His Own Initiative

Our oldest, Michael, left the country one week ago today with excitement over studying and living in another country and a passion to become more fluent in another language. The hubby cried as he hugged our son goodbye, then cried more as we drove home, and once again as he searched birthday card after birthday card in pursuit of a suitable one for our younger son, Blake’s, nineteenth birthday. The hubby’s tears reflected many things: the sadness at watching Michael leave after several weeks in which they spent many close moments together, the bittersweet realization that we will be empty-nesters in a few short weeks, the juxtaposition of the personalities of our two young men – one who craves new experiences in the world and one for whom his bed and our sofa seem experience enough.

Michael’s parting recommendation to his brother had been that he begin to venture out into the world, that he practice the skills he will need when he moves to college in another state next month. He’d worried lovingly about his brother and whether he’d have the skills to live in his new environment. He’d proposed a plan to his brother in which Blake would go out of the house, perhaps a couple of times each week, so that he might gain experience and confidence, and perhaps a little momentum. Blake initially embraced the idea, but it quickly seemed to fall flat as I wrote about in my previous post (“A Plan That Lost Steam“). Depression and anxiety seemed to win out.

A Flash of Hope

I had resigned myself that Blake was not going to follow the plan he and his brother had plotted out. I expected to see him step back from life even more. The hubby and I were true to what we had promised and did not bring the plan back up. To be honest, I even stepped back on our therapy-planned morning routine of waking Blake up. Sure, I still saw that he got up and out of his room, but with much less rigidity and urgency. I felt deflated and spent time searching my mind as to how I would live as meaningfully as possible regardless of what would come with either of my sons in the months ahead.

Still, there were things to be done before Blake can leave for college. There were apartment supplies to be ordered and bank accounts to be transferred (Blake still only had a custodial account in my name). So, I continued to go through the motions of preparing for the move. On Monday morning, Blake and I prepared to go to the bank to get things in order so that he might obtain the all-important debit card.

“Do you want to go grab a coffee afterward?” I asked him just before we left.

“Oh, I was planning to go there myself as a way to get out today. You know, like we talked about with Michael. Is that okay?”

I was a bit startled, a little excited, but tried not to show it.

“Of course,” I said. “Do you want to take separate cars and meet me at the mall, then? We can walk over to the bank, then grab a coffee, and I then I can leave so you can have your time.”

So, we did. Blake navigated his way to the mall parking lot and we met up and walked to the bank and completed the business of transferring his account into his name. Then we walked back to the coffee shop, where I grabbed an iced coffee and quickly made myself scarce. Blake set up his computer at a table.

“I wish I’d brought a chess board,” he noted. “I’d ask someone here to play with me.”

When I got home, I dashed off an email to the hubby at work: “Thought you’d want to know…

And Then Another

On Thursday, he did it again.

“Mom, since we need to go out on another college planning errand today, can I use it as a way to launch into going out on my own again? It kind of helps ease me into it. I mean, since we are going out already, I can just go off on my own when we’re done. I’d like to go to the board game store.”

“Sure, honey. Let’s meet up at the store. We’ll pick out supplies and then you can head on your way,” I’d suggested.

About a half hour later, Blake showed up to meet me.

“Twenty-five minutes to find my way here!” Blake shook his head.

“Hey, you found it and you did it safely,” I replied.

Then we proceeded to giggle our way through the store, Blake being more frugal than I, me reasoning that the slow cooker he was choosing was going to be too small. As we finished, I bid him fun on his adventure. A couple of hours later, he was back home. He’d completed his mission, and had even observed a group at the store playing a Dungeons and Dragons game.

“I tried to join in,” he said, “but they were already too far in. They have a board game night there every other Thursday.”

Whether Blake will continue his missions out into the world we shall see. This week, my son, the one who prefers his bed and the family room couch, went out twice – for no reason other than to practice doing it. No one cajoled him or made suggestions. He just did it himself. While we cannot show great excitement because we know, from experience, that this will just send him back into hiding, this weekend the hubby and I are doing happy dances when no one is looking.

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A Plan That Lost Steam

Michael, our 21-year-old, is getting ready to leave to study abroad for the remainder of this summer. He sat the hubby and I down the other day and told us he was worried about Blake’s emotional state and his upcoming move out of state to begin college.

“He’s really not ready to go,” Michael observed. “He feels like a disappointment to you guys, especially when it seems that everything is based on whether he gets up in the morning or not. And he doesn’t respond well to tough love. It just makes him shut down more.”

“So what are you thinking?” I asked him, as the three of us sat on our back patio.

“I think he needs a mission, a purpose. You know, little tasks to get him out of the house. Things he needs to practice to live away from home. He can go buy his groceries so you can get an idea now what he’ll need to spend on them and so that he’ll get used to buying what he needs. And he can go to the library or the coffee shop and set up his computer and practice writing from there. You could give him a small stipend each week so he could practice. I think it would make him feel accomplished. But,” Michael continued, “I don’t think it should come from you guys.”

“What do you propose?” asked the hubby.

“I’ll talk with him tonight,” Michael noted. “I’ll see what he thinks and help him to make it his. If it’s his idea, he might be willing.”

So, we parted leaving this between the boys.

Michael Makes Inroads

The next morning, Blake stopped me early.

“Mom,” he said, “Michael and I were talking last night about ways for me to get ready to leave for school. Can we talk with you and Dad tonight about it? I think it’s a good plan.”

“Sure,” I answered. I tried to sound calmly enthusiastic, but inside I was kind of excited. Was my son who regularly chooses bed and the sofa to leaving the home actually wanting to launch a little bit?

The four of us met last night and Michael and Blake led the talk. Michael shared how doing these kinds of things would have helped him make the transition a little easier when he left for college. He thought it would give Blake more confidence to live in the world

And Then I Watched it Happen…

Blake went from mildly enthusiastic to questioning to looking downright terrified. He started finding reasons it wasn’t a good idea. He started worrying he’d be judged and held to this standard. He worried he’d fail. It didn’t matter what anyone said. The hubby and I noted we wouldn’t hold him to anything. It was his plan, and if he followed it, we would cheer him on. If he did not, we wouldn’t comment. Michael stayed positive and light and shared how beneficial it could be. I was proud of how he held his own and supported his brother. In the end, we left it that Blake could decide whether he did it or not.

And then, as I got ready for bed, he called me into his room.

“It’s just so hard to get out of bed,” he said, staring off into space. “Bed is the only place that feels good. It’s like having a hug and having to leave it. Nothing in the day feels good and I just distract myself with YouTube or games all day. And then it’s even hard to go back to bed knowing I’ll have to do the same thing again tomorrow. Living is hard and I’m too scared to die – so I’m just in that in between space.”

And there was little more I knew to do for my son than listen, acknowledge, and snuggle him with a tight squeeze until he dismissed me with a, “Good night, Mom.” For all my professional training and experience, I do not know how to move my own son from here to there. And right now, I don’t know that there is anyone else who knows how to either.

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.

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.

“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

Image courtesy of nunawwoofy at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

Glimmers of Hope on Vacation

The OCD in the Family family is on vacation. We are currently in Florida, in a small town on the Atlantic Ocean. The hubby, Michael, and Blake are in their rooms sleeping off the frenzied pace of the last five days. I walk the coast alone in what is unseasonably cold weather, but my heart is warmed by what I’ve experienced in my younger son on this journey.

Michael, our older son, has always enjoyed travel and is up for new adventures constantly. Blake, however, is a different story. He is usually extremely uncomfortable out of his usual environment. For as long as I can remember, he’s felt overwhelmed by new places, sounds, foods, smells, people, and, well – you name it. Compound this with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and, in the last two plus years, major depression, and you have a recipe for a very challenging family vacation experience.  We’ve gone on many a vacation where Blake stayed behind in the hotel room or the car, or only went out with us after substantial begging (usually pleading to go back to the car to wait as soon as we’d allow it).

This Time, It’s Different

This vacation, however, has been different. Blake wasn’t particularly interested in going on this vacation. As usual, he came along because we were going. Then something started to happen that none of us could have predicted; he started to enjoy himself.

I first noticed it when we were at Epcot. If you’ve never been to this Walt Disney World park (as we never had before), it consists of a Future World (East and West) and a World Showcase, which features different countries around the world in street scenes, attractions, and food offerings. After a long, cold day in the park, I began to walk more quickly through some sections of countries in the World Showcase. Blake slowed me down, though.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to all these countries,” Blake said. “I want to see everything I can while we are here.” Then he proceeded to walk down every corridor and alleyway he could find.

The next thing I noticed was that Blake picked out a meal for himself at the Kennedy Space Center. Blake, whose OCD often centers around food choices (or, should I say, problems with the food choices around him), at first said he would forgo eating anything at the Center’s cafeterias. He would wait and eat food he was comfortable with back in the car. The next thing I knew, he had a tray filled with food, and even a dessert of astronaut ice cream. He joined us at the cafeteria table and ate, something he hasn’t done in years.

Last night, he had a long discussion with the hubby about all the places in the world he would like to see. What? Blake wants to see the world? He named off basically every country in the world – the more different from our country, the more he seemed interested.

“What about traveling for leisure?” the hubby asked him.

“The thing is, I’m so uncomfortable traveling, I couldn’t relax.” Blake answered, “I may as well go somewhere I can see things and learn about different cultures.”

Manatees in the Morning

This morning, as Michael, the hubby, and I ate breakfast (Blake was sleeping in), we decided to call off our manatee excursion for the next day. It was too far away, we’d have to leave too early, and it was just too cold for swimming in rivers. Plus, we’d been moving at breakneck speed for several days. It would be nice to have one more leisurely day.

We took it as a given that Blake wouldn’t mind the cancellation. So the hubby went off to call the tour company and I took a breakfast tray in to Blake.

“Dad’s cancelling the manatee tour and swim for tomorrow,” I told Blake. “That way we can take it a little easier.”

Blake’s face contorted into a pained grimace.

“Are you reacting to the manatees?” I asked.

“Yes!”

“Did you really want to swim with them?”

“More than anything,” he said, “but I can wait…if that’s what everyone else wants.”

“Let me see what I can do,” I said, as I bolted out of the room. It just rarely happens that Blake wants to do anything, and I wanted to reward his speaking up. I caught the hubby on the phone talking to the tour operator. I waved wildly for his attention, then told him what had occurred.

“Well, it looks like we’ll be coming after all,” he told the tour operator.

I went to tell Blake that the manatee adventure was on and the glee in his expression told me I’d done the right thing.

I Don’t Know What’s Going On, But I’ll Take It

Blake, wearing a hat that belonged to his grandfather, contemplates the space shuttle rocket.

I told the hubby how excited Blake was about the manatee tour. He and I marveled over the exciting things happening with our son on this vacation. The young man who normally doesn’t want to leave home, who only wants to read about the world instead of live in it, and who regularly says he dislikes himself and much of the world has had a few positive days where he seems to actually want to be here and to experience life.

Afterward, Blake and I perused the library at our lodging. He marveled over the books and wished he had more days here to sit and read. He supposed one thousand hours might do. As we passed through the hubby’s and my room, Blake shared his sentiments with his dad.

“You know, Dad, I’ve changed my mind about leisure vacations. Sometimes it would just be nice to sit and read a good book on vacation for hours on end.”

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.