My son Dan spent many years pursuing his lifelong dream of becoming an animator. After his freshman year of college, when his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was so severe he could not even eat and he spent nine weeks at a residential treatment program, he came very close to giving up on this dream.
His therapist at the program suggested he become an art teacher; he felt that road would be less stressful for Dan.
While an art teacher is a great job for someone who wants to be an art teacher, Dan never had the slightest interest in the teaching field. The problem was that while this therapist no doubt knew how to treat OCD, he didn’t really know my son at all, or what this goal had meant to him when he was well. I am so thankful Dan ultimately decided to continue to pursue his passion. He has since graduated from college and is now working in his chosen field.
For some OCD sufferers, however, original educational or career plans might not work out. Maybe college is too stressful, maybe a particular work environment elicits a multitude of triggers; maybe a job is just too demanding. Maybe those with OCD need to work toward their goals differently, at a later date, or not at all. A competent therapist who knows the sufferer well and specializes in treating OCD can help decide which paths to take. But is having to alter life plans a sign that OCD is “winning?”
Not in my opinion. Because really, don’t we all have limitations? I would have loved to have been a nurse, but blood and needles make me squeamish. My best friend wanted to be a ballerina, but she didn’t have the right physique. Whether it is due to illness, life circumstances, or just who we are, most of us face detours as we travel through life. We compromise, we adjust, we revise our dreams. Even as an animator, Dan has realized there are certain aspects of the profession that aren’t a good fit for him, and so he is steering his career path accordingly.
Because obsessive-compulsive disorder is an illness which can totally control a sufferer’s life, and successful treatment involves not letting it, I think there might be a tendency to feel defeated if OCD has to be factored into the equation when making these life decisions. Again, I think it’s important to remember that we all have challenges that need to be considered when making career choices; what we desire might not be what’s actually best for us.
In my opinion, it all comes down to the right balance, which is often difficult for OCD sufferers to gauge. They might be perfectionists with unrealistically high expectations for themselves. This, coupled with black-and-white thinking (which is a common cognitive distortion in those with OCD), makes decision-making even more complicated.
In addition, OCD often compels sufferers to question if their feelings and motivations behind their actions and decisions are what they truly feel, or are beliefs generated by their disorder. It sure does get complicated, and again, working with a therapist who knows both OCD and the sufferer can be invaluable.
When making career choices, I believe those with OCD (and even those without the disorder) need to be honest with themselves. While we should hold on to our dreams, we should also not let them destroy us. Being realistic and finding the right balance to preserve our well-being will serve us all well on our journeys through life. And if OCD sufferers, indeed if all of us, maintain a positive attitude and endeavor to live a fulfilling, productive life, there’s a good chance that many of our dreams will come true.