Monday, 28 November 2011

Hypochondria, OCD and me...

My struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder have confused me recently.

I have struggled with OCD thoughts and behaviours for many years and have defined my actions to be a direct result of this. However, for the past 8 months or so, new and intense feelings have overcome me that I presumed to be resulting from my OCD.

I believe that I may have been wrong in making that assumption.

You see, my psychological world has recently become divided into two polar opposites, a yin and a yang, where the yin represents my internal focus and the yang represents my external focus. It is only in the last week that I have come to realise that there is a big difference in my yin and yang behaviours, and from that understanding I have gained a certain amount of clarity that may help me to fight back against the way I have been feeling.

My yang, or my external focus, has been the central point of reference for defining my condition. It is OCD. It is my thoughts, feelings and anxieties. It is the condition that makes me act in the way that has become familiar, and distressing, throughout the course of my life so far.

Up until a week ago, I assumed my OCD was also the cause of my particular distress where my psychological focus became fixated on internal things.

I should say here that through my OCD I have adopted certain behaviour compulsions to prevent 'bad' things happening to those who are close to me, to those who I love and cherish and would do whatever it takes to keep from harm.

But also, when my focus becomes internal, I fixate on things that might happen to me, primarily, the thoughts and fear of cancer. I check my body and my breathing continuously during these phases, freaking out at the slightest thing that I deem to be different. I attach significance to things that I would not previously notice because I micro-analyse myself, I obsess, and cause myself an enormous amount of anxiety because of it.

I related this obsessing to my already recognised OCD behaviours but something never quite sat right about it. I was never 100% convinced that OCD covered exactly why I behaved the way I did when my focus looked inwards.

I stumbled across an article about hypochondria and was surprised that the definition described exactly how I was behaving.

I have often heard the word and took it to have a negative connotation. It seemed the phrase to be popularly used to aim at people who acted excessively when suffering from a cold, or those who sought sympathy when experiencing the most minor of ailments.

That was my mistake.

It seems that hypochondria is intricately related to OCD and is a recognised psychological condition. The sufferer is convinced that they might have a particular illness or at least obsessed that they may be showing symptoms of that illness, even though doctors, or anyone else for that matter, cannot find anything wrong with them. Cancer is one of the illnesses mentioned by name that is related to those who suffer from hypochondria.

It also states that media coverage and wide-spread attention to the particular illness, in this case cancer, are one of the primary causes that can cause a person to suffer from hypochondriac.

My problems began when I felt that I could not escape the torrent of press articles, television and radio advertisements, printed media, discarded cigarette packs (that in the U.K. are branded with despicably horrific images) and many other sources of reminder dedicated to raising cancer awareness.

I can now understand why my obsessive thoughts began and assign blame for them. I can now remove some of the guilt that I have experienced that those intrusive thoughts and images were from my own doing, from my own mind, and designate blame elsewhere for feeling the way I have.

Like all mental health conditions, hypochondria needs to be understood for what it is, just like obsessive compulsive disorder does, as it is a disorder that causes an enormous amount of distress to the sufferer. I can state that with true, first-hand knowledge and understanding. I will never use the term lightly again.

But for me, the important thing is that I now know what my internal focus is, my yin, and why it is happening. I will bear it in mind if my brain continues to tell me to check and obsess about one particular bodily thing, and recognise that it is a result of my hypochondria, just as my external intrusive thoughts and feelings are due to my OCD.

I feel that I am still a long way from full mental health recovery but understanding why things happen in the way that they do is helping me to fight back, to refocus, and to strengthen my determined effort to become my full self once again.

(Continued on my blog post, 'Mental health and the media')

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

OCD, anxiety & another trip to the doctor

I revisited my doctor last week.

I didn't want to but I felt that I needed some reassurance.

It's silly really as I know there is nothing wrong with me but my OCD won't let me believe that to be true. It's hard to make a convincing rationale when the condition simply distorts the truthful logic in my mind to see the very worst outcome of something that simply isn't there. It leaves me feeling weak and anxious. Disorientated.

It started, as it normally does, after a period of relative calm. I find myself maintaining a level of sanity without too many intrusive thoughts, a couple of days of relief where my obsessions and resulting compulsions pass me by and my life is normal. Comparatively normal at least.

Then something happens. Nothing specific but enough to make my brain more alert and I begin to analyse and obsess. I begin my compulsions again to make my obsessions right; well to feel right but nothing actually changes.

Checking seems to be the ritual of choice here. Checking to pacify my concern and to reduce my anxiety, which it does. Only for a short amount of time though and then I am checking again: Just once more I say. And then again.

But the problem I find is that once my awareness has been raised it is incredibly hard to forget and move on. That's what my self-help techniques have been aiming to do and with some success.

Sometimes I have great difficulty moving on though. That point when I can't seem to shake the feeling, the dread or fear or whatever it is, and I feel like there will be no 'righting' the intrusive thoughts. No escape.

I made an appointment to see the doctor and promised myself that this time, this final time I will be able to put my fears behind me once and for all.

He, of course, confirmed that I was in fine bodily health which I, of course, knew all along.

I think for a person like me, whose brain seemingly likes to fixate on horrible ideas and negative thinking, I need that professional confirmation. The knowledge of an experienced doctor seems to be enough for me to smother my thoughts and destroy my OCD related thinking, to give me the strength to trust in my own logical ability. To help me move past that mental barricade and find solace again.

My visit has helped me to recharge my strength and to trust once again in my own rational mind. So far I have not again spiralled into that anxiety trap and I plan to tread water for the long term this time until, after therapy, I can once again swim amongst the happier thoughts closer to shore.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Everything carries significance...

Obsessive compulsive disorder is trying to destroy me.

My life has been so chaotic over the last eight or so months that I can hardly remember any semblance of normality. OCD has been in my life from a very young age and at times it has manipulated my actions more than others but it has always lurked there, in the background, ready to pounce again when I least expect it.

This year has been one of the hardest I have ever experienced and to be quite honest I will never look back with fondness for 2011. In fact I have been contemplating knocking this year off record and rewinding my age by a year to start it over again for 2012.

Perhaps I am being harsh but life with OCD is hard. Very hard indeed.

I went to Rome a few months ago with my significant other as a break away together but also to help free my mind from the recurring, intrusive thoughts I had been experiencing. This should be something that I can look back on with fondness while wearing a silly grin and a whimsical look upon my face but my most vivid memory is having an anxiety attack about my breathing, then checking it and panicking then rationalising, checking it and panicking then rationalising, checking it and panicking then rationalising, and so on...

I did enjoy my time there, in fact it was wonderful, and it helped to bring our relationship even closer than it already was. I just wish my OCD hadn't tainted it, not just for me but for my partner too.

My problem is this: Everything I do, from the simplest everyday task to a wonderful holiday, seems to be manipulated by my OCD thoughts and it makes it 1000 times harder to live a relatively normal life. Everything carries significance.

I don't seem to be able to shut a drawer at home without my brain telling me that I must perform a ritual to do it successfully. If I don't then something bad will happen. I feel guilt and fear. The what-if syndrome. Do I leave it to chance? No, I can't, I mustn't.

Leaving the bathroom has become problematic of late. I have to touch the tap eleven times, then the door lock twelve and a dressing gown twelve. Why? Because 35 is one of my safe numbers of course and everything will be alright.

Checking. Counting. Touching. Checking and counting. Counting and touching. Checking and touching. Checking, counting and touching. My whole day is controlled by actions that I know are pointless and yet, I cannot stop them.

I have got past some of my obsessions and they have faded in their significance but then they are always replaced by something else. And when they too are faded, the original obsessions return again, probably with compulsions even more complicated than before.

I keep returning to my breathing. My biggest obsession and how OCD has finally got me to the point of oblivion is a terrifying fear of cancer. Even though I know my breathing is fine, I cannot help but micro-analyse it with each breath, looking for something that doesn't sound normal, even though I know that it is. Check, check and check again. Then I will get past it only for it to return a few days later.

Is this my life's course?

I honestly need to get past this as I believe my other OCD thoughts and rituals will fall back in line (or at least diminish slightly) once this is dealt with once and for all. I need to believe that therapy can help me because I have a lot of baggage, and subsequent burden, that I need to work through to become a fully functional human being again, and to once again enjoy my life.

I want to return to normality so very, very much.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Being referred for OCD therapy

This post follows on from my previous post, 'Contacting my doctor for OCD guidance'.

After my appointment with my doctor and completing the questionnaires, I was told to wait a few days for the psychological practitioners to contact me. I had no idea who they would be or where they would be located and readied myself for a long wait.

It was to my surprise then that a letter arrived a couple of days later from a psychological therapy provider that was based about 20 minutes from my home. This filled me with a certain amount of confidence that I hadn't realised I was lacking: The service being offered suddenly seemed to be so much more intimate.

The letter told me to contact them to make a telephone assessment appointment that would take approximately 30 minutes. I rang them and spoke to a very friendly and professionally mannered lady who asked me a few questions as to why I was seeking therapy, and who then asked me questions related specifically to my obsessive compulsive disorder i.e. in what form did it take, how long had I had symptoms, etc. She then asked me questions relating to self harm and suicidal thoughts. I would assume that the people who contact them suffering in that state of mental anxiety would be given priority over people like me, and in my opinion rightly so. I was also to fill in six more short psychological questionnaires that they had provided that were all based on the 'on a scale of one-to-five' sort.

My appointment was booked in for a couple of days later with the same lady who took my initial call. The form of this assessment was to read the relevant numbers back to her from each of the questionnaires, the results then being used to determine the length of treatment and the severity of particular symptoms that result from my OCD i.e. depression, anxiety, etc.

If the questionnaires showed that my therapy would be short term (approximately six sessions or thereabouts) then I would be seen by them at their therapy centre nearby, if the questionnaires showed that my therapy would be longer term (more than six sessions) then I would be referred to the National Health Service (N.H.S.) psychological therapy providers.

The decision was made that my case warranted a longer course of therapy. This therapy, as many of you out there suffering from OCD will already know, takes the form of cognitive behavioural therapy (C.B.T.), which essentially means brain behaviour therapy, to influence and change the thinking patterns and behaviours that result from the condition of OCD.

Many people also have to perform exposure and response prevention therapy (E.R.P.) which I think may depend on the form that their OCD symptoms take but I am not sure on this yet as I haven't, at this moment in time, actually begun my course of treatment.

Medication can also be prescribed to rebalance the chemicals in the brain that, left alone, help to promote the OCD symptoms and related behaviours. I am not currently on medication and hope to progress enough in my therapy so as to not need it but if it is required then it should not be seen as a negative as it is there to assist with a smooth recovery.

I have been on the waiting list for approximately a month now for an NHS appointment and I have been advised that it could take up to three months or so, depending on availability and whether priority cases jump the queue ahead of me, which as I said before, I do not begrudge at all. I cannot imagine being in such a state as to contemplate suicide and my mental suffering, although not at all mild to me, has never lead my thoughts down such a path.

This is as far as I have got so far through my OCD journey regarding treatment so I am unable to explain more about the process followed in the United Kingdom until I begin my course of therapy. But I will be sure to write more as and when I have more experiences to write about.

My future posts will now focus more on my day-to-day life with OCD: The observations that I make and the impact it has over my thoughts.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Contacting my doctor for OCD guidance

My blog has been written so far in chronological order with the aim of detailing the steps that I have taken on the road to OCD recovery, a road not yet very far travelled, but a road that I am determined to see through to completion.

This post will focus on how I sought professional therapy after a few weeks of practicing the self-help techniques mentioned in my previous blog posts.

I found those techniques to be extremely useful in containing some of my compulsive behaviours but I have to place a certain amount of emphasis on the word some. My quest for knowledge and understanding of obsessive compulsive disorder has lead me to believe that a fair amount of stimulus behind the obsessions and/or compulsions could stem from other personal trauma or experiences, sometimes things that are seeming unrelated.

I know that in my personal circumstances some of the events from my past have helped to shape and exacerbate my condition in the present, finding an outlet in the form of an obsession that has become my torment. I will not specify the particular details relating to me or the events from my past, but I will say that they are related to number 1 on my OCD symptoms list (found here).

I should add that OCD is an extraordinarily personal thing and each sufferer's experiences are specific to the individual, so in your case self-help may be all that you need but I strongly advise seeking guidance anyway.

The result of knowing that my past is haunting my present is that I know for certain that self-help techniques will not be enough for my circumstances and that professional guidance would be essential to combat the origins of my obsessions. So, I contacted my doctor with the aim to finally expose my hidden mental health condition (luckily I also had an ear ache at the time and a legitimate excuse to make an appointment) and practiced my wording until I was script perfect.

(The website OCD-UK has an excellent resource to help you admit your obsessive compulsive disorder to your doctor should you find it difficult to find the words yourself. It is called the 'GP Ice-Breaker' and is found on this page, or a direct link to the downloadable .pdf file here.)

Speaking to my doctor was easier than I had imagined but needless to say that my well rehearsed words did not come to mind in the order that I had practiced. After some enquiring questions to ascertain some of the specifics that I was experiencing, I was given a few short questionnaires to fill in that were to assess my psychological state of mind and to be forwarded by my doctor to the psychological specialists.

This was a big step for me as my fears when I had previously considered this step were of not being taken seriously, or being dismissed by the people who I had turned to for support, and also that my medical records would contain this 'embarrassing' mental health condition. Thinking about it retrospectively, I am proud of the fact that I am gradually breaking down the barriers that I had placed before me and am not at all embarrassed that my OCD is now recorded on my personal medical file; in fact it is a marvellous thing that it is.

Having it on file is an acknowledgement, an irreversible acknowledgment, that I am taking the fight to my OCD and am taking control again of my life. It is a statement that is completely confidential and a statement that I am no longer alone. A statement of the fact that I am now on the road to recovery.

I hope that you can join me on that road too.

Pursuing professional guidance continues here.