The Thin Line Between Helping and Hindering

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Notice the title of this post refers to “hindering,” not “hurting.” I hesitate to refer to any kind of help a person offers as hurtful because the intentions are good. But it’s so often hard to know what to do to help someone with OCD. After my book reading earlier this month, we opened the floor to questions. One woman, a mother of two young boys, asked how a person can support a friend or child with OCD. I told her supporting someone with OCD can feel like the opposite of supporting a friend–being too reassuring can enable a person with OCD, making it easier for the person to continue performing the compulsions that offer temporary relief and ultimately hold them back from living a full, rich life.

I shared the example of Howie Mandel’s wife washing his money for him. A spouse helping out with laundry or the dishes or making the bed isn’t a bad thing. But she’s doing him no favors by going along with his fear of touching money that other people have handled. Mandel can get by with this, I think, because he’s a celebrity. He probably has people who can handle money for him. He’s not facing his fears. And defeating OCD is all about facing the things we fear most.

But offering the “right” kind of support isn’t easy, even for me, and I have OCD. In the psychiatric community, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is considered the gold standard for overcoming obsessions and compulsions. That doesn’t mean anyone can administer it, though. I’ve been chatting with a man who has OCD, and he’s asked me several times if I think he has homosexual OCD (HOCD) or if he might have latent homosexual tendencies. He’s terrified that he might be gay, and I think I know why: He loves his wife and has a newborn daughter he is completely enamored with. “She is the love of my life,” he said. “My everything. My air. My heart.”

Well, there you go. Losing his wife and daughter would be the absolute worst thing to happen to him, and that is why he worries he’s gay. How could he stay married to his wife if he’s gay? And then if they get divorced, when will he see his daughter? As much as I know–as much as I can know–that he’s not gay, that OCD is playing tricks on his mind, I’m not doing him any favors by constantly reassuring him. On the other hand, I’m a layperson, just another poor soul who’s been afflicted with terrible obsessions. Is it really responsible of me to try to lead some sort of halfway ERP over Facebook? Of course not. All I can do is listen, tell him I’ve been there, tell him what has helped me–to remind myself that obsessions are there because OCD is a beast, not because I’m a bad person. To remind myself that everyone has bad thoughts, but people with OCD can’t let those thoughts go. To calmly tell myself that it’s just a thought, and it holds no meaning I don’t give it. It’s hard to tell someone I can’t keep reassuring him because the relief he feels is just as fleeting as the relief a compulsion provides.

How do you offer support to friends with OCD? If you have OCD yourself, do you tell the person everything that helped you? Do you just listen? Do you offer book recommendations? Let me know! I want to be the best source of support possible, and it’s such a gray area that I will take any advice I can get. 

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