Soon after my son Dan was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), he and I were out with some friends and decided to get a bite to eat. We were all casually chatting about various restaurant choices when Dan suddenly insisted we go to one particular place. He was adamant; we needed to eat there.
So off we went. If I remember correctly some glances were exchanged (“What’s up with him?”) but nobody complained and we all went along.
I knew very little about OCD at the time, but what I did know was that this seemingly selfish behavior was totally out of character for my son. In fact, it was the exact opposite of the “real Dan” who’d always been so easygoing and eager to please others. Unfortunately, OCD operates in a convoluted way, and it often makes sense for OCD sufferers to do just the opposite of what their disorder demands. I think it’s also true that OCD sometimes gives non-sufferers the wrong impression, indeed the opposite impression, of the true nature of those suffering from the disorder.
Our friends didn’t know that Dan had OCD, but I’m not convinced that would have mattered. They likely thought Dan was selfish because he demanded we eat where he wanted to eat, with no regard for anyone else’s preference.
The truth was Dan’s OCD made him believe we all had to go to that particular restaurant or something bad would happen. He wasn’t being selfish; he believed he was protecting those he cared about. Compulsions involving doing certain things at specific times or in a particular way, or being inflexible in various ways, all can be misconstrued as acts of selfishness.
There are many other examples where the actions of those with OCD could be misconstrued as selfish. Perhaps an OCD sufferer has contamination fears, and can’t bring herself to let anyone use her bathroom. Unfortunately she can’t bring herself to tell her friend she has OCD, either. And so she comes across as selfish, or strange, and might even lose her friend.
Or maybe an OCD sufferer is asked to drive a coworker to the airport, but can’t because he has a strong feeling that the passenger will be severely hurt, or possibly even killed, in an accident that he will cause. And so he’s seen as selfish and not willing to help someone out. The possibilities are endless and I’m sure many OCD sufferers and their loved ones could easily come up with their own examples.
Not only do OCD sufferers have to deal with being perceived as selfish and likely annoying, they themselves often feel guilty for “having” to manipulate people and situations in order to follow what their OCD is dictating. They know how they appear to other people, and this knowledge only contributes to the torment, as well as isolation, the OCD sufferer already feels.
But really, it’s all a big misunderstanding. It’s extremely hard for those of us without the disorder to understand that those with OCD feel they do not have a choice. They don’t choose, or even want, to act this way; they have to. It’s not about what they want; it’s about what their OCD demands. They are held captive by obsessive-compulsive disorder, and are at its beck and call.
Education is as important for loved ones as treatment is for sufferers. If I had understood what was happening when Dan insisted on going to that restaurant, I could have not enabled him. And while it’s true OCD can be misleading and deceptive, it’s also true that OCD is treatable. Sufferers need to get the appropriate treatment, and choose to fight. Only then will it be clear to others, as well as to themselves, who they really are.