Sept. 15, 2011 — -- Eugene Bata is young and handsome. The New York City resident could easily be mistaken for a younger version of dashing actors Mario Lopez and Ralph Macchio.
But until recently, Bata, 20, saw anything but Hollywood good looks when he studied himself in the mirror. What he saw, he said, was straight out of a horror film.
He saw an ugly man, with small eyes, an oddly-shaped nose and skin so wrinkled that he considered getting Botox treatments.
"When I looked in the mirror, I wouldn't be able to stop, because I was desperate to fix my face, to camouflage it … There were times I would stare for hours, that I couldn't tear myself away," he told "Good Morning America."
Bata suffers from body dysmorphic disorder. People with this mental illness see a distorted – and often grotesque – version of themselves when they look into the mirror.
His self-loathing grew so strong that he started missing school. At first, it was just for a few days, then a few weeks. At his lowest point, he contemplated suicide.
In his attempts to make himself look presentable, he showered up to five times per day, and even bought makeup for his nose.
Severe BDD can ruin a person's life, Dr. Katharine Phillips, a psychiatrist and BDD expert, told "GMA." "People with this disorder think they're so ugly, they just don't want to leave the house. I've seen people with BDD that haven't left the house in five or six years," she said.
As many as five million Americans are thought to be affected by the condition, but awareness of it isn't high because of the stigma.
"It's a very secret disorder," Phillips said. "Many people with body dysmorphic disorder are very ashamed of their symptoms. They're worried if they talk about their fear … people are going to think they're vain. And the reality is, BDD is not vanity."
Telltale signs of BDD include a desire to look into the mirror all the time -- or not at all, the urge to change clothes multiple times a day and a deep interest in – even an addiction to – cosmetic procedures.
Several celebrities are believed to have suffered from the disorder, including pop icon Michael Jackson – although that has never been verified.
It is not clear what causes BDD, but researchers believe genetics and traumatic childhood experiences – such as bullying and parental neglect – play critical roles.
Heather Davis says being teased about her complexion in adolescence pushed her from being merely self-conscious into the dark world of BDD.
What started out as concern for her skin became an obsession. Heather was unable to tear herself away from the mirror. Sometimes she stared at her image for five hours in a single day.
"It affects your family, your friends because they really don't know what's going on," the 36-year-old said. " I didn't go out. I didn't really socialize. It's like I was locked inside my body."
Then came paranoia.
"If I had a small flaw or anything out of the ordinary on my face, it would look gigantic to me, where if I went to the mall, or anywhere, it seemed like everyone was looking at it and focusing in on me," she said.
A diagnosis of BDD when Davis was 19 was life-saving. Today, she takes selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors to treat her disorder, and is monitored by Dr. Phillips. She now has a boyfriend, a job and a circle of friends, but BDD remains a dark cloud in her life.
"Some days I do have bad days where I feel terrible and don't want to leave the house. But I do. That's the difference now," she said.
There is no known cure for BDD, but researchers say patients can live normal, productive lives if they receive a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Bata, who was diagnosed more than a year ago, says he's feeling better. He remains in treatment, is applying to colleges and says he's ready to take on the world, one step at a time.
"I've been doing more exercise, going out more, talking to friends, doing more things for me than things for BDD … Before I was 95 percent certain that I was hideous-looking. Now I'm 45 percent certain that I'm hideous," he said. "Maybe one day that will be zero."