I’m becoming an overnight success

Today I ordered some gravel, compost, decking and a hosepipe. I shaved my body. I went out into the sunshine. I’m wearing a top that matches my trainers and I’m writing. I arranged to meet up with Lowri soon who, like most of my friends, I haven’t seen in far too bloody long.

I read once that the secret to becoming an overnight success is to work like hell for years until you get good enough for people to suddenly notice one morning. Some days it can look from the outside like I’m doing naff-all to improve my mental health, and from the inside it often feels like I’m making naff-all progress even though I’m well aware that there’s paddling like hell going on under the water. I joked with Lowri that it’s all go around here today, but I realised in the shower earlier that the effect of all these little everyday things I’m doing is really stacking up now.

I asked my psychologist some weeks ago how I’m supposed to find the motivation to do anything when I feel like there’s no point in anything. (That’s not how I feel all the time, but it’s a thought that suddenly rears up without warning, for minutes or an hour at a time, and sabotages my plans on a daily basis.) With his usual straightforward wisdom he made me realise I was beating myself up about not being able to find an answer to an impossible question. I needed to learn how to do things without motivation. Since then I’ve been practising following a rule that when I feel like it’s not worth bothering with anything, that I do what I was going to do anyway. Because frankly, even though I feel like the world is ending and nothing will ever get better and there’s no point in trying and I don’t care anyway and… That actually I was about to do something when all was well ten minutes ago. So even though there’s no point, I’m to do that thing I was about to do anyway. Because it’s the rules. No judgement. No weighing up whether it will be worth it or not. No trying to fathom out if I’ll enjoy it when I get into it. It’s just the rules, innit. That’s the kind of straightforward self-talk you need when you’re feeling like crap, because if I try to persuade myself to do something I’ll give myself space to persuade myself to do nothing at all. I’ve been keeping track of how many times it hasn’t worked: how many times that afterwards, when I’m feeling better, I wish I hadn’t done the thing I’d planned to do but then didn’t want to do because there was no point.

It works.

It works every sodding time.

It works if the thing was to go out and travel for an hour to see a friend. It works if the thing was to get up and fetch a glass of water. And it works for everything in between. It hasn’t failed. Ever.

Of course, there’s some tricking of my own mind going on here. Deep down I must have motivation to follow The Rule, knowing that there’s a future, and that there will feel like a point to it all again sometime in the next few minutes, hours or day. So I suppose it lets me act on that buried motivation rather than acting out how I’m feeling in the moment. Because — it turns out — feelings work best when you let them inform what you do, but don’t let them run the show all the time. Especially when they’re telling you to sit there and do fuck all.

So here’s to becoming an overnight success. One little step at a time.

Tying myself in knots

I’m wandering around the school yard with my friends. I’m six. Trailing behind me is a piece of rope about 12 feet long. It’s in my imagination, but not a metaphor. For most practical purposes it might as well actually be there. I haven’t knowingly imagined it into existence: it just appeared one day. We have a large rain shelter that’s held up with iron pillars. As we play, we weave in and out of the pillars and the rope tangles itself around them. I count: first pillar, once anticlockwise; second pillar, once clockwise. The bell rings. I need to untangle the rope before I can go inside. Discretely I reverse my steps: walk around the second pillar once anticlockwise; the first pillar once clockwise. My friends haven’t noticed, thankfully. They don’t know about the rope. School is a really happy, safe place for me but the rope appears occasionally for a year or so. I don’t tell anyone about it until I’m 19. This could be one of my earliest memories of obsessive compulsive disorder. Or it could be a child’s healthy imagination. That’s the thing about OCD — there’s a fine line between jumping over cracks in the pavement and realising you can’t walk down the street any more.

I’m walking down the corridor alone, heading for the yard to meet my friends. I’m 11. Running down the walls is a dado rail that goes around corners into each doorway. Oops. I forgot to touch the corner of the rail at the last classroom door. I double back and touch it quickly with my fingers. That feels better. I carry on, touching the corner of the rail on the opposite side as it reaches the fire exit before I walk through into the sunshine. Later, I’m walking across our classroom. I forgot to touch the corner of the middle table as I passed it. I think about not bothering, but I can’t manage to ignore it. I double back and touch the corner of the table. That feels better.

I’m kneeling on the floor in the hall at home with my bag in front of me. I’m 14. I want to watch a TV show in ten minutes. I have a black ringbinder with a velcro flap. I put the sheets I need for tomorrow in the rings and close them. I didn’t close them quite right: it doesn’t feel right. I pop them open again and close them. That feels better, but the second time of closing them cancelled out the first time, so really I haven’t closed them at all. I open and close the rings a third time. But it still doesn’t feel right. What I really need is to close them five times: two pairs of two to make a square number, then a fifth that is the one to actually count. I quickly open and close the rings a fourth time, then more carefully on the fifth time to make sure I do it right. That feels better. Getting the velcro flap shut takes another set of four goes, plus a fifth to do it right. By the time I’m onto putting the folder in my bag, and out again, and in again, and out again, my mind is feeling really locked into patterns. I put my folder into my bag for the fifth time. That feels better. I’ve missed the start of my TV show, though.

I’m in my room at university, in bed with the light out. I’m 19. I don’t think I pressed the switch quite right. I get out of bed and turn the light on. I’ve recently looked up obsessive compulsive disorder and realised I have it. I need to do the four-plus-one thing or I won’t really have turned the light off. I flick the light off and back on another three times, then make sure I turn it out properly so I don’t have to move up to sixteens instead of fours. That feels better.

A few weeks later I go to a doctor. Up until now my compulsions have been little more than quirks that come and go, morph into a different form and reappear some years later. But they’re getting bad enough to make everyday functioning tricky. The GP gives me a prescription and tells me to refer myself to the university counselling service. Instead of taking the drugs and getting counselling I end up changing universities and subjects. It turns out that the OCD was just a symptom of me being unhappy with where I was living and the course I was doing. That feels better. The compulsions mostly go away.

It’s the start of the the summer holiday after four years at university; I have one more year here. I’m 22. For the last three weeks I haven’t wanted to touch the door handles or the house phone after the men in our friendship group have touched them. Everyone else has gone home, but I’ve stayed to give the place a good clean. I’ve been cleaning for five days. Each day I’ve gone out and bought more cleaning supplies. The coffee table has a mountain of used cloths on it. I spend the afternoon scrubbing the kitchen floor with a small brush and neat floor cleaner, working my way towards the bathroom. I finally reach the end of the kitchen, exhausted. I put all my clothes in the washing machine, in case droplets of water may have bounced off the floor and landed on them. I get in the shower and clean myself. For an hour. Nothing feels better. I don’t graduate.

After a couple of years of OCD hell I eventually feel ready to reach out for help to a psychologist. I get my life back: get a career, have fun. But I don’t manage to get rid of the obsessions and compulsions completely and can’t work full time. The OCD ebbs and flows in waves. Then in raging floods.

I go to the kitchen to get a glass of water. I’m 33. It’s today. I step over the piece of biscuit I dropped on the carpet an hour ago: to pick it up would mean washing my hands and then maybe scrubbing the sink. On the way through the door I bunch my top up in my hands in case it somehow leaps away from my body and touches the door handle. I get a tissue out of my pocket, unfold it into a square and use it to turn the tap so I don’t have to touch anything. I run the water slowly so it doesn’t splash out the glass into the bowl. Were it to splash it might send a droplet of water from the bowl towards me. Mum went to the bin earlier and has used the sink. The bin has been touched by the bin men, who have touched everyone else’s bins. So all the “man-ness” of all the men who live in the area has been transferred to our bin, and some of that man-ness might be in the water drop. I turn the tap off and put the tissue in the designated place on the worktop, where I know Mum will pick it up and put it in the bin for me. I sip my water and carry on writing this article.

All this feels like it’s keeping me safe. It’s not, is it?

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A year to change my life

I’m in a hole. It’s at least three times my height and wide enough for me to pace anxiously around in circles. The walls are made of dry, crumbling soil. On a good day I can get a footing and a handhold, and climb towards the blue sky. On a bad day the soil crumbles beneath my fingertips and toes, sending me sliding downward towards the damp ground below.

The hole is in my head of course, just a way for me to explain to you how I feel. But the darkness it casts is real. Dad died in January. I didn’t expect it to be this hard. That’s not true — I didn’t expect anything. I’m making it up as I go along. If that were the only thing I was coping with, perhaps the hole wouldn’t be so deep. Except I have obsessive compulsive disorder, which was on a familiar steep sliding slope by the end of last year and came crashing down around me when Dad went. Then there’s the not insignificant matter of me going through a gender transition.

I feel a responsibility towards Mum. We’re close. She’s going through the hell of losing her partner of 45 years. But she also suffers from debilitating arthritis in her back, which has become all the more debilitating without Dad and his car. Layered on that is the challenge of living with someone with OCD. I moved back here when my mental health was last at its worst, and a decade on I haven’t recovered enough to move. I’m here to support Mum emotionally when I’m not screaming the place down, but when it comes to practical support I can barely support myself.

On Monday I sat on the edge of my hole eating mango, bathing in the bank holiday sunshine. In reality, the edge of the hole was a wall in Asda’s car park. Practising putting myself and my bag on that particular bird-shit covered wall is one of many new routines I rehearse as part of my therapy. Success. But I still baby-wiped the plastic mango container before opening it. The moment was glorious nonetheless and offered a taste of the freedom that recovery brings.

On other days I frantically scramble up the sides of the hole, trying to catch a glimpse of the outside world beyond. I make enough progress to see the sun over the horizon but not to feel its warmth. Then the earth gives way and I slide down, kicking and lashing out until I get a hold on something secure. I’ve dropped enough to make me question whether the day’s climb happened at all, or if it was in my imagination.

My sense of self is all over the place. It took the last couple of years for me to slowly come out to myself and accept that I’m transgender. I had to collect up lots of the things that I — and the people who love me — take for granted about me, throw them up in the air and see which ones land back at my feet and which ones I’d rather walk away from. I’ve been gathering up the parts of the new me, the one I want to spend the rest of my life loving. The OCD seems to have other plans though, and takes away much of what makes me feel like myself; what makes me feel human. Independence. Friends. Work. Fun.

I talk about the OCD as if it’s an autonomous being, taking over my mind. Yet it’s inextricably part of me: a creation of my subconscious that gets nurtured by my conscious mind. I’m simultaneously in a fight with a disorder and a fight with myself. I crave a future free from the painful claustrophobic restrictions of obsessive thought and compulsive behaviour. Yet the lure of complying with the OCD somehow feels so comfortable and safe. My hole feels familiar.

It’s not enough for me though, living in this darkness. I’ve learned who I am and I know the life I want to live. I told myself this summer I’m going to take a year to change my life and another year to make it the life I dream of. I’m going to write myself to health and recovery. I’m going to write the new version of myself into existence. I hope you’ll join me.

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