DiversifYA: Ben Abbott

Ben AbbottBen Abbott is a freelance writer who’s worked with Metro.co.uk, GamesRadar and FUNdays Club (a local child care service ), gaming blogger, and short story writer. Over on GamesRadar, he’s written a fantastic article about OCD and mental health representation in games, which is very much worth a read! Follow Ben on Twitter here.

1. How do you identify yourself?

Do I get extra points for a bland answer? If you put a gun to my head, I’d plump for ‘writer’. Which is a tremendously boring way to begin, I know. Apologies. Still, there’s a truth in that. It’s more than just what I do; like so many others in this line of work, it’s an enormous part of who I am. I couldn’t stop scribbling nonsense even if you paid me (or, more appropriately, if I wasn’t being paid for it in the first place). This is more than just a job and a hobby, so far as I’m concerned. Honestly, I’d be able to detach a leg easier.

A more interesting response would be someone who’s had to share his life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for longer than is healthy. That might sound pretty self-serving, but – despite appearances – I’m not gunning for a sympathy vote. I raise the point because this has come to define my fiction, not to mention my articles if at all possible. The former condition made me consider characters outside of what we’d label the ‘norm’, while the latter pushed me to take writing seriously. Before that it was a pastime. Now it’s one of the few lifelines I have left, both financially and in terms of possible careers.

2. What did it feel like growing up with OCD and CFS?

I’m not sure whether it’s lucky or not; when I was younger, I didn’t realise what my obsessive behaviours were. They’d been there in one form or another since I was around six, except each was mild enough not to make any real impact. It was only later when the whole kit and caboodle started to kick in, after we’d moved house and I’d swapped schools. At that stage, it was practically impossible to ignore.

The OCD didn’t waste time becoming debilitating, to the point where I couldn’t walk down a road without having to turn around and check something (whether that’s related to germs or an object I thought I might have dropped). This would take around half an hour, if not more. Sometimes I’d be out for longer than I’d care to admit. It definitely impacted my social/home life and crippled my time at university.

Luckily things are so much better now, and I’m miles ahead from where I was. The distance you can travel if you’re willing to fight is ludicrous. After seeking help, I’ve managed to throw off many of the fears I’d developed and am close to kicking others in the teeth. Taking that step to getting assistance is so, so vital.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

A massive challenge would be the ‘persona’ obsessive compulsive disorder makes you adopt. I don’t mean in the traditional sense; rather, all rationality gets thrown out the nearest window. You become a nervous wreck, hobbled by the good old question of ‘what if…’. As it’s primarily an over-the-top defence-mechanism, this is hard to break out of and think logically. I can’t stress how awful it is to face your fears repeatedly in a single day. It’s awful enough that, occasionally, you want to crawl under the covers and hide.

In terms of Chronic Fatigue, tiredness becomes a real pain. Literally and metaphorically. You get what sufferers call ‘brain-fog’ where it’s difficult to think straight. When coupled with an ache in your muscles and the feeling that you’re exhausted even if you’ve done little to earn it, that can be a killer. All the same, this is why you have to fight smart. My level of output is the same as another writer’s, but I’ve got to pace myself and be flexible. Which isn’t a bad thing, I suppose.

A perk would be how both have opened my eyes to issues I wouldn’t necessarily have considered deeply without them. You find yourself seeing those the rest of us often ‘pass over’; those with severe disabilities, illnesses or learning difficulties, for instance. Because you’ve got some experience with a life not everyone understands, it provides perspective which helps you notice what others might not.

Specifically where my CFS is concerned, it made me take my writing more seriously. As it was something I could work on regardless of how I felt physically, it wasn’t a pipe-dream anymore. Now I had the time and the motivation.

4. What do you wish people knew about having OCD and CFS?

That we’re not all navel-gazers who are caught up on cleanliness, order and numbers. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a means of lessening anxiety through behaviour. This might take the form of repeatedly checking that the door’s locked, as you’re afraid someone could otherwise get in. Alternatively, you might be worried about ovens catching fire so will watch for longer than is necessary to ensure that everything’s switched off. Maybe you’ll be wary of touching things due to a fear it’ll give you a disease such as AIDS, transmitted through blood (that’s surprisingly common). It’s different for everyone, but from what I’ve seen they’re fairly understandable concerns dialled up to 11.

For Chronic Fatigue, it’s not in the mind. Seriously. We can’t ‘get over it’ with some willpower. Had it been that easy, we wouldn’t be in that situation. If you say this, I’m liable to shoot you into the sun.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Ever seen those ‘obsessive cleaner’ shows on TV? The ones where they make out that OCD is all about hoarding behaviour, the sort where you can’t move for boxes of objects the individual has kept aside? Yeah. That. It makes my blood boil.

Firstly – in my understanding – this isn’t what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is about. Not for the majority of sufferers, anyway. Secondly, we’re not animals to be pushed out onto stage for ‘normal’ peoples’ amusement. I get the impression we’re supposed to be exasperated, to laugh, at these apparently strange people. That’s not on.

Bonus question: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

In a nutshell, don’t write about the perceived ‘difference’; write about the person. So far as I’m concerned, it’s always better to make a character who just so happens to have a different ethnicity, sexuality or issue which sets them apart. That isn’t what defines them. Their personality does, and it’s what you should focus on.

This doesn’t mean you can’t put a magnifying glass over these subjects, of course. If you do, I’d say to come at it from the angle of how it effects their personal arc (or struggle). Is their disability a roadblock getting in the way of an ambition? Could their preference in partners be causing friction with loved ones they otherwise get along with brilliantly? That’s where the story comes from.

I reckon diversity should be an extra detail that helps flesh out your creation or help them grow, rather than being their defining feature. 

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