My husband and I came to parenthood late and after a great deal of angst about lifestyle change. We were a career couple who shared a weakness for designer clothing and sharp-angled furniture that could impale small children. But with seven years of marriage behind us, I hated working as a corporate marketing director, and Larry was tearing through his forties. Then he was offered a new job in a new state. We had the smarts—well, Larry had a PhD—and a strong marriage, and now we could afford for me to be a stay-at-home mom. The only dangers I saw ahead related to our furniture … but I had never heard of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Before television detective Adrian Monk turned OCD into a household name, obsessions and compulsions represented two words in a dictionary to me, not an anxiety disorder that’s an allergy to life. Sure, my family had its share of oddballs, addicts, depressives, one schizophrenic, and a great uncle who shot himself in the head, but I knew nothing about faulty brain wiring.
Actually, I knew nothing about babies, either. I left my native England before my friends had children, and Larry’s friends’ kids were older. But the British war mentality flowed strong in my genes, and I never considered motherhood could defeat me.
We studied hard for Lamaze but kept the sense of humor that our younger classmates found irreverent. When our coach asked the dads-to-be what they hoped to experience from the miracle of childbirth, my husband replied, “I want all the great drugs she’s getting.” I cracked up. Nobody else even smiled. Possibly they were still recovering from Larry’s suggestion that someone provide popcorn for the C-section video.
We stumbled through the baby milestones without a support system and marveled at our ability to adapt to chaos. Our Gerber bundle of joy slept well, ate well, and cooed in all the right moments. Zach grew into a demonstrative, funny, smart toddler who impressed everyone with his eagerness to learn and his love of words. “Tell me a story, Mommy,” he said over and over. “Tell me a story.”
The twos came and went without a single tantrum; the threes were a blast of creativity. We experienced only one small upset during those years, which, with hindsight, was a red flag: Zach had severe separation anxiety. Then our happy-go-lucky little guy, who couldn’t be apart from me, turned four, and our world began to collapse. It would take ten years to put it back together.
Fear found Zach, doubt found me, and Larry and I no longer agreed on how to raise our child. Zach became increasingly anxious, and all the instincts I had as a new mother disintegrated. Even the benign Winnie the Pooh story I chose for bedtime scared him to tears. Other mothers I knew worried about picky eaters, biters, and head lice, while I was on a mission—clearly doomed—to edit fear from my son’s life. (Because really, if Winnie the Pooh freaks out your kid, you’re sunk on that one.)
Friends and doctors happily shared opinions and advice, but all of them were wrong. It was another four years before Zach was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and another two before we hit rock bottom. But here’s what I learned as my life tanked: at some point you realize the only way left is up.
My turning point came after a disastrous family holiday. I cried myself empty and then regrouped. Step one: know thy enemy. I hit the Internet and the library and educated myself about OCD. The first shocking truth I uncovered? Our child psychologist had been giving me the wrong advice. My research led me to exposure therapy, a form of treatment that forces you to face your fears, and to the child psychologist of our dreams. I informed Larry that since I was the full-time parent, he must follow my lead on all things OCD. He agreed, which was a blessing. I could focus my energy on helping our son and not on arguing parenting techniques with my spouse. And so the hard work began.
There are no shortcuts for fighting obsessive-compulsive disorder, no instant cures, no magic pill, and there were days when Zach and I cried in defeat. The worst part was the bitter truth that no matter how often I dragged him through exposures, no matter how much I played the cheerleader or the clown to get him through another day, I could never take away the pain. Only he could do that. And teaching a ten-year-old to retrain his brain ain’t easy, my friends. But, like a pair of Energizer bunnies, Zach and I kept on trucking.
Last month he visited Spain with his school and took three flights to get home. That, for me, was the equivalent of him winning a Nobel Prize. Ten years ago, coaxing Zach onto one short plane ride with us was akin to entering the ninth circle of hell. I could never have imagined a future in which he could take three planes, in the same day, without me as his OCD coach. But back then, I never imagined that at sixteen, he’d be an OCD success story.
He’s also a willful teenager with a good eight inches on me and an annoying habit of plugging in his electric guitar at 10:00 p.m. But after years of battling OCD, he’s compassionate, empathic, and more settled in himself than most adults I know. And he never lost his love of words. In fact, OCD has fuelled his writing and helped him become an award-winning poet.
Two Sundays ago, we spent the evening curled up together watching the GRAMMYs. We trashed people’s outfits, made inappropriate comments about certain performers, and screamed like crazed soccer fans when Muse won for best rock album. Larry was working, and it was just another mother-son evening in our house. And the best part? OCD had left the building.