Forty Percent

img_4892It’s a Sunday afternoon and Blake is taking a computer scored test for his precalculus class. He’s never liked math, yet he has continued to push himself forward because he knows at least this much math is required for him to pursue his career goal of video game developer. The tension is palpable in the family room air. Twenty problems. Three points each. The anxiety mounted when he looked at the first problem.

“I can’t do this! I don’t understand it!”

“Blake. Yes you can, and yes you do. Slow down.”

Is That Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

The hubby and I keep repeating this mantra, but Blake is not hearing it. He’s far too anxious. Yes, Blake has OCD and while you may be wondering how this is an OCD moment, suffice it to say that OCD often does not occur in a vacuum. OCD sufferers can have many other things going on besides OCD (just as we all can have multiple things going on in our lives). One very common occurrence is to have anxiety (possibly even an anxiety disorder) pop up in areas besides those affected by the OCD.

When a person has OCD, they struggle to deal with the uncertainty, discomfort, and anxiety brought on by intrusive thoughts, urges, or images. It is the discomfort that is created that OCD sufferers must learn to deal with. So, it’s not surprising that other things that make an OCD sufferer anxious can also be a challenge. In Blake’s case, math provokes anxiety. I don’t know if it’s a full blown phobia, but math anxiety is a regular occurrence in his life.

How’d You Get on Number 16?

I walk over to Blake and glance over his shoulder. He’s on number 12 out of 20.

“I’m not going to pass,” he says with panic in his voice. “It’s hopeless.”

“Hey, you can do this. This is your anxiety talking.”

“No! No! I just don’t understand it!”

I glance at the computer. He’s on number 16. This doesn’t make sense. We’ve been talking. He hasn’t even more than glanced at the computer screen. He couldn’t have completed four precalculus problems.

“Blake, how’d you get on number 16? You were just on number 12.”

“I can’t do it,” he just keeps saying.

“Blake, did you enter nonsense answers?”

“I’m not going to pass! It doesn’t matter what I enter!”

The hubby manages to intervene and to convince Blake to take his hands off the keyboard. We talk for a few moments and Blake settles down. He refocuses on the task at hand and answers numbers 16-20 correctly. He earns a forty percent. When he’s finished, I take a look at the analysis that shows what he scored correctly on and what he missed. He got three answers correct in the first five questions and then nothing correct until number 16. He’d gotten anxious because he’d gotten a few wrong. Anxiety took over, he panicked, and there went the test.

What Have You Learned From This Experience?

Blake had to contact his teacher about his score because a minimum sixty percent is required for him to continue on in the course. The hubby and I write a note to the teacher and advise her of what happened. We let her know that we hope Blake learns a lesson from this experience and that he will not do this in the future.

“What have you learned from this experience?” I ask Blake later.

“I learned to slow down and take a break if I need to. I also learned that Mom and Dad are usually right.”

As a mom I smile at that last comment – not that he’ll recall it when we have advice to give.

Blake’s teacher writes me back the next day. She asks for Blake to come in and work with her. She wants to see what he needs help with, and then to reset the test – something we hadn’t asked for nor expected.  After she works with him, she asks me to come by.

“He understands all of this. He did remarkably well. Let’s see how he does on the re-take.”

Blake takes the test again and scores an eighty-five percent.

“I have pretty amazing teachers,” Blake tells me.

“Yes, you do,” I reply. “Mrs. C didn’t need to reset that test. She understands anxiety. I wouldn’t expect her to do that again.”

Blake understands that responding to his anxiety by completely throwing off his test was not the best choice. He does seem to have learned something from it, but, honestly, only time will tell. Will he step back and recognize what anxiety is doing to him the next time it surfaces? I hope so. Or it may be a lesson he will have to learn repeatedly before he gets it down. I am confident that he will get it some day.

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The Great Ice Cream Adventure

It’s 9:30 pm on Sunday evening. Blake, the hubby, and I giddily walk into our local drug store. It’s eerily quiet. The shelving units are on casters, the walls are bare, and the clerk looks at us like there’s something wrong that we are there. I glance in the direction of the ice cream counter. I can see that it’s still there.

“We’d like to get some ice cream,” I say.

The clerk looks back at me like I’m from another world.

“It’s closed until we finish the remodel.”

I’m disappointed. I mean, really disappointed. The three of us walking into a store to buy ice cream together – well, this hasn’t happened in years. Blake agreed earlier to go get ice cream together tonight and I was delighted. I’m not about to give up now. I think for a second.

“You have another store nearby,” I say, noting which one I’m talking about. “How late are they open? Is their ice cream counter open?”

“Yes, their ice cream counter is open. They’re finished with their remodel. They’re open until 10, if you can make it on time…”

Of course I can make it on time. I rush out the door with Blake and the hubby following close behind.

“It’s okay, Mom,” Blake says. “We don’t need to rush over. I’ll be okay without ice cream.”

“Honey, it’s just over the hill here. It’ll take five minutes to get there.”

It’s Not Just About Ice Cream

I’m a woman on a mission. I want to make it to the drug store before they close up for img_4881the night. We must have ice cream. This is about so much more than ice cream. It’s about being able to do something as a family that we haven’t been able to do in so long. It’s about how anxiety and OCD have stopped us from being able to do this simple activity together – and how tonight there is a little window to change that. I want to seize on this opportunity.

To be perfectly fair to Blake, it’s not all about OCD or anxiety. He does have some real dietary restrictions. However, quite some time ago we learned what he can and cannot eat, and how to check that all is okay when he’s out in the world. It’s just that, until tonight, he’s felt far too uncomfortable to do it. Avoiding has been his compulsion. Better safe than risk breaking a rule.

I pull into the parking lot and we go quickly inside. Yup, this store has finished its remodel. Still eerily quiet inside. There’s one lone clerk to be seen. When he glances in my direction, I have a feeling he’s going to tell us that they are closed. Then the hubby asks him if we can get some ice cream and he seems to lighten up as he moves to the ice cream counter.

I Don’t Need Any Ice Cream

The hubby orders first – a big double scoop. Blake pulls me aside. He looks nervous.

“I changed my mind. I don’t feel comfortable with this. I don’t need any ice cream.”

I feel a little switch flip inside of me. Wait? Hadn’t we already talked this out? I’ve taken us to two different stores just to reach this moment?

“Blake. Come on. You can do this. Did we really come out for you to change your mind?”

The hubby sees what is happening and gives me a look.

“Hey, it’s Blake’s decision. Let him do what he chooses.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m going to go order.”

And I order my single scoop of chocolate malted crunch, not sure I’m going to enjoy it quite so much. My sugar cone breaks when the clerk goes to put the ice cream in it and he has to start over.

“They’re making the cones thinner now,” he tells me. “I use twice as many because they keep breaking.”

He hands me my cone and I take a lick. It does taste really good. I just wish Blake could enjoy it, too.

I Want to Try

I turn around, ready to pay for our cones, and see Blake right there.

“I changed my mind, Mom. I want to try. What is it I have to check for? How do I do it?”

I explain to Blake that he just has to ask the clerk to show him the containers that the ice cream and cones are stored in. There, he can check the ingredients appropriately. He’s nervous, in part because he’s learning a new skill, but to a larger degree because his OCD is telling him this is bad, he’s breaking the rules, something bad could happen.

Blake asks the clerk to show him each. It all checks out. He orders a double scoop of chocolate. He eats every last bit, his anxiety melting away with each lick.

A Double Scoop; A Double Triumph

That night the ice cream tasted better than I remembered. Probably enhanced by the sweetness of what occurred. Blake stood up to his OCD for the evening, and he triumphed. He took a new step toward a little more freedom.

I also took a step. You see, I’m part of the problem. When I see Blake giving in to his OCD, like he almost did when he said he wasn’t going to get any ice cream, I get emotional. I actually start to get angry. I want him to stand up to the OCD…but my anger and frustration don’t help. They make things worse. If I would’ve not taken the hubby’s cue and continued to push, it wouldn’t have gone well. Blake would have remained steadfast in not getting his ice cream because my emotions would have only created more anxiety for him. When I stepped back, Blake gained space to do what he needed to do. He was able to find his bravery and do what felt uncomfortable.

Bravery is what defeating OCD is all about – doing different than what your brain is telling you to do. My boy was brave that night. I like to think I was brave, too. Or strong. It’s difficult to step back…at least it is for me. I hate when OCD steps in and takes things from my son and from our family experience. Helping Blake means I have to respond differently that how I might automatically want to. So I guess we both grew just a little from that experience. I think we need some more ice cream…

What’d You Do With That Cereal?

Where's that cereal been?
Where’s that cereal been?

It’s late in the evening and Blake is in the kitchen pantry. He pulls out a box of cereal and pours himself a big bowl. He comes over to show us. It’s remarkable only because Blake frequently avoids eating from already-open packages of food. Why? Because, well, who knows how that food might have been contaminated?

“It’s the after dinner snack of champions!” remarks my hubby, as he continues to watch the college basketball game on the screen in front of him.

Blake comes over and shows us how very full his bowl is. The hubby and I both admire it. Then he pours the milk in…and hesitates. His head peers over the side of the sofa.

“You guys don’t ever pour yourself a bowl of cereal and then pour it back into the box, do you?” he asks us.

“Of course not,” my hubby replies, glancing at Blake and then back at the screen.

I perform a little inner eye roll and realize how innocuous this little exchange would look to most, except to those with OCD in their family. Blake has just asked for reassurance. He is asking whether the food is contaminated or not. Hubby has just accommodated with his reply.

Reassurance is one of those things that can be so unobtrusive and simple, like the question Blake just asked and my hubby so quickly answered. Or it can be extremely frustrating and seemingly never-ending, such as when a child asks a parent over and over, “Are you sure you washed your hands? You’re sure, right? There’s nothing wrong with it, right? You’re sure?” However it happens, reassurance-seeking can be a compulsion for those with OCD. They feel uncomfortable and then need to seek out someone who can remove that discomfort. It’s one of those things a parent learns, in treatment, that they ought not to do.

So hubby has just reassured Blake that the cereal is fit for his consumption. I, however, am feeling playful. I want to upset this apple cart just a bit.

“Blake, I don’t ever pour out a bowl and pour it back, but I do sometimes take a taste and spit it back in the box when I don’t like it.”

“Oh, Mom,” he laughs…and he eats the entire bowl.

Room to Grow

Full grown wax palms in Cocoro Valley in Colombia
Full grown wax palms in Cocoro Valley in Colombia

Blake’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder has been in a calmer place for a while now. I say that as an outside observer. I really do not know what goes on in his mind; I only know that our family life has been much less impacted. I do know that there are still lots of little symptoms I observe: he utters a prayer multiple times (presumably because it wasn’t just right the first time), he repeatedly does a ritual hand washing, his entire hamper appears in the laundry room when it is only partially full (that means there is something in there that’s contaminated everything inside). Still, this is a far cry from the days his OCD kept us from going places or had him in a meltdown.

Most of the time, when I notice a little OCD symptom, I manage to keep my mouth closed and just let Blake manage it. That’s generally best for everyone. It was no different when we were recently in Colombia (yes, in South America) on a family trip. Michael was overjoyed to be practicing Spanish, his college major, with the locals and trying out different accents. Blake was there because he wanted to be with his brother while he was on winter break. It was tough for him to be in a very unfamiliar place, and there were trying moments, but he persevered.

One day, we visited a farm that is working to re-establish the wax palm which is a

Baby wax palm we planted in the Cocoro Valley, Colombia
Baby wax palm we planted in the Cocoro Valley, Colombia

national symbol of Colombia and has come to be threatened. One of our tasks there was to plant our own baby palm. Our guide brought our little palm over to us and gestured for all four of us to take hold of it and place it in the ground. I noticed Blake wince and hesitate to reach for the clod of dirt around the plant’s roots. Then I saw him reach out wholeheartedly, grasping the tree with the rest of us. Together, we placed it in the ground and covered it with earth. Blake immediately started wondering where there was some water so he could wash the dirt off his hands. Since we were in the middle of the farm, there was none immediately available, and he seemed to tolerate that just fine. He even walked off to get to know one of the nearby horses.

I snapped a photo of our little palm. With any luck, it will last longer than any of us as it will take about one hundred years to reach maturity. In terms of Blake, there were no words that passed between any of us. I don’t know if anyone besides me noticed that Blake stood up to his OCD in order to help give that little tree its start in life and it really doesn’t matter. They are Blake’s moments to savor and grow from, or not, while I get to delight in my own mind.