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.

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I Just Wash More Than Other People

We pull into the parking lot and get out of the car. I notice that I’ve parked kind of crooked, so I climb back in, start the car up again, and straighten it out. Blake raises a hand to signal that I’m okay now. I notice the glove. It’s stretched out and missing the tip of the thumb where Blake has pulled a thread and the glove has begun to unravel.

As I climb out of the car and we make our way to the therapist’s office, I notice that both gloves are misshapen. The wrists sit limply against Blake’s skin, like they’ve been tugged at too many times and any elasticity is long gone.  Blake is dressed in a short sleeve t-shirt and cold weather gloves. I think he stands out in this appearance, particularly with his thumb halfway protruding from the shredded threads. I don’t say anything. I know better.

I gave these gloves to Blake a few winters ago. His hands get especially chapped and painful for a few months each year. He slathers them in petroleum jelly at night and pulls the gloves on to keep the goop from getting all over everything else. Today he’s wearing them out of the house; his hands must feel extra painful if he’s wearing the gloves during the daytime.

I Just Wash More Than Other People

As we sit in the therapist’s waiting room, I am certain that The Doc is going to comment on the gloves. Anyone who has ever dealt with OCD treatment knows that embracing uncertainty is paramount, but there are few things I can feel more confidently certain about than the therapist honing in on these gloves. In a few moments, my prediction is confirmed. The Doc steps out into the waiting room and, almost immediately notices Blake’s gloved hands. He steps closer to Blake.

“What’s this?” he asks.

“Oh,” says Blake casually, “my hands get really chapped and sore this time of year.”

“Why is that?” the therapist wonders.

“I don’t know. It’s just the weather.”

“My hands don’t do that.” He holds out his own hands.

Blake removes his gloves and displays them for us. They are red and raw. It’s obvious they are painful.

“Have you been washing a lot?”

“My hands have always gotten like this in the winter.”

“How long has that been going on?” asks The Doc.

“Always,” says Blake.

Indeed, I don’t think Blake can remember a winter where his hands weren’t painful, raw, or bleeding. His hand washing at age six was my first big sign that he had OCD. It was something I’d hoped would go away. Despite education and treatment, it is still here, twelve years later. Blake knows nothing but painful winter hands.

“Maybe you’re washing too much,” suggests the therapist.

“It’s not that,” Blake says. “I just wash more than other people, that’s all, but that’s not why. The weather just does this to my hands.”

“You know,” suggests the therapist, thoughtfully, “you could try an experiment. You could decrease or stop washing and see what happens. Then you’d know if it’s the weather or the washing.”

“I don’t want to. That’s disgusting.”

To Purchase New Gloves or Not

After therapy, as we drive home, I note to Blake that his gloves have seen better days. It’s time to toss this pair out.

“But they’re the only pair I have,” he laments. “Do they really look that bad?”

“Yes, they do.”

Blake reluctantly tosses his gloves in a trash can later that day and sadly wonders what he will do to protect his hands. I ponder whether I should buy him a new pair. My inclination is to purchase them (mind you, we live somewhere where the daytime weather rarely gets below the 50’s Fahrenheit), but I wonder whether I’m accommodating his hand washing behavior if I do. He hasn’t asked for new gloves, nor has he said anything about going to purchase them himself. For now, I’m waiting.

Don’t Say It’s Not About OCD

Blake sits in his chair looking intently at the therapist. He’s just begun coming with us to sessions and he’s questioning the therapist’s approach (because, well, Blake knows better than the therapist – or mom and dad).

“I don’t understand why my parents are rubbing a tissue on the dogs and putting it on my bedroom floor if I don’t show up for dinner,” he says. “If they wanted me to come to dinner, they just could have told me.”

Well, actually, we did tell him we wanted him to come to dinner. He just wasn’t making it on time most nights.

“But why the tissue?” he wonders.

“Well…” the therapist starts. “Your parents have noticed that there are some behaviors you have that are related to OCD. And they are concerned about them.”

“What?!” His head swivels in our direction. “You’re concerned about them?! Why didn’t you ever just tell me?! Why did you ever let me leave treatment, then?! Frankly, I see nothing wrong with what I do. Dogs are not cleanly and it’s disgusting to have anything from them in my room!”

Well, actually, we did tell him we were concerned about his behaviors and that we encouraged him to be in treatment, but he refused.

As the conversation heightens, the hubby starts to get antsy. He steps into the process.

“Look, I don’t think the primary issue is your OCD right now, Blake. I think your sleep is a huge issue, and your functioning on a day-to-day basis.”

At one point Blake leaves the room in frustration and our therapist looks at the hubby and I.

“Please don’t say it’s not about OCD,” he asks us, “because I’m not so sure it’s not. Blake has a lot of OCD behaviors that he thinks are normal. I don’t want to normalize those and have him think they aren’t a problem.”

When we leave the room, I begin wondering about what our therapist said. Other professionals have pointed to Blake’s depression in recent years, not so much to the OCD. What is he seeing? So, I observe, and I begin to notice what I’ve stopped seeing in the past four years:

  • Walk into bathroom, wash. Walk out. Walk back in. Wash again.
  • Open car back door. Seat is too dirty. Sit up front.
  • “Mom? What is that on the floor?”
  • “Mom? What is that in the box?”
  • “Mom? Is that color normal?”
  • Open car back door. Seat still too dirty. Sit up front.
  • Say prayer. Pace. Say prayer again.
  • Carry squirming cat downstairs, while holding said squirming cat as far as arms will extend away from you.
  • Open car back door. Seat still too dirty. Get a towel and clean seat before sitting.

Blake’s OCD is still very much there. It’s just been quieter. And he’s accepted it as normal (at least he seems to have). How is it connected to his deep, deep depression? That will be an answer we will have to watch unfold.

 

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.

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.

One Forty-One A.M.

I'm not even allowed in his room...
I’m not even allowed in his room…

Crash!

I wake from my sleep and sit bolt upright in my bed. Did I just hear something in the house? There’s light coming through our bedroom door, which is cracked open so the cats can come and go. I glance at the clock. One forty-one in the morning.I glance at my hubby, who is fast asleep with his head buried beneath his pillow. Clearly he hasn’t heard a thing. I’m not afraid as I hear noises coming from down the hall – something moving against the wood floorboards. I get out of bed and walk down the hallway, eyes squinting as they adjust to the light.

Remaining laundry in the overstuffed hamper
Remaining laundry in the overstuffed hamper

I’m not surprised by what I see. It’s Blake putting the last pieces of laundry back into a hamper that had apparently just fallen as he’d struggled to take it to the laundry room. The laundry hamper is stuffed fuller than it ever had a right to be. Bed linens – a multitude of them – spill over the edges, making the hamper top heavy and burdensome. Before I finish my walk I already have the sense that OCD is here with us.

“Blake, what are you doing?”

My seventeen-year-old is distracted by this task he is involved with.

“I have so much laundry to do. My bed is all messed up. I think the cats peed on my bed stuff.”

“Can you turn out some of these lights?” I ask. There are four different sets of lights on.

“Soon.”

He tries to stuff three comforters and one blanket into our washing machine. The washing machine is not expanding to fit the load, yet he keeps struggling.

“B, that’s too much. It won’t fit.”

“It has to.”

“Even if you get it in, it’ll damage the machine.”

“But how will I ever get all this laundry done?” he wonders, more to himself than to me.

“You’ll get it done one load at a time.”

“But my bed…my bed is so messed up…”

I wander into his bedroom with him and I instinctively sniff the sheets for the telltale cat pee smell. I already know I won’t smell anything. Blake keeps his bedroom door shut all the time. The cats don’t go in there.

Pee in the bed? Not me.
Pee in the bed? Not me.

“Honey, this is your OCD getting to you and trying to take charge.”

Blake looks at me wide-eyed. For the first time in this exchange I really see him. His skin looks clammy. There’s panic hanging over him. His eyes are vacant; Blake is not home.

“I want to clean. All I want to do is clean,” he says rapidly. Then he makes his way back to the laundry room.

I realize that my being there is not helping the matter. I’m too tired and I don’t have much patience in this state. I follow him to the laundry room.

“How will I ever get all this laundry done?”

“Blake, I’m going back to sleep honey.”

Blake doesn’t acknowledge me. I shut off two sets of lights as I make my way back down the hallway.

“Our son is having a psychotic break,” I mutter.

The hubby pulls the pillow from his head.

“What?” he responds. I can tell he’s disoriented.

“Oh, I was just babbling that B is having a psychotic break. I know it’s not funny. Poor guy is down the hallway doing laundry and freaking out that the cats peed in his bed.”

“Oh.”

And just like that he pulls the pillow back over his head. In the early days of OCD this scene would have had us both out of bed trying to coax our son to go to sleep. Now it’s just part of the fabric of our days (and nights). I feel for my son as I drift lazily back to sleep. As I hear him fumbling in the distance, I know things will be better in the morning – at least the panic will have passed and I’ll see my son back behind those eyes. For now, it’s just another episode on our journey and in the life of a teen who says he can deal with this all on his own.

Bed with mismatched sheets following OCD's practical joke on Blake
Bed with mismatched sheets following OCD’s practical joke on Blake