At the time my son Dan’s OCD was at its worst, he had not eaten in over a week. He would sit in his “safe” chair for hours at a time, too terrified to move. I flew down to be with him at his college, and though he was only two weeks away from completing his freshman year at his dream school, he knew I would have to bring him home if he wasn’t able to eat. His physical health was in danger. It was torturous for him, but somehow, he was able to find courage deep within himself to consume a meal. I was so relieved. Now he could eat; he was on the road to recovery!
Not so fast. Obviously, I knew little about obsessive-compulsive disorder at the time. The next morning, I brought him some food for breakfast, and to my dismay we were back to square one. He just couldn’t do it. I remember saying to him, “But you just ate yesterday! Nothing bad happened, so why can’t you eat now?” This seems to be a common reaction from people who do not have OCD. It’s so hard for those of us without the disorder to understand. “You did it before, why can’t you do it again?”
The problem with this thought process is that it is logical. Most of us can relate to overcoming obstacles: We climb our mountains and we work through our fears. For those of us without OCD, that is often the end of it. We have conquered our demons; we move on. When other issues arise, we are able to tackle them as well.
But OCD is not logical. One day you can drive 500 miles and be fine, but the next day you can’t drive around the block without stopping ten times to see if you hit someone. There is no linear progression here; no predictable course. If you think this is difficult for those of us without OCD, imagine being the one with the disorder! In addition to their own frustration, those with OCD might also have to deal with their annoyed friends and impatient families, who just don’t get it, or even worse, think they’re faking.
What really helped me in grasping the unpredictability of OCD was personifying the disorder. Many people even give their OCD a name, such as “the bully or “the enemy.” In this way, it is easy to see OCD as an independent entity from the person who is dealing with it.
Once I was able to envision Dan’s OCD as separate from himself, it was actually quite simple to understand. Dan versus OCD. Two powerful forces at odds. A colossal tug of war. Sometimes the OCD was just too strong to contend with, other times not so much. Of course, with the proper therapy, Dan was able to prevail more often, until he got to the point where he now wins almost all his run-ins with the disorder. He is stronger than his OCD — he has won the tug of war of his life.