Modern life is stressful. But ‘the good old days’ were just as bad – if not worse. Back in the day, you’d be too busy hunting down dinner, fighting off invaders/disease or trying to survive childbirth to worry about your Facebook status or whether Sainsburys had run out of olives.
Which is not to say we don’t have genuine worries – just that they can get subsumed or mixed up in lesser things, which then take on enormous significance: Marriages which have survived children, tragedy and countless anniversaries, sometimes collapse over seemingly trivial matters – the funny noises the wife makes when eating, the husband leaving the toilet seat up and so on. Or in the workplace, executives can survive major presentations, mergers and cut-backs, but then crumble over the minutiae of office politics or a thoughtless comment at the watercooler.
I guess one of the ways we deal with big questions, (God, sickness, death, meaning etc) is to transfer them into smaller and more manageable categories: wrinkles, home decor, fitness or food. I can’t control when I’m going to die – but I can control my waistline. I can’t stop myself getting older – but I can fight it with every serum, injection and goji berry at my disposal. I can’t stop bad things happening to me or the people I love: but maybe, if I just say or do the ‘right’ things, I’ll somehow be okay.
In stark print, this may look silly, but most of us think and act in this way. In its extreme form it’s called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), an often debilitating mental health condition, where sufferers feel compelled to repeat certain actions or thoughts to block distressing images, impulses or thoughts that they can’t ignore, (see previous post). It’s been highlighted in the last week by the MP Charles Walker, who spoke about it in a speech to the Commons and in an interview with the Daily Mail. But it’s more common than you’d think.
Here are two beautiful, famous and successful women who, (almost in passing), have referred to similar struggles:
‘I get up at 6.30. My gym clothes are already laid out from the night before so all I have to do is brush my teeth, wash my face and collect my food delivery from the gate. My food is delivered every day in little freezer packs. I put those in the refrigerator and make sure it’s all tidy. I can’t shut the door if things aren’t on the right shelf…
After breakfast I have a shower. My bathroom is full of shower gels, body scrubs and shampoos – at least 20 different ones – all colour coordinated, height co-ordinated and scent co-ordinated. And I can’t take a shower unless the bathroom is absolutely spotless…everything has to be immaculate. I have a cleaner who comes three times a week, but I always do cleaning on top of that.
I will admit that I’m a perfectionist. I want everything to be perfect and I guess I apply that to myself.’
(Kim Kardashian, reality-TV star and model, quoted in The Sunday Times Magazine, 17.6.12)
‘It’s very weird. It’s only happened in this past year. I’ve started getting very superstitious and fixating on things. I used to do it as a kid. I’d get these obsessive moments where I’d be in the car with my dad or something, and every time we went past a lamp-post I’d go like this…” She pauses to make six clucking noises with her tongue, flipping her head with each one to acknowledge the lamp-posts she’s mentally passing. “And my dad would be like: ‘What are you doing?’ And I’d go, “Sorry, I can’t…”she clucks, “…stop”.
Why does she think it’s happening? “I don’t know. I don’t know. I think I’m just worrying lately about my friends and family. I’m lying awake, and getting older and realising how precious everything is; losing that slightly cavalier quality you have as a teenager when you say and do silly things”.
(Emily Blunt, actress, quoted in The Observer, 17.6.12)
It’s easy to think that mental illness is the preserve of a few odd-bods ‘out there’. It’s also easy to think that money, fame, career, beauty etc will fix my anxieties and make life ‘safe’. But I suspect that the truth is a lot more challenging. The answers our culture offers don’t even acknowledge the right questions.