Tag Archives: obsessive-compulsive disorder

The Blurring of Diagnoses

There was a time in my life when I could not get through an entire day without throwing up.  I would get hungry, eat to the point of discomfort and vomit.  I went to therapists who tried to help me.  I tried various techniques, stalling methods, eliminating certain foods, but in the end nothing I did helped.  I couldn’t stop.  I remember sitting in my apartment, afraid to eat anything because to eat meant I would purge.  It was no longer a choice.  It was something I had to do.  All of this was complicated by body image issues, tremendous shame and the belief that who I was depended on how thin I was.  That I was dying inside seemed less important than how I looked.

“One major distinction between an addiction and a compulsion (as it is experienced in obsessive-compulsive disorder) is the experience of pleasure. While people who have addictions suffer all manner of discomforts, the desire to use the substance or engage in the behavior is based on the expectation that it will be pleasurable.

“In contrast, someone who experiences a compulsion as part of obsessive-compulsive disorder may not get any pleasure from the behavior he carries out. Often, it is a way of dealing with the obsessive part of the disorder, resulting in a feeling of relief.”  ~ About.com

When I read a description such as this one, I begin to question my eating disorder as addiction and wonder whether it was much closer to the definition for OCD  because though it all began with a desire to quell pain and seeking pleasure, by the time I found recovery, pleasure was illusive and no longer part of the equation.  “This can get a little confusing because there often comes a point for people with addictions where they don’t really enjoy the addictive behavior, and they are just seeking relief from the urge to use or engage in the behavior.

Although this can look like obsessive-compulsive behavior because the pleasure is gone, the original motivation to engage in the behavior was to feel good.”  ~ Helpguide.org.   So we have come full circle and are back to addiction.

I bring all of this up because as with anything whether we are talking about addiction, OCD,  anxiety or any of the other numerous issues many people struggle with, the labels can overlap.  So I was an active addict and when I was active, my addictive behavior mimicked pretty classic OCD behavior.  There was a point when the idea of sitting with my feelings, sitting and not tamping them down with food was inconceivable to me.  I really believed I would die.  This statement describes OCD almost exactly.  “OCD… characterized by uncontrollable, unwanted thoughts and repetitive, ritualized behaviors you feel compelled to perform.” ~ Helpguide.org

And yet, even though OCD looks a lot like addiction, there are differences.  Differences that make helping someone with one or the other tricky, but understanding the differences is important.  For example the two most common forms of treatment for OCD is cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication, though neither have proven to be entirely successful and often it is said that OCD, like addiction is something one must learn to manage for the rest of ones life, these treatments flourish.  Treatment options for addiction have proven to be equally challenging.  Some people have found help in working a 12-step program, but others have not.

While the onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder usually occurs during adolescence or young adulthood, younger children sometimes have symptoms that look like OCD. However, the symptoms of other disorders, such as ADD, autism, and Tourette’s syndrome, can also look like obsessive-compulsive disorder, so a thorough medical and psychological exam is essential before any diagnosis is made.” ~ Helpguide.org

Someone whose neurology is autistic may have OCD AND a whole host of other things too, similar to the non autistic population.  Because there is so often an overlap, people mistakenly think that autism is the same as OCD or assume that ALL Autistic children and people have OCD.  The lines between the two become blurred and the distinctions get lost.  So much of what people believe IS autism, are actually co-morbids.  Without making the distinction between what is and isn’t “autism” we may be treating something that we should not be or are missing what we could treat, but aren’t.

Autistic neurology, like non autistic neurology needs to be separated from the co-morbids that affect some, but not all people.  Just as I am non autistic AND an (not active) addict, no one would leap to the conclusion that because I am both, ALL non autistic people are also addicts or that addiction is the same as being non autistic.  Yet, we see this kind of thinking over and over with autism and Autistic people.

Em on her pogo stick copy

There is Always Hope, Sometimes It’s Hard To Find

Sometimes I feel completely inadequate in the face of our society’s insanity.  Sometimes I wish I weren’t a part of the human race.  Sometimes I feel so much rage at all that’s WRONG with the world, with the mess we’ve made of our planet and each other.  Sometimes I just want to go live in a cave in some part of the world that isn’t inhabited by other people, just me, my husband, my children and a few select others.  I want to build a new world, a new community, a new set of societal rules where minority doesn’t equal less.  Where prejudices weren’t tolerated, where people helped each other without expectations of what they would get in return.  A place where people understood that the reward in helping and being of service to our fellow human beings was in the act of doing and not in the form of monetary gain, gold medals, our names engraved on plaques or statues carved in our likeness.

I spent most of my twenties and half of my thirties in hiding.  I hid inside my eating disorder.  I drank more alcohol than my body could cope with, I smoked cigarettes, I took drugs, I did anything I could NOT to be present.  Even in those moments when I did manage to show up, I wasn’t really present.  Not completely.  Not really.  I was angry and hated how angry I was.  I was depressed and hated how depressed I was.  I couldn’t face any of it, for so many years, I just couldn’t.  Eventually I became suicidal.  I couldn’t stand the feelings any more.  I was filled with so much rage, I turned it inward and thought the answer was to kill myself.  I remember I fantasized about driving to a state where I could buy a gun.  That was how I wanted it all to end.  I would blow my brains out.  I was seeing a therapist and when I admitted this to him he said, “You have to go to a 12 step program.   You have to find people who are struggling with an eating disorder just as you are.”  When I told him all the reasons why this was not a possibility he leaned forward and said, “What have you got to lose?”  I will never forget that.  I will never forget how he looked at me.  I will never forget the feeling I had when he said those words – “What have you got to lose?”

So I went.  And I hated it.  A bunch of obese people, a couple of anorexics and an assortment of others sitting around talking about how they couldn’t stop eating or starving or obsessing.  I was horrified.  How had I ended up here?  Wasn’t I different?  Wasn’t I better than this?  I remember I looked around that circle of people in that dingy room lit with strands of donated christmas lights, despite the fact that it was March, and the signs with various slogans plastered on the wall – “We came for the vanity and stayed for the sanity”  and “One Day At a Time”  and “Progress not perfection” and I thought to myself, I have entered hell.  This is not what I want.  This is not where I want to be.  I am not one of these people.  I am BETTER than them.  I don’t NEED to be here.

But I stayed.  Because really, where else was I going to go?  I knew what lay outside the door of those rooms.  I knew, left to my own devices, I would binge and puke and rage and cry and binge and puke.  I knew the cycle, I’d been doing it for more than twenty years.  So I kept going to the “meetings” and I bought the literature and people gave me little notes with their phone numbers and hearts on them that I’d promptly throw away, but they kept giving me more notes with more little hearts and more phone numbers and eventually, eventually I called one of these people and they took the time to talk to me.  There were the steps, each one mapped out a way of behaving that was different from the way I lived my life, so I began doing them, never once thinking that those “steps” would become a way to live my life more than a decade later.  There was a great deal of talk about taking the next right action, staying in the present, taking things slowly, changing ingrained behaviors and being of service.  There was talk of “god” and again I felt there was no hope for me.  How could there be?  I didn’t believe.

I have never believed in god, I’ve tried, I just don’t, but I do have faith.  I have faith in human being’s ability to do great things if we are shown how.   Some of us need more help than others.  I’m one of them.  I needed a great deal of patience, support and help.  I needed to have my hand held by those who had once been where I was.  I needed others to show me the way.  I needed to hear about their struggles, I needed to know that I wasn’t alone.

When Emma was diagnosed, I had a road map, instructing me, helping me.  All those meetings spent in dingy basements without heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer had shown me another way.  I knew, if nothing else, I had to keep showing up.  There were days I didn’t want to.  I’ve done a great number of things I wish I could take back.  I’ve made countless mistakes.  But I know, I know with all my being that hiding, that not showing up, isn’t an option.  So I research, I read, I reach out to Autistics, I listen, I ask questions and I try to learn everything I can so that I can better understand and help my daughter.  In helping my daughter, I am helping myself.  I am helping myself become a better human being.  There are mornings when I wake up and think, What the hell am I doing?  I don’t know how to do this.  I don’t know what the right decision is.  Is this the right school?  Is this the best therapy?   Does she understand?  What would she say if she could communicate her thoughts?  What would she tell me?  

Much of the time I don’t know.  What I do know is that the basic principles and actions that got me free from the grip of my eating disorder are the same actions and principles that help me parent both my children.  Be honest.  Find safe people to talk to.  Have the willingness to show up.  Be present.  Reach out to others.  Ask questions.  Listen.  Really listen.  If I’m overwhelmed, acknowledge that.  Take a break.  Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something.  But the thing that helps me more than anything else (I know I’ve said this so many times) is to be in conversation with Autistics.  When I am feeling sad or confused, or overwhelmed, or have questions, I reach out to my Autistic friends.  And even when they don’t know the answer to my question, they remind me of what’s possible.  They remind me that my neurotypical take on my daughter is often incorrect.  They remind me of all the misinformation out there.  They remind me of what is important.

So for any of you reading this who are despairing, who feel it’s hopeless, that the divide between your child and you is too great, know this:  There are hundreds and hundreds of verbal and nonverbal Autistic adults who are blogging, on Facebook, on Twitter, they are talking, they are asking to be heard, they are asking to be respected, they are asking for the same rights as any other human being, they are asking to be treated as you would want to be treated.  Reach out to them.  Google, read books, read blogs, get on Twitter and Facebook, do the research, ask questions, make comments.  If you’re suicidal or feeling you can no longer cope, get help.  Get support.  There are a great many organizations like 12-step programs that do not cost anything, but rely solely on donations given voluntarily.  Find the people whose voices resonate and then find more.  Because really, what have you got to lose?

2002 – Me with Em and Nic

Breaking Routines

I have written about Emma’s need for routines.  Like many children with autism, the desire to do the same thing, whether it’s watch Mary Poppins for the two thousandth time (not an exaggeration) or go to the Central Park Zoo, followed by a visit to FAO Schwartz and ending with a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, has an obsessive compulsive urgency to it.  Emma has gotten much, much better about being more flexible, but this Sunday morning Emma became fixated on going to the zoo.  Despite the fact she went to the Bronx Zoo with a caregiver the weekend before and the Central Park Zoo the weekend before that, despite the fact going to the zoo is less about leisurely strolling through the various artificial habitats and looking at the animals who reside there and very much about a specific route that must be held to.

During those increasingly rare times I have indulged Emma’s request to go to a place, like the zoo, I end up running after her while she zips from one thing to the next.  At the Central Park Zoo, given her preference, she will begin with a visit to the bat cave, racing past the exotic birds, stand for less than three minutes peering into the dark cave while saying, “Look at the bats!  Be careful, the bats will bite you!” before tearing off, regardless of what I might think to say to engage her in an attempt to slow the routine down, past the Colobus Monkeys and outside again to stare at some other type of monkey who reside on a few strategically placed rocks in the middle of a man-made lake.  Then it’s off to see the old, decrepit and now blind seal, into the penguin and puffin house, then back outside to watch the sea lions being fed.  If we’ve missed a feeding, we must wait until the next feeding.  Emma will patiently sit until the next show and then watch until the last unfortunate fish has been tossed into the gaping mouth of a lucky sea lion, before we are allowed to leave.

But Sunday is the day we try to do something together as a family.  Sunday is the day we attempt to take everyone’s desires into consideration.  Sundays can be difficult.  Nic, more often than not, wants to go see a movie or get together with a family we know who has children Nic’s age, Richard, being the amazing man that he is, is often game to go with the flow and I will do just about anything that doesn’t involve going to one of Emma’s favored haunts.  (Lest anyone think I’m a dreadful mother, may I just defend myself here and say I have been to the American Museum of Natural History several thousand times and would be grateful if I never went there again, literally, for the rest of my life, likewise to the zoo, any zoo for that matter and, while we’re at it, any carousel, anywhere in the entire world.)  It may sound harsh, but there it is.

So when Emma launched in about going to the zoo this past Sunday morning, I said simply, “Not today, Em.”

“Go with Mommy!”  Emma cried pointing at me.  “Just you and me, go to the zoo.”

It was heartbreaking to hear her carefully using the correct pronouns, requesting me, specifically.  Never-the-less I stood firm.  Then Emma brought out the big guns.  “Mommy talk to Daddy,” she cried.  “Mommy talk to Daddy about the zoo.”   It was a stroke of manipulative genius, pitting one parent against the other, knowing that where Mommy wasn’t caving, Daddy just might.  I actually had to leave the room, I felt such a welling up of pride.  She’s becoming quite the negotiator I thought, as I prepared for our “study room” session.

By the time Emma was halfway into our literacy session, the obsession with the zoo had ebbed and when we ended our session with sitting still for five minutes, the obsessive grip no longer held her.   We ended up having a lovely Sunday with Nic and Emma going to their gymnastics class, on the way to Union Square we happened upon an Occupy Wall Street protest, giving me ample subject matter to photograph, before meeting some friends in Union Square.  Emma and I made a brief visit to Barnes and Noble and then home, where we did some more literacy work before Nic and I made custom made hamburgers, cole slaw and french fries for dinner – inspired by the Food network’s favorite burgers show, which aired over the weekend – only ours were better.

Occupy Wall Street Protest

Em waiting for me

The Family – Who’s that devilishly handsome man (Gasp!) with those two adorable children?

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   Emma’s Hope Book


I’ve been thinking a great deal about “stimming” which was the topic of yesterday’s post.  Stimming or self-stimulation is the word used for what many children and adults do who have been diagnosed with autism.  It is the repetitive behavior, often as varied as the personalities of the person engaged in it, used to self-regulate or calm oneself.  Many people with autism suffer from a wide range of sensory issues.  Emma may well experience light and sound differently than I do, for example.  I know she experiences physical pain differently.  A small, seemingly incidental scratch causes her to howl in pain, clutching the injured body part, scratching at it or rubbing it vigorously.  Yet a fall, that looks extremely painful, will be ignored.  Days later a large bruise might appear or swelling, which only makes one that much more aware of how it must have hurt and yet she didn’t seem to notice.

Sometimes Emma will plug her ears with her fingers when someone is speaking, often it is when one of us join her in singing a song.  I’ve noticed she does this when her air conditioner is on as well.  The low hum it makes is something she is unable to tolerate.  All of these examples are specific to Emma.  And it makes me wonder whether there are many other things I cannot know about;  does she see certain colors in a way that is painful?  Are some colors brighter to her, even garish and therefore hurt her eyes to look at?  I know certain sounds hurt her ears, sounds like that hum of her air conditioner, does it merely bother her or is it actually painful?  I can’t know.  What I do know is that if  one was bombarded with images, noise, sensations that I could not verbalize, would I not seek refuge in something I could control?  I don’t know, but I think I would.  Is Emma, when she twirls the plastic backing to the velcro strip around and around, soothing herself from an overload of external senses?  It seems likely.

Yet how is this so different from addictive behavior?  Is it not somewhat similar or in the same general ball park?  If someone engages in hours of video game playing or round after round of Solitaire on their computer or Spider (my particular favorite), how is this not also a kind of stimming?  At the very least it is certainly perseverative behavior.   If the game was just played once or for a few minutes that would be one thing, but what of the person(s) who plays endless games, one after the other?  A friend of mine said to me a few months ago, “Sometimes I ask myself – how many times do I have to win before I’ll stop and say that’s enough?  Because when I win there’s no real satisfaction or feeling that – okay now I’m won, it’s time to stop.  I mean how many hours have I wasted playing a really stupid game on the computer over and over again?”  I’m guessing many people can relate to this.  Even if they aren’t into computer generated games, there are other things many of us engage in, mindless “games” or habits we do that we wish we didn’t.  Consider all the games, video games, obsessive exercising, compulsive eating, compulsive dieting, any and all obsessions, compulsions or habits that get in the way of our lives or health, all the things we do while knowing they aren’t good for us and yet we can’t help ourselves from doing them anyway?

When I watch Emma twirling her strip of plastic, while jumping up and down and singing I am reminded of my own perseverative behaviors, the hours I’ve spent doing mindless activities, all to what end?  Am I too, calming myself?  Is this my own brand of self soothing?  I have harsher judgements about my activities, particularly computer games, than I do of Emma’s activities.  I have even, periodically deleted all games from my computer or mechanical device, only to reinstall at a later date.  Certainly there is a compulsiveness to my behavior and I would even go so far as to say an obsessiveness.  I do not mean to suggest my OCD tendencies are remotely the same as what Emma must go through on a daily basis, that would be insensitive and dismissive of her very serious sensory and neurological issues, but I throw this out as something I’ve noticed and can relate to in a very superficial way.  Of course I could be completely wrong about all of this and anyway I have to hurry so that I can finish today’s crossword before starting my day.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism and obsessive behavior go to:  www.Emmashopebook.com


Emma is not alone in liking her routines.  She is most comfortable when she knows she will do something she enjoys or is use to.  What separates Emma from the rest of us is that instead of being able to adjust when her routine is disrupted, she is thrown completely off-balance to a degree that often catches even us by surprise.

Last night Emma went through her nighttime routine of getting ready for bed.  After her teeth had been brushed she came to find me in the back where I was reading.

“Just five minutes,” she said as she got into our bed.  “Just five minutes with Mommy.”

“Hey Em.   Okay five minutes, then you’ll go back to your bed,” I agreed.

About ten minutes later I looked up from my book and realized Emma had fallen asleep.  There was a moment when I wondered if I should just let her sleep and try to carry her into her bed later, but she’s gotten so big, short of carting her out on a gurney, this is no longer an option.

“Hey Emmy,” I whispered as I put my arm around her.  “You have to go to sleep in your own bed.”

She resisted me.  “Stay here with Mommy,” she muttered.

“Come on.  I’ll take you back to your bed.”  I held out my hand and waited for her to get up.

“Go with Mommy into the other room,” she said.

Ever compliant, she allowed me to lead her back to her own bedroom where she got into bed.  “Mommy sing a song?”

Having sung her a lullaby I went back to my book, relishing in the fact Emma was back asleep in her own bed without a fuss, something I am still consistently surprised by.

Half an hour later, cries from Emma’s room could be heard.  She tearfully offered us her flashlight, a gift from my brother, which glows in the dark.  “It’s broken,” she sobbed.

We tried replacing its batteries with no success and finally placated her with promises of repairing it in the morning.

Another half hour went by and then there Emma was, like a spectre, at the foot of our bed.  “Mommy come!” she cried.

This went on for about an hour.  Emma would tearfully return to her bed, one of us would sit with her for a few minutes, tuck her in, say good night and leave, only to have her reappear ten or fifteen minutes later, crying about something else.  It’s like watching a pin ball ricocheting around, from one thing to the next until eventually Richard took her back to her bed and for whatever reason, this time she was able to go back to sleep.

Emma is sensitive to the slightest variation in her routine.  It is something we know about her and do our best to accommodate.  When she was little we use to mix things up on purpose.  We tried to avoid routines with the mistaken idea that if she were not allowed to have any routines, she would learn to adapt to change more easily.  But this proved wrong and impossible.  Emma would go along with things as chaotic as they might be, but the instant we did something, anything more than a few times, she would become fixated on doing the same, over and over again.  In addition the children’s school, our own work requirements, all need a schedule, as do regular bedtime, meals etc.

There are a number of studies being done on the link between autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  I don’t know if Emma has a comorbid diagnosis of OCD, but until one witnesses such behavior, it is almost impossible to explain the panic, the sheer terror, disruption causes them.