I watched my son from across the room, waiting for an answer to my question about his day at school. It’s our routine, he walks in and grabs a snack and I ask him to share the favorite part of his day.
Yet, I could tell my son wasn’t ignoring me, he was deep in thought, mumbling something to himself, over and over. This went on for over a minute.
‘Another one. Another one. Another one. Another one. Another one,’ he would say in almost a whisper.
Finally, as if no time had passed at all, he turned to me and apologized.
‘Sorry Mom, it’s my OCD. I have to say that phrase so many times.’
This is only one of many compulsions my son suffers, his brain telling him to do something that he desperately wants to stop. His arms and legs bear scars from picking his skin to the point of bleeding. When I ask him if it hurts, he says yes, but he needs to pick anyway.
He’s tried sitting on his hands, wearing gloves, and trimming his nails very short. He often rubs his hair between two fingers, feeling the texture of the hair gel on his strawberry blonde locks. He tries to stop, but the compulsion is bigger. He can’t stop shooting basketball when it is time to eat dinner because he can’t end on a miss, even if that means he will be there 10 more minutes and miss 23 free-throws. Dinner often goes cold.
He has to have that just-right feeling or the world as he knows it stops turning.
During homework, I once made notes in pencil on his math workbook (that allows for doodling) and he couldn’t turn the page until he erased the markings. ‘That bothers me,’ he would say, erasing the paper until he created a hole where the marking was once located. When he was younger, my son would spend minutes lining up his stuffed animals along his bed, then repeat the same routine when they toppled over after he crawled under the covers. My heart sank for how difficult just going to bed was for a 9-year-old boy. No sooner had I said goodnight and walked downstairs would I hear his tiny voice shout from bed:
‘Don’t forget to make my lunch! Ok, Mom? Make my lunch.’
I would reassure him that it was already made, knowing he couldn’t fall asleep until he was given some words of comfort. I learned to make his lunch early every evening so there was no chance of forgetting. An hour after going to bed, he would surprise me at the top of the stairs, still awake, asking me if he put his homework back in his folder because he couldn’t remember.
‘You did,’ I would promise. That didn’t always convince his active mind, so he would walk down to the kitchen and check his back pack one more time. Just in case. Just so he could tell himself all was right with the world.
I often think how exhausted he must be, constantly wondering, constantly needing everything to be just so.
As a parent, that’s the hard part, because life isn’t just so. Things happen. Things come up. The menu at school changes, even when my son had Chicken Nugget Tuesday penciled in on his mental calendar. That rigidity was sometimes a devastating reality.
Every time we see another dog, whether in a pet food commercial on TV or in our neighborhood, my son will repeat the exact same phrase: ‘He’s not cuter than our dog.’ He never misses. EVERY time. Something about seeing another pet provokes an urgency to make the statement. He will say it under his breath, not always to us, but as a formality.
Like anyone else, my son hates that he has these rituals caused by OCD.
His frustration peaks and we occasionally hear him say things like ‘I HATE OCD. I wish I didn’t have it. I wish I was normal.’
Those are tough words to hear from a young boy who should be focused on video games and ice cream and who won the Super Bowl.
As a mom, I despise OCD. I’ve watched it creep into his life and invade his thoughts. Yet, ironically, OCD is also the force that drives him to excel:
- He will not allow himself to miss a deadline at school. A project assigned on a Monday and due on Friday is completed on Monday.
- I never have to wonder if he brushed his teeth. The kid brushes his teeth like a boss, checks them in the mirror and then rechecks them one more time.
- He cleans up every dish, every fruit snack wrapper, you name it, and tosses it in the trash. He also cleans up his brother’s trash (who isn’t so tidy). The mess bothers him to a point of unrest.
Any parent who has a child with OCD feels helpless in their journey, so I embrace the moments when I catch my son enjoying life, laughing with his friends, not trapped in time by worries or compulsions.
My son deserves the chance to be a kid.
To scrape his knee playing basketball. To eat gummy worms and talk about girls. To drink his milkshake too fast and get brain freeze, all without invasive thoughts. Like the time he swung open the door after seeing a movie with my husband and exclaimed ‘I feel happy inside.’ In that moment, OCD had freed my son from its trap.
I wish that for him every day.
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