I was an anxious child. The night before the first day of elementary school each year, I would sleep on top of my already made bed instead of getting under the covers. That way I wouldn’t have to make my bed in the morning and there would be less chance of me being late for school (I never was). What makes this behavior even more ridiculous is the fact that my home actually abutted the school.
If my parents went out for the evening, I would often feel intense anxiety, which usually manifested as a stomach ache, until they returned home. It didn’t matter if my older brother was home, if we had a babysitter, or if I was home by myself. Everyone thought I was afraid to be home without my parents, but what I was actually worried about was something bad happening to them (car crash, perhaps?) while they were out together, and I would then be left an orphan.
So the anxiety and even possibly obsessions were there. Thinking back, I remember often cleaning up our apartment while my parents were out. But I don’t think it was a compulsion, as I never felt I had to clean. It was just something else for me to focus on — a way to keep the anxiety from overtaking me — and I always got a big thank you from my mom when she and my dad returned home. They had no idea I cleaned to keep my anxiety at bay.
While I was “thinking back” I also remembered something I hadn’t thought of in almost fifty years. For a time, when I walked up the staircase that led to our apartment, I felt the need to touch a specific spot on the banister. I have no recollection as to how long this went on for. It could have been anywhere from a few times to several months to maybe a year. I have one specific memory of feeling uneasy because I wasn’t sure if I had touched the banister “correctly.” I also remember toying with the idea of going back downstairs and touching it again, but I honestly don’t remember if I did. I am guessing I was about nine years old at the time.
Sure sounds like “beginning OCD,” wouldn’t you say? But that’s as far as it ever went. Instead of developing more obsessions and compulsions, the ones I had actually fizzled out. Don’t get me wrong; I still had my fair share of anxiety. But my obsessive-compulsive tendencies disappeared. Why? My son has OCD. Why don’t I?
Recent research has identified a genetic link to obsessive-compulsive disorder and my guess is I have a genetic predisposition for OCD. Still I never developed the disorder. It is also known that the brain networks of those with OCD often operate differently from the general population. One particular study done at the University of Cambridge expanded to include family members:
Scientists have discovered that people with OCD and their close family members show under-activation of brain areas responsible for stopping habitual behavior.
So why do some of these family members develop OCD and some don’t? While I don’t think anyone has the answers to these questions just yet, I believe researchers and scientists are getting closer. Closer to the answers that just might enlighten us enough to better prevent, fight, or even one day cure obsessive-compulsive disorder.