His mother rang me. The day before I had spoken to her 17 year old son about his compulsive thoughts. She wanted to let me know that her son had felt understood and he had added: “I bet that man suffers from it himself. Otherwise he would not be able to know so precisely how I feel.”

Years before I had seen a patient with a completely different view. The patient was a young woman who was constantly worrying. “I wish I was a psychiatrist’, she said, “it seems so beautiful to always be happy”. I did not tell her that medical doctors are more often depressed, addicted and have higher rates of suicide than the average person.

A problem shared?

As a professional, I try to be myself in contacts with my patients, being open about own experiences sometimes works well. But should this also be the case when it involves your own problems? Should a practitioner tell patients that he or she knows from one’s own experience what the patient struggles with? A problem shared is a problem halved, but problems are shared with partners in misfortune. Can a professional be a fellow sufferer at the same time?

It is a complex problem, like a builder living in a ruin, a divorced relationship therapist or a doctor sick in hospital. Somehow it seems distorted. However a GP with diabetes seems to be all right.

I am a fervent advocate of therapists in (mental) health care being open about their own psychological problems. They show that you don’t have to be ashamed of mental illness. If we don’t dare to be open about it, who can we expect it from? However being open in general is different from being open in a patient-health provider relationship.

And what about ‘that man’?

So what is my own situation? Does ‘that man’ suffer from it himself? Yes, I suffer from OCD. It feels very vulnerable to admit that publicly but I am past being ashamed of it. The disorder often causes me to feel, do and think strange things, but it is detached from my value as a person. I am one of the lucky ones: my social functioning is not affected by it; that is not a virtue but pure luck. And as a professional I know what is going on and therefore, I know what the best approach for treatment is.

Until now, I have never talked about my own obsessive compulsive disorder with my patients. In most cases it seemed neither useful nor necessary, but maybe I also was not ready for it yet. I am currently more publicly active to raise awareness for OCD. One of the things that I want to bring across is that it is not a condition to be ashamed of. And in that context it seems inappropriate to conceal my own OCD.

Happy

And what about psychiatrists always being happy? Well, not so. Psychiatrists are as prone to mental disorders as other people are. My OCD is often tormenting me. It has spoiled an awful lot but on the other hand has not ruined my life. That’s because there has been improvement. As long as there is improvement, a human being can endure much even if it is persistent problem. More often than not this is the case with the obsessive compulsive disorder. Mostly it does not resolve by itself. OCD is treatable and therefore improvement is possible but usually not without help. That is what I try to impress on anyone who suffers from this condition: seek help!

So my patient was right: I have it too. For 40 years already but it is much better than it used to be. Always happy? Often enough.

Photo credit: Schoolwork “Crafts” from Lasse Oosterhoff.

Translation photo: “What I know about crafts and professions. My father is youth psaiciatrist. He works with children who aren’t well in their head, like OCD. My dad knows a lot about it. He also has OCD, he has to take a lot of pills.