How My Daughter's OCD Diagnosis Forced Me To Deal With My Own

In order to help her daughter with obsessive compulsive disorder, one mom had to face her own mental health challenges. Here's what she learned.

Mother hugs teenage blond girl in glasses on summer day
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I used to check the burners five times a night. I'd refold the same shirt 10 times in a row. I fixated on who was mad at me and lived by a planner filled with tasks and a box to check beside each one once they were finished. I used to have to do so many things just to get through the day, yet I constantly felt great unease.

It wasn't until I was 25 years old that I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which according to the Mayo Clinic, refers to a "pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions)" and can interrupt regular life. I didn't really do much about it other than a little talk therapy, a dash of Prozac, and a lot of denial.

It wasn't until my daughter started seeing a child therapist for her own OCD tendencies when she was 6 that I truly began to understand the work I always needed to do. It involved letting go. It involved acceptance. It involved taking care of my mind so that I could take better care of my child.

Therapy for My Daughter's OCD

In her first session, my daughter had her brain explained to her in the gentlest way possible so that she could choose to have compassion for it. The missing piece of my own puzzle all those years: a foundation of loving how I was instead of assuming something was wrong with me or trying to fight myself into being different. It wasn't that my parents didn't support me, but they didn't know, they didn't seek help, and I was left to make my own assumptions, which were grossly unkind. Now, as a mother, I knew that in working to understand my daughter and help her understand herself, I might finally be able to better understand myself too.

My daughter's doctor suggested a few kid books on mental health to read at home and taught us breathing exercises that could help her release some of the pressure OCD builds, instead of trying to wrestle it away. She could panic and still go on with her day. I saw the relief on my child's face.

During the weekly sessions that followed, the doctor asked my daughter what her body felt like when she worried. She told her thoughts are like balloons, meant to float by in the sky, but sometimes OCD or anxiety makes us pull those balloons down to examine them. And then it's like we can't stop, when all the while life is happening out here, not in balloon land. My daughter practiced releasing her strings. I would see her opening her small hand at random times throughout the day as if it was really happening.

Next, the doctor invited my daughter to draw a worry creature and externalize it. That's right, the therapist had her create an image that represented the very being that embodied all her concerns and fears. That's how Rosie, an adorable doodle of a blob with curly hair, was born. Rosie was willful and loud, but the doctor insisted she wasn't in charge. My daughter asked about my worry monster, and I panicked. I quickly made one up, blurting out the name Pinky on the spot. Pinky was not as cute as Rosie, more of a traditional worry monster with fangs and claws. But it was the first time I saw my worry creature for who she was: smaller than me, trying to help me, not defining me, and in desperate need of my tenderness.

Parents as Co-therapists for OCD

The following phase in treatment was again something I had never experienced before, called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy—a technique to treat anxiety disorders that involves exposing the patient to the anxiety source without the intention to cause any danger. The exposing is done a little at a time, so the patient gets more comfortable with their uncomfortable feelings gradually, learns how to overcome distress, and identifies their own resilience.

My daughter had developed an intense phobia about throwing up. So, we began talking about it for one minute a day, working our way up to two, then five, then to making gagging noises. We would have fun with who could make the silliest vomit sounds, going so far as to fill a Ziploc bag with fake throw up made out of flour, food coloring, and water. We slowly chiseled away at the idea of getting sick until it was totally demoted in her mind.

We also discussed accommodation behaviors—a term used to describe arranging family life to avoid triggering the child's OCD. I could recognize this, both in memory from my own childhood and as a mom in response to my daughter's anxiety. She had grown nervous about going out to eat so we had stopped dining out to prevent her from getting upset. The doctor explained how normal it is for parents of anxious kids to want to take away whatever is causing their child anxiety. But that can actually feed anxiety by robbing the child of the opportunity to figure out how to get over a struggle. This is why parents play such a big role in OCD treatment and why the treatment works so much better when parents act as co-therapists.

By practicing "exposures" in between sessions, I helped my daughter do her "therapy homework." We started going out to restaurants again, at first just to the café down the street, allowing her the opportunity to face her fears instead of avoiding them. I tasked myself with facing my own fear too. I was always anxious about taking a day off writing, so I'd stopped taking time off altogether and packed my days with work. I began by taking an hour off work. (I eventually worked my way up to a whole day!) It was as uncomfortable as I'd imagined it would be, yet I survived.

Learning To Love Ourselves

Parenting a child with mental health challenges has brought me front and center of my own wounds. All the time I spent not acknowledging my own mental health issues prevented me from getting the help I needed and I suffered. I was also unknowingly exacerbating my daughter's OCD. Nothing was a greater motivator for me to change than making sure I didn't negatively impact my daughter, but the end of my own suffering? That wasn't just a bonus. I deserved that, too.

Now, I openly invite my OCD to sit with me and I do the very things it does not want me to do. (Take that, Pinky!) And I hope with my whole heart that my child sees that it's possible and takes my meager attempts and surpasses them. I hope that by learning how to talk about her thoughts and feelings at such a young age, she stays connected, pays attention to her body, and uses the many tools available to her to feel secure. I hope my daughter will love herself, OCD and all, way sooner than I did.

She and I will have to live with this all our lives. We will have to keep working at it independently and together to not let OCD take over and forgive ourselves when it does and try again. But I know we've come a long way—last night we went out for Chinese food as a family, and I didn't even check the burners once before I fell asleep.

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