By Janet Singer
When discussing the causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the general consensus is that a combination of genetic and environmental factors likely leads to its development. There’s talk of genetic predisposition, triggering events and childhood trauma.
Oh, how that last one makes me cringe, and regardless of whether it’s my imagination, I’ve often felt I was being judged as a parent. The stigma I have dealt with personally has more to do with “What kind of parent are you?” than “Your child has a mental illness.”
So, of course, it makes me think. What kind of parent am I? Did I, or my husband, traumatize our son Dan and contribute to the development of his OCD? Well, I really don’t know. I’m certain that Dan grew up in a safe and loving home. But we’re not perfect. Was I less than patient when “forcing” toilet training on him as his fourth birthday fast approached? Yes. Should I have paid more attention to him when we were focused on dealing with his sister’s serious illness? Probably.
While childhood trauma is sometimes unavoidable (the sudden death of a loved one, for example), I think the way it is dealt with can either minimize the trauma or exacerbate it. Should I have been calmer and cooler at times? Sure. In hindsight, there are definitely things I could have done better. There are always things I, or any parent, could have done better. Would it have mattered?
I don’t know. I’ve often wondered whether the appearance of one’s OCD can be traced back to one traumatic event. Even though every health care professional I have ever asked has said “No,” I do think there was one incident that jump-started Dan’s OCD.
When he was 12 years old, he and his good friend were horsing around at our house. Dan was twirling around while holding his clarinet. The mouthpiece of the clarinet flew off, hit his friend Connor near the eye, and proceeded to leave a one-inch vertical gash on Connor’s face.
It was a freak accident with a good deal of blood. Dan came running to me, yelling hysterically, “Connor’s eye is bleeding.” Luckily it was Connor’s face, not his eye, and all was easily taken care of with a few stitches. Connor was as calm and forgiving as could be (as was his mother, thankfully), but for Dan, the thought that his actions had caused injury to his good friend was too much to bear.
Right after it happened, he spent hours sitting inside his closet, refusing to come out. Of course we all told him we knew it was an accident, and he even wrote an apology note to Connor. Everyone else forgot about the incident as quickly as it happened, but I suspect it festered in Dan’s mind.
Now, I know this accident didn’t cause Dan’s OCD, and it was likely to appear sooner or later. But maybe this event made it sooner. Perhaps it was like the perfect storm — everything was in the right place at the right time to kickstart the OCD.
However, when talking about OCD and trauma, I believe in Dan’s case, the trauma he endured after his diagnosis outweighs any he withstood earlier. He was traumatized by improper treatment, and was wrongly and overly medicated. Physical and mental side effects were not only upsetting, they were downright dangerous.
And that “What kind of parent are you?” judgment I’ve felt at times? It saddens me to say I’ve encountered this scrutiny at the hands of some mental health professionals. The ones we turned to for help. I know the training that many of these professionals received, in the not-so-distant past, placed the roots of OCD in poor parenting. Thankfully, the relatively recent strides in research and imaging point to the fact that OCD is an organic brain disease.
Still, the stigma lives on. While never for a moment did I let my fear of being judged interfere with my mission of getting help for Dan, it is possible this fear might deter others. The focus for mental health professionals, indeed for all of us, needs not to be on where OCD comes from, or whose “fault” it is, but how it can best be obliterated. No stigma, no judgment, no trauma. Just understanding, respect, and proper treatment.