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First Person: How Ben Beat the Bully in His Brain

Getting treatment for OCD and separation anxiety

Clinical Expert: Jerry Bubrick, PhD

“Reality wasn’t really important to me. I knew it wasn’t real but at the same time I didn’t.”

Ben was 12 when his separation anxiety and OCD kicked into high gear. His obsessive worries that his parents would abandon him, and the rituals he used to manage these worries, made school and life at home impossible. After a particularly bad night, Ben was admitted to the hospital. Eventually, his parents found Dr. Jerry Bubrick and a way forward that changed Ben’s life. Currently enjoying his freshman year of college, Ben opens up about his journey and learning how to battle the bully in his brain.

How old were you when things got tough?

Ben: I was 12. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and it peaked around that time. School was very difficult for me and I couldn’t be away from my parents. I had pretty severe separation anxiety so I was taken out of school and no doctor really could get me back.

What was it like?

Ben: Being at school alone was virtually impossible. I would go into the school psychiatrist about three times a day crying and I would call my dad and eventually he would just come pick me up. Being in my room alone was a little bit tricky. I couldn’t really fall asleep by myself. My mom would sit outside my room reading the newspaper until I fell asleep every night. Some nights I’d end up in their room. Nothing was getting better. Reality wasn’t really important to me during that time. I knew it wasn’t real but at the same time I didn’t.

“Being at school alone was virtually impossible… Nothing was getting better.”

What was therapy like for you? Was it helping?

Ben: There was a lot of talking with therapists — what’s going on, what do you think…? There were no answers. It was furthering the problem. Like we’ll take you out of school for a week and see how that goes. What about when that week is up? So we had to cycle through a few therapists. They were talkers.

Were you ashamed of what was going on?

Ben: The only time I would be ashamed of it was when a friend would notice certain compulsions that I would be doing. An example is that I had a locker and next to me was my friend Steve and his locker. What I would do with my locker every time that I would leave for class would be to swipe my hands up the locker and it would have to be the right way so I would do it several times. And Steve took to noticing it and he started doing it as well.

What does OCD look like to you?

Ben: A dragon. The first therapist who diagnosed me called it a dragon and I was younger so it made sense and it still makes sense. If you do a compulsion you are feeding the dragon — the dragon grows and continues to be mean and continues to give you more compulsions. If you ignore it, you are starving the dragon and if you stop doing compulsions completely, the dragon starves and can’t do anymore. But it didn’t work! The problem with that was the therapist would say try this at home and of course I wouldn’t and then I would lie and say that I had. So that was going nowhere.

Tell me what happened when you walked through the doors of the Child Mind Institute.

Ben: When I came to here it was clearly a very different environment, one that I hadn’t experienced in my many years of therapy. Dr. Bubrick got all the facts and he had his plan. I hated it because it involved me doing the things that I feared most. That’s exposure therapy. For example, every time I’d go into his office I’d say mom, you are going to be in the waiting area, where are you going to be? You are going to be in the waiting room. You know what time I end my session, right? You’ll be here. And she would say yes I’m going to be here. A few sessions in, Jerry would say to my mother, why don’t you go get a cup of coffee during our session. And I said, what if you didn’t, what if you stayed, what if you didn’t go? He was intentionally making me uncomfortable which I wasn’t happy with but that is what worked. My OCD now is extremely mild. It comes up once a day and I don’t think it would be anywhere near that without the Child Mind Institute. I think going to college would be more of a discussion. I don’t think I would be nearly as independent.

Do you think there is a stigma around mental health and why?

Ben: I do think there is a stigma because mental health is not talked about very much. Because when you are in that moment, you feel very alone. And what I didn’t realize is that there are kids around me at my school who have OCD. OCD is common. Depression is common. And there is no way that the other 105 kids in my grade did not have something similar to what I had. It stinks that I am the only one that comes and talks to you guys. I should be one of many.

“Inadvertently, and without my intention, I was feeling a lot better.”

What would you say to someone in the place you were in?

Ben: Give in to the treatment. Stop fighting it. It never helps to say it gets better or this is just a crappy phase in your life. Be it depression or anxiety — give what they’re telling you a try because that is easy to start with. Stop fighting it. Just let them take care of it.

And what would you say to a family with a child who is struggling?

Ben: I would say is that there is another side to this tunnel. Whether you believe that or not, I know that there is just because where I was and where my parents were. Regardless of where your child is in this process, in this awful phase of life there is another side of it. You just have to look for it.

This article was last reviewed or updated on September 14, 2022.