A stressed mom with her head in her hands


I’m A Mom With OCD And Some Days I Struggle

Mar 4, 2020

If you've never seen it, be warned: it'll break your heart.

“It” is the infamous wire hanger scene in Mommie Dearest, the 1981 biographical movie about silver screen era mega-star Joan Crawford, and based on the 1978 exposé-memoir of the same name, written by Crawford's daughter Christina. 

In the scene, Joan beats Christina with a wire hanger after finding one of Christina's expensive dresses hanging on the despised object. Wire hangers, I’ve learned, can stretch and ruin clothing. 

"I have obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve struggled with substance abuse. And I have four children under nine years old."

"No wire hangers!" Joan shrieks, while tearing dresses out of Christina’s closet. "I work and I slave until I'm half dead, and all I hear people say is, 'she's getting old.' And what do I get? A daughter who cares as much about the beautiful dresses I give her as she cares about me!"

I'm not going to play armchair psychologist here.

I know Joan's alcohol abuse is admonished and ridiculed in the film, but alcoholism is a symptom of a deeper problem. I don't remember the movie well enough to know if a definitive clinical diagnosis was given that might explain the underlying cause of Joan's behaviour toward her children, which is an incessant pendulum swing between extreme affection and abuse. I do know that the first and last time I saw that scene, I sobbed. In part for Christina, but mostly, for Joan. For myself.

This mom's anxiety makes her feel like a bad parent. Read her story here.

I have obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve struggled with substance abuse. And I have four children under nine years old. Watching Joan Crawford fall apart, wild-eyed and frantic, was like looking in a mirror. An unforgiving, cinematically immortalized, fun house mirror. 

I've torn apart my oldest son's bookshelf and because the spines weren't aligned and then spent an hour putting them all back. I've made my eldest daughter help me broom up every single grain of puffed rice cereal after she knocked her bowl off the table. And yes, I've ripped all the clothes out of one of my children’s closets when they were hung carelessly. The type of hanger had no bearing on my behaviour.

"And yes, I've ripped all the clothes out of one of my children’s closets when they were hung carelessly."

Rage is a common symptom of OCD. I feel it when someone or something is stopping me from completing a behaviour, like washing the floor before I leave the house. Which I do. Every time. I also feel rage at the fact that I have these obsessive behaviours and thoughts at all. I’m a slave to them. And I hate it. 

I feel rage at so many things some days it’s hard to breathe. 

Contrary to popular belief, OCD is not all checking to see if the stovetop is off, or having to flick a light switch nine times. Those can be parts of OCD, but OCD is an anxiety disorder that exists on a spectrum. OCD defies my need to order my world by resisting tidy definitions.

I've tried to explain the illness, as it affects me, to my children. "My brain feels hot," I've told them. "Like standing on hot sand and the water or grass or anything that could give relief seems so far away."

My children's eyes grow wide; cosmic blues and greens and browns. "What I'm trying to say," I fumble, "is that I feel scared, angry and alone."

"Rage is a common symptom of OCD."

This overwhelming helplessness is why I need to control the little things; why my house often looks more like a museum than the home of four young kids. I’m not fastidiously neat because my brain is naturally ordered and calm. It's the opposite. It's chaos and I can't have this chaos reflected in my external world, too. 

“But it’s not your fault,” I tell my children. "This,” I say tapping my temple, “has nothing to do with you.” 

And I tell them, every day, “I love you more than anything.” Joan said the same thing to her daughter in the movie. 

What I don't recall Joan doing was apologizing.

I say sorry to my children when I have an obsessive episode. I tell them I’ll always keep trying to get better for all of us. And I am. While I still have OCD anxiety, I haven’t had an explosive OCD meltdown in years.

My children and I also hug a lot. There’s never a bad time for hugs, I’ve told them repeatedly, so when I’m the middle of an obsessive attack, they know they can come to me, and wrap their arms around my waist or neck or whatever they can grab and I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and hug them right back, their tiny bodies bringing me back to them. To myself.

I know my kids are just children, and I believe whole-heartedly that children need to be protected from adult problems. But mental illness is not an adult problem. Mental health issues run in families, with roughly 70 per cent of mental health disorders showing up in childhood.

Mine did.

If you're wondering about seeking help for your child's mental health, find advice from the Psychology Foundation of Canada here.

My earliest recollection of the fact that there was something definitely different about me was when I was five years old. This is when I began writing over my friends' messy birthday greetings in the cards they gave me in my own, meticulous penmanship. I used thick marker to try to cover up their shaky, uncertain handwriting. I couldn’t stand the look of it. By seven, I was obsessively cleaning the house. And on the eve of my ninth birthday, I realized I’d be turning 10 in the morning — an age of double digits — and I knew I'd likely never get out of them. I’d never live to be 100. I entered a depression that would last almost a year. 

Death is a common, torturous obsession for those with OCD. They're all tortuous, but this one is more so because there is nothing you can do about it. We’re all going to die.

"My eldest daughter, who is seven years old, worries a lot about mortality. More than most kids. Does she have OCD?"

My eldest daughter, who is seven years old, worries a lot about mortality. More than most kids. Does she have OCD? 

I don’t know. Again, I'm no psychologist. I don’t try to diagnose her. I talk to her doctor and encourage her to talk to her doctor and, for the love of God, to talk to me. I'm here, I remind her, and despite how etheral I can seem some days when my disease shuts me down, I am always here for her. For all of them. More so than ever, I think.

I stopped drinking and taking my prescription Ativan four years ago. Now, I don’t take any pharmaceuticals for my OCD. This is a decision I’ve arrived at with my doctor’s support, after decades of trying many different drugs and finding none that worked for me. What works for me is daily exercise. Spending time in nature. Also, NAC (N-acetyl cysteine) amino acids, prescribed by my naturopath, which help blunt some of the urgency of repetitive thoughts.  

Another thing, and this is huge: I ask for help when I need it. Society’s way of acknowledging and treating mental disorders is not even adequate, but some level of support is still there. The way we talk about mental illness is changing and this is a huge shift from Joan’s day. I often wonder how her daughter’s book would be received if it was published now. I like to think there’d be more empathy, less criticism. Maybe through the zeitgeist of the present, even her daughter could look at her mother differently.

Maybe that degree of emotional intelligence is too much to expect from children. 

But I don’t think so. I’ve tried to teach my children what I’m dealing with; what we’re dealing with as a family. When my obsessive episodes get really severe, and I have to close my eyes on their faces and hone in on my breath — in and out until my ticker-tape brain slows and my body stops shaking — I can open my eyes to meet theirs. There is no judgment there. No fear. 

“Mom,” my eldest daughter often says, “it’s not your fault.”

I don't care if they use wire hangers.

Article Author Hollay Ghadery
Hollay Ghadery

Hollay Ghadery is a writer, editor and mother of four living in small town Ontario. When she’s not attempting to parent, she enjoys lifting heavy stuff at the gym, reading anything she can get her hands on and watching BBC period dramas.

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