SINGAPORE: He stood frozen in the toilet for up to five hours at a go, often walked an overhead bridge backwards and found comfort opening and closing the refrigerator door repeatedly for hours.
These are the memories that Evelyn Chng and Tony Kee have of their son’s childhood.
Evelyn and Tony first noticed something was amiss in 2011, when they received a memo from their eldest child, *Bruce’s (not his real name) Mathematics teacher about him not handing in eight weeks of homework.
Tony had wondered if his 14-year-old son – who was exceptionally skilled at Math – was struggling under the stress of his Triple Science course or his experience being bullied a year ago. Concerned, he looked for Bruce’s school bag.
“I discovered the question papers, all crumpled inside. That’s when I realised that something was not right,” the 51-year-old recounted.
For the next two years or so, the Kees watched as their usually happy-go-lucky and active child became increasingly reticent and withdrawn. Bruce, who used to place in the top 10 per cent of his cohort, started to become untidy and fall behind in school.
Just months before he was due to sit for his O-Level examinations, he was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is a mental health condition that makes it “difficult for individuals with the condition to process information”, says Haanu Prithivi Raj, senior clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health’s (IMH) Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
“Having OCD is similar to having a broken filter or sieve in the brain. When the sieve works, the brain is able to ignore intrusive thoughts (that do not make sense) that we all have. However, when we have OCD, the sieve or filter is broken or torn and hence these thoughts fall through and this causes distress to us as we are not able to ignore these intrusive thoughts and fears anymore,” Ms Raj told CNA.
While there is not much data on OCD in Singapore youth, Ms Raj estimates it could affect up to 4 per cent of youths here, which is almost double the global prevalence of 2 to 3 per cent. From 2014 to 2018, the IMH Child Guidance Clinics saw an average of about 130 children and adolescents aged between 6 and 18 years old with OCD.
When Tony and Evelyn received the diagnosis, they didn’t know what to do.
“We thought that it could be treated,” recalled Evelyn.
“We thought OCD could be fully recovered from – with everything reset back to normal,” Tony said.
Then, Bruce started to display compulsions during his first semester in polytechnic.
“By 17, his condition was already severe. He would keep going in and out of the classroom doors during class because of anxiety,” said Evelyn.
Both parents recall having to wait hours in the school’s carpark as their teenage son flitted in and out of his empty classroom in a deserted school. Because they had no access to the school’s facilities, they sometimes had to enlist the help of a security guard to escort their son down.
Bruce also began calling his mother from the canteen every day to help him decide what to eat. Once, he called her to ask if he could bring an empty wrapper back.
“He couldn’t seem to make decisions. His decision-making was affected,” said Tony, who works in the financial services sector.
At home, Bruce would spend several hours in the toilet after a shower, standing in one spot as if frozen in time.
When he was ready to exit the toilet, his family was forced to rearrange the house to the state it had been in before he entered hours earlier, or else, he could not bring himself to enter an environment he perceived himself to have no control over.
“He would try to stop me from leaving – which stopped him (doing his rituals) … and sometimes, I would end up dozing off because I had to sit there for one to two hours while waiting for him to calm down,” she said, grimacing.
“It was painful, but I had no choice.”
Dr Adrian Loh, visiting consultant with the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at IMH explained that children and teens suffering from OCD frequently display compulsions such as touching certain objects in a specific pattern, or having to say things in a certain way, without understanding why.
“In some of these cases, all they can explain is that this just ‘feels right’, leading to much parental frustration. In some cases when sufferers are unable to obtain relief from overwhelming anxiety and discomfort, they may even end up with rage attacks which can be misunderstood as misconduct by family members,” added Dr Loh.
“IT WAS HELL. IT WAS HELL”
Dealing with a child who had to perform rituals at the expense of the family’s peace meant several clashes and fights within the family.
“The police have come (to the house) so many times that we can apply to be VIP members,” joked Tony.
“Sometimes, it was us who called. And sometimes, it was the neighbours from the opposite block who called because … of the serious fights. It was too stressful and my daughter and I would get very scared when they fought as they would throw things here and there,” Evelyn said.
Tony and Evelyn were also at constant loggerheads due to the mounting stress.
Said Tony: “It’s like … as a man, in the office, you can solve an issue. But you can’t even bring your child from the toilet to the bedroom. It’s just a short distance but you can’t do it, you know? The frustration was just too much,” he said.
At their lowest, the couple who have been married for 25 years, briefly considered ending it all.