My son Dan’s obsessive-compulsive disorder became so severe during the end of his freshman year of college that he could not even eat. More than anything, he wanted to be able to finish those last three weeks of school, and I promised I would try to help him. We are lucky to have a friend who is an amazing clinical psychologist, and I turned to him for a crash course in getting Dan to eat. Though it was tortuous for him, Dan finally had a meal, and I felt such relief. He was on the road to recovery.
But the next day, we were back to square one. Dan could not ingest even a morsel of food. I didn’t understand. He had eaten the day before, and nothing bad happened, so I just assumed that eating each subsequent meal would be easier. But his recovery was more like a roller coaster ride. Why?
Confused, I turned to our friend, who gave me an easy-to-understand explanation: Dan was separate from his OCD. In fact, the two were enemies, and were constantly battling each other. Sometimes Dan could prevail, but other times the OCD was just too powerful. It was Dan vs. OCD. Once I understood this, Dan’s behavior over the next few weeks made more sense to me, and I witnessed his battles daily. I even went so far as to name his disorder and started referring to it as “The Enemy.”
As I later found out, personifying obsessive-compulsive disorder is a commonly recommended technique for OCD sufferers. Children often are encouraged to name their OCD as a concrete way to drive home the fact that they are separate from it. OCD is something they have, not something they are. Just pick up any book for children with OCD, and chances are the OCD will be named.
Personifying obsessive-compulsive disorder can be helpful to adult sufferers as well. One of the things that makes OCD so difficult is that sufferers usually know their behaviors make no sense, they just can’t stop them. They know they are acting irrationally, but they are not irrational people. I know that for Dan, seeing himself as separate from his OCD helped in his own understanding and acceptance of the disorder.
When “The Enemy” was in control, Dan knew it was his OCD causing him to act in certain ways; ways he would never act if the OCD were not in charge. Ed Zine, a young man who suffered from an incredibly severe case of OCD that is chronicled in the book Life in Rewind, says this about OCD:
“It [OCD] is ruthless in its attack. When it hits you, it will not stop. We know that we are acting crazy, but we also know that we are not crazy. And while the outside world tries to take care of us, and reassure us, OCD spits in their faces and tries to change, dictate, and control the ones who bring us love and reassurance.”
This powerful statement not only shows us how insidious a disorder OCD can be, it gives us some insight into the torment sufferers often feel: They know OCD can wreak havoc on lives, yet they are powerless to control it.
Or are they? It seems that personifying OCD not only helps us all better understand the disorder, it can help the sufferer fight it as well. A turning point in Life in Rewind happens when Ed becomes so angry at his OCD that he just isn’t going to take it anymore. The author, Terry Weible Murphy, writes, “Being pissed off at OCD allowed Ed to recapture his determination and spirit.” He goes on to make an astounding recovery.
There is no question that OCD is a force to be reckoned with, and personifying the disorder is just one tactic in the fight against this illness. The bottom line is that OCD, no matter how severe, can be defeated. In this war, some battles will be won and some will be lost. But that’s not what really matters. What is most important is that those suffering from OCD just keep on fighting.