and also inspired my debut novel, The A to Z of Normal.
However, being a perfectionist – which often goes hand in hand with OCD – does make it very hard to come to decisions and to know when to say ‘Stop, this is good enough’. I find it difficult, therefore, to decide which feedback to act on and spend an inordinate amount of time editing my work.
R: Have you been officially diagnosed by a health professional? Did any treatments work? Do you feel as if you’re in control?
H: When I first consulted my doctor, she referred me to an occupational therapist, who formally diagnosed me. He also introduced me to the technique of exposure and response prevention (ERP), which is the recognised treatment for OCD. ERP involves resisting your compulsions and riding out the resulting anxiety – as you do more and more exposures, this anxiety reduces over time.
Unfortunately, I’ve never fully committed myself to ERP and so haven’t completely eradicated my compulsions. I tend just to pull that tool out of the bag, when I feel these may be getting worse – I’m in control to that extent.
R: Where does your OCD and anxiety come from? Did any health professionals explain where your OCD originated? Do family members have OCD or anxiety?
H: Treatment for OCD tends not to focus on how or why the condition began, but on tackling the symptoms. Doctors have still not identified a definitive cause, though genetics, learned behaviour and a chemical imbalance in the brain can all be contributory factors. As mentioned above, negative life events can also trigger latent tendencies into the full-blown disorder. My father is a very anxious person and my parents believe that my maternal grandmother had OCD. For me, therefore, the cause is likely to be a combination of factors, creating what you might call a ‘perfect storm’!
R: Do you know other people with OCD and anxiety? How do you stay educated on these conditions? – via specific blogs, magazines, news articles or books?
H: There’s a very active and supportive OCD community on social media, especially on Twitter, so I ‘know’ people with the condition from all over the world.
I also follow a number of related blogs. One of the best is ocdtalk, written by Janet Singer (a pseudonym), whose now grown-up son suffers from the disorder. Janet has also written a fantastic book about her family’s experiences, called Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery. It’s a great mix of human story and medical information.
I also follow a lot of related organisations on Twitter, such as the charities OCD Action, Mind and Anxiety UK, to keep up to date with the latest research and mental health campaigns.
R: What is your novel, The A to Z of Normal, about? How did it feel to expose your adversity? Tell us about the reactions you have received? Where is it available to buy?
H: The A to Z of Normal is about a woman struggling to overcome her obsessive-compulsive behaviour, so that she can marry the man she loves, while also dealing with some difficult family relationships. It’s a serious topic, but I tackle it with a good helping of humour!
Although I’ve given my protagonist, Clare, the same form of OCD as myself, her story is entirely fictionalised, so I didn’t really feel as if I was exposing myself. However, I’m used to doing that on my blog, in any event! It’s only through openness that we can impart any real understanding of mental health conditions.
I’ve had fantastic feedback from readers, many of whom have reviewed it on Amazon UK, here. You can buy the book from Amazon worldwide.
Image via Helen’s Interview on Greenacre Writers
R: What are your plans for the future, including for your OCD and anxiety?
H: I’m currently busy promoting my book, but am planning to write a series of short stories based on characters from it, which I hope to bring out as an anthology. Many readers have asked for a sequel, so hopefully this will keep them satisfied until I write my second novel!
I’d like to get a better grip on my OCD and anxiety in the future, but I’ll keep writing and talking about these conditions, in the hope of helping others.
R: Thanks for being so open Helen, I really appreciate it.
Helen is the author of The Reluctant Perfectionist blog
Her book, The A to Z of Normal is available to purchase on Amazon UK, BookDepository.com (with free worldwide delivery)
Helen recommends the ocdtalk blog, and Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery, available on Amazon UK
Read more about Helen at OCD Action
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Helen Barbour
Cover image supplied by Helen Barbour