When I laid eyes on the string toy lying on the weathered rug at the daycare, I knew it was going to be a long hour. I hesitated for a few moments before I put my then 6-month-old son, Aksel, in the caregiver’s arms and sat down cross-legged on the floor. Sitting like that on a hard surface was only part of the reason for my distress. The other was that Aksel was now closer to this clearly germ-infested toy than I was, and it was aggravating my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
After spending more than 20 years hiding my OCD from friends and family, I have spent the last 12-plus years engaged in a seemingly never-ending battle of exposing myself to my obsessions while subsequently resisting the urge to act compulsively in response to them. Professionals call this Exposure and Response Prevention. I call it hell. The practice involves mentally replaying my obsessions — include breaking various bones (most often my femur) or seeing my parents die in a car crash — over and over again, in all of their grotesqueness, until my brain becomes too tired to continue. A little white pill I take every evening also helps.
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As Aksel’s primary caregiver, I had attentively prepared for his initiation to daycare. I walked the route to the center and prepacked his diaper bag with one of just about everything he owns. My wife, Vicky, had impressed upon me the importance of remembering the teachers’ and other children’s names and keeping a low-key attitude. She also prepared a list of questions that I was to ask the head teacher. I was on script until I noticed Aksel squirming his way out of the teacher’s arms and onto the floor. I feigned attention as the teacher introduced me to Aksel’s new classmates, and I barely registered that they were singing Aksel a welcome song. My focus was on the closing gap between Aksel and the dirty toy.
Aksel’s first few months of life provided me with countless smiles, but his birth also added a level of stress that was, and still is, far more draining than I could have imagined. This stress led to an explosion of obsessive thoughts about my own body and my relationship with my wife, but its prime target was Aksel’s welfare.
Exposing myself to obsessions involving Aksel was often too challenging, so I compulsed my way out of them instead. Entire evenings were spent perfectly folding dozens of freshly washed muslins and onesies; cleaning, sterilizing, and organizing baby bottles; and placing the toys and books that are constantly strewn around Aksel’s room in straight lines or perfect stacks, often when I was ostensibly playing with him. This quickly became unsustainable for me, and my wife.
The questions Vicky had written down for the daycare about sleeping and eating times and what happens in case of illness were obviously important, but seemed a bit rhetorical. Of course they were going to feed Aksel when was hungry, let him sleep when he was tired, and call us if he was sick. My questions focused on more pressing concerns — like how often they washed the play mat that the children were currently sitting on and that I was trying to stay off of, and how often they sterilized the toys that the boy next to me was alternately rubbing on the floor and trying to eat.
While the teacher was discussing the illness policy, which I would be introduced to a few weeks later after Aksel caught a stomach bug, I glanced over at my son, who was now free of the teacher’s grasp and sliding to the floor. Upon reaching the ground, both of our eyes widened – his because the string toy was now within reaching distance and mine because I realized that one of Aksel’s new classmates was between me and the toy. I didn’t want to yell “no” across the circle or knock Aksel’s new classmate to the ground, but I surely didn’t want my little guy putting the dirty toy in his mouth, which he does with everything he touches.
As the teacher moved on to feedings, group outings, and diapers, Aksel quickly reached out for the toy. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Upon opening my eyes, I called out softly, “Aksel, come here buddy,” hoping to refocus his attention and entice him my way. But Daddy’s voice was no match for this germ-infested toy.
I glanced back at the teacher expecting her to grab Aksel before he reached the toy and thrust it in his mouth, but she was seemingly unconcerned about Aksel’s health and continued rambling on about daily life at the center. When I looked back at Aksel, he had his little fingers wrapped around the toy and was shoving it in his mouth – all the while eliciting sounds of pure joy. I closed my eyes and let out a deep breath.
With some patient reassurance from my wife and countless repetitions of my doctor’s advice to “embrace the uncertainty,” I’ve slowly started to relax. I no longer spend entire evenings compulsively organizing Aksel’s medicine box, rearranging his bookshelf, or cleaning and sterilizing each bottle and pacifier within moments of it being used. I still worry about Aksel’s wellbeing – that’s my job as a parent. Not being obsessive about it is my greatest parenting challenge.
When I reported the incident to my wife later that evening, she didn’t seem to hear me and instead asked if I had had the chance to ask all of her questions. I quickly read the answers that I had hastily scribbled down and then reported on the toy episode a second time. But now, Vicky was smothering Aksel with kisses and putting him in his high chair for a snack. Clearly not understanding the gravity of the situation, I asked, a bit more urgently, if she had heard what I mentioned about the toy. While reaching down to pick up an apple slice that Aksel had thrown on the floor, she replied, “yes, but I think that’s pretty normal.” As I rolled my eyes, I saw Vicky nonchalantly placing the apple slice back on Aksel’s food tray.
Realizing that the conversation was going nowhere, I threw my head back in frustration and started to walk out of the kitchen — but not before reaching out towards Aksel’s high chair in an attempt to nick the apple slice off his tray and toss it to the dog. Just as I was about to grab the apple slice, though, I turned and walked through the door empty-handed. When I looked back from the hallway, Aksel was joyfully licking the apple.
Although my OCD is the result of my body’s response to numerous childhood strep infections, the disorder’s hereditary links cause me serious concern. It’s hard for me to read the old journals I used to keep, where I wrote about the secret life I had for more than 20 years, and I will do anything to prevent Aksel from having to write similar stories — even if that means allowing him to stuff dirty toys into his mouth or eat food off the floor.
As for my own behavior, my therapist would tell me that I should have more fully embraced the uncertainty and envisioned Aksel getting violently ill or breaking out in hives that would forever scar his body. That day, though, I was pleased enough with the self-control I exerted at daycare and in the kitchen.
My biggest source of joy, however, was that I had the courage to bring Aksel back to daycare the following afternoon, knowing that his biggest source of joy was going to be playing with and stuffing dirty toys in his mouth.
Tommy Mulvoy is an American expat living in Basel, Switzerland with his wife, Vicky, and son, Aksel. When not chasing after Aksel, or keeping the peace between the family’s pets, he teaches English and Special Education at the International School of Basel.
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