In 1994, I lost my brother Dale to cancer. He was only 46 years old. Being five years younger, I always looked up to him for his great accomplishments and humor. He was a child psychologist, a wonderful father to his two children, and a compassionate, intelligent, and funny man with a dry wit.
He was my brother. I miss him daily.
Dale’s cancer was terminal, and he was hanging on one day at a time. The OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) I was dealing with at the time made me extremely anxious about getting on a plane and flying from California to Seattle to visit him. I call this “the harming fear.” Some define it as a “hyper-responsibility obsession.” In my case, it was obsessive, magical thinking that I could harm my brother by my presence, or a simple touch, thinking that I possessed some kind of deadly, magical germs. This obsession overwhelmed me. And it restricted me from doing many things with my family. This was a defining moment.
My brother was dying. What could I do?
I was filled with guilt and self-judgment about whether I could visit him. It would mean taking the risk of getting on a plane, flying to Seattle, and pushing through my debilitating “harming obsession” that was now in full gear. I wept for not taking the risk to get on a plane. The
shame was intolerable. I did something that I was not raised to do as a child. At night, I got on my knees and prayed to God to help my brother. It was beyond painful for all of us in the family. And my anxiety and panic went through the roof because I was about to lose my brother. I was riddled
with guilt and didn’t know if I should or could push through my fears to see him.
Then, I had an idea that would last a lifetime. I thought, “Okay. I have OCD. My brother is in bad shape. I should go there and be with him and his wife. But I haven’t asked him if he wants me to come.”
The key word was “ask.” So I did. I called him on the phone. “Dale, do you want me to come out to Seattle to see you?”
He responded quietly and compassionately, “No, I really don’t have a need to see you.” Dale was not trying to take care of me because we didn’t have that kind of relationship. I didn’t take his response as an insult, for we had a phone relationship for many years. He was simply being honest. I heard it as, “I’m in bad shape and don’t want company right now, so let’s continue our
phone relationship. I’m good with that.” And that’s what we did, with our last conversation
ending with a mutual “I love you.”
Not long after those last words, my beeper went off one night. It was my mother’s number. I knew why she was calling. Dale had passed. My brother’s memory lives on. His spirit lives on. His
energy lives on. I know at a deeper level that our last words to each other, “I love you,” will live on too.
The lesson of asking what my brother wanted and needed, and honoring the answer, was yet another tool for my own recovery and a lesson for all of my relationships. How does that relate to OCD? Those of us dealing with OCD have to open our mouths and ask for what we need
and want in order to take care of ourselves. It’s empowering.
Excerpt from James Callner's book, It's a Matter of Trust - How I Got Better from OCD with Compassion, Help & Hope.