I had just said “Goodnight” to my three kids and crawled into bed after a long day. After lying there, talking about what our next day looked like with my husband, I kissed him goodnight and started to drift off to sleep when my 13 year-old son Conner burst through the door in tears.
“Mom — it’s OCD.”
Like a scene from an old war movie, the U-Boat battle warning sounds were going off — “Whoop, Whoop, Whoop. Man all stations!” I had just kissed my son goodnight not fifteen minutes before this, and he had seemed fine. What had happened? We had been talking about our trip to Six Flags the next day and he had been trying to decide if he wanted to go.
Any mother without OCD in her life would ask, “What does Six Flags have to do with OCD? How could that possibly get a kid into a panic?” This is the nature of the OCD beast. It can come on suddenly and, most of the time, it just doesn’t make sense — sometimes not even to the person with OCD.
Luckily, my son and I have gotten so good at using the tools we’ve learned from his therapist that we know exactly what to do. We do it quickly and we do it very well, like trained soldiers.
This particular night was an example of habituation* and how it works in our OCD therapy. The first thing I did was ask him, “Give me the loop.” What this means — in our “Special Ops OCD Code Language” — is that I’m asking him to tell me what is looping in his OCD brain, or what is the thing, phrase, or thought that is causing the panic and anxiety (the OCD episode). He usually says, “I don’t know,” at first. This is because when OCD is taking over someone’s brain it can be so confusing with the whirlwind of things going on that it is hard to identify the cause of the panic. I’ve learned to coach him by telling him to focus and give me “the sentence.” A trained therapist is much better at this than I am as far as figuring out the loop. I can only guess, so I’ve put some of the responsibility on my son. I want him to be able to do this exercise himself one day, so he needs to be the one to “search and destroy.” My other goal is to get this thought gone ASAP! We do not like to make OCD welcome in our house, so being swift and deadly is the OCD battle plan.
On this particular night, after his initial response of “I don’t know,” I said, “Give me the sentence. Tell me what I need to be saying.”
I could hear him calming himself and then he said, “Someone’s going to die.”
In a household without OCD this might sound crazy and disturbing, but in our house it’s one tiny move closer to the goal, the enemy we want to overtake. I then asked him, “At Six Flags?”
He responded with a quick, “Yes.” We are really covering ground now! We’re almost on the target!
My last question was, “Is that the thought?” Now his answer would only come with practice since we have found that if we get the wrong sentence, this exercise doesn’t really work. It helps a little but for it to be the deadliest method for getting rid of OCD — the total objective — you have to really zero in on the correct thought. Conner’s response was, “No — tomorrow.”
I asked, “Someone’s going to die at Six Flags…tomorrow?”
Right now I am the tape recorder that helps him with habituation, but eventually I want him to do this exercise totally on his own. He has to hear it — not think it — for it to be effective, so he’ll need a small tape recorder or a friend to be able to do this without me. (I’m thinking about his life as a young adult where Mom might not always be there.)
Children also tend to habituate faster, so if you’re an adult with OCD, don’t be discouraged if it takes longer. It still works. Every brain will habituate. For a lingering OCD thought, we do use a tape recorder and incorporate this into any OCD homework that might need to be done, but in the heat of battle or if we’re someplace without the tape recorder, my voice is a good stand-in.
I then ask him, “What’s your number?” (When he was younger I would ask, “Where are you on the Feelings Thermometer?” taken from Dr. Aureen P. Wagner’s book, Up and Down the Worry Hill). He tells me, “7.”
I then start the “loop sentence” – Someone’s going to die at Six Flags tomorrow. Someone’s going to die at Six Flags tomorrow. Someone’s going to die at Six Flags tomorrow.
After about a minute or so I ask again – “What’s your number?”
We can almost taste victory. The words go on and on — my husband takes over for a bit repeating the phrase and within a relatively small amount of time, Conner is at a zero. Sweet victory!!!
I pat him on the back, give him a hug and tell him, “You are the ultimate OCD Warrior!” He smiles and goes back to bed. The taste of victory over OCD is sweet — for the both of us.
The next day, I happily kissed Conner and waved goodbye as he, my husband, and my daughter drove off to go to Six Flags. Conner was also victorious over another OCD culprit — avoidance!
By Lisa Buchanan
* Habituation is a process learned as part of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy for OCD. Click here to learn more about ERP.