Interview with Jason Adams (Author of OCDad)

Posted on: April 15th, 2022

In this week’s blog, Orchard interviewed Jason Adams, author of OCDad, on his experiences living with OCD and raising children.  

1. Hi Jason, please tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a dad of twins, a writer, a teacher and a musician.  I was born and raised in Ontario, Canada, although I’ve lived in other provinces in Canada, and overseas.  When I’m not with my boys or spending time with my wife, I’m usually doing one of four things: exercising, doing something outside, researching how to grow food, or cleaning the kitchen (why does it feel like I’m always cleaning the kitchen?).

2. What inspired you to write OCDad?

In 2019, I became a parent of twins and received a diagnosis of OCD within the same three months. Shortly after receiving my diagnosis, I began researching ways that it might affect my parenting, and what I could do to minimize its impact. Before long, I became frustrated. There were lots of resources for OCD and parenting as isolated topics, but none of them offered what I was looking for: specific, structured ways to manage my OCD and be the parent I wanted to be at the same time. I had a seemingly endless list of unanswered questions:

  • How do you make time for therapy when you first bring home newborns?
  • How do you tell the difference between unhealthy anxiety symptoms and typical parental instincts?
  • Is my OCD affecting my kids? How would I even know?

The answers weren’t there, and I didn’t have time or energy for endless searches. I wanted someone or something who could tell me, straight and simple, “Here’s how OCD treatment usually works, but here’s how you make it work as a parent.” Over time – and with plenty of help – I found the answers I was looking for, but I knew my situation couldn’t be unique, which meant others might benefit from hearing about the lessons (and mistakes) I collected along the way. So, in many ways, OCDad is the resource I wish I had had.             

3. Do you think there is a stigma on parenting and anxiety?

I think there is a stigma on parenting and mental health struggles in general.  Parenting is a topic that runs deep with people.  It’s a personal and vulnerable journey, and that’s part of what makes it so life-changing, but it’s also rife with beliefs, opinions and misconceptions.  To a certain extent, that’s understandable; everyone has at least some experience with a parent or parental figure, and it’s a topic that we see discussed and portrayed in every facet of our social, digital and personal lives.  However, when we mix our deeply held beliefs about parenting with potentially misconstrued perceptions about mental health, it’s easy to see how someone might feel uncertain or untrusting of another person’s capabilities as a parent, however misinformed those feelings may be.

Having said that, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that stigma about mental health can be something we do to ourselves as parents.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that my own therapy journey was delayed by three months because I thought I should be able to ‘tough out’ my then-undiagnosed symptoms, and that having clinical symptoms meant I simply didn’t love my family enough.  In retrospect, I can see how misguided those views were, but there’s no question that I was my own worst enemy for a while.

4. How do you think OCD directly affects parenting?

Having kids is touted as a joyous experience, and in so many ways, it is.  For me, though, having kids also meant overwhelming spikes in stress and anxiety.  I never doubted that I loved my boys, but my anxieties and emotions were so out of control that I couldn’t love every moment of raising them, at least not at first.  Here’s how those feelings manifested in day-to-day life:

Zero to One Thousand

Baby crying isn’t just an early attempt at communication.  It’s a biological chain reaction designed to alert parents to their children’s needs, and to prompt them to act.  To an obsessive-compulsive brain, baby crying is like strapping a rocket to a race car – your brain is already in non-stop stress response mode, and then it gets flooded with another round of stress hormones every time your baby cries.  Consider, for example, a normal parental response to baby crying:

1.     Baby cries.

2.     Parent hears the cry.

3.     Parent thinks, ‘I need to go check on the baby’.

4.     Parent calmly goes to the baby.

5.     Parent assesses the baby’s needs and offers food, comfort, and attention as needed.

It’s a logical sequence of baby care, and it’s what I expected to be doing when I heard my babies crying.  I was wrong. Here’s what my reaction cycle looked like:

1.     Baby cries.

2.     I hear the cry.

3.     My chest tightens, and my heart rate goes up.

4.     I start picturing worst-case scenarios and wondering which one of them is playing out.

5.     I bolt up from what I’m doing.

6.     I go to my babies and start to assess them for serious injuries and missing vital signs.

7.     I realize they’re OK, and I start trying to calm everyone down, including myself.

What you’re seeing is the effect of increased stress hormones on an already-imbalanced set of neural circuits.  The logical parent in me knew that crying was normal and encouraged me to react rationally.  The OCD part of me jumped straight to the worst-case scenario.  The inner battle of deciding which feeling was right was constant and agonizing.  It was a seemingly endless process that often left me emotionally exhausted.  Speaking of which…

Emotional Exhaustion

Raising kids takes a lot of patience and resilience.  To manage those ups and downs successfully, you need emotional energy.  When my OCD symptoms were at their worst, I was running on emotional fumes.  Any energy I had that wasn’t going to my kids went to managing my obsessions and compulsions, which meant I had little to no rest or recharge periods.

When my symptoms were at their worst, I was frequently frustrated, irritable, and difficult to be around for my wife and family.  Simple messes and spills were an infuriating disaster.  Stubbing my toe made me feel like the universe was conspiring against me.  It’s not that I’m a petty person.  Normally, those things don’t bother me.  The problem was I had no patience for minor annoyances because all my emotional energy was being spent on managing my obsessions and compulsions.  Over time, getting through the motions of day-to-day life became harder and harder, including the usual parenting duties.  Speaking of which…

Parenting Duties

I had a lot of trouble learning how to put shirts on my sons.  That’s not a typo.  I actually had to ‘learn’ how to do it.  Here’s why: babies are tiny and delicate.  When I pull a shirt over my own head, I line my head up with the hole and pull.  I can do that because my neck is strong.  It doesn’t move when I put on a shirt.  My sons were little, and their necks were delicate.  In my head, that meant risk for them, and life-or-death responsibility for me.

For most parents, the delicacy of a baby is just a reminder to be reasonably cautious.  For me, it meant I needed a procedure to ensure there was zero risk of breaking my kids’ necks, or of them suffocating if the shirt got stuck at their noses or mouths on the way down to their bodies.  Most times I was successful, but when a shirt did get stuck, I had to remove it and find another way to put it on, or find a new shirt altogether.  I also tried to only use shirts with extra-wide head holes, and if the head hole wasn’t wide enough, I would stretch it before putting it on (let’s just say my wife – the one who did all the clothes shopping – was none too pleased about that).  Remember, neither of us knew about my OCD diagnosis at first, so there was confusion and frustration all around.

Looking back, part of me feels proud that I didn’t let my symptoms ruin my parenting altogether.  Dressing my boys was difficult, but I still dressed them.  Diaper changes were stressful, but I still did them.  That, in itself, is an accomplishment.  I just wish I could’ve enjoyed those things without feeling like I was navigating a life-or-death situation.

5. How was managing therapy alongside raising children?

I would like to offer some kind of blissful, inspiring anecdote here, but there’s no getting around it: engaging with therapy while parenting took effort, coordination and patience.  Time was one of the biggest factors that we had to learn to manage.  My wife had to watch our boys on her own during my therapy appointments, and there were times where I had to spend several evenings per week sitting at the kitchen table completing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) exercises instead of cleaning or spending time with her.  I also cut my TV and leisure time down for a while so that I had space in my schedule for therapy and therapeutic homework.  There was also a financial cost, and we had to have several intentional discussions about how to best allocate our resources in the time and money-tight newborn phase.

Still, for all these struggles, it was worth it to engage in therapy while parenting.  It’s not as if all my symptoms dropped off the second I started, but there were several landmark moments that made a noticeable difference in my day-to-day energy and disposition (receiving a diagnosis, starting group therapy and keeping a regular journal, just to name a few).  Therapy placed extra demands on our family in terms of finances and logistics, but I tried to (and still do) think of it as a long-term investment.  I didn’t want to be away from my family, or to focus any of our resources on me, but I also wanted mental health because I knew that’s what both my family and I needed in the long run.  To this day, I’m grateful that I made the decision to pursue treatment, and I’m even more grateful to my wife and family for the support and sacrifices they gave me during that time.

6. What are the uses and drawbacks of therapy?

Uses of Therapy

I’m a huge believer in the therapeutic process, even for those who feel like they have no time or energy to do it.  One of the biggest reasons is that therapy gives you structure and resources.  Those things are particularly important because, as a parent, you simply don’t have time to peruse self-help books and spend endless evenings navigating the internet for tips.  A good therapist can save you endless amounts of time and energy by cutting through the barrage of videos, articles, memes and books that are out there (check out my resources page for the ones that I found most helpful).

A good therapist also gives you a neutral sounding board for your thoughts and frustrations.  In the context of family and kids, that’s an invaluable resource because it removes the burden of treatment and effort from your loved ones.  There’s a term in OCD therapy called accommodation, which essentially means asking your family to either partake in, or manage your symptoms with you; neither expectation is reasonable or sustainable.  Take it from someone who knows from first-hand experience: let the real work of therapy fall to you and an expert.  Your relationships and symptoms will be all the better for it.

Drawbacks of Therapy

I would be disingenuous if I gave you the impression that therapy is an instant fix-all for OCD when you’re a parent.  Like anything else, it has its drawbacks.  Here are a few of the biggest ones (for me, anyway):

I always say that parenting and therapy are difficult to manage together because they require the same resources: time, meaningful attention, energy, money, and emotional resilience.  When you add sleep deprivation and the demands of keeping babies alive and healthy into the mix, things can get difficult, and for a while my family life was no different.  I genuinely don’t believe that time and energy demands are a total deterrent, but the simple fact is this: therapy is a gradual process, and it requires work.  That can be difficult when you’re a parent, especially in the newborn phase.

It’s also possible for therapy to be a repetitive and frustrating process.  A good therapist is a lot like a good teacher: you can meet many, but you may only connect with a select few.  When you’re a parent, the cycle of meeting and trying to connect with a good therapist can be disheartening.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying, but the trial and error of finding someone you can work with is definitely a drawback to consider as you begin your journey.

7. Are there any therapeutic exercises in a family setting?

Absolutely.  There are many exercises that help in a family setting, but I would like to share one form of therapy that I found immediately helpful for some of my worst symptoms: Exposure Response with Prevention Therapy (ERP).

ERP is the process of gradually exposing yourself to things that trigger your obsessions, with the goal of lessening the intensity of your reactions and reconceptualizing the source and function of your intrusive thoughts.  It sounds swell and helpful, and for the most part, it is.  Here’s something I learned the hard way, though: not all exposures work for parents and families.  That was one of my biggest frustrations with every resource I read when I first started my treatment.  I remember thinking, ‘Great, this exposure stuff is going to work brilliantly for my obsession about heights and suicidal OCD, but what about my obsessions about my kids?’  There was no way I was going to expose my sons to gradually increasing levels of contaminants, greater heights, or more dangerous water settings, just so I could prove to myself that I could feel more comfortable with them being at risk.  Luckily, I found a solution that worked really, really well: imaginal exposures.

Imaginal exposures are exactly what they sound like: exposing yourself to a distressing situation by imagining it and writing it out.  That might sound like a strange process, but I actually think it has a lot of advantages.  For one thing, you can confront any intrusive thought you want with no actual risk to you or your loved ones.  Second, you can control when and how the exposure takes place.  There are no concerns about making noise, leaving the house, spending money, or any other logistical demand you can think of, other than time and attention.

That’s not to say, of course, that imaginal exposures are easy.  In fact, the first time I tried one, I broke down crying because I went straight to imagining my most difficult kid-based obsessions, such as seeing my sons fall from a high balcony.  I didn’t realize that imaginal exposures work just like real-world exposures – they need to be conducted slowly, regularly, and in progressive steps.  It would’ve made far more sense to start by writing out an exposure about my sons falling from the couch, then maybe a couple stairs, then maybe a small park climber.  If you’ve never done an exposure with the help of a qualified therapist, MAKE SURE you read about how to create an exposure hierarchy first.  This page and this page will help get you started.  DON’T go any further without reading both those pages (seriously, don’t).  With that caution in mind, here are the instructions I used for my imaginal exposures:

Imaginal Exposure Instructions

  1. Select a trigger from your exposure ladder that you either can’t or don’t want to try in real life.
  2. Choose a scenario where this trigger plays out most often.
  3. Write out the scenario as vividly and powerfully as you can.  If possible, include a description from all five senses.
  4. Re-read your imaginal exposure often, and read it out loud.

Now, having shared the method, let me be very clear about something – imaginal exposures were an immensely uncomfortable exercise at first.  I didn’t even want to write out an exposure, let alone read it out loud, and I was always worried that someone else was going to hear me and think I was crazy.  Eventually, I decided to give it a try.  I waited until my boys were out on a walk with my wife and her friend, and then I locked myself in my room, opened the imaginal exposure, and read it; quietly, but out loud.  Have you ever had one of those moments where you explain an idea to someone and then realize that the idea made a lot more sense in your head than it does out loud?  It was a lot like that.  To this day, I’m so glad I took that uncomfortable leap, and I have therapy to thank for the push.

8. Any final words of advice for those with OCD & raising children?

To anyone with OCD, parent or not, I have two thoughts to share:

First, don’t mistake treating your OCD with changing your entire identity.  Therapy isn’t an overhaul of your entire being.  It’s a structured, logical process for identifying problems in your life, articulating them, and setting goals to fix them.

Second, keep going with your treatment journey.  If you meet a therapist you don’t like, go to another one.  If you come across a therapy method you don’t like, find another one.  Don’t stop trying.  No matter what.

Now, to those with OCD who are raising children:

First, I’m so, so sorry that OCD has found its way into your family life.  It’s such a frustrating condition.  I won’t preach ideals or offer lofty inspirational quotes.  As a fellow parent, I know how annoying and useless those things can feel.  Instead, let me share two of my core beliefs about parenting and OCD:

The fastest way to get better is with the help of an expert.  It will require time and resources, but it’s an investment in your future, and in your family’s future.  Sometimes your family will require all your time and attention, but in the moments where you can engage with therapy, do so.  It changed my life, and I sincerely, truly wish the same for you.

Second (and finally), remember that your outer language affects your inner language, so choose your words and self-judgements accordingly.  For example, you don’t have ‘bad thoughts’.  You have irrational, anxious thoughts that need to be identified, corrected and managed.  You’re not ‘crazy’.  You have some maladaptive thoughts and habits that need managing and correcting.  Most importantly, you’re not a bad or inadequate parent.  You’re a human being who deserves mental health.  Find the folks who can help you get there, and take the steps you need.  I believe with every part of my being that you deserve it.

Fighting forward.

Jason Adams

Thank you Jason! If you want to check out OCDad then please head here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *