I spoke with Jesse’s fourth grade class today about her OCD and anxiety disorder, her treatment plan, and the meaning of life.
Well… maybe not so much that last part.
Bear with me as I travel a long and winding road to telling you how it went, and let me put the punch line here in case you don’t make it to the end of this blather fest: SPEAK. If you are suffering, speak. Not just out of need and selfishness, but also as a gift to those who love you and share your world, and as an offering to others who suffer like you. Speak, so that they understand you better, so that you aren’t alone. Speak, to break the cycle of silence.
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I’ve become rigid in my belief that silence, sidled up alongside a false sense of the need for privacy, is a wellness-killer with respect to mental illness. But if I pay attention, all the messages I’m receiving tell me I’m totally wrong. Privacy and secrecy are the gold standard. Talking about this stuff remains taboo.
A couple months ago, Jesse agreed to be part of a story on childhood issues in an edition of Milwaukee Magazine dedicated to mental health issues. The writer asked me up front: do you want me to change your names?
Why? I asked.
He said something about privacy. I had my answer ready; I had already discussed it with Anthony and Jesse. We’re agreeing to be part of this story to fight stigma, to demonstrate courage for and with our suffering child. How can I tell Jesse I’m not ashamed of her, and how can I teach her not to be ashamed, if we hide her behind a fake name?
I thought it was a done deal until he called me back a few weeks later. He wanted to make sure I was okay with using Jesse’s real name. Yes, I answered. Yes, I have her permission and therefore yes, you have my permission. Remember what I said about stigma?
It was a pleasant, albeit redundant, conversation.
I thought it was a done deal again until the magazine’s editor called me a few days later. He wanted to make sure I was okay with using Jesse’s real name. I repeated myself. He said the lawyers insisted he make sure.
I started to feel a rise of anxiety. “Is there a reason you keep asking the same question? Am I giving you the wrong answer? Is CPS going to come after me for using Jesse’s real name?” No no, he assured me, just making sure.
But all the same, he asked me to send him an email confirming my decision, per the lawyers’ request.
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It seems to me that mental health institutions and professionals also encourage a sort of fetish for secrecy. When we were investigating enrolling Jesse in the Rogers outpatient program, we weren’t even allowed to visit the space to see how things operate. Privacy issues for current patients, they said.
On the first day we arrived at the facility — what do I call it? A clinic, a building, an outpatient facility, an institution? Whatever I choose, it better be euphemistic. God forbid a mental health facility’s signs should actually say something about “mental health” so that I know I’m in the correct place. (I’d actually prefer something along the lines of, “CRAZY NATION, ENTER HERE.” Very clear, and laughing is good therapy, after all.)
Right, so on the first day, we had to sign a massive fine-print document regarding privacy. It read like a national secrets act agreement. I hope they won’t send me to mental-health-industry-Gitmo, and I hope they won’t kick Jesse out of the program, if I happen to write something here that’s considered a violation of one of the 800 non-disclosure provisions in that agreement.
If I weren’t a smug, grumpy, maladjusted human being who ignores social cues, I think all this input would be teaching me that I must seek privacy, that I must hide my family’s dirty little crazy secrets. Tell me about your cancer and your broken bones and your diabetes and your heart disease, but don’t lay your brain problems on me. That’s just… ew.
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Jesse has been on shortened days all year at school, but it’s even more truncated now that she’s in this intense OCD/anxiety outpatient program. She only goes to school from 8 to 11, plus she missed almost a full week of school for our intro week at Rogers. Not to mention that she’s been pretty wack-a-doodles all year long. A few weeks ago I started to think Jesse’s classmates might deserve to to be offered a little insight.
I suggested gently to Jesse one day that I could speak with her class about her diagnoses and what’s going on, kind of educate them a little. Jesse didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, that would be great,” she nodded. “They already know about all my inappropriate behaviors, because they see them all the time.”
Good point. Jesse appears to be following my lead in letting it all hang out. I love this girl.
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Despite the battle-ax I carry about openness, I was surprised to find that a concrete plan to talk with Jesse’s classmates about her disease unsettled me. I didn’t want to tell them what’s wrong with her. Still, we scheduled the visit for this morning and I crossed yet another little bridge in Jesse’s mental health journey.
I procrastinated vigorously and waited until last night to start preparing. I guess I thought I’d be able to google up something. Surely, some English speaker somewhere on Earth must have done a little presentation to kids about OCD and generalized anxiety, and posted it up on the web for a bum like me to plagiarize.
Maybe my bad attitude made my search mojo go wrong. In any case, I eventually had to come up with my own little outline and get on with business.
I walked into Jesse’s classroom this morning feeling anxious and fussy, even though I know this particular group of kids pretty well. I visit every couple weeks to do an “Art for Youth” presentation/project with them, and I’ve been on a few field trips. We’re pals, and they’re great about engaging with me and speaking up.
I won’t give you too many nitty gritties about what I blabbed about, but I guess I should record the big strokes.
I likened mental illnesses to other diseases of the body. We used diabetes as the analog. It’s a lifelong condition; kids have a harder time staying in control than more experienced adults; and over time you learn with diligence and hard work how to manage it and stay healthy.
We talked about what anxiety feels like. The kids did a great job of cataloging the ways it makes your body and brain feel really bad. And then I asked them to imagine feeling like that every day, all the time.
I showed the kids Jesse’s drawing of what her anxiety looks like:
Yes, his name is Shock Lord. He’s a boy. Shock Lord’s arms are made of lightning, and his hair is a cloud filled with lightning. He is Shock Lord because he SHOCKS Jesse all the time. Jesse has explained to me (and I told the kids) that his eyes have been cursed to see things wrong. If he sees a small hill to climb, he thinks it’s a dangerous mountain. If he sees someone walking toward Jesse whom he doesn’t recognize, he thinks the person has knives and guns and wants to kill her. I explained how these fears can fill Jesse’s mind and blind her to what’s going on around her, so that she might appear to ignore a smile and a friendly hello from a friend.
I started seeing light bulbs go on.
We talked about what it means to suffer from Jesse’s style of obsessive thinking — to believe that the intrusive negative thoughts that percolate into your mind, unbidden, are significant and prove that you’re a terrible person. I likened the obsessive process to being trapped in a small cage with a giant TV on one wall, blaring at maximum volume on a station that only shows you things that scare you the most. You don’t have a remote control and you can’t close your eyes.
More light bulbs.
We talked about what compulsions are like — the feeling Jesse experiences, as if heavy rocks are pressing on her heart, and it doesn’t stop unless she lets out the blurted words or engages in the inappropriate behaviors. I showed them her drawing of the compulsive piece of her personality.
It is named, inexplicably, Ricket.
Ricket is a dog-like creature and sister to Shock Lord. She was misled by a Sith-like character long ago (coincidentally, on Jesse’s birthday) into believing that the things she makes Jesse do are good for people, or maybe will protect Jesse. The claw over her head grabs taboo words and behaviors from around her. Ricket’s brain cavity grew into that large wiggly square shape to absorb the claw. Ricket’s pincer tail holds the blurted words to throw them out into the world.
The kids soaked it in. Totally fascinated. Light bulbs left and right.
We talked about what Jesse’s inappropriate behaviors and offensive word blurts “mean.” I said they don’t have a moral meaning — she’s not trying to hurt you or offend you. In fact, she’s ashamed of the behavior; she hates herself for it. So what her behaviors mean is simply this: she is suffering from a mental illness that grownups still haven’t figured out how to treat effectively.
We talked about treatment. Medication to help with the anxiety, along with relaxation and cognitive interventions. I explained how exposure therapy works for the OCD — making her hear and see things that make her anxious, and then making her control her behaviors. I showed them what her competing response looks like. They were shocked, a little freaked out that we would do this to her. I explained habituation. They remained skeptical and expressed an almost protective instinct toward Jesse.
We talked about what the kids could do to help Jesse. This was easy, because they already do it. Most of these kids model great behavior. They’re kind and patient. They encourage Jesse to keep trying. They ignore her when she acts up. They never forget that she’s an ordinary kid under there, just like them.
And in the course of this boring tittle-tattle, these extraordinary human beings (nurtured and led by an extraordinary teacher) became bathed in shining haloes as their comments and questions came at me.
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Many of their questions reflected a deep compassion, bordering on fear, for Jesse. Will she always have to feel like this? Can her OCD ever go away? Can she get rid of it? One little girl wept.
Some kids seemed to just want her to be in school more. One little fellow repeated back to me her schedule at Rogers, which goes Monday through Thursday. “What does she do on Friday?” he wanted to know. “I hope she’ll be at school,” I answered.
Several kids wisely focused on her anxiety levels. A conversation developed naturally about when she’s least anxious — when she’s drawing, everyone agreed, or playing basketball. They wanted to know what helps her. I was blown away by the practical implications of this — they were searching for ways to guide her.
Stories were shared about Jesse being bullied on the playground. It took me aback, because Jesse doesn’t tell about that stuff. Some kids from another class were kicking and pushing her away one day. Some kids said no to her. A group of boys teased her and asked her to chase them, then made fun of her. Jesse’s own classmates regaled me with stories about how they stood up for her and invited her to play with them. They told me that their teacher taught them their class is a family, so they stick together and they stick up for each other. I made my hands into a heart shape and mimed it beating on the left side of my chest. I couldn’t speak words or I would have cried.
Even now I have no words. You had to be sitting among these little people. The humanity, the compassion, the practical comprehension that overtook them when they were given the chance to understand why Jesse is the way she is right now — it was something glorious and profound.
At the end of our chat, Jesse joined us. She walked in shyly and sat on my lap, and she took questions from the class.
Which in itself is an extraordinary feat. Courage! I would have fallen over in a swoon if she wasn’t squashing my legs with her bony bottom.
The kids peppered her with questions, wise and silly, gentle and diplomatic. Do you like Ricket? Who do you like better, Ricket or Shock Lord? What’s your anxiety level right now? What things do you like to do that help your anxiety be lower?
Interspersed with the questions were the helping hands. Jesse, don’t let Shock Lord tell you bad things, said one sweet boy who spoke with a quiet sense of urgency. Don’t listen to him. A little girl spoke up. I’ll always play with you at recess, Jesse. If anyone says no to you or teases you, you can always find me. A boy chimed in. You can play basketball with me any time, Jesse. I’ll always say yes. The kids started riffing about Jesse’s drawing. They planned a drawing contest between her and another kid.
Finally, the teacher said we could take one last question. Jesse called on a friend whose hand was raised high. “Um, can I give you a hug now, Jesse?”
The class got up and it looked like Jesse would be swarmed. The teacher interceded and lined them up before they crushed her, and Jesse stood at the head of the line. One by one, hug after hug, these beautiful little people passed their love and acceptance to Jesse. It was so much that even Jesse — bastion of self-loathing, fortress of misery and cynicism — couldn’t find a way to cry foul on it.
It took my breath away.