Well-Intended Advice

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“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.

The First Step

Recently, after more than three years of Blake refusing treatment for his OCD, and for the depression that ensued later, the hubby and I made the decision to return to treatment. We didn’t give Blake a choice; we just told him we had an appointment with a specialist who might help us all find a way to do things in a better way. He entered the room on his own, but left in a rage after the therapist called us in to plan together (actually, he left when the hubby and I agreed to a plan the therapist had suggested). When Blake refused to return, the hubby and I became the patients, with the therapist directing us on how to shape our son’s behavior.

The first step was for the hubby and I to make a list of what Blake was not doing – where he was falling down in functioning (like sleeping all day and being up all night). We were also to list the things he was doing (for example, serving as a moderator for a special interest website) and, interestingly, what OCD behaviors we saw that he still had. That last part was odd to us. We hadn’t come to therapy to address OCD. We were more concerned that Blake was depressed and was barely carrying out the basic tasks of living. The therapist wasn’t as sure as we were that OCD wasn’t important.

When we showed up with our lists, he took time to review them.

“Let’s start with something Blake can be very successful at, like getting to the dinner table on time,” he suggested. “Now to chose what happens if he doesn’t make it on time. Hmmm… How bothered is he by the dogs?”

“Just a little,” we noted. “He always washes after he touches them, but it’s not like he runs to do it.”

“Okay, how about this? If he is late to the dinner table, you are going to rub a tissue on the dogs. Then you will break it into several pieces and place them on his bedroom floor.”

“What? How is this related to not getting out of bed?” the hubby wanted to know. “Why are we focusing on the dinner table and his dog contamination stuff when we want him to get out of bed?  And how does rubbing a tissue on the dog even relate logically to getting to the table on time?”

“It doesn’t.”

“Then why are we doing it? Shouldn’t the consequence be logically tied to the behavior?”

“Natural and logical consequences haven’t worked with Blake,” he reminded us. “We can’t try the same old thing.”

The hubby wasn’t convinced, but he was willing to give it a try. I was intrigued and kind of confused, but I understood that Blake had been unmoved by the natural consequences that had been coming to him, or any consequences that the hubby and I had employed that were logically connected to his behavior. The therapist wrote the plan down. All that was left was to inform Blake of the plan.

Blake Explodes

Blake was infuriated by this new plan. He didn’t even make it to dinner that night. He went upstairs to his room. He slammed his door and his shutters, and he threw things everywhere. Then he came back downstairs like nothing had happened.

The hubby and I carried out the consequence as directed. We didn’t make a big deal out of it to Blake. We simply quietly wiped a tissue on both our dogs’ fur, then cut it apart into several pieces. Then I went upstairs and placed those pieces on his floor. Blake responded by pouring Nature’s Miracle all over his carpet.

The next night, he showed up to dinner on time. And the next. And the next. And our dinners were actually pleasant. The hubby was still confused about the plan and wrote to our therapist.

Why again are we using Blake’s OCD as part of getting him to come to dinner? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Remember, Blake hasn’t been functioning and he hasn’t responded to regular consequences. We are trying to prevent you from having a 35-year-old who hasn’t launched.”

The rest of the week continued without incident. We felt just the littlest bit hopeful. It was a baby step. It wasn’t the big goal we wanted. We could only hope Blake would respond well to what came next.

Moving Forward

Image courtesy of ddpavumba at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I last wrote, we had just begun to see a new therapist, and I was having the first glimmers of hope in the midst of my own depression. I can share that my depression is much better, and we are still in therapy with the new therapist. At the same time, frankly, this has been a couple of the toughest months I’ve faced as a mom.

First, there was the matter of what practically felt like pushing Blake to the finish line for high school graduation. Every single last assignment felt like a mountain that he wasn’t going to climb, but with tremendous support from all sides he did. He walked in his graduation ceremony, and he even won the founder’s award for his school – with a little bit of scholarship money.

And Then, There’s Therapy:

The toughest thing we have faced has been therapy. The therapist warned the hubby and I that what he would be asking us to do was going to be incredibly difficult. He warned us that the progress would likely be painstakingly slow. With Blake refusing treatment, forward movement would be up to us. We would have to change many of the things we do as parents. And he told us that we had to give Blake the toughest news of all – that we wouldn’t be sending him to college next year.

I looked at him in that session, asking him what he thought.

“As things are, he’s in no way prepared to leave home, go over a thousand miles away, manage in an apartment with three or four other guys, or take care of his own hygiene – not to mention get up out of bed each day and make it to class. What do we do?” I asked.

At that point in time, Blake wasn’t getting out of bed unless the hubby and I got him up. And he was only staying awake with much assistance. On the other end of the day, he was resisting going to sleep as much as possible.

“I don’t want the next day to come,” he would say to me.

“You’ve known for months what you need to tell him,” the therapist told the hubby and I. “You just haven’t wanted to tell him.”

And so, that next night, we delivered the news – and a firestorm ensued.

You’ve taken away the only thing that meant anything to me!” he screamed at us. Then, he proceeded to trash his room, slamming doors and shutters. He threatened that he would leave home and go to school in the fall anyway. He would live on the streets, he proclaimed. Anything was better than being here with us. He wasn’t going to be the ONLY kid who didn’t leave and go away to school (it didn’t matter that many of his peers were staying local or working or taking a gap year). He even told his psychiatrist at his medication check up that he was moving out.

Yet, when the deadline came, he filed for a deferment from school for one year, and he requested a refund on his housing deposit. I think on some level he knew that he wasn’t ready. His anger with the hubby and I remained, though, which, in some ways, I was happy to see. Blake has always had a difficult time being angry with us; he usually takes the anger out on himself and becomes more depressed.

In terms of therapy, that was only the beginning of what the therapist had in store for us. I will document that in future posts.

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.

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.