“How is your son doing?”
The question came from the father of a young man with OCD during a treatment session. We were talking about his son and how he could support him. And we were discussing how OCD can co-mingle with other issues in adolescent development. It was a significant meeting because he was so rarely available to be a part of his son’s treatment.
I do not talk about my own son when I’m treating others. It’s not the place. But many of my patients (or their parents) know that I have a child with OCD. Some of them know because a quick search of me on the internet shows links to workshops, interviews or other things I’ve been involved with in my quest to be an OCD advocate. The details are few, but still, the information is out there. Sometimes in connecting with parents, I let them know that I have a child with OCD – that on some level I understand what they are going through. But that’s it – we don’t talk about my family or what our struggles are. At the same time, I’d been fearing this question.
When I first decided to begin treating individuals with OCD in my practice, things were going very well at home. My son (and the whole family, for that matter) had been through Cognitive Behavior Therapy – with Exposure and Response Prevention (CBT-ERP). He had embraced it. He was pursuing things he hadn’t been able to when OCD gripped his life.
Personally, I had come out from the rock that I’d been hiding under while he was in the throes of severe symptoms. I spoke at a conference for the first time in years. I became passionate about educating the public and other mental health professionals about OCD (it’s amazing what some of the beliefs still are out there, but that’s a topic for another time). Then came the requests to consult on cases, which of course led to seeing my own first patients with the disorder.
As my son slipped into a relapse, it became apparent that this time around he wasn’t on board with treatment. He was not going to do any exposure that anyone designed for him, and he wasn’t willing to design any for himself. He didn’t want anyone in his business. It was HIS OCD. The ironic thing about this is that he is the first person to stand up and educate others about OCD. He speaks up to his classmates. He tells me to remind my patients that the “relief” that comes with doing rituals is just “a trap” that will keep them more and more imprisoned. Heck, he had the opportunity to educate a reporter about OCD the other week and from the next room I could hear him emphatically telling her that kids with OCD should not distract themselves when they start to feel uncomfortable, because it is in feeling discomfort – and allowing themselves to adjust to it – that they get better.
During the time that he has been struggling and refusing help, I’ve been grappling with feeling a little like a fraud. If my own son is struggling, how do I speak up about treatment? How do I remain an advocate? How do I treat others and tell them that treatment works? How do I deal with it if the questions come about what is going on at home? Those questions were hard for a long time. The answers are that I still know that treatment does work. I’ve seen it at home and in my office. I still want others to stop suffering in silence. I want them to know that there is hope and help. And I want mental health professionals to better understand OCD to recognize the appropriate treatments for it.
It’s just that, as a mom, I’m achy inside. I love my son and I want him to feel as good and as strong as he possibly can. The times that I’m feeling the pain a little more are the times I start to second guess myself – and I have to not let that undermine what I ultimately believe.
“How is your son doing?” he asks me.
I know he wants to know if his son is going to get better. He wants to know how this might play out. I take a breath. I answer him honestly.
“He’s struggling right now,” I say. “He knows what to do. He knows what works. It’s up to him to decide to put it to use. It’s like we were just talking about with your son. Adolescence can add a whole new dimension to OCD. Your son is open to treatment. He wants to get better right now. Your being here and supporting him is so important to him.”
I don’t dread the question anymore. Really, it was never the question I feared at all. What I feared was my own feelings of despair about my own son. I put too much emphasis on his feeling good as the way to my feeling good As a mom, I will probably always hurt when my children hurt but it is up to me to find things to feel good about, to improve my own life situation.
I believe that there is value in all life experiences. While it stinks that my son has relapsed, it also gives me more empathy when it happens with patients at work or when it happens to those around me in my personal life. And it helps me to practice what I preach when I tell families that they have to stop being the “OCD Police” at home and back out of their loved one’s rituals. It makes me more humble overall and it reminds me that we are all human.
Speaking of being human, if you ask my how my son is doing at being a human – well then, he is doing amazing. OCD is just one part of his life – and it is a young life that is rich and full.