Sharing – About Me

Recently, a patient came to session struggling more than usual. Depression had settled in on top of her Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is not at all uncommon. It just happened on the heels of the deaths by suicide of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and it sparked her to act.

“I can understand how someone could do it,” she told me. “I can understand what it’s like to have it seem like it just doesn’t matter if you are here anymore.”

She went on to talk about what she felt like at the present time, and then it happened. Maybe I nodded with too much agreement. Maybe I empathized in such a way that sparked the recognition.

“You, too?” she asked.

“I once spent two weeks in bed. Only got out to do the essentials.”

It just seemed to spill out of me, my admission that I, too, have struggled at times with major depression. I didn’t share it for her sympathy or to make me feel better. It just seemed like the right moment to say, “Hey, you’re not alone, and this beast can be bested.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It was before I knew much about how to deal with depression. I’ve learned a lot since then.” And then we had an in depth conversation about how to deal with her depression.

Sharing Personal Information

There’s a bit of a rule in the world of mental health professionals that we don’t share much about ourselves. The treatment session is for our patients, not the place for us to get our needs met. We have therapy and our own relationships outside of the therapy room for that. I actually came from a training experience that encouraged us to be “blank slates” to our patients. We were to answer questions about ourselves with, “How will the answer to that help your situation?” or “What makes you ask that question now?” It always felt strange to me to answer that way, but I did it figuring that I’d get used to it. I didn’t.

When I began treating individuals with OCD, it was already out there in the world that I was a parent of a child with OCD. I’d written articles about it and I shared about it with most of my patients if it seemed appropriate. Working with other parents, it seemed to give credence to what I was asking them to do. To many, it made it seem that I understood, on a deep level, what they were going through. For me, it felt more genuine.

I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, letting my patient know I’d experienced depression myself. I’m not going to try to justify it, and I’m going to have to continue to look at why, when, and how I share personal information with my patients. I do know that being more real feels like a better approach than being a mystery or a “blank slate.” I do things in session like share about the panic attack I had at forty feet below the surface of the ocean while scuba diving. I share about the intense fear I had of public speaking when I was younger – so great that it nearly prevented me from pursuing a career as a psychologist (we had to take an oral exam). And I share how I learned not to have these things rule my experience.

On the day my patient came in struggling with depression, I took the session outside. It’s not something a lot of therapists do, but it’s not so unusual. I took it outside because we uncovered the fact that my patient had stopped her daily walking routine a few months ago, and because we talked about the importance of exercise as one component in dealing with depression. And so we walked. She in her athletic shoes and me in my dress sandals. Together we sought out slight inclines in the neighborhood and we climbed them. I got blisters…and a note from her the next morning showing the miles she’d walked and describing how the fog was beginning to lift.

 

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A Knife in Session: Thoughts on treating OCD

OCD can make simple tasks like cutting food unimaginable

I’ve been trying to write this post for several days now. I keep starting – and then I get stuck.  I can’t seem to think of the right way to write or how to organize it – so let me just start:

Last week, in Fullerton, California, a mental health therapist was stabbed and held at knife point by a patient. The ordeal ended with the patient being shot and killed by the police. The therapist survived. A tragic scenario all around and my heart is with everyone affected.

As the mental health community takes a few steps back to reflect and recalibrate, I find my own thoughts drifting to my work with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Our psychological associations use happenings such as these as an opportunity to remind us how important it is for mental health practitioners to have a “safety plan” in place in case a patient turns violent. In the 2008 article “How to: Stay safe in practice,” published by the American Psychological Association (APA), author Christopher Munsey notes that mental health practitioners ought to “remove potential weapons” from our offices. This includes “letter opener(s) or heavy paperweight(s).” And yet this goes counter to the work I do in my office with my patients.

A Knife in My Office

Less than a week before the stabbing in California, I sat on the floor of my office with a young adult patient. We were no more than a couple of feet from one another. Poised between us, on a cutting board was a paring knife, an essential tool for the exposure we were doing. You see, my patient had not held anything sharper than a butter knife for over one year. Formerly a joyful chef in his home, his OCD caused him to worry over intrusive thoughts in his head that made him fear he might stab a family member (or anyone close by) if he held a knife. His cooking all but ceased. The whole family missed his meal preparation. And so, on that day on my office floor, we faced his OCD head on by placing a knife of his choice (I’d brought in an assortment) on a cutting board that he dared to get close to.

My patient’s anxiety skyrocketed as he approached the knife. He shook and he sweated as he inched closer and his hand reached toward it. We ended the exposure, 45 minutes later, with him having managed to place two fingers on the handle (lest you wonder if this was progress, it is of note that he began on the other side of the room, about six feet away). Tears fell out of his mother’s eyes as she watched from the sidelines and began to fully comprehend the extent of her son’s fears, as well as the bravery he possesses.

But, are we foolish…

Bringing a knife into session is not so unusual for those of us who treat OCD. If our patient has harm obsessions, sometimes a knife is just what is needed to stand up to the disorder. It is a reclaiming of what OCD steals from the sufferer, the ability to do a simple task most of us do not think twice about – cut our food.

Yet, the non-OCD community regards us, at times, as outlandish, misguided, or downright wrong about our approach to treatment. An extremely well-respected and experienced psychologist I know once shared a story in an OCD workshop I attended about how an insurance company representative questioned his methods. The conversation began something like this:

Well, Dr. X, if your patient is afraid she will harm someone with a knife, isn’t it ill advised to be using knives in your treatment?

The psychologist then had to explain to the representative, also a psychologist, how OCD is treated. It was completely a foreign concept to the representative. A sad state when insurers of treatment do not understand how a disorder is treated. But they are not alone. I’m fairly certain much of the psychology community does not understand what goes on in a treatment setting when OCD is the focus, and I’m pretty sure they’d be aghast upon first learning about it.

So, while my professional organization suggests I remove all items that might be used as weapons against me from my office, my treatment with patients with “harm” OCD often involves noticing what items in my office might actually be used as weapons. Of course our focus is on helping them to tolerate their anxiety about being in the presence of their feared thoughts and the everyday items that might trigger these. My taking these steps in treatment means I must do a very thorough evaluation of my patient and have come to a well-thought out treatment plan that is in keeping with their diagnosis.

What about the patients…

I also know that incidents such as the one in California will trigger many OCD sufferers. A population that already regularly questions its own sanity may point to this incident as evidence that they may go “crazy” and attack someone. It could make them fearful of doing exposure work in session (“I might crack while doing an exposure and hurt my therapist.”). Worse, it could make them delay attending therapy for fear they will do something similar.

Where am I going with this? Mostly, I am saddened that incidents like this ever occur. They are apparently rare, but they do happen. As an OCD therapist, like all mental health practitioners, I must stay aware of this and not take safety in the office in a cavalier way. At the same time, I must do a thorough evaluation of my patients and act in the best interest of helping them to get healthy and functioning again.

These Spring Evenings

Spring has finally arrived in our area. The plants are blooming and blossoming. The days are warmer and the nights are still cool. The hubby recently completed a project of changing over our landscaping to a more water efficient and drought tolerant one. Consequently, our backyard is a joy to be in right now. Every evening that I get home later than the hubby, I find him sitting in a cozy chair on the back patio just enjoying. Frequently he is flanked by a dog on either side, and both of these appear equally as content as their owner.

Along with spending more time on the patio, the hubby has suggested we move several of our evening meals in the last couple of weeks outdoors. I’ve obliged him, and therein lies the issue for Blake. I’ve shared before that Blake’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has played a back seat role to his depression of late, but it is at times like this when it shows itself more.

“Are we eating outside again?” he asks.

“We are.”

“I’m guessing you’d like me to join you…”

“We’d love you to join us.”

I can feel the hesitation, the thinking, the rationalizing, the many things that must be going through his head. When we first realized Blake had OCD it showed itself in fear of contamination. Although it has had many incarnations, his OCD has never quite abandoned attacking him on the issue of things being contaminated. Our patio table is contaminated (it sits outdoors all the time). The chairs are contaminated (ditto). There are bugs out there (they might land on you or, heaven forbid, your food). I think even the outside air feels a little contaminated, but I’m not quite certain about that. It’s no wonder Blake is hesitating.

On one particular night, we have relatives over. We barbecue. I prepare the meal. The hubby prepares the table outside. Blake, as he has for several years now, prepares his own meal. I head outside with my full dinner plate and notice Blake at the indoor dinner table. He’s putting together his plate. One by one, my hubby and our guests all settle in for our meal. I’m guessing Blake will not be there, but I’ve guessed wrong.

Moments later, Blake has a full plate and he carves out space for himself. The rest of us reposition ourselves. He sets his plate down and leaves. He comes back with a can of soda in hand. I know what this is. Soda for Blake is liquid courage; it’s motivation and reward for doing something that is difficult. He joins us at the table. He eats his food. He actually participates in the conversation. At some point everyone except Blake and I have left the table for seconds or for dessert.

“I’m so glad you joined us,” I note. “How are you doing?”

“I’m glad to be here,” he says, and then he answers, “I’m uncomfortable. I’m definitely uncomfortable.”

I ponder this for just a second or two.

“Uncomfortable is good,” I respond – and it is.

A Different Kind of Obsession and Compulsion

Providing further evidence that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not always what we tend to think it is, I submit the following experience from Blake’s recent therapy session:

I don’t frequently participate in Blake’s therapy anymore. In fact, if I do come in for something, he’s taken to asking me to leave at some point now. It’s a far cry from when he began therapy a year ago, or should I say refused therapy one year ago.  But that’s another story one can dig into the archives to read. Let’s suffice it to say that Blake choosing to go into a therapy session and talk with his therapist alone is major progress. Recently, though, I asked to come in for clarification on how the therapist had requested that the hubby and I handle something.

The basic issue was this: Blake had returned to his habit of getting back in to bed or falling asleep on the sofa in the morning. I was growing tired of repeatedly waking him and wondered if our plan needed to be modified. Blake’s therapist was looking to understand what gets in Blake’s way of staying awake. That’s when he shared this interesting anecdote.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“I work with a woman who cannot begin work in the morning if she has a certain body ache. So, she’s taken to checking herself every morning to see if she has that body ache, and most of the time, she finds it. So, she can’t start working and she keeps monitoring herself until it is gone. Actually, it’s OCD.”

Do you get it? Do you see the OCD? If you don’t that’s okay; I’ll explain it shortly. First, here’s Blake’s response:

“Oh my gosh. I get that,” Blake says. “I wake up feeling miserable in the morning. I’m so tired and I feel sick. I know if I start on anything that it’ll be terrible and I won’t like my work. So, I won’t work if I feel that way.”

“Then what we need to teach you is to work even though you might have that feeling. We have to teach you to work through that feeling,” replied his therapist.

Wait, did my son just admit to some OCD in his life? I don’t know if he realized it, but his therapist just implied that his issue with getting up in the morning had to do with OCD – and he agreed…

Where’s the OCD?

If all that escaped you, or if you just can barely make out the OCD, let me help. Think of obsessions as something that brings anxiety or discomfort up. Think of compulsions as bringing anxiety or discomfort down. It’s that simple. Now, let’s look at the patient the therapist mentioned.

The woman who works from home believes she cannot work if she has a certain ache. The concern she will have that ache is the obsession. That brings her anxiety up. The checking her body for the ache is the compulsion, as are the monitoring and refusing to work. They bring her discomfort down.

Blake holds the belief that he will turn out what he calls “trash work” if he feels tired or sick. That’s the obsession; it brings his discomfort up. His compulsion? Returning to bed or lying down anywhere and just checking out. He’ll only work if he feels “just right.” And that brings his discomfort down.

Is it a stretch? Could an OCD pattern be part of what is holding Blake back right now? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s interesting how he jumped on the therapist’s comparison. So, I wonder in my mind. Is it OCD? Is it depression? The therapist’s notion that Blake needs to work right through his discomfort fits for both – at least that’s what I think. Now, let’s see if Blake starts to do it…

On Ignorance and OCD

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

“Mom, come here. Take a look at this.”

Blake summons me to the sofa where he is sitting and watching a video on YouTube. As I approach, I think he’s going to show me a video or something he finds interesting therein. As I lean in, though, he points not to the video, but to a banner running along the bottom.

“Are you OCD? Take the quiz to find out.”

It’s clearly not a true mental health screening. It’s another one of those things that pokes fun at how much you notice things that aren’t neat and orderly. It’s one of those quizzes that sets me off sometimes (See “Just a Little Rant“).

“Ugh,” I note. “I’ll bet that ticks you off.”

“Actually,” he says, “I find it kind of laughable. It doesn’t really bug me.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No. In the past that stuff really used to bother me,” he recalls. “Now…now I look at it as though they’re just ignorant. What I mean is, I don’t think that this is done with an intent to hurt people with OCD. I think about intent. I like to think that they just don’t realize that it can be hurtful; they just don’t realize what OCD is really like.”

Now, I tend to be a crusader for OCD education, and quizzes like this definitely get under my skin because they ignore the true pain that OCD can cause . Our family knows that pain – and nobody knows it more intimately than Blake. While part of me never wants to see these things, perhaps my son has developed a way of coping with them that is positive for him. He attributes it to people not knowing and he considers it without hurtful intent. One might say he’s giving some folks a free pass, yet, at the same time perhaps it’s better that he doesn’t give it a lot of space in his head. I just might learn something from him.

We Have to Want It Less Than They Do

Image courtesy of Nanhatai8 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This week I attended a daylong community OCD event. The venue was completely full, there were terrific speakers, and there were lots of opportunities to connect. At the end of the day, there was a gathering to re-cap and ask questions. One parent stood up to ask a question that grabbed my heart and my attention.

The parent asked about a topic that is near to many of us who have young adult (or almost-adult) children struggling with OCD (or other mental health issues). That is, the parent wanted to know how to motivate one’s older teen or young adult to get serious and use the treatment being offered to them. I immediately felt a kinship to this parent. I wanted to reach across the crowded room and say, “Yes, I want to know that, too. You are not alone.” Yet my heart already knew the answer that was about to come.

A therapist at the front of the room took the question and tenderly noted, “I notice that many times parents want desperately for their child to get better. Yet that seems to keep the child or young adult from wanting it for themselves. They have to want to get better more than their parents want them to get better.”

And there it was. A simple truth. We parents can want what we want for our children. We can lead them to treatment. We can urge, press, plead, make deals…but we can’t be doing more work than they are. We cannot be more invested than they are. We have to want their recovery LESS than they do.

My heart feels heavy for just a bit as I hear what I already know. And my heart aches for the parent on the other side of the room. How do we do this? How do we care less when they don’t seem to care much at all (at least on the surface)? I think the answer is that we have to find a meaningful life for ourselves in spite of their mental health struggles. I think that we have to back off on the pressure and put faith in their ability to decide when enough is enough. And we have to have the courage to not pick up the pieces and make the consequences of their struggle easier – they have to be doing much of the hard work.

This is simple, in theory, but difficult in practice. As parents, we are programmed to respond to our child when we see them suffering. We are oriented toward providing comfort and to removing obstacles. With OCD, anyway, doing our job as parent may be presenting them with the difficult path toward healing, and waiting nearby allowing them the struggle of coming to the decision that there is a better life to be lived.

Just a Little Rant

Image courtesy of graur codrin at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m passionate about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder as a cause. I feel strongly about getting the word out and supporting this community – those who suffer with OCD and those of us who love someone who has it. I care about it so much that sometimes I take those clueless OCD humorous remarks personally.

Recently, I began a free support group in my community for adults with OCD. Running it is one of the highlights of my week.  Watching the close community that is rapidly developing in that room warms my heart. So, of course, I want to promote the group so that others can participate and benefit, and I made a flyer. Then I excitedly sent the flyer to every therapist and psychiatrist I could think of.

BUT I MADE A MISTAKE

I put the wrong phone number on the flyer. Somewhat embarrassed, I asked everyone to delete the flyer and I sent out a new one.  And I apologized for my error and for the multiple emails. Then I received this:

No prob. At least we know you are not OCD! If you were, you would have read it 5 times before sending!

This comment came from a therapist with many years of experience. I immediately felt the heat rise in me. I wanted to write back and school the therapist about the ignorance of that comment. I thought of snappy comebacks. I wanted to write, “Or maybe I am OCD, but my compulsions are something different from checking…” And then there’s just the phrase “you are not OCD.” Seriously, a person is NOT OCD. They might have OCD. I want to tell the therapist that, too.

But I Haven’t Said Anything

I haven’t said anything (except to you) because, well, I’m just a little too pissed right now. And I actually would like this therapist to send adults with OCD to the group.  I don’t want to alienate people from the cause; I want to educate. So thank you for letting me rant just a bit. For now, I’m going to sit on my response…at least until my blood stops boiling.