Supporting a child with OCD
Sophie was always a character. An original. She had a wonderful disposition that bordered on quirky so when she started to manifest symptoms of mental illness we were unprepared because we couldn’t separate her original personality from what was potentially something more worrisome. It was easy to see that she had a learning disability. The teachers at school said as much. But how to explain outbursts triggered by the anxiety of checking out of a hotel?
When we first had her tested, they got the diagnosis wrong. They thought it was ADHD. Sophie resisted and refused to take the prescribed medication. The correct diagnosis was basically a self-diagnosis. Like most 12 year olds Soph watched a lot of afternoon TV – Full House, Life with Derek the usual. But she also watched Dr. Phil and based on a guest on that show, Soph was convinced she had OCD. And she was right as we verified shortly thereafter.
Happily we were able to get her some help at CAMH. A talented and experienced psychiatrist who prescribed her the appropriate medication and found Sophie a wonderful grad student psychotherapist who began a program of CBT.
We were encouraged to join her CBT sessions. My wife would go one week, I would go the next. Frankly they were quite challenging as we listened to the therapist peeling back the inner and sometimes darkest thoughts in Sophie’s mind. Then she would invite us to participate in some of the same therapies she was trying with Sophie. “Imagine you’re on a beach, you see the waves rolling in, it’s calm, you can feel the ocean breeze…” These projections would go on for some time and for us it became difficult to stay focused. We just wanted to be on the beach! Over time, the therapist seemed to sense this and we were invited back less. With the psychiatrist we continued to meet for a number of years. He was very insightful and prudent and had an unusual way of asking the most difficult questions. Soph is a natural mimic and would play back parts of her session with the psychiatrist in a way that was humorous and disarming, at least for me.
At home, life with Sophie improved. Changing schools from a highly competitive single sex private school to Rosedale School for the Arts had an almost immediate and positive effect. She was a naturally talented actor and the new school provided an outlet for her ability and a co-ed public school environment that seemed to beat back some of the demons that had been troubling her. She still struggled to get up in the morning and procrastinated with homework. This lead to conflict and we didn’t know how much to push her so we found her a homework coach who seemed to have a powerful, yet sympathetic way of getting Sophie to bear down and finish her assignments. Since her diagnosis, we felt we had made progress in changing her academic environment and getting her good care.
There were times when Sophie was anxious and out of sorts and we would go for a drive in the car. This seemed to distract and relax her almost immediately. She didn’t need to talk much, just watch the passing scenery, particularly water and this calmed her. I can remember the sense of peace and harmony that enveloped both of us as we drove along Lakeshore Blvd often down to the Beaches and back with scarcely a word exchanged.
There were certain topics and images that we had to be sensitive to as they could trigger bad memories and provoke a negative reaction. In the early days of her CBT many were off limits. Organized religion was one, unless it was Buddhism, which she imagined she was part of. The colour purple was another image that troubled her because she connected it to a person she believed had caused her misfortune. The private school she attended prior to her diagnosis also evoked dark memories so we tried wherever possible to steer it away from the conversation.
Exercise became a great therapy for Soph. She liked skating because it was solitary and continuous – around and around the rink. We would also go skiing which she seemed to like just as much. Soph has excellent hand-eye coordination and she liked ball games of any sort but particularly ping pong. Often we played to see how many times we could rally the ball back and forth. Our all-time record was 1,847 returns.
In hindsight, supporting Soph with her OCD was not much different than supporting any child – it required plenty of love, and perhaps more sensitivity to what she was feeling at any given point in time. It also took some creativity in the search for therapies at home that would lower her anxiety and get her focused on positive thoughts. With Soph’s mental illness, there has never been a time when we felt we were completely out of the woods, but we can at least see the edge of the forest.
Ted Nation is an advertising executive with a career spanning more than 30 years in Canada, Brazil, Singapore and Chile. He is currently President of Yield Branding and most recently was named a director of Boost Child Abuse and Presentation and CANFAR