WELLBEING | THE MAN AT THE RESTAURANT…

I remem­ber when I was young­er, I would often take myself off some­where and spend some quiet time writ­ing lists. It was all fairly inno­cent — a list of my favour­ite songs or rank­ing my favour­ite foot­ball play­ers, and I found it a nice relax­ing task I could do by myself. I did­n’t feel guilty or strange about doing it and I found it to be a very nor­mal thing, just in the same way that I enjoyed play­ing foot­ball or listen­ing to music. I car­ried this on into my teens and it was more of the same, just writ­ing out lists of albums I wanted to buy or places I wanted to vis­it, although I recall that amend­ing the list was nev­er an option. If I wanted to add or remove some­thing to the list then I would need to re-write it, as neatly as pos­sible, and throw the old one away. I did this reli­giously, some­times writ­ing new lists every day. It did­n’t con­sume much time, but I did feel a lot bet­ter for doing it. When I was about 18 or 19, I remem­ber I developed this habit of double and triple check­ing things, like I sud­denly became less cer­tain of myself and needed to check. For example, I’d read about some music online and I knew that I owned the albums men­tioned but I needed to go and check my col­lec­tion just to make sure. I did find it a bit odd I was doing this, but I’ve always been a bit quirky, so I did­n’t dwell on it, I just com­puls­ively did it.

I remem­ber clearly in 2006 I was eat­ing at a res­taur­ant with my girl­friend. On the table next to us there was a man who was going through this incred­ible routine before tak­ing a bite from his food, eat­ing it so slowly, repeat­ing it over and over and over again. I said to my girl­friend “is this a joke? What’s he doing?! Are we on can­did cam­era or some­thing?!” It was just so strange to wit­ness. Keep in mind I’d spent the last three years work­ing with SEN chil­dren dur­ing East­er and sum­mer hol­i­days, so I was used to deal­ing with beha­viours which may have been con­sidered “dif­fer­ent” but even for me this was really odd. My girl­friend said to me it was pos­sible this man was suf­fer­ing with obsess­ive com­puls­ive dis­order (OCD). I’d spent the last three years becom­ing well versed in SEN and under­stand­ing things like aut­ism, cereb­ral palsy, and downs syn­drome but I’d nev­er even heard of OCD. All I could think of when she explained to me about this, albeit in fairly lim­ited detail, was firstly, how bad I felt for think­ing this guy could be prank­ing us and secondly, how on earth does he live like this? How does he ever man­age to get any­thing done? I just felt so sorry for him and it was agon­ising watch­ing him go through this pro­cess before every mouth­ful. It must have taken him hours to eat this meal. Nev­er in a mil­lion years did I link this beha­viour to the things I did.

I’ve always been through obsess­ive interests. When I was a tod­dler I was obsessed with cars and know­ing everything about them. I grew out of this when I dis­covered Thun­der­birds and Cap­tain Scar­let, and this became my focal point for a few years. When I was about 7 or 8, I got into foot­ball and this became my world. I was just com­pletely con­sumed by it and it’s really all that mattered to me. Then at about 12 or 13 my pas­sion for music kicked in and has nev­er really been replaced. Foot­ball is still a pas­sion too, but music took over and has remained the interest which I obsess over. In 2010 I remem­ber read­ing a hip-hop for­um online and one con­trib­ut­or seemed to always write lots of lists. He got mocked for this and I remem­ber it was poin­ted out to him that writ­ing lists is very much an OCD trait. In that moment, for the first time ever, I sud­denly wondered if all this list-writ­ing, this com­puls­ive check­ing, the obses­sion of know­ing everything pos­sible about some­thing could actu­ally be a more ser­i­ous mat­ter than I’d ever con­sidered. I mean I’d nev­er con­sidered it to be any­thing, I’d nev­er ques­tioned it, I just did it and was very happy about it. In that moment though I felt uneasy about it and I quickly googled ‘OCD traits’. I went through the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of obsess­ive com­puls­ive beha­viour and I cer­tainly ticked a lot of the boxes. It was broad though and there were ele­ments that did­n’t apply to me at all but the things that did really res­on­ated. I thought back to when I was a tod­dler. My par­ents told me that I could name every single make of car. They’d take me for a walk, and I’d name any­thing on the road that they asked me. I hon­estly have no recol­lec­tion of being able to do this and have had abso­lutely zero interest or know­ledge in cars since I was about four years old.

I felt a bit ashamed that I might have OCD so I did­n’t tell any­one until 2012 when I revealed to my girl­friend, who was becom­ing increas­ingly frus­trated with my beha­viour, that I thought I may have it. My habits had increased and there­fore I was neg­lect­ing her, instead spend­ing time on tasks and routines which to any­one else would have seemed point­less but to me felt abso­lutely essen­tial and I could­n’t con­cen­trate or func­tion on any­thing else until I had done these tasks and routines. I had star­ted to real­ise that the inno­cent obsess­ive and com­puls­ive beha­viours were dic­tat­ing my life — I had a dis­order. It was­n’t until 2013 that I went to see my GP and told her about my sus­pi­cions, so she referred me to have a tele­phone inter­view with a ther­ap­ist. The ther­ap­ist asked me lots of ques­tions and I finally felt I could be totally hon­est about how I was liv­ing my life. The res­ults sug­ges­ted that the pos­sib­il­ity of me hav­ing OCD was high based on my responses. It was dur­ing this time that my job had become increas­ingly stress­ful. I was in my fourth year of teach­ing, work­ing with some extremely chal­len­ging young people, and the response to this stress was that my OCD beha­viours just became amp­li­fied. I was stay­ing up until the early hours to com­plete tasks and routines and mak­ing myself phys­ic­ally unwell. Even­tu­ally, in Janu­ary 2014, I was signed off work while I sought help and I now look at this peri­od as a pivotal one in my life. The shackles were off, and I finally did­n’t have to hide this beha­viour or feel ashamed of it. My par­ents knew about it, my work knew about it and I opened up to some of my friends about it. Per­haps I sug­ar-coated it to some people, but I still put it out there and I felt such a relief.

Since Feb­ru­ary 2014 I have changed dra­mat­ic­ally as a per­son. My self-expres­sion increased hugely, my will­ing­ness to share my pas­sions and interests with oth­ers (rather than keep it to myself) increased, I was able to acknow­ledge a lot of my beha­viours even if I did­n’t really under­stand them. I look back at what I was then and who I am now and they’re totally dif­fer­ent people. Don’t get me wrong though I have had a lot of chal­len­ging moments since then. I’m not really sure how I come across to oth­er people. Humor­ous, a bit quirky, easy going, pas­sion­ate, friendly — that’s how I hope I come across and that’s how I ima­gine I come across. How­ever, in order for me to be at that point isn’t always as straight­for­ward. I’m still groun­ded by a need for routine and fol­low­ing a for­mula. The com­pul­sion and obses­sion remain but I have man­aged to sig­ni­fic­antly reduce the time spent on the routines and tasks, although on a bad day they can begin to take over. It’s just in order for me to feel calm, relaxed, able to focus on things and be the per­son I want to be then I have to have my ducks lined up and checked off. It usu­ally does­n’t take long but I feel like I won’t be able to func­tion until it’s done — or rather until it feels “right”. It can be subtle, and I think only those close to me would really see it. It can be, at times, infuri­at­ing for myself and for oth­ers around me if I’m hav­ing a bad day. I still don’t know if the increased time taken on tasks is what causes it to be a bad day or wheth­er I’m respond­ing to a bad feel­ing by increas­ing the time I take on my routines and tasks. Is the OCD caus­ing a feel­ing of anxi­ety or does the feel­ing of anxi­ety cause the OCD? I’m not sure it even mat­ters really. It is though undoubtedly bet­ter and has allowed me to live a life which has been broad­er and more diverse than I could have ima­gined back in Janu­ary 2014.

The prob­lem with men­tal health issues, and I’m sure many will relate, is the ongo­ing power struggle in your mind. Does my mind con­trol me, or do I con­trol my mind? Is this really my men­tal health right now or am I pre­tend­ing it is so that I can manip­u­late the situ­ation to my advant­age? Is my beha­viour selfish to oth­ers or neces­sary for my well-being? In a world where people are starving to death, dying of dis­ease, and suf­fer­ing in ways I can­’t ima­gine why should a middle-class guy, with com­par­at­ively hardly any real issues, even dare to sug­gest that he has a prob­lem?

I atten­ded a self-devel­op­ment course in August 2018. I had res­isted it for years, had one failed attempt at it in 2015, and was even­tu­ally per­suaded to do it again. This time I got a lot from it. I did­n’t write this piece to pro­mote this course — far from it — but along with many insights into dif­fer­ent aspects of my life I also had a big break­through about men­tal health. This break­through is my opin­ion, not that of the course I was on, and it is abso­lutely not applic­able to any­one oth­er than myself. My know­ledge of men­tal health is some­what lim­ited, cer­tainly in med­ic­al terms, but I always felt that men­tal health was either a chem­ic­al imbal­ance or a reac­tion to cir­cum­stances, or both. The break­through I had was relat­ing only to my situ­ation. I real­ised that it did­n’t mat­ter if I had OCD or not because the OCD is as real as I will allow it to be. I had lived 25 years of my life dis­play­ing obsess­ive and com­puls­ive beha­viours, but I was bliss­fully unaware. Then sud­denly, in 2010, I attached a label to my beha­viours. I don’t think that adding the label to the beha­viours worsened them, I think they were already worsen­ing at this point due to oth­er factors in my life, but it was like I had a way of bring­ing them togeth­er and jus­ti­fy­ing them. Why the hell do I need to label these beha­viours? Yeah being com­puls­ive and obsess­ive can be annoy­ing at times but actu­ally when I embrace them and use them dif­fer­ently, they can also be incred­ible and make my life bet­ter. I owe a lot of the best moments and things in my life to those traits. Any per­son­al­ity trait can be a gift or a curse, com­puls­ive­ness and obsess­ive­ness are no dif­fer­ent. The issue I had, and have to keep on deal­ing with, is the dis­order ele­ment. If my life is start­ing to become over­run with tasks and routines, then that is very dif­fer­ent to me doing a few of these to keep me calm for half an hour dur­ing the day.

It always annoys me when I see posts on social media titled ‘how OCD are you?’ and you have to spot which of the three pic­tures is dif­fer­ent. That is simply spot the dif­fer­ence. If you spot it you have good atten­tion to detail, a use­ful skill. It is not, how­ever, obsess­ive, com­puls­ive or a dis­order. That poor man who spent hours eat­ing his food, obsess­ively and com­puls­ively fol­low­ing a rigid routine before every mouth­ful, would tell you dif­fer­ently. I hope that he has man­aged to find a way of shift­ing those great com­puls­ive and obsess­ive traits away from a dis­order so that he can live his best life too.

 

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Alex Gordon

Alex Gordon

Between 9–5 I’m a pas­sion­ate teach­er for teen­agers with spe­cial needs and dis­en­gaged young people. From 5–9 I’m a left-wing hip-hop head who fell in love with the music in the mid-90’s. Also have an equal love for jazz, soul and funk, am an avid record col­lect­or, lov­er of live shows and occa­sion­al DJ.

About Alex Gordon

Alex Gordon
Between 9-5 I'm a passionate teacher for teenagers with special needs and disengaged young people. From 5-9 I'm a left-wing hip-hop head who fell in love with the music in the mid-90’s. Also have an equal love for jazz, soul and funk, am an avid record collector, lover of live shows and occasional DJ.