“It’s my ex’s fiancé. The guy’s a germaphobe and he’s teaching my son to think he’s got to wash his hands until they crack open,” he tells me. He’s pleading with me as his child’s therapist to help him to correct this situation. If we can do this, he thinks, then the OCD will be a thing of the past.
As both a parent of a child with OCD and as a mental health professional who works with children and teens with OCD, I know the anguish a parent experiences when they learn or realize that their child has this disorder. I understand the search for explanations about how it came to be, and the wish for a quick fix to make it all better.
When I first recognized that Blake had OCD, although I was a psychologist, I knew little about it. I was afraid to seek treatment. My textbooks from graduate school taught that it was usually the fault of the mother, who was probably overly rigid during toilet training. I was certain I would be blamed, but we couldn’t stay on the path we were on – one where our son crumbled into screaming fits of terror while people all around us watched wide-eyed and stunned.
Luckily, on our first foray into treatment, we were connected with a pediatric OCD specialist, who never once told my husband and I that we were to blame. Instead, she helped us to understand how OCD works and how our son’s brain is wired differently than others’. But I was the one who regularly took Blake to treatment, the one who was in the trenches on a daily basis. On many a day when I’d come home from a treatment session explaining to my husband the exposure practices we were to be doing for the week, I’d be met with requests to explain the key to this whole OCD nightmare we seemed to be living.
“Okay, so that’s how we’re going to deal with this symptom. But what is the underlying cause? What’s the issue that’s causing him to have OCD? Is the therapist doing any work to uncover that?”
Even though he was hearing that OCD wasn’t caused by some underlying issue, my husband’s sense as a father told him to search for the reason and work to make that go away. Perhaps it was too much to think that we were all going to have to find a new way to live now that we understood that our son’s brain reacted differently. Wouldn’t it be better if it were more simple than that?
Over time, we both learned the in’s and out’s of OCD, how it works, how to recognize it rearing its head again, how to respond when it does. But, to a father who is new to this whole thing, and one who is living with his son part time on top of it, this is new territory. All he knows is his desire to help his son get better. A clean freak fiancé becomes a good reason for a child who washes his hands excessively. Never mind the fact that the OCD is also showing up in numerous ways that have absolutely nothing to do with germs.
In the end, it is my job to be empathic and to help dad walk the path to understanding and shifting. I let him know how lucky his son is to have him. I assure him I will address any factors in the home that fuel hand washing behaviors, and I provide education and resources that will further his knowledge and understanding. For just as a child with OCD must learn about him or herself and about new ways to approach OCD moments, so must the adults and other family members who love them. OCD, after all, does affect the entire family.