Yesterday I was interviewed on our local radio station (www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06kjsbj about ten minutes in) and the first thing the presenter asked me was, “What’s it like, living with OCD?”
I’ve been doing radio for quite a while now, and it’s not often I’m stumped. But it felt like being asked, “What’s it like, living in England?”
Where on earth do you start?
I said something rather unremarkable about the early days, when the rest of the family couldn’t use the bathroom for months on end when Bink was in “clean mode,” so around 10 o’clock every night I would walk to our neighbour’s in my dressing gown for the hot bath I relied on to get to sleep in our unheated Vicarage; though that was far better than “dirty mode,” when Bink herself couldn’t wash at all for months on end.
A bit like saying, Living in England means we’re on Greenwich Mean Time in the winter.
When Bink had been out of the Florence Nightingale Unit for some months, without friends, without schooling, painfully slowly beginning to recover from what they had done to her in there but still incapable of doing virtually anything, I enrolled her at the tutorial college Mander, Portman & Woodward. (The High Mistress wouldn’t have her back at St Paul’s Girls’ School: not after being in a loony bin.)
She tells me now – I had forgotten this – that she applied for a scholarship at MPW and long before she’d completed all the papers, on the strength of just her first essay, the Principle offered her a free place.
My heart was in my mouth, that first day of the autumn term. I had bought her a brand new black Pashley bicycle with the insurance money from all the bikes we’d had stolen in London over the years, and with her cropped hair and new books and file in her basket, she set off that first morning, sun glinting on her bike wheels as I watched her set off along Parson’s Green, disappear at the traffic lights and the reappear again in the New King’s Road before finally disappearing behind the row of shops heading East for Kensington.
First day down. If we could only keep this going, we might get her back on track for her A levels. She had switched from the double maths and physics she’d been studying, with English, before, and had now taken up Latin again with single maths and English.
She enjoyed the first day. Soon she might start to make new friends.
The next day she set off again. The longer we could keep this going the more likely she would stay the course.
One of the things you learn, if you live with OCD, is how to lie. We all did. All of us except Alexander.
The psychologist Prof Paul Salkovskis told me OCD is perhaps the most contagious of mental illnesses. Anyone in contact with it is likely to become obsessive, because of the fall-out if you don’t. You become extremely sensitised to the slightest contamination: it can ruin your own life if you miss it.
We had all learnt what could happen if we admitted to having touched such-and-such, or letting so-and-so brush against something else, particularly if it was to do with washing. It could incapacitate Bink for months. She had a thing about anything touching the rim of the washing machine, for instance. If she had a wash on, even if it was long-finished, we weren’t allowed to touch it. Ditto, anything of hers in the tumble dryer.
Serena had just finished A levels and while she prepared for her Cambridge vet exams, was doing her first paid job, in a lab, starting at 8 am and with a long journey first. She had to get up at 6 because she wasn’t allowed to use the shower, so she had to have a bath which took her much longer. Bink must have been in “clean mode” that term, so the rest of us couldn’t shower.
One morning Serena needed to put an item of clothing in the dryer for a few minutes to wear it for work. But Bink’s clothes were in there. We all knew by now that we could occasionally do relatively normal things as long as Bink didn’t know and therefore couldn’t get upset about it, so Serena carefully took Bink’s wash out, put her item in, dried it, and then put Bink’s wash back in again. All looking the same as before, long before Bink was up.
Only it didn’t. Because she had dropped one of Bink’s bras on the floor and in her hurry to get to work on time, didn’t notice.
By then Bink had been going to MPW for a week. It really looked as if she might attend every day, last the term, last the year, and only have missed a year of her schooling on account of the Florence Nightingale Unit. She wasn’t receiving any treatment for her OCD and was far more ill than before she went in, but if we could get her back into some kind of worthwhile routine at least she would be beginning to mend her life.
It was inevitable that she would look in the laundry eventually, and it just so happened she did so before she set off that day.
And saw her bra on the floor.
Complete and utter meltdown. Far worse than the contamination – presumably the bra could be washed again – was the realisation that we must all have been lying to her. If that was so, how could she ever know whether anything was “clean” or “contaminated”?
Which, of course, was why Alex never did. All very well, but if we had pursued Alex’s policy she would never have enrolled at MPW in the first place. Our lying had kept her relatively calm. While it worked.
I knew I had to get her to college that that day or we could lose everything we’d gained. I calmed her as best I could, reassured her every way I could think of, and eventually, only two or three hours late, managed to persuade her to set off after all.
Thank goodness! I knew how absolutely vital it was to ensure her attendance every day.
Fifteen minutes later she was back. She was in too much panic to continue.
She didn’t return that day. Nor the next. Nor the one after that.
That was it, then. She wouldn’t return that term. Possibly not the next. She had lost another academic year.
Over one bra.
We had not been obsessive enough. I should have noticed. I should have checked the laundry, seen the bra, put it back in the dryer. I would live with the guilt all year; perhaps longer.
Far worse, perhaps Serena would. Working so hard at her new job, her application to Cambridge, all the demands of her own eighteen-year-old life. Whilst having to keep her sister sane too.
Which is a tiny little bit of what it’s like to live with OCD.