Family Emergency Prompts OCD Coping Skills
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I was not prepared for this to happen. Still, for the most part, I remembered to use the OCD coping skills I have practiced for years.
October 14, 2021.
We sat in an out-patient surgi–center waiting room for my husband Ed to be called in for a medical procedure. My OCD triggers include disease, health issues, and hospitals. Four years of COVID–19 and its variants, Omicron, made my symptoms worse. Shopping and seeing anyone in public terrified me. Furious at the COVID deniers and anti–vaxxers. My first response to seeing anyone without a mask was to run from them. Disease and death are just a few of my OCD triggers. Since COVID was deadly, my fear of catching it was akin to that of cancer, the disease that took my mother at age sixty.
My only calming place was a parking lot at a small craft airport, opposite a park. While watching the planes take off, I dreamed of flying to an isolated cabin in the woods. Since dogs are another trigger, walking in a park was not going to happen.
Ed was going in for a colonoscopy. The surgeon had performed this procedure on me for over fifteen years. However, my mind still led me to question: what if something goes wrong during the surgery? What if he passes away? What if….What if?
I have yearly screenings for the most common cancers, especially those in my family’s gene pool. Excessively worried, I prepare myself for mammograms and ultrasounds with guided meditation, visual imagery, and soothing music. Under a doctor’s care, I take prescribed anti–anxiety and depression medication. These medications help to alleviate the panic attacks, but they are not a cure-all for my reactions to triggers. The meds help me to step back and observe the triggers and realize the lack of danger, instead of running away.
As per the doctor’s instructions, Ed fasted all day, and consumed a clear, liquid diet. Late in the afternoon he drank water mixed with the prescribed dose of MiraLAX. At 10 PM he told me he felt dizzy, and had tingling sensations in his hands and feet. “It’s because I didn’t have anything to eat,” he said, “this happens to me all the time.”
The next day, Ed was a bit wobbly, but insisted on going through with the procedure.
Doubts about his surgery nagged at me. My stomach in knots, I asked Ed, “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
I felt stuck, not knowing what to do. Like with every decision I ever had to make, OCD tortured me with, ‘What should I do? What if I make the wrong decision?’ Round and round, and… Except, I did not have days or hours to obsess about this decision. We had to leave now.
At about 6 AM I drove through the eerily empty streets of town to the medical facility. Uneasiness and fear clung to me like a cloak.
Inside the waiting area, wearing COVID masks, we sat far away from the other patients, family members, and partners. Heart beating rapidly, sweating, and nauseous, I took in deep breaths, exhaled, and drank water. Ed was called into surgery, but I was not permitted to stay with him in the surgical preparation cubicle.
I stepped out of the building for a few minutes to do some stretching exercises to work out the tension in my neck, shoulders, arms, and legs.
Still, back inside the waiting room, I needed to listen to soothing guitar riffs on Spotify.
A few hours later, the physician’s assistant told me everything went well and Ed was free to leave the facility. She helped Ed into the car. I said to my husband, “Did you tell the prep nurse about your symptoms?”
“Ummm,” he nodded, still woozy from the anesthesia.
At home I helped him out of the car. I noticed his right leg dragged. Ed ate a few chocolate chip granola bars, drank some water, and took a nap. Checking in on him often, he seemed fine.
Exhausted from the adrenaline of morning, I still couldn’t find rest. Getting enough rest is part of my self–care regimen. Without sleep my anxiety level can escalate. I listened to the sounds of the ocean and eventually drifted off to sleep.
At 12 PM I woke up and checked on Ed. “Sommm,” he said. Alarmed by his slurred speech, I picked my cell, ready to call 911.
Ed is a stubborn man. I called our primary physician’s office. We made an appointment with the physician’s assistant. Stress level climbing, I hoped the PA would diagnose my husband’s condition and tell us if we should go to the E.R.
Inside the exam room, the doctor asked Ed to walk, tested his vision, and listened to my husband’s slurred speech. I pointed out that Ed’s left leg was dragging. “I don’t think he’s had a stroke. Not necessary to go to the ER,” the PA said. He scribbled the name of a neurologist on an office form. “Make an appointment and they’ll run some tests.”
“But don’t you think…,” I said.
Ed waved an arm to say, It’s fine. Let me take care of everything.
After all these years together, I can know what Ed is going to say before he does. I did not want to upset him further by arguing. I had seen this PA before for a minor issue. He seemed nonchalant, then. His attitude about Ed’s condition unnerved me.
Slow, deep breaths. Exhale. Repeat.
The receptionist made an appointment with the neurologist for us.
At home I clutched my cell, ready to call 911. Frustrated and exhausted, my fears escalated. What if he had a stroke? What if we’re too late and he dies? What if…
I forced myself to eat a sandwich and drink some water. Maintaining a healthy diet helps to ward off my OCD triggers. Food and water supplied the energy and clarity I needed to face the tough days ahead.
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Listening to a book on tape, I managed to fall asleep. The following morning, we went to the neurologist’s office. The PA examined Ed and asked us questions about his symptoms. “I’m ordering a CAT scan, STAT,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “Where do we go next?” I was ready to take Ed to radiology after leaving the office.
“Oh, no. Not now,” she said.
“But you said, ‘STAT.’ Doesn’t that mean, now?”
“No. The imaging office will call you to schedule an appointment.”
“You want us to wait, seriously?” Angry and frustrated, I felt the heat in my face. Ed waved his good hand, telling me to relax. He did not like me to disagree with medical experts.
Home, again. With Ed resting next to me in our bedroom, I listened to some guided imagery, and fell asleep. Seven hours later, the phone rang. Groggy, I answered it. It was the neurologist’s PA. “I discussed your husband’s case with the doctor,” she said. “Call 911.”
“What? Why didn’t you call us sooner?” I looked at the clock. “It’s 1AM.”
Slow, deep, breaths. Exhale. Repeat.
911 connected me to the fire department. An ER van parked at our house. Five men came out. A fireman checked Ed’s vitals: body temperature, pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure. Ed’s blood pressure was high.
“What you want to do, ma’am,” he said.
“Aren’t you going to take him to the ER?” I said.
“Well, that’s up to you, ma’am.”
“What? Isn’t that your decision? That’s why I called you.” My head ached. Defeated, I sat and guzzled down some water. Instead of getting help, I was left drifting in the wind.
“The hospital isn’t too far away. You should drive him over. It will save you the cost of the ambulance ride.”
Nerves frayed, head spinning, I was not in an ideal driving condition. “Ed, what do you want to do?” I said.
My husband’s eyes were bloodshot, teary, and looked frightened. “Eeee Rrrrr.” “If that’s all, we’ll be on our way,” the fireman said. After they left, I gathered my cell phone, bottles of water, a few granola bars, and my shoulder bag. I helped Ed into the car and drove through the empty streets of the sleepy town.
Slow, deep breaths. Exhale. Repeat.
I was annoyed at the EMTs for unloading this decision on me. Shaky, I drove slowly, fearful a cop was waiting in a secluded spot, ready to pull me over.
At the ER an orderly helped Ed into a wheelchair. I found a place to park, donned two masks, and went inside the waiting room.
Slow breaths. Exhale. Repeat.
The ER waiting area was quiet. A couple and their child huddled together in a cluster of seats. A nurse showed me to Ed’s examining cubicle. Every minute in the ER was torture for me, but I didn’t leave my husband’s side, once. Memories of my mom’s 6–month battle from terminal cancer haunted me. I flinched when a nurse, PA, or medical tech came to take Ed’s blood, check his vitals, and perform an EKG. At 4 AM the on–call physician admitted Ed to the stroke wing of the hospital.
Glassy–eyed and worn out, I got lost on the way home. Scared and afraid, what if my car breaks down, what if a cop stopped me?
A cop did flag me down while driving home from work on a desolate street at night.
Ed spent a week in the hospital. Then, he was moved upstairs to the stroke rehab floor and stayed for three weeks.
Ed wanted me to visit him every day, but to maintain good mental and physical health, I had to say, “No.” I felt some guilt but my mental health is more important. Without me he could not get the care he needs at home, attend doctor’s appointments, my love, and devotion.
For three weeks Ed had physical, speech, occupational, and memory therapy. Afterwards the therapists came to the house. They taught me to take Ed’s blood pressure, something I was scared of doing. Yet, I learned. I joined a Stroke Survivors Family support group and an OCD and Anxiety peer–run group.
Ed learned to use a rolling walker. He failed his post–stroke driving test and his license was revoked. Now, I am the driver, another trigger. Impatient drivers weave and cut in front of me. I stay off highways and expressways. It’s exhausting as the only driver in our household. I’ve learned to alternate my driving days to manage the stress.
Nearing his one-year stroke anniversary, Ed’s left leg still lags. He has limited use of his left hand, impaired short-term memory, and hearing loss. He has difficulty understanding and speaking in full sentences.
Yet, Ed was one of the lucky ones. His stroke could have been worse.
Determined to visit every baseball and football stadium in the United States, he practiced walking until he did not need any assistance. For years we traveled by plane. Crowded airports, flight delays, and unmasked passengers, although not mandated, are triggers.
Still, I refuse to give in. Balancing my caregiving role, carving out time myself for me is challenging. My husband is way more demanding than he was before his stroke.
He has short term memory loss and has difficulty remembering what I say. Repeating statements to him, reminding him to get dressed, and helping him to find his cell is exhausting. Besides making his doctor appointments, driving to them, picking up his meds, and food shopping, there are days I have to say, “No,” to what he wants.
I am a small business owner and need to devote a portion of my time to keep it running.
Applying my OCD coping skills, I am confident about the future.