- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

VARINA, Va. (AP) - John Votta’s world in Varina was collapsing around him.

Each time he’d touch something that someone else had touched before him, like a grocery cart or a gas pump, he’d rush to wash his hands when he got home.

Then he’d clean all the things he’d touched on the way home: the steering wheel, door knobs, faucets.

Over time, he stopped using parts of his house that he felt were contaminated.

“I have very good friends, and they saw that I wasn’t really myself,” Votta said, “and one day, one of my friends said, ‘You know, you really need to find out what’s going on.’”

Votta spent about a week at Tucker Pavilion, and that’s when he first was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The disease, often referred to as OCD, can be debilitating for the 2 to 3 percent of the population afflicted by it - and it often takes more than a decade of suffering before people seek treatment for it, said Dr. Bob Falk, a licensed clinical and school psychologist with Dominion Behavioral Healthcare in Midlothian.

Falk ultimately ended up treating Votta, but not until after Votta spent a month at a facility in Long Island because he didn’t know help was available locally at the time.

Votta, a retired international trade specialist for the federal government, estimated he was using about 30 percent of his house at the peak of his OCD - only the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, and inside those, only the spaces that were absolutely necessary.

He no longer confines himself to small spaces inside his house, but he still struggles every day to keep his OCD in check. Votta is urging others who believe they may have symptoms to get checked before the disorder strips away their freedom.

After they met, Votta and Falk worked together to form a support group for people in the Richmond region suffering from OCD. The group - GOAL, which stands for Giving Obsessive-Compulsives Another Lifestyle - meets the third Wednesday of every month.

Dr. Gail Quick of Discovery Counseling & Consulting runs another group for people diagnosed with OCD. It meets the first Wednesday of each month.

Votta said he worked through his OCD with a combination of therapy and medication, but he relapsed last winter and had to face treatment again after years of thinking he was free of the disorder.

“It’s always there,” Votta said. “Even now, when I feel more free than ever in my life to live my life, at the same time, every day I’m challenged by OCD. … And if you don’t take some preventative management along the way, there’s a good chance it’s going to reoccur and interfere with your life.”

Seeking treatment the second time took an extra dose of energy and determination for Votta. He knew he was losing control of his symptoms over a period of a couple of years, but felt like he was still able to function, so he didn’t return to therapy right away.

The problem with OCD is that it’s a cycle that’s very difficult to break without treatment, Falk said.

Obsessions are intrusive, repetitive thoughts, urges or images, Falk said. The most familiar type of OCD is the fear of contamination, like Votta‘s, followed by pathological doubt - fears that the oven didn’t get turned off or the door didn’t get locked, for example.

Once the obsessions are triggered, they occur again and again, Falk said.

“The person with OCD, like anybody would if you’re feeling bad, does something to try to help themselves feel better,” Falk said. “That’s where the compulsions come in.”

Compulsions are behaviors that people feel they have to perform to reduce their anxiety or stress, Falk said. Perhaps that means washing hands over and over or checking and rechecking the stove knobs or deadbolt locks.

OCD can take other forms, too. Some people become obsessed with flaws they see in their physical appearance, which can lead to compulsive grooming, checking themselves in the mirror or even plastic surgery, Falk said.

Some people have a need for symmetry and feel compelled to line up objects in an orderly way. With aggressive obsessions, people worry they’ve done something to hurt others.

To be diagnosed as having OCD, a person needs to spend at least an hour a day engaging in obsessions or compulsions, Falk said. Anything less than that is considered “subclinical” - on the milder end of the spectrum.

People often joke about having OCD, but diagnosable cases can be very painful and difficult to live with.

Maggie Lamond Simone, author of “Body Punishment: OCD, Addiction and Finding the Courage to Heal,” said she suffered from OCD at a time when mental illness was stigmatized. Simone, 54, said she didn’t get diagnosed or treated until she was 38.

Simone, who lives with her family outside Syracuse, New York, also is afflicted with a subset of the disease that causes her to pull her eyebrows and eyelashes out. Her family noticed when she was young, but didn’t ask her why she harmed herself.

“My mother to this day regrets that I couldn’t talk to her,” Simone said. “I don’t know that she ever has really quite understood that I would have liked her to say, ‘Where are your eyebrows?’”

At 38, Simone panicked as she looked down and saw her newborn boy playing with his eyebrows. She turned to the internet and discovered she wasn’t alone in her suffering.

“I sat at my computer and cried,” Simone said. “I don’t regret a thing in my life because of where I am now, but boy, to have known at 10, to know this was a thing, that there are thousands of people who do this - it was an unbelievable, freeing moment to learn there was a name for this.”

That’s why Simone rushed to get her daughter into therapy when she started exhibiting signs of OCD at a young age. Sophie, now 15, didn’t like to be touched, she developed rituals for stepping over thresholds, and she was so afraid her mother was going to die, she couldn’t be separated from her.

Sophie has regained control of her life and wants to start talking to middle school students about identifying OCD and coping with it from an early age.

“The shame wears down your self-esteem until you think you are a freak or a perpetual outsider,” Simone said. “It is so hard to regain that once it is gone.”

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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