Author Explains Why Those With OCD Are Expert Actors
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You? commentary. That's in just a few minutes.
But, first, we go behind closed doors as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues that people usually keep private. Today we turn to a woman who grew up believing that her body would burst into flames if she thought enough about it. Who, after her family had gone to sleep would habitually check the locks on the doors of the house. Not to mention, obsessed over whether the leftover lunchmeat was wrapped thoroughly enough to prevent her family from being poisoned.
That is Traci Foust, who lived with obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD. She's 39 years old now and she says the symptoms are still with her but no longer control her life. And she writes about all this in a charming, funny and provocative new memoir titled "Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD." And Traci Foust joins us now from San Diego. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
TRACI FOUST: Hi, Michel. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, when did you - I know you don't love the term normal - but when did you start to think that something wasn't quite right?
FOUST: When I really started to notice was when I was about 10 and I began spending the night at friends' houses. And you sort of use your friends as a gauge to figure out how you're supposed to behave. And I would see that my friends weren't up in the middle of the night checking all of the door locks or making sure the boloney was wrapped.
And once I spent enough time realizing that not everybody did this every single night, and not everybody washed their hands 40 and 50 times a day. Although I always felt that something was wrong, it really was when I was about 10 that I started seeing other people didn't do these things.
MARTIN: I want to read a passage from the book. And I do just want to mention that the passage contains a word that some people might find offensive, so I'm just going to shorten the word as I read, just to get the flavor of it. OK?
(Reading) When you're little and told all the time that the world doesn't revolve around you, but all you have to do is take a look at all the upset faces and eyebrows turned down and naps being taken for nerves that can't get settled, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that though the world may not be revolving around you, it sure is a pretty damn f-ed up place because you're in it. That's a hard thing to put into words and explain to your shrink.
You know, kids are - all kids want the approval of the people around them.
FOUST: Sure. Yeah.
MARTIN: So it must be pretty hard to be a child and to see people constantly irritated at you, but not know why. 'Cause for you it seems perfectly OK to be doing what you're doing, right? Is that...
FOUST: Right. That's absolutely right. But then again, after a while I would see that I was kind of the focus of the family, because nobody really knew what to do with me. I had to see several psychiatrists before it was diagnosed and then - and after it was diagnosed. And after a while, you just get used to that sort of attention.
MARTIN: Tell me what OCD is. I mean, this is the kind - it's interesting to hear that a memoir about OCD because this is the kind of thing that has become part of the lexicon now. People almost joke about it. They go, oh, stop being, you know, OCD.
MARTIN: That kind of thing.
FOUST: It's my OCD coming out. Yeah.
MARTIN: Right. But tell us exactly what it is.
FOUST: It's a clinical anxiety disorder. And clinical means that usually it's handled either by prescription medication or cognitive therapy by a professional therapist or psychoanalyst. And it's also chronic, meaning that it really never goes away. You can control the symptoms, but obsessive compulsive disorder manifests itself in obsessive thinking. You're always thinking, what if this happens? What if I don't check the locks before I go to bed and a robber comes in and my whole family is murdered? And this kind of obsessive behavior goes on constantly.
It's a running dialogue in your mind, all day and late into the evening. And then you start to perform these rituals, which are the compulsions of touching things, checking things, having to say certain words. For instance, every time I heard the word God, I would have to snap my fingers. And every time I took a shower, I would have to make sure that the shampoo bottles were an even number of shampoo bottles or I was afraid that I would drown in the shower.
FOUST: It just goes on.
MARTIN: It goes on. Well, the National Institute of Mental Health, if people want to check this out later, it says that just as you said, it's defined as persistent upsetting thoughts or obsessions and it says that you use these rituals to control the anxiety that these thoughts produce. And they also say that some two million adults, anyway, are known to suffer. You know, it seems pretty clear, though, when you're engaging in these kinds of rituals that people - somebody would clue into this. But you said that you're actually - it took a while before people figured it out, and that you were kind of sent to doctor after doctor.
MARTIN: At one point, they thought you had schizophrenia...
MARTIN: ...because you were hearing voices. Why did it take so long to figure out? I mean, this whole, these ritual compulsions and stuff like that seems like a pretty clear pattern of behavior.
FOUST: Yeah, but, Michel, you know what? If you're not looking for those signs, people who have anxiety problems, they get very good at acting, acting like everything's OK. And you sort of learn how to blend into everything. For instance, I used to hyperventilate a lot. And I used to carry a paper bag in my purse for the times when I felt like I couldn't breathe. But not all the time I had my purse with me, so I learned to cup my hands over my face and to breathe through that and to take deep breaths to talk myself out of a panic attack.
And if somebody saw me doing that - which a lot of people did see me doing that - I would say, oh, God, my hands are cold. I've got to blow on my hands. And it's that sort of thing, that you become an expert at acting and trying to blend in.
MARTIN: How did people finally figure out what it was that was behind these rituals?
FOUST: In the book, I mention, actually, that my mother and my sister would read my journals. And they shared this - you know, when you're a minor, there's no patient confidentiality. So they can pretty much share anything with your parents. And this diagnosis was kind of not brought to me until I was in the car with my mother and she just sort of said, well, you have OCD, and this - we're going to go home.
But it was kind of a shock that my mother knew about it, my sister knew about it, my doctors know about it before I did. And I think back in the '80s, that's kind of how it was handled if you were a juvenile. But I didn't really start to feel better once I got a diagnosis. Feeling better took many, many years.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
We're speaking with Traci Foust about her new memoir, "Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD." I mentioned in the introduction that the memoir's actually very funny. I mean, I don't know if you agree.
FOUST: Thank you.
MARTIN: I mean, I was hoping you intended it to be a little bit funny.
FOUST: Yes. Oh, I did, because that's - I've always helped myself with humor, and that, you know...
MARTIN: I just don't want people to think I'm being mean, here. But it is actually very funny.
FOUST: Yeah. Well, you know, if you step back and you look at an obsessive compulsive doing all of the rituals, they really are crazy funny. I mean, somebody who has to touch their doorknobs with baby wipes or, like, what I do now at home when I'm making a sandwich, I have to have my dust buster right there because I'm afraid of any crumbs fall onto the floor, that it's going to cross contaminate the floor with food particles.
And so if I can look at myself from the outside, and I think, God, that's really, really bizarre and then turn it into humor, it does help to ease the stigma, actually, of having a mental illness.
MARTIN: You talk about - that is hard - it was hard on you, but it's also hard on your family, as you described in the book.
FOUST: Yes, very much.
MARTIN: I mean, one gets the sense that they could've been a little bit more sympathetic to you, particularly when you were a child and you were sort of struggling. But, you know, your parents split up when you were a child.
FOUST: Right. Right.
MARTIN: That's hard, no matter what the circumstance. At one point, you and your mom decide that you both need a break from each other. So you were sent to live with your grandma, who owned a nursing home.
MARTIN: That was interesting.
(soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Want to talk a little bit about that?
FOUST: So I was living in a nursing home, yes, where you actually - well, the two sides of that coin is you think, oh God, they're going to put this girl who is obsessed with germs, who's a germaphobic, and they're going to send her to a nursing home where it's all about germs and everything.
But, actually, you know, at my grandmother's, I had access to all the things that I loved. And I loved latex gloves, face masks, disinfectant, all of that stuff, anything that had to do with cleaning a hospital style. And, of course, I loved my grandmother and being around her. And I had to work there to sort of earn my keep.
So within all of living in this craziness of a nursing home, where we had combative elderly patients and Alzheimer's patients, you start to come out of yourself, meaning that instead of spending all of this time in my own head and worrying about my OCD and worrying about being nervous and anxious all the time, spending a lot of time around these people actually helped me to stop focusing so much on myself.
I was around everything that I feared. I was around illness. I was around germs. And it kind of meshed into my brain that it was going to help me ease myself out of myself.
MARTIN: What else was helpful? That was where I was going next, actually.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask, how did you finally get control of it? To the point where you could function?
FOUST: Yeah. Ultimately, in the end, I decided to get on medication, which helped me tremendously. And I'm still on medication today. I'm still in therapy, and I would never go back to not seeing a doctor or not being in therapy or try to get off my meds or anything like that. That's ultimately what helped.
If I could say one thing mastered it, it's journaling and accepting that this is me being on medication and not really caring what other people think, because that was a big part of anxiety, is caring about what other people think.
MARTIN: At the end of the book, you also have, like, a Q&A, where you answered just some basic questions about OCD. So I wanted to ask - if you wouldn't mind answering a couple of those for people who are listening to our conversation and might want to know just some basic things. I think some people might want to know: Is there something that sparks it?
FOUST: Well, you know, anything can trigger anxiety. You can have a car accident. You can have, you know, an illness that will trigger anxiety. But OCD starts at such a young age in children. The symptoms can begin at - I think the mean onset age is around nine in girls. And usually, you can't pinpoint a moment where this just started to happen. In fact, it's funny, when you talk to somebody who has OCD and has anxiety problems and you ask them: When did the symptoms start? You know, I try to go back and I try to make a mental picture of exactly when. But the truth is, I don't ever remember not having OCD symptoms.
So, yeah, there usually isn't anything that triggers the beginning of it, that symptoms can be triggered. Yeah.
MARTIN: You mentioned that girls are twice as likely to be diagnosed as boys. Any idea why?
FOUST: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. My first psychiatrist told me that my symptoms of OCD would lessen once I started menstruating, and that's actually very true - the hormonal imbalance that happens in a girl's body the year before she gets her period. And I had friends and - or nieces who display slight OCD symptoms. And then when they start their periods, it seems to go away. But that didn't happen with me. And I think that they were kind of waiting for that to happen with me before they started any intense therapy, to see if it would just go away, and it didn't.
MARTIN: What would you like people to know as a result of your writing?
FOUST: Well, I most want anybody to know who has any kind of depression or clinical anxiety issues that you have to be able to step outside of yourself. One of the exercises that helped me so much was just to keep repeating in my head two words. And those two words were: So what? If you just spend a little less time worrying about what people are thinking about you, you would see symptoms of anxiety ease so much. Because I'll tell you what, when you're on the bus, you're on the plane or you're in the movie theater and you're feeling panicky and you've got OCD symptoms and they're manifesting and you think everybody's looking at you, I can guarantee you, they are not looking at you.
They're texting. They're talking to their friends. They're worried about their own clothes or their own shoes or their own hair. And that kind of thinking is so freeing, and I had to get to that point before I could write the book. But that's the ultimate message.
MARTIN: Traci Foust is the author of the new memoir "Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD." She joined us from San Diego. Traci Foust, thank you so much for joining us, and our very best wishes to you.
FOUST: Well, thank you so much for having me on the show. I had a great time.
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