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…

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Why I Cried at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu at top right
Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu at top right

I’m afraid of heights. Maybe it’s not heights I’m actually afraid of, but of falling from heights. Yes, that more accurately describes it. I am terribly afraid of plunging downward, knowing what is about to happen to me. My fear of falling is so powerful that I cannot even watch as others meander near the edge of a cliff. And, yet, I recently found myself navigating the “death stairs” of Huayna Picchu, a mountain just behind Peru’s Machu Picchu.

Isn’t This a Blog About OCD?

You may be checking the page you are on right now. Isn’t this a blog about a family that has a teenage member with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? What is the mom doing sharing about her experience climbing a mountain peak? I asked myself about that as I considered writing this piece. What I answered is that my son didn’t develop OCD in a vacuum. He has a mom who is choc full of fears and worries. I may not have OCD, but I know what it is to struggle with anxiety. Before Blake was treated for OCD, I didn’t have a clue about how to stand up to fear and worry. This journey with him has opened a whole new world for me.

In case you’re wondering, my fears include, in no particular order (and are not limited to):

  • Slipping and falling from great heights
  • Plunging to my death in an airplane crash
  • Suffocating in a small space
  • Speaking in public
  • Talking to new people
  • Talking in groups

Some of these fears I’ve conquered. Others are still a work in progress. Climbing a steep mountain peak is definitely in the “not conquered” column. When my hubby added Machu Picchu to a list of destinations for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary trip, I was fine. Or at least I was until he added Huayna Picchu (whose peak is 8,920 feet [2,720 meters] above sea level) to the itinerary.

I fretted about Huayna Picchu from the moment I learned it towered over Macchu Picchu by almost 1,200 feet (360 meters). I heard that it had steep stairs that went almost straight up. I heard that it was slippery and that there were no ropes to hold onto. I doubted I could make the climb, not because of skill, but because of fear. Other tourists we met along the way convinced me I could do it. They seemed to brush off my declarations of terror of falling. Just don’t look down. I decided I’d make up my mind for myself once I was there.

Arrival at Machu Picchu

The morning we arrived at Machu Picchu, the hubby and I stepped off a train, were lead through a circuitous path to a bus by a woman who disappeared as quickly as she breathlessly arrived, and wandered through a crowd until a smiling Peruvian guide named Walter inquired as to our names. Walter’s kind presence helped me feel more at ease, and his way of stopping to look at the view each time we’d climbed another set of stairs helped me adjust to being at this new altitude. I imagined that maybe I might be okay on this hike to the peak that was to happen the next day. Then Walter said something that shattered the illusion.

“It was a sad day for us at Machu Picchu yesterday,” he told us. “A tourist fell to his death while taking a photo. Please be careful and do not go too close to the edges.”

Fell? What? Indeed, you may have seen in the news that a German tourist fell and died at Machu Picchu recently. Terror crept over me. Any confidence I might have built up in preparation for the trip melted away. I asked Walter about Huayna Picchu. Did he think I could climb it? He repeatedly replied that I didn’t have to climb all the way to the top; there was a place I could stop and begin my descent. His response did not reassure me.

Let’s Go!

At the entrance to Huayna Picchu
At the entrance to Huayna Picchu

The morning of the Huayna Picchu climb we had to be in line for our bus by 5:30 am. Huayna Picchu is strictly controlled; only 400 people may climb it daily. Two hundred people may climb at 7 am and another two hundred at 10 am.  We had the early shift. I was terrified. I paid multiple trips to the restroom before our ascent. I allowed the boisterous high school students who arrived as we did to go ahead of us. Then I focused – one step at a time. When the trail grew steep, I watched one handhold at a time. Then we reached the point where all I could see seemed to be straight up with no ropes to grab hold of.

My breath grew rapid. My heart pounded. I recognized it for what it was – fear, anxiety. As much as I counsel others and knew what I was experiencing, it still felt awful. Would I go on, or would I stop? Maybe I’d make poor decisions if I was too anxious. I glanced at how high up we were and backed up against the mountain.

“I don’t think I can’t go any further,” I told my hubby.

Who Will You Climb For?

My hubby came over and talked to me gently. No fear of falling on his part. He was ready to go, but he knew that I needed a “WHY” to go any further.

“You can do this,” he told me. “Climb for your mom. Climb for my dad.”

His words penetrated through my fears. My mom has limited mobility; a climb like this unlikely if not impossible. His dad passed away sixteen years ago at age sixty-four, just as he was retiring and planning to take his dream trips. How could I, alive and with my limbs still working well, back down because of a silly fear – because I was hyperventilating? How could I allow a fear to keep me from something others dream of? I broke down in tears and buried my head against the mountain. Other hikers thought I was experiencing altitude sickness and offered suggestions. My hubby thanked them and waved them on. And then we climbed.

I focused only on my hands and feet. One movement at a time. One hand or foot in front of the other. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Suddenly, the trail evened out and we entered an Inca holy place. I had made it! I looked through a window to the earth below, and I sobbed and sobbed.

Sign near the summit of Huayna Picchu
Sign near the summit of Huayna Picchu

I stood for a moment and took in this accomplishment. We took photos, triumphantly, at the Huayna Picchu (Waynapicchu) sign, only to realize we weren’t quite at the summit. There was still a trail of thin steps leading into the sky, and I’d reached a point where the direction was one-way only. I had no choice but to continue.

View from the summit of Huayna Picchu
View from the summit of Huayna Picchu

Once at the peak, the way down included straddling a rock perched over an abyss, passing though a tunnel under rocks I had to squat to maneuver, and navigating the same thin stairs in the downward direction. I spent a lot of time on my behind until I reached stairs that didn’t seem so vertical to me. In the end I was spent, exhausted, and satisfied.

Descending through a rock tunnel
Descending through a rock tunnel

Why Did You Cry?

As we made our way down the hill on the bus, my hubby queried me about the adventure.

“Why did you cry up there?” he wondered as the bus pitched through yet anther switchback turn.

I tried to place myself back in those moments atop the peak. I recalled the flood of emotion that washed over me and the release that came with it. Why did I cry? I cried with relief for finally having arrived at that moment after days and weeks of trepidation. I cried for my family members who would have wanted to do the climb, but could not for one reason or another. I cried for opportunities lost in my life because fear held me back. I cried for having found the courage to stare at fear and continue in spite of it. I cried at the thought of those I’ve had the honor of watching stand up to fear and triumph – whether they be patients, family, or friends. And I cried with the recognition that fear does not have to define us or limit us. Fear can be faced. When it is we can grow and flourish beyond our imaginations.

 

“I’ve Hit a Wall”

Image courtesy of cjansuebsri at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of cjansuebsri at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m sitting at home catching up on some volunteer work for Blake’s school when my cell phone rings.  It’s Blake calling.  For a moment, I hesitate to answer as I wonder what it could possibly be.  It’s been less than two hours since I dropped him off at a thrill ride park that is not too far from our home.  This is the first time he’s ever gone without an adult; it’s just him and his friend.

“Hi Blake,” I answer.

“Mom, I’ve hit a wall,” he says.  “I need your advice.”

Blake and Kyle have been planning this trip to the amusement park since late last school year.  Kyle is terrified of roller coasters – so terrified, in fact, that he was one of the only kids in the entire 8th grade to miss out on the class trip before the school year ended.  Blake can smell anxiety from a mile away.  He took Kyle aside to get to the bottom of things.  He discovered that Kyle had never been on a roller coaster in his life and he was afraid of how he would look in front of his classmates.

While Blake has fought us in the last year or so over engaging in his own treatment for his OCD, he has been through enough treatment and had enough success in the past to know what it takes to get past a fear.  In fact, his own fears prevented him from riding even a kiddie ride until he was 10.  With concentrated effort and a lot of support from his therapists, Mom, Dad and big brother, he became a roller coaster riding machine.

He shared his own struggles with Kyle and promised him that he could help him get past his own fear.  The treatment?  Exposure with Response Prevention with Blake as the behavior therapist.  Kyle apparently bought into the treatment plan.  He even convinced his parents to set up the date and to purchase Blake’s ticket to the park.  Blake gave it a lot of thought and came up with what he thought was a good plan.  He even knew what order they would visit each ride in order to build up Kyle’s confidence and extinguish his fears.

Now, apparently, it wasn’t going quite according to his plan.

“What kind of advice do you need, honey?”

Image courtesy of anat_tikker at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of anat_tikker at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Well, I got Kyle to go on the Fast Track, and I want him to go on the Looper, but he keeps saying he has to go to the bathroom, or he wants to get a snack or a drink.  I think he’s stalling and trying to avoid.  Sounds familiar, huh?”

I smile to myself because he’s referring to his own avoidance – both in his quest to become a roller coaster rider and in his OCD treatment before we stopped this past year.

“Yes, that does sound familiar,” I say.

“Now I understand better what it was like for you and Dad,” he tells me.  “So tell me,” he says. “What did you guys do when I did this?  What were the skills and tricks you used?”

We talk for a moment about some of the tools at his disposal.  Then he tells me that Kyle is asking to go on the Rocking Thunder.

“Maybe you should go on the Rocking Thunder with him, then,” I suggest.

But Blake sees a problem with this.

“It’s too similar to the other ride, Mom.  He’s trying to stay in his comfort zone and if he’s going to get over this he’s got to get outside of his comfort zone.”

I suggest to Blake that maybe Kyle isn’t ready to step it up yet.  Perhaps they need to stay in this zone.  As the day progresses, Blake can ask Kyle if he is ready to take it to the next level.  Blake accepts this as a possible road to take.

“Bye, Mom.  I love you.”

Hours later, as I walk Blake back to the car, he is wiped out.  He’s not as exhausted from being at the park as he is from playing amateur behavior therapist.

“We got on the Looper, finally, but it was sooooo….frustrating,” he says.  “I understand what I put you and Dad through.  Thank you.”

“Thank you?  What for?”

“For pushing me.”

“You’re welcome.  It’s hard work being a behavior therapist, isn’t it?”

“Yep.  Well, we didn’t make it to the toughest ride, but we made progress.  We’ll do it again,” he says as he tilts his head back in the back seat and closes his eyes.

I feel a glimmer of hope inside that maybe Blake will apply this to his OCD.  At least now he recognizes what it is like to see what someone you care about is capable of achieving and to face the “wall” of  fear and resistance when they can’t find the strength or motivation to keep moving toward that potential.   For Blake, it is another step in the right direction.

As for Kyle, his mother is overcome with joy.  Today, with Blake’s support, he has accomplished something his parents have been trying to help him achieve for over a decade. He rode a roller coaster.  He rode three roller coasters!  She text messages me to declare her delight.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I see career possibilities for Blake :)”

Indeed.