My Son Is My Best Reason Yet to Learn to Limit My OCD Behaviors

Obsessive compulsive disorder may have a genetic link (research indicates it runs in families), but it may also be tied to environmental factors. That's why one local dad is learning to limit his OCD behaviors. Read on for his story.

I did not hit the genetic lottery. Depression, anxiety, and addiction run in my family, and in early adulthood I battled all three.

Fortunately, a combination of psychiatry, medication, and Alcoholics Anonymous have made my 30s far better than my 20s. I got well—or at least well enough—just in time to salvage my marriage and become a father.

Now, as my toddler marches steadily toward constant cognizance—into remembering and mimicking his parents’ mannerisms—I feel urgency to address another diagnosis, one less dangerous but nonetheless a source of angst and alienation.

I want to overcome my obsessive-compulsive disorder—before it affects my son.

At its root, OCD is a fear-based mental illness. It involves counterproductive efforts to maintain a sense of safety when feeling threatened or at risk. A telltale peculiarity is the actions taken to offset these uneasy feelings are completely unassociated with the perceived threats. For example, my OCD might compel me to mitigate fear of failing at work by adjusting a framed photo in the bedroom.

Thus commences a cycle where, contrary to intentions, the safety-seeking actions actually lead to worsening anxiety. It’s the feeling of hopelessness attached to knowing that what you’re doing is patently illogical…and being incapable of doing anything about it.

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Though no specific gene has been pinpointed, research indicates OCD runs in families. Those with a parent or sibling with OCD have a higher risk of developing it. Experts also believe environmental factors can cause OCD tendencies to develop—a “monkey see, monkey do” effect.

In other words, the more my son, Nicholas, sees my OCD-mandated movements, the more likely he is to develop his own.

I got off lightly compared to many others with OCD, as my obsessive thoughts and routines aren’t extreme or dangerous. I’m compelled to rigidly arrange my shoes, and often fail to flick a light switch per my compulsion’s inexplicable ideal, leading to multiple repeats. I do this pinching thing with my hands (the pressure quells my OCD), and, stereotypically, I’m uneasy stepping on sidewalk cracks.

I also fight the urge to grind my teeth—often unsuccessfully, considering my dental records. These bodily compulsions are particularly burdensome since, unlike shoes and light switches, I can’t just walk away from my teeth. Constant triggers require constant vigilance.

And though it hasn’t impacted my career, relationships, or other big-ticket items, my OCD is still a significant source of alienation, humiliation, and stress. Despite this, I’ve never hit an “immediate pain vs. long-term reward” ratio sufficient to commit myself to truly overcoming my OCD.

Until now. Until Nicholas.

If Nicholas develops OCD via overwhelming genetics, so be it. But if nurture plays a determining role, it’s my responsibility to prevent my son from following in my pavement crack-averse footsteps.

From a parenting perspective, this dilemma’s simplicity is refreshing. Even at age 2, raising Nicholas presents a spectrum of gray areas. Is he eating enough? Learning enough? Interacting enough? Answers typically fall into the “probably,” “I think so,” or “I have no idea” columns. Clear-cut cases of yes and no are elusive.

Not so with this issue. It’s a must-do.

In spite—or perhaps because—of this, the execution is exceptionally intimidating. So are the stakes: There is absolutely nothing in which I am more invested than my only child. For his sake, I simply cannot fail at this, and that fact is overwhelming.

Sometimes I watch him at play—a carefree mind concocting universes where roaring dinosaurs and anthropomorphized trains coexist—and can’t imagine burdening that innocence with my compulsions. That my failing is even a possibility brings deep shame, and I feel guilty even though the jury is still out.

The disorder’s volatility adds even more pressure. My OCD is relatively minor, but those who are not as lucky as I am can be hindered or even debilitated by it. What if Nicholas not only gets it from me, but gets it worse than me?

It is with this tenuous poker hand—these imperfect cards, these unknowable variables and outcomes—that I simply have to go all in. I do this by default, as neither standing pat nor folding are viable options.

My path to success is straight but uphill: Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most proven way to overcome mild-to-moderate OCD such as mine. The specific therapy is astoundingly simple, yet exceedingly difficult: exposure and response prevention, which is clinical speak for facing my triggers without acting on my fear-based physical impulses.

Apparently, there’s a catch phrase to this: “Better sane than safe.” The fact that such a phrase exists is, well, kind of insane.

Nevertheless, here we go. The shoe rack is about to get less tidy, the light fixtures less flickered, my teeth less clenched (and hopefully less sore).

Wish me luck. It’ll be a tough road. Thankfully my son—my ultimate motivator—is riding shotgun.

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