A Laughing Matter?

laughingThose who struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and those who love and care about them see the pain it can inflict. They recognize the seriousness of the disorder and the very real suffering involved. If they are lucky, they learn to laugh at their situation sometimes, for laughter may be healing. What about, however, laughter that comes at the expense of those with OCD, or laughter that comes from stereotypes about what OCD is?  Is that a good thing?

This past week, I was perusing the posts on a professional psychologists’ page that I am a part of on a social media site. I notice that one of the psychologists has posted a photo of a flyer requesting participants for a study on OCD. It includes free treatment sessions. Every tab on the bottom edge of the paper has been torn off. Clearly, there are many folks who are interested. The bottom edge of the flyer is ragged.

Then I realize that, while the flyer is real, the post is a joke. It says something along the lines of:

Looking at this I can imagine that people with OCD would be …um… disturbed by how uneven the flyer tore.

The only comment on the post is a bunch of hysterical laughing emojis. You know, the ones with tears pouring off the little guy’s face because he’s laughing so hard. The thing is, I don’t think it’s funny at all. I don’t think this kind of thing is funny when it comes from the public, but I understand that the public has misinformed ideas about what OCD is. From a psychologist, I’m kind of flabbergasted.

I’ll admit, I’m kind of a serious person. Maybe I took it wrong. Maybe because I see patients in pain day in and day out I don’t find this kind of post funny. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived it at home. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of the stereotypes that make OCD seem like it’s all about having a finicky style, being neat, and needing everything lined up.

How a flyer is torn is the least of the issues for anyone I know or treat with OCD. In fact, it’s a non-issue. They’re more concerned whether that thought means they are going to kill another person, whether their unintended carelessness might cause a home to burn down, whether they might have accidentally hit someone with their car, whether they’ve offended G-d, whether they’re contaminated and about to become gravely ill (or make someone else ill), or whether their sexual orientation is what they’ve always thought it is – among many other concerns.

Seeing a psychologist – a mental health professional – perpetuate OCD stereotypes on social media beyond frustrates me. So I reply to the post, trying to be gentle, but not knowing exactly how to say what I want to say. I note that this isn’t what OCD is really about, that my patients probably wouldn’t even notice the raggedness of the flyer. I’m trying to say, “Hey, professional, please think before you post things that post fun or stereotype mental illness.” I feel timid, but I do it. Then I go to sleep.

By morning, I am sorry I’ve posted anything. The psychologist has replied, but, of course, is not appreciative of my comment. Instead, my comment is an opportunity to get deeper into the OCD humor – more sarcastic. The professional points out how many others have pointed out even more things about the flyer that would disturb folks with OCD. Thank goodness, notes the professional, that the folks I treat wouldn’t be disturbed by it!

I fight off an urge to fire something back. I do not try to educate any more. I sit with discomfort for most of the day. I do internet searches about why people act mean. I am an OCD advocate and I strive to put good information out there. There is so much work to be done to educate the public, and mental health professionals, about OCD. I don’t think the best use of my time is to respond to someone on social media who is just set on poking fun.

What I do is re-commit myself to educating. I re-commit myself to this blog. I re-commit myself to educating professionals and the public in whatever way I can. I will not let one mental health professional who was looking for a laugh (or even the little laughing emojis) deter me. OCD deserves to be seen and heard for what it is. It’s no laughing matter.


Tenth Anniversary – Part I

Image courtesy of Chaiwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Chaiwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This weekend commemorates an anniversary in our family. It is ten years since we recognized that our son, Blake, had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I remember the weekend well. One event in particular prompted us to reach out for help and plunged us into new, unfamiliar territory.

Our family went boating that weekend. We weren’t very experienced with motor boating, and we excitedly packed up both boys, my parents, and one giant inflatable raft and made our way to a local lake. Goal: encourage Grandma and Grandpa to take a turn on the raft as it was towed by the boat. We were sure they’d love it.

We were successful in getting both my parents to give the raft a try. I remember the gigantic smile on my mom’s face and the “thumbs up” sign she threw us as she requested that the boat go faster. We had a ball swimming, picnicking, and taking in the beautiful day.

I don’t recall if Blake, then seven, got in the water or on the raft that day. I do recall, though, that at one point he became aware that people sometimes relieve themselves in the water. The recognition horrified him and, from that point on, he wanted nothing to do with the water. Exhausted from the activities and the sun, he fell deeply asleep on the boat bench. The hubby had to lift him from the boat and into his seat in the car, where Blake awoke as he was being buckled in.

A Child Possessed

Suddenly, it dawned on Blake how he had gotten into the car…and he began to scream. Gut-wrenching, blood-curdling, ear-piercing screams began to emerge from my seven-year-old’s mouth, causing the other five of us in the car to wheel around to look at what was going on. Blake looked like a child possessed. His face was contorted and bright red. He struggled in his seat as those screams kept coming.

Wash! Wash! Wash! Need to wash! Wash! Wash!….”

My parents looked dumbfounded and helpless in the back seat. Michael looked confused. My husband and I tried to talk to Blake, to calm him down. Our attempts fell on deaf ears. Blake just kept right on screaming. I didn’t know what to do. I felt something primal well up deep inside of me.

KNOCK IT OFF!!!!!” I heard myself bellow.

Can’t You See He’s Terrified?

Blake looked at me through tear-filled eyes. I’d frightened him (and probably everyone else in the car).

“Can’t you see he’s terrified?” my hubby said to me. He went to comfort Blake, but Blake wanted nothing to do with him, for it was his father, who had been in that urine filled lake and then carried him into this car, who was the source of the contamination that now tormented him. He didn’t want his father, or any of us who had been in the lake, near him. We were all a source of fear. My hubby and I could not offer comfort to our own child.

We drove home in near silence.

“We need to get help,” my hubby said to me.

“They’re going to say it’s my fault, but you’re right. We can’t go on like this.”

Today’s outburst hadn’t been the first. It was the scariest, though. It was the latest in a summer full of incidents that told me our younger son had OCD. I’d just kept hoping I was wrong. Everything I’d learned about OCD in my psychology graduate program pointed to the mother as the source of the problem, and I was terribly afraid and embarrassed. I was scared of what OCD would mean for my son’s quality of life, and ashamed that I, as a child clinical psychologist, did not know what to do for my son. It was time to surrender to the fact that we needed help. I silently prayed that there was something that would help. I would reach out to colleagues in the upcoming week.

The Sibling Effect

IMG_4527My heart aches a bit as my eldest son and I sip, slurp, and empty spoonfuls of chocolate mint cookie milkshakes into our mouths at the diner counter. I’ve spent the last three days eating “comfort food” and I’ve probably gained the weight to prove it. Michael is looking tired and haggard, having been given permission to take a break from his exhausting training schedule to say goodbye to mom.

“I’d never hear the end of it from my mom if I didn’t let a young man take time to say goodbye to his mother,” the Director told him earlier that day.

So we sit at this counter, talking about how training is going for the school-year-long volunteer position he will be holding in the first year dormitory. Michael is a sophomore and he will be positioned to support incoming freshman as they navigate their new college experience. He was tickled to be back and excited to begin training when we arrived. Glancing at him now, I can see that the light that was in his eyes yesterday has dimmed some. I’m not sure if it’s exhaustion or something else I see.

“I’m having a tough time with some of the communication training. It’s not upsetting to anyone else because they didn’t have the experience growing up that I did,” he tells me.

“Something about growing up in our home?” I ask, wondering what it is we did to put him in this position.

“Yes,” he says. “They’re having us do exercises on how to say things to people. It’s upsetting to me because of all the times I had to be careful of what I said at home because I didn’t want to upset Blake. It feels like walking on eggshells.”

“You mean, it’s triggering those feelings from when you were worried you’d say something that would set him off?”


“I guess this is one of those lingering effects of growing up with a brother or sister with OCD.”

“I’m tired of being careful of how I say things. I did that for too long.”

I don’t know what else to do, but listen to him as he shares, and to let him know that I believe in him. I recognize that part of this is fueled by exhaustion and the intensity of his training. Yet, I also recognize that OCD can significantly affect more than just the sufferer. Siblings are not frequently mentioned at conferences and in studies on the matter, though they are among those most impacted.

I’ve run support groups for siblings who’ve shared how they’ve been the target of their siblings’ OCD, leaving them feeling perplexed, angered, or downtrodden. I’ve watched siblings being chased by their screaming brother or sister who has OCD, as the sibling with OCD seeks to beat away the OCD demon. I’ve watched as Blake cringed when Michael came near, believing that Michael was contaminated, and I’ve seen Michael finally losing his cool, screaming at his brother, hating the OCD.

Sometimes I think we are past those childhood times. I think that Blake and Michael have both matured enough to know how to deal with things better. Tonight reminds me that, while things may improve, the scars are still there. Sometimes, they still flare up and hurt. Knowing that I will be over 2,200 miles away from him, I remind Michael that the school’s counseling services are there if he needs them. He doesn’t want to hear this. Maybe it was unnecessary for me to suggest it. Still, it is a reminder that siblings of those with OCD bear parts of the disorder, too, and they often need just as much support and understanding.

In Which Mom Loses Her Temper

Costa RicaYes, I felt a little inspired by Winnie the Pooh books for this one (remember, In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water?”). Maybe it’s my way of getting a little storybook-esque about what happened last night and getting some distance from something I feel horrible for. Whatever it is, we begin with Mom putting the final touches on family dinner. Michael is away and Mom has worked hard on a nice meal in hopes that the family that is here (Dad, Blake, and herself) can enjoy time together. All are just about ready to sit down together. And then it happens…

Mom makes a mistake. Blake, who constantly looks over Mom’s shoulder when food preparation is involved (food that he is going to eat), points out Mom’s mistake and notes that he will now be unable to eat said food. Mom, who usually does not cook for Blake for just this reason, tries to keep it together. Maybe it was a real error; maybe it is an error only according to that interloper, OCD. It does not matter. Either way, Mom feels her heart sink. The hard work will not be appreciated by all. There is a breach in the dream for the evening. The evening feels ruined to her.

Hard as she tries, she cannot contain her disappointment. Hurt and angry words escape from her mouth, and then she escapes from the situation. She leaves the house. She walks around the block, fuming as she goes. There is so much pressure in having someone look over her shoulder. Yet, he is her son, who she loves. How can one mistake devastate an entire evening? How could she have become so foolish that she got back into the trap of believing she could do things without there being a catch? How can she be so black and white? She is angry with the situation. She is angry with herself.

She returns half an hour later still hurt, hunger gone. She walks the dogs and skips dinner. Blake walks downstairs crying his eyes out, telling Dad that he hates hurting his parents. He wishes he were dead so he cannot hurt them. He is inconsolable. Mom is upstairs hating herself, but still reeling in her own despair and afraid if she tries to say anything to Blake now she will only make it worse. She falls asleep.

In the morning light, she seeks out Blake and they talk. She apologizes for losing her temper and she reminds him that, regardless of anything that happens, it is her love for him that is more important than any meal. She notes the trap she sets for them all by placing too much emphasis on things going perfect, and she notes that she has work to do on how she reacts. She is a work in progress. She is imperfect. She is going to mess up again, but she hopes she will learn from last night. It is not easy living with OCD in the family – not easy to be a parent. She strives to keep learning, keep improving.

*Good Morning!

*On the eve of the annual conference of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF), which is taking place in Chicago, I am re-posting this entry from a while back. OCD is a serious disorder that can profoundly affect lives. Knowledge and treatment can make a world of difference.

This is a piece I wrote for myself about three and a half years ago – before I started writing this blog.  It reflects the feelings I felt at seeing my son stuck in an OCD ritual, and my struggles with a public that often does not understand that OCD can wreak havoc on lives. 

Image courtesy scottchan@freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy scottchan@freedigitalphotos.net

“Good morning!” I say in my most cheery voice as I open the car door and a load of kids tumbles out. I’m working at morning valet at my son’s school, a volunteer position I’ve helped with for the past four years. “Have a great day!” I wish them as they enter school for the day. Across the parking lot, I catch sight of my own son, standing by my car.   I can make out the brown curls on the top of his head, which is bowed in prayer. I check my watch – 20 minutes have passed since he began this process. Twenty minutes on a prayer that reasonably ought to take less than five. I can see him repeating the same motions he’s done over and over already. I even think I can see him mouthing the same words.

Enough already,” I think to myself and begin to walk in his direction.

“Be right back,” I tell my fellow volunteers as I leave my post. When I get to him, he doesn’t acknowledge me. He’s deeply, fervently in prayer.

Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net

“Hon,” I ask, “can I help in some way?”

Absolutely no reply. His lips move at rapid-fire pace and he’s planted in place. I put my hand on his shoulder.

“It’s time to go in to school now,” I tell him.

“Mom! I was almost finished! Now I have to start it all over!”

“Honey, you’ve been saying the same prayer over and over for the last 20 minutes. It’s enough. Go join your friends before school starts.”

“I have NOT been saying it over and over. I keep messing up or skipping parts so I have to start again and get it right. I almost had it this time and you interrupted.”

“I don’t think the point is to get it perfectly right. I think it’s about what’s in your heart. You-know-who is just trying to trick you.”

I say this last part in reference to his OCD, which we’ve known he’s had since he was 7. He is nearly 14 now.

“Really? Do you think so?” he says sounding just a little bit hopeful.

“You know that’s the truth. Come on, you can fight this.”

“No, no, no. I have to get it right,” he says. “Just let me do what I have to do.”

“Come on, honey. Stop and go to class.”


“Fine! It’s your OCD. You handle it the way you see fit.”

I throw my arms up in exasperation as I walk back to the waiting line of cars. He goes back to his prayers, trying to finish before he is tardy to class. My heart is heavy as I watch him being caught up in this cycle…trying to get it just perfect and falling short over and over again. I want to make this better for him, want him to be able to go hang with his buddies who are all together before school begins, but I am just an interruption to a process he feels he must go through.

Not long ago I saw a segment of an interview of Howie Mandel by Larry King. Larry was asking Howie about his OCD. At one point Larry looked at Howie and asked, “It’s not a severe mental illness, is it? I mean, it’s not depression.” Larry went on to talk about how we all have a little OCD and how he has all his vitamins and medicine lined up in a certain order and takes them in that order. Howie did his best to explain how OCD can severely impact someone’s life, but I never really felt that the point hit home.

I think Larry’s question reflects what we see in the media about OCD. People with OCD are portrayed as quirky, silly, and super organized. Maybe they are controlling and bothersome. What we miss seeing is the anguish and the suffering. We do not understand how OCD can hold an individual – and entire families – hostage to it. If we can ask the question, “It’s not a severe mental illness, is it?” then we have never witnessed a child with hands so bloody and oozing from over-washing that they wince with pain if anything brushes against them. We have not had a family hike interrupted by the un-ending screams of a child who is certain he is about to die because there may have been a Lyme disease carrying tick on the shrub that brushed up against him. We have never had a sheriff’s deputy come over to us in alarm because our child is screaming so horrifically that they sound like they are being torn limb from limb. We have never had a family meal interrupted over and over because our teenage son has to stop eating to repeat a ritual before he can go on eating. And we have never seen a 13-year-old boy reduced to an exhausted crumpled mass in his mother’s arms after fighting off the demon in his own mind.

“It’s not a severe mental illness, is it?”

Yes, sadly, OCD is a severe mental illness, and it attacks the things that are most precious to a person.   People think our family must be very religious because they see our son in prayer all the time. What they do not realize is that the religion our son practices bears little resemblance to any religion we practice in the home – or that anyone practices anywhere for that matter. His practices are born out of a fear that OCD gives him – a fear that something awful will happen if he doesn’t get things just right. What used to be a source of enjoyment, connection and deep meaning for him – and for us all – has become a source of endless doubt and a cycle of torturous repetition that has long lost its original intent.

Yes, there is treatment. There are terrific, highly effective treatments – and my son is in treatment now. He has beaten OCD to a pulp in the past. With this relapse, he is a teenager, in the throes of puberty and determined to be independent of what Mom and Dad want for him. So we wait, with hope that the day will come that he will decide that he loves himself more than he loves fighting us. We wait for the day that he turns his strong-willed nature against the OCD that currently holds him in its grasp and moves toward a freer life. But it’s going to be one heck of a war when it comes because, yes, OCD can be severe – and it grows in strength over time. In the meantime, our family will be here, honing our skills so that we can back this boy up when he is ready to fight.

For more information and to find help, visit the website of the International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/

One Forty-One A.M.

I'm not even allowed in his room...

I’m not even allowed in his room…


I wake from my sleep and sit bolt upright in my bed. Did I just hear something in the house? There’s light coming through our bedroom door, which is cracked open so the cats can come and go. I glance at the clock. One forty-one in the morning.I glance at my hubby, who is fast asleep with his head buried beneath his pillow. Clearly he hasn’t heard a thing. I’m not afraid as I hear noises coming from down the hall – something moving against the wood floorboards. I get out of bed and walk down the hallway, eyes squinting as they adjust to the light.

Remaining laundry in the overstuffed hamper

Remaining laundry in the overstuffed hamper

I’m not surprised by what I see. It’s Blake putting the last pieces of laundry back into a hamper that had apparently just fallen as he’d struggled to take it to the laundry room. The laundry hamper is stuffed fuller than it ever had a right to be. Bed linens – a multitude of them – spill over the edges, making the hamper top heavy and burdensome. Before I finish my walk I already have the sense that OCD is here with us.

“Blake, what are you doing?”

My seventeen-year-old is distracted by this task he is involved with.

“I have so much laundry to do. My bed is all messed up. I think the cats peed on my bed stuff.”

“Can you turn out some of these lights?” I ask. There are four different sets of lights on.


He tries to stuff three comforters and one blanket into our washing machine. The washing machine is not expanding to fit the load, yet he keeps struggling.

“B, that’s too much. It won’t fit.”

“It has to.”

“Even if you get it in, it’ll damage the machine.”

“But how will I ever get all this laundry done?” he wonders, more to himself than to me.

“You’ll get it done one load at a time.”

“But my bed…my bed is so messed up…”

I wander into his bedroom with him and I instinctively sniff the sheets for the telltale cat pee smell. I already know I won’t smell anything. Blake keeps his bedroom door shut all the time. The cats don’t go in there.

Pee in the bed? Not me.

Pee in the bed? Not me.

“Honey, this is your OCD getting to you and trying to take charge.”

Blake looks at me wide-eyed. For the first time in this exchange I really see him. His skin looks clammy. There’s panic hanging over him. His eyes are vacant; Blake is not home.

“I want to clean. All I want to do is clean,” he says rapidly. Then he makes his way back to the laundry room.

I realize that my being there is not helping the matter. I’m too tired and I don’t have much patience in this state. I follow him to the laundry room.

“How will I ever get all this laundry done?”

“Blake, I’m going back to sleep honey.”

Blake doesn’t acknowledge me. I shut off two sets of lights as I make my way back down the hallway.

“Our son is having a psychotic break,” I mutter.

The hubby pulls the pillow from his head.

“What?” he responds. I can tell he’s disoriented.

“Oh, I was just babbling that B is having a psychotic break. I know it’s not funny. Poor guy is down the hallway doing laundry and freaking out that the cats peed in his bed.”


And just like that he pulls the pillow back over his head. In the early days of OCD this scene would have had us both out of bed trying to coax our son to go to sleep. Now it’s just part of the fabric of our days (and nights). I feel for my son as I drift lazily back to sleep. As I hear him fumbling in the distance, I know things will be better in the morning – at least the panic will have passed and I’ll see my son back behind those eyes. For now, it’s just another episode on our journey and in the life of a teen who says he can deal with this all on his own.

Bed with mismatched sheets following OCD's practical joke on Blake

Bed with mismatched sheets following OCD’s practical joke on Blake

It’s Not Paris, But it Works for Me (Guest Post)

Today’s post is a guest post by my hubby:

imageWhenever we start a new endeavor, we have high hopes, anticipation, and curiosity as to where that endeavor or journey will lead.  It’s no different when our children come into the world.  Will he or she be a Nobel Laureate, a Hollywood heart throb, the next President of the U.S., or, perhaps, even more pedestrian, simply a good human being? Either way, we have expectations and curiosities about the journey, all the while anticipating that we will end up at the destination we envisioned. I liken this to traveling abroad.

When we board a plane to Paris, we expect that our journey will take us to…well…Paris. When we have children, we expect that our journey will take us to our metaphorical, “Paris.” More often than not, though, because life is just life, we find ourselves disembarking somewhere quite different than Paris – like Istanbul.  Then we wonder, “How in the world did I ever get here??” When we realize that didn’t arrive in “Paris,” we can chose to either appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of our new, unanticipated destination or pity ourselves and curse the gods of destiny; it’s completely our choice.

A couple of weeks ago, Angie came home from a trip to the market to find Michael, Blake, and I all in the pool.  Angie quickly noticed that, while Michael and I were in bathing suits, Blake, was fully dressed. Yep, jeans, t-shirt, and socks.  She just looked at me and I just looked back at her with a smile.

For a lot of families, a day in the pool would be no big deal, because that is just “Paris” for them. In our family’s case, we didn’t land anywhere near Paris. OCD and anxiety diverted that flight. Blake doesn’t like a lot of things.  He doesn’t like getting wet. He doesn’t like going outdoors. At times, he doesn’t like to socialize, even with his family.

My “Paris” was having a family like the one in National Lampoon’s, “Vacation.” I sort of planned and built our lives accordingly.  I intended us to be the Griswold family; the kids and Angie even call me “Clark” because of my family idealism.  I always wanted a home with a pool so that we’d have plenty of days playing there and making memories. Trouble is, especially with Blake’s dislikes and “rules,” it just doesn’t seem to happen much.

On that sunny day, when the boys and I were just livin’ the dream, the idea of Blake being fully clothed in the swimming pool didn’t bother me a bit. I just sat back and reveled in my trip to Istanbul, and loved every minute of it.  I hope that you enjoy whichever destination that you may find yourself.