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…

A Laughing Matter?

laughingThose who struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and those who love and care about them see the pain it can inflict. They recognize the seriousness of the disorder and the very real suffering involved. If they are lucky, they learn to laugh at their situation sometimes, for laughter may be healing. What about, however, laughter that comes at the expense of those with OCD, or laughter that comes from stereotypes about what OCD is?  Is that a good thing?

This past week, I was perusing the posts on a professional psychologists’ page that I am a part of on a social media site. I notice that one of the psychologists has posted a photo of a flyer requesting participants for a study on OCD. It includes free treatment sessions. Every tab on the bottom edge of the paper has been torn off. Clearly, there are many folks who are interested. The bottom edge of the flyer is ragged.

Then I realize that, while the flyer is real, the post is a joke. It says something along the lines of:

Looking at this I can imagine that people with OCD would be …um… disturbed by how uneven the flyer tore.

The only comment on the post is a bunch of hysterical laughing emojis. You know, the ones with tears pouring off the little guy’s face because he’s laughing so hard. The thing is, I don’t think it’s funny at all. I don’t think this kind of thing is funny when it comes from the public, but I understand that the public has misinformed ideas about what OCD is. From a psychologist, I’m kind of flabbergasted.

I’ll admit, I’m kind of a serious person. Maybe I took it wrong. Maybe because I see patients in pain day in and day out I don’t find this kind of post funny. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived it at home. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of the stereotypes that make OCD seem like it’s all about having a finicky style, being neat, and needing everything lined up.

How a flyer is torn is the least of the issues for anyone I know or treat with OCD. In fact, it’s a non-issue. They’re more concerned whether that thought means they are going to kill another person, whether their unintended carelessness might cause a home to burn down, whether they might have accidentally hit someone with their car, whether they’ve offended G-d, whether they’re contaminated and about to become gravely ill (or make someone else ill), or whether their sexual orientation is what they’ve always thought it is – among many other concerns.

Seeing a psychologist – a mental health professional – perpetuate OCD stereotypes on social media beyond frustrates me. So I reply to the post, trying to be gentle, but not knowing exactly how to say what I want to say. I note that this isn’t what OCD is really about, that my patients probably wouldn’t even notice the raggedness of the flyer. I’m trying to say, “Hey, professional, please think before you post things that post fun or stereotype mental illness.” I feel timid, but I do it. Then I go to sleep.

By morning, I am sorry I’ve posted anything. The psychologist has replied, but, of course, is not appreciative of my comment. Instead, my comment is an opportunity to get deeper into the OCD humor – more sarcastic. The professional points out how many others have pointed out even more things about the flyer that would disturb folks with OCD. Thank goodness, notes the professional, that the folks I treat wouldn’t be disturbed by it!

I fight off an urge to fire something back. I do not try to educate any more. I sit with discomfort for most of the day. I do internet searches about why people act mean. I am an OCD advocate and I strive to put good information out there. There is so much work to be done to educate the public, and mental health professionals, about OCD. I don’t think the best use of my time is to respond to someone on social media who is just set on poking fun.

What I do is re-commit myself to educating. I re-commit myself to this blog. I re-commit myself to educating professionals and the public in whatever way I can. I will not let one mental health professional who was looking for a laugh (or even the little laughing emojis) deter me. OCD deserves to be seen and heard for what it is. It’s no laughing matter.

 

Tenth Anniversary – Part I

Image courtesy of Chaiwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Chaiwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This weekend commemorates an anniversary in our family. It is ten years since we recognized that our son, Blake, had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I remember the weekend well. One event in particular prompted us to reach out for help and plunged us into new, unfamiliar territory.

Our family went boating that weekend. We weren’t very experienced with motor boating, and we excitedly packed up both boys, my parents, and one giant inflatable raft and made our way to a local lake. Goal: encourage Grandma and Grandpa to take a turn on the raft as it was towed by the boat. We were sure they’d love it.

We were successful in getting both my parents to give the raft a try. I remember the gigantic smile on my mom’s face and the “thumbs up” sign she threw us as she requested that the boat go faster. We had a ball swimming, picnicking, and taking in the beautiful day.

I don’t recall if Blake, then seven, got in the water or on the raft that day. I do recall, though, that at one point he became aware that people sometimes relieve themselves in the water. The recognition horrified him and, from that point on, he wanted nothing to do with the water. Exhausted from the activities and the sun, he fell deeply asleep on the boat bench. The hubby had to lift him from the boat and into his seat in the car, where Blake awoke as he was being buckled in.

A Child Possessed

Suddenly, it dawned on Blake how he had gotten into the car…and he began to scream. Gut-wrenching, blood-curdling, ear-piercing screams began to emerge from my seven-year-old’s mouth, causing the other five of us in the car to wheel around to look at what was going on. Blake looked like a child possessed. His face was contorted and bright red. He struggled in his seat as those screams kept coming.

Wash! Wash! Wash! Need to wash! Wash! Wash!….”

My parents looked dumbfounded and helpless in the back seat. Michael looked confused. My husband and I tried to talk to Blake, to calm him down. Our attempts fell on deaf ears. Blake just kept right on screaming. I didn’t know what to do. I felt something primal well up deep inside of me.

KNOCK IT OFF!!!!!” I heard myself bellow.

Can’t You See He’s Terrified?

Blake looked at me through tear-filled eyes. I’d frightened him (and probably everyone else in the car).

“Can’t you see he’s terrified?” my hubby said to me. He went to comfort Blake, but Blake wanted nothing to do with him, for it was his father, who had been in that urine filled lake and then carried him into this car, who was the source of the contamination that now tormented him. He didn’t want his father, or any of us who had been in the lake, near him. We were all a source of fear. My hubby and I could not offer comfort to our own child.

We drove home in near silence.

“We need to get help,” my hubby said to me.

“They’re going to say it’s my fault, but you’re right. We can’t go on like this.”

Today’s outburst hadn’t been the first. It was the scariest, though. It was the latest in a summer full of incidents that told me our younger son had OCD. I’d just kept hoping I was wrong. Everything I’d learned about OCD in my psychology graduate program pointed to the mother as the source of the problem, and I was terribly afraid and embarrassed. I was scared of what OCD would mean for my son’s quality of life, and ashamed that I, as a child clinical psychologist, did not know what to do for my son. It was time to surrender to the fact that we needed help. I silently prayed that there was something that would help. I would reach out to colleagues in the upcoming week.

The Sibling Effect

IMG_4527My heart aches a bit as my eldest son and I sip, slurp, and empty spoonfuls of chocolate mint cookie milkshakes into our mouths at the diner counter. I’ve spent the last three days eating “comfort food” and I’ve probably gained the weight to prove it. Michael is looking tired and haggard, having been given permission to take a break from his exhausting training schedule to say goodbye to mom.

“I’d never hear the end of it from my mom if I didn’t let a young man take time to say goodbye to his mother,” the Director told him earlier that day.

So we sit at this counter, talking about how training is going for the school-year-long volunteer position he will be holding in the first year dormitory. Michael is a sophomore and he will be positioned to support incoming freshman as they navigate their new college experience. He was tickled to be back and excited to begin training when we arrived. Glancing at him now, I can see that the light that was in his eyes yesterday has dimmed some. I’m not sure if it’s exhaustion or something else I see.

“I’m having a tough time with some of the communication training. It’s not upsetting to anyone else because they didn’t have the experience growing up that I did,” he tells me.

“Something about growing up in our home?” I ask, wondering what it is we did to put him in this position.

“Yes,” he says. “They’re having us do exercises on how to say things to people. It’s upsetting to me because of all the times I had to be careful of what I said at home because I didn’t want to upset Blake. It feels like walking on eggshells.”

“You mean, it’s triggering those feelings from when you were worried you’d say something that would set him off?”

“Yes.”

“I guess this is one of those lingering effects of growing up with a brother or sister with OCD.”

“I’m tired of being careful of how I say things. I did that for too long.”

I don’t know what else to do, but listen to him as he shares, and to let him know that I believe in him. I recognize that part of this is fueled by exhaustion and the intensity of his training. Yet, I also recognize that OCD can significantly affect more than just the sufferer. Siblings are not frequently mentioned at conferences and in studies on the matter, though they are among those most impacted.

I’ve run support groups for siblings who’ve shared how they’ve been the target of their siblings’ OCD, leaving them feeling perplexed, angered, or downtrodden. I’ve watched siblings being chased by their screaming brother or sister who has OCD, as the sibling with OCD seeks to beat away the OCD demon. I’ve watched as Blake cringed when Michael came near, believing that Michael was contaminated, and I’ve seen Michael finally losing his cool, screaming at his brother, hating the OCD.

Sometimes I think we are past those childhood times. I think that Blake and Michael have both matured enough to know how to deal with things better. Tonight reminds me that, while things may improve, the scars are still there. Sometimes, they still flare up and hurt. Knowing that I will be over 2,200 miles away from him, I remind Michael that the school’s counseling services are there if he needs them. He doesn’t want to hear this. Maybe it was unnecessary for me to suggest it. Still, it is a reminder that siblings of those with OCD bear parts of the disorder, too, and they often need just as much support and understanding.

In Which Mom Loses Her Temper

Costa RicaYes, I felt a little inspired by Winnie the Pooh books for this one (remember, In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water?”). Maybe it’s my way of getting a little storybook-esque about what happened last night and getting some distance from something I feel horrible for. Whatever it is, we begin with Mom putting the final touches on family dinner. Michael is away and Mom has worked hard on a nice meal in hopes that the family that is here (Dad, Blake, and herself) can enjoy time together. All are just about ready to sit down together. And then it happens…

Mom makes a mistake. Blake, who constantly looks over Mom’s shoulder when food preparation is involved (food that he is going to eat), points out Mom’s mistake and notes that he will now be unable to eat said food. Mom, who usually does not cook for Blake for just this reason, tries to keep it together. Maybe it was a real error; maybe it is an error only according to that interloper, OCD. It does not matter. Either way, Mom feels her heart sink. The hard work will not be appreciated by all. There is a breach in the dream for the evening. The evening feels ruined to her.

Hard as she tries, she cannot contain her disappointment. Hurt and angry words escape from her mouth, and then she escapes from the situation. She leaves the house. She walks around the block, fuming as she goes. There is so much pressure in having someone look over her shoulder. Yet, he is her son, who she loves. How can one mistake devastate an entire evening? How could she have become so foolish that she got back into the trap of believing she could do things without there being a catch? How can she be so black and white? She is angry with the situation. She is angry with herself.

She returns half an hour later still hurt, hunger gone. She walks the dogs and skips dinner. Blake walks downstairs crying his eyes out, telling Dad that he hates hurting his parents. He wishes he were dead so he cannot hurt them. He is inconsolable. Mom is upstairs hating herself, but still reeling in her own despair and afraid if she tries to say anything to Blake now she will only make it worse. She falls asleep.

In the morning light, she seeks out Blake and they talk. She apologizes for losing her temper and she reminds him that, regardless of anything that happens, it is her love for him that is more important than any meal. She notes the trap she sets for them all by placing too much emphasis on things going perfect, and she notes that she has work to do on how she reacts. She is a work in progress. She is imperfect. She is going to mess up again, but she hopes she will learn from last night. It is not easy living with OCD in the family – not easy to be a parent. She strives to keep learning, keep improving.