The Dirty Work of Keeping Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in Check

Away from home for a conference, Faye Lange takes a minute before heading out for what she calls "arguably the most difficult part of my day."

It's the part where she washes up. And it's never just a minute.

First, Lange washes her hands. And then it's the faucet. And because cleaning the faucet means she touched it, it's her hands again. And then it's her face, and then her hairbrush -- all with extreme thoroughness.

She talked about cleaning her brush: "I like to get in between the bristles as best I can kind of take them by rows."

After her hairbrush, it's her necklace. After 20 minutes, having cleansed a corner of her world of the death-inflicting germs that probably aren't there -- but could be -- Lange arms herself for the world outside with a refill from her massive traveling supply of Purell.

The name for this behavior is OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. Lange has it.

"OCD can control basically everything you do," Lange said. "If I had to guess, I'd say it took up 85 percent of my day."

For Lange, the cleaning is never really done. For example, there's that doorknob between her and the conference downstairs. Wet wipe in hand, she makes it through.

The conference is the 16th annual gathering of the International OCD Foundation. It's a three-day session, this time in Minneapolis, of workshops and lectures. At the conference, OCD, the fourth-most-common-form of mental illness, is treated like something of an adventure.

One of the highlights is a man in an Indiana Jones hat leading a troop of OCD sufferers on a make-believe camping trip through the halls of the Minneapolis Hyatt. Activities include kicking tires in the hotel parking garage; a session in which people pretend to be committing murder with knives; and, in the dark of night, a jump up-and-down in a dumpster. It all begins to make sense only when you get a better sense of what OCD is, and what forms it can take.

"I get scared at night and have to check under the bed a certain number of times," said one young girl at the conference.

"I find the need to write things perfectly, " said Nikka Hepburly, another conference-goer. "I may ball up anywhere from 20 to 30 pieces of paper until I feel like I've written it down perfectly."

"I would spend 45 minutes to an hour in the shower and would use the whole bottle [of shampoo] in one day," said Brendon Corbin.

And that man in the hat? Well, he also does some serious lectures. He's Dr. Jonathan Grayson, an authority on OCD.

"OCD is a biological disorder and a learned disorder, and basically the person is going to have obsessions," said Grayson.

"Obsessions are what they are afraid of. ... So at the core of OCD, the person is trying to be 100 percent certain. And you start asking a whole lot of questions that aren't answerable."

The questions are, however, logical, Grayson said -- which is part of the trap.

'A Nasty Form of Perfectionism'

Lange talked about not being able to touch doorknobs. She gets tripped up, she said, when she thinks about "possibly thousands of people touching them, and who knows what kind of diseases those people have....

"Deep down I do realize that there probably isn't that big of a risk. But still, the fear is there, and there's different relatives who've tried to help me. ... My internal thought is, 'Good for you. Gamble with your own health.'"

But OCD isn't always -- or just -- about germs. It can be any thought that makes you anxious and won't go away.

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