Having stuttered all my life, I listened to every sound my three boys uttered even in their toddler years when halting speech was to be expected. Today, my sons range in age from 12 to 19 and, oh, can they talk! Not a hesitation to be heard. My ears, however, could not warn me about a far more menacing trait that lies in my genes that I prayed would leave them in peace.
For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. No, not the stuff of misguided TV shows and casual conversation that gives the idea that having OCD is just being a neat freak, pack rat or germophobe.
OCD is, instead, a seriously life-limiting, soul-sucking mental illness that infects every word, every decision and every relationship and steals so much personal peace. Inside, a battle rages against unwanted thoughts and fears that flourish uncontrollably and dominate one’s existence.
Cleansing rituals and any of a host of compulsive behaviors develop as misguided efforts to counter and dismiss the fearful thoughts. The habit of checking and rechecking is to make sure certain bad imaginings haven’t or cannot come true. But these rituals lose their potency and require a greater and greater degree of involvement in order to give a moment’s relief.
People who deal with OCD hide these habits hoping to seem normal. Knowing this terror is irrational doesn’t help loosen its grip on one’s mind. Others have OCD that is purely obsessional and plays out endlessly in the mind without ritual or relief. Fears of hurting others range from catching and spreading unseen germs to committing a moral wrong. Was that a pothole I hit or someone I didn’t see? Was that road turn OK? Did I say anything wrong in an endless replay of conversations? Is the 2x6 board I reshelved at the building supply store going to fall and hurt someone? The variety of fears and behaviors possible is as infinite as the accompanying compulsion to go back and make sure, make it right and double check, double check, double check.
So is the list of naïve labels that can be put on a child dealing with such a battle: Worrywart, daydreamer, tardy, distracted, underachiever, troubled and sad are a few. For a kid with OCD, the support that would naturally and automatically be extended to relieve poison ivy, heal a broken bone or improve defective speech simply cannot come to one hiding the disquieting face of his problem.
Seventeen years ago, at age 45, I decided to get help. I was the father of a newborn who needed my undiluted focus rather than my distractions of ritual, fear and worry. I was holding public office as state Labor commissioner. Hoping to avoid any stigma, I crept with head down through a men’s room entrance to arrive at my first appointment with a psychiatrist. Getting help was the right thing to do. The medications and techniques I have employed have worked well, and I have a degree of peace that I could not have imagined. I so regret the time and relationships lost in earlier years.
I could always see the presence of the OCD vine in my family tree, which helped me understand the lives and personalities of several of my loved ones, including my novelist sister Peggy Payne. But when it grew across the generational line and touched children, I lost any excuse for silence. Regardless of my discomfort in sharing my story, I am truly broken if I cannot shine a light in quiet corners where help is needed.
One of my sons was inspired by the courage of a relative who in elementary school was daily battling demons that sat with him and made him fear, worry and withdraw. The sparkle was leaving the bright eyes of a child my son said “did ‘cute’ better than any kid alive.”
Every desk or table surface had become for this child an untouchable springboard of contagion and every water fountain a death trap.
Interactions with others caused fear and doubt that required continual review and apology until momentary relief was found in parental reassurance on the way home from school. He was phobic about his parents dying and desperately warned them of dangers. The worst monsters he could imagine were alive in his waking thoughts and sapping his childhood, joy and education.
My son started an effort he called “Boss It Back” after the mantra that a Duke psychologist used to help focus our loved one to desensitize him to unwanted thoughts and fears. He gave talks to classes and groups to raise awareness about such problems and solutions.
These sessions often resulted in teachers and students quietly and sometimes tearfully sharing a revelation about a loved one.
The result of therapy and focus is that the young man now finds few fears in the ordinary and knows how to fight when a day’s difficulties, hormones, fatigue or the insecurities of adolescence taunt him to follow a darker path.
We must look quickly and closely at the kid who drifts, withdraws, acts out or begins to slip in smile or grade. Help is available, but too many are unaware. So much better to “Boss It Back” when young. We have much to do because now there is much that can be done.
Harry Payne, a Raleigh attorney, is a former commissioner of the N.C. Department of Labor and former chairman of the Employment Security Commission.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce anxiety (obsessions), repetitive behaviors that are engaged in to reduce anxiety (compulsions), or a combination of both. While many are concerned about germs or leaving their stoves on, people with OCD are unable to control their anxiety-producing thoughts and their need to engage in ritualized behaviors. As a result, OCD can have a tremendous negative impact on people’s day-to-day functioning. About 1 percent of U.S. adults have OCD, with half of the cases categorized as severe.
Boss It Back
Questions about the program can be sent by email in confidence to bossitbackNC@gmail.com