One of the most heartbreaking aspects of my son Dan’s descent into severe obsessive-compulsive disorder was his progressive isolation from his friends.
Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and often becomes a vicious cycle. OCD isolates the sufferer, and this detachment from others, where the person suffering from OCD is left alone with nothing but his or her obsessions and compulsions, can exacerbate OCD.
In Dan’s case, many of his obsessions revolved around him causing harm to those he cares about. What better way to prevent this from happening than by avoiding friends and family? And this is exactly what he did. Even though in reality he could not even hurt a fly, in his mind the “safest” thing to do was to stay away from everyone. This is just one example of how OCD steals what’s most important to you.
Another common example is those OCD sufferers who have issues with germs. Avoiding any place or person that might carry germs (so pretty much everyone and everything) is about as isolating as you can get. Or maybe they are not even worried about getting sick themselves but rather are terrified they might contaminate others.
There are many other reasons why OCD sufferers might isolate themselves. Their compulsions might be so time-consuming that there is simply no time to interact with others; OCD has taken up every second of their lives. Or perhaps it is just too exhausting to be out in public, pretending everything is okay.
Let’s also not forget the stigma that is still associated with the disorder. Many with OCD live with the fear of being “found out.” How can they best prevent that from happening? Yup — they isolate themselves.
When someone is suffering deeply, whether it is with OCD, depression, or any illness, support from friends and family is crucial. Friends who reach out to the isolated person often are ignored, and after a while, they might stop trying.
This is what happened to Dan. I have no doubt his friends genuinely cared for him, but they didn’t realize the extent of his suffering, because Dan never let on. When their efforts to connect with him were rebuffed, they, not knowing what else to do, left him alone.
In some situations — college, for example — friends are the first ones to notice another friend’s isolation. Young people need to be made aware that withdrawal from others might be a serious cause for concern, and help should be sought.
OCD sufferers can isolate themselves from family as well. When Dan’s OCD was severe, we felt separated from him, even when he was living with us. He kept to himself and would not engage in conversation. He seemed as if he was in his own world, which in many ways he was: a world dictated by OCD. As difficult as it was to connect with him, our family never stopped trying, but it was mostly a one-sided effort. It wasn’t Dan’s fault that he couldn’t communicate with us, and it wasn’t our fault that we couldn’t get through to him. This insidious disease, OCD, was to blame.
While the Internet cannot take the place of face-to-face interaction, I do believe that social media sites have the potential to lessen the feelings of isolation that OCD sufferers feel. Connecting with others on forums, or even just reading about people who are suffering as they are, can help reduce loneliness, and in the best-case scenario, prompt those with OCD to seek appropriate help.
When those with OCD, or any mental illness, cut off those who care about them, they lose their lifeline. The support, encouragement and hope that are all so important for recovery no longer exists. I find this heartbreaking, as I truly believe the more we are pushed away, the more likely it is we are needed. This is something we should all be acutely aware of, and if we find ourselves or our loved ones becoming increasingly isolated, we should seek professional help immediately.