By Janet Singer.
His behavior was so bizarre that for a moment I thought he was joking. “Why are you taking tiny tippy-toe steps?” I asked, forcing a laugh. No response. This was my third time in three months flying down to Bridgeville to help my son out at college, and I was shocked at how much worse he seemed.
He’d just gotten himself out of my rental car by stiffly turning his whole body at once. Every movement had been slow and deliberate. Before putting his feet down on the pavement, he’d hesitated and then winced. I accompanied him on his silly, tiptoe walk, and took his arm as we now stood at the bottom of the old motel’s staircase. The night air was thick with heat and humidity, yet he was wearing long sleeves and shivering uncontrollably.
“Dan, what’s going on?” I asked.
He stared straight ahead, eyes glazed. “I can’t go up the steps,” he whispered.
My stomach tightened, and I took a deep breath. “Sure you can, honey,” I said, a little too cheerily. “I’ll help you.”
Still holding his arm, I stepped up onto the first cement step. Dan didn’t budge. “Everything is all right, honey,” I said, wondering why I chose to say something that was so obviously not true. He lifted his foot, and once again hesitated and winced as it touched the first step. His other foot followed. His body froze and he was still shaking.
“I can’t do this,” he said.
I looked up at his sallow face, and saw it riddled with fear. As much as I wanted to spare my son, intuition told me to get him to my room. “Sure you can, honey,” I said calmly. “I’m here to help you.”
He made it onto the second step and we continued the cycle. Freezing, reassuring, coaxing, hesitating, wincing, stepping. I have no idea how long it took but we finally reached the top landing. It was as if we had just climbed Mt. Everest.
But really it was just the second floor of the motel, and we now had to walk past four other rooms to get to mine. Again, I held on to Dan’s trembling arm while we took slow, deliberate baby steps.
“See, you did it honey,” I said when we found ourselves in front of my door. “Everything is fine.”
Why did I keep saying that?
I unlocked the door and reached in to turn on a light. “Come on in,” I said, stepping inside.
It was almost midnight, and the full moon lit up the outside corridor. I turned to look at Dan and wondered how someone six-feet-five could look so small, almost invisible.
“I’ll just wait out here,” he said. He was frozen again.
“No, you have to come in,” I replied as the anxiety churned away at my stomach. “I’ll help you.”
I took his hand and tried to lead him into the room. He didn’t seem physically capable of lifting his foot over the threshold.
“I can’t come in, Mom,” he whispered, with the desperate tone of someone who knew he was drowning, yet couldn’t quite reach the life preserver.
“I’ll help you. You need to come inside.”
No response. With a yank that felt strong enough to dislocate his shoulder, I pulled him into the room and closed the door.
And so our journey began.
I clearly remembered the words spoken just one year ago. “Dan is fine. His OCD is no big deal,” Dr. Thomas had said when I asked what my husband and I could do to help our son. After diagnosing himself with the help of the Internet, Dan had told us his secret. I had responded with, “Are you sure, Dan? You never even wash your hands!” Deep down, however, I knew if Dan said he had OCD, he had OCD. Dan knew his stuff. Once the diagnosis was confirmed, he met with Dr. Thomas biweekly for four months until he left for his dream college fifteen hundred miles from home. That amounted to approximately ten sessions of the wrong kind of therapy, and come to find out, Dan’s obsessive-compulsive disorder was a pretty big deal.
I’d picked him up earlier that evening at the Sculpture Garden, our usual on-campus meeting place. Amid the lights and shadows of the sculptures, I’d seen him from a distance, and immediately knew something was terribly wrong. He was standing, and his tall frame seemed to hang limply. I sensed his fear, confusion and defeat, even from afar, and a sense of panic had overwhelmed me. By the time I stood beside him, so debilitated he could barely climb steps, I’d walled off my emotions. I was there to help Dan, and if I fell apart there would be nobody to care for either of us. Still, the questions crept in. How could this be happening to my son? What was happening to my son? Surely we were now dealing with more than obsessive-compulsive disorder? More terrifying to me than these questions was the thought that I desperately tried to squelch: This could be it. Dan might be gone, beyond anyone’s help, and I had no way of knowing if he’d ever be back.
He stuck close to the door and surveyed his surroundings, a typical drab motel room with two double beds. On the far right side of the room was a kitchenette with a refrigerator, yellow-gold stove and microwave. A small drop-leaf table and two chairs completed the area. The bathroom was behind the kitchenette, and not visible from where Dan was standing. The room had a mildly musty odor, not uncommon for Florida.
“Want to lie down?” I said. “You must be exhausted.”
“No, I don’t want to,” he replied, looking around the room nervously.
He stood for a while longer, seeming deep in thought, and then tiptoed past the beds so he could sit at the tiny kitchen table. He slouched over so much his head was practically touching its surface. I put my hand on his shoulder and he flinched, which was unusual for him. He was always so affectionate.
“How about some food?” I offered in that cheery voice that was starting to annoy me. I rattled off some of his favorite things to eat.
He shook his head.
“Oh, I bought some of those smoothie drinks you like,” I persisted. “I’ll pour you one, okay?”
“No thanks,” he replied softly.
“You have to have something,” I pleaded. “You’re probably dehydrated. At least have something to drink. Please.”
“Okay, I’ll have some water from the tap.”
I poured the water and sat next to him. “You look so thin, honey. When was the last time you ate?”
“I don’t know, probably five or six days ago.”
That tightness again. “You have to eat. I have a full refrigerator. Please let me give you some food.”
“I just can’t eat now, Mom. I’m sorry. I promise I’ll eat tomorrow.”
“Why haven’t you been able to eat?” I asked, already knowing this simple question had a complicated answer.
“Well, I can’t go into the dining hall,” he said. Undoubtedly relevant, yet there was obviously more. Here he was, sitting in front of a refrigerator stocked with all his favorite foods, and he couldn’t eat?
“What about your medication, honey? Are you taking it?”
“Yup, every morning with a little water.” He didn’t seem to mind me asking questions, so I kept going.
“How about your classes? Are you still able to keep up with your work?”
“Yeah, pretty much, I guess, but it’s really hard to concentrate.”
“Oh, Dan, I’m sure not eating has a lot to do with that,” I said, and then stopped. I didn’t want to lecture him now. Not tonight. “Did you have fun with your friends earlier?”
“I guess it was good, except I’m so anxious I can’t enjoy myself.”
At this point I realized Dan hadn’t even touched the glass of water to his lips.
He lifted his head and looked at me. “But don’t worry. I’m okay.”
Of course I knew this wasn’t true. Dan was obviously in rough shape; I just didn’t know how to help him. His appointment with Dr. Vogel, a new therapist, was six days away, though I doubted he’d make it until then. My mind whirled as I tried to think clearly. I’d call Mark, a close friend who is a clinical psychologist, first thing in the morning.
“It’s well after midnight, Dan. Why don’t you just sleep here tonight?”
“No, thanks, I really want to go back to my room if you don’t mind.”
“Okay, as long as tomorrow we get you some food.”
“Sure, that’s fine.”
We began our descent. Once outside the room, Dan’s anxiety was palpable and he froze briefly before we retraced our earlier steps, walking past the closed doors until we arrived at the top of the staircase. Freezing, reassuring, coaxing, hesitating, wincing, stepping. His eyes darted often, as if there were danger all around us. In the car, he tapped the window continuously during the three-minute ride back to his dorm.
“Thanks for driving me, Mom.”
“You’re welcome honey,” I said. “I hope you get a good night’s sleep. By the way, how messy is your room?”
“Nothing like before. Don’t worry.”
I smiled at him. “Good night, I love you. See you tomorrow.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
He easily got out of the car. I watched him walk away, his gait interrupted now and then by a little skip, which in any other situation would have been cute. He walked into his dorm and out of my sight. Troubled and confused by his odd behavior, I consoled myself with the thought that tomorrow, he would eat.
This was the beginning of Dan’s dark descent into the abyss of severe OCD almost five long years ago. Today, he is a college graduate living on his own, working in his chosen field, and living life to the fullest. Two years ago Dan’s therapist called his recovery “remarkable” and attributed it to Dan’s commitment to Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy and his strong desire to get well. For the complete story of Dan’s triumph over severe OCD, read “Continue On” — available soon. For updates on publication date, see the author’s blog, ocdtalk.
Janet Singer is one of several invited authors for the OCD TEXAS San Antonio conference Oct 19 & 20.