When I visit schools, students often ask me which of my published books is my favorite, I tell them that’s a bit like having to pick your favorite child. There are elements of all my books that make them special, but I also tell them the one closest to my heart is Mr. Worry: A Story about OCD. That is because my son has OCD. Before he was diagnosed he thought he was crazy because he knew his actions and thoughts made no sense, and we found his behavior heartbreaking and frustrating.
As the adults in children’s lives it is important we don’t just write off a child’s behavior as volitional, something they are doing on purpose. Our first response when the compulsions (rituals) began was to tell our son to “just stop”. But for a person with OCD that is impossible. They don’t want to do these things-they have to do them! Children living with anxiety or OCD are not in control of their thoughts or actions. They need us to recognize this and seek the professional help they need, so that they can return to being a child.
We all have worries and it is common to hear people joke about someone having OCD, but most of us can’t imagine what it is like to truly have OCD. My son, now a 31 year old, married, expectant father and PhD physicist wrote the following when he was applying to colleges. Before he was diagnosed he drove teachers crazy with questions, worries, difficulty adapting to changes, but none of it was his fault or intentional. I hope this essay gives you some perspective on OCD. Following are links to some helpful resources.
“Mind that does not stick” Zen Master Shoitsu
As I sit musing on the words on Zen Master Shoitsu, I find myself staring at the drawers under my bed and drifting back several years.
It is bedtime and as I walk into my room, my eyes stick on my desk chair, protruding maybe half an inch from the desk, and I worry that I might trip on it in the middle of the night. As I fix the chair, I notice the papers on my desk are slanted and the picture of my grandparents is not situated just so. I try to let it go, but my mind sticks on the slight disorder, compelling me to straighten my desk. I move around the room, adjusting my watch, moving a pencil, aligning a book, and making sure the closet is not only closed, but air tight. I turn off the light and as I drift off to sleep, my mind sticks. I heard a report on the news about a rare blood disease, and I can’t help but wonder if I have it unknowingly and am slowly dying. I swear to myself that I will investigate in the morning, but my mind sticks again. I used a sky blue colored pencil instead of a blue one on the map in class, maybe I’ll fail the assignment, then I’ll fail the grade, and then I’ll never get into college. I manage to calm myself down but then my mind sticks yet again. I get the sense that there is a bright light coming from under my bed. I try to dismiss the notion as absurd since there are drawers under my bed and no space for a light. But my mind begins to “sweat,” refusing to unstick and drift off to sleep. I try to calm myself, but my mind works like quicksand, pulling me in deeper the more I fight it. Finally, I get out of bed and confirm that there is no light. I instantly calm down and my mind relaxes until I get back into bed and it sticks on the light again. This cycle of searching for a light repeats for ten or fifteen minutes before I unstick it for good and manage to drift into a peaceful sleep. This was my struggle every night as I unknowingly battled obsessive compulsive disorder and a mind that sticks.
While my mind sticks because of a chemical imbalance, causing me to obsess about absurd things, there are many other ways in which a mind can stick. In life some people are so set in their political philosophy that their mind is stuck in a certain gear, unyielding to new information and other philosophies. In school, students can get so set on one approach to solving a problem that they overlook other solutions, and sometimes miss the simple, obvious answer. In writing, particularly of certain college application essays, people can stick on one idea or approach to the essay, often leading to a one dimensional paper. In social interactions, people can develop certain impressions and stereotypes that stick with them; regardless of any experiences they might have that contradict their view.
While there are many situations where a sticking mind can be detrimental, it can have positive effects on some situations. One of Albert Einstein’s greatest gifts was his ability to focus completely on one task, shutting out all else. Some degree of OCD actually benefits me because it compels me to observe small details that are often key to understanding a problem or completing an assignment. My OCD tendencies have positive effects when they are under control, but when I let my worries go unchecked I lose control of my life and become stuck in a pit with no escape. I believe the key to dealing with it is to recognize the tendency to fall into quicksand and find a way to build a bridge over it. In my case I used counseling and medication to regain balance in my mind. Now that I am on the lookout for potential sticky spots, I can steer clear of tough situations and try to use my OCD to my advantage.
Many forms of a sticky mind can be beneficial if people know how to turn their weaknesses into strengths. It is good for people to have firm opinions and not go through life indecisively as long as they keep their minds open to new possibilities. It is wise for children to be weary of shifty strangers as long as they learn not to stereotype all people.
Master Shoitsu never stated whether a sticky mind was good or bad, he merely acknowledged the possibility of sticky spots in the road. Now when I walk into my room at night I crawl straight into bed without worrying about a stray paper or a misplaced piece of furniture because I have learned to build bridges over the quicksand patches in my mind and tread carefully over the soft spots.
(2005 Essay for undergrad application to University of Chicago)