Ben was plagued with fears that his parents would disappear. For a while his rituals—touching things, saying things—worked to allay them, but eventually the anxiety got so overwhelming he couldn’t go to school, he could barely leave his room.
This is an interview with Ben, a 13-year-old New Yorker who likes tennis, crossword puzzles, video games and books. Ben has been treated for OCD by Dr. Jerry Bubrick using what’s called exposure and response prevention.
When did your OCD begin?
The story of my OCD really starts when I was six, or seven, in my old apartment on the Upper West Side. I used to be kind of afraid of robbers, so I would always check behind my bed to make sure there were no robbers. And that became a habit. Clearly no robber could fit back there—there were, like two inches between the wall and the bed—but I just needed to make sure. I mean, it didn’t take that much effort. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t think, “Oh, robbers are coming!” I’d just feel something bad would happen. And that started a chain of just wanting to feel comfortable, and doing whatever I could to make myself comfortable.
Did you have other fears?
I started having fear that my parents were going to leave me. That started when I was at our summer house, and I was with my grandpa in the basement. It was an old, musty basement, you know, typical cobwebs, and I had my eye on something, and I didn’t notice that my grandpa had stepped out. So when I started looking around I got a little panicked; I didn’t know where he was. I looked everywhere in the house and couldn’t find him—I really started to panic. Then I went outside and he was on the driveway, so I felt an immediate relief. But I think that is what started my fear of my parents abandoning me. It wasn’t like the next day I woke up and I was like, “Oh my god, I have to check on my parents.” That wasn’t it; it grew. Something in my mind told me, your parents might leave you, you might have to be alone in your life.
Did it get more intense?
That continued, and I began to feel scared to just go anywhere alone. To be in my bed alone because I thought in the middle of the night my parents would sneak out. I mean, clearly that was not going to happen, but I became paranoid, and I had to have constant reassurances from my parents. When it got to the point where I couldn’t stay in my bed, they set a little mattress up on their floor, it was so absurd, and I would sleep in there. And every night before I went to sleep I’d say, “Is anything bad going to happen?” and Mom would say “No.” And I said, “Will you stay up to keep checking on me to see if I’m okay?” and she said, “Yes.” And from then on I would be fine, I would feel comforted and reassured, and I would have a good night’s sleep. And my mom actually made me a T-shirt that said “Nothing bad…” on the front and “Will you keep checking on me?” on the back.
Did you know that what you were experiencing was called OCD?
I had never heard of OCD at that point, but my parents knew this was a totally odd kind of not-supposed-to-be-happening fear. So they set me up with a therapist who actually diagnosed me with OCD. And I would go to her once a week and she did manage to get me out of my parents’ room. That helped me.
But then it started to get much worse. I was touching things, thinking that, “Oh, if I touch this Mom and Dad won’t leave, it will be okay.” There was no official way it had to be done—if I felt I needed to do something I would do it. I mean, I had some habits, like rituals, but others were just random. And then I started making noises, when I would touch things. I would say words, just like a “bee,” “boo,” whatever, combined with the touching. I’d be trying to get out of a room and I’m touching frantically, especially when I’m scared about something, like if Mom and Dad were going out to dinner, I mean, I had to touch everything for them to come home safely.
Did your friends know you were doing this?
Not to brag but I got pretty good at hiding it. I mean, it kind of became an art of waiting to see if anyone was around, touch the floor again, pick up a pencil, touch the floor, touch the floor, touch my locker, like I would brush my hands up my locker every time I used it. And my friend actually caught me doing that, and he thought I just did it for fun. It’s the new fad! He would imitate me and I’d play around with it and be like, ha ha, that’s funny. But I had to do it last. That was my thing; before I left I had to do it last. Like I had to touch it, and then I could leave. But he would go to my locker and be like, “Hey, Ben, look, look, look” and then he’d do it, he’d brush his hands up and I’d laugh, hoping he’d leave so I could finish it off and then go to my class. But he’d linger, he’d wait for me and it became a problem.
And then it got much worse?
Seventh grade was when it really started getting bad. It was before school started, over the summer, that my worry of my parents leaving me got insane. I was at this four-hour-a-day tennis camp and I could barely even do it. I would fake that my stomach hurt and I would literally cry into my sleeve, and they had a phone that I could call, so I called my dad at least once every day.
I did this thing where I would ask myself if everything is going to be okay and I would say, “Yes,” and that was my self-reassurance, and I did that once a day. But once tennis started I would do it a hundred times a day, I would just keep doing and doing and doing it. And I got distracted from tennis, I wasn’t even concerned about how well I was playing; I didn’t care at all. If they were a minute late, past 3 o’clock, I would start worrying.
So. And then I joined a baseball team, a travel baseball team that a friend invited me to. The practices were a parents-leave kind of thing. And I was just so scared there, I mean, I tried to be texting my mom during the practice, I’d go get a drink of water and text my mom.
And then the game came, the first game, which was the day before school started, somewhere in Brooklyn, and I’m not comfortable in places that I’ve never been, and my dad was with me, and I refused to leave his side. And the whole game I kept looking back at him, he was in the bleachers, 20 feet away from me, but I would keep looking at him, looking at him, looking at him. I didn’t even look at what was happening on the field, I mean, I was so scared. And I was like, “Dad, please don’t go to the bathroom. Seriously.”
What happened when school started?
The first day of seventh grade, was just terrible. Three different times I went to the school therapist’s office and I called my mom or my dad, and finally Dad came and picked me up. And the next day at school a different babysitter stayed in the library the whole day. It helped. But that wasn’t going to work.
So I went to a psychiatrist, recommended by my therapist, and she prescribed some medicine. Zoloft along with Xanax to calm me down during the day. And that started okay. I took the Zoloft, started off low-dosage, um, but the next day I fell asleep on the way to school because the Xanax had knocked me out. So I missed that day.
But then Ambien came into the picture, and the combination of that and the Zoloft messed everything up. I flipped out, I went insane. I just got crazy. I was really depressed. Very. And I could not stand the idea of going to school again.
There was one terrible night, my sister said, “Ben, I want the old Ben back; I want you to be okay again.” And that made me feel a little bit better.
When did things start to get better?
Whatever was happening with the medication, with my mind, took a few more pretty terrible days to work out. I was calmer. But my OCD things had never been worse, I literally could not leave my room. I was sort of in an OCD coma—”OC-toma.” I just made that up.
Then my mom found Dr. Bubrick. And I told him the story I just told you. And he said we’re going to work on this two times a week, doing exposures.
Can you explain exposures?
We had to face what we wanted to avoid most. Which was being away from my parents, and not touching things that I felt I needed to touch. And he put my mom on the task too, so I wouldn’t just say, oh, you know, I can do this but I can’t do that. He made it so I couldn’t escape it. He almost forced it upon me, but that was the only way he could get me to do the exposures. And it worked, I mean, if I had to do it I would do it, and I would slowly get rid of things, like the main rituals that I used to do. I used to touch my lamp and my chair and my backpack every time before I went to sleep. That’s all gone.
He also had me talk back to the OCD. Say, like, “You’re dumb” whenever you have a thought like that. Just like curse it off. “It’s stupid,” things like that. We called my OCD “the Factory.” The goal was to shut down the Factory. You know, it was funny.
How did you work on your fear of your parents leaving?
Well my mom made me do one exposure per day. Like she’d say, “I’m going to go out, you can stay at home by yourself, watch TV, whatever, but I’m going to the grocery store. And I’d have to stay here by myself, or maybe I’d go out somewhere, maybe get some things we needed for dinner, something like that. And I’d be scared at first, and then I’d come home, and I’d be happy, I’d be proud of myself. I’d say, you know, I got that exposure over with and it wasn’t that bad. I still don’t look forward to doing exposures. I doubt anyone would or will. But it’s kind of the only way.
I can be by myself now. I come home by myself from school, I get a snack, I go to the gym by myself, I go to Hebrew School by myself. It feels good to be independent. And Jerry certainly helped me with that. And it’s a teamwork process. It’s you, your parents, Jerry, therapists, everyone’s on your side. Even though sometimes I don’t feel it, they are, and always will be.
I was eased back into school towards the end of Spring Break. And this year’s great. I’m actually having a good time. It’s a lot of work, but that’s expected. Eighth grade. Math, I like math a lot, and English.
And was your sister happy to have you back?
Yes. She was. Very happy, and we’re back to or normal selves. I think they’re good. I mean, I do still have moments of unhappiness, but we kind of learned—we expect that now. No matter how bad I feel, Mom or Dad kind of have a way of bringing me out of it. No matter how hard the homework is—I had a terribly annoying science experiment, homework, last night, and my dad was just like, “Do this,” or “Try this,” and I was like, “That’s a good idea.” So I mean, it’s kind of also about me wanting to do it. And having some sort of motive. And wanting to ask for help.
Do your friends know about this?
I told good friends that I trust, but the majority of my friends do not know. And I am working my way up to telling them.
Learn more about OCD from Dr. Jerry Bubrick.