17 February 2014

Theory and practice

It can be hard to support others with OCD, even when you have the condition yourself and have developed a good understanding of treatment approaches.

Some years ago, I began informally mentoring a young colleague whose compulsions revolved around preventing harm from coming to her family. She lived with her parents and younger brother and her rituals impacted significantly on her daily life, including regularly making her late for work.

We met fortnightly for lunch and she often commented on how helpful she found our chats: she felt that she had finally met someone who understood her situation. We both had anxious personalities and I could appreciate the concerns that lay behind her behaviours, however, her compulsions were very different from mine. 

One of the ways she 'protected' her family was to remove any candles brought into their home; she was convinced that they would spontaneously combust and start a fire. When she came across one, she would put it in her handbag and take it out with her.

Image courtesy of  Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I know as well as anyone that there is no logic to OCD, but couldn't help asking: 'You do know that candles can't just ignite? And even if they could, what's to stop them catching fire in your bag?' 

As soon as I'd voiced these questions, I knew that I shouldn't have. Not only were they pointless, but the latter might have sown the seed of a new fear.

She just shrugged. That point didn't seem to have occurred to her, but nor did it bother her now that I'd raised it. Perhaps, just being in possession of the candles provided sufficient reassurance; even if they did ignite, the fire would be far away from her family and she would be on hand to put it out.

Whatever the OCD logic of this compulsion, I found it frustrating not to be able to convince her of its actual illogicality. It would have been unreasonable to let this show, of course, given how much of my own behaviour is equally nonsensical.

Knowing the theory of how to support someone is one thing; putting it into practice is another. It's all too easy to say or do the wrong thing, or to let frustration overwhelm you. 

No wonder friends and family have a hard time knowing how best to help, if even those of us on the inside of the OCD experience have trouble.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Helen, and it reminds me of a post where I quote Dr. Jeff Szymanski,who says exactly what you say: Sometimes it's hard for those with OCD to relate to each other:
Your get-togethers really helped the other OCD sufferer, though, and that's what really matters!

Helen Barbour said...

ocdtalk, thanks for sharing that post - very interesting...and somewhat reassuring to know I'm not the only one who doesn't always 'get' my fellow OCD sufferers. I haven't come across many people with order/symmetry as their main manifestation of OCD, but, when I have, I've almost experienced a sense of relief that 'it's not just me'.