“I Like the Way I Am” – and Why That Might be a Problem

“I understand what you’re saying – and I’m not interested.”

Blake is sitting in a chair in the therapist’s office and he’s frustrated and defensive. The therapist has brought up an issue that Blake has long refused to talk about – his Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Right now he is insisting that there is no problem. He’s happy with things as they are.

“I like the way I am. I’ve been this way my whole life and it doesn’t get in my way,” Blake says.

And, at the present time, this is true – for the most part. In the past, Blake’s OCD

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has GREATLY gotten in his way. As a young child, his fear of contamination prevented him from getting work done because the pencils might have been touched by other children. Handball with the other kids was out of the question. A dip in a lake where people might have urinated?  Never. His moral scrupulosity in middle school left me standing at the after school pick up spot for half an hour after all the other parents and children had left. Blake was in the classroom clearing every tiny piece of trash off the floor in response to his teacher’s request that everyone help pick up the room. Despite her repeatedly telling him he had done enough, he would not stop. Of course there was also the religious scrupulosity in high school. He would get stuck in a loop saying prayers over and over, trying to get them perfect, and this frequently made him late to school.

Fast forward to present day. Blake is eighteen, hoping to attend college next year, and working to combat depression. He still does little things that are OCD behavior, but he wants to leave them alone. It’s not a big deal, he says, that he washes his hands immediately if he touches money. So what if he washes his bed sheets because a piece of tissue that brushed up against the dog lands there? It’s not a problem for him if he repeats a prayer a time or two. And he cannot understand why his therapist is raising it as an issue at all right now.

“I don’t mind that I do things this way. Why are you bringing this up now?”

When You Have a History Like Yours…

“Blake,” says the therapist, “you’re right. The things you do now are not a big deal. Here’s the thing: if all you ever did was the things you do now, it would be fine. When you have a history like yours, though, where OCD has taken over your life, it’s downright scary to act like it’s not an issue.”

“I don’t understand. Are you telling me I’m not fixed?”

“It’s not a matter of fixed or not fixed. It’s about staying healthy. People with OCD who do the best after treatment work hard at staying healthy.”

“I understand what you’re saying – and I’m not interested.”

“Instead of rejecting this outright, I’m suggesting you consider the possible benefits to you of doing things to ensure your OCD doesn’t grow,” says the therapist.

“If you guys thought I was so sick, why didn’t you tell me before now?  Has this all been a ploy to get me to do exposures?” Blake is downright angry.

“Blake, nobody is saying you are so sick. It is concerning to your parents and I that you accept your compulsions as they are and that you aren’t willing to entertain doing what it takes to protect yourself. Your attitude puts you at risk for relapse and we all want you to start college in the best way possible.”

I sit uncomfortably in my seat, taking this all in. We have tiptoed around Blake’s remaining compulsions for some time now. Getting him out of bed and functioning seemed a more pressing goal. However, the OCD has been the proverbial elephant in the room, mostly because it has been so under the radar and because Blake has been insistent on not looking at it. The therapist is right, though. In my experience treating OCD, my patients who stay healthiest remember that they have OCD and do maintenance work to keep things that way. The ones who want to pretend that it never happened or that it can be ignored tend to relapse more frequently. My son is in the camp of wanting to pretend it’s not there. He leaves the therapist’s office furious.

“I’m Tired of Being Weak and Scared”

Blake is argumentative and demanding on the walk to the car. He tells me that he realizes coming to therapy was all about trying to get him to deal with his OCD. I explain that this is definitely a part of it, but not the only reason, which I know he knows. I am concerned, I tell him, about his unwillingness to take a look at how it might benefit him to acknowledge his OCD and do maintenance work.

And then the tears come…

“I’ve been weak and scared my whole life,” he says. “I’m tired of being weak and scared. And now I’m crying, which proves how weak I am!”

At this point we can actually have a truly connected talk. My young man is not weak. He may feel scared, but he is actually one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. He has stood up to OCD demons frequently in the past. It was tough and exhausting work. I understand his reluctance to revisit that, which is maybe why it feels better to him to allow some rituals to hang around. At the same time, it is important that he understand what risk he might be putting himself at if he maintains this approach. This, I believe, will be his work in the weeks and months to come.


Blake Decides to Increase His Medication

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The big news this week is that Blake has decided to increase his SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) dosage. Seriously, it’s BIG news. I know. I know. For many on these medications, which tend to be the first line of defense in terms of medication for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), this is just a normal occurrence. Sometimes you go up in dosage. Some times you go down. That’s not the case for Blake.

Blake has been on the same dose of his SSRI since he was thirteen years old (13). He’s eighteen(18) now, in case you don’t know. That’s five years on the same dose. That’s more than two years of feeling he’d be better off dead. More than two years of people begging him to increase his dosage. His psychiatrist has begged, his pediatrician has begged him, his father and I have begged him. His therapist has encouraged him and challenged his reasoning on why he won’t increase his dosage.

“I don’t like being on medication,” says Blake. “It doesn’t help me.”

“How do you know it doesn’t help?” asks the therapist. “Maybe you’re not on a therapeutic dosage for you.”

“It doesn’t help. I don’t want to change it. It won’t help me.”

“How do you know if you haven’t tried?”

“I just don’t want to.”

Last week, the conversation came up again.

“Okay, I’ll give it a try,” he says, with little fanfare or need for cajoling.

He goes home and calls his psychiatrist and has begun a higher dose. I don’t know if it will make a difference at all in his major depression or in his OCD, but it is a big move for Blake to even try. So far, he is tolerating the increase well; however it has only been two days.

In other news, his therapist asked him this week how his week was. He’d been wondering how depressed Blake had felt in the past week.

“It’s been a good week,” remarks Blake. I haven’t heard him say that in – well, I can’t recall how long.

“So, it was a good week not to get hit by a bus?” asks his therapist.

“It was definitely a good week not to get hit by a bus.”

And Blake smiles.


I Just Wash More Than Other People

We pull into the parking lot and get out of the car. I notice that I’ve parked kind of crooked, so I climb back in, start the car up again, and straighten it out. Blake raises a hand to signal that I’m okay now. I notice the glove. It’s stretched out and missing the tip of the thumb where Blake has pulled a thread and the glove has begun to unravel.

As I climb out of the car and we make our way to the therapist’s office, I notice that both gloves are misshapen. The wrists sit limply against Blake’s skin, like they’ve been tugged at too many times and any elasticity is long gone.  Blake is dressed in a short sleeve t-shirt and cold weather gloves. I think he stands out in this appearance, particularly with his thumb halfway protruding from the shredded threads. I don’t say anything. I know better.

I gave these gloves to Blake a few winters ago. His hands get especially chapped and painful for a few months each year. He slathers them in petroleum jelly at night and pulls the gloves on to keep the goop from getting all over everything else. Today he’s wearing them out of the house; his hands must feel extra painful if he’s wearing the gloves during the daytime.

I Just Wash More Than Other People

As we sit in the therapist’s waiting room, I am certain that The Doc is going to comment on the gloves. Anyone who has ever dealt with OCD treatment knows that embracing uncertainty is paramount, but there are few things I can feel more confidently certain about than the therapist honing in on these gloves. In a few moments, my prediction is confirmed. The Doc steps out into the waiting room and, almost immediately notices Blake’s gloved hands. He steps closer to Blake.

“What’s this?” he asks.

“Oh,” says Blake casually, “my hands get really chapped and sore this time of year.”

“Why is that?” the therapist wonders.

“I don’t know. It’s just the weather.”

“My hands don’t do that.” He holds out his own hands.

Blake removes his gloves and displays them for us. They are red and raw. It’s obvious they are painful.

“Have you been washing a lot?”

“My hands have always gotten like this in the winter.”

“How long has that been going on?” asks The Doc.

“Always,” says Blake.

Indeed, I don’t think Blake can remember a winter where his hands weren’t painful, raw, or bleeding. His hand washing at age six was my first big sign that he had OCD. It was something I’d hoped would go away. Despite education and treatment, it is still here, twelve years later. Blake knows nothing but painful winter hands.

“Maybe you’re washing too much,” suggests the therapist.

“It’s not that,” Blake says. “I just wash more than other people, that’s all, but that’s not why. The weather just does this to my hands.”

“You know,” suggests the therapist, thoughtfully, “you could try an experiment. You could decrease or stop washing and see what happens. Then you’d know if it’s the weather or the washing.”

“I don’t want to. That’s disgusting.”

To Purchase New Gloves or Not

After therapy, as we drive home, I note to Blake that his gloves have seen better days. It’s time to toss this pair out.

“But they’re the only pair I have,” he laments. “Do they really look that bad?”

“Yes, they do.”

Blake reluctantly tosses his gloves in a trash can later that day and sadly wonders what he will do to protect his hands. I ponder whether I should buy him a new pair. My inclination is to purchase them (mind you, we live somewhere where the daytime weather rarely gets below the 50’s Fahrenheit), but I wonder whether I’m accommodating his hand washing behavior if I do. He hasn’t asked for new gloves, nor has he said anything about going to purchase them himself. For now, I’m waiting.

I Matter, Too

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“More importantly, how are you doing?”

This question from Blake’s therapist takes me by surprise and throws me off balance for a moment. Blake has just walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him. Nature calling. I’m just finishing paying for the session, thinking I’m about to walk out the door, too. The therapist isn’t quite done yet.

“What do you think?” he asks, and then he points out, “He’s talking about serious stuff now.”

He’s correct. Blake only started coming to therapy when he wanted to take some control of the interventions his therapist, his dad, and I were implementing. He was angry. He came to bargain. In recent sessions, he’s talked about depression, his dislike for himself – just the mere concept of “Blake,” about his disconnection from the world. Today was no exception and, as has begun to be our routine, I sat like a fly on the wall watching the interaction between Blake and The Doc, wondering what I was doing in there. Although the therapist in me is fascinated by observing what’s going on.

It’s Not About Me, Right?

We’ve been seeing this therapist in hopes that our 18-year-old can overcome his OCD and severe depression and ready himself to live in the world.  So I just didn’t expect it when the therapist asked about me.

“I have good days and not so good days,” I answer.

“Well that’s a pretty non-specific answer,” the therapist says with a smile.

“I worry about him,” I say, “but I’m learning patience.”

The truth is, I’m kind of disconnected about how I am. I’ve been so mesmerized by the therapy session, I lost myself a bit. It’s only later in the day, as I ponder the question, “More importantly, how are you doing?” that I think over my frustration at watching my son climb back into bed multiple times each morning. It’s later that I recall the heartbreak at hearing my son talk about how life isn’t worth the good moments when he considers how awful the bad moments are. It’s later that I remember part of me sinking inside as I watch my son wash his hands immediately after handling money or tiptoeing around areas that the dogs might have contaminated.

At the same time, I’m touched by The Doc’s inquiry. As much as my son is suffering, family members are, themselves, affected when their loved one has OCD, depression, or other mental illnesses. If we aren’t directly involved in rituals, or trying to get them out of bed, we are worrying about them. So I’m appreciative of this simple act of kindness and caring. It resonates in me. It reminds me that we family members have to remember to care for ourselves in the face of our loved ones’ struggles. We have to be mindful of our own well-being. If we aren’t, we can become impatient, bitter, angry – basically of little use in this war called mental illness.

So, thank you, kind therapist, for reminding me that I matter, too. It opened something up inside of me and I feel just a little more alive and grounded. I feel less stuck in the mess with my son, and more like myself. And this morning, when I allowed myself to take a long hike in the nearby mountains, I was just a little more open to taking in the scenery and appreciating it, instead of having the specter of depression and OCD hanging over me. Yes, I matter, too.

So Lonely

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“I’m just so lonely,” says the young adult in front of me, the despair apparent as the words sit in the air between us.

I’m sitting in the living room of my patient’s family home during one of my recent treatment visits. This past week has been one with slips backward and, to one so new to OCD treatment, they are demoralizing. OCD has taken such a huge toll on this young person’s life that friends and social activities have become a distant memory. OCD demands almost every waking hour and the rituals only end when sleep wins out in its urgency.

I’ve stopped doing exposures at this point in our session – I’m here to do exposure and response prevention (ERP – if you don’t know what this is, you can read about it by clicking HERE) work. My patient wants to do more, wants to move on and get better as fast as possible, but I realize it’s time to step back, time to help paint a clearer picture of what to expect. OCD treatment is not a race to the finish. It is about learning new healthier ways of managing discomfort. In this young person’s case, it is about rebuilding a life worth living – and that takes time and patience.

So, I’ve stopped the session. I’ve changed course. Sometimes OCD recovery is not all about exposures. Sometimes it’s about caring for the whole person and finding something to live for in the moment. Why do the hard work of beating OCD when there’s not something keeping one moving forward right now?

We sit on the sofa. We explore what’s going on. We connect. We realize my patient misses other people, misses being involved with something that is connected to the bigger picture. We brainstorm. We find a regular activity that is doable and that will provide uplifting moments. We look at when the next time there’s an activity available. We arrange for transportation and a companion to go with. For the first time in this hour, my patient smiles.

I get ready to leave and, suddenly, the twenty-something is standing in front of me, apologetic that we didn’t do more exposures today and didn’t get further in treatment. I gently and optimistically adjust that perception. We DID get further in treatment today. We addressed something that needed to be addressed. I encourage my patient to be kind to themself and I note, on the way out the door, that I will look forward to their renewed energy the next time we meet.

Showdown and Shooting

Brand new baby box turtles

I found last week a difficult week to post. Blake and I had some serious run-ins, and our community was greatly affected by the massacre in Las Vegas. My attention was on home and community and I’m just now feeling like I can give a bit of attention to my blog.

On the Homefront

Blake continues to attend therapy, yet he is really not completely on board. I heard last week that the hubby and I “smother” him – his term. It’s probably true.

“You and so many others keep trying to help me. It’s like life rings are getting thrown at me from so many directions. I’m overwhelmed. And I almost feel like drowning just to get you to leave me alone!” he told me one evening.

I told him I appreciated knowing that he feels smothered by us.

“I feel like I’ve never done anything on my own. I wish you guys would throw me out so I’d be on the street and prove that I can make it.”

“I get it that you want to prove that you can make it, Blake. It just makes me wonder, does the only way you’ll be able to take charge of your own life and make of it what you want have to involve living on the street? Or can it happen with a roof over your head and food to eat?”

When our therapist heard Blake’s reasoning for continuing to resist getting better, he commented, “I guess you’ve got a lot of evidence to prove that continuing to drown does not get people to back off.”

Then he kicked the hubby and I out of the therapy office and met with Blake alone – which was actually quite nice, oddly enough.

In the Community

While Blake was begging for us to leave him alone, the community came calling. Thirty-six hours after the Las Vegas shooting, a colleague reached out. At least ten members of our community had been shot. Many more had been at the Route 91 festival.

“Can you let me know of any Las Vegas debriefing sessions in {our community}? I have one client who was there…another coming in. You are so connected. I know you may hear of something.”

Up until that point, I’d felt helpless. As a psychologist, I know the effects of an event such as this, but I didn’t know how I could help. Suddenly, I knew. I contacted our local community mental health center, a place I used to work and serve on the board of directors. I asked whether they would be offering any community support events. Two days later, I found myself on a panel discussing ways to cope, how to help our children, what we might expect in the days and weeks ahead.

The next thing I knew, I was publicizing support events to our local mental health community, listening to survivors’ stories, showing up on the local news, and connecting those with the resources to those who needed it. Someone added me to a Facebook group for survivors and helpers. There are nearly 350 people in that group. How did so many of our community members happen to be at this event? It felt like a mission. I became consumed with helping.

…And then I kind of crashed. I don’t know if it was compassion fatigue, but I needed to disengage for a bit from the tension in the house and the craziness in the world.

New Life

Just when I felt at my lowest, nature sent me a gift. I stepped into our backyard just before a meeting and was greeted by two, silver-dollar sized baby box turtles. For a moment, my heart raced with joy. Three months ago, I watched in amazement as my thirty-something-year-old turtle laid a clutch of eggs and buried them in her enclosure. Now, two hatchlings sat in the yard, covered in dirt – a beautiful reminder of how life renews itself. A chance for me to step back and breathe.

OCD and the Importance of Specialists

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The voice on the other end of the line is searching for an answer. She knows there is another way. There has to be. I’m speaking to a woman. I don’t know her age. I only know that she’s self-diagnosed with OCD and she is looking for help. Her plea to me draws me in; this is what I’m passionate about: helping people with OCD find help and get better. At the same time, the call leaves me furious. Something inside of me demands, “Something must be done about this!

A little background. I am the parent of a young adult with OCD. I am also a clinical psychologist. Several years after my son’s OCD diagnosis and successful treatment, I sought out training and began to specialize in the treatment of OCD. I did not want other families to go through what we did. Heck, I was a psychologist and I had had no clue about OCD. I’d been lucky to find help through my psychology connections. How were people without a psychology background to know the “what’s,” “why’s,” and “how’s” of OCD?

The Woman on the Line

The woman I’m speaking to is resourceful. She’s figured out that there’s a name for the disturbing thoughts that go through her mind, and for the anxiety and discomfort created by them. It’s called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She is troubled by fears that she will harm herself in some way. She does not wish to harm herself. The thoughts terrify her. She wants to learn to deal with them in a better way, rather than spending great amounts of time ruminating. What she describes to me sounds a great deal like a theme that the OCD community has dubbed “Harm OCD.” It’s a fairly common OCD theme.

“I wanted to use my health insurance,” she tells me. “I went to see a therapist who wasn’t an OCD specialist, but he seemed professional enough.”

What followed was anything but a pleasant experience. When she told the therapist that she believed she had OCD and that her obsessions centered around thoughts of harming herself, the therapist told her that there was no such thing as the disorder she was talking about. His reasoning? He had never heard of it.

He told me I was suicidal and that the thoughts were just fragmented pieces of myself that I’d disowned,” she lamented.

“Let me guess,” I said. “The thoughts and the anxiety only got worse then.”

“Yes!” she responded with fervor.

“This is a frequent problem we see in the OCD community when people see therapists who are not specialists in treating OCD.”

Our talk continued with me providing resources, referrals, and information on finding a specialist to work with her. I trust that she will get into proper treatment and get the help she needs.

The Uninformed Psychology Community

Being immersed in the OCD community, I sometimes forget that the psychology and psychiatry community as a whole can be misinformed about OCD. Although I have never met this woman to be able to diagnose her, nor was I present to witness what happened in the consultation room, what she describes matches what many with OCD describe on their road to finding diagnosis and treatment. Not all mental health professionals are trained to diagnose or treat OCD. When a person has OCD, it is a specialist they must see.

People trust therapists and psychiatrists to be able to identify what is wrong and to be able to treat them. If their diagnosis is OCD, and if it manifests in a way that does not reflect what tends to be shown in the media, the diagnosis can be missed. What’s more, the treatment provided can end up making things even worse, as this woman shared. When she noted that she thought she had harm OCD and was told that that did not exist, it made her doubt and despair even greater.

What frustrates me is when mental health professionals do not admit that OCD is not their specialty, or when they are not willing to listen to the person in the room with them. A quick search on Google for “harm OCD” led me to over 700,000 results in less than a second. A search for “OCD suicidal obsessions” leads to nearly 300,000 results (my friend, Janet, at OCDtalk wrote an article on the subject last year).

Getting Help

The woman I spoke with was informed. She had done her research and she knew what she likely had. It was her reluctance to go outside of her insurance (or, perhaps better, to stand up to her insurance provider and ask that they approve her seeing an OCD specialist since there are none on her panel nearby) that led her to not getting the appropriate treatment. It’s not that the therapist she saw is not a talented professional; they just were not likely informed about OCD.

If you believe that you, or a loved one, have OCD, seek out a specialist. The International OCD Foundation has published a great article called, “How to Find the Right Therapist.” Both the International OCD Foundation and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America have features to help consumers find therapists. Starting with a specialist can help an OCD sufferer avoid wasted time spent in treatment that does not help. If there are no specialists in your area who take your insurance, you still have options. Perhaps there is a therapist on your insurance who is out of your immediate area, but provides therapy via secure video (they must be licensed in your state and your insurance company may or may not authorize this kind of treatment). Perhaps your insurance company can make an exception and authorize treatment outside of network. Additionally, if finances are an issue, do not be afraid to ask providers if they can provide you therapy at a reduced fee you can afford. There are many who will.

Above all, this is your health and your life. Getting the appropriate treatment is important. Do not stay in a treatment situation that feels inappropriate, or with a mental health professional who does not understand OCD, or who will not look at valid articles you point them to on the subject. OCD is treatable – and getting the right treatment is key to recovery.