Category Archives: Comment

OCD Action: Cleaning Up Misconceptions

Image by Jez Nicholson (flickr) used under Creative Commons license

My interest in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is rooted in personal experience. For the purpose of spreading awareness however, I’m playing uninformed. To begin my conversation with Olivia Bamber, Media and Communications officer and helpline coordinator of OCD Action, I asked if OCD was simply a quirk.

“Definitely not. It’s a disorder…and I think that’s the bit that people forget. Everybody has quirks, obsessions, compulsions or rituals.” We’ve all heard someone flippantly describe themselves as ‘a bit OCD’. How is a distinction made? “The way that is characterised as being a disorder is when it has an impact on your life.”

Is everyone who has OCD clean and organised? Absolutely not. For a lot of people, Olivia explains, there are no “obsessions to do with contamination or organisation”. The themes for them are far more taboo. “They could have intrusive thoughts about causing harm or coming to harm, or sexual or religious thoughts, that sort of thing.” Consequently, these worries are rarely discussed. Even for those whose OCD is closer to media stereotypes, symptoms can be distressing.

Do people know they’re being irrational? “I think a lot of people know that, deep down, their obsessions and compulsions aren’t logical. They still can’t stop doing it, because there’s that niggling doubt all the time. OCD is often referred to as the ‘doubting disorder’. I think that niggling doubt just makes people continue to do those compulsions. So I think, generally, people do realise what they’re doing is irrational – but that doesn’t mean people can stop doing it.”

Are the things they’re doing to deal with anxiety always obvious? “No. Compulsions can be mental or physical. They might be things you can see like washing, tapping or saying phrases out loud. They could also be mental compulsions that might be things like avoiding certain situations, they could be things like asking for reassurance, so they might not seem so obvious. It could be repeating certain mantras or phrases inside your head, so definitely, there are compulsions that you can’t see as well.”

Some people with OCD have debilitating obsessions about being a murderer or rapist. Does this make them dangerous? “Absolutely not. They’re just intrusive thoughts and do not characterise what a person actually wants to think or feel.” In a survey of 293 students, 42% of females and 50% of males had experienced intrusive thoughts about hurting a family member. Intrusive thoughts are uncontrollable, and as Olivia observes, “everybody in the world gets them. It doesn’t, in any way, reflect on someone’s personality or character.” Arguably, people with these types of obsessions are more concerned with morality than anyone else. However, “pushing an intrusive thought away doesn’t help.”

What treatment helps a person to recover? “The therapy for OCD would generally try and gradually teach you to confront the thought rather than try and push it away. Because actually, often by pushing the thought away you can make it stronger. And Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is actually the therapy for OCD, would encourage you to allow that thought to come, and sit with that anxiety and actually let that anxiety go down on it’s own.” CBT, Olivia explains, “uses an element of ERP (Exposure Response Prevention) which is basically where you expose yourself to the trigger or the thought and you very gradually reduce doing the compulsion.” Some people also find that antidepressant medications (Specific Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs) make the condition more manageable; especially during the often challenging therapy process.

What causes OCD? As a charity we generally don’t talk about the cause. There is actually no known cause. There’s a lot of research being done into OCD and a lot of research into why people develop it.” Studies have found that people with first-degree relatives who have OCD are at a higher risk for developing it themselves. This suggests a genetic predisposition towards the disorder. There also seems to be a link between certain structural abnormalities in the brain and OCD. Trauma is also thought to increase the likelihood of having OCD. Sometimes, however, there’s no apparent reason. “I genuinely have heard of people with OCD who have gone to sleep with no obsessions and have woken up with loads. So there is no known cause but, actually, knowing the cause doesn’t help. The therapy is very practical and we don’t find that that’s particularly helpful.”

I’m sure OCD Action is also a help to people. When I invite Olivia to tell me more about the charity her face lights up. I can tell you a lot about OCD Action, I’ll be here for ages!” she laughs. “We are a national charity that supports anyone affected by OCD or related disorders. When I say ‘anyone’ that means the person with the condition and family and friends. By ‘related disorders’, I mean things like BDD (Body Dismorphic Disorder) and hoarding or habit disorders, as we cover a big, wide range of things. What we do is we offer support and information to those people. So we have lots of support services like the helpline, our advocacy service, a big network of independent support groups and our youth service. We also offer loads and loads of information through our website.”

 

You can contact OCDAction‘s support services by calling 08453906232, emailing support@ocdaction.org.uk, or by using their contact form

For more information about the charity, email info@ocdaction.org.uk or check out their website

OCDAction are also on Facebook and Twitter

Why I March…

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”— Audre Lorde

I woke up on January 20, 2017 with a feeling of dread in my stomach. I knew all too well that at 4:00pm GMT a new president would be taking an oath of office in the United States. Being both an American and an international student at Birkbeck, I spent the previous year worrying about first, Brexit – Would I get my scholarship? Would my fees change? Would I feel welcome in the UK?  -and second, the toxic rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign – Would I have equal rights as a woman? Would my black, LGBTQ and immigrant friends be safe?

If I felt helpless on January 20th, then I felt empowered on January 21st. With plans to attend the Women’s March on London at noon, I awoke early. I chose wool socks, pulled jeans over long johns, grabbed a hat, and picked out my warmest scarf (cashmere – a gift from Bolivia). Deciding to make feminism the theme of the day, I walked over to The Photographer’s Gallery, where an exhibition entitled Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s was on in full force. I was greeted with free entry (every day before noon – great for students!) and five floors to explore.

Two floors showcased pieces of art that I am not qualified to critique, but their striking international scope highlighted diverse ways of approaching the issue. For those of us feeling small in the face of patriarchy and wondering what we can possibly do to fight this, the fifth floor was key. A few larger-than-life light box photos and a film, Joanne by Simon Fujiwara, were compelling in the way they opposed the typical portrayal of a woman as one-dimensional. The project depicted Joanne from the perspective of who she is, rather than what she looks like. In her words, “I feel like I’m cheating if I say: I am a model, I am a teacher, I am a lover, I am an artist, I am a chameleon, I am a fighter . . . I am a person . . . I am a female.”

Joanne, in the film, watching over Joanne, the athlete, from Simon Fujiwara: Joanne at The Photographers’ Gallery

Inspired by the active role Joanne played in re-branding herself as a complex human being and feeling a bit more hopeful, I headed towards Grosvenor Square. As I neared the meeting point I saw my first pussyhat. I followed the pink ears towards the rapidly-growing crowd and was met by a variety of signs.

There were some standards being handed out: “Reject Hate, Reclaim Politics,” “No to Racism, No to Trump,” some poignant quotes: “But still, like air, I’ll rise,” by Maya Angelou, “When they go low, we go high,” by Michelle Obama, and “Women’s rights are human rights,”  from Hillary Rodham Clinton,

The true creativity of some participants was shown in more heartfelt hand-written signs, such as “Respect existence or expect resistance,” “Viva la vulva,” and “Women of the world UNITE!”. For 5 or more hours I felt the hope creep slowly back into my worldview as we gathered together, wound our way along Piccadilly, then convened in impressive numbers at Trafalgar Square (nearly 100,000 people in London alone).

Excitedly, I watched online as other groups gathered across the Western Hemisphere. The high was muted however, as a polarised stance was emerging on social media. Among the disparaging comments, a friend posed the question:

“I’ve tried looking up specifically what is being protested, but it seems exceptionally vague. Womens [sic] rights and visibility, I know, but specifically?”

It wasn’t the first, nor the last question like this that I saw, and although I like to promote research into topics that are a bit out of one’s grasp, I think friends of mine were looking for a more personal response. For them, and any others wondering:

I march..

…because rhetoric in the United States (and throughout the world) has disrespected women, demonized immigrants and threatened all minorities.

…because I want to make decisions about my body.

…because everyday sexism is ignored, denied and ridiculed.

…because I did not invite the male gaze.

…because I want every girl in the world to have access to an education.

…because female genital mutilation is STILL happening!

…because if I wear a skirt, I’m a “slut.” If I wear a low top, I’m “asking for it.” If I wear jeans, I’m a “tomboy.” If I wear makeup, I’m “professional.” If I don’t, I’m “frumpy.”

…because the first thing little girls are told is how pretty they are.

…because people of color in the US are still treated as second class citizens.

…because aside from Native Americans, everyone is an immigrant in America.

…because,  “legal rights are of limited value when they are enforced by people steeped in a culture that does not respect women. They can run for office, but can they win? They can accuse their rapist, but will the accusation stick? They can be themselves at work, but will they be promoted?” –Paul (from a forum on Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson’s online feminist book group, and part of her work with UN women)

…because men STILL make more money than women for the SAME jobs.

…because I don’t just want your daughter to be told she can be an engineer, a scientist, a politician, an artist, an astronaut, a CEO, a designer, an academic… I want her to be ENCOURAGED to be whatever it is that makes her happy and confident and strong.

…because we live in a patriarchy, where “men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” –Oxford Dictionary

…because a person holding the highest office in the US has been recorded saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything …Grab them by the p***y … You can do anything.”

…because women are valued primarily for the way they look.

…because the patriarchy is ALSO detrimental to boys and men.

…because “We can not all succeed when half of us are held back.” –Malala.

…because I believe in the importance of telling the truth.

I do not claim to speak for all attendees of the Women’s Marches on January 21st (up to 2 million worldwide), but I do hope that this glimpse into one attendee’s personal reasons for marching may draw attention to the concerns underlying the movement. Studying at Birkbeck – the 50th most international university in the world – global political policies have very real implications for students who are also immigrants, women, and minorities.

What kind of entry requirements will we have? Will our status be monitored by the government? Will women in burkas or men with beards be discriminated against? We must remain vigilant – the hospitality we receive, the respect we are afforded, and the underlying equality that is the goal of feminism could be at stake.

Wondering what’s next for women’s rights activists? This is a good place to start.

All images by the author

Places you need to try: Top Coffee shops around Birkbeck

Image by flickr user Alper Çuğun

Prufrock – 23-25 Leather Lane

The coffee here is infinitely better than one would expect from somewhere that also does great food. It’s a leisurely, open-plan room with more than enough space to spread out all your notes while you dawdle over the coffee menu and bookshelves of chocolate. Yes, as well as great coffee, Prufrock also sell enticing looking chocolate bars from far-flung parts of the world (although I admit I have never tried these, considering some are ten quid a pop). This has to be one of my favourite spots in London because of all the boxes it expertly ticks.

Walkability: Not so great. It would take around 20 minutes, so still very far off the Oxfam Marathon Walk (been there, done that) but making one’s way past huffing commuters is not always the most pleasant experience. The nearest stations are Chancery Lane and Farringdon.

Studyability: 10/10; most definitely would recommend.

 

The Espresso Room – 31-35 Great Ormond Street

By flickr user Ricardo

 

The coffee here was (as the youth nowadays say) off-the-hook, fire, peng, dank whatever term you want to insert, you insert it baby! The view on the other hand wasn’t so dank; the hospital is right in your eyeline; turn away from the coffee shop towards the street and BAM there it is. To be fair I don’t recall this bothering me too much at the time, but I guess instead of rose-tinting my memories, my brain has the effect of making them seem so much worse than they were. My mother had the most delightful cappuccino, so creamy and smooth it felt like jumping into a pool of whipped cream, instead of just taking a sip of coffee in the horrendous hustle and bustle that is London. As for my americano, I truly have nothing bad to say about it. Now onto the rest of the rankings…

Walkability: 10 mins – so very easily done

Studyability: 1/10 – unless you have a penchant for awkwardly balancing a laptop on your knees while precariously holding your coffee in your free hand, this is not the study spot for you. Come here for a quick coffee after you hop off at Russell Square and before you enjoy your walk to Birkbeck. Take your coffee and go before you’re late for class; chop, chop.

 

 

Kaffeine – 66 Great Titchfield Street; 15 Eastcastle Street

By flickr user Bex Walton (modified)

I arrived at Kaffeine (yes, that’s really the name – blame the hipster Aussies) dead on twelve, and it was packed. Walking past an appetising and enticing food counter, I was greeted by a cute, smiling little blonde. The coffee this time was an americano; full of flavour and slightly fruity, with just a hint of acidity; not always a bad thing, in this case it complemented the other flavours nicely. The only downside was that on the walk to Birkbeck, I had to pass what I could only presume from the noise to be a jungle of wild children kept hidden behind high walls.

Walkability: only 13 minutes, and apart from the aforementioned wildlings, it was a pleasant route that took me down some back streets offering a mix of independent art galleries and impressive graffiti.

Studyability: 5/10; possible only if you precisely figure out the best time to get there and grab a spot. Then figure out the most convenient time to leave before people fill it up like bees gathering to a queen.

places you need to try: Dillons Coffee & SOAS’ Public Lectures

Image by poeloq (flickr)

Dillons Coffee (in Waterstones, Gower Street)

I admit it may not be for everyone, but bear with me a moment. The coffee itself could be worse, but I have also had better. The latte art on my choice (a soy flat white – I’m lactose-intolerant, not on a Gwyneth Paltrow style diet) was more abstract than I would normally expect, though to be fair, Dillons is located in the university heart of London. Such reservations were easily overlooked when I took my first sip of coffee right before a six o’clock lecture; strong, robust and not at all subtle. Precisely what I needed. However, a few more sips revealed an equally unsubtle lingering bitter flavour. I could hardly care less at that point – I’d just ordered a coffee from one of the most hipster-looking places I had seen, and must now be in with the ‘cool’ kids. Well, perhaps not.

The reason Dillons is on this (very subjective) list is that firstly, it’s close to Birkbeck so ideal for a pick-me-up right before your eyes roll into the back of your head and your body starts shutting down. Also, it’s something of an entertaining place; go there to combine work with a socialising, be amazed by the diversity of London university life, and take a break from the monotony of the library. On the subject of the latter, has anyone else noticed it smells weird, or is that just me?

If anyone has any other coffee shops they would like to recommend, I would be more than happy to visit them for a future review (independents only please – Costa and Starbucks don’t need my support). Suggestions in the comments please.

SOAS (public lectures)

There’s a part of my heart that harbours quite the soft spot for SOAS; it was the university everyone expected me to go to, and the university I did not get into. Even when I was taking my A-Levels I would wander every so often (or more like once a week) into this corner of London to attend one of the evening lectures that SOAS held for the public. I can’t remember when it was that I first fell in love, perhaps during the talk on the conflict in Palestine, or possibly the one on the remnants of the Arab Spring. Either way, I was hooked and there was no way back. My teachers and mother found it amusing I would spend my spare time on even more education, but I was never the ‘normal’ kid in my family.

I would more than recommend attending one of their lectures; you’ll most likely find something that will interest you, whether your field is finance or nuclear weapons. I know it can be difficult to find time for more lectures what with work during the days, studying during the evenings and not really having time to even take a breath; but it would really be the cherry-on-the-top of all the great things you’re already managing to do in your day.

Five arguments for the continued exploration of space

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Exomars has cost $1.3 billion, the Apollo program cost $20 billion, and the International Space Station, $150 billion. With austerity still biting and strain on our public services, the huge sums of money involved in space exploration beg the question; is it worth it? I have this argument a lot, normally with distant relatives who seem to appear only at Christmas to question me on everything from my degree to the jeans I wear (we all have THAT uncle right?). So as rehearsal for my upcoming battle, here are my five arguments for continued investment in space exploration.

1. It’s really not that much
Ok, I know, that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. If you are anything like me then trying to manage rent, tuition fees and food on a monthly basis is a struggle; by the end of the month I’m rooting through my coat pockets trying to find an elusive tenner to get me through to pay day. $1 billion could really come in handy. But this is not personal wealth, this is government money. The numbers are beyond the budgets of normal people. NASA’s annual budget is $18.4 billion. That’s out of a budget of $3.8 trillion. To put it in context, that works out at $7.57 a year per taxpayer, or 63 cents a month. In Europe it’s even less; the European Space Agency’s budget is €5.26 billion. With a population of 510 million that’s only 85 cents a month. 85 cents isn’t going to pay my rent, it’s not going to dent my tuition fees, and I don’t want to know what kind of food it will buy. It won’t even pay your Netflix subscription so you can watch The Martian, but it will actually get us to Mars. Sounds like a good deal to me.

2. It makes us money
Yes, there is a headline cost, but there are economic gains as well. First of all the government-funded space industry employs hundreds of thousands of people directly, and there are indirect jobs and wealth created as well. Telecommunications, transportation, large-scale farming, and many other sectors employ millions of people, and in the modern world, these industries rely on satellites and other space-related technology. On top of that there are now a growing number of private sector companies cashing in on the advances and opportunities of space technology, from the billionaire-backed behemoths of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, to the small but growing local companies like Surrey Satellite Technology. All of these companies employee people and pay tax, in a commercial field that is growing exponentially. In a globalised economy where jobs and expertise can be exported at a moment’s notice, the highly-skilled roles required by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) employers are better paid and more secure. The jobs our children will eventually do probably don’t even exist yet, and they may never exist if we stop funding advanced science.

3. It keeps us safe
There’s the obvious benefit of military and defence technology that spins off from space research but there is also a less obvious way in which it helps preserve the peace. Ever heard of Space Station Freedom? No? Well there’s a good reason for that. It was announced as a US space station by then-president Ronald Reagan, but it never materialised. There were a number of reasons, but one of the significant ones was the end of the cold war. Instead of building their own station, The US decided to put aside decades of enmity and cooperate with Russia on the International Space Station. Why? In part it was an attempt to build bridges with a defeated enemy, but another factor was the end of the arms race; the western world didn’t fancy the idea of a lot of unemployed rocket scientists wandering around the world looking for a pay cheque. The ongoing success of the ISS and numerous other space missions have helped to maintain diplomatic contact at times of geopolitical strain, and fostered a spirit of cooperation in a world of competition. It’s hard to quantify just how much impact this has had, but when it comes to preserving global peace, every little helps.

4. It helps you win water fights
No really. The technology that created supersoaker water guns was invented by NASA for space exploration. As was memory foam. Cordless vacuums; NASA. Insulation, scratch-resistant lenses, artificial limbs, smoke detectors, hearing aids, CAT scans, water filters, freeze-drying, landmine-removal technologies and solar power; all NASA, all as a result of the space program. Space exploration is hard and we have to solve unimaginable problems to succeed, and in doing so we create technologies that can change people’s lives. Who knows what breakthroughs we will miss out on if we stop.

 

So, there are four good answers. These are the answers I use for economists and accountants, for politicians and the military. But they are not my answer. My answer is just four words:

It’s what we do.

A few hundred thousand years ago we stood upright and we left the caves, we walked the African plains and we crossed the oceans. Space is what’s next. All too often the story of humankind is one of death, destruction and horror. We are the species that produced Hitler, Stalin and Charles Manson. But this is not what defines us; yes, we have to take responsibility for murderers and dictators, but we have also created Bach and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Chaucer, da Vinci and van Gogh, Einstein, Feynman, Sagan. We don’t listen to symphonies, marvel at great art or read profound literature for any practical reason. It doesn’t pay our bills, but it does something much more important; it reminds us what it is to be human. Curiosity, cooperation, the exploratory spirit. It unites us, it gives us something to be proud of, something to strive for, it connects us to our fellow man. Whether its Cassini’s stunning images of Saturn’s icy rings, Hubble’s awe-inspiring views of distant nebulae, the people we sent to walk the surface of the moon, or the people we will send to walk on Mars. This is what we are capable of together. This is what we do.

 

Sara’s pictures