Fret, Fixate, Repeat

My own mental health history

One of the things I found most satisfying when writing Bluebeat Boy was the opportunity to create a character struggling with mental health issues. To describe not only the ways in which these can affect a person, but also the responses available to them. In respect of this novel’s narrator, it plays such an important role in not just shaping his character, but also impacting his thought process, his decision-making, his relationships, his job, his appearance, his emotional development.

His anxiety disorder, in this case centred on a form of social phobia, threatens to become all-consuming. It’s the involvement of one person, one positive external influence, that turns it around for him, or at least offers him the opportunity for that to happen. Ultimately, of course, he has to be the one to accept that invitation and do the work necessary.

For my own part I’ve spent most of my life dealing with, or more often than not ignoring, my own demon, namely Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. More commonly known as OCD it was virtually unheard of just ten or fifteen years ago, but has since become something of a poster boy for mental health. Since I finally ‘came out’ about my own predicament I’ve grown accustomed to the following scenario unfolding:

Me acting somewhat oddly.

Friend / relative / colleague noticing this behaviour.

Me – I have OCD.

Other Person – Me too! I’m really finicky about stuff.

Me – No, I mean I really do have OCD. I’m not self-diagnosing. I’ve got a counselor, and a file and everything.

Other Person – Oh. Are you, like, always washing your hands or something?

Me – Not exactly, no.

This preconception that OCD sufferers are always washing their hands or stepping over cracked paving stones is directly attributable to the actions of Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘As Good As It Gets’. It’s very reminiscent of ‘Rainman’ hitting the cinemas and suddenly everyone on the Autistic Spectrum being asked to add things up in double time. It’s fine, I understand it, but I must admit to finding it slightly tiresome. So I thought I should maybe explain my own circumstances a little, just to clear things up.

I first started to notice little things creeping into my life when I was about twelve or thirteen. One of many quirks was that I liked to look at something with one eye closed and using the bridge of my nose to frame the image. Does that make sense? Well, imagine something caught my attention, I don’t know a lamppost for example, and it was on my right hand side. I’d close my right eye, tilt my head back and to an angle, and look at it with my left eye. The bridge of my nose would then form an outline that I’d use to dissect the object.

Clearly, this is a slightly strange thing to do, but for whatever reason I liked it and felt somehow calmer or reassured by doing it. And not just to lampposts, either.

The problem, however, is that I don’t like odd numbers. Never have done. Even numbers are so obviously superior, so incontrovertibly better, that I couldn’t possibly leave it there. Why on earth would I go to all the effort of assuming that ridiculous position only once? Surely twice would be much better? That is an even number, after all. So I’d repeat the process. Spot a lamppost, hopefully but not necessarily the same one, close my right eye, tilt my head, and glance across with my left eye.

So I’ve looked at the lamppost, which is nice. And I’ve done it an even number of times, which is nicer still. Except, of course, that I’ve only done it with one eye, and that’s an odd number. I have explained that odd numbers are just not cool, right? But worry not, for I have two eyes and that’s a much more preferable number. And so I go again, with the other eye, twice. But what if there are no lampposts on my left, only trees or buildings? I can’t possibly use them as substitutes, that’s a ridiculous notion. So I turn my body in the opposite direction in order to locate a lamppost and put everything on the correct side.

And what happens if, for example, I’m sitting on the bus when all of this is taking place, and I can’t physically get up and turn in the other direction? The answer, obviously, is to contort my head in some vicious looking way that allows me to fulfill my desperate need. Then do it all over again, because it has to be an even number of times.

As a thirteen year old, these things are difficult to comprehend let alone explain. The feeling of relief when you accomplish a task like this is nothing short of immense. And if that sounds strange to you then you’re unlikely to have ever experienced these strange compulsions, the conviction that you absolutely must accomplish a certain task, and the sensations generated in the process.

So, whilst all of this is taking place in and around your life, what do you care about the oddity of the things your mind is asking you to do? Well, you care that nobody else should find out, and deep down you know that it’s more than a little unusual. You keep it all hidden, you do your best to make sure no-one notices, and you hope that it remains your own personal secret. Other than that, it’s of no consequence. You like how it makes you feel, the reassurance, the comforting emotions that ensue. You’re certainly not letting any of that go.

By the time you’re twenty-five it’s all grown a little out of control. What was once nothing more than a tick, a quirk, a quick source of relief in tense moments, has become something all together more dangerous. You’re riding your bicycle along a busy road when your right foot catches the frame as it rotates. You know instinctively that you need to repeat this action an even number of times, and with both feet. You get a second touch, before switching focus to the other foot. The first contact comes sure enough but you miss with the second. You try again, this time accidentally making a double touch, throwing all of your numbers into confusion. You swear at yourself. You’ve got three touches with the left foot now, so you need to even that out before returning to the right for two more. You set your mind to it. Nothing else matters.

A car stops a few metres ahead. It seems sudden to you because you weren’t paying attention to the road, focusing instead on your stupid bloody feet and the bicycle frame you’re attempting to make contact with. You narrowly avoid riding into the back of the car. You call yourself every name under the sun. Those even numbers, and your desperate need to attain them, have put you in a dangerous position. But still, as you get moving once more, you return immediately to completing the task at hand. You still don’t do anything about your problem, because it isn’t really a problem.

And please don’t assume that these are one-off incidents or compulsions, they’re not. There’s a litany of them, a vast array, each and every one capable of rearing up at both regular and irregular intervals.

Running parallel to all of this, for me at any rate, was fear. New people, new places, new environments, all held a huge and uncontrollable amount of dread. Even if they were people I wanted to meet, places I wanted to go, environments I wanted to experience, I was petrified of them. Sometimes literally. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been due to visit some person, place or thing and found myself sitting completely motionless as the bus I was travelling on trundled past my destination. I wouldn’t rise from the seat, I wouldn’t ring the bell, I wouldn’t even look out the window. Lot’s wife would have displayed more movement.

I’ve just claimed that this anxiety was uncontrollable but that’s not strictly true. I could control it, with a very simple technique – I’d ignore it. I’d find something else to focus on, to concentrate all of the mental energy I’d otherwise extend in angst and worry and panic. Which takes me neatly back to my battles with OCD.

Greymouth, on the West Coast of New Zealand, is a small town of around 10,000 people. Once upon a time it was a thriving mining settlement, the home of the Labour movement and source of innumerable Rugby League players. That’s all well and good but I’ve never been there, have no links to the place and no real interest in attaining any. And yet, somehow, I found myself one day perusing the online version of the local newspaper, the Greymouth Star. I forget when and how this came about but it must have coincided with something terrifying elsewhere in my life. That’s ‘terrifying’ by my standards, which I admit don’t always stand up to independent scrutiny. But here I was, checking the website with alarming regularity and learning all sorts of things about the town, its people, its problems and its future.

Again, please don’t consider this event in isolation. This is just one example of many that I could produce, the list honestly goes on and on. Finding some obscure interest, becoming obsessed with it, and then enduring the compulsion to re-visit it over and over – it was a regular occurrence. Sometimes this would last an hour or two, sometimes months. On the plus side, and I’m told we should always be looking for one, this behaviour does mean that I have access to an awful lot of useless information. Unfortunately, another by-product is that I’ve also found very few people willing to play Trivial Pursuit with me.

I didn’t realise the connection between these two mainstays of my life – the fear and the obsessions – until it was pointed out to me, and then it all seemed so blindingly obvious. The little boy who’d been afraid of so many things and hadn’t a clue what to do about it, had developed a coping mechanism. Instead of allowing those worrisome events to plague him he’d simply blank them out. He’d find something else to concentrate on, to become obsessive about.

There’s an alternative theory, of course, that the little kid who knew his strange obsessions and compulsions marked him out as unusual, as one to watch out for, thus grew afraid of new people and new places. Situations and circumstances that posed fresh opportunities for his secret to be noticed and commented upon were to be avoided at all cost.

I guess, ultimately, it’s irrelevant which of these theories is accurate. The two aspects of my personality go hand in glove and it matters not which one is flesh and which one velvet. The important thing is to recognise their existence and then seek help. I’m extremely fortunate to have a family capable of understanding what was going on and being prepared, and patient enough, to help. Without them I’d no doubt still be plagued with the problems I’ve already outlined.

A particular mention at this point for Sarah, my long-suffering and hugely compassionate girlfriend, who twice suggested that I seek assistance, carefully backing off when I rejected the first proposal. She then waited until the time was right to make another attempt, sensitively and successfully judging that I was finally ready to do what was necessary. That was a massive step forward for me and opened the door to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a source of treatment that has proved beneficial.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not cured – there is no such thing – but I have learned some valuable lessons. With the odd exception I can generally spot any emerging difficulties, be they anxiety or obsession related, and I’ve picked up ways to combat them. I don’t always get it right but I’m aware of my shortcomings and I’m less afraid of confronting them. I like to think I’m doing a lot better now.

There is help available for people experiencing similar difficulties, whether that’s via the NHS or one of several first-rate charities aiming to help those with mental health issues. I’ve teamed up with one of those, the excellent Anxiety UK, on the creation of Bluebeat Boy. Their contact details can be found here