After my son Dan was diagnosed with OCD, I was determined to do whatever I could to help him. Always a believer in mother’s instincts, I followed mine, and did whatever was necessary to keep his anxiety down. Woops. As I explain in this article, there is a fine line between helping and enabling, and what I was doing was enabling my son. Turns out following instincts when dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder is not always such a great idea. Once Dan began Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy, he realized how important it was that we not enable him, and he’d actually let us know when we inadvertently did. He knew what he needed from us, and by communicating it, he allowed us to help him.
Fast forward about a year. Dan is now taking a reduced course load in college and living with us. His OCD, while not as bad as it was, is still in control a lot of the time, and he seems listless and depressed. He is sleeping a lot, and is anxious all the time. It is upsetting and frustrating to me to see him this way, though I try to not enable his OCD. Still, I don’t demand he help out around the house, or do much of anything, for that matter. How can I insist he take out the trash? He is having such a tough time. Realizing we need guidance, my husband and I, along with Dan, meet with his therapist.
After expressing my concerns over Dan’s lack of interest or involvement in anything, his therapist turned to him and said, “Dan, what do you think your parents should do?”
Without hesitation he replied, “I think they should push me more.”
While I was surprised at Dan’s answer, I was even more taken aback by the fact that it had never crossed my mind to ask him that very question myself. Why not? If he had a broken arm, or the flu, I would have asked him what he needed to feel better. Why didn’t it occur to me that the person who might just know what is best for Dan is Dan? In the past, he had been honest about what he needed. While I wracked my brain trying to figure out how I could help him, I never once asked him.
I learned a valuable lesson the day we met with Dan’s therapist. It is important to ask our loved ones who are suffering what they need. Everyone deserves to be listened to. At the very least, we are showing them respect, opening up the lines of communication, and letting them know their insights are valued. And who knows, we just might be surprised at some of their answers.
Janet, this post is a great reminder to me of the importance of listening. I tend to do the “mind reading” thing and try to figure out the best way to help someone, what that person needs, what that person wants, etc. And I do the reverse. I sometimes think others should read my mind and know what I need. That doesn’t work too well, either. Open communication is what we should all be striving for.
I agree, Tina. I do the same thing, especially with people who are close to me. I think they should just know what I need, but it’s never that simple. Thanks for sharing.
There’s a fine line between helping and enabling. There’s a fine line between pushing and flooding. How does one determine? Rhetorical question.
Thanks for your insights, Kahra, and I understand what you are saying. Of course none of what I discuss is as easy in real life as it sounds on paper, and I actually wrote a post a while back saying just that:
That being said, I do think open, honest communication among all parties can be extremely helpful. Thanks for commenting!
That is just the beauty of therapy..those “aha” moments when the therapist tells you something and you think, “now why didn’t I think of that?”
Listening is such a skill. My dear sister is a natural listener. It took me years to realize why she was such a comfort to me, besides the obvious fact that I love her to pieces and enjoy her company,and it was because she listened and did not bombard me with advice or try to fix things for me. If I had a problem, she would conclude our visit with the simple question of “What can I do to help you?” Often there was nothing, just having someone to listen was enough, but I learned from her how valuable it is to be a listener and to ask that question.
Lovely post Janet. I am sad to hear Dan is having OCD symptoms. I know it can be very discouraging, the waxing and waning of OCD scares me every time..but I have been in and out of it enough now to know that you can kick it to the curb and make your life manageable. There is always hope, keep fighting.. and you all are in my thoughts.
Thanks so much for your insights, Kris, and everyone should have someone like your sister in their life.
I think my post might have been confusing, as this meeting with the therapist happened about four years ago. I am incredibly thankful that at this moment, Dan is still doing very well. Thank you for your ongoing support!
Love this post, Janet! Even though at times I hate doing the things that I know are good for me, if a family member asks me what they can do to help, I usually answer honestly and tell them not to enable me. I know at times it can be a surprise to them too. But deep down, I do want to get better, even though I know it’s hard for all of us to do the work of getting better.
Thanks for sharing, Sunny. You are right….I was surprised at Dan’s comment, but of course I shouldn’t have been. Like you say, he wanted to get better. Our goals were the same, we just weren’t communicating well.
So important is so many situations to ask “What do you need from me to help.” My added tip: Most of the time the answer is one you can implement. When you cannot or choose not to do what is asked, you can keep the conversation caring by saying “You want me to (fill in the blank), I can’t/won’t. What else can I do to help?”
This is what I call a Gotcha War tactic, so if that is part of the problem, the other may just walk away. Teens do that so when asking the outrageous. Sometimes they want you to say “No” but can’t take the loss of face.
You have done so much for Dan, but so much more by sharing and caring with others. Thank you.
Thank you for your kind words, Katherine, and for your added tips as well. As long as we keep the conversation caring, as you say, we can’t go wrong.
I might be going out on a limb of assumption here, but I think all any of us wants (OCD or not) is to be a meaningful member of society. We want to know our lives matter and that we are seen as valuable to those around us. It’s hard to contribute when everyone around you just makes concessions and takes care of everything.
As someone with OCD, I feel ashamed when those around me don’t think I will keep up with my responsibilities and yet, as a chronic over-helper (probably OCD-related), I know for certain that trying to ease the load on a loved one’s suffering is a very kind and loving response.
I don’t think there are any clear and final answers, but asking the question is a great place to start! 🙂
I think you make some excellent points, and also appreciate your sharing your own experiences which show how complicated our interactions can be when OCD is involved. I agree, asking the question is a great place to start, and not everyone will have the same answer either…
My own family has gone through a similar process with me. It took a lot of upsetting moments at the dinner table and a family session with the therapist for my own mom to realize what I was trying to express in terms of how I felt she could best support me. I think it can be scary for a mom; you see your child suffering and you have the overwhelming need to DO something about it. You want to fix it.
Thanks for stopping by my blog btw! Have you heard of the Blog for Mental Health 2013 project. The WordPress blog A Canvas of The Minds did an open pledge and I recently decided to go for it, since blogging about my own experience with OCD has been what I do anyway I have really enjoyed your blog and want to share it with my readers, so I decided to pledge you if that’s ok?
Thanks for your time 🙂
I think it says a lot about you that, with everything you’ve been through, you have taken the time to try to look at things from your mom’s perspective. Yes, this OCD is hard on everyone in the family, for sure. Thanks for sharing, and for including me in your Blog for Mental Health 2013 project!