“The Hills Are Alive…!”

As I write this, Blake is buzzing around the family room. He’s just come back from a four day trip to visit a friend at college in another state. He does a half-twirl and lifts his arms, Julie Andrews style, and sings the first few words from “The Sound of Music.”

The hills are alive with the sound of music!!” he shrills in a high pitched falsetto.

It’s a thrill to see and hear. He’s already thanked me and the hubby twice for sending him on this little trip, which is surprising because last year when he went to visit the same friend he came home sullen, depressed, and in an existential crisis. When his longtime friend asked him to come visit again we encouraged him to go, but we held no illusions about how it was likely to go.

Those who have followed this blog for any period of time know that my 19-year-old son, Blake, has struggled with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and severe depression for some time. He has an incredibly difficult time getting out of bed. He has had a difficult time finding anything that makes life seem worth living, and he’s hung on to low level OCD rituals that he claims he does not see any reason to change. My approach of late has been listen, accept, and love (and also to push him to get out of bed and the house on a regular basis).

So why the singing?

So why is Blake singing? Well, first, he actually enjoyed himself. He and his friend went to the natural history museum. They looked at dinosaurs (neither of my boys has outgrown dinosaurs). They played a new game. He actually felt open to the experience. AND there was MORE.

“Guess what, Mom? I got up and got out of bed on my own every day!” he says with a huge smile across his face.

This is no small accomplishment. Getting out of bed has been his most difficult task on a daily basis for a very long time. When he was away at school, he frequently was unable to get out of bed until around ten at night (and then he’d be back in bed within a few hours). It’s beautiful to see him so happy about this, but what he says next is a shocker to me.

“You know what else I did? You’d be very proud. I didn’t check the labels on the soda cans on the plane – not on any of the flights I took there or back.”

What this means is, he stood up to his OCD! One of his rituals is checking food and drink labels. He’s always had a rationale for it and he claimed it wasn’t OCD that had him doing that. On this airline, they don’t bring a drink cart around. They offer you a drink and they bring it to you already poured in a cup. You don’t even get to see the container. Blake’s OCD says this is a no-no. He usually doesn’t order. This time he did.

I notice Blake’s shoulders hunch up just a bit as he shares about the sodas. There’s a smile on his face, but his body language shares the accompanying discomfort.

“You’re telling me you allowed yourself to be uncertain,” I say. “I can tell that feels good, but it was hard. Good for you.”

He nods. Then he reached his arms out once again, and sings once more. “The hills are alive…!”

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…


One year ago, Michael, my oldest, finished his college applications.  His central application essay was about his experience living with a family member with OCD.  It offered a glimpse, not always very pretty, of our family life and dynamics, and about watching his brother – his beloved friend – slip beyond his grasp.  Today, Michael is home from college, and he gave me permission to share his words:

Image courtesy SOMMAI at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy SOMMAI at freedigitalphotos.net

Why won’t you just eat the food?! We bought this chicken especially for you! It’s much more expensive than the regular ones at the store you said you won’t eat!

Although my mom buys special food for the house, my brother refuses to believe that it is up to his standards. I feel a need to slip out of the room silently. Sometimes I do leave, sometimes, I do not. It doesn’t really matter whether I do or don’t, because the battle follows me, as my mother continues to yell at the top of her lungs, frustrated and hurt to no end that her own child refuses to eat the food she prepared with the hope that tonight he will accept her efforts and eat, without comment. But the food is never right; it is not acceptable enough, it is not clean enough, and it will never be.

The unspoken hope we all share is a faint little flicker: maybe this night will be different. Maybe we can make it through a dinner as a family, and remain intact. At every family meal, an unwelcome guest pokes his head in and disrupts our otherwise normal lives. My fifteen-year-old brother, Blake, has been plagued with terrible, paralyzing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for as long as I can remember. He calls his OCD “the Kraken” in order to separate it from himself. I call it the uninvited guest that just will not leave.

Not only does this guest break our bread, he breaks our hearts. Although my mom, a PhD anxiety disorder specialist, has educated my dad and me on his disorder, the whole family is still powerless to do anything but watch as my lifelong friend slips farther and farther away, as his stubbornness stops him from getting help. What is written on paper about it is so vastly different from our actual experience with the disorder. I am left with so many questions. Why is my insight so limited, so human that I am able to do nothing to help my brother? Why can’t Blake show the unwanted guest to the door and be the fun-loving, carefree person he is when he is at his best? He is naturally imaginative and whimsical, a perfect improvisation partner, and an excellent Minecrafter. Like the fingertips of Adam and God on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, I see the paradise that could be, were we only to reach a little bit farther, were one more thing how it ought to be. If only I had the power to reach further.

Got-cha, OCD!

YogurtBlake and I are both in the kitchen. I am making my lunch and he is at his perpetual seat on one of the banquette cushions around the kitchen table.  He sits there so often that the cushion is most certainly permanently indented.  I open the refrigerator door to pull out the ingredients for the sandwich I am about to make.  Then, I do a double take.

What looks strange in here?  Ah!  Two open boxes of yogurt tubes.

“Blake,” I begin. “Do you know why there are two boxes of the green yogurt tubes open?”

I feel stupid before the words are even out of my mouth.  Why can’t I just keep myself quiet?  I already know it has something to do with OCD.  Do I have to rub it in?  Or am I calling OCD out?  It doesn’t matter, the words are already out.

“One of them fell…” he begins.  Then he stops.  “I know.”

His “I know” is a signal and an acknowledgement in one.  He is acknowledging that his OCD got him to discard a perfectly good box of yogurt tubes just because they happened to fall out onto some “unsanitary” surface.  The signal is:  Go ahead, Mom.  Put all the yogurt tubes in one box.  I’ll eat them all and defy what OCD originally directed me to do.

I set both boxes of yogurt tubes onto the counter.  One by one, I put the remaining tubes from one box into the other.  Blake half watches, but, really, he’s already moved on. Within a day or so he has already eaten all the remaining yogurt.  No mention of contamination; no washing rituals.  Just eaten with the gusto of a 16-year-old male appetite.

OCD can be tricky.  Sometimes the sufferer and family members have to call its bluff. Got-cha this time, OCD!

It’s No Picnic

Image courtesy jackthumm @ freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy jackthumm @ freedigitalphotos.net

“It’s beautiful outside,” my hubby remarks.  “Let’s eat dinner on the patio.”

“That’s a great idea,” I say.

“I don’t like that idea at all,” Blake pipes up.

It’s an unseasonably nice weekend night (I started to say “warm,” but it’s not warm, really.  We will need jackets outside) and I’m grilling ribs.  They were a request from Michael.  Something to make the evening a little more festive, a break from his piles of schoolwork.  We all welcome the opportunity to eat outdoors. Well, all of us except for Blake.  He’s looking uncomfortable and I can tell he’s trying to figure out how to dodge this event.

“I’ll eat inside,” he says.

“Um…that would be a ‘no.’ ” I say.  “You’re part of a family.  You’ll join us.”

“Then, I’ll sit outside with you, but I’m not eating out there.”

“You can choose not to eat; however, that means you choose not to eat for the night.  You don’t get to start grazing after we all finish.”

Blake already refuses to eat the food I cook.  He prepares his own meals.  I stand firm, though, that we eat together as a family.

“I’m not comfortable with this.  There’s…flies…and other insects out there.”

“Yep, probably.”

He paces around for a while.  He stares out at the patio. Then he disappears.  He comes back a few minutes later.  He’s lugging a card table with him.

“Can someone open the back door for me?” he asks.

“Blake, what’s this about?” my husband asks.

“There’s not enough room for everybody at the table,” he says.

He manages to get the table outside onto the patio.  I watch him set it up.  It’s about ten feet away from the table where the rest of us will eat.

Our Food Is Contaminated

Image courtesy chawalitpix @ freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy chawalitpix @ freedigitalphotos.net

“Blake,” move the table closer to the other one.  “You’re not eating in isolation.  And, by the way, I know that this is about you thinking our food will contaminate yours.  You’re not fooling anyone.”

“I’m trying to figure out a way to be out there with you guys, Mom!  Really!  I’m trying!”

“Come on, Blake.  Let’s get this set up.  I think you can be closer than that,” my hubby says.  He steps outside onto the patio with Blake.

Blake’s best friend is sitting on the sofa just inside the door from where Blake is.  He stays focused on his video game.  He knows the drill with Blake.  He’s watched it for the past seven years, since they were in third grade together.  And he accepts Blake unconditionally.  I thank heaven for him regularly.

When dinner is ready, we all manage to eat together.  Blake and his friend eat at a table tandem to ours.  Blake makes it through his meal without flinching when everyone else’s food is passed.  We have a nice conversation.  Blake even leaves his food uncovered for a time, and we laugh at the fact that he seems suddenly unworried about flies.

He leaves the table, briefly, while we are all eating.  When he returns, he has a can of soda in his hand.  “May I?” he asks.  “This is hard work being out here.  I think I deserve this.” And he opens the can, takes a big swig, sighs a big sigh, and joins his friend back at their table.

“I Just Don’t Trust Myself!”

IMG_2101[1]Many of us who live with a loved one who has OCD have heard this familiar refrain.  It doesn’t really matter what it is about; it could be one not trusting their own eyes that their homework is in their backpack, or whether the knob on the stove is really in the “Off” position.  OCD has a nasty way of making its victims regularly doubt themselves.

“I just don’t trust myself!”  Blake uttered in defeat one morning this week.  This had followed an excruciating morning of trying to choose a simple something – anything – to eat for breakfast.  He just couldn’t do it.  He stared deeply into the refrigerator.  His angst was palpable.  I could see the wheels churning furiously in his brain.  What can I possibly eat that will be acceptable?

Blake has lots of food rules and restrictions, yet he usually finds something to eat in a relatively quick period of time.  On this particular morning, he had just come home the evening before from a two-day visit with his aunt, uncle and cousins.  I’ve written before that Blake views his aunt and uncle’s home as a more ideal place for him.  In many ways, this might be true.  In any case, he came home happier than usual, lighter, more chatty.  The sense of tension that usually accompanies our interactions with him were absent.  It was a pleasure to spend time with him.  All that came to an abrupt halt when the prospect of choosing breakfast foods loomed ahead of him.

Facing the prospect of being late for my own obligation that morning, and frustrated that we were, yet again, dealing with the food dilemma, I told him that I was getting angry.

“Blake, it is important that you eat something,”  I raised my voice.  “It is not healthy for you to go to school without eating all day long.”

And then I said IT.

“This is your OCD interfering with you being able to make good choices for yourself.  It is NOT about making the right or wrong decision.”

By IT, I mean that I actually invoked the words “your OCD.”  I actually pointed out that something was OCD.  We’ve been not pointing out OCD around here for months now – close to a year, actually.  It was part of our agreement with Blake when he refused to participate in treatment any longer.  We wouldn’t point out his OCD.  It was his to deal with.  The consequences, everything, they were all his.  And, yet, in that moment I could not help but point out how it was OCD that was holding him hostage in the refrigerator door – nothing else.

I ended up shoving some sticks of cheese into his hand as we walked out the door.  He ate them, gratefully.

“I don’t understand it,” I said to him as we drove to school. “You go to your aunt and uncle’s home and you eat with abandon.  You don’t question anything.  How do you know that they do it all right?  Maybe there’s something they do that breaks the rules.”

“I don’t know,” he told me.  “When I’m at their house, I let go of responsibility.  They are responsible for the rules.  If something is wrong, it’s not my fault.  When I’m home, I’m responsible.  I don’t trust myself!”

We reflect for a few more minutes on the drive that this is one of OCD’s sinister tricks.  It has you believing that, if you make a mistake, the consequences are dire.  Therefore, you must question your moves over and over, making action and decision-making excruciating.  However, if you give the responsibility over to someone else, and they make a mistake, the blame does not lie with you.  Either way, you have a quandary to face: accept responsibility and struggle (no, agonize) over your decision-making, or give up responsibility, but lose the ability to be a true actor in your own life.

“Blake, you know the only real way out of this is to tell OCD to get out of your business.  You don’t need to be troubled by whether you are making the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision.  We both know that it’s not about that. It’s about making the best decision you can at any given time, even though that may mean living through some uncomfortable feelings.  I know that you can do it, and I believe that you deserve much more than to live like this.”

“Thanks, Mom,” he says.

As he leaves the car, I know better than to think that anything will change.  He will continue to struggle over what is the “right” food to eat, way to pray, clothing to wear, game to play, thing to say – the list goes on.  Watching your child struggle is a struggle.  As a parent, I want to see him be happy.  I want to take away the needless tension that dogs him day after day, yet, I cannot.  It is out of my hands and in his.

Blake Uses the Microwave!

Yes, you read it right!  He did! He did!  (Mom does a Happy Dance 🙂 )

For some time now, Blake has avoided the microwave oven or any other cooking appliance in our home (see The Microwave is Contaminated).

Image courtesy stockimages @ freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy stockimages @ freedigitalphotos.net

This week, however, he made another small move.  One evening, his desire for hot food won out over his concern about what might have been cooked in our microwave previously.  So, quietly, and without circumstance, he took a couple frozen breakfast patties and popped them into that little appliance and melted away the ice.It would have gone completely unnoticed and unrecognized except that I am an absolute nut and I notice these things in my children.  I kept quiet in Blake’s presence, but I was so excited that I told my hubby.  Of course, he went and told Blake that he was very proud of him.  Blake looked at him with a bit of confusion, not understanding what the fuss was over.  And then he went and used it again!

It is few and far between that he uses it still, but I will definitely take that.  Score another one in Blake’s favor.  Too bad, OCD!