A Review of Janet Singer’s “Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery”

by Matt B. on April 3, 2015

Most books about obsessive-compulsive disorder fall into two categories. First, there are the memoirs – first-person accounts of journeys through OCD’s hell. (Fletcher Wortmann’s Triggered and Traci Foust’s Nowhere Near Normal, for example, offer enormously moving and dead-accurate pictures of what it’s like to live this life.)

Second are the therapeutic volumes. Written by clinical and research psychologists, these are intended to educate a lay audience on the quirks and eccentricities of this elusive disease. (Lee Baer’s The Imp of the Mind and Jeffrey Schwartz’ You Are Not Your Brain have been particularly useful to me.)

In Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery, Janet Singer and Dr. Seth Gillihan have managed a wonderful trick: they’ve combined the memoir and the research-based text in a way that leaves each enhanced.

Overcoming OCD centers on Singer’s son Dan – a once-joyful young man whose life is nearly destroyed by OCD. In simple, unadorned language, Singer shows us what it feels like to be a mother watching her son unable to eat or move: the breathtaking fear and anxiety; the “waves of gratitude” that follow brief improvements in Dan’s condition; the battles with ignorant or indifferent doctors.

The journey is frighteningly vivid, even for readers who’ve known similar challenges; at least once, I cried at OCD’s bull-in-a-china-shop cruelty.

It is perhaps fortunate, then, that the narrative is frequently offset with text boxes featuring Gillihan’s expert commentary. (Gillihan is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former faculty member at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.) When Singer describes her son’s first encounters with medication, Gillihan is there to offer a quick, accessible introduction to the role of drugs in OCD treatment. After Dan is hospitalized, Gillihan describes the upsides and downsides of residential treatment facilities. When Singer tries to sort through her family’s confusion about how best to support Dan – and how to take care of themselves in the process – Gillihan explains how many families’ well-intentioned efforts can actually be counterproductive for OCD sufferers.

The tag-team approach is enormously effective. It allows Singer to tell her story smoothly and without interruption, while also providing readers the context they need to understand what Dan and his family are going through.

Of course, Singer doesn’t leave the research exclusively to the experts. Much of the narrative centers on her efforts to understand whether her son is getting the care he needs – an endless hunt for clarity about a disease that is built to confuse.

In fact, Singer’s uncertainty about what’s best for Dan creates the book’s central tension. At the outset, Dan is enrolled in his “dream college,” pursuing his goal of becoming an animator. A few months later, however, OCD has taken his life apart. When Singer visits him at school, she finds him incapable of eating or climbing stairs; he often sits immobile for hours at a stretch, too terrified to do anything else.

The Singers enroll Dan in an intensive residential treatment facility. For Singer, this is something of an intervention – an attempt to get Dan the focused care he needs so he can get his life “back on track.”

After a short period in the hospital, however, Singer becomes worried: Dan is focused on his OCD therapy, but he’s lost hope of ever doing much else. In Singer’s eyes, he’s become timid and dependent on his caregivers, resigned to a radically shrunken life. (At one point, Dan suggests that he’ll drop out of school, live at home, take a few community college classes, and continue to work on his treatment. He even flirts with staying in the hospital forever.)

For Singer, this is evidence that something has gone drastically wrong. The treatment facility is concerned exclusively with Dan’s OCD, she thinks, whereas she – along with another psychologist – hopes to see her son integrate his treatment into a life that’s also about other things. A conflict ensues, and eventually, the Singers agree that Dan should leave the hospital and try to go back to school.

Is Singer right to push? It’s hard to say. There were certainly moments when I found myself identifying with her protesting son. (During the first few years of my battles with OCD, I remember my own parents occasionally asking me to draw on resources that I knew I didn’t have.) On the other hand, Singer is also walking a mother’s tightrope – speaking not just to the son in front of her, but to the son she remembers, the one buried beneath depression and hopelessness.

Of course, Singer is the first to admit that she was often unsure of herself. (When it comes to first encounters with OCD, isn’t everyone?) This is one of the book’s charms; Singer never pretends to know more than she does. But she also doesn’t pretend to know less, nor defer to doctors just because they’re wearing white coats. It’s the same blend of humility and seriousness of purpose that we see on Singer’s blog.

 *                      *                      *

The book’s ending is a happy one: most of Dan’s symptoms fade; he re-engages in relationships; he even graduates from college.

For Singer, this isn’t just a cause for private celebration – it’s also proof that with the right forms of OCD treatment, recovery is possible, and hope is justified. She’s right about these things – and given society’s sizeable misunderstandings about OCD, we can be grateful that she plans to continue spreading the word.

But for now, it’s worth lingering over Singer’s book for another reason.

There are a growing number of OCD memoirs on the market, and as I wrote above, some of them paint astonishingly lucid pictures of what it’s like to live with OCD. But until now, no one has written about what it’s like to live with someone with OCD.

In Overcoming OCD, Janet Singer has changed that. She’s offered the gift of her own experience to the millions of people who love somebody with OCD – people who are scared and confused and would really like someone to talk to about all of this.

Because as Singer knows, we obsessive-compulsives can’t always explain ourselves. (Throughout the book, Dan remains more-or-less silent about the obsessions that are driving his compulsive behavior. Singer knows that her son is being traumatized all day long, but she rarely learns what’s haunting him.)

I’ve often been more vocal about my obsessions and compulsions; writing and talking is cathartic for me. But no matter how much I share with the people I love, an element of mystery often remains. The whole thing doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t make sense. Fear arises out of nowhere, invades, takes over. I’m here one minute, distant and glassy-eyed the next.

How do you love a person like that? And how do you take care of yourself while you do? I’m not sure there are any final answers to questions like these – and I don’t think Janet Singer does either. But she loves her son and protects her family anyway – and in Overcoming OCD, she helps others see something about how they might too.

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