So many times in my life, especially in my role as a mom, I have trusted my instincts when faced with difficult decisions. When my son was dealing with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, I again trusted my instincts, and while my gut feelings often led me down the right path, there are times when all they did was lead to trouble.
As it turns out, trusting your instincts in relation to OCD is not always the best way to go — especially when dealing with family accommodation.
Family accommodation refers to a family member’s participation or assistance in the rituals of their relative with OCD. Some common examples of family accommodation include reassuring (continually answering questions like, “Will I be okay if I do this or don’t do that?”), altering a family’s plans or routines, and giving in to your loved one’s OCD related requests. By accommodating in these ways, we are basically adding fuel to the fire. While we might help reduce our loved one’s anxiety in the short-term, we are, in the long-term, prolonging the vicious cycle of OCD. Studies have concluded that more family accommodation leads to more severe cases of OCD, and more distress among families.
My family and I were as guilty as can be when it came to accommodating, especially before our son Dan began proper treatment. This is where the instincts came in. As a mother, I just wanted to make everything all right and relieve my child’s pain. That was my instinct. So if Dan wanted to eat in one particular spot and eat one particular food at one particular time each night, I let him. Really, what harm could it do? Turns out — plenty. By allowing these rituals to continue, I was validating his irrational thoughts, lowering my expectations of him, and giving him no incentive whatsoever to fight his OCD.
Gradually, I began to realize that accommodating my son was not the right thing to do. If he wanted me to get him a box of cereal from the cupboard, I would say, “If you want cereal, get the box yourself.” If he wasn’t able to touch the television remote, he would have to go without watching television. I went against my natural instincts to keep my son “happy” and stopped enabling him willingly. I say “willingly” because it was often hard to know what was OCD related and what wasn’t. When Dan wanted to do errands at 1:00 PM instead of 11:00 AM, was it really because he was busy, or was that just what his OCD was dictating at the time? We’ll probably never know how much we inadvertently accommodated our son. But it wasn’t a problem for too long. Once Dan began his intensive ERP Therapy and understood more what needed to be done to free himself of OCD’s grip, he made sure to let us know whenever we were unintentionally accommodating him. We worked as a team (though all the very hard work was his) to beat his OCD.
To this day it boggles my mind that throughout my son’s journey fighting OCD, no professional ever explained the role that family accommodations play in the battle against obsessive-compulsive disorder. The closest we ever came was when a social worker told us to treat our son “normally.”
If you or someone you love suffers from OCD, please educate yourself. While recovery from the disorder is absolutely possible, it isn’t easy. The journey can be made a lot smoother if those who care about the person with OCD understand the right ways to help. Knowledge is power, and once we know how, when, and if we should to trust our instincts, OCD doesn’t stand a chance.