“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” This quote from Philo of Alexandria (not a household name, but apparently a smart guy) landed in my email inbox two days ago while I was in Minneapolis telling a story with The Moth. I thought of the quote when I was in the airport and the distracted Delta ticket agent was rude to me. Instead of barking back, I tried my best to smile. Who knows what was going on in her world? I thought of it again on my flight home when the lovely woman seated next to me revealed she had just placed her 48-year-old brother in a nursing home after his third debilitating stroke; she was desperate to bring him home to New Hampshire. And I thought of it Tuesday morning when I found my husband, once again, battling his OCD.
Before I continue, a disclaimer: I have my husband’s permission to talk about his OCD (a brave act on his part), so you can relax while you’re reading. I find it best to get people’s permission before you include them in a story unless you’re saying, “I won the lotto and I’m giving you half.”
OCD: On Screen and Real Life
For the unaware, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is a brain and behavior disorder that causes severe anxiety in those affected. The disorder involves both obsessions and compulsions that take tremendous time (e.g., taking a shower for six hours a day) and get in the way of important activities the person values (e.g., being employed). According to the International OCD Foundation website, best estimates are that about 1 in 100 adults – or between 2 to 3 million adults in the United States – currently have OCD. This is roughly the same number of people living in Houston, Texas.
More than likely, you’re now thinking of the OCD so commonly (and often inaccurately) portrayed on screen — a hand-washing Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets; a hand-wiping Tony Shalhoub in Monk; a germaphobic Emma in Glee. These characters all suffer from contamination issues, which are real and crippling, but also visual and apparent, so they can be easily depicted in TV and film. The OCD spectrum is incredibly broad (it’s a very slippery disorder), many manifestations go unseen, and there are multitudes of silent sufferers, who tragically think they are alone — despite the fact their numbers equal Houston’s population.
If you look at my husband, Eric, you don’t see an OCD sufferer, you see an incredibly handsome Irishman, an expert birder, a valued employee, an exceptional writer, a soon-to-be-published book author, a gifted photographer, and according to a recent online IQ test we took on a lark, a genius. This is not surprising: OCD most often occurs in highly intelligent and highly creative people. That would be Eric. In truth, Eric has been battling with OCD for nearly 30 years, about 25 of those undiagnosed. Somewhere along our OCD journey, we were told it takes an average of 17 years and 5-7 therapists to get an accurate OCD diagnosis. Indeed, that was Eric’s case. Turns out, the first person to even mention the words OCD to him was our fertility specialist. Go figure.
Eric experiences an uncommon OCD subtype which requires him to do almost constant mental rituals in order to make decisions or simply move through his day. Think of it as mental hand washing, over and over again. His disorder — which he will always have — exhausts and frustrates him and if he’s not incredibly vigilant, robs him of time, opportunities, self-esteem, and joy. As with any disorder (e.g., anxiety, depression), Eric’s OCD can wreak havoc on both of us and when I reach my wit’s end as all humans will do, I am sometimes less than compassionate. But if you don’t have OCD, you really can’t appreciate what those afflicted with the disorder are going through. Here’s how an OCD expert described it: To an OCD sufferer, the anxiety they experience is the same as if you were standing in the middle of a train track and a train is bearing down on you and you can’t escape. With that picture painted, compassion starts to resurface.
Healing OCD Through Stories and Prayer
Yesterday, I had an email correspondence with the doctor — I’ll call him Dr. J — who accurately diagnosed Eric. A true healer, Dr. J is always looking for new ways to approach his patients at the OCD Institute in Belmont, MA, and I was recommending a book to him I thought he’d appreciate (The War of Art, about battling resistance, discussed in a previous blog).
In the course of our discussion, I found out Dr. J loves The Moth and routinely plays The Moth story Man Vs. Beast by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz to his OCD therapy groups. One of the world’s leading big cat experts, Rabinowitz was a severe stutterer who did not speak a complete sentence until he was a college senior. To hear Dr. Rabinowitz, you would never know his still constant battle. But he conquered his stuttering, and now he literally is the voice for animals that cannot speak for themselves. I urge you to listen to Dr. Rabinowitz’s story — it is beyond inspiring and made Stephen Colbert cry.
And when you’ve got a moment, please join me in praying for all those who are fighting great battles and for the folks that love them. I think that covers all of us.
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