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Why I Couldn't Be Prouder of My Son in His Battle With OCD

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My life was set in full motion 18 years ago on a dark and stormy night (yes, seriously) in Charleston, South Carolina. If I knew then what I know now, I’d like to say I would have handled those 18 years a little less cautiously — a little less like I expected disaster around every corner. I’d like to believe I would have cried less and laughed more, but the truth is the only thing I probably would have done differently was to listen to my mother when she said everything would be OK. That my son, Jake, would be OK.

Around 5 years old, Jacob began to exhibit behaviors that went a little bit beyond the “kids are just odd” stage. He made unusual noises and had strange repetitive motions that occupied small bits of his time. On any given day, you might find him watching cartoons while he stretched his mouth as wide as he could, often putting his fist in his mouth. This would continue for minutes at a time to the point of tears – both his and mine.

At the age of six he was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, and so began my job as a researcher and Jake’s unfortunate stint as a human guinea pig. So many nights I’d lie in bed, feeling myself being pinned down with the weight of Jake’s condition and the certain difficulties ahead of him.

“What if?” became my mantra. “What if Jake never has friends? What if he never falls in love? What if he grows up to be a lonely person?” Mind you, Jake was only 6 years old at the time, but my thoughts were on constant fast-forward.

And just as soon as I began to think I was learning to deal with this aspect of Jake’s life, he began to show signs of anxiety and depression. He was 7 years old. I remember putting him to bed one night, a tight ball forming in my throat when his soulful eyes locked onto mine and he told me he wished he was dead.

As his anxiety worsened, so did his Tourette’s. As if that wasn’t enough, Jake was the recipient of a tag-along condition – obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Jake was formally diagnosed at the age of 8 and put on medication to ease the symptoms. The days were long and filled with tension.

We witnessed the ignorance of many as they stared, called names and ridiculed Jake right in front of us. It hurt. And I spent a great deal of my time enraged at the stupidity and blatant idiocy of humanity at its worst.

But we pushed forward. We encouraged Jake. We assured him that despite his battles, life would get better. We held him as he cried out of frustration and exhaustion from carrying out his rituals. When his OCD was off the charts and he wore three pairs of surgical gloves to simply get through his day, we handled him with care and gave him the space he needed.

And it got really rough for a while. Although his tics had pretty much disappeared, his OCD stepped it up and hit him hard. He couldn’t hug me. He couldn’t pet our dogs. He couldn’t eat his food without gloves on and a fork to pick up everything, even pizza.

bathroom bin filled with pairs of blue gloves from a single day

He began to give up. He lost hope and fell down a deep, dark hole. But life went on. As he fought his OCD battles, he got stronger. He’d had enough, so he went for broke and applied for a job. And got the job. And found ways to manage his OCD rather than letting it manage him. He still struggled but small victories, like being able to eat potato chips again, motivated him to fight even harder.

Despite the struggles, or maybe because of them, Jake remains one of the strongest people I know. His persistence and belief in himself finally paid off. My Jake, the boy who fought invisible bullies no child should ever have to fight, the boy who wondered why he was even alive, the boy who thought for sure he was destined for failure, got accepted into Georgia Southern University for Fall 2016.

As it turned out, Jake’s time at GSU was cut short due to severe social anxiety. He came home completely defeated and shattered by what he perceived to be his failure. We saw it differently. What we saw was a young man who tried, who faced his fears and put forth his greatest effort. There is no failure in trying. There is no defeat in things not working out exactly how you thought they would. There is only acceptance and forward motion.

After months of dwelling in his own mind, clouded by disappointment and despair, Jake is finally finding himself again. I believe Jake’s spirit animal must be the phoenix, given his constant regeneration.

Warner and I, along with Nick, his brother, couldn’t be any prouder. We have witnessed his fierce will, his strength and his weakness. But we never, ever doubted that the world has great things in store for him.

This kid’s always made me cry — sometimes from laughing so hard I can’t breathe, many times as my heart shattered for him. This time, it’s because it’s been a long road to hope for sure, but every day it’s getting better and better for my beautiful boy.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

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Originally published: April 27, 2017
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