What My Sister’s OCD Taught Me About Empathy

Still in the process of learning from my sister’s experience with OCD, I am committed to fostering conversations about mental health and how to best accommodate others.

Under the Arch

What My Sister’s OCD Taught Me About Empathy

Still in the process of learning from my sister’s experience with OCD, I am committed to fostering conversations about mental health and how to best accommodate others. 

Listening to a loved one’s struggles can help to develop empathy. 

Carina Christo | Mar 26, 2023

My family has our own unwritten rule book: my sister Gab picks the bread first when we’re at an Italian restaurant, the tortilla chips first at a Mexican restaurant, and her share of the appetizer first anywhere else. It continues: wash your hands before hugging Gab, don’t use Gab’s silverware even if you clean it after, and stay home if you’re going to even think about coughing. 

My sister is a trendsetter more influential than a TikTok influencer. At least, that’s the way it’s been for the past two years, since she started showing signs of contamination Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Upon returning from my first year of college, I realized that my sister had developed habits that sometimes made her unrecognizable to me. She and my parents fought about the two-hour-long showers at 3 a.m., her orders to maintain standards for what she considered a hygienic household, and the insults she threw at us for being filthy after we had left something on the ground.

Everything felt so abrupt. I’m not the type to adjust quickly. I didn’t understand why I had to spend so much time cleaning my own stuff for her to be happy, or why she would refuse to do things we used to — going on drives during school breaks, visiting local coffee shops, or even just taking turns driving through the windy backroads of Massachusetts.

My sister refused to go in any upholstered car, since you cannot technically disinfect the material. She became fearful of hitting pedestrians, and she stopped wanting to drive altogether. Unsurprisingly, I became her personal Uber — but I missed my turns to sit in the passenger seat and curate our playlists. 

In the fall, new compulsions seemed to be added to her list constantly, making even the most mundane tasks take hours to complete. The toll this took on her physical and mental health was clear — she barely slept, and all she seemed to be able to grasp onto was anxiety and fear. For almost a year, she refused to eat anything with nuts, with other such food refusals coming with time. The constant fear and uncertainty she experienced were overwhelming, and it was hard to know how to help.

Snuggling up together and watching the really cheesy Netflix original rom-coms that always drop a few days before Christmas used to be a guilty pleasure we regularly indulged in. However, the prospect of me touching my sister, let alone her bed, became so unthinkable that this all dwindled away as well. I resented what I perceived as her selfishness — her being so consumed with her rituals that she couldn’t enjoy the things that had previously brought us together. I missed my sister.

Last year, my family hosted a foreign exchange student from Chile. That responsibility, paired with my sister’s breakdowns, created a lot of stress for my parents. Instead of being able to rant to my mom when I was upset like I did in the past, I often found my parents confiding in me for emotional support. I felt for them, but seeing my sister’s pain made it hard to be on my parents’ side. Sure, I was having trouble getting used to things too, but it was disheartening to watch my dad play the victim when my sister was clearly suffering the most. Her struggles were not a mere act or a cry for attention.

I felt isolated from both my parents, as well as my sister. She was struggling with OCD, they were struggling to accept it, and I was struggling to understand the sudden changes in our dynamic. My house stopped feeling like my home and so did New York. I just wanted life to go back to normal — but I knew it would have to be a new normal.

Most of the time, I didn’t understand how it had happened, how the OCD had manifested so late in life. Why couldn’t she just snap out of it? Had it always been there in hiding? Had it been triggered by some sort of trauma we didn’t know about? Was it genetic?

I felt it was wrong to complain about my sister or the tension at home to other people. I recognized that I was not the one suffering from OCD, but knew my proximity to it affected me nonetheless. I just wanted someone to understand and for the two of us to have a better relationship. I wanted my sister back, but her OCD made it difficult to find a compromise that preserved both her comfort and our once-easy relationship.

While navigating the challenges posed by my sister’s OCD and the strain it placed on our family, I came to realize my deep longing for stability and connection. Being in close proximity to my sister and her struggles has provided me with an opportunity to challenge the unwritten rules I have for myself. 

I will never fully understand what it is like to be in Gab’s shoes, no matter how much I talk to her about her feelings or read up on OCD. I often had preconceptions about my sister’s rituals, assigning degrees of correctness to them. I have learned that respecting her rituals is important to her well-being. For individuals with OCD, performing such repetitive behaviors may be a necessary way to manage the anxiety that comes with obsessive compulsions rather than a choice. Not only is it important to understand the validity of rituals but also how they vary from individual to individual. 

What quickly became evident to me is how misunderstood OCD is. In the past few years, the conversation around mental health has taken great leaps, but OCD is still largely removed as a topic of discussion. Instead of being validated as a serious, potentially debilitating disease, OCD is often reduced to becoming the butt of jokes. It is used as a descriptor for quirky behavior — an adjective assigned to individuals who color coordinate school supplies or wash their hands before and after eating. My frustration with the trivialization of OCD has led me to respond pretentiously with, “I had no idea you have OCD, it’s so hard,” and wait for them to backtrack as their guilt begins to set in.

I’ve learned how to communicate my sister’s needs to my friends without oversharing or being condescending, but this same liberty rarely exists when trying to educate strangers. Most people are ignorant of OCD, like I was before, and don’t bother to try and understand, let alone sympathize with people affected by it. I don’t expect everyone to become an expert in OCD, but whenever I hear my sister recount the judgemental stares and nasty comments she faces, I can’t help but feel disheartened. 

Gab is not the type of person to roll her eyes when the customer in front of us takes too long to pull out change from their wallet, or leave a smaller tip when the food comes out late. She gives people the benefit of the doubt. She’s the kind of person to surprise her friends with Starbucks when they’re stressed. When finding a place to eat, she sends me which items are vegetarian before I even look at the full menu so I don’t have to search the fine print. She’s the kind of person to actively seek out how to be a better New York City transplant by volunteering at community organizations and learning about local issues. We’re both passionate about sustainable fashion and her eBay obsession provides me with the coolest vintage hand me downs –– she has the best taste in clothes, Trader Joe’s snacks and funny TikTok personalities. She hand-draws personalized birthday cards for her friends, really listens when people speak, and uses the word precious more than anyone I know. She knows the perfect level of sarcasm to make people laugh without hurting their feelings, and is always inventing her own slang, much of which I’ve adopted as well. 

My sister is a lot more than her OCD. Her strength throughout her struggles is just one of her countless other amazing qualities. Seeing her battles, which many others are blind to, taught me never to make assumptions about someone. 

I have not always been the most understanding of my sister’s OCD, but, over time, I have made a concerted effort to improve. Through her guidance and my willingness to listen, I have learned valuable lessons in empathy, understanding and the importance of accommodating others. 

While our family has navigated tumultuous times, I am immensely proud of the progress she has made and how we have all grown in understanding and compassion. My sister remains one of my best friends. When I’m around her, I am able to be my most authentic self — it only makes sense that I afford her the same privilege.