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How the Concept of 'Normal' Changed When My Son and I Were Diagnosed With OCD

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Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

I have a really hard time using the word normal without quotes. Even in my daily discussions, I have to air quote the word. I wasn’t always this way, but over the last few years, I’ve gained a completely new understanding of the word.

When you think of normal, you probably think of the usual, the status quo — like everyone else. My own personal status quo was completely shifted when my oldest son and I were diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

I think I can speak for at least most of us when I say change is hard. Am I right? And in my family, change can be downright impossible to handle some days. But we’re learning. We’re growing. And we’re shifting our idea of “normal.”

Receiving my own diagnosis of OCD was intense, but felt more like a welcome hug from a friend. Here, I’d spent my whole life looking at the people around me and wondering why it seemed so easy for them. To be around other people. To go out in public. To find socializing fun. The older I get (and the more kids I have), the harder these social situations have become to handle. I thought I was weak. I forced myself into uncomfortable situations to prove I could do the same things as everyone else. I put myself through a whole lot of unnecessary anxiety just to prove a point. And who was I proving a point to? No one else knew what was going on inside of my head because I was so desperate to hide it all.

Since discovering the haze constantly hovering around me is OCD and not weakness, I’ve learned to cut myself some slack. Yes, I still have my perfectionist tendencies that leave me grasping at straws and trying so hard to make sure things get done “right,” but for the most part, I’ve learned to be like Elsa from “Frozen” and just let it go. That doesn’t mean I’m always successful at this, but I’m trying. I don’t force myself into certain situations if I know they’re going to induce a panic attack. And when a panic attack does happen, I separate myself from everyone and do what I need to do to manage it rather than “pushing through” and dissociating so badly I can barely function.

My new version of normal has become a new lease on freedom for me. I still hold myself to high standards in everything I do, but I don’t need to beat myself up if I make a mistake. I’ve learned to laugh at myself and stop taking everything so seriously. So, while receiving my diagnosis felt like I was suddenly being shoved into a box, it’s also what’s given me wings to fly. And the same is true with my son.

When he was first diagnosed with OCD, sensory processing disorder (SPD) and a variety of other acronyms ending in “D,” I was devastated. While I was so grateful to finally have some answers to guide me in helping him, suddenly everything I worried about for the future was confirmed. It was fact, not speculation. These diagnoses would change his life.

I will admit I mourned for the “normal” life I had envisioned for him. Public school, active in sports, tons of friends and just living his best life. I figured his childhood would look a lot like mine, and mine was pretty standard.

The decision to homeschool came when the bullying kicked in and I realized he wasn’t thriving the way I’d hoped he would. The way I knew he could. Opting to forge a different path for his education was scary. I thought about how he’d miss out on all of the experiences I enjoyed in my youth. Activities, dances, the camaraderie you feel being a part of something bigger than yourself. I worried I was ruining his future for him. But when the dust settled and I saw the benefits this change in our life was having, I knew it was the right choice.

I think it’s so natural to be shocked and upset when things don’t go as planned, especially with your kids. You see the future full of possibilities, and then suddenly, you feel like those are stripped away, and you’re left wondering what’s going to happen next.

Throughout the experience of adjusting to our new “normal,” I had to take advice from my homegirl Elsa once again and let it go. Let go of the social norms and expectations I had for him. Let go of what everyone else was doing. And once I snipped those strings, I started to watch my boy soar.

He’s able to focus on the things that interest him most and I’m able to teach him in the way he learns best. It’s made me really reevaluate my own childhood and the way I view it now from such a distance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working on math with him and had to reteach myself the concept. Which made me realize I never in my life have needed to multiply fractions, so who cares if he’s not completely smitten with math? My strengths definitely lie elsewhere, and so do his. And that’s OK. We get through what we need to learn, and then focus on what he loves most, like martial arts, piano and reading. The pressures I once felt to make sure he was the smartest in absolutely everything he did have receded. I’ve learned I need to let go of and instead, let him lead the way. And I’ve never been more proud of the young man he’s becoming.

I have a doctor who, anytime I mention the word normal, reminds me this blanket idea of “normal” doesn’t exist. “Normal is just a place in Indiana,” he says. And he’s right.

Getty image by Getty Images

Originally published: March 19, 2020
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