Over the years, I’ve written quite a few posts that discuss OCD and family interactions, and the general consensus seems to be that the single most helpful thing loved ones can do for those suffering from OCD is not enable them. While our instincts might tell us to do whatever we can to reduce our loved one’s suffering, instincts are typically not correct when dealing with OCD, an illness that follows no logic.
Okay, so we know we are not supposed to enable. But how, exactly, do we stop? When I’ve been posed this question before, I usually recommend families discuss their individual situations with their loved one’s therapist. Unfortunately, I’ve heard from many family members who are shut out completely from their loved one’s therapy, and are left trying to figure it all out on their own.
So let’s take an example. Perhaps your daughter’s OCD revolves around contamination and you have gotten to the point where you do her laundry separately, using the rituals she has demanded, in order to keep her anxiety down. This has evolved into sometimes hours of extra laundry time for you, often having to start over if she feels you didn’t do something “right.” You’ve decided enough is enough, you realize what you are doing is only strengthening your daughter’s OCD, and you’re determined to stop. I’m not a therapist, but here are some of my thoughts:
- You could tell your daughter you will not be enabling her in this area in any way, shape, or form any longer. You will do her laundry with the rest of the household laundry, or she can learn to do her own. I think, in most cases, it makes sense to discuss this beforehand and come up with a starting date.
- You could (possibly with her assistance) devise a plan to stop the enabling gradually. For example, you could first cut out the rituals related to the washing machine, and then move on to rituals related to the dryer, then those involving handling or folding clothing. You need to decide on a timetable, stand firm, and stick to it.
That doesn’t sound so hard, right? I have to admit, in our family’s case, it was relatively easy to stop accommodating Dan. This was mainly because he was so invested in getting well that he reacted positively when we told him we wouldn’t be enabling him anymore. The best advice we received when Dan left his residential treatment program was, “Treat him normally, and expect the same things from him as you would from your children who don’t have OCD.”
But as I’ve written before, OCD is often messy. The daughter in this post might fly into a rage, refuse to acknowledge you, or cry for days once the enabling stops. Parents might disagree on how, when, and even if, enabling should end. The whole thing could be so agonizing for the entire family that you just revert back to enabling. And this is a simplified scenario; it often gets even more complicated, depending on what type of enabling is going on, and how old the OCD sufferer is.
As long as you enable your loved one with OCD, the less likely they are to try to free themselves from OCD’s grip. Why should they? They have little incentive to get better. If your loved one’s therapist is unwilling to meet with you to discuss this crucial step toward recovery, it might be time to consider finding another therapist; one who realizes the importance of teaching families how not to enable.
If you have any suggestions about how not to enable, I’d love to hear them!