After my son Dan was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I was determined to do whatever I could to help him. Always a believer in mother’s instincts, I followed mine, and did whatever was necessary to keep his anxiety down.
There is a fine line between helping and enabling, and what I was doing was enabling my son. As it turns out, following instincts when dealing with OCD is not always such a great idea. Once Dan began Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy, he realized how important it was that we not enable him, and he’d actually let us know when we inadvertently did. He knew what he needed, and by communicating with us, he allowed us to help him.
Fast-forward about a year. At this point, Dan is taking a reduced course load in college and living at home. His OCD, while not as bad as it was, is still in control most of the time, and he seems listless and depressed. He is sleeping a lot, and whenever he is awake, he is anxious. It is upsetting and frustrating to me to see him this way, though I still work hard not to enable his OCD. But I don’t demand he help out around the house either, or do much of anything, for that matter. How can I insist he take out the trash? He is having such a tough time. Realizing we need guidance, my husband and I, along with Dan, meet with his therapist.
After expressing my concerns over my son’s lack of interest or involvement in anything, his therapist turned to him and said, “Dan, what do you think your parents should do?”
Without hesitation he replied, “I think they should push me more.”
While I was surprised at Dan’s answer, I was even more taken aback by the fact that it had never crossed my mind to ask him that very question myself. Why not? If he had a broken arm, or the flu, I would have asked him what I could do to help him feel better. Why hadn’t it occurred to me that the person who might just know what is best for Dan is Dan?
In the past, he had been honest about what he needed. While I wracked my brain trying to figure out how I could help him, I never once asked him. If I had, he would have told me that he didn’t really want to be pampered or tiptoed around. What he wanted was to be treated as normally as possible. What he wanted was to feel like a respected, contributing member of society. What he wanted was to recover from OCD and get back to the business of being an active college student.
I think as parents we instinctively want to protect and care for our children. We are supposed to fix them when they are broken. But there are times that just isn’t possible, or even optimal. Sometimes the best thing we can do for our children is to simply listen to what they have to say, offer our support, and ask “What can I do to help you?” These words need to be spoken, not just assumed.
I learned a valuable lesson that day we met with Dan’s therapist. Everyone deserves to be heard. I needed to listen to Dan, and he needed to listen to me, to hear my perspective.
I know now that by really listening to those who are suffering we are, at the very least, showing them respect, opening up the lines of communication, and letting them know their insights, thoughts, and feelings are valued. And who knows, asking them what they need from us might evoke some surprising answers.