OCD and Trauma

Family ShadowWhen discussing the causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the general consensus is that a combination of genetic and environmental factors likely leads to its development. There’s talk of genetic predisposition, triggering events, and childhood trauma. Oh, how that last one makes me cringe, and whether it’s my imagination or not, I’ve often felt I was being judged as a parent. The stigma I deal with personally has more to do with “What kind of parent are you?” than “Your son has a mental illness.”

So it makes me think. What kind of parent am I? Did I, or my husband, traumatize our son Dan and contribute to the development of his OCD? Well, I really don’t know. I’m certain that Dan grew up in a safe and loving home. But we’re not perfect. Was I less than patient when “forcing” toilet training on him as his fourth birthday fast approached? Yes. Should I have paid more attention to him when we were focused on dealing with his sister’s serious illness? Probably. While childhood trauma is sometimes unavoidable (the sudden death of a loved one, for example), I think the way it is dealt with can either minimize the trauma or exacerbate it. Should I have been calmer and cooler at times? Sure. Looking back, there are definitely things I could have done better. There are always things I, or any parent, could have done better. Would it have mattered?

Almost three years ago, I wrote about the incident I believe might have triggered Dan’s OCD. I think about that, too. While it was obviously a traumatizing event for Dan (accidentally hurting a friend), it might not have had the same impact on a different child. Dan’s sensitivity, gentleness, and compassion for others made this occurrence particularly upsetting to him. A combination of factors.

Unfortunately, when talking about OCD and trauma in Dan’s case, I believe the trauma he endured after his diagnosis outweighs any he withstood earlier. He was traumatized by improper treatment, including talk therapy, as well as being wrongly and overly medicated. Physical and mental side effects were not only unbearable, they were downright dangerous.

And that “What kind of parent are you?” judgment I’ve felt at times? It saddens me to say I’ve encountered this scrutiny at the hands of some mental health professionals. The ones we turned to for help.

And so the stigma lives on. While never for a moment did I let my fear of being judged interfere with my mission of getting Dan help, this fear might deter others. The focus for mental health professionals, indeed for all of us, needs not to be on where OCD came from, or whose “fault” it is, but how it can best be obliterated. No stigma, no judgment, no trauma. Just understanding, respect, and proper treatment.

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28 Responses to OCD and Trauma

  1. Gamayun says:

    Reblogged this on The Crazy Katze and commented:
    This is an interesting look. Something I never considered, and looking back at my history…I would never say that there was some trauma that triggered my OCD. Still, I had never even heard of this as a potential cause for OCD. The things one learns…

  2. Janet, Thank you for this vey important post. I believe many parents fear being judged as they try to help their children. Frankly, the training that many mental health professionals received in the not-to-distant past (including the training I received myself) placed the cause roots of the disorder in parenting practices. That training made me feel a bit terrified to seek treatment for my own child. Thank goodness we were referred to someone who was well-trained in current thinking about OCD and in CBT-ERP. Thank you for sharing your own personal struggle and for being an advocate for parents. – Angie

    • Thanks for your insight, Angie. Wow, that is really unsettling to hear that OCD was recently thought to have roots in poor parenting. I’m thankful for the relatively recent strides in research that point to the fact that OCD is an organic disease of the brain.I can’t help thinking that autism was also believed to have been caused by detached, unloving parents…….makes me shudder. Being a parent of a child suffering from a brain disorder is hard enough without having to deal with these “theories.”

  3. C says:

    I think the idea that “poor parenting” triggered/caused that was held has finally been debunked. Makes no sense–what about the siblings of the child who develops ocd? It is frustrating to know that with all the science and research out there, we still don’t know 100% what causes ocd…but as your earlier post suggests, I believe it is “the perfect storm” of genetics, environment, personality (high achieving, bright) and sometimes a triggering event. This was extremely important for me: I had months of an undiagnosed infected appendix where the doctors thought it was a cyst or heartburn at age nine and ended up getting emergency surgery on a Friday night where my appendix ruptured in the OR. That’s pretty traumatic for a nine year old, and I started getting ocd symptoms immediately after. Wasn’t Dan 12 when his trigger happened? You couldn’t have done anything for Dan to avoid that accident…just like my parents couldn’t have done anything to foresee that I would get very ill and traumatized by my sickness and surgery.

    That age group…9-12, seems to be when the “perfect storm” starts its season.

    • Hi C, You bring up a lot of good points. A ruptured appendix is traumatic for anyone, but a nine year old? I can’t even begin to imagine. And it’s so clear to you that that event triggered your OCD. Yes, Dan was around the same age when his “perfect storm” occurred. Because his compulsions were mostly mental, we never knew he was dealing with OCD…..until he told us when he was seventeen. Wishing you all the best as you continue to move forward.Thanks for sharing.

  4. There are probably so many things that go into when OCD manifests and how it manifests. I had my share of childhood trauma, but I don’t think it caused my OCD. Perhaps it exacerbated it. Certainly the response I got from my parents when they saw my compulsions was not exemplary. But I had to move past that. I got help on my own. And the focus was on “how do I get better,” not “who can I blame for this.” I agree with you–that should be the focus of mental health providers, too.

    • Thanks, Tina, and I know from your blog that you didn’t have a picture perfect childhood. But you have an amazing attitude and focus. A great example for others to follow!

      • Diane Calcagno says:

        Yes. I, myself, believe I have OCD. Doesn’t all compulsive gamblers have this problem? I helped myself. Noone suspected I was a compulsive gamblers — so thanks to all the brouchers to help you decide if you are one. But, in my case, I am wondering if OCD is the one causing my compulsive gambling. My problem did manifest after my mother entered nursing home/hospital during her last year of life, which meant living alone and that petrified me, although I do have the oldest brother (of three – I am the baby – our father died when I was only two months old) to keep daily contact with afterward. I, often wonder why I have this and am still affected by this — I play games on facebook and just cannot seems to stop. Nobody else in the family seem to have this problem. I am deaf and grew up in hearing environment and didn’t socialize with deaf friends until I began working when I was in my twenty. Like most mothers (I believe), my mother was very protective of me (overly, I think), but I thank her very very much for helping me with my speech as I was told many times that I speak well for deaf person. But, I do wonder if not having social activities while growing up could have cause my problem, since to fill my free times after school and nobody to play with, I play games, do little art, or puzzles by myself — like gameboys — used to play that on our vaction trips. I cannot help but wonder if by having social activities with someone could have prevented this problem. Because, sometime, I am able to stop on my own, especially, when I asked myself ‘why am I doing this?!’ No way would I blame my mother for this. But, is this possible cause? I believe I am really just OCD and as thus have potential problem of being compulsive gamblers.

      • Hi Diane, Thanks for sharing. I am not a therapist but as I understand it, a gambling addiction is not necessarily related to OCD. You ask a lot of good questions and I would recommend talking to a professional about your concerns, if you are still having issues. Good luck!

    • olives0505 says:

      Love your mature, responsible approach! Finding out why our disorder developed if it helps in our recovery is one thing, but growing bitter about it will only bring on another host of negative issues.

  5. Another option not often talked about is PANDAS. And onset after a strep infection. Our loved one has this type. Looking into the close family members we can see OCD tendencies we never noticed before we started dealing with OCD in our own lives. We believe the strep was the trigger. 😦

  6. As my parents read my blog about living with OCD, it has sometimes concerned me that they might infer from this that they were in some way to blame for my having the condition. They have identified a possible genetic link – with my maternal grandmother – but, so far, haven’t directly assumed any blame, much to my relief!

  7. 71 & Sunny says:

    This makes me think about autism. For years, it was thought that it was caused by having a mother who was cold and non-affectionate. Um, totally wrong!!

    Interestingly enough, my psychologist came right out and told me she didn’t care why I had OCD. She said knowing why was meaningless in trying to treat it, so why waste valuable and expensive therapy time on it. I’ve come to agree with her. Even so, I have a pretty good idea of where my illness came from (lots of different things – as you say “a perfect storm”) and I can’t remember any traumatic events.

    • Thanks for your insight, Sunny, and yes, it does remind me of autism. I also agree there is no point on dwelling on the question of where OCD comes from. Better to concentrate on just getting rid of it! I always appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  8. Abigail says:

    ” No stigma, no judgment, no trauma. Just understanding, respect, and proper treatment.” So well said. I’m sorry for the stigma you have faced as a parent of a child with a mental illness. I think my parents have been judged based on their children in moments when their children were struggling. But it isn’t fair. Now that I am a teacher, I realize that all we can do is our best for each moment. Which is never perfect, but usually good enough.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Abigail, and of course you are right. If we do our best, and our hearts are in the right place, that’s all we can expect from ourselves. A good lesson for your students, I’m sure!

  9. My mom too has struggled with feelings of guilt, wondering if it was something she or my dad did or didn’t do that triggered my OCD. There were some complications when I was born (I am missing the tips of several fingers and toes), and so my mom didn’t get to hold me immediately, and one therapist suggested that might have contributed. Who knows? I know that on the surface my childhood was pretty trauma-free EXCEPT for the OCD. I blame strep throat/PANDAS.

    • You’re right, Jackie, who knows?? As others have said, maybe it’s best not to dwell on what we can’t change, and rather expend our energy on getting rid of OCD. Thanks for your insight!

  10. Patty says:

    Hi Janet,
    Thanks for this post. It is actually pretty timely with some work I am doing with my therapist. In addition to ERP for my OCD, we are dealng with some childhood trauma I went through and have never fully dealt with. Though intertwined as part of me, I do consider these as separate issues. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 25 and my dad passed away that my OCD really started kicking in and continued to rachet up as the years and additional traumatic events occured (my mom passed away suddenly when I was 39, breast cancer diagnosis at 42 {6 year survivor!}, brother’s divorce). I do believe my OCD has a biological root and it is poked into action by trauma (anxiety of any kind really), but not caused by it per se. I think that working through some childhood trauma can help me heal and help to lower my overall anxiety, but it is the CBT-ERP that will help me with OCD recovery.

    I think you are a fantastic mom and, quite honestly, a role model for anyone who wants to get involved and make a positive difference. I am so pleased to have found your blog and look forward to getting to the “other side”, so that I too can help those who are in need of information and strength. Many, many thanks! Patty

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Patty. They are much appreciated. You certainly have been through more than your fair share of trauma, and everything you say makes sense to me. It sounds as if you have some great therapists to help you through your OCD and childhood trauma….I appreciate your sharing.

  11. Susan says:

    My son suffers from severe OCD. It’s tough saying the words “Mental
    illness”. It was like when my daughter received the diagnosis of Tourettes. It took 2 years to wrap my mind around that one. My son suffered from huge panic attacks, triggered by the death of a friend. This was the trauma caused to him. The psychologist he saw said that he must have been abused as a child. He couldn’t remember any abuse, and even though I had moments of having less patience, I was doing my best. Matt was loved , he was so cute.. Now he’s afraid of seeing a psychiatrist and being more traumatized. It’s a balancing act this OCD and were walking a fine line.. 😦

    • Hi Susan, I get so angry when I hear stories such as yours. I’m so sorry your son had that bad experience with a psychologist and that set him back. So frustrating and unnecessary. I hope you can find a good health care provider who knows how to treat OCD with ERP therapy. They are out there, it’s just not always easy to find them. Have you looked at the IOCDF web site? Wishing you all the best as you move forward.

  12. heartfelt says:

    Hey there, I recently read a sign that said, “there are no perfect parents!”. I also totally emphasise that Dan suffered more after being diagnosed – my situation echoes that. I wished the health professionals had been more eager to treat each case individually -than to jump in guns blazing. I have had some symptoms of OCD – or so I was told but my great specialist on the last visit just laughed “well I would say you have GAD but lets see we could give you another label if you’d rather how about….”. This was after we talked about how a guy who refused to go back to Iraq carrying a gun was diagnosed with maladjustment syndrome – yeah right.

    Anyway off the topic – I just wanted to say from the point of view of the child that what you talk about is tricky, for me it has helped being able to determine the childhood trauma and re-examine it. – not dwell on it. This doesn’t cure the symptoms but it does enhance my understanding in being able to see the link between cause and effect. It was difficult for my mother, as she did not really want to re-visit the situation, but there was no judgement on my part. I know what happened was beyond her control, or just her dealing with a difficult time; but I did need the acknowledgement that it did happened and it impacted me, and the freedom to be able to talk about it.

    Would another child be effected in a similar way? Who knows? Many are, some aren’t. A wise person once told me children are great recorders and bad interpreters. Either way trauma can be neither the parents or child’s fault – judgement doesn’t enter into it. Just as trauma in adulthood can come into our lives unbidden. I just think it is a mothers lot to feel mother guilt sometimes, just like a lot of my friends who feel guilty for all sorts of reasons (ie: their child falls off a couch). It is just natural to have the expectation that you have the responsibility of protecting your child from all harm and are able to.

    • Thanks so much for your insight, and I agree that it is very important to acknowledge events and/or circumstances that might have caused trauma. Just validating how someone feels, and saying, “Yes, this or that did happen.” can go a long way. I think it’s great that you are able to do this without passing judgement, as I think that is very difficult for a lot of people to do. Thanks again for sharing!

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