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.

*Good Morning!

*On the eve of the annual conference of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF), which is taking place in Chicago, I am re-posting this entry from a while back. OCD is a serious disorder that can profoundly affect lives. Knowledge and treatment can make a world of difference.

This is a piece I wrote for myself about three and a half years ago – before I started writing this blog.  It reflects the feelings I felt at seeing my son stuck in an OCD ritual, and my struggles with a public that often does not understand that OCD can wreak havoc on lives. 

Image courtesy scottchan@freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy scottchan@freedigitalphotos.net

“Good morning!” I say in my most cheery voice as I open the car door and a load of kids tumbles out. I’m working at morning valet at my son’s school, a volunteer position I’ve helped with for the past four years. “Have a great day!” I wish them as they enter school for the day. Across the parking lot, I catch sight of my own son, standing by my car.   I can make out the brown curls on the top of his head, which is bowed in prayer. I check my watch – 20 minutes have passed since he began this process. Twenty minutes on a prayer that reasonably ought to take less than five. I can see him repeating the same motions he’s done over and over already. I even think I can see him mouthing the same words.

Enough already,” I think to myself and begin to walk in his direction.

“Be right back,” I tell my fellow volunteers as I leave my post. When I get to him, he doesn’t acknowledge me. He’s deeply, fervently in prayer.

Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net

“Hon,” I ask, “can I help in some way?”

Absolutely no reply. His lips move at rapid-fire pace and he’s planted in place. I put my hand on his shoulder.

“It’s time to go in to school now,” I tell him.

“Mom! I was almost finished! Now I have to start it all over!”

“Honey, you’ve been saying the same prayer over and over for the last 20 minutes. It’s enough. Go join your friends before school starts.”

“I have NOT been saying it over and over. I keep messing up or skipping parts so I have to start again and get it right. I almost had it this time and you interrupted.”

“I don’t think the point is to get it perfectly right. I think it’s about what’s in your heart. You-know-who is just trying to trick you.”

I say this last part in reference to his OCD, which we’ve known he’s had since he was 7. He is nearly 14 now.

“Really? Do you think so?” he says sounding just a little bit hopeful.

“You know that’s the truth. Come on, you can fight this.”

“No, no, no. I have to get it right,” he says. “Just let me do what I have to do.”

“Come on, honey. Stop and go to class.”

“Mom!!!”

“Fine! It’s your OCD. You handle it the way you see fit.”

I throw my arms up in exasperation as I walk back to the waiting line of cars. He goes back to his prayers, trying to finish before he is tardy to class. My heart is heavy as I watch him being caught up in this cycle…trying to get it just perfect and falling short over and over again. I want to make this better for him, want him to be able to go hang with his buddies who are all together before school begins, but I am just an interruption to a process he feels he must go through.

Not long ago I saw a segment of an interview of Howie Mandel by Larry King. Larry was asking Howie about his OCD. At one point Larry looked at Howie and asked, “It’s not a severe mental illness, is it? I mean, it’s not depression.” Larry went on to talk about how we all have a little OCD and how he has all his vitamins and medicine lined up in a certain order and takes them in that order. Howie did his best to explain how OCD can severely impact someone’s life, but I never really felt that the point hit home.

I think Larry’s question reflects what we see in the media about OCD. People with OCD are portrayed as quirky, silly, and super organized. Maybe they are controlling and bothersome. What we miss seeing is the anguish and the suffering. We do not understand how OCD can hold an individual – and entire families – hostage to it. If we can ask the question, “It’s not a severe mental illness, is it?” then we have never witnessed a child with hands so bloody and oozing from over-washing that they wince with pain if anything brushes against them. We have not had a family hike interrupted by the un-ending screams of a child who is certain he is about to die because there may have been a Lyme disease carrying tick on the shrub that brushed up against him. We have never had a sheriff’s deputy come over to us in alarm because our child is screaming so horrifically that they sound like they are being torn limb from limb. We have never had a family meal interrupted over and over because our teenage son has to stop eating to repeat a ritual before he can go on eating. And we have never seen a 13-year-old boy reduced to an exhausted crumpled mass in his mother’s arms after fighting off the demon in his own mind.

“It’s not a severe mental illness, is it?”

Yes, sadly, OCD is a severe mental illness, and it attacks the things that are most precious to a person.   People think our family must be very religious because they see our son in prayer all the time. What they do not realize is that the religion our son practices bears little resemblance to any religion we practice in the home – or that anyone practices anywhere for that matter. His practices are born out of a fear that OCD gives him – a fear that something awful will happen if he doesn’t get things just right. What used to be a source of enjoyment, connection and deep meaning for him – and for us all – has become a source of endless doubt and a cycle of torturous repetition that has long lost its original intent.

Yes, there is treatment. There are terrific, highly effective treatments – and my son is in treatment now. He has beaten OCD to a pulp in the past. With this relapse, he is a teenager, in the throes of puberty and determined to be independent of what Mom and Dad want for him. So we wait, with hope that the day will come that he will decide that he loves himself more than he loves fighting us. We wait for the day that he turns his strong-willed nature against the OCD that currently holds him in its grasp and moves toward a freer life. But it’s going to be one heck of a war when it comes because, yes, OCD can be severe – and it grows in strength over time. In the meantime, our family will be here, honing our skills so that we can back this boy up when he is ready to fight.

For more information and to find help, visit the website of the International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/

Good Morning!

I found this piece of writing the other day.  It is something I wrote for myself about two years ago – before I started writing this blog.  It reflects the feelings I felt at seeing my son stuck in an OCD ritual, and my struggles with a public who often does not understand that OCD can wreak havoc on lives. 

Image courtesy scottchan@freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy scottchan@freedigitalphotos.net

“Good morning!” I say in my most cheery voice as I open the car door and a load of kids tumbles out. I’m working at morning valet at my son’s school, a volunteer position I’ve helped with for the past four years. “Have a great day!” I wish them as they enter school for the day. Across the parking lot, I catch sight of my own son, standing by my car.   I can make out the brown curls on the top of his head, which is bowed in prayer. I check my watch – 20 minutes have passed since he began this process. Twenty minutes on a prayer that reasonably ought to take less than five. I can see him repeating the same motions he’s done over and over already. I even think I can see him mouthing the same words.

Enough already,” I think to myself and begin to walk in his direction.

“Be right back,” I tell my fellow volunteers as I leave my post. When I get to him, he doesn’t acknowledge me. He’s deeply, fervently in prayer.

Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net

“Hon,” I ask, “can I help in some way?”

Absolutely no reply. His lips move at rapid-fire pace and he’s planted in place. I put my hand on his shoulder.

“It’s time to go in to school now,” I tell him.

“Mom! I was almost finished! Now I have to start it all over!”

“Honey, you’ve been saying the same prayer over and over for the last 20 minutes. It’s enough. Go join your friends before school starts.”

“I have NOT been saying it over and over. I keep messing up or skipping parts so I have to start again and get it right. I almost had it this time and you interrupted.”

“I don’t think the point is to get it perfectly right. I think it’s about what’s in your heart. You-know-who is just trying to trick you.”

I say this last part in reference to his OCD, which we’ve known he’s had since he was 7. He is nearly 14 now.

“Really? Do you think so?” he says sounding just a little bit hopeful.

“You know that’s the truth. Come on, you can fight this.”

“No, no, no. I have to get it right,” he says. “Just let me do what I have to do.”

“Come on, honey. Stop and go to class.”

“Mom!!!”

“Fine! It’s your OCD. You handle it the way you see fit.”

I throw my arms up in exasperation as I walk back to the waiting line of cars. He goes back to his prayers, trying to finish before he is tardy to class. My heart is heavy as I watch him being caught up in this cycle…trying to get it just perfect and falling short over and over again. I want to make this better for him, want him to be able to go hang with his buddies who are all together before school begins, but I am just an interruption to a process he feels he must go through.

Not long ago I saw a segment of an interview of Howie Mandel by Larry King. Larry was asking Howie about his OCD. At one point Larry looked at Howie and asked, “It’s not a severe mental illness, is it? I mean, it’s not depression.” Larry went on to talk about how we all have a little OCD and how he has all his vitamins and medicine lined up in a certain order and takes them in that order. Howie did his best to explain how OCD can severely impact someone’s life, but I never really felt that the point hit home.

I think Larry’s question reflects what we see in the media about OCD. People with OCD are portrayed as quirky, silly, and super organized. Maybe they are controlling and bothersome. What we miss seeing is the anguish and the suffering. We do not understand how OCD can hold an individual – and entire families – hostage to it. If we can ask the question, “It’s not a severe mental illness, is it?” then we have never witnessed a child with hands so bloody and oozing from over-washing that they wince with pain if anything brushes against them. We have not had a family hike interrupted by the un-ending screams of a child who is certain he is about to die because there may have been a Lyme disease carrying tick on the shrub that brushed up against him. We have never had a sheriff’s deputy come over to us in alarm because our child is screaming so horrifically that they sound like they are being torn limb from limb. We have never had a family meal interrupted over and over because our teenage son has to stop eating to repeat a ritual before he can go on eating. And we have never seen a 13-year-old boy reduced to an exhausted crumpled mass in his mother’s arms after fighting off the demon in his own mind.

“It’s not a severe mental illness, is it?”

Yes, sadly, OCD is a severe mental illness, and it attacks the things that are most precious to a person.   People think our family must be very religious because they see our son in prayer all the time. What they do not realize is that the religion our son practices bears little resemblance to any religion we practice in the home – or that anyone practices anywhere for that matter. His practices are born out of a fear that OCD gives him – a fear that something awful will happen if he doesn’t get things just right. What used to be a source of enjoyment, connection and deep meaning for him – and for us all – has become a source of endless doubt and a cycle of torturous repetition that has long lost its original intent.

Yes, there is treatment. There are terrific, highly effective treatments – and my son is in treatment now. He has beaten OCD to a pulp in the past. With this relapse, he is a teenager, in the throes of puberty and determined to be independent of what Mom and Dad want for him. So we wait, with hope that the day will come that he will decide that he loves himself more than he loves fighting us. We wait for the day that he turns his strong-willed nature against the OCD that currently holds him in its grasp and moves toward a freer life. But it’s going to be one heck of a war when it comes because, yes, OCD can be severe – and it grows in strength over time. In the meantime, our family will be here, honing our skills so that we can back this boy up when he is ready to fight.

OCD Affects School

Image courtesy Chris Sharp at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy Chris Sharp at freedigitalphotos.net

For a very long time, Blake has been able to function in school without his OCD being noticed.  He’s in the ninth grade now, and I believe that most of his teachers from 6th grade on have been surprised to learn that he has OCD.  That is due, in good part, to Blake having done a terrific job in battling the disorder before then.  Even as symptoms started to creep back in, they mostly occurred outside of school.

Then came last summer, when Blake’s fighting over treatment and constant insistence that everyone else had a problem (not him), led my husband, myself, and his treatment team agree to stop treatment.  If he was going to fight, refuse and point at others, perhaps he should get what he was asking for – to manage his own life and his own OCD.  Thus began our current chapter, where it is up to Blake to ask for help if he wants it.  So far, he wants none, and his OCD goes along on its path, undisturbed by others.

Yesterday, however, I received an e-mail from the resource specialist at Blake’s school.  He was following up on a concern from the math teacher.  Blake has been leaving class frequently to wash his hands.  It has been so noticeable to the teacher that he reached out to the resource specialist for help, even texting him for assistance in the middle of class yesterday.  Blake was repeatedly leaving the room and the teacher did not know what to do.

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The Resource Specialist Responds

The resource specialist responded right away, checking in with Blake to see if something was up with math.  That’s when he saw the state Blake’s hands are in – chapped, scabbed, raw and oozing in places – and he asked about that, as well.  Blake noted that nothing was wrong with math at all, and his hands, well he was just washing them a lot because they are dry.  So the resource specialist responded as any caring adult would.  He advised Blake that hand washing would only make his hands worse, and he suggested Blake get a good bottle of lotion and carry it with him at school.  Blake had reasons why this was not a good idea for him.  The resource specialist let Blake know he is there for him.  And then he went to his office and wrote to me to ask my thoughts.

My thoughts…..

One of the things I love about Blake’s school is that the staff care about each student as an individual and that they are thoughtful about how to approach a student’s issues.I called the resource specialist.  He picked up right away.  We talked for a while about what’s going on at school, and about what is happening at home.

I let him know that Blake was not being honest with him.  He talks several times a week about how he is struggling in math.  Of course it is stressing him out.  We’ve discussed ways he can get assistance with the areas he is struggling with.  We’ve even talked about going to the resource specialist.  I also explained that Blake does not see his OCD as a problem for him.  We’ve been waiting for him to feel the consequences of not taking care of himself.  Maybe this situation was an opportunity for him to begin to feel the repercussions.

A Plan Is Born

“Is his math performance suffering?” I asked.

“I surveyed the staff and he’s doing stellar in his classes, except math. Yes, it is affecting his performance.”

“I’m thinking maybe it’s time for him to hear that his behavior is having consequences for school.  If he hears it from me, or if I attend a meeting, he’s likely to put it all on me.  I think maybe he needs to hear it from you and Mr. C. (the math teacher).”

We talked about it for a bit and decided that the resource specialist and the math teacher will call Blake in for a meeting.  They will simply tell him that his leaving the class as much as he is, is negatively affecting his grade in class.  They will work with him to problem solve ways he can decrease the number of times he leaves class, and eventually eliminate this behavior altogether.  If Blake works with them, they will work with him.  If he is unwilling to change his behavior, math will continue to suffer and his grade will reflect that.

“I know you well enough to trust you guys will handle this with kindness and care,” I tell the resource specialist.

“We will,” he tells me.

“Just drop me a note or call me to give me a ‘heads up’ that this meeting has occurred.”

So, I wait to hear when the meeting happens and to observe what will come of it.  I think it is positive that Blake will finally be hearing from others who are not members of his family that his OCD is creating some issues.  I also think that it is positive that he will be challenged to address the issue.  Whether he decides to proceed positively or whether he disregards the meeting, it will be one more piece of information stacking up to demonstrate that something may need to change.  I’m hoping for the day when enough information piles up and sends Blake moving toward a life less bound by OCD’s grasp.

Giving Thanks for Teachers Who Make a Difference

Image courtesy of photomyheart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photomyheart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m parked in front of Blake’s high school waiting for the kids to be dismissed and I’m talking on my phone to a friend whose son just finished military boot camp.  She is jubilant about how well he is doing.  As we talk, most of the kids stream out of school.  I haven’t seen Blake yet, which is working out well, since my friend has so much to share. Finally, I see him head out of the building and toward the car.  As he gets closer, I can see that his face is blotchy red from crying.  I wait for my friend to pause for a breath in her story and I abruptly tell her that I’ve got to go.

“Hi Blake.  What’s going on, sweetheart?  You look like you’ve been crying.”

“I stayed after to talk to Mr. S,” he says.

A silent alarm goes off in my brain.  Mr. S is the history teacher I mentioned in my post “OCD and Misdiagnosis.”  He’s the one who thought Blake might be autistic.  I try not to sound overly worried.

“Oh, what about?” I ask.

“I finally went to him to talk about the problems I’ve been having with my friends.”

I wonder what the teacher’s response was.  I have mentioned before that Blake is struggling socially at school.  To make matters worse, the guys who are supposed to be his friends have been telling him to “shut up” or to “go away,” and they’ve been talking in front of him about a laser tag birthday party they are all going to that he was clearly not invited to.  To be fair to these kids, it could be that they are just being teenage boys.  To Blake, however, it makes no sense to tell someone who is your friend to “shut up,” even if it’s just in jest, and especially if that person keeps asking you to stop.

“So, what did he say?” I ask him.

“He said he’s going to help me.”

“So, how come you were crying?  Did he say something that made you cry?  Did he say something that made you feel at fault for what’s going on?”  The Momma Bear in me is showing.  I don’t want anybody saying anything hurtful to my son.

“I really want to keep it just between me and Mr. S for right now, Mom.  What he said…it made me feel supported.”

The tears stream down his face as he says this to me and I realize that my son has felt touched by this teacher’s show of support for him.  He feels accepted.

Dr. Tamar Chansky, author of “Freeing Your Child From Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” says, “It takes just one understanding teacher to make it
possible for a child struggling with OCD to feel understood. That sense of
safety and acceptance can make the difference between a child attending and
thriving at school, or not.”

While Blake’s particular issue may not have directly been about OCD, OCD is part of the reason he struggles socially. It makes him distracted and sometimes, when he’s caught up in a ritual, it makes him look like the weird kid.

In keeping with the November and Thanksgiving spirit, I give thanks for Mr. S.  Thank you, Mr. S, for being one of those understanding teachers.  You made a difference for my boy, and I’m sure you make a difference for many more.