“I Like the Way I Am” – and Why That Might be a Problem

“I understand what you’re saying – and I’m not interested.”

Blake is sitting in a chair in the therapist’s office and he’s frustrated and defensive. The therapist has brought up an issue that Blake has long refused to talk about – his Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Right now he is insisting that there is no problem. He’s happy with things as they are.

“I like the way I am. I’ve been this way my whole life and it doesn’t get in my way,” Blake says.

And, at the present time, this is true – for the most part. In the past, Blake’s OCD

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has GREATLY gotten in his way. As a young child, his fear of contamination prevented him from getting work done because the pencils might have been touched by other children. Handball with the other kids was out of the question. A dip in a lake where people might have urinated?  Never. His moral scrupulosity in middle school left me standing at the after school pick up spot for half an hour after all the other parents and children had left. Blake was in the classroom clearing every tiny piece of trash off the floor in response to his teacher’s request that everyone help pick up the room. Despite her repeatedly telling him he had done enough, he would not stop. Of course there was also the religious scrupulosity in high school. He would get stuck in a loop saying prayers over and over, trying to get them perfect, and this frequently made him late to school.

Fast forward to present day. Blake is eighteen, hoping to attend college next year, and working to combat depression. He still does little things that are OCD behavior, but he wants to leave them alone. It’s not a big deal, he says, that he washes his hands immediately if he touches money. So what if he washes his bed sheets because a piece of tissue that brushed up against the dog lands there? It’s not a problem for him if he repeats a prayer a time or two. And he cannot understand why his therapist is raising it as an issue at all right now.

“I don’t mind that I do things this way. Why are you bringing this up now?”

When You Have a History Like Yours…

“Blake,” says the therapist, “you’re right. The things you do now are not a big deal. Here’s the thing: if all you ever did was the things you do now, it would be fine. When you have a history like yours, though, where OCD has taken over your life, it’s downright scary to act like it’s not an issue.”

“I don’t understand. Are you telling me I’m not fixed?”

“It’s not a matter of fixed or not fixed. It’s about staying healthy. People with OCD who do the best after treatment work hard at staying healthy.”

“I understand what you’re saying – and I’m not interested.”

“Instead of rejecting this outright, I’m suggesting you consider the possible benefits to you of doing things to ensure your OCD doesn’t grow,” says the therapist.

“If you guys thought I was so sick, why didn’t you tell me before now?  Has this all been a ploy to get me to do exposures?” Blake is downright angry.

“Blake, nobody is saying you are so sick. It is concerning to your parents and I that you accept your compulsions as they are and that you aren’t willing to entertain doing what it takes to protect yourself. Your attitude puts you at risk for relapse and we all want you to start college in the best way possible.”

I sit uncomfortably in my seat, taking this all in. We have tiptoed around Blake’s remaining compulsions for some time now. Getting him out of bed and functioning seemed a more pressing goal. However, the OCD has been the proverbial elephant in the room, mostly because it has been so under the radar and because Blake has been insistent on not looking at it. The therapist is right, though. In my experience treating OCD, my patients who stay healthiest remember that they have OCD and do maintenance work to keep things that way. The ones who want to pretend that it never happened or that it can be ignored tend to relapse more frequently. My son is in the camp of wanting to pretend it’s not there. He leaves the therapist’s office furious.

“I’m Tired of Being Weak and Scared”

Blake is argumentative and demanding on the walk to the car. He tells me that he realizes coming to therapy was all about trying to get him to deal with his OCD. I explain that this is definitely a part of it, but not the only reason, which I know he knows. I am concerned, I tell him, about his unwillingness to take a look at how it might benefit him to acknowledge his OCD and do maintenance work.

And then the tears come…

“I’ve been weak and scared my whole life,” he says. “I’m tired of being weak and scared. And now I’m crying, which proves how weak I am!”

At this point we can actually have a truly connected talk. My young man is not weak. He may feel scared, but he is actually one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. He has stood up to OCD demons frequently in the past. It was tough and exhausting work. I understand his reluctance to revisit that, which is maybe why it feels better to him to allow some rituals to hang around. At the same time, it is important that he understand what risk he might be putting himself at if he maintains this approach. This, I believe, will be his work in the weeks and months to come.

11 thoughts on ““I Like the Way I Am” – and Why That Might be a Problem

  1. I can imagine your concern for him as the time nears for him to go to college. That’s a huge step for any kid, and even bigger when there are underlying health concerns.

    I just finished “Turtles All the Way Down” by John Green. His own experience with OCD was very well described through the main character. The whole time I was reading I thought of Blake and your family. Still thinking of you. -Amy

    1. Hi Amy. Yes, it’s definitely weighing on our minds as he prepares to move out of state and to a program with no dorms- straight to apartment living. He is in a much better place than a year ago and that is so amazing.

      I’m in the middle of reading “Turtles” myself. Yes, John Green does such a great job describing Aza’s inner experience. Blake finds it too painful to even pick it up. I hope he’ll do so one day.

      1. As I was reading I had the feeling it might be too raw for someone who actually deals with OCD themselves. I think it’s a great read, though, for those of us who don’t and want to understand better.

  2. While my story is very different from Blake’s, I understand where he is coming from. My OCD at its peak was very severe and definitely got in the way of appropriately performing ADL’s and IADL’s. Because it was exacerbated by stress and an abusive counselor at school, when I went home that summer my OCD went down to a level that was quite manageable. That summer I broke free of the abuse and as a result my school required me to see multiple counselors outside of school. By forcing it, it felt like they didn’t see or care about my hard work and current ability to function. There were a lot of things that happened that shouldn’t have, but long story short the first three people I saw were also hurtful, though not outright abusive – more like just not that great at and not that into their job – so I was very turned off from counseling. The fourth one I saw was actually really nice and someone I might have stuck with if she wasn’t so expensive and if I hadn’t been required to be there…and since she knew I was only there as long as I had to be and she had to report back to my school, we didn’t really do much. Because of my history of OCD that I do admit still flares on occasion, and because if I am being honest I really never processed the abuse with anyone and it does still affect me, people have insisted that I really should find a counselor and get help, and I am opposed to the idea. I know what it is like to be barely making it through life, so I am happy to live with lower levels of OCD that allow me to function in every day life most of the time. While I understand where they are coming from that maybe I could live better with some additional work, for me at this time I still feel the discomfort in trying that outweighs the potential benefit. This is getting way longer than I intended so I will skip to just saying, keep suggesting it and keep supporting Blake. I have gone from absolutely not to okay I’ll think about it and research options, and hopefully Blake will also see what you see and eventually give in.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and your perspective . This taking care of our mental health is really hard work. We all do what we can when we are ready. I, too, hope that Blake will see the Work to be done, and I know it will come when he is ready. Thank you for being here!

  3. Sarah Haider

    I remain hopeful, and I love that you write about Blake’s respond eat the end of the session which allowed you to have an honest conversation.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate that you commented on what happened after session. Although the session was difficult, and although Blake may or may not wish to take the steps being suggested by the therapist, I think that it created some movement and allowed him to share some difficult feelings he’d been holding in.

  4. It breaks my heart when Blake, or anyone else with OCD, sees themselves as weak. I have said before that my son and all those who deal with OCD are some of the bravest people I know.
    I agree that it was good to get a conversation going about the “elephant in the room” and my hunch is that Blake will come to realize how important it is to address and he will do what he needs to do. So glad he has progressed so much!

  5. Yes. It breaks my heart, too, and my heart hurt when Blake said that about himself. Jonathan Grayson says in his book that people with OCD are among the bravest people he knows. I’m glad we have a therapist who isn’t afraid to bring things up.

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