My ten year old son has had OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) since he was about five years old although we refused to see this for many years. OCD is an anxiety disorder where the individual concerned has certain fears (let’s say that his mother will die) and he therefore feels compelled to do various actions (compulsions) to try and quell his fears. By doing these compulsions the person is relieved temporarily from the anxiety. The problem is that this is a temporary relief. As soon as the fear returns they are compelled to do the action again. The relief and comfort they feel from doing the compulsions becomes an addiction – an addiction to comfort. The more they do the compulsions the less anxious they feel and so the more they do them. Like any addiction, it’s a never ending vicious cycle that compounds on itself and gets worse and worse. The problem is that this cycle propels the person deeper and deeper into an intense illusion or non reality. As a non OCD sufferer can see it has nothing to do with reality to think that by not touching a door handle or by washing my hands 50 times a day I will prevent my mother from dying however in the mind of OCD sufferer this is extremely real. In fact, they become literally panicked that if they don’t do the compulsion even once their fear or belief will absolutely happen or become reality. As the OCD or addiction to comfort gets worse they begin to lose touch with reality to such an extent that they can’t leave their house or function normally. The brain is so consumed with processing all of their fears and perpetuating this false reality that it loses all ability to think clearly. It is only when you reach a crisis stage that you seek help to try and escape from the false reality that is continually being created by your brain.
This is where we ended up with my son. He had experienced difficulties at school for the prior two years but he was managing. There were complaints from the teachers that he seemed to be somewhere else, lost in his thoughts, and that he couldn’t concentrate. He was seeing a local psychologist for a year and a half but there was some resistance to really putting a label on what my son was dealing with. By Christmas this past year, his grades had declined significantly and his compulsions were incessant. Life for my son and in fact our whole family was so difficult that it was clearly time to seek help. The first challenge that we had was finding an expert in OCD in the South of France, especially one that could work with our son in English. Realizing that this was a rather impossible task, my quest led me to London. Through web searches I was able to identify a five day intensive program for both the OCD sufferer and the carer. This sort of high impact therapy seemed like just what we needed. I signed up immediately, without even thinking about the fairly significant costs associated with doing this, which was highly unusual for me. We were in crisis and I needed a solution at any cost.
OCD Is Shame Based
What I hadn’t fully appreciated before attending the course was that OCD is an anxiety disorder, which can also be termed a shame based disorder. The root cause of the disease is that the sufferer has a deep feeling of unworthiness. The disorder continues to confirm this in their minds as the disease itself makes them feel even more ashamed. It is no coincidence that the OCD sufferer feels the need to hide their compulsions all the time. Shame is an emotion that we want to hide, even from ourselves, as heaven forbid someone will find us out. This constant state of anxiety and hiding the compulsions is truly exhausting! The brain begins to spend more and more of it’s cycles dealing with this big cover-up which hinders any ability to think clearly.
The first day of our intensive course in London was in fact called “shame bashing”. The objective was to put ourselves in situations where we would experience shame in order recognize and accept this emotion. In other words, we had to face our own fear about shame. The carers and the OCD sufferers all had to go into public places and perform tasks that made us extremely uncomfortable and embarrassed. For example, we had to go up to people in the London underground and ask where London was. We had to beg for money in the street and stand for 5 minutes next to statues in the Victoria & Albert museum taking on their exact pose. The most difficult for me was that I had to ride the London tube and scream out the wrong tube stop each time we arrived at a station. I definitely felt as if everyone was looking at me thinking I was another one of those completely crazy, deranged people riding the tube! The objective of the exercise was clearly met as my heart was racing and I was thoroughly ashamed. My whole body could feel the disapproving looks from everyone around me, and my physical being reacted accordingly. This definitely didn’t feel good and I immediately recognized that this is how my son felt most of the time.
In performing these tasks, through my own perspective, I was convinced that people were looking at me thinking I was completely out of touch with reality. I imagined that they were thinking, “she is definitely crazy”! What I soon learned is that in fact I was beginning the process of taking a step back in order to see what was REAL. It is only with some distance that we have the necessary perspective to see reality. For example, I was totally convinced that “poor me”; I have a son with OCD and I am the innocent victim. I needed to take him on this five day course to cure him. Of course, with a bit of perspective, what I realized is that we were attending the course to cure both of us. Through my layers of defenses I had been unable to recognize that my children are a reflection of my husband and myself; that as well as getting our cells and chromosomes they also get our emotional DNA. It was much easier to blame my son and his OCD for all of his difficulties rather than to accept any personal responsibility for who he was and what was happening to him.
The tenant of personal responsibility was drilled into us over and over again in the intensive course. In fact, we were told in our first session, “who made you think you are god”. We, as individuals, are only able to control our own emotions, thoughts and actions but not the actions or emotions of anyone else. This seems like an obvious point but one that is so often overlooked. For example, when someone says “so and so made me mad” this is an incorrect statement as the other person may have done something but you “chose” to be mad. No one else can make us do anything! We as individuals always have a choice. We are each in control of our own destiny. If we accept this as true then the logical conclusion is that we can’t control another individual as they also have full control of their own thoughts and emotions. We so often make this mistake and give up our personal responsibility thinking, for example, someone else will “make” us happy. This just gives us someone to blame, other than ourselves, when we aren’t happy. For an OCD sufferer this concept is critical, as they generally give up their own personal responsibility and believe they can control other people, which is exactly the reverse of personal responsibility. The OCD sufferer has a tendency to involve the carer and make them feel responsible. The carer is often required to watch the OCD sufferer do his compulsions or to even participate in them. Unfortunately this just perpetuates the belief for the OCD sufferer that they actually can control another person. In fact both the OCD sufferer and the carer give up their personal responsibility and the sufferer becomes so disempowered that he genuinely believes there’s no way out of his current situation. Through this continual disempowerment he deems himself more and more unworthy. He is the ultimate, helpless victim that blames everyone and everything for his plight and is waiting for someone to save him but the only way to be saved is to take his power back and be personally responsible.
Adopting A Fexible Philosophy
The second principle that really rang true in our course was that of moving from a set of rigid beliefs to a more flexible philosophy. As we go through life, we all develop a set of beliefs and attitudes about how things should or shouldn’t be in the world. In some cases we will have certain beliefs that are “must haves” such as in the case of my son, the belief that he “must” never "change". Change for him meant losing his personality and becoming someone else. It was due to this fear or anxiety that he had to do all of his compulsions, to make sure that he never "changed". The woman running the course had a wonderful analogy where she said, “OCD is like a heat seeking missile. It trolls your body looking for your rigid beliefs and attacks”. Basically what she was saying is that OCD or our fears and anxieties are built out of our “must haves”. Anytime that we say to ourselves we “must” have something or that we “must” do something we are opening ourselves up for anxiety when it doesn’t materialize. If we can let go of some of these rigid beliefs and adopt a more flexible attitude of desire we will reduce our anxiety. As a concrete example, I went bowling recently with my son who has OCD. He bowled a first ball where all the pins were down except the first one in the middle. He turned around and said to me “oh Mom I have to get that pin with my next ball – I will just die if I don’t get it”. He then realized from our class that we had learned that “must haves” only lead to stress and disappointment. So he stopped himself and said, “no Mom I would like to get that pin down but it’s not critical – I will survive if I don’t”. He told me afterwards that when the bowling ball actually left his hand it was almost like someone else was bowling for him. In his mind he had “let go” completely of the “need” to get a spare. The ball left his hand on it’s own and went straight down the alley to hit the one remaining pin perfectly. It was an amazing moment where my son realized that by “letting go” of his rigid belief or “must have” there was no anxiety and the end result was perfection.
Living In The Present
The third tenant was about living in the present, which is of course critical for an OCD sufferer. If we think about it all of our anxiety and stress comes from trying to live either in the past or in the future, both of which are impossible. We can’t change things that already happened but we would sure like to think that we could. Our belief system seems to be that if we think long enough about a past action somehow it will magically change. How many times do we say to ourselves, “if only I hadn’t done this or that”. Stress and anxiety are created when we try and change something that we can’t change. Trying to change the past is nothing but a huge stress generator. The same is true of the future, when we obsess about what is going to happen. By definition we can’t control the future either because it hasn’t happened yet. What will be will be. It’s almost comical that we allow ourselves to believe that we can change the past or the future. The only thing that we can control is the here and now – the present. The more we live in the here and now the less anxiety we will have. It is hard to be anxious about the present because “it is what it is”. One suggestion for OCD sufferers is to do at least ten to fifteen minutes of meditation each day. Meditation is a good method for being present and finding relief from the stress however there are other activities that serve the same purpose like yoga, tai-chi, etc.
Addictions Involve Co-dependency
Once I had accepted these principles as “truths”, the next step was to understand the role that I played in my son’s OCD. If OCD is an addiction then I was clearly my son’s co-dependent. My son to a large extent was reflecting my own anxieties. I didn’t feel good about myself. In order to validate myself I needed someone to rescue. This act of saving or helping someone was like my own drug that allowed me to feel that I served a real purpose in life. My son was the perfect victim in that he had to suffer so that I would have someone to save. The sicker he became the more I tried to save him and make him more comfortable. It was painful to watch him suffer so I would shower him with love and tell him that I would solve all of his problems, taking full responsibility for his happiness. The more I did for him, the sicker he became as he lost all confidence in himself. I remember the woman who ran the course saying to us, “OCD is an addiction and each time you rescue the sufferer it is like giving an alcoholic a sip of alcohol. Would you do this?” Of course I wouldn’t give an alcoholic just one more little sip but then why was I giving my own son 5 and then 10 and then 20 drinks a day! We were in a vicious, highly dysfunctional pattern but I was sure that I was doing the right thing. How could it be wrong when it was done with so much love? It was only with some distance that I could see how destructive it was that I had to break the pattern.
The turning point came when I returned from the course and a friend said to me “why do you always greet your children at the bus and with a bit of panic in your voice as you ask how their day was”. I realized that in fact everyday after school I encouraged my children to tell me all the bad things that had happened that day so that I would then be able to try and fix everything for them. The first time I greeted my son at the bus where I wouldn’t allow him to tell me all the negative stories was quite interesting. He tried incessantly to tell me how someone had insulted our family that day, or that someone had bullied him a school. Each time I said “sorry to hear that” but I never engaged or asked for details. It took more than 20 minutes before he finally realized that I didn’t need to hear the bad stories and he began to tell me about how he had the best day ever! What I realized is that for years I had never allowed my child to tell me anything good that had happened. Realizing that I had quite literally denied my child of his own happiness for some many years was an extremely powerful moment. My son has OCD because his unhappiness was the only thing that in some twisted way could make me happy. He was suffering out of his intense love and loyalty to me. It was up to me to show him that he didn’t need to do this anymore.
OCD As A Gift
Although it is still very much work in progress, my son now comes home from school quite happy most days. His compulsions have reduced significantly and it seems like we are on a road to recovery. Changing our patterns has been difficult at times but perhaps this is because we pushed hard. Like an alcoholic we went from 20 or 30 drinks a day to barely even a sip. My son went from taking no personal responsibility to suddenly feeling that I won’t do anything for him. However, just as with any addiction I think it’s hard to stop gradually. You almost need to do it cold turkey or not even bother. The more gradual the process the more likely it is that you will fall back into bad habits and the addiction.
My son sat on his bed the other night and said to me “Mom, I’m really glad I had OCD… actually I’m really glad I HAVE OCD because I now understand a lot of things that most kids my age really don’t get.” I told my son that I too am glad he has OCD as we both learned a great deal through this journey together. Most importantly we both learned what the world looks like when you begin to take the veil off and you can see clearly. We all tend to live in a slightly warped reality based on our own perspectives and beliefs. Facing our fears through my son’s OCD was my first glimpse at what was real and true in my world and not an illusion or a figment of my mind. Through my son’s OCD we have both begun a path to find true inner peace and happiness and this is the biggest gift of all. Far from being a victim, my son’s OCD was the best thing that could ever happen to me and for that I am truly grateful.