This is part two of my friend’s experience with OCD.
I was living hundreds of miles away from my hometown. From my parents. From everything I was used to. I had a new baby girl and a three year old son that I devoted myself to every day. The early years of motherhood are usually marked with sleep deprivation, questions about proper parenting technique, constant well-child visits, and trying to find balance between all of the roles we, as parents, have taken on.
For me, however, these years were marked with an extra balancing act- how to deal with my new diagnosis as a woman living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, otherwise known as OCD. I knew by this point that I wasn’t an evil person with harmful thoughts, but I had no idea what was an obsession and what was a perfectly normal way for a mother to protect herself and her family. My first therapist was a wonderful therapist, but she was more effective at listening to my struggles than in offering suggestions to combat my OCD.
Unfortunately, my illness had impacted my marriage for quite a long time, even before I had children. My husband is a very patient man and a good man. He had put up with my illness from the beginning, but it was taking its toll. We sought out marriage therapy through our church’s counseling services.
I mentioned to our therapist my struggles with OCD and how I was unsure if they played into our lack of marital bliss. The therapist strongly suggested that I set up an appointment with his colleague at the college he taught at. This colleague had clients fly in from across the country to see him. He was considered an OCD specialist and had studied with founders of the OCD Institute. I was blessed enough to be within driving distance.
With a lot of thought and some pushing from my husband and our marital therapist, I started exposure therapy with the OCD specialist. That is when my life began to change for the better.
The idea behind Exposure Therapy is that the more you are exposed to what you fear, the less power the fear has. The process is called “habituation”- you grow more comfortable over time. I was to show my OCD that these fears were not going to happen. Furthermore, I was to refrain from doing my compulsions to help ease those fears.
For example, one of my obsessions dealt with using sharp objects around my small children. My OCD would say “What if you lost control and harmed your children?” With my therapist, we decided on the following exposure: I would hold a knife every single day for a certain number of minutes. Standing near my children with the knife was too scary to begin with, so I stood near my husband, holding the knife for the number of required minutes.
My husband thought this exposure was hilarious and didn’t feel threatened at all. He also took his additional homework from the therapist very seriously. To deal with my obsession of intruders, I was forbidden to lock up the house at night. My husband was the only one who could lock up at night. To make matters worse, he was encouraged to only half lock a door or to intentionally not lock up sometimes. I would stand two feet away from the front door every night, petrified, as I noticed the doors were not locked, nor were they likely to be locked. My husband would quietly chuckle as he urged me to go upstairs and sleep. Part of me knew that my objections were not rational, but I would often lie in bed, fighting the urge to go down and lock those doors myself!
For me, one of the reasons exposure therapy was effective was because it came with a sense of accountability. I faithfully recorded the level of fear the exposure had produced every night. I would report my levels every meeting with the OCD specialist. Without his assistance, the therapy would not have worked for me. I needed his checking-up on me and his guidance in creating exposures.
Over time, the smaller fears were gone. I could chop items for dinner near my children. I no longer booby-trapped the home or walked through a lock-up routine twelve times. I was able to start working through stronger obsessions. I grew stronger every day.
I stopped seeing my OCD specialist after two years, right before we moved back to my home state. Though my OCD was much, much better, it was still not completely gone. At the end of “A Beautiful Mind”, John Nash knows which characters are created by his mental illness, but they still walk alongside him, silently pleading to be acknowledged. So it was with my OCD. A thought would make me nervous, and I would start contemplating a compulsion to temporarily “solve” this fear.
But then I would walk myself through this new thought. Is this me talking, or is this OCD talking? It took a long, long time to make this distinction. It was not always clear either. Especially as a mother, who is always concerned about her children.
Life has gone on. I have two more wonderful children. My marriage survived, though we had to go through therapy again. Today, I do not struggle with OCD. You can attribute this to different things, such as the fact I no longer have pregnancy hormones, the successful completion of exposure therapy with a qualified specialist, or to religion, to which I owe a lot of my recovery. I don’t know why this trial has been taken from me, though I am extremely grateful. But, knowing that this disorder is genetic has me watching my children carefully. I hope that they will not suffer as I did.