The flesh wound puffed, reddened, and stung. My cat, Simba (The Lion King reigned the box office that summer), scratched me as he jumped off my lap. Years earlier, my dad recounted a tale of his co-worker; his daughter was scratched by one of her (many outdoor) pets, and she contracted Cat Scratch Fever. The disease damaged her brain, which caused bad behavior, and later led her to drop out of high school and become pregnant as a teenager. Who knows if the behavioral consequences were truly the result of the Cat Scratch Fever?! It doesn’t even matter. The remote possibility of my contracting such a fearsome disease was enough to trigger an OCD cycle. One of many.
OCD is “a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”National Institute of Mental Health
According to intrusivethoughts.org, “Pure O is a type of OCD in which a sufferer engages in hidden compulsions. Instead of combating their intrusive thoughts with visible rituals, such as hand-washing or counting, they perform repetitive, mental rituals to minimize stress.” This is the type of OCD I battled over the course of my life. With hidden compulsions, I suffered in silence throughout my childhood, and it wasn’t until I became a young adult that I finally confessed the most intrusive thoughts to few confidants. My parents knew nothing.
My son recently developed a phobia of black widow spiders. How did he even learn of them? I remain clueless, but I do know I didn’t introduce the knowledge because I battled the exact same phobia for years (confession: I still battle this phobia). Knowing my son’s propensity for worry, I would never have spoken of something I knew could induce anxiety for him. Nevertheless, he somehow learned about black widow spiders, and now, nightly, he asks me to engage in a ritual to help assuage his fears. After our nightly bedtime reading, before I leave his room, he reminds me to do a “spider check,” in which I shine my phone light around his room, ensuring there are no arachnid pests lying in wait for him. I hate doing this. I must stop.
My daughter regularly bares her teeth and asks, “Do you see my teeth?!” Since losing her first tooth several months ago, she has become obsessed with a worry that her teeth are just gonna all fall out at random. She compulsively asks me to reassure her that they are, indeed, still within her mouth.
What do I do?!
I’ve learned how to shut down my own rituals before they spiral, so when my children pull me into their compulsions, all I want to do is Shut. It. Down. Yet that isn’t helpful to any of us. In spite of the fact that I, too, suffer with OCD, I have no earthly idea how to help my children, in the face of their intrusive thoughts.
Per the suggestion of our family Pediatric Development and Behavior Specialist, I purchased the book Freeing Your Child from OCD by Tamar Chansky. I am reading the book to glean strategies for coaching my children to take control of their own mind-spaces. According to Chansky, it is important to teach OCD patients that the condition is “a misfiring in their brain; then they can start to see they have a choice: I don’t have to listen to this message–it’s not real–it’s a brain trick, I can fight this.” Chansky advocates for the externalization of OCD, so as to remove the shame associated with OCD behaviors. I especially appreciate the following analogy:
“if you have a fear of bees, your goal can’t be to make bees disappear: You will end up a prisoner in your home. Instead you want to be able to cope with that fear.”Tamar Chansky
Such is the goal of parents and children who suffer from OCD: learn to cope with the anxiety.
In truth, sadness burdens me, as I investigate strategies to help my children cope. I grieve for my own lack of support as a child growing up embroiled in the silent battle. I grieve for my children who inherited traits that cause their brains to operate differently than most. I would like to externalize the condition for all of us, but I haven’t received a diagnosis for either child (yet) so I feel funny telling them “It’s your OCD.” The term is arbitrary to them, besides. Nevertheless, upon reflection after reading last night, I developed my own narrative, which I will be sharing with both of my children, in time. I plan to tell them the following:
Our brains work differently than other brains. Our brains carry BIG imagination, BIG love, and they produce BIG feelings. This is why we are lovable, kind-hearted, caring, and studious. This is why we are loyal friends and family members. Unlike other people, we bear the knowledge of life’s finite nature–in our bodies–every moment, every day. This cultivates gratitude, but it also leaves us vulnerable to intense anxiety. Because our brains confront us with perpetual scenes of loss, we are more likely to engage in rituals to combat those fears. Our brains furnish super powers: imagination, creativity, love and gratitude, but every superhero has a weakness. Our weakness, like kryptonite to Super Man, is an insatiable desire for certainty and comfort. We must learn to manage these things. We must learn to manage the kryptonite, so it doesn’t sap our existence of enjoyment and promise—on the off chance of some catastrophe that will, likely, never occur.
Have I any OCD sufferers in my audience? Parents of kids with the disorder? I’d love to know—what are your best practices for coping with it all?