There is no question the stigma of mental illness is alive and well, even as many of us work tirelessly to eradicate it. Sharing our stories and being candid about our mental health issues both go a long way toward changing many preconceived notions regarding various illnesses.
But sharing isn’t always easy for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (or any other brain disorder for that matter). It’s a catch-22 situation: We can reduce stigma by sharing, but it’s hard to share because of the stigma. While there are those with OCD who are very open about their struggles, there are also people who do whatever they can to hide their pain. Many others fall somewhere in between.
When I was a teenager, there was a woman who used to wander the streets of our neighborhood, talking and mumbling to herself. She had long gray unkempt hair, and always seemed confused and disoriented. There were all kinds of rumors circulating about her, but the story that stuck in my mind is that she was kept in the basement of her home and tortured as a child. In summary – her parents made her that way.
Fast forward thirty plus years, and I am now the parent of a son with obsessive-compulsive disorder. While intellectually I know I didn’t “make him that way,” I sometimes wonder if I should have done this instead of that, perhaps reacted to a particular situation differently, or been stricter or more lenient. The truth is that the cause(s) of OCD are not clear-cut, and seem to involve a host of factors, both environmental and genetic. Maybe the way I raised my son was wrong? Maybe, to some degree, I am to blame for his having OCD?
Of course this type of reasoning discourages families, in particular parents, from sharing. If you feel your child’s illness is your fault, or if you believe others will assume you are a bad parent, you’re not going to be too eager to tell your story. What if your child’s health care provider is critical of you? What if he or she blames you outright for your child’s illness?
Of course any thinking that begins with “what if” is unlikely to be productive, and those with OCD are experts at this game. For this reason, it is not unusual for those with the disorder to place blame on themselves. “I should have realized what was going on and sought help sooner,” “I can’t believe I let OCD steal so much of my life,” or “If I worked harder in treatment, I’d be in a better place by now,” are all examples of what those with OCD might think.
Blaming solves nothing. I try to remind myself that in raising my son, every action or inaction I ever took was done out of love. Did I make mistakes? Well, I’m human, so I’m sure I did. But I now try not to dwell on doubts and insecurities. The best I can do at this point is to have open and honest communication with my son, learn from my mistakes, and keep trying to be the best parent I can be. Time and energy used to assign blame can be better expended on continuing to fight the stigma surrounding OCD and advocating for my son and others with the disorder.