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It Happens in the Best of Families

My daughter is 22 and now living in New York. She lives on her own in Brooklyn with a big orange and white cat who has an overbite. She works and goes to school and lives pretty much as any normal 20 something. When Leslie was 14, she was struck with Obsessive/ Compulsive Disorder, or OC as it’s now called. In about a month’s time, she went from being a typical moody teenager to having contamination OC. Much is now known about the genetics of mental illness. Why it runs in families. Much mental illness can be classed as a neurological problem: or to put it very simply, the brain gets stuck in a pattern. Something mis-fires in the neurons. People with OC are not crazy. They are separated from people with schizophrenia and personality disorders by the fact that they know that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational. They just have terrible anxiety anyway. OC is a part of the spectrum of anxiety disorders.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this type of OC or any type of OC, let me start by describing what happens on a symptomatic level. This is just our experience. There are many degrees of OC and as many symptoms as there are sufferers.

Lesiie was in her freshman year of high school. She had been caught just before Christmas in a fight between two of her friends. Usually very well liked by her teachers, she was being picked on by a drama teacher at her school. Also, in the United States this is the year that cliques and harrassment of students by other students seems to peak. All of this was going on at her school. The worst of it hit just before Christmas. A friend who stayed with Leslie for a weekend during the fall while my husband and I were out of town had told me that Les was washing her hands constantly. Her father had mentioned that he had seen Les opening the door to her room with her foot. If she exhibited any of these behaviors in front of me, I missed them. The average OC sufferer goes 9 years before receiving treatment. We count ourselves lucky that it was only a few months until we figured out what was wrong,

Upon going back to school in January after the holiday break, Leslie’s contamination anxiety sprialed out of control. Certain parts of our house became “contaminated” to her. She would no longer go into her bedroom and slept in our guest room. If any article of her clothing touched the floor, she would no longer use it Even if it was washed again. She washed her hands constantly at the kitchen sink, but wouldn’t dry her hands with a regular towel. She would only use paper towels. Since the trash was contaminated, she left the used towels on the kitchen counter. They would stack up almost a foot high on the kitchen counter if I didn’t constantly throw them away. Her hands became raw and cracked and bleeding from all of the washing. She wore long sleeves to school to hide her hands. Normally an animal lover, she no longer touched our cats and dogs The list of symptoms is long. I won’t go into all of them. These are just a few of many. We all three felt like prisoners in our own home.

Her dad and I were panicked. We had no idea what was wrong. One Saturday morning when we were at our lowest, we were in our home office.I was sitting at the computer staring at the screen not doing much of anything. When the luckiest intuitive flash of my life struck. My college abnormal psychology class came back to me. I’d been out of school since 1972, but I bless the professor that I had for that class. I looked at my husband and said, “Oh my God! She has Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder!”, and turned around and plugged every form of the term that I could think of into my browser. One of the hits was the web site for the Obsessive/Compulsive Foundation. That was the start of our finding treatment for Leslie.

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  • Patricia L. Ballard
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