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A Chip Off The Old Block
by Leon Baxter
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

When Madison was born everyone said she was the spitting image of me, her old man: the eyes, her jaw line, skin tone. In the delivery room she had one ear plastered against her head and the other perpendicular to her noggin, an awkward blending of both Mom and Dad. Then, two days later, that first ear popped right out, too, just like mine. A chip off the old block.

By the time she was two, I was bragging about how my daughter always made sure every drawer was closed before leaving a room. When other toddlers were fighting tooth and nail to avoid brushing their teeth, Madison would remind us if we happened to forget. She took precious time on her artwork and was very careful about coloring within the lines of her coloring books. She was an early counter and enjoyed dumping her Duplo Blocks and counting them over and over. When she was done, every block had to be put back in the box and the box returned to the right spot on the right shelf... Ah, a girl after my own heart.

See, I like order. I thrive on balance. Each tree in my yard gets seven minutes and thirty seconds of water every three days. No more, no less. I’m a man with a self-proclaimed type-A personality. Call me anal-retentive, if you will. I embrace the title.

I’m a list man. I need organization. On Halloween night, I help Madison divide her sweet bounty into separate ziplock bags: gum, chocolate bars, hard candy, taffy. I balance the family checkbook to the penny every week. I pay the bills, and vacuum daily. I create our monthly budget. Before our vacations I plan every minute of every day... you know, so we don’t waste any precious vacation time. I buy Christmas gifts starting in July, prepare Halloween costumes in June, Valentines in November and birthday and anniversary surprises six months ahead of time.

I loved Madison’s early organization skills, a mini me. As she grew older, the prouder I became of my little girl. Smart, early reader, never talked back, made terrific friends. Teachers praised her reasoning ability and how she built relationships. Other parents liked having her over for playdates.

“She’s so polite,” they’d say. “She plays so well.”

Of course, I attributed my near-perfect child to my wife’s and (especially) my parenting skills. I used the same technique in parenting that I used in running my efficient life: Be consistent. Don’t waste time. Plan ahead. I’d found the secret of parenting... become an anal-retentive dad.

Madison was just about to turn six. She would be “graduating” from kindergarten and we’d planned a huge trip to the East Coast to visit my grandmother. That’s when we first started to notice the changes. Madison seemed to have become more anxious than ever, even a bit neurotic. You couldn’t tell her a story without her constantly interrupting for more details:

“... and the kids entered a dark forest...”
“Why was it dark? Was it night or was there just a lot of trees?
“There were trees. Anyway, as they walked into the forest...”
“What kinds of trees were they?”

We could never finish any books. Madison also became incredibly sensitive like we’d never seen, crying uncontrollably over what seemed to be such inconsequential things.

“I can’t find my red crayon.”
“Don’t worry. We have more.”
“But, I need to find that red crayon. It would complete my set.”

Maybe it was all the changes: the new class, turning six, flying to New York. After each of these passed, the anxiety remained, got worse even. My wife told me it was just a phase our daughter was going through. I so wanted to believe her, but something wouldn’t let me.

I knew it was more than a phase the day I saw Madison use a scarf to open her door. I began to pay closer attention to her and her actions. She would turn the faucet on and off with her elbows, rather than her hands. She refused to walk barefoot across our linoleum kitchen floor.

We sat our girl down and had talks about “dirty” and germs. She told us that she knew these things in our home weren’t dirty. She just felt like they were anyway. I couldn’t understand her. She’d always been such a logical youngster. Where had my chip gone?

Soon Madison’s hands became chapped and raw from the incessant washing. She wouldn’t use public toilets anymore. She’d go through a box of Kleenex a night, to wipe her nose (which, by the way, wasn’t running), leaving a white mountain of tissue by her bed every morning. My daughter stopped touching me when she believed I’d been exercising and hadn’t yet showered.

None of this made any sense. I was having difficulty relating to my little girl. I tried to fight these changes. I’d get frustrated, then angry, which would lead to more anxiety on her part, a terrible angst and frustration-riddled cycle that appeared would never end.

As it turned out, Madison had OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by obsessions (recurrent and persistent thoughts) and compulsions (repetitive behaviors one feels compelled to perform). What did this mean? What would happen to my little girl?

I remember one day, a couple months into this new world, I heard Madison in her room. She sounded upset. I peeked in. She was crying and talking with herself:

“I know I should, but it’s just so hard.”

I don’t know what she was upset about, but she was torn, and I knew it was the OCD. It was as though she were at a tug-of-war and she was pulling against herself. Tears were running down her cheeks. I snuck away before she could see me, tears running down my cheeks, too.

She was only six years old and was battling herself to the point of tears in the solitude of her room. She had no idea I’d seen her that one day. How many other times had she had similar battles? Why couldn’t she just get passed these things? She’s so smart. She’s so strong. Just get passed them!

I was losing my daughter. OCD had stolen her and I was afraid she’d never return. It felt like I had no idea where to go, or what to do to get her back. I was angry and sad and grieving and confused.

“Meds,” I told my wife. “Let’s get her on any kinds of meds we need to, to stabilize her, to get her back.”

I foresaw a future for my daughter filled with frustration, depression, substance abuse as an escape and most troubling, suicide. I’d never been so scared in all my life. No matter what I did, who I contacted, how much I spent, how hard I threatened, I had no control over this thing. No control. The one thing I strove for in my life. Control.

We went to therapy, read books on and checked out websites about OCD. One day as my wife and I listened to a CD with a teenage girl’s personal account of her OCD experience as a child, some things rang a bit familiar to me. She said she would count the letters in every word she would say in a conversation. It made talking tough, so she ended up speaking less and less.

I was eleven and I can recall the need to have to spell the words I’d say in conversation: “Good morning, Mom.” Followed by, “ G-O-O-D-M-O-R-N-I-N-G-M-O-M,” spelled quietly under my breath. Because of all the time it took, my speech became unnatural and, I too, decided to hold my tongue more often than not.

I listened more to this young lady on the CD. She needed evenness in her life, balance. Touch something on one side, had to touch it on the other.

“I know about evenness,” I thought to myself. I had to be sure I finished all of my food at the same time. No leftover rice. Couldn’t finish the chicken before the beans. The more I listened, it finally dawned on me. I had OCD, too.

The lists, the way I stacked the dishes in the dryer so all the space was maximized, how I had to be sure I brushed the same amount of time on the top teeth as the bottom. All symptoms of what I called my anal-retentiveness, my type-A personality, my OCD.

I’d been afflicted for what must have been at least twenty-five years. Yet, here I was, a grown man with a beautiful family and a terrific life. I had been a successful high school athlete. I performed well academically in college. I had experienced long term, romantic relationships. I held down a good job. I wasn’t a victim of depression or substance abuse. Suicide was something I’d never considered. OCD doesn’t have to be the sentence to a life of horrid struggles.

A couple of months later, with some behavior therapy and a better understanding of OCD, Madison made fantastic strides. We worked on it as a family. I told her that I know what it’s like feeling like you have to do something that you know just isn’t logical. She felt good knowing she wasn’t alone in this world. I felt good knowing she was back in my world.

The OCD still rears it’s ugly head, but we don’t fear it any longer. Madison’s going to be okay. How do I know? She’s a chip off the old block, y’know.

Published: Oct 10,2008 17:32
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