When my seventeen-year-old son Dan was first diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I wanted details. What was he thinking, how was he feeling, is today better or worse than yesterday? The problem was Dan would not, or could not, share the inner workings of his mind with me. He was even reluctant to see a therapist because he thought everything they spoke about would be relayed to his parents. Once I explained “doctor-patient confidentiality” to him, he couldn’t get to the therapist fast enough.
I now realize that Dan’s not sharing with me and my husband was probably a good thing. We were better off not knowing. Dan dealt with mainly mental compulsions, which are easier to hide than more overt compulsions such as hand-washing or lock-checking. While I wouldn’t say I had my head in the sand, I certainly had no idea how much my son was truly suffering. I think if I had known, I would have likely accommodated him incessantly, and my guess is my heightened anxiety levels would have rubbed off on him as well.
From what I understand, many teens and young (and not so young) adults are hesitant to share details of their OCD with their families, specifically their parents. This is not surprising as many people with OCD are embarrassed by their obsessions and compulsions. They are rational people being controlled by an irrational disorder, and those with OCD are typically fully aware of this paradox. They know they are thinking and acting in ways that make no sense, but they cannot stop themselves. There are other reasons why those with OCD might be reluctant to share details of their disorder. Perhaps they feel as if family members are just too close for comfort or can’t understand what they are going through. Many people with OCD say their parents minimize their suffering with comments such as, “Oh, I do that too,” or “It’s no big deal, you’ll be fine.” Whether these reactions stem from denial, guilt, ignorance, or a misguided attempt to make their loved one feel better, it doesn’t matter. This lack of proper support can be devastating for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
As is the case with many illnesses or disorders, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder seem to benefit from interaction with others who can truly understand what they are going through: fellow sufferers. So while those with OCD might not readily confide in family members, they can get encouragement from those who can relate on a different level. Social media sites, conferences and support groups for those with OCD are widespread and these are just some examples of available support. But this does not mean there is no role for loved ones in the fight against OCD. Learning how to respond to family members with OCD and how to act appropriately without enabling can be paramount to recovery. And maybe what those with OCD really need most from their families is what each and every one of us needs and deserves: acceptance, understanding, and love.