A review of Overcoming OCD by Janet Singer and Seth J Gillian

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Overcoming OCD:A Journey to Recovery
By Janet Singer
with Seth J. Gillihan, PhD
Rowman & Littlefield
ISBN 978-1-4422-3945-6, 2015

If you’ve never experienced OCD, you might be under the illusion that it’s all about excessive tidiness and lots of handwashing. Despite the popular misconception, OCD is a hugely debilitating illness that can come on quickly and leave a healthy, intelligent person with a bright future completely incapable of living their lives. In other words, it is serious, real, and very dangerous. There are plenty of books on the market about OCD, along with countless websites, discussion forums and information sources, but most are written for the sufferer and there is a lot of conflicting and confusing information. Janet Singer runs the blog OCD Talk, and drawing on her experiences through her son Dan’s OCD, she has become a strong advocate for families suffering from this debilitating condition.

Janet Singer’s book Overcoming OCD is a perfect blend of anecdote, taken from Singer’s own experiences, mixed with professional advice from OCD expert Seth J Gillihan. Anyone who doesn’t think that OCD is a serious illness needs to read Dan’s story. Dan was a happy, active and successful student when he developed a case of OCD so serious that he became unable to eat, or even to move from his chair for hours at a time. The roller-coaster of his journey from wellness to illness and back to wellness makes for fascinating and often painful reading. Just when everything seems to be coming together and Dan is getting well, there is another setback. Sometimes the setbacks are caused by incompetence, and there is so much incompetence and ignorance about this condition, including psychiatrists who should have known better.

Dan’s OCD is about as serious as it gets, and the number of medications he gets put on is astonishing. He spends nine weeks in residential treatment and another week in a mental hospital, some of which is due more to his (mis)treatment than to the OCD itself. His weight goes down and then up dramatically. At times he’s so exhausted that he can’t stay awake, and his hands shake uncontrollably. I’m sure it won’t spoil the story to know that, despite the severity of his condition and the mistreatment he sometimes receives, Dan gets well, and goes on to graduate from college and is now living an independent life working in his chosen profession.

Understanding OCD goes into full detail of Dan’s journey – the different treatments he receives, and the battle that had to go through to help him. As the parent of a child suffering from OCD, I found the book to be incredibly helpful, affirmative and informative. The book also includes quite a bit of information about the different types of treatments for OCD including the different types of medications that are often provided, Cognative Behavioural Therapy (CBT) including the all-important Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), residential and therapeutic treatments, and other resources. This information is presented in easy to read sidebars, with lots of references and links, in a way that aligns with Dan’s story.

Overcoming OCD provides the full trajectory of the Singer family experience from the point they learned about Dan’s OCD to his graduation from college. Though there is a wealth of OCD information and resources in the book which will be helpful to anyone with an involvement in OCD including sufferers, families, doctors, and therapists, this is really a book pitched at parents or carers of OCD sufferers, an often thankless, painful and difficult role that demands an intense learning curve.

Not only does Overcoming OCD provide advice, support, and hope to parents, but it also talks to some of the struggles that OCD puts on other siblings, the pitfalls to watch out for in certain types of treatments, things (like enabling) to be careful of, and above all, the importance of remaining positive even when the situation looks intractable. Perhaps most important of all, is that this book speaks in very candid and open ways about a misunderstood and often silent mental illness. Overcoming OCD is an important book, not just because it is a valuable resource full of information on the types of treatment that can help OCD sufferers like Dan, but also because it offers much needed wisdom and hindsight to the families of suffers.  It is only through open discourse and information that mental illnesses like OCD can become understood enough so that mistreatment becomes the exception rather than the norm, and so that sufferers feel comfortable seeking the treatment they so desperately need.  Janet Singer and Seth J. Gillihan are to be congratulated on producing such a unique and powerful guide that will hopefully change public perception about this illness and offer help and hope to many.