My son Dan was in college, and by the time I arrived at his dorm, he had not eaten in more than a week. He was spending hours at a time sitting in one particular chair, hunched over with his head in his hands, doing absolutely nothing. He could not enter most of the buildings on campus and could only do minimal amounts of work at specific times. To top it all off, he was self-injuring. My son was in the throes of severe OCD.
And so his summer was spent at a world-renowned residential program specializing in OCD. It was here that he stopped self-injuring and where he finally got the right treatment. I credit intensive exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy for literally saving his life. But there was a tradeoff. For Dan to function well enough to participate in ERP therapy, he needed medication. Within two weeks he was taking fluoxetine, clonazepam, and risperidone.
Dan made progress, and with a strong support system in place (a psychiatrist, a therapist who specialized in OCD, and his family) he headed back to college. Dan struggled with anxiety and depression throughout the semester, endured many medication changes, but never gave up.
I questioned Dan’s doctor about the effects of all his medications, but was told, in no uncertain terms, that he needed them. But when Dan was taking three more, I finally had enough. This was not my son; this was a walking zombie. It was time to find new doctors.
I do not pretend to be an expert on this disorder, but I advise anyone dealing with OCD to find a competent therapist who specializes in this illness.
Connecting with new health care providers was the best thing we could have done. Dan’s complete physical and subsequent tests revealed tachycardia (fast heart rate), sky-high triglycerides, possible pericarditis, and a 35-pound weight gain in just a few months. These symptoms and conditions were all attributed to the drugs that he was taking.
Dan’s new psychiatrist began weaning him off of each medication with amazing results. It was as if layers and layers of crud were being scraped off while glimpses of my son were emerging. His test results returned to normal. The extra weight dropped off. His anxiety and depression lifted, and in Dan’s own words his OCD was “practically nonexistent.”
Now I’m not recommending that everyone stop taking medication for OCD, and I do believe that at some point Dan probably needed many of the meds he was taking. What I am saying is that we all need to be acutely aware of the potential side effects of some of these heavy-duty medications. Trust your instincts. Get another opinion. Do your own research.
Of course Dan’s story is far from over, but it is one of triumph. Now at age 21 he has been completely off of medication for two years, is back at school, and is living life to the fullest. Despite many obstacles, Dan fought his way back from severe OCD and reclaimed his life. He is living proof that there is hope for all OCD sufferers. Everyone needs to know that OCD, even if severe, is treatable.
Janet Singer’s son was debilitated by severe OCD. She writes a blog about her family’s finding its way through a maze of treatments and programs. Ms. Singer is a co-author with Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery.