So, it’s the end of Mental Health Awareness Week. I dithered about writing something, mainly because I’m working on far too many other bits of writing at once, but also because I was worried what others might think. You might say that’s part of the problem the country’s facing, in a way. Still, they say, a problem shared is a problem halved, and all that. I’m not sure whether to stick a trigger warning on this, but it obviously talks about some symptoms that might freak people out, so y’know. Here be mental health dragons.
In many ways, I’m lucky. I’ve lived to the ripe old age of 30-*mumble*, I live in a nice house and I have an awesome husband who supports my mad writing career idea. But I’m not sane. (What writers are, I hear you cry.) I have OCD. Now, you’re probably already thinking of such TV gems as Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners or Obsessive Hoarders and other supremely tabloid depictions of a serious mental illness. Hey, guys, guess what? Every time you suggest I buy the OCD Chopping Block or tell me that you insisting on being on time for the bus is ‘so OCD’, do me a favour and slam your head repeatedly in a door until you stop pretending you understand someone else’s brain.
Oddly enough, here’s a thing you’ll never hear in the workplace or bus stop. ‘Hey guys, I didn’t sleep last night because my thoughts were looping about how my house was going to burn down and I was going to run my family down in the car, so I got up and had a massive cry instead. That’s so OCD!’ No, it’s much easier to settle for a nice cosy stereotype of an illness. The one where you imagine I wash my hands all the time (as much as anyone else) or clean the house obsessively (peer into my manky writing mug and see that you are wrong). You don’t hear much about symptoms like CSP or trichotillomania. Nor the sort of thoughts that, to be perfectly honest, would make people move away from you for fear of getting hurt. Preferably several countries away.
I’m still lucky, though, because I can basically function. I don’t take any medications, and I’m not seeing a therapist. Occasionally, OCD comes in useful in the day job- I’m pretty meticulous with poking other people’s words for errors, so that’s a plus I guess. I’ve researched a lot and worked out over the years how to self-manage the crappier symptoms, and one of the ways that really works is writing. Spending hours trundling out prose about the contents of someone else’s head is a good distraction mechanism from the chatterings in your own brain. Sometimes, my husband will ask why I often insist on having the TV or radio on in the background all the time. It’s really simple- if I only had silence, all I’d hear would be brainloops. Brainloops that, left unchecked, would just run and run all day and drive me demented. Here’s just a small glimpse into my average day:
– Wake up and find the phone charger’s been left on. Go round switching off many sockets in the house, because you once spent a year doing that aged 8 after the TV explained that your house would basically burn down if you didn’t.
– Get hungry, but have to work up a little courage to turn on the hob because you have a long-standing fear of gas appliances, not helped by a recent news report about an explosion in someone’s house, and if you weren’t famished you’d not be standing trying to muster up the brain to cook pasta. Almost as bad as when you moved in, when you had to leave the house while your husband checked the gas fire in the lounge was working. (It isn’t, and I’m paying someone to remove it because I’d rather not panic whenever anyone fiddles with a death trap.) Basically, 1970s/80s public information films have a lot to answer for.
– Go for a drive to a random castle, because you need ideas and you have Historic Scotland membership. Despite driving safely for over three years, every time you pass a cyclist or navigate a single track country road, Scumbag Brain repeatedly tries to convince you that you’ve killed someone or made a massive dent in the Funbus. You haven’t, obviously.
– Check your email for important book-related news. When you find nothing there, engage in a massive internal argument with your brain, which is now gleefully going ‘LOL MASSIVE FAILURE’ over and over, and judicious application of The Human League’s first album is only just drowning it out.
On top of this, I get migraines once a month, the sort that come with ‘is it a stroke or not’ symptoms including aphasia- so helpful when you need to word but words don’t come, and you have to gesture at your husband to get the teapot because the word ‘teapot’ has literally vanished from your vocabulary. I also get several days of weirdness best described as a mood see-saw. The best way to describe it is something approximating bipolar extremes. I might have a day where I’m at absolute rock bottom, my appetite falls and I just make a duvet fort and have terribly black thoughts I won’t even repeat here. Or I might have a day where I eat all the things in the house and behave like a cross between Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout and a five-year-old hopped up on E numbers. That’s actually not so bad, if I can rein it in and point the energy in the right direction. If my brain’s going to stay up till 4am, at least it can churn out 1000 words or so. A bipolar friend once came off lithium as an experiment to see how much work he could get done. The answer was loads, but it wasn’t that good and the rest of the manic stuff’s not so fun to handle. Most of the time, though, pre-migraine manic-ish times conspires with the aforementioned OCD brain and does something like this:
Me: *researching novel stuff*
Brain: HEY LISTEN WOULDN’T IT BE COOL IF WE ORDERED SOME AMERICAN SWEETS AND WATCHED SOUTH AMERICAN SOAPS ALL NIGHT
Me: But I really have to research politics—
Brain: SOUTH AMERICAN SOAPS THOUGH
Me: Maybe one wouldn’t hurt. *hours pass* *order for Pop Tarts and Inca Kola pops into inbox* WHAT HAVE I DONE WITH MY LIFE
Last week, a depressive pre-migraine episode jumped on my brain along with the usual hormone-induced mood swings, then had a party with the brainloops. Imagine how much writing I managed. If you said ‘fuck all’, gold star for you! If you’re also starting to see why writing about a teenage telepath who can’t shut his own chattering brain up is looking familiar, have the entire pack of gold stars! It’s been a long time since my brain has been this bad, in fairness, and arguably trying to be a vaguely successful writer is the most anxiety-inducing thing I could have chosen to do. But I’m not doing too bad, it’s not crippling my basic ability to function, and my husband knows what to do when I’m having one of those days- mostly throw junk food and crap films in my direction and just be around. Hopefully, those that know me who made it through all this will also still be around, rather than conclude I should be locked up and run for the hills. You never know how others will react. That in itself is enough to rattle round my brain and worry me. Brains, eh?
If any of this incoherent scrawl has helped in some small way, maybe consider donating to OCD UK. I heaved my unfit arse off the sofa to run a 5k for them a while back, and I’m thinking of getting up to a 10k at some point because dear lord, do we ever need more awareness of this sort of thing. Much like the beasties I write about, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Edit: Some discussion on Facebook reminded me of the existence of ITV’s drama Dirty Filthy Love, about a man suffering from OCD and Tourette’s. You can watch it here but be warned- it’s sad as well as uplifting. One of the few examples of a positive portrayal of the condition out there. And yes, it has a ‘not all OCD’ disclaimer. We are all unique and special flowers ❤