A few years ago, I made a new friend. For the purpose of this blog and with his permission, I will refer to him as Eddie. Eddie and I became friends over many shared interests. After spending time together, I started to notice a few peculiar behaviors, such as always taking a particularly long time in the bathroom, adjusting his body continuously when seated, and sending me the same text multiple times. I am and always have been a very observant person, especially when it comes to body language and behaviors and I quickly became to suspect that my friend was exhibiting obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviors.
OCD is a mental illness that is defined by reoccurring unwanted thoughts, urges, or images (i.e., obsessions) and repetitive behaviors that a person feels driven to perform (i.e., compulsions). Now, you may have heard of this in passing comments or even made reference to it yourself. “I’m so OCD, I can’t go to sleep unless my bed is made”, or “She is so OCD because she has her spices alphabetized.” Whatever the behavior is that makes a person seem “OCD” it is usually more of a preference, choice or personality. Let me tell you that the actual diagnosis of OCD is far more complicated and encompasses much more than being orderly.
Back to my friend. As I began to suspect that his behaviors were beyond his control, I gently asked him if he thought he might be dealing with OCD. He looked shocked that I asked him this and said yes, he had been diagnosed in his early adulthood. He was shocked because no one had ever asked him this and he tries very hard to conceal the behaviors. Being a counselor in training and a student of psychology, I was immediately empathetic to his plight as well as curious. During the first part of our friendship, I asked Eddie questions all of the time about his thoughts and behaviors. He was always open and honest and said that he like to talk about it because then he felt more normal.
Part of his ritual in leaving the house revolved around putting his shoes and coat on a certain way. If he thought that is was not done properly, he would start over. Needless to say, it became difficult to make plans with him because he was always running late. In the beginning, I would wait for him and tell him to take his time and not to worry. In fact, after a few months, I found myself adapting to his compulsions as to help him avoid the anxiety. You see, the compulsion is a way of making the obsessions go away, temporarily. If the obsessions remain, they often turn into severe anxiety or panic attacks, which Eddie suffered from. So, because I did not want to see my friend in distress, I did what he asked me to do. Well, as you may have guessed, this was probably a mistake.
After reading an abundance of information of how to help a friend with OCD, almost all of the information suggests that complying with their compulsions is the same as enabling them. My helping Eddie with his rituals only strengthened them. I had to gently tell him that I could no longer partake in any behavior that supported a compulsion. This was much easier said than done because I came to understand that almost all of his behaviors revolved around an obsession in some form.
The next step I took as a friend sincerely trying to help was to provide him with as many recourses as he would allow. At first, Eddie was hopeful and felt encouraged to seek treatment. He started talk therapy and medication and got a new job. Things seemed to be going well for about a month until they suddenly came crashing down for him.
A little background on my friend. The onset of his OCD was at about age 10. I feel especially sad that he had to suffer as a child. He said he started by making lists of things he had to do before school. The lists got longer and the behaviors more complex. If he was almost done with the list and made a mistake, he would start all over. His parents did the best they could and simply did not understand that Eddie needed professional help. Instead, they scolded and punished him often for being late to school all the time. The reason I mention his background is for you to understand that Eddie was never really able to acquire skills to translate into the workforce because his OCD has been debilitating his whole life. As a result of this, Eddie has almost always worked as a busser or dishwasher in the food industry. He is also very scared for anyone to find out about the OCD which in turn makes the anxiety worse and the obsessions worse.
A month into his new job as a dish washer, things were going well until a new obsession grabbed hold. He was now terrified of touching or going near the garbage. If the garbage bin or bag touched any part of his skin or clothes, he was contaminated. During this time, he threw away more than half of his wardrobe because no matter how much he washed it, it was still contaminated. His hands and arms started to have lesions from the compulsive washing. As the garbage was part of his job, he decided to quit and could no longer work. He started to isolate and even stopped showering because the task was often too exhausting to be “done the right way”.
With all of this going on, I started to notice the cycle of denial, depression, anxiety, embarrassment, and shame. These five emotions seem to swirl around him and take turns protecting him, or so his brain thinks they do. I am sorry to say that this is where the story ends. As of now there is no happy ending and my friend is still suffering and is almost completely debilitated. He is not working, taking medication, or going to therapy. For my own preservation, I had to take a step back from him. Part of me feels guilty for this but if I have learned anything as a counselor in training it’s that a person has to want to get help. I have let him know that I will always support him and if he ever needs any aid in getting help, I will be there in a heartbeat.
This is by far my most personal blog. Self-disclosure is not usually my forte, but I think it is so important for us all to understand the magnitude of mental illness. Of course, I feel helpless and that I have failed my friend but those are my feelings and I can choose how to handle them. Eddie is stuck right now with no choice in having this pain overcome him. The most I can do is try to truly understand what it is like for him and others that suffer day in and day out with mental illness. This story is important to tell so that you can understand it as well. I am not an expert on OCD, but I am an expert on being a friend to someone with this illness. If you are in a similar situation, remember that simply listening, having patience, and empathizing is the best thing to do.
Here are a few websites that helped me to understand my role:
By: Kathryn Chambers
Olive Branch Counseling Associate, Inc