Friday, 8 November 2013

Writing and OCD

In a previous blog post I talked about the concept of writing what haunts us, and how it influences the topics we choose. Clearly, our psychological make-up is bound to affect the way we write – and the characters we create.  

Earlier in the year I watched a TV documentary called OCD Extreme Challenge, which followed the progress of a group of young people who were all debilitated by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and wanted to improve their condition.

People who don’t suffer from OCD or phobias find it hard to understand.  Saying “pull yourself together really doesn’t work”.  The fear is real.  Most OCD sufferers hate being the way they are and are desperate to be “normal.”  They try to hide their issues and use strategies to give the impression they are like everyone else. It’s hard work. 

This was riveting viewing and also very moving. The participants were brave to allow their situation to be observed to help others and risk ridicule from those who just don’t understand what it feels like to be at the mercy of OCD.   Two of the young people had contamination OCD, which involved excessive hand washing, and fear of public places and therefore eating out. 

Physical challenges were part of the therapy, the theory being if you can conquer extreme physical obstacles, the resulting self-confidence enables you to cope better with the OCD.  So you trick your brain into thinking you can do anything.  I suspect overcoming any major challenge, physical or not, can achieve the same results. 

The therapist did not try to cure them, but instead helped them come to terms with living with uncertainty, confronting the fears and extreme rituals.  Because fear of the unknown and not being in control is at the root of OCD.  Freedom from being controlled by their condition is what sufferers seek; because, ironically, we are control freaks.  We need to be in control of our environment in ways that, realistically, we can’t be.  And constantly fighting the resulting pervasive intrusive thoughts is exhausting.   

About 20 years ago, I saw a CBT therapist and it gave me some tools to enable me to cope better.  I had a phobia about anything medical, and debilitating checking routines, as well as a travel phobia.  The therapy enabled me to travel abroad,  even managing a trip to Bali (an exceptionally stressful 7 days,  since it exposed me  to almost every anxiety and hang-up – and succeeded in reinforcing my fears!). 

Caring for my parents, I had to confront my medical phobias head on, which I did, and you would think, (as I did) that this would cure the phobias.  But in fact, despite finding ways to manage the fears so I wasn’t crippled by them, they actually became worse – especially after losing both parents to cancer.  

I have recorded some of my thoughts in notebooks, and writing down how I feel does help.  Writing as therapy. 

In the 1980s, I wrote a short piece about my underground train phobia, which I called Only 3 Stops, published in the excellent QWF magazine.  But, apart from a short ghost story,  I’ve not really explored it in my fiction – yet. There are few fictional characters with OCD that I can name who are main protagonists, which is a shame, because there are lots of sufferers out there.  The TV detective series  Monk was refreshing in that the detective hero had crippling OCD (which of course helps him solve the crimes).  And one of my favourite characters is Sheldon, the theoretical physicist in the wonderful TV sit com The Big Bang Theory.  I laugh because I recognise much of the behaviour, and what, to non-sufferers, may seem ridiculous and strange, to me demonstrates logic and common sense! It all boils down to the way we think about things.  I believe that neuroscientists have identified faulty brain wiring in OCD sufferers and I hope that developments in this field will continue.  If there was a cure for OCD it would be life-changing. 

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