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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

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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.