My husband often tells me I have obsessive-compulsive disorder: Sometimes when I leave the house I check that I have locked the door, often going back two, three, even four times to ensure that the deadbolt is secure. I also do this with the oven, the stove, and my curling iron. Although rationally I know I have turned them off or locked them, my compulsion to relieve my anxiety outweighs my rational mind. (Luckily, I don’t do it every time I leave the house.)
This is how we typically think of OCD: a series of checking, or the constant washing of hands. But, as Janet Singer and Seth Gillihan write in Overcoming OCD, that idea is not entirely accurate.
Singer and Gillihan introduce us to Dan: Singer’s son, whom she realizes has OCD. Dan goes for many days without eating, and he gravitates toward one particular chair that seems to be the place he feels safe. Through Dan, the authors dispel our misconception that OCD is merely about repeating an action. Instead, they write, it is about a repeated worry that something bad is going to happen — and about the action meant to prevent it.
And according to the DSM, to be diagnosed with the disorder a person must not only have obsessions, compulsions, or both, but those urges must be time-consuming or cause significant distress — they must affect social, occupational, or other important areas of one’s life. Meaning, occasionally over-worrying is not enough for diagnosis.
This is a powerfully written book, and one that conveys the despair and anger Singer felt as she tried to help her son. As I read, there were times I had to walk away — times that Singer’s story caused some rather strong emotions. I felt frustrated when I saw how some professionals dismissed the severity of Dan’s symptoms. And as a therapist myself, I especially cringed while reading about Singer’s visit to see Dan at St. Joseph’s, an inpatient hospital to treat OCD. The staff members seemed detached, dismissive, and indifferent — both to Dan’s recovery and to his parents’ concerns. It was hard for me to hear about professionals who thought Dan was regressing and yet who remained seemingly apathetic.
In my own practice, I try to empathize with a family and understand what they’re going through. I also listen to their thoughts about what’s happening. But from Singer’s account, it sounds like the staff at St. Joseph’s kept saying “Yeah, but” to everything. As Singer writes, even the best medicine cannot trump knowing your own child. As clinicians, we have to listen.
Along with Singer’s compelling story, the book contains highlighted sections written by Gillihan, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and who teamed up with Singer to pen the more technical parts. Gillihan complements the narrative with info about specific aspects of OCD, including medications, self-injury, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and effective treatment options.
These passages will certainly be useful to readers, but it was the story of the Singer family that kept me turning the page. Anyone who wants to learn more about OCD and how to cope with it will find this book informative — and also, thanks to Singer, quite moving.
Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery
Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, January 2015
Hardcover, 240 pages