Over the seven years that have passed by since I was originally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I have had some wonderful friends and family who have been amazing people to turn to when I am struggling. I have had other friends, who although well-intentioned and very caring people, ended up doing more damage than good. I know to a non-sufferer, OCD can seem like a strange illness and it can often be frustrating feeling like you can’t “fix” your loved one. But, my hope is that by writing about my own experiences, it will be easier for non-sufferers to be the resources and strength that their friend/loved one needs.
When someone first confesses that he or she has OCD, your first impulse might be one of shock, curiosity or perhaps even awkwardness. Although it might be hard at the time, remembering these simple tips will make the process easier for you both.
• DO listen: when I first started being open with my family and friends about what was really going on, I had so many bottled up feelings inside that had been waiting for years to be released. I know that initially I probably rambled on and on, but it was invaluable to know that my loved ones were there, willing to listen. Oftentimes, I just wanted to get my story out, to put it out in the open, and like ripping off a band-aid, it was the easiest for me to just lay it all out there with one fell swoop.
• DO be willing to give hugs but wait for cues from your loved one: sometimes what I really needed was a hug, just that feeling that I wasn’t alone facing this monster in my head. But, at different points, come of my obsessions and compulsions made me uncomfortable with physical touch. So, go ahead and say something like, “If you ever need a hug, I’m right here” or something to that effect – that way your loved one knows the offer remains open, but does not feel pressured if he or she is uncomfortable at the moment with physical touch.
• DON’T gawk: OCD is a strange illness to many outsiders looking in and many people are often immediately curious what types of obsessions and compulsions their loved one has. Although, I understand the curiosity, try to avoid asking about specific obsessions and compulsions. Not only are many sufferer’s obsessions and compulsions deeply personal, he or she might often be afraid to share them because he or she is terrified of being judged or of some greater consequence (no matter how irrational), like being taken to jail. Also, your loved one wants to feel like a human being first and foremost, not a freak show for people to gawk out. So, try to center your focus on your loved one and what you can do to help him or her, not what specifically “odd” things he or she might do.
• DO encourage your loved one to seek professional treatment if he or she has not already done so. OCD is a difficult illness to treat and the longer it goes untreated, the more resistant it can often become. Tell your loved one that there is no shame in seeking treatment from either a psychiatrist or a psychologist – it does not make your loved one “weak” or a “bad” person because he or she needs treatment.
• DON’T offer personal anecdotes: although in some cases this might be appropriate, say if you have had personal experience with OCD, in general you should not assume that you “know” how your loved one feels. After years of suffering from severe OCD, it still stings a bit when people compare my struggles to something much more minor – it really hurts when it feels like your struggles are being trivialized.
• DON’T offer opinions on medical treatment unless specifically asked: once your loved one has sought professional treatment, your role as a supporter is not to offer critiques or criticisms of the treatment approach your loved one is pursuing. Although it might sound harsh, if you are not a medical doctor with training in the mental health field, then you should be pointing your loved ones towards the professionals in that area, not offering your own opinions based on something you read/heard in the media. Also, remember that reading one or two books on mental health treatment does not make you an expert. If you do not like the doctor your loved one is seeing, then you might make suggestions about choosing a more qualified doctor, but avoid trying to make any sort of medical diagnosis/treatment plan on your own.
• DO ask what you can do to help: this is one of the most valuable things you could ever do for your loved one. Let them know that if they need anything, that you will be there for them. Reassure them that you will always be there for them and that they can count on you to be a pillar of strength in this storm brewing in their life.
• DO continue to include your loved one in activities: even if he or she is not always able to participate, it will mean a lot to feel that he or she is still included as part of the group and has not been forgotten or abandoned.
• DON’T betray your loved one’s confidence: of course, if your loved one has expressed the desire to hurt him/herself and/or others, it is imperative that you ensure that his or her treatment team is aware of this. However, in general, if your loved one shares an obsession or compulsion he struggles with, do not share it with others – even if you think it is cute or nothing to be ashamed of.
• DON’T expect instant results. OCD is a difficult illness to treat – it can take months or even years to find the right dose of medicine and to make significant progress in therapy. There will likely also be many setbacks along the way. For example, after my initial consultation with a psychiatrist, when I was started on an anti-depressant and also began weekly therapy appointments, it took about seven months or so before I felt any real relief. And then, at one point, the medicine I was on stopped working and so I had to go through the process of trial and error in finding a new set of medicines that would provide effective treatment. Remember the old saying “two steps forward, one step back” as it is very relevant to any sort of mental health treatment.
• DO avoid making glib comments about easy ways – in your opinion – of how to cure the OCD. For example, saying something along the lines of “If you just knew how much Jesus loved you, then you wouldn’t have this problem,” is extremely hurtful, especially for those sufferers who have a lot of religion-based obsessions. For example, in my case, one of my obsessions was trying to never sin and to always be the “perfect Christian” – thus, being told that the problem was I just didn’t love Jesus enough cut me right to the core.
Above all, offering your unconditional love and support is invaluable to your loved one. OCD is a mental prison in every sense of the word; your loved one needs all the support you can give in battling it.