Well-Intended Advice

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Why did you do that? You’ve taken the only thing he had to care about.”

A friend I haven’t seen in a while is trying to convince me that the hubby and I have made an awful mistake by not allowing our son to go off to college in another state this fall. She faces me as we stand at a reception amidst hundreds of people. I feel that feeling in the pit of my stomach – the one that comes when this wasn’t the response I was expecting.

I try to gather myself back together to explain the “why,” but I can’t seem to make any sense to her. I decide to give up trying to explain to my friend the intricacies of our situation.

“Maybe we did make a mistake. I hope not. We made the best decision we could.”

I disappear into the crowd when someone else appears to talk to my friend. I shuffle around, weaving through the others, searching for my hubby. I want to go home. I feel lost and misunderstood.

Making Tough Decisions

My youngest son, Blake, has been struggling with depression for at least two years now. He’s up all night. He sleeps all day. He has little he looks forward to. He also has OCD, which I thought had become a minor issue until we began therapy as a family recently. Blake was accepted this past school year to his first choice college – a small, extremely demanding school without dorms or a meal plan, where he will have to live in an apartment with at least three others and navigate his way to school and around the city.

Although we celebrated his acceptance to the school, the hubby and I were deeply concerned how Blake would go from struggling with his mood and needing constant support to finish high school to functioning in this challenging environment. We spoke with him repeatedly about how important it was to start new habits now, long before he went away, so that he would be ready to function far away from home. He said he wanted to work on it. As a family we implemented schedules, made sure he was reinforced for positive steps, engaged his school’s and his psychiatrist’s assistance, and utilized tools to help with the whole process.

It didn’t work. Things got worse. We asked Blake to get help from a therapist. He balked at this over and over.

“What good will that do? The only person who can help me is me. It’s a self-discipline problem,” Blake told us.

Finally, we had to tell him that we just couldn’t send him to school this fall. We asked him to take a deferment. It was one of the toughest choices we could have made. We wanted him to go. He claimed it was the only thing that he cared about in life. And, yet, his behavior said it was going to be a disaster. Our new family therapist, a veteran in working with extremely tough cases, wondered why we hadn’t made that decision sooner. Why? We didn’t want to break his heart. And, indeed, when we delivered the news, Blake cried for days.

Giving Advice

When my friend wandered up to me at the event and wanted to know how Blake was, I just figured she’d understand that we’d looked at every other option before deciding to ask him to wait a year. I figured she’d know the amount of soul searching the hubby and I had to do, and how much courage it took to make the decision and stand firm – and then to stand back and watch our son’s devastation as he refused comfort from us.

Instead, she admonished me for having made that decision.

“You took away the only thing that mattered to him. You should have let him go. He might have surprised you and risen to the occasion.”

Sure. He might have. Don’t you think that the wish that kept us from making the decision sooner was that he would show us he could do it?  He’s struggling with mental illness. He can’t force himself to function. If he’d been able to, he would’ve shown us that he could do what was needed when we told him that school next year was on the line. He has work to do first. He has to get healthy.

I know my friend’s advice was well-intended. I know she has my best interests at heart, and Blake’s, too. I also know she had to make a tough decision about sending her own young adult child back to school.

Hearing this unexpected response from my friend has toughened my skin a little bit. It’s made me realize that I have to be firm in the decisions our family makes and recognize that others won’t always understand the in’s and out’s of those decisions. It’s made me recognize how important it is not to judge the decisions others make for their families. And it reminds me the importance of not offering advice unless I’m asked. I love my friend, but her reaction still stings a bit – and it’ll just take time for that to fade. In the meantime, our job is to keep working in therapy and applying what we are learning every day.

Fingers crossed that Blake will be ready to head off to school in Fall of 2018!

“You’ve Hired a Dog Trainer!”

Blake is furious. Yet, he’s remarkably composed at the same time.

“You’ve hired a dog trainer! I won’t take this anymore! What’s the therapist’s phone number?”

I give him the number and Blake calls the new therapist that the hubby and I have been seeing to help us work on getting Blake moving toward functioning. Our boy has been spending all day in bed and all night up doing who knows what. I see him for dinner and before I go to bed. He has few activities. He’s miserable.

Blake gets the therapist’s voice mail system. He leaves a message saying he doesn’t agree with what the therapist has his father and I doing. Blake suggests we all need to meet to talk this over.

Why Hasn’t He Called?

Nearly a week has passed and Blake has grown impatient. The therapist has not responded to his voice message.

“Why hasn’t he called back?” he wonders.

I have my suspicions. Blake rejected therapy when we brought him in to see this therapist. Now the hubby and I are the patient – in a manner of speaking. I imagine the therapist wants to talk to us first. We’ve been slowly implementing increasing demands on Blake. Each comes with an unpleasant consequence that targets his OCD if he does not participate. He’s gotten furious with each new step, but he’s been complying.

When the day of our appointment arrives, Blake demands to come with us.

“You’re welcome to come,” I tell him. “I’m sure the doctor will want to talk with Dad and I first. You might be invited in. You might not.”

“I’m willing to take that risk,” he says.

The Appointment

We arrive at the appointment and the therapist, the hubby, and I talk this over.

“Let’s see what he has to say,” the therapist says. “If he is willing to work with us, then we will have him stay. If he just wants to try to keep things the same, then we know he’s not ready to participate.”

He invites Blake in. Blake begins in a composed way, but he’s angry and he loses his temper. The therapist observes that our family spends a great deal of time going over what the problems are, but getting nowhere. He asks us to agree not to talk about the problems just until our next appointment. The hubby and I agree. Blake is having none of it.

“We have to talk about it! I can’t go a week without finishing this! I can’t! I won’t agree!”

And he storms out.

The hubby and I agree once more with the therapist that he and I will not talk about the problems or about what happened in the session. Blake is outside the building. He refuses to speak at all. He and I take off for home while the hubby goes back to work. Blake is silent for half the 45 minute ride home. Then, he apologizes.

“I’m sorry I exploded in there, Mom.”

“You were upset.”

“I know, but I really didn’t have a good reason to react the way I did. I agree. I’ll wait until next week to talk about things.”

“You’re coming back?”

“Yes. I’ll be there.”

So now Blake is in therapy with us. It’s not something he really wanted, but he wants more control than he’s had since the hubby and I have been going alone. That seems like a good place to start.

Lifting the Fog

My Own Depression

In my last post, a little over a month ago, I shared that I was dealing with my own major depressive episode. The reason I haven’t posted is that, frankly, I haven’t felt able to write until today. Depression is one weird state of being. I’ve been here, but haven’t felt here. I’ve been going through the motions, doing the things I’m supposed to do (well, most of them) when one is depressed. I’ve been keeping my engagements, eating as well as I can, getting out for walks, trying to get enough sleep.

The thing is, no matter where I’ve been, or who I’ve been with, I haven’t felt present. I’ve laughed, but I didn’t feel the humor; I went to dinner with friends and talked, but I slowly disappeared from the conversation as I found it more and more difficult to interact. I slept, but I constantly felt as though I could fall right back to sleep.

Therapy. I went to therapy, too. Twice. The therapist was nice enough, but I don’t think that she understood the depths of my despair. My office mate, a seasoned child psychologist, says that she believes we psychologists make difficult patients. We know how to avoid, we are critical in the consulting room of what we are experiencing, and we are thinking ahead of the therapist we are seeing. Maybe that’s all true. So I’m looking for someone who can really call me on my stuff – someone who is more experienced as a therapist and parent than I am.

A Little Light

At the same time, just yesterday I experienced a little lifting of my mood. Even the hubby noticed it. The reason, I’m pretty certain, is that I found something that’s given me just the tiniest bit of hope, and the belief that there is something we can do to begin to make changes with what’s been going on with Blake. I feel just a little bit empowered.

A few weeks ago, while I was at a professional conference on anxiety, I met a very experience therapist at dinner one night. As we got to know one another and shared about our respective children, I shared a bit about what we are experiencing with Blake – days where he doesn’t get out of bed, his despair about life, his frequent missing events that would have been important to him.

“I’m not letting you go through this alone,” she said, reaching out to me, as she shared a bit of her own personal story. “This isn’t going to continue. We are going to get him help and I’m going to stay with you through the process.”

That evening, we plotted and planned. We agreed on who I should call. And I promised to stay in touch and follow through. Within a week, the hubby and I had an appointment with Blake with a longtime expert on kids and young adults who, like Blake, have a mixture of depression on top of OCD. What’s more, he’s had lots of experience with treatment refusers. We went with hope that, this time, Blake would agree to getting help.

Blake Rejects Treatment

Blake rejected treatment – no surprise there. On the way out the door he claimed to understand how “desperate” his dad and I are. He promised he would change things, but offered no concrete example of how he would do so. And then he fell asleep at 7 pm that very evening, missing dinner and sleeping until 3 pm the next day, forgetting he had a lunch date with his grandparents who were in town. And then he did the same thing the next day, missing his beloved grandparents once again.

Meanwhile, the hubby and I haven’t given up. Yesterday, we saw that expert on our own. He is prepping us to gradually work to increase the likelihood that Blake will enter treatment willingly and ready to work. We don’t know if it will actually work, only that we have several assignments to do ourselves over this next week. We also know that this will be itty bitty steps. Yet, I left the office yesterday feeling just the tiniest bit better. I have something to do, a direction to go in.

I noted to the therapist yesterday that the saddest part of the last two years is that we’ve been repeatedly told that there is nothing to do if Blake doesn’t want treatment. He shared with us his belief that the population of depressed/anxious young adults (and teens) whose lives are spiraling rapidly downward has long been neglected. For now, the hubby and I will be the catalysts for possible change. I understand that it is going to be a difficult road – but I’d rather be moving toward something than sinking deeper into the the muck that I’ve been in.

The Fog

I’ve experienced four major depressive episodes in my life (if you don’t count the postpartum depression after I had each boy). One was when I was a teenager – maybe 15 or 16 years old. The second was when I was 30 and my aunt (a close confidante) and uncle were killed in a freak accident. The third was when I was 38 and struggling through some major life issues. The fourth is happening now.

Mental health issues are abundant in my family. My siblings and parents struggle with various forms of anxiety and depression. One of my aunts died by suicide – one of many cries for help that had a permanent outcome. Another aunt in my grandparents’ generation was hospitalized multiple times for her depression and went through several rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. I remember stories of my grandfather locking himself in his room for days. I could go on. Suffice it to say, it’s no surprise that the hubby and I have passed on anxiety, OCD, and depression to our own offspring.

My last major depressive experience was before Blake was diagnosed with OCD. I almost forgot what it feels like…but I recognized it as soon as it started settling in. There’s the thick, thick fog in my head that makes me want to lie down with its weight, and the lack of enjoyment in just about everything I do. I feel myself going through the motions, but I’m distant, falling deeper into an abyss as I see this shell of myself move through the days. And then there’s the vacillating from just not giving a crap to being seized by moments of rage – to hearing myself pop off at those I love the most.

I Know What Prompted This

I can pinpoint the catalyst for each major depression I’ve experienced, and I know what it is for this one. Yes, there’s the fact that I just lost a friend to cancer. I promised I’d go see her – and then I didn’t follow up to that last text message that she didn’t answer…and she died. And there’s Michael. Sweet, competent Michael, who is on the other side of this country so stressed out by what he’s taken on that he can barely see straight. But I can handle either of these – alone or together. I can be the rock. There’s this one thing I can’t be the rock for anymore.

Basically, I’m watching my almost-adult son fall apart – at least in my eyes. This bright, funny, sensitive young man who the hubby and I have invested so much love, time, and attention in cannot seem to manage the basic skills of living day to day. Blake’s sleep/wake cycle, which we have worked so hard with him to regulate, is more messed up than ever. He sleeps until six in the evening and is up all night. When he does wake up, he is down on himself and upset. Then, of course, the schoolwork doesn’t get done. Two months shy of graduation and I’m not sure if he will finish his coursework.

Just this past week, we were supposed to take a trip to the school that is his first choice for next year – and where he was accepted. The place where he will train in the skills that are supposed to launch into the career he’s imagined most of his life. We told him this trip was a “must” in the final decision-making process. The hubby and I woke for our plane flight. Blake had already woken, turned off his alarm and gone back to sleep. The hubby went in to wake him again and let him know he had to be downstairs by the appointed time – a time that came and went and ended in the hubby cancelling our flight, our hotel, and our rental car. Moreover, it made us recognize that our son is not ready for this next step in life. I think I’m okay with that, and yet, I still grieve.

Time to Step Back

I look back over the years and I wonder how we got here. Perhaps I’ve propped Blake up too many times. One of the things that happens when you have a child who struggles with OCD is that you become fiercely protective. You make sure that people around him understand what is going on. You make sure that accommodations are in place where necessary. You push him forward when he cannot find the strength to do it himself. But the most painful realization of late is that, perhaps, I’ve done more of the pushing than Blake has. I may have prevented him from developing the skills he needed to be ready for this next step in life. I haven’t allowed him to fail and pick himself up.

You see, while Blake has been struggling with his sleep this past year, it’s really been me who has done all the work. I’m the one who has set up all the protocols. I’ve been the cheerleader. I’ve been the one who has emphasized how important it is to learn this skill. I’ve been the one who has gotten him out of bed and prevented him from missing the really important things. And I can see the future if we keep propping him up and then send him off to college next year – in an apartment out of state, no less.

It is all but destroying me watching him go through this. It’s like watching some suspenseful series, constantly rooting for the hero, seeing him fail over and over, and not knowing where this story is going to end up. Even as I pull away, I sink more into my own depression. To make matters more stressful, Blake is watching my every move, as he always has. He is sensitive to my mood, wanting to know what is wrong. His OCD tells him he must take extra care of me. If I scream out the things I really think and feel, I will only set him off and send him spiraling.

I’m Getting Help

I tell him that I am struggling with a big episode of depression, as he’s heard me talk about having experienced in the past. I tell him that it is not anybody’s fault; it’s how my body works. I tell him I am getting help. I have an appointment with a therapist next week. I hope that I am being a role model by getting help when I am struggling. What’s more, I really need the help right now. I need a place to put all that I’m feeling somewhere besides on my hubby’s shoulders. I need a neutral party to look at this situation and guide me. And I need someone to hold me back before I say something stupid or jump in and try to “save” my boy yet again.

Forty Percent

img_4892It’s a Sunday afternoon and Blake is taking a computer scored test for his precalculus class. He’s never liked math, yet he has continued to push himself forward because he knows at least this much math is required for him to pursue his career goal of video game developer. The tension is palpable in the family room air. Twenty problems. Three points each. The anxiety mounted when he looked at the first problem.

“I can’t do this! I don’t understand it!”

“Blake. Yes you can, and yes you do. Slow down.”

Is That Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

The hubby and I keep repeating this mantra, but Blake is not hearing it. He’s far too anxious. Yes, Blake has OCD and while you may be wondering how this is an OCD moment, suffice it to say that OCD often does not occur in a vacuum. OCD sufferers can have many other things going on besides OCD (just as we all can have multiple things going on in our lives). One very common occurrence is to have anxiety (possibly even an anxiety disorder) pop up in areas besides those affected by the OCD.

When a person has OCD, they struggle to deal with the uncertainty, discomfort, and anxiety brought on by intrusive thoughts, urges, or images. It is the discomfort that is created that OCD sufferers must learn to deal with. So, it’s not surprising that other things that make an OCD sufferer anxious can also be a challenge. In Blake’s case, math provokes anxiety. I don’t know if it’s a full blown phobia, but math anxiety is a regular occurrence in his life.

How’d You Get on Number 16?

I walk over to Blake and glance over his shoulder. He’s on number 12 out of 20.

“I’m not going to pass,” he says with panic in his voice. “It’s hopeless.”

“Hey, you can do this. This is your anxiety talking.”

“No! No! I just don’t understand it!”

I glance at the computer. He’s on number 16. This doesn’t make sense. We’ve been talking. He hasn’t even more than glanced at the computer screen. He couldn’t have completed four precalculus problems.

“Blake, how’d you get on number 16? You were just on number 12.”

“I can’t do it,” he just keeps saying.

“Blake, did you enter nonsense answers?”

“I’m not going to pass! It doesn’t matter what I enter!”

The hubby manages to intervene and to convince Blake to take his hands off the keyboard. We talk for a few moments and Blake settles down. He refocuses on the task at hand and answers numbers 16-20 correctly. He earns a forty percent. When he’s finished, I take a look at the analysis that shows what he scored correctly on and what he missed. He got three answers correct in the first five questions and then nothing correct until number 16. He’d gotten anxious because he’d gotten a few wrong. Anxiety took over, he panicked, and there went the test.

What Have You Learned From This Experience?

Blake had to contact his teacher about his score because a minimum sixty percent is required for him to continue on in the course. The hubby and I write a note to the teacher and advise her of what happened. We let her know that we hope Blake learns a lesson from this experience and that he will not do this in the future.

“What have you learned from this experience?” I ask Blake later.

“I learned to slow down and take a break if I need to. I also learned that Mom and Dad are usually right.”

As a mom I smile at that last comment – not that he’ll recall it when we have advice to give.

Blake’s teacher writes me back the next day. She asks for Blake to come in and work with her. She wants to see what he needs help with, and then to reset the test – something we hadn’t asked for nor expected.  After she works with him, she asks me to come by.

“He understands all of this. He did remarkably well. Let’s see how he does on the re-take.”

Blake takes the test again and scores an eighty-five percent.

“I have pretty amazing teachers,” Blake tells me.

“Yes, you do,” I reply. “Mrs. C didn’t need to reset that test. She understands anxiety. I wouldn’t expect her to do that again.”

Blake understands that responding to his anxiety by completely throwing off his test was not the best choice. He does seem to have learned something from it, but, honestly, only time will tell. Will he step back and recognize what anxiety is doing to him the next time it surfaces? I hope so. Or it may be a lesson he will have to learn repeatedly before he gets it down. I am confident that he will get it some day.

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…

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.