Friday, October 17, 2008


When I was a teenager, I developed a galloping case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Aside from the raging, slobbering, thrashing hormones that turn teenage girls into, depending on the day, either the Tasmanian Devil or a puddle of sobbing insecurity, there were other things happening in my life that I had no control of and that, in effect, turned my world upside down. (wow, that was the longest sentence ever, which I guess apropos when discussing puberty.)

It started simply enough: a need to have the things on my dresser arranged "just so", straightening all the shoes in the house, a little "tapping" here and there. Tapping, by the way, involves, well, tapping your fingertips on certain surfaces as you walk by; for me it was the kitchen counter. So as I'd walk through the kitchen I would just tap the fingers of my right hand on the counter FOUR times. Had to be four. Then my best friend Kim and I discovered that we both counted the number of steps we took across a room; it had to be an even number or you had to go back and do it again. I remember thinking, specifically, "If I tap this counter four times, Joel will notice me tomorrow" about a blond surfer-boy that both Kim and I had a gigantic crush on. Did it work? No. But that just made me try harder.

It was strange, yes, but I don't remember it causing me much anxiety or embarrassment. I'm not sure my parents even noticed it until, when my dad was killed, my OCD got even more pronounced. The strangest ritual, and the one that ultimately caused my mother to question my odd behavoir, was what is now referred to in my family as "That Towel Thing". See, I would get out of the shower and oh-so-casually drop my towel on the bathroom floor....but then I couldn't stand the edges showing, so I'd tuck the edges all under so that the towel resembled a little, round mushroom. And then I'd leave it there, as if I were a normal and totally carefree teenager who couldn't be bothered with picking up a towel. I also remember, in high-school, that I couldn't stand any sort of dirt or paper or ANYTHING on the floor of my beloved Subaru Brat. My friend Paige used to tease me mercilessly because, before I would get out of the car, I'd have to pick up any stray straw-wrapper, clump of mud or lint from the carpet. David, if you are reading this, you will now understand why, for me, having a dirty car is actually a triumph of sorts.

I didn't know the name of what I had; hell, I didn't even know there WAS a name for what I had other than just "strange". I just gradually outgrew the belief that I could control my life or my environment; I finally realized that bad things and good things and confusing things and unexplainable things were going to happen to me regardless of whether I performed these rituals or not. Years later, in college, I read about OCD and said "YES! That was it! That's what was going on."

As Anna has gotten older and significant changes have occurred in her life, I have watched her struggle with various compulsive behaviors: in kindergarten it was compulsive hand-washing. Her hands got so dry that they cracked and bled. Then in first grade it was some hand-washing, but mostly the constant need to go potty. I took her to her pediatrician to see if she had a bladder infection or something that was causing this feeling; she didn't. Both of those times the behavior eventually went away and I sort of forgot about it.

Then this year, as soon as she started second grade, it started up again, the uncontrollable urge to go to the bathroom. It was especially bad at bed-time; it was not unusual for her to get out of bed and go potty 7, 8, 10 times before she settled down. It was frustrating for both of us; for me because she'd insist I get up and go downstairs with her every time, for her because she just couldn't stop it. Finally, one night, she broke down in tears and told me that it was happening at school too. That the teacher was getting frustrated with her and that she felt like she was getting behind in class because she so often missed the teacher's instructions while she was in the bathroom. It was then that had to finally admit that my sweet, sensitive 8 year old daughter was suffering from OCD too. I immediately contacted the teacher (with Anna's permission) and explained the situation; she was extremely kind and helpful and offered some suggestions. I told Anna about my experience with OCD, what it was, what I thought caused it (worrying and lack of control over the events in your life) and that I was going to help her with it.

My next step was to begin some research and I purchased several books on the subject. I did not (DO NOT) want to medicate Anna; I outgrew my OCD without any medication or therapy whatsoever. I learned on-line that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be very helpful in treating it and I found a therapist here in town that specializes in childhood OCD. Our first appointment was on Tuesday. I'd casually mentioned it to Anna the day before; she said "Oh good! I hope she can help me with my OCD". But when I picked her up at school the next day for her appointment, it was a different story. We had an hour before the appointment, and Anna spent the ENTIRE HOUR crying, yelling, begging, pleading, threatening and just having one gigantic tantrum, the likes of which I hadn't seen for approximately 3 years. It was AWFUL, and I could tell how scared she was to face this. But explained that if she had a really bad cold or infection or had broken her arm, I would take her to the doctor; that one of my jobs, as her parent, to get her help when she needs it. I didn't back down and eventually I got her in the car; she agreed to go ONLY if we went just this one time and ONLY if she didn't have to talk at all. I figured that was a start.

The therapist, TJ, was an attractive, calm, warm woman in her mid to late 50s. She invited Anna to draw or play while she and I talked and before I knew it, she had Anna talking and laughing. It went so much better than I could have ever dreamed, and by the time we left, Anna said to me "I can't wait to come back and see TJ again. She's really nice!" She couldn't wait to get home and call her dad to tell him all about her appointment and about what OCD is and that TJ is going to help her. It was obvious that she felt a huge sense of relief to hear from someone (besides me) that what she is going through has a name and that it can be treated. TJ encouraged her to give those feelings a name; Anna decided on "The Worry Warts".

Since the appointment, there have been NO repeated trips to the bathroom at bedtime, and last night, when she was in her bed and I was reading next-door in our bedroom, she called out " that we saw that huge spider in the kitchen before bed, I can't stop thinking that there is a spider in my room!" I replied: "That's just The Worry Warts, sweetie!" and she said "Oh, you're right!" and then she giggled and went to sleep.

I know it's not over, and that OCD will probably be a part of Anna's life for years to come, simply because that is how she handles stress. But I can't tell you how good it feels to know that she will be given the skills to handle it. Aaah, progress.


Dee said...

Kate, I am so proud of you, you are such a good, understanding Mother. The understanding goes deeper with Anna as you have experienced OCD and so can relate to her fears and repetitive habits, rather than telling her "get over it".
You're right, I had no idea about your problems until after your Father's death and the "mushroom towels". And everything in the refrigerator had to be straight. Now I do that, but I can cram more into the 'frige if things are orderly. And I like neat. My house doesn't sparkle, but its usually neat.
I am so very glad you magically found the RIGHT therapist who has made it a "good thing" ,that Anna is eager to participate in and knows it will help.
my love to you all.

Mymsie said...

It's so wonderful that you're getting help for your daughter and that you have an open dialog about the issue. I struggled with it growing up and as an adult, so I know how difficult it can be. The biggest help for me was hearing that I wasn't some crazy weirdo and that many, many other people had a similar problem. It helped normalize everything. Good luck!

Fancy Schmancy said...

Oh, that poor baby. I'm so glad you're taking an active part in getting her some relief. Especially without medication. If she ends up needing it for something, then okay. But I hate doctors that want to medicate children first and ask questions later.

Anonymous said...

I love this story. Kate, I never knew this about you. I, too, suffer from a little OCD. Luckily, adulthood allows me to laugh about it. You really are a wonderful mother, and truly inspiring friend. Love you! cole

jpogue said...

I never got the OCD, instead I guess I got those panic attacks. They lasted for years but they finally went away. I only get one every couple of years now which I'm greatful for! Isn't it bizarre what our brains and bodies can do to us. I'm really glad Anna likes her therapist!

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