About a year and a half ago, my youngest was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s not your garden variety OCD: no hand-washing, door-checking, thing-counting. In fact, because a year of therapy has had little effect on her symptoms, she just went in for some more extensive testing to confirm that the diagnosis is accurate. But all the mental health professionals she’s worked with seem to feel that’s a good name for what she’s experiencing, and it rings true to her.
It’s been a very interesting eighteen months learning how my daughter’s brain works. Essentially, the best we’ve figured out is, she is unable to make small decisions. Big decisions are not so much of a problem – where to go to college, what to major in . . . she’s confident on that.
But what to wear this morning . . . what to eat for breakfast . . . whether to eat breakfast . . . how much to eat for breakfast . . . how long to watch TV . . . whether to check the notifications on her phone . . . whether to answer that text . . . when to answer that text . . . how long to exercise . . . it’s 9am and I’m home all day today and there are fifty things I could do and ultimately need to do sometime (shower, school, walk dog, pray, sleep, laundry, clean, exercise, etc. etc.) so which of those fifty do I choose to do right at this moment . . . those decisions stymie her.
In the past, she dealt with this by setting up systems for herself. And frankly, she probably learned that behavior from me because that’s how I approach my daily tasks. But the systems became more and more complicated, and more and more rigid, and ultimately more and more illogical to the point where she is afraid to go that direction again for fear of enslaving herself once more with her own self-built structures.
So now, her go-to solution is to do what certain people tell her to do. But that, obviously, has its drawbacks. For one thing, anything I tell her to do now becomes a compulsion itself. I told her once to finish her biology worksheets, and in the next 36 hours (before I realized it), she completed two months’ worth of biology. The poor thing feels like she’s living out the “Ella Enchanted” story sometimes.
At the heart of this, it seems now, is the need for her to figure out how to narrow down choices and choose. It doesn’t sound difficult, does it? Do what you need to do first; then do what you want to do. But how do you know what you really need to do versus what you just think you need to do, or what someone else is trying to convince you that you need to do? And how do you know what you want to do?
That one made me do a double-take. She has relied on systems for her decision-making for so long that she does not even know what she wants. And when she does know what she wants, she can’t determine if she should feel free to do what she wants or if she should do the things she feels like she should do – because she’s not always sure if that is actually something she should do or just something she thinks she should do.
You see why our heads are spinning.
I’ve always said that our biggest faults are usually the flip sides of our greatest strengths. I think that principle applies here. She has been able to accomplish tremendous things in the past that we now realize were the result of this “disorder”. There’s an amazing strength of will underlying all this that I’d love to see her harness.
In one therapy session, her counselor gave her a bunch of small figurines and asked her to create a picture that represented her OCD. She put herself on one side of a bridge with a giant moose standing in the middle of the bridge, preventing her from crossing. I told her that my hope for her is not just that she get the moose out of the way, but that she saddle that moose and make it carry her across.
We just need someone to show her how to become master of the moose.