The irony is that obsessing about safety can actually make you less safe because you become so focused on an imagined problem that you don’t see the real one. When he dropped off our son at preschool, Mike began worrying that he had accidentally hit someone and not known it. Instead of watching the road, he started obsessively checking the rearview mirror.
I pleaded with him to stop worrying and pay attention.
When I explained the situation to my therapist, she recommended we see someone who specialized in obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, which Mike and I knew little about. Rather, we thought we knew, but what we imagined was the movie version: frequent hand washing, turning lights on and off, avoiding stepping on cracks. Those weren’t Mike’s problems.
Also, people often associate OCD with being a “neat freak.” How could my absent-minded husband, with his piles of unfolded clothes, possibly have OCD?
A specialist explained that Mike’s obsession wasn’t neatness but safety, especially around contamination and poisoning. His compulsions were research and seeking reassurance. Like an addictive drug, the reassurances had less effect each time, so he required more and more to get over his fear. So every time I had promised him that everything was going to be fine, I was actually feeding his disorder.
What we learned about OCD:
Symptoms usually emerge in childhood or adolescence, but can also emerge in adulthood.
Once symptoms begin, it often takes many years for people to receive the correct diagnosis and treatment.
Luckily, the treatment can be very effective.
At our first appointment with the specialist, we made a list of all the things Mike worried about and ranked them in order. Then, starting with the easier ones, he started to face his fears and just sit with the discomfort.