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Talk & Listen Sessions

Sunday 3 December 2023

The Bag Lady

This weekend has felt pretty awful all the way through. It's been punctuated with several low points that have fuelled anxiety and anger, a feeling of numbness in between these, and a complete absence of any positive moments. The past forty-eight hours have left me frazzled.

Yesterday was supposed to be a good day. I had three things in my diary the first of which was the occasional baking class that I sometimes go to on a Saturday morning. I wrote about a situation that had arisen there in my recent post The Friend That Nearly Was. I talked about a problem that had developed with a particular individual, Jane, who also sometimes attends. She was also there again yesterday. This wasn't really a problem though as I think the way things came to a head a fortnight ago provided a closure to the relationship between us. Somehow though, her presence seemed to have the effect of inducing a feeling of necessity in adapting my behavioural interactions with everyone else that was present. There was something going on internally that moved me away from the real me. I found myself adding a layer of unnatural extraversion to my personality which caused me to shift away from my authentic self. It seems that, on some unconscious level, I needed try and ensure that I was liked by everyone else in the group or, at the very least, to mitigate the potential of being disliked by anyone else present. The emotional distress that would be caused by others not liking me would compound the effects of Jane's rejection already set in stone. Such an outcome would serve to reinforce her rejection, in effect adding validity to it, and risking my precariously fragile state even further. 

The masking of my true self, however, causes an internal conflict, which actually creates distance rather than fostering human connection. I have talked about this previously in my blog and yet, despite being aware of the damage done by appearing through a psychological veil, this kicked in automatically by default without any ability to disable it. It acted as a defence mechanism in preserving the integrity of my sense of self at the expense of eroding the fostering of authentic new connections. Furthermore, the maintenance of defence mechanisms expends relatively more substantial amounts of mental energy; the greater the distance from my authentic self I try to maintain the greater the conscious effort I need to make. I already use up more energy than neurotypical, non-introspective, non-analytical types; I am forever continually analysing everything that's going on which in itself uses up a lot more energy than the average person who is able to just sit back and enjoy life effortlessly. This, combined with being on constant guard to maintain the detachment from authenticity as a defence mechanism, was just too much. No wonder I felt exhausted by the end of the baking class!

Frazzled, but not fazed, I made my way to my second engagement of the day: Talk & Listen, the emotional peer support group that I currently run every other Saturday. I discovered the usual venue to be especially noisy when I arrived which created some anxiety but I didn't have any option but to persevere. People started turning up for the meeting and started to take the seats I'd laid out in a circle. One sat down next to me; she had a shopping bag which she placed in between her chair and mine. I haven't talked about this much before, but I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); it's an incredibly debilitating psychological condition that stops me from living a normal life. It is so bad that I am often completely unable to function in any shape or form. I can't even leave my flat, let alone go out and do something I need to do or something remotely useful; even shopping for milk and bread is a task beyond reach.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder comprises obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that are inextricably linked. The particular symptomatic manifestations are very individual. People with OCD are often portrayed as people who are obsessed with cleanliness or have to continually wash their hands due to fear of some form of contamination. However, that's just one way that OCD may present itself for some individuals. I met someone whose OCD stopped him from being able to touch or even go near wooden objects. In my case, I become incredibly anxious and literally just freeze whenever I find myself near a bag or a bin. Sometimes, if I am unable to deal with the situation, I suffer a panic attack; it becomes a panic attack when the symptoms of the anxiety turn the freezing-up syndrome into a complete loss of agency: no perceived prospect of having any control over the situation. Increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, significant perspiration where I can just feel water dripping from my forehead, and a tensing up of muscles are some of the physiological aspects of the panic. I've had this many times in places like Sainsbury's where OCD has set in over a tin of baked beans and its particular placement on the shelf.

So there I was, at my peer support group, yesterday afternoon, where I suddenly found myself next to someone's bag. The anxiety was immediate; I felt trapped; I literally just froze and was unable to move. I could feel the sweat building up and my heart beginning to pound as if it was going to burst through my chest like the creature in Alien. I followed a certain ritualistic movement that saw me gliding away from the bag in a meticulously calculated fashion, small step by small step, all the while whilst keeping my gaze firmly on the bag; if I were to let it out of my sight I'd be doomed. After a while I was able to sit down in the circle directly opposite. I had to take a few moments for my breathing to be restored to a more sustainable pattern. My peculiar behaviour did not go unnoticed, to say the least!

We started the session with me sharing my affliction with OCD. I explained that I've had the condition since I was very young and that it is one that I live with every single day. It has an element of unpredictability as I never know exactly when it's going to strike or how badly. Whilst I was talking about my OCD I was also acutely aware that my focus was still on the bag. This did not change for at least an hour! Even when others in the group were sharing their difficulties I was still focussed on the bag whilst doing my best to listen to them. In my case, the obsessive thoughts I was experiencing were whether I'd dropped something in the bag when it had been placed next to where I'd originally been sitting, and my compulsive behaviour was a continual fixation on the bag from where I was sitting opposite, visually scanning the opening at the top to see if I had dropped something. These obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour were a continual source of heightened anxiety for most of the meeting. Whilst the OCD started to dissipate after an hour or so, it continued right through to the end of the two hour session, albeit a little diluted by then. Remnants of the OCD episode persisted for a while even after leaving the venue. 

There was a third event to attend yesterday but, as I made my way to the venue, the effects of the day so far had already taken their toll; I felt completely worn out through the mental anguish of the day, from the energy that went into this during the morning's baking class to the anxiety and dysfunction of the OCD at my peer support group. There had also been several other instances of OCD throughout the day that I haven't even mentioned: at the baking class, for example, I had obsessive thoughts about having dropped something where I'd been sitting which were followed by extensive compulsive checking rituals under and around my chair several times and even more so when I was trying to get up and leave. I also felt I'd dropped something on the bus and had to endure the ongoing accompanying thoughts and behaviours associated with that. It was all too much. The physical and mental exhaustion had completely wiped out any ability or inclination to attend the third event I'd diarised for the day. This was a shame, really, as it was a philosophy and psychology discussion group that I'd been looking forward to.

During the bus journey on the way home I felt completely numb. My mind had turned into mushy peas and my body into jelly. I'm pretty sure that if you'd seen me you would have seen a completely vacant look; I was just a vegetable. A man with a dog got on the bus and I just spent the rest of the journey extending virtual love to the dog; it was so beautiful and lovable. I wanted to get up and go and hug it tightly and my mind drifted into a daydream where I imagined all this happening. I got home, resorted to some food high in carbohydrates for comfort and then fell asleep in front of a BBC4 Nordic noire drama. Here I am now, twenty-four hours later, and I have yet to recoup my energy, despite sitting indoors all day. I think this goes to show just how much energy is sapped from a system through effort in maintaining defence mechanisms and through involuntary thoughts and rituals of continual obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also shows how long it takes to restore all this expended energy. If my mind and body were connected to an energy smart meter it would be off the dial.

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