Introducing Debbie, a woman in her early thirties, happily married and running her own successful catering business. The youngest in a close-knit family of five, Debbie’s wisdom is respected by her siblings and her counsel sought by them frequently despite her being the baby sister. But Debbie’s growing up years were markedly different from her life today. Debbie’s mom Kathy says she’s come full circle. Here’s what she means.
Debbie recognized her own unusual behavior patterns as early as age 5. She felt compelled to jump off her bed repeatedly – up to 300 times – before she could go to sleep at night, but kept it secret and didn’t tell her mother about it until recently, almost 30 years later. By the time she was about to start high school, Debbie developed a compulsive fear of picking up germs from surfaces such as door handles, and couldn’t go through doorways in public places. She also had a dread of vomiting, and as a result stopped eating completely. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, her weight dropped to 97 pounds. Her parents took her to an eating disorders specialist. She followed the therapy program long enough to convince her parents she was better and then quit, knowing she wasn’t okay. Debbie now explains her obsessive behavior as an attempt to exercise control over her environment, triggered by her father’s unreasonable expectations. Kathy says he was simply “mean-spirited” toward Debbie, even pinning her down and pulling her hair as he insisted that her behavior had to change. In response, Debbie defied him.
The situation was definitely not stable.
Kathy and her husband divorced during Debbie’s teens. Even though with her father gone the atmosphere at home was calmer and more tolerant, Debbie’s struggles continued. To help mitigate her fear of germs, she had moved to a charter school, where things were better for a while. But the obsessions again took over after her parents separated. Debbie couldn’t fall asleep at Kathy’s apartment. She needed to keep moving. For a period of about seven months, Kathy would pick up Debbie from her boyfriend’s house at about 10:30 p.m. and drive her around the city from 11:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m., waiting for the motion of the car combined with a dose of Ambien to help her fall asleep. It rarely did. Kathy says that she put 80 miles on her car on many of those nights. That was also the time when she was working to re-establish her career and supported herself by substitute teaching. She says that at the time it just seemed like the right thing for a mother to do: “I thought, ‘She’s my little girl. I have to help her.’ If Debbie had a bad day, everything about my day was ruined too. Now I know I enabled her, but I didn’t know it at the time.”
Debbie still resisted seeing mental health professionals. Each time she agreed to try therapy it seemed as if the therapist did not or could not help. Kathy recalls one psychologist dismissing them saying, “I can’t do anything for anxiety.” She still wonders what psychologists can help with, if not anxiety.
There’s a striking contrast between Debbie today, with a fulfilling life and career, and the Debbie who couldn’t touch a door in a public building or fall asleep at night. What worked? Part of the answer was finding the right career. Recognizing that college would not be a good fit, she enrolled in culinary school, where she immediately immersed herself in her studies. Also during that time she found a psychiatrist who could help her and faithfully attended weekly sessions for several months. That, she says, is what cured her.
Kathy advises other parents going through similar challenges, “Don’t give up. Try to be positive, but above all, be patient – especially with yourself. I would beat myself up all the time, thinking, ‘What else can I do?’ The reality was, she wouldn’t have been ready even if I did anything else, even if it had been the perfect solution. She had to get there in her own good time.” Kathy’s plea to friends of parents and other family members is, “Don’t stay away because you are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Be available; be a listening ear. I had only a small handful of people – a close friend from church, the pastor and his wife – and they really were life-savers. Just say, ‘Let’s go out to dinner.’ It always worked for me!”
Jo Glasser is working on a book for publication by Blue Ear Books. She lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.