Through unrelenting hard work, a former client continues her journey to overcome specific phobia and OCD through ERP.
Enter my mid-twenties. Diagnosed with Rapid Cycling Bi-Polar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I didn’t want to leave the house, I was terrified of everything. My moods were all over the place, extreme highs, extreme lows. I started noticing I was checking and double-checking everything. It would take me 20 or 30 minutes before bed to make sure my back door was locked and shut. I’d check the front door just as many times. If I set a clock, I had to check and recheck, touching the am/pm light, alarm light, current time, alarm time, several times to make sure it was right. Even then I still feared I’d set it wrong. Before I left my driveway, I checked my wallet for my driver’s license and debit card many times. If I used my debit card, before I left a place I had to go through it all again. I couldn’t drive anywhere except familiar streets in my town, never the interstate. My world was so small.
I spent many, many nights doing research online for help. I’d seen an A&E show, Obsessed, and it looked terrifying. While it was, I’m sure, the patients always seemed to come out on the other side of ERP with more full lives. Maybe not perfect, maybe not completely cured, but so much better. I had considered admitting myself to “rehab” type places, inpatient treatment centers. What if this therapy could work?
So I found the Houston OCD Program, in downtown Houston. I made the call, shaking, and made the appointment. This is where Saharah Shrout entered my life. She is literally my walking guardian angel. She imwp-content/uploadstely made me feel comfortable. She kept clear boundaries, which I needed at the time. She held my hand but didn’t walk for me. She didn’t put up with my manipulations, my begging, my whining. We put in hard work.
She gave me so many tools to help repair my soul and my mind. We did exposures for several things, the checking, going out, etc. She taught me how to do my own exposures at home. The thing I wanted to focus on was the needles. I hadn’t had bloodwork in 21 years, and I had things I was worried about. So we focused on the needles.
The most important rule of ERP therapy, is not to bail. Don’t avoid. Don’t run. I had always done that. Anxiety hit a 10? Gone. Problem solved. With exposures, you sit through it. If it’s a 10, you sit through it. She kept telling me it would drop naturally. That it wasn’t the end of the world. I didn’t believe her at first, the phobia was so bad. But she was right. I could sit in a room with a needle. I could hold a capped syringe. Then I could take the cap off, and put it back on. After more exposures, I could hold the uncapped needle to my skin.
Next came my biggest fear, all going back to that pediatrician: loss of control. I was terrified if someone else was holding that needle, they would hurt me. They would catch me off guard. So we had several staff members hold the needle near or on my skin. I think those exposures were the hardest. I tried to talk the other members down, tried to manipulate, but they are too good for me there!
So I went through it. I learned how to breathe and take control of that anxiety. I learned it would go down all by itself. Then came the bloodwork appointment. Just me, my husband, and a phlebotomist. No Saharah there, with her soothing voice and her “What’s your anxiety level now?” It was just me, and I had the control. I could run, or I could sit.
That appointment was a mess. It did not go perfectly. I didn’t just walk in, and stick out my arm. I was not cured. I cried. I bargained. I wanted to leave. The amazing part was, I was going through those motions of how to get out of this, but my bottom stayed in that chair. Everything had gone wrong. I had been told a certain phlebotomist would be drawing my blood, and how good she was, and had been warned about my fear. Nope, she didn’t make it to work this morning, so here’s Miss so-and-so. Not a great start.
I explained everything. I babbled on about my traumatic experience. I went on about my therapy, and how this was one mega-exposure. I told her I wanted to leave. I am so thankful that for once, I got the medical professional who listened. She was patient and kind. She swabbed my arm, and waited. We talked. My husband asked me my anxiety, we talked through it. She applied the tourniquet (always the point I rip it off and leave). We talked. She got everything out, I told her I didn’t want to watch. She smiled. And then the needle went in. I opened my eyes and looked down. “That’s it?” I said to the room. She said, “Yup, we’re just about done and you did great!” In my opinion, I had totally failed. Why wasn’t this easier? Why did I have to cry and have a panic attack? It’s so easy to focus on the negative, instead of being so proud I stayed in that chair and was stuck! My husband was beaming. We knew I’d put in the work, we knew Saharah was a wonderful guide through this therapy, but neither of us were convinced I’d be able to do it. I did.
I went needle crazy. Two days later, I went to the pharmacy by myself and got a flu shot. I barely cried, and there was no yelling, no spectacle. When I got bronchitis, I got a shot. When I had to go to the ER, I got an IV. In November of that year, I got my ears pierced!
Everything was rocking and rolling, until September. I have chronic kidney stones, and I had the mother of all stones. I needed a CT, bloodwork, etc. I obliged without any fuss. We found out the stone was too large to pass, so I needed a procedure, where I’d be put to sleep.
It had been months since my last needle. The old fears came back when I was swabbed with alcohol. This time, the nurse stuck me twice and still had no luck. I’d had enough and asked for my husband. I told him I was done, that was it, the therapy didn’t work. The nurse came back with someone else. I, very reluctantly, agreed. We got the IV in.
The procedure was minor. The problem was what showed up in my scans. I had a tumor on my kidney that was likely cancerous. I am 32 years old.
I went imwp-content/uploadstely to MD Anderson in Houston. I cannot tell you how many times I have been stuck with needles there. Every test, scans with dye, etc. I had to have major surgery to remove the tumor. Multiple times during pre-surgery work-ups they had trouble finding my veins. Each time I had a little meltdown. Each time I felt compelled to explain myself. The important part: each time I stayed right there and got it done.
I was able to have the tumor removed, which was confirmed cancerous. I was lucky to catch it early, no chemotherapy, no radiation. Cancer-free. I’ll have checkups every six months, which include a few needles, but I know I’ll be fine. Most importantly, I’ll be alive.
In September, my life could have taken two paths with very different outcomes. It could have gone exactly as it did, which I’m thankful for. The new me is able to live another day.
The old me, would have gone down this path: No therapy. Kidney stone comes, needle phobia still in full swing. The doctor wants scans, I agree but no dye or needles. Scans show kidney stone, don’t show tumor. Stone’s too big, I don’t agree to procedure unless they gas me first. Assuming they allow that (they probably wouldn’t), the stone is crushed but no tumor is found. The tumor continues to grow, overtaking everything and eventually kills me. That was the scenario I would have been fine with before my ERP therapy.
I’m no longer okay with living that way. I use the tools Saharah gave me every day of my life. I’m still anxious, I still check things. I do it far less. I’ve learned to breathe through my anxiety, to let it subside, and to take back control. I go to places now, and while I may be scared to walk through the door, I do anyway. I eat at the busy restaurant. I go into the busy clothing store. I’m even driving on major interstates through downtown Houston now for the first time in 12 years. My world is growing!
What I’d say to any other person out there suffering through their OCD, or through a phobia, I beg you to consider ERP therapy. Don’t go off of television shows, they edit so much. It looks like too much too fast on TV, and it probably is. The right therapist will evaluate you, will start small, and teach you what you need to do. It does work. Thanks to the team at Houston OCD Program, and my loved ones, and a whole lot of work on my part, I’m living proof.
This blog was written by Desiree Byars and published by the Houston OCD Program with permission.