Finding the way to something better
In third grade, Steven Goldberg* became fixated on cleanliness, washing his hands incessantly to disinfect himself from germs. His mom recounts times his father had to shut off the water supply to the house to force him to stop showering after hours of washing off the dirt from the day.
Severe anxiety over new situations or changes in routine caused panic attacks. In those moments, he experienced physical pain from feeling like he couldn’t breathe as well as emotional pain over not being able to understand or to control his situation. At the age of eight, Steven was diagnosed with severe anxiety, seasonal depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Treating the symptoms
Steven went to multiple doctors when his condition began to paralyze him. The standard medications given for OCD and anxiety are selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Instead of helping him, these medications caused major emotional breakdowns unlike any he had exhibited before.
Lithium was the next option given to Steven. Concerned about the potential side effects of lithium — trembling, hypothyroidism, slurred speech, and heart arrhythmia, his parents searched for other options.
Sessions with a psychologist addressed his conditions as well as the emotional pain Steven endured. However, therapy alone was not enough to make significant changes.
Steven’s OCD and anxiety affected him at school. He now says that he was “rigid and inflexible.” Teachers and staff were not trained or equipped to help or understand him. Steven’s parents moved him in the middle of fourth grade to a therapeutic school that promised to teach him social skills and coping mechanisms.
Steven excelled in his new environment with respect to his education as well as addressing his conditions. Through fifth grade, this school seemed to be a good fit for him.
However, when Steven graduated to middle school in sixth grade, things changed dramatically. Steven found himself in a small classroom with students who had very different needs than his own. His classmates had varying degrees of autism as well as behavioral and learning disabilities. Treatment plans for these students were different than what Steven needed, yet he had to follow the same protocol.
Arguments and physical fights were a daily occurrence in the classroom. Steven experienced bullying, which exacerbated his anxiety. Talking about this part of his journey is painful for Steven.
Multiple daily group therapy sessions to address the day’s disturbances were not helpful to Steven, who never provoked his peers. Any form of standard schooling was almost non-existent. This was not the right environment for him.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
The school administration did not feel Steven was ready to return to traditional school. To supplement his mental and emotional well-being, his parents arranged for a cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) to work with Steven at home.
The process forced Steven to address his fears head on, whether he liked it or not. Exercises included touching the laundry then eating a snack without washing his hands—an experience that is especially triggering for someone with OCD.
Steven now realizes that “the way to overcome OCD is to face it. You have to realize that this isn’t rational.”
Introduction to cannabidiol
Steven found some pharmaceutical medications helpful, but his family wanted to explore holistic approaches. He began seeing a doctor whose practice combined Western medicine with evidenced-based complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to promote well-being.
This sought-after physician suggested cannabidiol (CBD) to aid Steven in managing his OCD and anxiety. She had witnessed the positive effects of CBD use in her own practice and guided the family through the legal and experimentation processes.
Steven’s mom was willing to give it a try after having seen a documentary on CNN with Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the life-saving effects CBD had on children with rare forms of epilepsy. CBD has no psychoactive properties and has little to no known side effects. It had given these children a second chance at life, and his mom was hopeful it would help Steven.
A new side of Steven
Steven refers to CBD as his oil. He takes it in pill form once before school and then again around dinner time. The daily obstacles that once paralyzed Steven have become more manageable.
Steven also uses a CBD tincture, a liquid form of the extract, that is administered in drops on the tongue and acts faster than his daily pills. When he begins to feel “red alarms and sirens” going off in his brain, he asks for oil to get through these situations.
Before he started using CBD, he painfully agonized over whether he could survive the next few moments during a panic attack. He has learned that this too shall pass. He redirects his attention or “switches gears” until he has access to his oil.
CBD has not cured Steven’s OCD, anxiety or depression, but he says it is “one of the best things I found” to manage his symptoms. He proclaims that he would recommend it to anyone who shares his invisible mental struggles.
Time to move on
Steven just started eighth grade at a traditional school after four years in therapeutic school. His mom believes that without the use of CBD and cognitive behavioral therapy he would not have been able to make this transition. Steven said he knew he could do it. He just “needed a chance.”
A teacher recently asked his class to describe school. Steven’s answer was “privilege.
What lies ahead
Steven says he wants to be an engineer and an astronaut. Two summers ago, Steven was able to attend a physics camp at a prestigious university. This past year he went to a four-week camp, a testament to his personal growth. He also tested into his school’s Science Olympiad program and hopes to make it to the national competition this year.
Steven is extremely self-aware of his OCD and anxiety. He is proud of the coping mechanisms he has learned, realizes that structure and scheduling are important, and knows that CBD helps him manage his everyday life.
If there was one thing I could tell people who don’t have OCD is to remember to be understanding because although it may seem irrational to you, it feels very, very real to the person that has it.
*To protect the privacy of the minor featured in this story, his name has been changed.