• Catherine Benfield

Meet my nemesis... the baby gate.

A worried Olivia checks the baby gate

Meet the baby gate…

…it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill baby gate. Alright, so it’s got a crudely homemade (in East London we call this ‘edgy’) extension at one side that lets the cat through, but on the whole, what you see is what you get.

To be fair, I’ve probably ‘seen’ this baby gate far more than the average person ‘sees’ their baby gate because, for me, it’s the very centre of my bedtime ritual. It is the epitome of all things ‘keep my little boy safe’. It is the last part of my exposure ladder/hierarchy and it is a very stubborn one to shift!

Some interesting facts about the baby gate (this goes on a while, feel free to skip it and go straight on to the helpful bit):

  • I've sat on the stairs and had dinner with the baby gate

  • I’ve spent whole evenings sitting with the baby gate.

  • I have moved my bed so I can see the baby gate from where my head lies on the pillow.

  • I’ve stared at the baby gate until my eyes have blurred and I don’t even recognise that it is a baby gate anymore (kind of a baby gate version of semantic satiation). My concentration and focus goes and, as a result, I lose complete faith in my own judgement and what my own eyes are seeing.

  • If that happens, I have to physically check that the baby gate is shut. I do this by rattling it. The only problem then of course, is that I worry I may have loosened the screws by rattling it, and must check it visually again to make sure – and on it goes...

  • I’ve tried many ‘interesting’ methods to ensure I correctly capture a 'closed baby gate', so that I can recall it when lying in bed later. I’ve tried to blink at the gate as a way of taking a snap shot of the image. I’ve tried to breath in the image as a way of ‘inhaling’ the knowledge that the gate is shut. I’ve stared at it for a long time without moving, in an attempt to almost burn the image of it being shut onto my retina or into my memory.

  • Sometimes when I've done this, I’ve stared at the baby gate for so long that when I look away, I can see a ‘ghost’ baby gate floating around in front of my eyes.

  • The fact it’s bedtime, makes it much worse – I tend to manipulate the situation so I’m not the last one to use it, or if I am, I seek reassurance – ‘Look Pete, look it's shut, isn’t it?’ I question as I jiggle it around. I also bang it loudly when I close it in a desperate attempt to make the fact “IT'S SHUT!!!” stick in my head for when I need it later.

  • In my old house, we had baby gate x 3. I spent whole evenings, when my husband was out, walking from one to the other checking they were shut.

  • For four and a half years, checking the baby gate has been so important, that it had been the ‘bookends’ to my night-time ritual. It goes: check the baby gate, check the taps (sink, then bath), check that the lid of the toilet is down, check the bathroom window is shut, left to right scan followed by right to left scan, check little one is breathing, check the baby gate is shut.

  • Checking it in the night has stolen hours and hours of sleep from me.

  • The only positive I can think of, is that racing up and down stairs to check the baby gate has probably made my legs quite strong. I'm aware there are other ways of accomplishing this and would much rather use those.

Okay, so if you didn’t make it through all that, you just need to know that I struggle big-time with the baby gate.

Before I go on to talk about how I am going to attack this ritual, it’s important I recognise how far I have already come. I know how important it is to congratulate yourself on victories. So, I pat myself on the back… I used to be much, much worse. My night time checks used to go all over the house, and if something didn’t feel right, I had to start the whole thing again.

The only thing that got me into bed was my husband doing the checks instead of me, but thankfully therapy helped me break these rituals. This is great news because it’s made a huge impact on the quality of my evening and I know I’ve done really well to achieve that - it wasn’t easy.

I just find this bedtime one, especially the baby gate one, so hard to shake.

So this is what I’m going to do… I’m going to remind myself of what I know and then I'm going to use Olivia to help me.

1) I know how anxiety works

I know that as an anxious person I am more likely to take the worry I have about my son’s health to the extremes.

This is also the case because I have had three close family bereavements recently and need to accept that, for a while at least, it’s natural for me to feel ultra-protective of my little boy.

I know that as someone with anxiety, my head is full of worse case scenarios. So if the gate was left open, I assume that my now almost five-year-old would definitely: fall through it, fall from the top of the stairs, critically or fatally injure himself, wander into the kitchen and hurt himself on a knife or knock himself unconscious on a wall having fallen in the dark and slowly deteriorate while we sleep upstairs…

and there I go…

there is no in between, so I need to recognise my tendency towards unhelpful thinking styles and get thought challenging!

2) I know how obsessive compulsive disorder works

I know that OCD wants me to be 100% certain that my little boy will be safe; that he won’t fall through the baby gate, and that the baby gate won’t be left open. I cannot absolutely 100% guarantee that, so I need to accept uncertainty, as difficult as that is.

I know that OCD works on guilt, blame and an over-whelming sense of responsibility. I know that all three of these things are at play in my night time checks.

I know that because I’ve checked so many times, and he has NEVER had a baby gate related accident, (I feel like I’m tempting fate by writing that, but I’ll do it anyway) I am assuming it’s because the checks have worked. Why has he never had an accident with the baby gate? Because I’ve checked for hours on end. WRONG! I need to get over that association. How will I ever realise that I don’t need to keep checking unless I try it?

I know that Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) has worked for other areas of my rituals and that it will work for this one eventually. So, hope is important, as is looking back at past achievements. It reminds me that it worked before and it will again. It gives me encouragement.

It’s important to note here that some maybe reading this and thinking ‘Hang on a minute, this is reassurance seeking! The whole point of exposure is just to do it and deal with the discomfort!’. I remember having the same conversation with my therapist. There are lots of grey areas around this, but I believe that if this helps me to challenge my thinking, challenge my misconceptions, and if it encourages me to continue with exposure work, then I’m going to do it. I’m not planning on using the above suggestions for ever but if they help me start my mountain climb then that’s all that matters to me. Everyone is different and different things work for each person.

So, that's how I start. I use what I know of anxiety to help me accept that the risk isn’t as high as I assume it is and my knowledge of OCD to accept the fact that my checks only make the cycle worse.

These things alone have helped me with many other rituals but as I mentioned previously (just once or twice!) the baby gate is a huge one for me. I want to hit it with as many strategies as possible at first so…

3) ...Lets’ talk about Olivia

Those who’ve read my previous blogs know that Olivia does a great job helping out with my internal OCD themes - harm ruminations, etc. For some reason, it took a while for me to think about using her for the obsessions that have physical compulsions attached to them. Actually, thinking about it, I do know the reason. I was so relieved that the internal harm related thoughts had subdued a bit, I put up with the baby gate checks. But not anymore!

Normally when I walk away from the baby gate having checked it, my brain becomes very busy with images and word-based thoughts that focus on the ‘what ifs’.

  • What if it isn’t shut?

  • What if he gets through?

  • What if he falls down the stairs?

  • What if we don’t hear?

  • What if he gets hurt?

  • What if…. (anything awful)

That voice gets louder and louder and because it’s night time the usual distractions aren’t there. I can’t leave the environment, I have to lie… in the dark… and try to relax enough to fall asleep with the belief - albeit incorrect belief - that I have the ability to stop my son getting hurt by checking the gate 'one more time'.

It gets to me every time and I go. So the next time I use Olivia.

Have a go at reading through the ‘what ifs’ again and imagine that it’s being said by an unrelated little voice belonging to something that isn’t you. Does it make a difference? If it doesn’t, please don’t worry. Remember different things work for different people. There will be something out there that works for you.

For me, this method does work. By making the voice external - by making it Olivia’s – it makes the situation one where she is the one fussing and doubting me. I can live with that, at least it’s not me doubting myself. Immediately, I feel stronger and more in control – I see OCD for what it is, and understand that I am in the position of being able to choose whether to listen to the voice or not. It encourages me to believe that I can 'own' this voice rather than the voice 'owning' me.

So I imagine she’s a childlike little Olivia, getting herself into a state, maybe jumping up and down on the bed in an attempt to get my attention, wanting the gate to be checked again. It doesn’t matter how long she goes on for, I stick with the knowledge that I checked the baby gate, and I know it’s shut. I wouldn’t let anyone else keep badgering me like that, so why do I let her?

I know there are other things that I can use to help me deal with the uncomfortable sensations of wanting to check something but not doing it. I can try relaxation techniques, I can use mindfulness and meditation. I can try essential oils and calming music. These are fantastic methods for calming down and may work beautifully for you, they often work very well for me too.

But, I know the way my OCD works and the relaxation strategies alone aren’t enough for the baby gate. I need to get to the root of the thought and recognise it for what it is – it’s a warning sent out by a worrywart who, quite frankly, would worry about something else straight after anyway.

And again, like all my others dealings with Olivia, if I want to quieten that voice, I do that by accepting that it’s there.

So, to sum everything up a bit, a mixture of combining what I know about the nature of OCD and anxiety, and applying Olivia to the situation, has already started to make a difference to the relationship I have with the baby gate. I’m still checking it – I've mentioned before that there are no miracle stories in these posts but it’s getting much better. I am starting to be able to see a time when I will shut the gate and go to bed. But until that day arrives, I’ll keep striving.

Thanks for sticking with this one, it’s been a long post but I wanted to make sure I explained my thinking and strategies properly. I really hope you can find some bits in here that you can adapt to your own situations so they can help you too, or at the very least I hope reading about my experiences will help you realise that you are not alone.

We all have that one check that is so difficult to override. Even though we know it’s irrational, the pull to keep checking it is so hard to resist. But resist it we will, one day we'll totally get there!

Until the next time

All the best

Catherine x

I'll stick a link to this site on the Contacts and Info section of my website too, but just for now... these are the thought challenge sheets I use.

In fact the whole website is amazing, it has some incredible resources so if you have time, have a look about. You may find something that really helps you.

#howOliviahelps #compulsions #obsessions #bedtime #rituals #negativethinkingstyles

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