My son Dan’s obsessive-compulsive disorder often revolved around his thoughts more than his actions, so we really didn’t know anything was wrong until he told us. It’s not unusual for those with primarily mental compulsions to easily hide their OCD from others. And even when we knew he had OCD and could see that he was spiraling downward, he would say, “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
Ten years later, those two words, “I’m fine,” make me cringe and stop in my tracks. Dan has been doing great for many years now, so you would think I would have moved on, because really, he is fine. For the longest time, however, I would focus intently on his every move, action, and expression, looking for the reassurance I needed to confirm that he indeed was fine. If I had any doubts, then I would ask him how he was doing just so I could hear those two words that caused me so much anxiety.
I wonder now how Dan must have felt — knowing (as I’m sure he did) that I was assessing him and his every move. My guess is it didn’t feel great, and might very well have increased his overall anxiety. I know I sometimes get annoyed when I feel I’m being evaluated, or I know loved ones are worried about me, even if it’s justified.
Perhaps by saying “I’m fine,” Dan was actually trying to convince himself that he was indeed fine. Or maybe it was just too difficult for him to talk about his OCD or whatever was troubling him in that moment. While I just wanted to offer support and had his best interests at heart, he was doing the best he possibly could at the time. If saying “I’m fine,” instead of being honest and subjecting himself to my prospective scrutiny was the only way for him to deal with his demons, I needed to respect his choice. I needed to trust him, which I have since learned to do.
And he has completely earned that trust. He spent nine weeks at a world-renowned residential treatment program, battling his OCD as hard as he could. He then spent the next three years regularly meeting with a psychologist who specialized in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. By the time he graduated college, he had learned to be his own therapist, and he now knows what to do when his OCD makes an appearance. I am hopeful those dark days of severe OCD are gone. But even if they’re not, I need to remember that Dan knows himself and his OCD better than anyone. If at any point he is not fine, he might not admit to it, but I am confident he will do whatever it takes to get well.
As more time passes, it’s getting easier. I no longer analyze every move, expression, or comment that Dan makes. I’ve always tried to see him as separate from his OCD, but now that takes little effort, and I often forget he even has the disorder. I can almost hear the words “I’m fine” without cringing, because deep down I know. He is just as fine as the rest of us.