“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.

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Blake Decides to Increase His Medication

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The big news this week is that Blake has decided to increase his SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) dosage. Seriously, it’s BIG news. I know. I know. For many on these medications, which tend to be the first line of defense in terms of medication for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), this is just a normal occurrence. Sometimes you go up in dosage. Some times you go down. That’s not the case for Blake.

Blake has been on the same dose of his SSRI since he was thirteen years old (13). He’s eighteen(18) now, in case you don’t know. That’s five years on the same dose. That’s more than two years of feeling he’d be better off dead. More than two years of people begging him to increase his dosage. His psychiatrist has begged, his pediatrician has begged him, his father and I have begged him. His therapist has encouraged him and challenged his reasoning on why he won’t increase his dosage.

“I don’t like being on medication,” says Blake. “It doesn’t help me.”

“How do you know it doesn’t help?” asks the therapist. “Maybe you’re not on a therapeutic dosage for you.”

“It doesn’t help. I don’t want to change it. It won’t help me.”

“How do you know if you haven’t tried?”

“I just don’t want to.”

Last week, the conversation came up again.

“Okay, I’ll give it a try,” he says, with little fanfare or need for cajoling.

He goes home and calls his psychiatrist and has begun a higher dose. I don’t know if it will make a difference at all in his major depression or in his OCD, but it is a big move for Blake to even try. So far, he is tolerating the increase well; however it has only been two days.

In other news, his therapist asked him this week how his week was. He’d been wondering how depressed Blake had felt in the past week.

“It’s been a good week,” remarks Blake. I haven’t heard him say that in – well, I can’t recall how long.

“So, it was a good week not to get hit by a bus?” asks his therapist.

“It was definitely a good week not to get hit by a bus.”

And Blake smiles.

 

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.

I Matter, Too

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“More importantly, how are you doing?”

This question from Blake’s therapist takes me by surprise and throws me off balance for a moment. Blake has just walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him. Nature calling. I’m just finishing paying for the session, thinking I’m about to walk out the door, too. The therapist isn’t quite done yet.

“What do you think?” he asks, and then he points out, “He’s talking about serious stuff now.”

He’s correct. Blake only started coming to therapy when he wanted to take some control of the interventions his therapist, his dad, and I were implementing. He was angry. He came to bargain. In recent sessions, he’s talked about depression, his dislike for himself – just the mere concept of “Blake,” about his disconnection from the world. Today was no exception and, as has begun to be our routine, I sat like a fly on the wall watching the interaction between Blake and The Doc, wondering what I was doing in there. Although the therapist in me is fascinated by observing what’s going on.

It’s Not About Me, Right?

We’ve been seeing this therapist in hopes that our 18-year-old can overcome his OCD and severe depression and ready himself to live in the world.  So I just didn’t expect it when the therapist asked about me.

“I have good days and not so good days,” I answer.

“Well that’s a pretty non-specific answer,” the therapist says with a smile.

“I worry about him,” I say, “but I’m learning patience.”

The truth is, I’m kind of disconnected about how I am. I’ve been so mesmerized by the therapy session, I lost myself a bit. It’s only later in the day, as I ponder the question, “More importantly, how are you doing?” that I think over my frustration at watching my son climb back into bed multiple times each morning. It’s later that I recall the heartbreak at hearing my son talk about how life isn’t worth the good moments when he considers how awful the bad moments are. It’s later that I remember part of me sinking inside as I watch my son wash his hands immediately after handling money or tiptoeing around areas that the dogs might have contaminated.

At the same time, I’m touched by The Doc’s inquiry. As much as my son is suffering, family members are, themselves, affected when their loved one has OCD, depression, or other mental illnesses. If we aren’t directly involved in rituals, or trying to get them out of bed, we are worrying about them. So I’m appreciative of this simple act of kindness and caring. It resonates in me. It reminds me that we family members have to remember to care for ourselves in the face of our loved ones’ struggles. We have to be mindful of our own well-being. If we aren’t, we can become impatient, bitter, angry – basically of little use in this war called mental illness.

So, thank you, kind therapist, for reminding me that I matter, too. It opened something up inside of me and I feel just a little more alive and grounded. I feel less stuck in the mess with my son, and more like myself. And this morning, when I allowed myself to take a long hike in the nearby mountains, I was just a little more open to taking in the scenery and appreciating it, instead of having the specter of depression and OCD hanging over me. Yes, I matter, too.

So Lonely

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“I’m just so lonely,” says the young adult in front of me, the despair apparent as the words sit in the air between us.

I’m sitting in the living room of my patient’s family home during one of my recent treatment visits. This past week has been one with slips backward and, to one so new to OCD treatment, they are demoralizing. OCD has taken such a huge toll on this young person’s life that friends and social activities have become a distant memory. OCD demands almost every waking hour and the rituals only end when sleep wins out in its urgency.

I’ve stopped doing exposures at this point in our session – I’m here to do exposure and response prevention (ERP – if you don’t know what this is, you can read about it by clicking HERE) work. My patient wants to do more, wants to move on and get better as fast as possible, but I realize it’s time to step back, time to help paint a clearer picture of what to expect. OCD treatment is not a race to the finish. It is about learning new healthier ways of managing discomfort. In this young person’s case, it is about rebuilding a life worth living – and that takes time and patience.

So, I’ve stopped the session. I’ve changed course. Sometimes OCD recovery is not all about exposures. Sometimes it’s about caring for the whole person and finding something to live for in the moment. Why do the hard work of beating OCD when there’s not something keeping one moving forward right now?

We sit on the sofa. We explore what’s going on. We connect. We realize my patient misses other people, misses being involved with something that is connected to the bigger picture. We brainstorm. We find a regular activity that is doable and that will provide uplifting moments. We look at when the next time there’s an activity available. We arrange for transportation and a companion to go with. For the first time in this hour, my patient smiles.

I get ready to leave and, suddenly, the twenty-something is standing in front of me, apologetic that we didn’t do more exposures today and didn’t get further in treatment. I gently and optimistically adjust that perception. We DID get further in treatment today. We addressed something that needed to be addressed. I encourage my patient to be kind to themself and I note, on the way out the door, that I will look forward to their renewed energy the next time we meet.

When Words Don’t Mean What We Think They Do

I was recently reminded that some of the most simple things we say to one another, words that are meant to inspire, connect, or that are simple formalities, can mean something very different to someone struggling with depression or other mental health issues. On a daily basis, there are words that pop out of our mouths out of habit. We usually don’t give them much thought, yet just last week, Blake gave me a window into a different perspective on words that I use.

“There’s something that I’ve been struggling with a lot recently,” Blake says. “People keep asking me how I’m doing.”

“Yes, they do that,” I say.

“Well, the thing is. I’m not sure what to say. I mean, what do you say when the answer to that question, ‘How are you?’ is, ‘I’d rather be dead?’ I don’t think that’s what people want to hear.”

He repeats this quandary to his therapist.

“Yes. It’s one of those formalities,” the therapist says. “I sometimes answer, ‘More or less.’ It confuses them.”

Blake laughs at this response, and then says, “There’s another thing people say. When things go wrong they say, ‘That’s life.’ ” Then he sighs and hangs his head. “That’s life.”

An entire conversation about depression ensued after that, but I took something away from those moments. It made me realize, more than ever, the power of words and how they may be construed by someone who is profoundly depressed. I realized that by saying “That’s life” to someone who is struggling to find even one reason to live, I may be reinforcing that life is nothing more than a series of bad stuff. I may be reinforcing the view of a world the depressed individual already finds so oppressive, so defeating. “That’s life. First it sucks, then it sucks more.”

I also thought about the power of asking, “How are you?” When we ask, do we really want to know? I thought of the depressed individual knowing what the socially appropriate answer is, and recognizing that, by giving it, they are telling a lie. Maybe there’s the feeling of being a misfit in a world where most people seem to be able to answer, “Good,” or “Fine.” Perhaps there’s a desire to say how awful they feel, but not wanting to be rejected for saying so.

I’m not suggesting we stop asking, “How are you?” Nor am I implying that we should drop, “That’s life,” as an expression when we want to explain to someone that the world is not perfect. I’m just taking a step into another frame of reference and, perhaps, taking you there with me for a moment. I just hadn’t ever realized quite the way my profoundly depressed 18-year-old son hears things, and I was given the opportunity to step into his perspective ever-so-briefly.

Of course, for Blake, it doesn’t end there. In his therapy, he is learning how to respond to the “How are you’s.” He is learning that there are some people he can be honest with, and other instances where he might give a social answer. He is also learning to challenge his view of the world. He is learning that “life” is not made all dark by some challenging moments. He is learning that there are shades of gray, and he is even beginning to notice moments of joy. For his father and I, it is a privilege to share in the journey.

I Don’t Want To, But I Have To

“I really don’t want to be here, but I have to…”

It’s another Thursday afternoon and, as usual, Blake, the hubby, and I are sitting in our therapist’s office. In what’s become a more and more commonplace occurrence, the hubby and I are sitting quietly on the sofa. Blake is in a chair hunched over his knees. The therapist is sitting close to Blake and is locked in conversation with him.

I’m not sure why the hubby and I are in the room sometimes, lately, but Blake wants us in there. The hubby allows his eyes to close; I think that’s how he focuses on the intimate conversation taking place to our left.

The topic, as it has been lately, is depression. Blake is describing the all-too-familiar pattern of following his depressed, dark thoughts down an endless rabbit hole of despair. Our therapist is gently directing Blake toward possibly confronting this pattern. Blake shares his perception of life holding no positive meaning. Suddenly, he seems a little breathless.

“This is really uncomfortable to talk about,” he notes. “I really don’t want to talk about it, but I have to.”

I watch him gather himself and continue. He pauses again, later – and, again, he comments. “I don’t want to, but I have to.”

I take this as a sign of bravery, a sign that Blake recognizes that, in order to gain the upper hand on his depression and his OCD, he has some very uncomfortable work to do. Later, I ask him about it, and he confirms this interpretation to me. Blake understands that he must share how he thinks, even though it is incredibly uncomfortable, so that he can move forward and begin the process of healing.

Honestly, this is remarkable to witness. We, as a family, have been though years of struggle. We’ve watched Blake succumb to OCD thinking, and then to depression. He has battled facing anything that is even the slightest bit uncomfortable. Yet, now, at age 18, there are glimmers of willingness to do the hard work – to fight for a life worth living. I recognize that there will be more struggles and steps backward, and that this will be a process. Yet, this is new and it is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my son before. I am so very proud of him.