Tough Love Is No Cure for Mental Illness
When I was a child, I never shied away from taking risks. When I was told not to swim in the adult pool until I’d taken lessons, I dove straight into the deepest corner of that pool the moment my mother turned her back. When I was told not to venture out into the woods behind our family home, the first thing I did the next day was disappear into the trees after my father had left for work. I enjoyed testing boundaries and had no fear of injury or death. Like many other boys my age, I thought myself as invincible as the strongest and bravest comic book heroes of my youth.
But one day, when I was about 9 years old, I felt a sneeze coming on during class. As soon as I felt it burrowing up the back of my throat, I did what any good Catholic boy would do; I placed my hands over my mouth and let nature take its course.
What followed was a perfectly normal sneeze. It sounded normal. It felt normal. In fact, everything about it was normal — except for the tiny speck of blood that appeared in the palm of my right hand.
At that moment, something went terribly wrong. I sat in my desk, overwhelmed with a fear that I’d never felt before. My mind was racing at the speed of light, and my heart wasn’t far behind it. I panicked, glanced up at my teacher, darted across the room toward her desk, and begged her to let me go to the nurse’s office. She obliged me, but with just enough hesitation to communicate her disappointment and frustration with my out-of-character behavior. And I understood, even at my young age, that I was overreacting.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, I couldn’t stop myself.
I was experiencing an existential dread that made no sense to me at all. I knew I wasn’t going to die, but I felt like I was already dying. I knew I wasn’t acting rationally, but I felt certain that I was doing what any rational person would do in my place.
The nurse seemed at first to be much more sympathetic to my situation than my teacher had been. She listened calmly as I explained what happened and showed her the speck of dried blood on my palm. She then asked me a few standard questions, took my temperature, and told me she’d return in a minute or two before exiting the room and gently closing the door behind her.
And return she did, but with the notoriously strict Sister Anne — the school principal — in tow.
Sister Anne got straight to the point. “The next time you come crying to the nurse about something like this,” she explained, “I’m going to suspend you from school for a whole day and have your parents come pick you up.” Then she apologized to the nurse on my behalf, grabbed me by the arm, yanked me out of that office, and escorted me back to class.
For the next month, I cried myself to sleep every night believing that my death was imminent. I was terrified and confused, and I’d no idea who to turn to for help. I didn’t trust anyone — not my parents, not my teachers, and certainly not Sister Anne. All I could do was pray, so that’s what I did. I prayed every morning, for weeks on end, asking God to let me die at school and not at home. I didn’t want my parents to see me in my last moments. I knew they couldn’t handle it.
It took weeks before momentum shifted in favor of the rational side of my brain and the near-constant knot in my stomach began to unwind itself. But eventually, the fear of my no-longer-inevitable death had subsided completely, and my youthful sense of invincibility was fully restored.
This was, I believe, my first brush with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a condition with which I’d be diagnosed about 8 years after this episode.
There’s a very small part of me that wants to hate Sister Anne and the school nurse for what they did to me. I don’t know if the way they treated me caused me any permanent harm, but I’m darn sure it didn’t help. At best, their response to my first-ever OCD episode had shattered my perception of school as a safe, comfortable environment where I could ask for help whenever I needed it. At worst, it had discouraged me from opening up about other obsessive fears that would haunt me later in life, fears so debilitating that I’d eventually take up temporary residence in a psychiatric clinic for severely troubled juveniles.
Nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to hold a grudge towards Sister Anne or the school nurse. For one thing, it’s almost certain that they’ve both passed away by now, and I’m not one to wish ill upon the dead.
Furthermore, I know that they were just following the same scare-them-straight approach to childhood discipline that was likely used on them when they were kids. As damaging as that approach may have been, it was a pillar of Catholic culture when I was growing up. In the halls of the average Catholic school, Christ’s love almost always played second fiddle to tough love.
But that excuse doesn’t fly in 2022.
OCD is much more well-understood today than it was when I was a child, and no respected psychiatrist would ever prescribe Sister Anne’s tough-love discipline as an effective treatment for it. The same can be said about myriad psychological and neurological disorders that are frequently — and incorrectly — attributed to immaturity, narcissism, laziness, or some other deficiency of character.
Accountability takes many forms, but not all forms of accountability are equally effective or appropriate. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with a mentally ill child whose well-being depends in part on having a network of trustworthy and compassionate adults with whom they can be open and honest. Mentally ill kids don’t need more spankings, groundings, or anxiety-inducing threats from old-school disciplinarians like Sister Anne. They need loving, empathetic elders who can teach them how to navigate a world that isn’t built for them, doesn’t understand them, and all too often holds them in contempt for the crime of being different.
If you’re a parent whose child regularly misbehaves in ways that you suspect might be symptomatic of mental illness, don’t make the same mistake Sister Anne and the school nurse made with me. Your child doesn’t need your tough love; they need your unconditional love. Please don’t jeopardize their future by stubbornly clinging to the antiquated notion that a balanced diet of fear, intimidation, and punishment can cure a malfunctioning brain. Instead, get your child the professional help that too many other mentally ill children never received when they needed it the most — and get it now, before it’s too late.