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.

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…

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.

Tenth Anniversary – Part I

Image courtesy of Chaiwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Chaiwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This weekend commemorates an anniversary in our family. It is ten years since we recognized that our son, Blake, had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I remember the weekend well. One event in particular prompted us to reach out for help and plunged us into new, unfamiliar territory.

Our family went boating that weekend. We weren’t very experienced with motor boating, and we excitedly packed up both boys, my parents, and one giant inflatable raft and made our way to a local lake. Goal: encourage Grandma and Grandpa to take a turn on the raft as it was towed by the boat. We were sure they’d love it.

We were successful in getting both my parents to give the raft a try. I remember the gigantic smile on my mom’s face and the “thumbs up” sign she threw us as she requested that the boat go faster. We had a ball swimming, picnicking, and taking in the beautiful day.

I don’t recall if Blake, then seven, got in the water or on the raft that day. I do recall, though, that at one point he became aware that people sometimes relieve themselves in the water. The recognition horrified him and, from that point on, he wanted nothing to do with the water. Exhausted from the activities and the sun, he fell deeply asleep on the boat bench. The hubby had to lift him from the boat and into his seat in the car, where Blake awoke as he was being buckled in.

A Child Possessed

Suddenly, it dawned on Blake how he had gotten into the car…and he began to scream. Gut-wrenching, blood-curdling, ear-piercing screams began to emerge from my seven-year-old’s mouth, causing the other five of us in the car to wheel around to look at what was going on. Blake looked like a child possessed. His face was contorted and bright red. He struggled in his seat as those screams kept coming.

Wash! Wash! Wash! Need to wash! Wash! Wash!….”

My parents looked dumbfounded and helpless in the back seat. Michael looked confused. My husband and I tried to talk to Blake, to calm him down. Our attempts fell on deaf ears. Blake just kept right on screaming. I didn’t know what to do. I felt something primal well up deep inside of me.

KNOCK IT OFF!!!!!” I heard myself bellow.

Can’t You See He’s Terrified?

Blake looked at me through tear-filled eyes. I’d frightened him (and probably everyone else in the car).

“Can’t you see he’s terrified?” my hubby said to me. He went to comfort Blake, but Blake wanted nothing to do with him, for it was his father, who had been in that urine filled lake and then carried him into this car, who was the source of the contamination that now tormented him. He didn’t want his father, or any of us who had been in the lake, near him. We were all a source of fear. My hubby and I could not offer comfort to our own child.

We drove home in near silence.

“We need to get help,” my hubby said to me.

“They’re going to say it’s my fault, but you’re right. We can’t go on like this.”

Today’s outburst hadn’t been the first. It was the scariest, though. It was the latest in a summer full of incidents that told me our younger son had OCD. I’d just kept hoping I was wrong. Everything I’d learned about OCD in my psychology graduate program pointed to the mother as the source of the problem, and I was terribly afraid and embarrassed. I was scared of what OCD would mean for my son’s quality of life, and ashamed that I, as a child clinical psychologist, did not know what to do for my son. It was time to surrender to the fact that we needed help. I silently prayed that there was something that would help. I would reach out to colleagues in the upcoming week.

Why I Cried at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu at top right

Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu at top right

I’m afraid of heights. Maybe it’s not heights I’m actually afraid of, but of falling from heights. Yes, that more accurately describes it. I am terribly afraid of plunging downward, knowing what is about to happen to me. My fear of falling is so powerful that I cannot even watch as others meander near the edge of a cliff. And, yet, I recently found myself navigating the “death stairs” of Huayna Picchu, a mountain just behind Peru’s Machu Picchu.

Isn’t This a Blog About OCD?

You may be checking the page you are on right now. Isn’t this a blog about a family that has a teenage member with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? What is the mom doing sharing about her experience climbing a mountain peak? I asked myself about that as I considered writing this piece. What I answered is that my son didn’t develop OCD in a vacuum. He has a mom who is choc full of fears and worries. I may not have OCD, but I know what it is to struggle with anxiety. Before Blake was treated for OCD, I didn’t have a clue about how to stand up to fear and worry. This journey with him has opened a whole new world for me.

In case you’re wondering, my fears include, in no particular order (and are not limited to):

  • Slipping and falling from great heights
  • Plunging to my death in an airplane crash
  • Suffocating in a small space
  • Speaking in public
  • Talking to new people
  • Talking in groups

Some of these fears I’ve conquered. Others are still a work in progress. Climbing a steep mountain peak is definitely in the “not conquered” column. When my hubby added Machu Picchu to a list of destinations for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary trip, I was fine. Or at least I was until he added Huayna Picchu (whose peak is 8,920 feet [2,720 meters] above sea level) to the itinerary.

I fretted about Huayna Picchu from the moment I learned it towered over Macchu Picchu by almost 1,200 feet (360 meters). I heard that it had steep stairs that went almost straight up. I heard that it was slippery and that there were no ropes to hold onto. I doubted I could make the climb, not because of skill, but because of fear. Other tourists we met along the way convinced me I could do it. They seemed to brush off my declarations of terror of falling. Just don’t look down. I decided I’d make up my mind for myself once I was there.

Arrival at Machu Picchu

The morning we arrived at Machu Picchu, the hubby and I stepped off a train, were lead through a circuitous path to a bus by a woman who disappeared as quickly as she breathlessly arrived, and wandered through a crowd until a smiling Peruvian guide named Walter inquired as to our names. Walter’s kind presence helped me feel more at ease, and his way of stopping to look at the view each time we’d climbed another set of stairs helped me adjust to being at this new altitude. I imagined that maybe I might be okay on this hike to the peak that was to happen the next day. Then Walter said something that shattered the illusion.

“It was a sad day for us at Machu Picchu yesterday,” he told us. “A tourist fell to his death while taking a photo. Please be careful and do not go too close to the edges.”

Fell? What? Indeed, you may have seen in the news that a German tourist fell and died at Machu Picchu recently. Terror crept over me. Any confidence I might have built up in preparation for the trip melted away. I asked Walter about Huayna Picchu. Did he think I could climb it? He repeatedly replied that I didn’t have to climb all the way to the top; there was a place I could stop and begin my descent. His response did not reassure me.

Let’s Go!

At the entrance to Huayna Picchu

At the entrance to Huayna Picchu

The morning of the Huayna Picchu climb we had to be in line for our bus by 5:30 am. Huayna Picchu is strictly controlled; only 400 people may climb it daily. Two hundred people may climb at 7 am and another two hundred at 10 am.  We had the early shift. I was terrified. I paid multiple trips to the restroom before our ascent. I allowed the boisterous high school students who arrived as we did to go ahead of us. Then I focused – one step at a time. When the trail grew steep, I watched one handhold at a time. Then we reached the point where all I could see seemed to be straight up with no ropes to grab hold of.

My breath grew rapid. My heart pounded. I recognized it for what it was – fear, anxiety. As much as I counsel others and knew what I was experiencing, it still felt awful. Would I go on, or would I stop? Maybe I’d make poor decisions if I was too anxious. I glanced at how high up we were and backed up against the mountain.

“I don’t think I can’t go any further,” I told my hubby.

Who Will You Climb For?

My hubby came over and talked to me gently. No fear of falling on his part. He was ready to go, but he knew that I needed a “WHY” to go any further.

“You can do this,” he told me. “Climb for your mom. Climb for my dad.”

His words penetrated through my fears. My mom has limited mobility; a climb like this unlikely if not impossible. His dad passed away sixteen years ago at age sixty-four, just as he was retiring and planning to take his dream trips. How could I, alive and with my limbs still working well, back down because of a silly fear – because I was hyperventilating? How could I allow a fear to keep me from something others dream of? I broke down in tears and buried my head against the mountain. Other hikers thought I was experiencing altitude sickness and offered suggestions. My hubby thanked them and waved them on. And then we climbed.

I focused only on my hands and feet. One movement at a time. One hand or foot in front of the other. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Suddenly, the trail evened out and we entered an Inca holy place. I had made it! I looked through a window to the earth below, and I sobbed and sobbed.

Sign near the summit of Huayna Picchu

Sign near the summit of Huayna Picchu

I stood for a moment and took in this accomplishment. We took photos, triumphantly, at the Huayna Picchu (Waynapicchu) sign, only to realize we weren’t quite at the summit. There was still a trail of thin steps leading into the sky, and I’d reached a point where the direction was one-way only. I had no choice but to continue.

View from the summit of Huayna Picchu

View from the summit of Huayna Picchu

Once at the peak, the way down included straddling a rock perched over an abyss, passing though a tunnel under rocks I had to squat to maneuver, and navigating the same thin stairs in the downward direction. I spent a lot of time on my behind until I reached stairs that didn’t seem so vertical to me. In the end I was spent, exhausted, and satisfied.

Descending through a rock tunnel

Descending through a rock tunnel

Why Did You Cry?

As we made our way down the hill on the bus, my hubby queried me about the adventure.

“Why did you cry up there?” he wondered as the bus pitched through yet anther switchback turn.

I tried to place myself back in those moments atop the peak. I recalled the flood of emotion that washed over me and the release that came with it. Why did I cry? I cried with relief for finally having arrived at that moment after days and weeks of trepidation. I cried for my family members who would have wanted to do the climb, but could not for one reason or another. I cried for opportunities lost in my life because fear held me back. I cried for having found the courage to stare at fear and continue in spite of it. I cried at the thought of those I’ve had the honor of watching stand up to fear and triumph – whether they be patients, family, or friends. And I cried with the recognition that fear does not have to define us or limit us. Fear can be faced. When it is we can grow and flourish beyond our imaginations.