Parenting with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): My Story

Oct 25, 2013 by

photo credit: M. Dunn

photo credit: M. Dunn

Over time, you come to realize certain things about yourself that have always made themselves known, but never had a name. I knew there was something wrong with me when, as a child, I had to spit out the food I was chewing and look at it. I was probably around 9 or 10 years old. My older sister’s boyfriend noticed it, and mentioned it out loud one day at dinner. Somehow, the topic was just dropped and never came up again. I dropped the habit sometime after that.

But then, when I was around the age of 13, I picked up a new ritual: picking through garbage. It started with the small plastic bin in my room, which my dad would ordinarily dump into the kitchen garbage and then haul out to the curb once a week. I needed to know what sorts of shapes and sizes of objects were sitting in there: a crumpled sticky note with a phone number, a broken pencil, a week-old tissue. I needed to scan the digits of that phone number as if I would be asked to recall it at a later date, with dire consequences if I was unable to. My logical self told me that this was not only ridiculous, but probably close to impossible; I would not need that number for anything (it wasn’t even my sticky note!), and I was going to forget the sequence of digits as soon as the note went back in the trash. But my emotional self told me that it was not only important, but necessary, that I read that number. My emotional self wanted me to pick up the broken pencil too, and count how many items were in the wastebasket at the time the trash was consolidated and moved out to the bin on the street. I tried to reconcile the two sides of myself: the normal, rational side, who told me I was being crazy, and the fear-struck, paranoid self who told me to do these strange rituals and obsess over things that just needed to be done … just in case.

And that’s when I started hoarding garbage.

Contrary to popular belief, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder isn’t usually about being a “neat freak,” or having personal preferences in terms of the way you arrange your furniture. If you can’t stand pens with blue ink, or need to move the mouse to get rid of your screensaver while you take a break from your computer, but these habits don’t otherwise impact your quality of life, then you probably don’t have OCD.

If, however, you can’t shake the feeling that someone is going to die if you don’t save a piece of trash—or alternatively, if you flip the light switch on, then off, then on again, because this strange ritual is the only way you can empty your brain of the vision of your best friend getting in a car crash—then you may be obsessive-compulsive. The hallmark of the disorder is that you know what you are doing is a silly ritual that has no actual impact on yourself or others, beyond making you feel ridiculous—and that feeling causes quite a bit of shame and upset. But you can’t stop doing the behavior or ritual, because it brings you comfort. You know it’s irrational, and you’re not delusional, but the rituals can be the only way to feel “right” and at ease about the world.

I didn’t understand that I had OCD until sometime in college, when I first heard the symptoms described by another person and the lightbulb went off. It was a watershed moment. My parents had long found out about my garbage hoarding, because they had caught me going through the trash in the middle of the night out on the curb when I was around 14. I remember walking into the house and being questioned about my behavior. I remember how incredibly relieved I was, because now someone else could see that I wasn’t normal. I wanted to get help, wanted the bizarre rituals and obsession with holding on to useless stuff to be over. But until I was caught, I didn’t feel like I could stop the behavior on my own, as ridiculous as that sounds now. Until I learned that I was acting abnormally, I thought the hoarding and its impact on my life was my burden alone to bear.

Any psychologist or doctor reading this will now give me a tsk tsk, because here is where I tell you that I never sought treatment or even a formal diagnosis for my behavior. In a way, I’m one of the lucky ones, because I sort of outgrew the worst of the symptoms. This must have been a relief to my parents, because we didn’t have health insurance for most of my childhood, and they never did take me to a doctor, even after catching me in the trash. When I was older, and realized that my bizarre behavior was something that others could see me do and question, I learned to stifle the urge to flick the lights and hold onto scratch pieces of paper and other meaningless items. I would tell myself how ridiculous it was to believe that someone was going to die if I tossed a bent paper clip into the wastebasket. I started to ask myself whether I honestly believed that little old me held that much power over the universe. I began to trust that good and bad things sometimes just happened, and that the weight of the world was not on my shoulders.

I later learned that by asking what was really the worst that could happen, I was doing something similar to what is known as cognitive behavioral therapy: learning to use logical thinking to overcome emotional irrationality, by thinking through to what would actually happen if I did or did not do something, and how bad would it actually be (not that bad). I wouldn’t cause a car accident by throwing out those plastic rings that go on top of soda six-packs. I might, however, cause seagulls to get their heads caught inside of them. I snipped apart the plastic rings with scissors. I felt better.

I am a lot better these days, and I function beautifully in the normal adult world of work and socializing and everything else. But I’m not sure OCD is ever cured or gone, forever. When I had a newborn baby, I remember the surges of fear rising up again. Every so often, I would imagine some kind of disaster befalling my baby. I remember reading that these disturbing, protruding thoughts are common, and can be linked with post partum depression and anxiety. In a way, I found that comforting. I’m not the only one, and now, I have an excuse other than just being a weirdo, I thought. I realized that the scary images of bad things happening were a byproduct of my intense desire to protect my baby. Slowly, the images faded away, and I could celebrate and enjoy being a new mom.

I have a new fear now, and I’m not certain how rational or irrational it may be: I am afraid of my daughters inheriting my tendencies toward OCD and suffering in silence, like I did. Or alternatively, maybe I’m so worried they will have it that I will “see” it when it doesn’t actually exist in them. The other day, my older daughter started freaking out about the way her skin felt. My mind went to that place and thought, oh no. But then, she’s three. A three-year-old’s world is full of all kinds of bothersome things that make them act irrationally and sensitively, from an adult perspective. I need to give her time. With any luck, she will be absolutely ok. And if she needs help, I now know where to turn.

Looking over this post, I can’t say I feel better for having written it. I talk about this part of my history so infrequently, and I realize now that there is probably good reason for it: as accepted and common as it is now to talk more openly about mental health and anxiety disorders, it remains a shameful and stigmatizing issue. I’m writing this out because I hope that others out there, particularly mothers whose OCD tendencies may run to their feelings toward their children, can learn that they are not alone if they suffer from this or other anxiety disorders, and that they can overcome the worst of its limitations. It is always going to feel weird, but it doesn’t have to be so hard.


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Melanie Dunn tries her best to raise a family and nurture a marriage while working as a special education attorney, representing parents of children with disabilities. Her two daughters, a preschooler and a toddler, were born at home two years apart, and breastfed into toddlerhood. She is a mompreneur who loves discussing the intersection of the practice of law with the practice of parenting. Melanie also geeks out over difficult questions of gender roles, employment discrimination, and the challenges faced by parents in the workplace and in the public schools. She is a crunchy mom advocate for attachment parenting who nonetheless dresses up for work everyday.
  • bernhardsonbunch

    This was fantastic. Thank you for putting this out there and talking about it. I’m glad to know you’re coping with it and doing well. I’m a firm believer in the need for more people to talk about mental health just as we talk about physical health to end the stigma that surrounds it! Thank you for doing so.

    • Melanie

      File this post under stuff I have typed out and almost deleted … but I did want to talk about it, because I feel that it’s important to do so.

  • Michelle

    Oh my god Melanie I so admire your bravery in sharing this. I KNOW this is going to mean so much to other moms who struggle with OCD too. I’m having a hard time even putting words to how this post made me feel. I am in awe of your courage. While I completely understand why you would be afraid of your girls developing OCD too, they are so lucky to have you as their mom who will never judge them and will be there for them no matter what. Thank you.

    • bernhardsonbunch

      And, they are lucky to have a mom who has been there herself and can respond as such! Great points, Michelle.

      • Melanie

        Thanks <3

    • Melanie

      Michelle, I really appreciate the supportive comment. I legit froze up with tears in the middle of writing this, which is truly unusual for me. After I published it, I did a Google search and found on the first page only one article, by someone in the HuffPo, on this topic, with a slightly different take. I was actually surprised.

      From time to time, I will read or hear a woman express her hesitation to even get pregnant, at all, due to childhood struggles with depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, citing their fear of passing on these conditions as a reason not to have kids. It is my hope that no one who truly wants children subordinates this desire to these kinds of fears. With a willingness to access the right services and be there every step of the way, it’s totally worth it to have the kids you want and trust that they will be strong enough to lead successful and fulfilling lives with or without a mental or physical disablity.

  • Randi

    This was a wonderful post: confessional and informative at the same time! As I read it, I realized the OCD behavior is not that different from the self-medicating behavior in which many other people indulge (i.e., substances). You were simply trying to make yourself calm down and make the bad stuff go away. The anxiety hurts, and there is nothing inherently wrong with the attempts to make it stop.

    It’s a missing chemical in the brain, goddamn it, not the Black Plague. I am sad that you couldn’t get treatment when you were younger, and that you had to overcome it through sheer will. That is an amazing accomplishment, but it could have been easier for you with the right treatment.

    As the discussion continues about who should be banned from having guns, and “people with mental illness” are first on the list, I worry that people with fixable problems like OCD will avoid treatment for fear it will keep them on some sort of terrible roster of people whose rights must be constrained. I think NO ONE should be able to have guns, personally, but I really am concerned about this demonizing of people with anxiety or depression who have sought help. No, better we should let the UNTREATED people have guns. It’s very counterintuitive. But I digress.

    Thanks for helping to spread understanding about anxiety and OCD. You’re a hero in my book.

    • Melanie

      Aw thanks! I think parents are more aware of this stuff today and would be less likely to just “let it go” or hope the kid grows out of it. With that said, there are still so many families without access to mental health services or health care in general. I think my parents were just bewildered and edited that period of my life out of their memory; in fact, I think they vaguely recall me being overly sentimental and attached to old toys, books, etc., when in reality, that had nothing to do with it. After all, the things I held onto were scraps of paper and everyday office supply items. I even remember a candy bar wrapper that I had trouble putting in the trash and walking away from. It is so hard for busy and stressed parents to keep an eagle eye on this stuff happening in the home, and I don’t blame my parents for not seeing the problem. I also have a career that gives me a heightened awareness of this stuff, working with kids with anxiety disorders among other types of disabilities … and as you know, parents of special needs kids today are more aware of their rights and more likely to speak up and advocate for their children.

  • Cora

    Bravo! I applaud your efforts to share your story. Their is power in your words for you and others. As a mental health provider I appreciate your ability to share your story. The more people share the more the shroud of shame will come down.

    • Melanie

      I love mental health providers, even though I so rarely avail myself of their services! I still wonder why I didn’t pursue psychology or social work sometimes.

  • Sharlene

    I will merely echo Cora. How our minds, fears, anxieties impact us is difficult enough, but the shame can be downright paralyzing. Thank you for your courage! There is so very much we fear we will pass on to our children. There’s no shame in wanting to protect our kids from heart disease, yet the courage to talk about this is different. Thanks for doing it.

    • Melanie

      Thank you Sharlene. I have been giving more thought to the idea that this stuff can get passed down through the generations, and wondering if there may be a root to all of this that I have just never uncovered. I have autoimmune issues as well, and it’s likely that older family members share them with me, but they may have never known it. I know I should try harder to uncover my family’s medical history for the sake of my kids, but it’s one of those tasks sitting on a never-ending to do list.

  • melissamuszynski

    You are an amazing person, mother and writer! Thanks for being so honest, lets break the silence…one post at at time xo

    • Melanie

      Right on! Thanks.

  • Jenn

    What an amazing post. Thank you for sharing. Your girls are lucky to have you!

    • Melanie

      Thank you Jenn!

  • Janet (ocdtalk)

    Thank you for this wonderful post, and for sharing your story. You truly are one of the lucky ones because you were able to gain control over your OCD without professional help before it took on a life of its own. I would just like to add, however, that even severe OCD is treatable, My son had OCD so intense he could not even eat or function, but the front line treatment for the disorder, Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, saved his life. Today he is a 24 year old who is living life to the fullest. The other thing I’d like to add is that while those with OCD typically are not delusional, as you say, it is possible to somewhat lose touch with reality when dealing with severe OCD. The new definition of OCD in the DSM V has been changed to reflect this fact. I talk about anything and everything to do with OCD on my blog and want everyone to know there is so much hope for those who suffer from this insidious disorder.

    • Melanie

      Thanks for this info Janet. I’m so glad your son is living life to the fullest! I know that OCPD is different from OCD, but I hadn’t heard of the new OCD definition in the updated DSM. I will definitely check out your blog!

  • Kate Street

    Melanie, you’re a rock-star for being so brave and vulnerable in this post! I loved you before and now I love you even more! ♥

    • Melanie

      Thanks so much Kate! :)

  • International OCD Foundation

    What a great post, Melanie. Thank you for sharing.

    • Melanie

      Thank you!

  • Amanda Steyer

    Thank you for this post. I’m a mom of five with OCD. I believe my youngest also has OCD tendencies. The more stressed I am, the more paralyzing my OCD can become. Like you, I’ve never received formal therapy for it, but have seen vast improvement in adulthood. I refer to my OCD fairly often, but don’t really TALK about it and its impact on my life much.

    • Melanie

      Amanda, thanks so much for coming on here to comment, it means a lot to me. I don’t really talk about it either, and it felt seriously weird just writing all of this out. I also didn’t understand for many years that OCD is a form of anxiety disorder. Putting it in perspective that way, it makes a lot more sense.

  • Kelly M.

    Your post was so great Melanie. Thank you for sharing it. I too suffer from a lot of similar issues (even the autoimmune!), so much so like you said I struggle with passing on certain traits. It causes me a lot of stress, and obviously having worked in the same field as you at one point I see how hard it can be. But I also know what great resources there are out there today (Hi Cora!) and that is a big comfort. I applaud you for bringing this out for discussion, well done!

    • Melanie

      Hi Kelly, thanks for commenting! Yes absolutely, working in this field has contributed to my awareness of the situation and how broad its impact can be. In a way it is helpful to put it in a greater context, so long as I don’t get caught up in wanting to label every action and behavior as a variant of one disability or another. I am glad we can have this conversation though!

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