After publishing 101 posts, I was starting to feel like I had said just about everything I have to say. I was considering laying this blog to rest and moving on to other pursuits. Then, I was in a session with a client I have known for more than twenty years. When I first met Marilyn, she had two teenagers, both of whom had some challenges. I was not a mother yet, but I often thought about what a great role model this woman was. She loved her children steadfastly, even when they were driving her crazy with their knuckle-headed decisions. At their high school, she advocated for them fiercely. She knew when to push them and when to comfort them. She allowed them to falter but never turned her back on them. Marilyn personified the mother bunny. (If this reference does not make sense to you, check out an earlier post, The Most Profound Book about Parenting Ever Written). Now, her children are adults out in the world making their own ways. They still falter at times and Marilyn still has moments of worry about how things will turn out for them, but what mother doesn’t? Both of her children, who suffered from some combination of attention deficit, learning problems, depression and anxiety, were at an elevated risk of developing various problems such as quitting school, substance abuse, low self-confidence, etc. You will hear from one of Marilyn’s adult children in an upcoming post.
Sitting with Marilyn recently and talking with her about her adult children, I began to wonder what they would say about the way she parented them. What did this mom do that helped keep her kids on a good path despite their challenges? Were there things she did that were not helpful? Those questions morphed into the idea for this new feature: What (Adult) Kids Want Us to Know. From time to time, I will interview adults who experienced mental health and/or learning challenges as youngsters about the things their parent(s) did that were and were not helpful.
Today’s contributor is Lauren. I will let her speak for herself:
Me: Tell the readers a little about yourself now.
Lauren: I am a 32-year-old woman married to the nicest, most unique man I have ever met (not exaggerating!). We have a four-month-old son, and we spend most of our free time hanging out with him and/or looking at pictures of him. I also enjoy politics, talking to friends, reading, and watching many episodes of many shows. During the day, I am a clinical social worker who has focused primarily on serving children in schools since completing my Master’s program in 2008.
Me: What kind of struggles did you experience as a child and/or a teenager?
Lauren: Around age 8, I became very preoccupied with a fear that members of my family, usually my mom, would die. I tried many different rituals (doing things in even numbers, putting things in certain orders, repeating the same phrases, washing my hands) to make sure everyone would be safe, or at least to feel like I wasn’t causing some disastrous event. It was very draining to go through all of this alone, but I decided pretty early on that I had no other choice but to be silent or I would be labeled “crazy” and possibly institutionalized. So, I kept these superstitions to myself until age 11, at which time I was also experiencing intrusive thoughts that I was going to cause harm to people intentionally.
Eventually, I became so overwhelmed with panic over these thoughts that I confessed all of it to my mom. My mom contacted a friend of hers who recommended that we go see a psychiatrist immediately. I think this was scary for both of us because neither knew what was happening to me, which made it difficult to picture what my treatment would look like. Once I received a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and began therapy, we became more comfortable with what had to be done to manage my symptoms.
Me: In what ways did your mom support you at home?
Lauren: My mom made my treatment a priority. She was very involved in the “homework” that we were given in therapy. She read about OCD, encouraged me to have an understanding of the diagnosis, and helped me confront my fears at home. I distinctly remember her giving me the task of washing and drying utensils after dinner, which was not enjoyable for either of us! But it helped. My mom was also patient in dealing with my sharing of intrusive thoughts with her. I’m sure they were not easy to hear – particularly when they involved criticisms of her – but I think she tried hard not to take them too personally.
Me: In what ways did you mom support you at school?
Lauren: My OCD symptoms affected my school work in the sense that it took me longer to get my assignments done and affected my motivation to complete them. But I don’t recall there being a specific need for intervention around my school performance or behavior, other than trying to get me out the door in a timely manner in the morning. There was one occasion when a teacher called me “weird,” and I know she advocated for me and expressed her concerns to the school principal.
Me: Were there things your mom did that were not helpful?
Lauren: Part of the treatment for OCD involves identifying intrusive thoughts/fears and recognizing either the thought as irrational or the frequency and intensity of the thought as out of proportion to the situation. When you’re a child and you go to your parent with a fear that feels very real to you, and your parent believes your OCD has attached to it and then avoids discussing it with you, that can feel lonely. Sometimes, having my thoughts/feelings quickly labeled as OCD symptoms was difficult for me and still is. At the same time, it has to be challenging to find a balance between acknowledging a child’s anxious feelings and avoiding joining her in her anxiety, and I get that. So I won’t go so far as to say identifying my thoughts as being part of my OCD wasn’t helpful to me, but I will say that communicating that in a way that acknowledged how I was feeling may have felt more helpful to me.
Me: Did you work with a therapist and if so, what did you find helpful? Not helpful?
Lauren: I did! In terms of treatment modalities, all of the Exposure and Response Prevention techniques were beneficial. As a kid with OCD, I struggled with feeling fearful much of the time and thought that having that feeling would cause something terrible to happen, so it was very comforting to find out that my anxiety does not have magical powers. I remember being amazed that a person could do something to cause herself to feel anxious, and that the feeling will gradually go away.
Still, the most helpful aspect to me was the general sense of hopefulness about my future that my therapist conveyed. I think that I had gotten so consumed by this fear of what people would think of me if they knew the thoughts running through my head that it was very comforting when I finally talked about it in a productive way with someone who did not react with complete shock.
Me: Do you deal with any of the same difficulties now that you did as a child/teen?
Lauren: I still experience OCD symptoms, mainly in the form of intrusive thoughts and frequent worrying. Things typically worsen when I’m experiencing a major life change and then subside somewhat as I fall into a routine. Since becoming a parent, I am feeling much more motivated to treat my symptoms with therapy and medication, and I’m about to start treatment again next week. It’s important to me that I show my son that seeking help for mental health issues is a strength rather than a weakness. I also want to limit how much my anxiety affects him and how he views the world.
Me: If so, how have you managed to be so successful in school and your career?
Lauren: A benefit of investing in treatment for anxiety as a child is that you learn very quickly that you are not going to get better if you avoid everything that makes you anxious. That was instilled in me by Dr. Sayers and my mom, and I think it set the tone for how I try to approach challenges. I also get a lot of motivation from my support system, especially my twin sister, who has been encouraging me since we were kids. She seems to have a special talent for understanding me (not surprising; we’re twins!) and giving me strength when I need it. I highly recommend that all kids and adults suffering from mental health issues build on their support systems as much as possible. Not everyone will understand what you’re going through but those special people will, and their support will keep you moving forward.
Me: Is there any advice you would give to a parent whose child is dealing with the difficulties you experienced as a child/teen.
Lauren: Listen to your child. If your child seems preoccupied by worry or engages in compulsive behavior, talk to him and get him help. Acknowledge how she’s feeling without letting her off the hook from taking small steps toward getting better. At the same time, be patient because there are going to be times, like when he’s panicking or having a tantrum, when you have no choice but to sit there with him while he gets through it and try again later. As much as possible, have fun together because your relationship, and your view of her as a lovable person, means more than you know.
Well, there’s little that I can add to the wise words of this very special former client. If you’d like, you can read more about Exposure and Response Prevention therapy here. Much of what Lauren shared applies to anxiety disorders more broadly, not just to OCD.
I’d like to thank Lauren publicly for sharing her story with me and my readers and to wish her all the best as she experiences the joys and challenges of being a mom herself.
[Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]