Even Loved Ones Who “Should” Know Better Sometimes Get it Wrong

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Being a loved one of someone who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is hard. It’s hard because you watch that person suffer, and, when you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer. Very commonly, when someone we love has OCD, we get caught up in doing things that don’t help. One way we do this is by accommodating. That is, we do things that OCD wants (e.g., washing our hands because maybe they touched something suspect, we reassure our loved one that of course the feared thing won’t happen, we do things our loved one is capable of doing themself so that their OCD doesn’t get triggered – the list goes on). Accommodation, although it feels loving, actually keeps our loved one stuck in the OCD cycle.* On the other end of the spectrum, but also problematic, is what I did with Blake the other day. I got into conflict with him over his OCD.

Yes. Yes. I did get into conflict with him. I was downright not very nice. I share this with you at the risk of being judged harshly, but I have a purpose for sharing it. I want to emphasize something for loved ones everywhere. Loving someone with OCD can present some challenges – and you will not always meet those challenges in the best way. You are human. You will mess up. I messed up the other day, and I am a psychologist who is an OCD specialist. I deal with these issues every single day of my professional life. I should know better. And I can admit that this is hard.

So, here’s what happened. Blake and I went grocery shopping. He was not thrilled to go. I actually didn’t give him a choice. He’s been in the house almost nonstop and I thought it was important for him to interact in the world for a brief bit. With our masks donned, we moved through the medium-sized store as I grabbed some bread and produce. Blake was clearly anxious about the experience, although he did stop briefly to say hello to an employee he recognized from his volunteer work. When we got home, I still had one more errand to run. Blake was to take the two bags of groceries into the house. He walked around the back of the car and lifted the hatch.

“I don’t know what to do about this, Mom. Can you help?”

I got out of the car to see what the problem was. One of the bags had fallen over and the apples inside it were now lying on the car liner. Without thinking much of it, I picked up the apples and placed them with their mates in the bag. Blake seemed to recoil. I knew right away what it was. OCD was saying all the apples were contaminated. I felt frustration rising in me; that should have been my sign to stay quiet and leave. Instead, I confronted Blake.

“You’re upset about the apples, aren’t you?”

“Well, I just don’t know what to do with them now.”

“Blake, we wash our produce before we eat it…”

“But they were in the back of the car…”

“Apples grow outdoors. They fall on the ground before they get to the store. They touch all sorts of things. You’re not going to eat these now, are you?”

“No. Probably not.”

Nice, huh? Great example of a loving exchange between mother and son. And the mother is an OCD specialist! So, it went on for just a bit more and ended up with me saying something really brilliantly supportive like, “That sounds like such a hard way to live, honey,” before I drove off, leaving Blake with the grocery bags.

Within moments, I knew I’d been out of line. I’d been unkind. Airing my frustration at my already-anxious son was not going to make anything better. What he did or did not plan to do with the apples was not my problem. It was his job to either challenge his OCD and eat them or to miss out on a favorite fruit. As I drove I crafted my apology in my head. I would write it as soon as I was parked, but before I even arrived at my destination I received a text from Blake.

Hey Mom. Sorry for how I responded. I’m tired and I’m panicking and I felt like I just couldn’t deal with the situation. I went with what made me most comfortable in the moment.

Tears stung my eyes and rolled down my cheek.

Hi Blake. Thank you for the text. I was just about to text you, too. I feel terrible. I cornered you about the apples and that was wrong. I am so sorry.

We spoke some more when I got home and each acknowledged our part. We recognized areas where we are each a work in progress. Will I be perfect now and never mess up again? No. I will absolutely mess up again. What I refuse to do is to beat myself up over it as I have done so many times in the past. It doesn’t help me and it doesn’t help Blake, who worries about me when he can see I’m doing that. Instead, I can strive to improve. I can acknowledge that I am flawed. I can recognize that growing signs of frustration in me are not imperatives that I act or speak, but signs to step back and evaluate. And I can remember that when Blake is appearing anxious that he is not going to be able to take feedback from me; it’s best I wait. We can learn and grow – together.

*Note regarding accommodation. Please, if you see yourself in this and recognize that you engage in accommodating your loved one’s OCD, refer to more information on the subject. Do not change and remove your accommodating behavior until you have consulted with your loved one, a professional, and/or professional resources that can teach you how to do this. One possible resource is the International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/

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.


One year ago, Michael, my oldest, finished his college applications.  His central application essay was about his experience living with a family member with OCD.  It offered a glimpse, not always very pretty, of our family life and dynamics, and about watching his brother – his beloved friend – slip beyond his grasp.  Today, Michael is home from college, and he gave me permission to share his words:

Image courtesy SOMMAI at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy SOMMAI at freedigitalphotos.net

Why won’t you just eat the food?! We bought this chicken especially for you! It’s much more expensive than the regular ones at the store you said you won’t eat!

Although my mom buys special food for the house, my brother refuses to believe that it is up to his standards. I feel a need to slip out of the room silently. Sometimes I do leave, sometimes, I do not. It doesn’t really matter whether I do or don’t, because the battle follows me, as my mother continues to yell at the top of her lungs, frustrated and hurt to no end that her own child refuses to eat the food she prepared with the hope that tonight he will accept her efforts and eat, without comment. But the food is never right; it is not acceptable enough, it is not clean enough, and it will never be.

The unspoken hope we all share is a faint little flicker: maybe this night will be different. Maybe we can make it through a dinner as a family, and remain intact. At every family meal, an unwelcome guest pokes his head in and disrupts our otherwise normal lives. My fifteen-year-old brother, Blake, has been plagued with terrible, paralyzing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for as long as I can remember. He calls his OCD “the Kraken” in order to separate it from himself. I call it the uninvited guest that just will not leave.

Not only does this guest break our bread, he breaks our hearts. Although my mom, a PhD anxiety disorder specialist, has educated my dad and me on his disorder, the whole family is still powerless to do anything but watch as my lifelong friend slips farther and farther away, as his stubbornness stops him from getting help. What is written on paper about it is so vastly different from our actual experience with the disorder. I am left with so many questions. Why is my insight so limited, so human that I am able to do nothing to help my brother? Why can’t Blake show the unwanted guest to the door and be the fun-loving, carefree person he is when he is at his best? He is naturally imaginative and whimsical, a perfect improvisation partner, and an excellent Minecrafter. Like the fingertips of Adam and God on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, I see the paradise that could be, were we only to reach a little bit farther, were one more thing how it ought to be. If only I had the power to reach further.

Got-cha, OCD!

YogurtBlake and I are both in the kitchen. I am making my lunch and he is at his perpetual seat on one of the banquette cushions around the kitchen table.  He sits there so often that the cushion is most certainly permanently indented.  I open the refrigerator door to pull out the ingredients for the sandwich I am about to make.  Then, I do a double take.

What looks strange in here?  Ah!  Two open boxes of yogurt tubes.

“Blake,” I begin. “Do you know why there are two boxes of the green yogurt tubes open?”

I feel stupid before the words are even out of my mouth.  Why can’t I just keep myself quiet?  I already know it has something to do with OCD.  Do I have to rub it in?  Or am I calling OCD out?  It doesn’t matter, the words are already out.

“One of them fell…” he begins.  Then he stops.  “I know.”

His “I know” is a signal and an acknowledgement in one.  He is acknowledging that his OCD got him to discard a perfectly good box of yogurt tubes just because they happened to fall out onto some “unsanitary” surface.  The signal is:  Go ahead, Mom.  Put all the yogurt tubes in one box.  I’ll eat them all and defy what OCD originally directed me to do.

I set both boxes of yogurt tubes onto the counter.  One by one, I put the remaining tubes from one box into the other.  Blake half watches, but, really, he’s already moved on. Within a day or so he has already eaten all the remaining yogurt.  No mention of contamination; no washing rituals.  Just eaten with the gusto of a 16-year-old male appetite.

OCD can be tricky.  Sometimes the sufferer and family members have to call its bluff. Got-cha this time, OCD!

It’s No Picnic

Image courtesy jackthumm @ freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy jackthumm @ freedigitalphotos.net

“It’s beautiful outside,” my hubby remarks.  “Let’s eat dinner on the patio.”

“That’s a great idea,” I say.

“I don’t like that idea at all,” Blake pipes up.

It’s an unseasonably nice weekend night (I started to say “warm,” but it’s not warm, really.  We will need jackets outside) and I’m grilling ribs.  They were a request from Michael.  Something to make the evening a little more festive, a break from his piles of schoolwork.  We all welcome the opportunity to eat outdoors. Well, all of us except for Blake.  He’s looking uncomfortable and I can tell he’s trying to figure out how to dodge this event.

“I’ll eat inside,” he says.

“Um…that would be a ‘no.’ ” I say.  “You’re part of a family.  You’ll join us.”

“Then, I’ll sit outside with you, but I’m not eating out there.”

“You can choose not to eat; however, that means you choose not to eat for the night.  You don’t get to start grazing after we all finish.”

Blake already refuses to eat the food I cook.  He prepares his own meals.  I stand firm, though, that we eat together as a family.

“I’m not comfortable with this.  There’s…flies…and other insects out there.”

“Yep, probably.”

He paces around for a while.  He stares out at the patio. Then he disappears.  He comes back a few minutes later.  He’s lugging a card table with him.

“Can someone open the back door for me?” he asks.

“Blake, what’s this about?” my husband asks.

“There’s not enough room for everybody at the table,” he says.

He manages to get the table outside onto the patio.  I watch him set it up.  It’s about ten feet away from the table where the rest of us will eat.

Our Food Is Contaminated

Image courtesy chawalitpix @ freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy chawalitpix @ freedigitalphotos.net

“Blake,” move the table closer to the other one.  “You’re not eating in isolation.  And, by the way, I know that this is about you thinking our food will contaminate yours.  You’re not fooling anyone.”

“I’m trying to figure out a way to be out there with you guys, Mom!  Really!  I’m trying!”

“Come on, Blake.  Let’s get this set up.  I think you can be closer than that,” my hubby says.  He steps outside onto the patio with Blake.

Blake’s best friend is sitting on the sofa just inside the door from where Blake is.  He stays focused on his video game.  He knows the drill with Blake.  He’s watched it for the past seven years, since they were in third grade together.  And he accepts Blake unconditionally.  I thank heaven for him regularly.

When dinner is ready, we all manage to eat together.  Blake and his friend eat at a table tandem to ours.  Blake makes it through his meal without flinching when everyone else’s food is passed.  We have a nice conversation.  Blake even leaves his food uncovered for a time, and we laugh at the fact that he seems suddenly unworried about flies.

He leaves the table, briefly, while we are all eating.  When he returns, he has a can of soda in his hand.  “May I?” he asks.  “This is hard work being out here.  I think I deserve this.” And he opens the can, takes a big swig, sighs a big sigh, and joins his friend back at their table.

“I Just Don’t Trust Myself!”

IMG_2101[1]Many of us who live with a loved one who has OCD have heard this familiar refrain.  It doesn’t really matter what it is about; it could be one not trusting their own eyes that their homework is in their backpack, or whether the knob on the stove is really in the “Off” position.  OCD has a nasty way of making its victims regularly doubt themselves.

“I just don’t trust myself!”  Blake uttered in defeat one morning this week.  This had followed an excruciating morning of trying to choose a simple something – anything – to eat for breakfast.  He just couldn’t do it.  He stared deeply into the refrigerator.  His angst was palpable.  I could see the wheels churning furiously in his brain.  What can I possibly eat that will be acceptable?

Blake has lots of food rules and restrictions, yet he usually finds something to eat in a relatively quick period of time.  On this particular morning, he had just come home the evening before from a two-day visit with his aunt, uncle and cousins.  I’ve written before that Blake views his aunt and uncle’s home as a more ideal place for him.  In many ways, this might be true.  In any case, he came home happier than usual, lighter, more chatty.  The sense of tension that usually accompanies our interactions with him were absent.  It was a pleasure to spend time with him.  All that came to an abrupt halt when the prospect of choosing breakfast foods loomed ahead of him.

Facing the prospect of being late for my own obligation that morning, and frustrated that we were, yet again, dealing with the food dilemma, I told him that I was getting angry.

“Blake, it is important that you eat something,”  I raised my voice.  “It is not healthy for you to go to school without eating all day long.”

And then I said IT.

“This is your OCD interfering with you being able to make good choices for yourself.  It is NOT about making the right or wrong decision.”

By IT, I mean that I actually invoked the words “your OCD.”  I actually pointed out that something was OCD.  We’ve been not pointing out OCD around here for months now – close to a year, actually.  It was part of our agreement with Blake when he refused to participate in treatment any longer.  We wouldn’t point out his OCD.  It was his to deal with.  The consequences, everything, they were all his.  And, yet, in that moment I could not help but point out how it was OCD that was holding him hostage in the refrigerator door – nothing else.

I ended up shoving some sticks of cheese into his hand as we walked out the door.  He ate them, gratefully.

“I don’t understand it,” I said to him as we drove to school. “You go to your aunt and uncle’s home and you eat with abandon.  You don’t question anything.  How do you know that they do it all right?  Maybe there’s something they do that breaks the rules.”

“I don’t know,” he told me.  “When I’m at their house, I let go of responsibility.  They are responsible for the rules.  If something is wrong, it’s not my fault.  When I’m home, I’m responsible.  I don’t trust myself!”

We reflect for a few more minutes on the drive that this is one of OCD’s sinister tricks.  It has you believing that, if you make a mistake, the consequences are dire.  Therefore, you must question your moves over and over, making action and decision-making excruciating.  However, if you give the responsibility over to someone else, and they make a mistake, the blame does not lie with you.  Either way, you have a quandary to face: accept responsibility and struggle (no, agonize) over your decision-making, or give up responsibility, but lose the ability to be a true actor in your own life.

“Blake, you know the only real way out of this is to tell OCD to get out of your business.  You don’t need to be troubled by whether you are making the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision.  We both know that it’s not about that. It’s about making the best decision you can at any given time, even though that may mean living through some uncomfortable feelings.  I know that you can do it, and I believe that you deserve much more than to live like this.”

“Thanks, Mom,” he says.

As he leaves the car, I know better than to think that anything will change.  He will continue to struggle over what is the “right” food to eat, way to pray, clothing to wear, game to play, thing to say – the list goes on.  Watching your child struggle is a struggle.  As a parent, I want to see him be happy.  I want to take away the needless tension that dogs him day after day, yet, I cannot.  It is out of my hands and in his.

Blake Uses the Microwave!

Yes, you read it right!  He did! He did!  (Mom does a Happy Dance 🙂 )

For some time now, Blake has avoided the microwave oven or any other cooking appliance in our home (see The Microwave is Contaminated).

Image courtesy stockimages @ freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy stockimages @ freedigitalphotos.net

This week, however, he made another small move.  One evening, his desire for hot food won out over his concern about what might have been cooked in our microwave previously.  So, quietly, and without circumstance, he took a couple frozen breakfast patties and popped them into that little appliance and melted away the ice.It would have gone completely unnoticed and unrecognized except that I am an absolute nut and I notice these things in my children.  I kept quiet in Blake’s presence, but I was so excited that I told my hubby.  Of course, he went and told Blake that he was very proud of him.  Blake looked at him with a bit of confusion, not understanding what the fuss was over.  And then he went and used it again!

It is few and far between that he uses it still, but I will definitely take that.  Score another one in Blake’s favor.  Too bad, OCD!

OCD Makes a Meal

PizzaIt’s almost dinner time and I’m preparing the evening meal – for everyone except Blake.  I still ache a bit that my son will not eat the food I prepare, but the pain is much less acute now.  It’s more of a dull presence that’s always somewhere in the background.

Blake is getting ready to prepare his own meal.  He steps to the sink and begins to wash his hands.  He pauses for a moment, pulls his hands from the water and begins to examine one of them.  He turns off the water and tears a paper towel from the roll.  He begins to dab a part of his hand with the towel, then applies pressure for a moment, lifts the towel and looks underneath it.

“How did that happen?” he asks himself out loud.

From my spot at the kitchen counter, I stay quietly focused on my task.  I glance over at this whole series, but try not to make it obvious that I’m watching.  Blake’s hand is bleeding as he is washing it and he is wondering why.  In my heart I know why and I wonder if he is really so disconnected from his behavior that he honestly has no idea why his hands are in this condition.

Finally satisfied that the bleeding has stopped, Blake continues his meal preparation.  He pulls a plate out from the cabinet.  He inspects it fully, turning it over to look at the bottom, as well.  It seems to meet with his approval.  He walks to the silverware drawer and remains there for some time.  He picks up one spoon, then another.  The process continues until one seems to work.  I notice him holding the spoon up to the light, doing a thorough check of it.  It passes inspection.

Blake is making pita bread pizza. It’s one of his staples ever since my husband and I put him in charge of making his own meals.  We could not keep up with the ever growing (and changing) list of food rules, nor did we wish to continue to accommodate this behavior.  Thus, we are here now.

The bread is still frozen as he places it on the plate and spoons pizza sauce on top of it.  Our microwave oven is contaminated in his eyes (see earlier article).  Better to eat food that is still frozen than risk contamination.  Next, he begins to grate cheese.  He is struggling with the grater.

“Mom, what’s the problem here?”

I can see that it’s just a matter of positioning, and I reach over to show him.  As my hands near his, I see him flinch.  He pulls the cheese closer to him.  I pull my hands away.  There are no words exchanged, but, in the silence between us, I know that he is afraid that the food I’ve been preparing will contaminate his.  I feel a wave of frustration cresting inside me and I catch my breath, resisting making the remarks I can feel trying to make their way out.  This time, I am successful.

“Place the grater on top of the bowl you’re using.  That’ll hold it in place better.”

He makes the adjustment and adds the cheese to his creation.  As we sit down to eat, my husband notices Blake’s meal – the unmelted cheese, the still partially frozen pita bread.

“Blake, aren’t you going to cook your pizza in the oven?  Or are you going to eat it that way?”

Blake doesn’t answer.  He doesn’t acknowledge his dad at all.  He’s deep in his pre-meal prayer and he won’t break the silence until the first bite of food is chewed and swallowed.  I guess my hubby doesn’t know about this rule because he seems puzzled.  He tries again.

“Blake?  Did you hear me?”

Still nothing.  Now hubby recognizes the ritual.  He engages me in conversation.  Finally, with his routine complete, Blake acknowledges Dad.

“Sorry, Dad.  I couldn’t talk then.  Yes, I’m going to eat it like this.”

My husband knows better than to challenge this or comment any further.  We turn the conversation to our days and to reconnecting with one another.  My husband and I recognize the OCD elephant in the room, and we know that it is up to Blake to decide if partially-thawed, uncooked food and bloody hands are worth it.  We hope that he will decide that they aren’t, and we love him enough to let him come to that conclusion on his own.

“Can’t We Put Him In A Hospital?”

Image courtesy satit_srihin at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy satit_srihin at freedigitalphotos.net

Blake, Michael and I are sitting at the dinner table.  Blake is fishing in his minestrone soup, a dish I prepare that had still been in his “safe” zone.  Although I stopped preparing meals for Blake a little while back, he is still welcome to help himself to something I have prepared if there is enough.

Blake loves my minestrone soup, but tonight, something is wrong.  His body stiffens as it usually does when he realizes there’s a rule “violation” – a moment of panic.  I’ve added something different to the soup this time.  That’s not unusual; it’s a very versatile recipe and Blake has always rolled with the variations.  Sometimes I add some spinach.  Sometimes a bunch of chard.  Tonight, some broccoli seemed in order.  Broccoli, however, apparently is in the “No Zone.”

Michael is watching Blake attempt to salvage his soup.  Blake picks bits of broccoli out of the soup, placing them on the napkin next to his bowl.  He is clearly not happy, but not yet ready to abandon one of his favorite dishes.  I’m churning inside, but I try to focus on my own meal and say nothing.  Michael is getting angry and he cannot keep it under wraps.

“What’s the problem with the broccoli.  Explain this to me.”

“There’s just a problem with it, okay?”

“No.  It’s not okay.  Why do you have to listen to your OCD?  Why can’t you not waste food?  Can’t you break the rules for once?”

“It’s NOT about OCD.”

“Yes, it is!  Can’t you just admit that for once?”

“Hey, guys,” I break in, “can we not do this at dinner?”

“If we don’t do this now, then when CAN we do it?” Michael asks.  “I want to talk about this now.  This is my dinner, too.”

I pick up my bowl and my placemat and I walk into the dining room.  I’m frustrated, too, and I hurt inside because I am once again reminded that I cannot feed my son. I am incapable of even providing his basic daily sustenance.  I don’t want a dinner that’s full of arguing.  I don’t want to sit through yet another meal that is full of fighting and anger.  If Michael is going to insist on this battle, I don’t want to be a part of it.

I can hear them continuing to argue.  Blake defends his position.  Michael tells him why he is wrong.  Finally, I hear one of the boys get up.  I hear the door to the cabinet where the trash is slam, and then I hear the refrigerator door shutting.

“Are you really going to throw that away?” I hear Michael asking angrily.  “Because, if you are, maybe I’d like to eat it?”

And then – silence.

I get back up from the dining room table and make my way back to the kitchen. Michael is still at the table eating.  Blake is sitting on the sofa reading a book.  He apparently never got a bite of food into his mouth.  I sit down and we eat our dinner.  The silence envelops us.

A Walk Will Do Us Some Good

After we clean up, I ask Michael to walk the dogs with me.  Once we are outside, I acknowledge how strong his feelings are.  I understand; I’m full of emotion myself.

“Mom, he wastes perfectly good food.  He’s sick.  Can’t we put him in a hospital somewhere?”

I hear Michael out.  I help him to stay focused on his own feelings instead of having him point the finger at his brother.  Finally, I’m able to point out the futility of bombarding his brother at the dinner table.

“But I am so tired of having to sit with him at the table and watch him refuse to eat the food – or pick at it like there’s something wrong with it.  I’m tired of having my dinner ruined by his OCD!”

“So, is attacking him making your dinner any better?” I ask.

“No,” he admits, sounding defeated.  “I know I’m over the top.  But I want to yell.  I want to get it out.  I want him to hear how this makes me feel.  I want to be angry. And you won’t engage in it.  You leave the table.”

“Michael, you have every right to share how you feel with your brother, but is doing it over your evening meal the best place?  I have no problem with you sharing how you are affected.  I just don’t want to hear it over dinner.  I don’t think it helps.  It just puts him on the defensive.  Don’t you think it kills me to watch him picking over the food I prepare, or throwing it away?  Bringing it up in an accusatory way at that moment accomplishes nothing.”

He Needs to Feel the Consequences

Michael has shared what he needs to.  He is silent for a moment, then he looks at me with a determined expression.

“Mom, he needs to feel the consequences of his behavior.  I won’t argue anymore.  If he has to eat frozen pita and cheese every day for months, then we have to let him do that.”

I agree with Michael.  It’s actually what we’ve been talking about needing to happen for a long time, but Michael needed to actually feel this for himself.   I let him know that his dad and I welcome him to come to us about this any time he needs to vent.  We get it.  This OCD behavior affects us all in some way.

It is not easy to be the sibling of someone with OCD.  It is painful to watch the futility of rituals performed day after day.  It is difficult to see someone you love caught up in something that has no reason to you.  It is probably even more difficult when that sibling denies that there is a problem, leaving virtually nothing to work from.

Michael and Blake have an incredible bond and Michael cannot understand why he is unable to break through and get his brother to care enough to get better.  He feels his brother slipping away from him sometimes and he tries to pull him back. Sometimes, he feels he’s losing his grip.  That’s when the desperation comes out.  On this night, though, I believe he realized that, in order to save his brother, he will have to help himself first – as painful as that may be.