Obsessive compulsive disorder is a chronic condition in which the person experiences a cycle of intrusive thoughts followed by ritual behaviors intended to drive the thoughts away. A teenager with this condition is understandably alarmed by his or her inability to gain control over gripping thought patterns.
They are sometimes willing to do just about anything to mask the truth from those around them and to find relief from the cycle. Studies have shown that many OCD teens look to substances like drugs or alcohol to find relief and escape from intruding thoughts and the need to perform rituals. As many as one million children and teens in this country have OCD and a significant portion of them look to substances in order to cope with their condition.
Troubled Thinking and Parents
Symptoms of OCD are not uniformly present and over time symptoms can even change. Still the problem of troubled thinking remains and parents who know what to look for can spot the signs that their teen is struggling with the illness. Most often the recurring thoughts have to do with illness, injury or hidden danger. The teen may fear that they or someone they love will contract an illness, that someone will be harmed or that there is a real but unspoken threat lurking nearby.
Often, one part of the person’s mind tells them that these worries are unfounded and irrational but the presence of the thought feels inescapable. The only way to get away from the thought or fear is to perform some sort of ritual that may or may not have any direct correlation to the pervasive thought.
For example, common rituals include cleaning, counting, asking questions, checking and re-checking, or repeating. The teen may clean surfaces or have distinct methods of hand-washing. They may count things – anything – but when they count, some numbers are good and some numbers are bad. The teen may ask questions of the parent related to their fear and will ask the same question over and over, hoping for a response that will ease their concerns.
Teens are in a time of transition when they are expected to shoulder increasing amounts of personal responsibility. The teen with OCD can feel trapped by his or her condition and experience tremendous fears about being able to meet “normal” expectations. Like all teens, conformity with the group is important to the teen living with OCD. Feelings of isolation can create enough stress to make teens seek relief through alcohol or drugs.
OCD and Substance Abuse
Actually, OCD and substance abuse show up together with a high degree of frequency. When two conditions occur together in a pattern they are referred to as comorbid or co-occurring conditions. One study of subjects with substance abuse found that 70 percent of them had also struggled with OCD over the past 12 months. The compulsive nature of OCD makes addiction a great risk.
Teens with OCD may turn to depressant substances like alcohol or prescription pain relievers for their calming effect – something the overly anxious teen craves. In other cases, teens have turned to stimulants because one side effect of these drugs is racing thoughts. Escape from a pervading thought of danger or worry seems worth the constant barrage of thoughts that these drugs usually produce. Sadly, when OCD and substance abuse go hand in hand it often produces a third mental illness — depression.
Compulsions grow stronger and cycles of thought deepen the longer the condition goes untreated. If parents see signs of OCD (usually observed rituals or frantic questioning), it is best to seek professional help as soon as possible. Thought and behavior patterns can be broken but it is immensely helpful when the person can easily remember life before the cycle arose.
Medication and therapy together can soothe the mind and train OCD teens in new thought and behavior patterns. Even if the troubling thoughts never fully disappear, the teen can learn to recognize them as a symptom of the condition rather than reality. They can learn techniques for reducing and overcoming anxious thoughts that have nothing to do with ritualized behaviors. Therapy can break the thought-action chain and can also break the teen’s reliance on substances as well.