OCD: It’s All In My Family

My dad died four weeks ago. Just like that. Suddenly. Gone. He hadn’t been feeling well for a few days. I didn’t know that. All I know is that on March 7th as I finished my lunch my mom called – first on the house phone and then on my cell, which I picked up right away.

“Where are you?” she asked, choking back tears that she couldn’t hide. When I assured her I was home and safe she continued. “Daddy died,” she gasped, and she cried out loud. She wasn’t even quite sure where she was in those moments. Someone helped her to tell me the address she was at. It was an urgent care office not too far from my parents’ home. I went to her immediately.

There are more details in the aftermath. Those can come at another time. For now, suffice it to say it was complicated with my dad. My sister, my brother, my mom, and I knew for the most part that we could count on him in a crisis. I’m pretty sure he loved us all – of course, we each have different impressions of our relationships with him. On the whole I’d say we are each grappling to make sense of a man who was difficult to really know and who struggled with demons none of us completely understood.

Did Dad Have OCD?

Less than three weeks after Dad’s death, I went to Chicago to attend the annual conference of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). It felt good to get away and to focus only on myself and on what I love doing – learning about anxiety and OCD and continuing to develop my craft as a specialist. On day two of the conference, I attended a session called “Treating Co-Occurring Anxiety and Substance Abuse: It Can Be Done,” by Patrick McGrath, Ph.D. (of AMITA Health/Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital). From experience, I knew Dr. McGrath was an excellent presenter and that I’d likely come away with useful information. What I didn’t expect is to have a revelation about the man who gave me life.

Less than a half hour into the session, Dr. McGrath noted the common reward system that both opioids and compulsions have for sufferers of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Something clicked in my head. One of the demons my dad long struggled with was addiction to opioid medications. Did he also have OCD?

I texted my mom from the session (sorry for texting during your presentation, Dr. McGrath). “Mom, do you think Dad had OCD?”

Putting the Pieces Together

Her reply, ten minutes later was affirmative, “Yes. It got worse as he got older. He was obsessed with trying to keep his glasses clean.”

I sat with this for a few minutes and tried to absorb it. Could it be? Maybe Mom doesn’t realize I really mean that he had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I texted my brother and sister and told them what I was thinking.

“You mean like measuring 2 halves of a turkey sandwich with a scale and having a fit when they aren’t perfectly even?” my sister wrote. Oh, yes, how could I have forgotten that?

“Buffing the kitchen table with his auto buffer? Refinishing spatula handles so they’re perfect? Sharpening and re-sharpening knives?” asked my brother.

“We found cases of eyeglass cleaner,” my sister noted, referring to when we’d straightened up his room shortly after he’d passed.

“Yeah, he used to get sooooo pissed if his glasses weren’t perfectly clean,” my brother remembered.

Little by little, the pieces started coming together. Things we’d regarded as quirky about my father while we were growing up were strong signs he’d had OCD. I recall times my brother, sister, and I sat, waiting in the car to go somewhere for what felt like a long time, while Dad was in the house doing something. What was he doing? Checking? I’m not certain of the answers to these questions, but in those moments, sitting in Dr. McGrath’s presentation, I felt a growing sadness.

How Did I Not Know?

I am a specialist in treating OCD. The great majority of my psychology practice is kids and adults with the disorder. I blog about OCD here. I speak as a professional at conferences about it. I educate others about it in writing, in webinars, and in other formats. How could I have missed the signs? Was his substance abuse in part a way to manage (albeit in a destructive way) the nagging thoughts coming from his own mind? Did he know what he had?

“I keep thinking I wish he’d gotten good help/treatment for this stuff. Or known that he wasn’t alone in it,” I texted my siblings. “I feel dumb for not putting it together…. Like I should’ve realized it of all people.”

All In the Family

When my son, Blake (now 19), was seven I recognized that he had OCD. I was already a child psychologist, but I only recognized the symptoms when they were about the stereotypical fear of germs. I’d missed it when, at least a year before, he’d told me that he had “bad thoughts” in his head. I felt awful when I realized that, and I dedicated myself to educating others so that the signs wouldn’t get missed. But I missed them in my own dad. And he died without a community – without knowing the amazing OCD support community that I’ve grown to appreciate so much.

When Blake was first diagnosed, his therapist asked me who else in our family had OCD.

“No one,” I told her. The hubby and I both had our own struggles with anxiety, but no one had OCD.

I was wrong. My brother bravely told me a few years later about his own OCD and the thoughts that taunted his mind. And now I realize that my dad probably struggled with it for goodness knows how long.

My son. My brother. My dad. OCD is all in my family. It runs in families. If I missed the signs, anyone can. Learn about OCD; educate yourself to the signs. There is help and there is support. No one needs to suffer alone.

There is help for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. To learn more:

International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://adaa.org/

Peace of Mind Foundation: https://peaceofmind.com/

Intrusive Thoughts: https://www.intrusivethoughts.org/

Unstuck: An OCD Kids Movie: https://www.ocdkidsmovie.com/

15 thoughts on “OCD: It’s All In My Family

  1. I was one of those kids who checked the locks and lights, stove and toaster, etc every night before bed. As I became an late teen/young adult, I became a very heavy, very consistent drinker. That lasted well into my 30s. As I began to sober up a little, I became obsessed with preparing for disasters. I’m an educated guy, but it wasn’t until I saw a therapist for anxiety did I realize I had OCD. The therapist did an impression (maybe a bit comical in an insensitive way) of a guy with OCD, and he nailed me to a tee. In addition to OCD, Tourette Syndrome runs in my family. When I medicated my Tourettes, I happened to hit the OCD as well. Now that I’m (much more) free of the obsessive thoughts, my life has improved dramatically. But I still go back in and check the stove.

    1. Jeff, Thank you for sharing. It’s kind of amazing how substances can mask and decrease anxiety/OCD symptoms – and how they emerge when the substance use is stopped or decreased. OCD hides in so many little ways. It never ceases to surprise me. Best, Angie

  2. Oh the point of that comment was that my kids will never let my ocd slip by them. As teenagers they are quick to point out all obsessions and compulsions.

    1. Lisa

      My 84 year old mother only recently recognized that her father was an alcoholic. It does seem strange that blatant behavior would be missed… but I think we look at our parents through the lense of a child. Takes time to view them as separate human beings…

  3. Angie, I’m so sorry to hear of you dad’s passing. It’s never easy losing a parent, no matter what your relationship was like.
    Interestingly enough, my dad passed away ten years ago, and it was a year or so before that that I realized he most likely had undiagnosed OCD.

  4. Dear Angie, I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for this post, which was very powerful. In the midst of a family tragedy, you have managed to be vulnerable and shear your own family story and history in order to help others. This personal account is huge and I have passed along your experience to a couple of patients with whom I work. Thank you.

  5. Most Certainly Megan

    I didn’t know the signs and didn’t get the proper help for OCD until age 32. My daughter was just diagnosed this month at age 10. I’m pretty sure my father also had OCD, rest his soul. It absolutely runs in families. Thank you for writing this.

  6. Bookerbee

    I now see several OCD traits/behaviors in my immediate family and in myself, but not extreme. It has struck one of my children very severely and I apparently missed the symptoms which began in early childhood and were not diagnosed until adulthood when much suffering had happened and treatment has not been very successful. This was a helpful article.

    1. I’m so glad it was helpful. It frequently happens in my practice that a parent brings a child in for treatment and then realizes they have a less severe version- or that they did have more symptoms when they were younger. Actually, I didn’t realize that I had an anxiety disorder myself until I was presenting with a group several years ago and listening. Suddenly I recognized myself in someone else’s talk! All the best to you! – Angie

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