The original title of the blog I was planning to write today was “Tips on staying away from home when you have mental health problems”. You see, my parents were jetting off to Malaysia and seeing as I am not well enough to manage by myself at the moment, the plan was for me to go and stay with their friends in this lovely little house out in the countryside.
We have been planning it for months, I had visited the house and felt OK about it seeing how nice my bedroom, personal office AND personal bathroom were going to be. There was even a cat called Pingu. A cat. Named after my favourite childhood penguin. Ideal right?
Well I thought so, but was still worried about managing my mental health with new carers who do not know me as well as my parents, so I came up with a list of coping strategies and ways to manage it. Consequently I decided to write a blog sharing my oh so helpful tips incase anyone else out there was in a similar situation, but then…well…I went to the house where I was due to stay for two weeks, lasted approximately four hours and then was driven home in hysterics at midnight with my parents due to fly the next day despite having still not packed so much as a flip flop, because we have been spending weeks packing for me to go away (if you want to imagine how many things and bags it was, think of the average stuffed car that people often drive off to uni in, double it and chuck a penguin on top for good measure. Oh and a Christmas elf. One must never travel without one’s cuddly Christmas elf. Oh there we go! I did give a travel tip! YAY ME.)
Clearly then, I am in no place to be giving tips about staying away from home right now BUT over the course of this traumatic experience, I have been reminded of a valuable lesson about mental health problems, so I thought I would share that with you today instead.
Having been mentally ill and having been in therapy for over a decade, I would say I understand my conditions and myself rather well, which is why I felt that I could make a plan about an approaching situation in advance without running into any unforeseen issues.
Trying to do my same rituals in a different place however, really reminded me of something a lot of people might not realise: that being that sometimes with OCD, it is not just about carrying out a specific behaviour like a shower routine, it is about carrying out a very specific shower routine in a very specific shower.
I always knew that because of OCD and anorexia, I have a LOT of routines, rituals and specific ways of doing things. I eat out of certain bowls with a certain spoon, I drink tea out of a certain mug at certain times of the day and I wash my hands, shower and get dressed in very specific ways. As rigid as these and a number of different actions in my day are, logically you could assume that I could carry them out in a different place so long as I had the correct equipment. There was a shower where I was going to stay so of course I could do my shower routine, there was a sink so of course I could wash my hands and I was taking all of my cutlery/crockery so obviously I would be able to eat all in my usual ways.
Even I can admit that years ago, though still having OCD, I was able to do these fixed ritual things in other places with other sinks and showers. I have been on holiday since my diagnoses, have stayed in a hospital and went to university (kind of…), always carrying out the same actions just in different locations. Therefore I tried to do that this time going to a strange house but, with things how they are at the moment, as hard as I tried and as good as my intentions were at the time I attempted it, it isn’t possible (at least to a manageable realistic degree that doesn’t involve hysterics 24/7 for a fortnight which is less “a good challenge” and more cruel torture. I am all for accepting challenges and trying things out of my comfort zone but sometimes you need to eat a few mini muffins before you are up to demolishing an entire five tier wedding cake by yourself).
I was truly shocked as I sort of hadn’t realised how bad things have got again.
The descent has been a gradual process, little slips that in the end add up to a sky diver height of a fall. It is like what they say about if you put a frog in boiling hot water it will hop out but if you put it in warm water and gradually turn the heat up it will boil to death before it realises (that is what they say isn’t it? Who are these people? Please dear readers, do not go putting frogs in boiling water. If you really want to see some green bubbling in a pan just whack in a bag of frozen peas, far more humane AND one of your five a day).
When we pulled up at the house I fully intended on staying for the next two weeks (obviously I did, I had my penguin and my cuddly Christmas elf, I was committed to this trip). Even though I was anxious, by using multiple packets of anti bacterial wipes and with support from my parents, I got through the unpacking and after two hours my room, bathroom and office all looked really nice, filled with familiar things, a comfortable home from home.
It was when I tried to shower that things went so horribly wrong. First there was the issue that the shower was a stand in shower cubicle with a door. At my house our shower head is hanging above the bath, so when I am getting all lathered I can stand out of the flow of water to reach the required bubbliness (I know that this is not the most environmentally friendly way to live my life and that I could just turn the shower off but just know that I am unable to do that at the moment and to be honest when you are focusing on just keeping yourself alive your carbon footprint is not a top priority. At least I am not flying across the globe in an aeroplane to Malaysia like SOME people…).
With this stand in shower however, I was unable to reach the desired bubbliness needed to get through all of my thought routines because before I had time to count to the required numbers the suds had all been washed away.
Then there was a problem that I had to put my soaps in a basket so my lemon shower gel for feet was too close to my banana shower gel for body and far too close to a wall that I couldn’t touch, and the way you turned on the shower made my usual vitally important life saving way impossible.
I took so long to shower that all the hot water ran out and after a while of forcing myself to stand under the cold ice like hail pelting me in the face, I got out though I still didn’t feel clean. I was in a bit of a state but I didn’t want to give up so I persevered and tried to get on regardless but it was one thing after another. I couldn’t wash my hands in the sink because the tap distance to the back of the sink meant holding my arm at 135 degrees rather than 90, I couldn’t step off the towel I had laid on the floor because my bare feet couldn’t touch the tiles and I couldn’t put on the socks that I had brought into the bathroom with me without direct access to trousers and slippers. “You should have taken slippers in and trousers too” I hear you cry but I had thought of that already and couldn’t because there was nowhere safe in the bathroom to put those things at an acceptable distance away from each other. I found myself standing stranded on this towel shivering and blue with cold, so I naturally did what any other person would do in that situation. I cried uncontrollably and screamed in terror for my mother.
Luckily my parents were still there because the unpacking had taken such a long time that they had ended up staying for dinner whilst I showered.
Seafood rice was cooked and eaten and a homemade rhubarb crumble was just being served when the screaming happened and mum came running. She tried to help by offering solutions, one being the ideal “I can go and get the trousers and not let them touch anything”, but I didn’t want to do that. Yes it would have been safe, but I wanted to solve the problem by myself somehow with support.
Mum could have easily gotten my trousers and I could have left the bathroom but what the hell would I do the next day when she was on a beach somewhere in Malaysia? Around this point my “in a bit of a state” descended into full on “out of control don’t know what I am doing dangerous risky chaotic hysterics and panic” and from there things are a bit of a blur. All I know is that I cried for several hours (I tried to talk too but was at that hiccuping crying point so “I don’t know how to manage I want to disappear” came out more like “Hic gasp gulp hic scream”), and my parents and friends frantically tried to decide what to do.
When I was able to talk and sob at the same time I made it clear that I felt it was a challenge too many and that rather than tackling the “parents away and totally different location for all rituals for two weeks” I wanted to attempt the “parents aka usual carers away, in a familiar place” challenge. Losing both was like losing both of my homes, a tortoise rudely ripped from his semi detached terrace house and his shell in the same day leaving a cold naked slug unable to survive in its place.
There were then more hours of discussion before we realised that this really was not a feasible option and then after two hours of packing all of my things back into the bags we had unpacked them from (we didn’t have to pack my elf. He went and got himself back in the car the second he heard the first bout of screaming. He knows me well), we were back in the car driving home in the dark, leaving the abandoned now cold homemade crumble on the dining table. It is a big shame. My parents love rhubarb crumble.
So it was that I ended up back home after my much shorter than planned and somewhat failed “stay away from home with mental health problems”. On the plus side I did manage to get to the house and unpack…I just left two weeks too early.
Clearly then, I think I have proved my point and raised awareness to all the people who might not understand OCD, that when it comes to OCD and other mental health problems with ritualistic behaviours, it isn’t just the rituals that are important to a sufferer but the specific location and circumstances under which those rituals are carried out.
Take care everyone x