When other young girls worried about boys and lip gloss, Traci Foust worried about worrying. She also worried about swallowing pencils and knives and whether she would inadvertently burn down her house, kill her family, be sent to an orphanage and then be murdered herself.
For nearly three decades, Foust has lived with a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
To help calm her fears, she pulled her hair, snapped her fingers after hearing the word “God,” made sure her collection of Catholic saint statues always faced north, and forced her cat to scratch her.
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In her memoir, "Nowhere Near Normal" (Simon & Schuster 2011), Foust, 39, chronicles her OCD journey as a child and young adult. She talks to Today.com about what it’s like living with OCD then and now.
Q: Popular media often portrays people with OCD as simply quirky. What’s the reality?
A: The reality is that you have a hard time holding down a job; you have a hard time being with people. We’re afraid of a lot of things, and we’re irritated most of the time because of over-sensory issues. For me, it’s bright lights, noise and a lot of people.
Q: So OCD is still a struggle?
A: I don’t want anyone to get the idea that everything is sunshine and rainbows. I still have to control the OCD with therapy and medication.
Q: It’s 2011, but according to studies there's still a huge stigma attached to mental health issues. Do you feel stigmatized?
A: Absolutely. I hear people say: “Oh my God, you’re in your thirties, you should be off your meds.” People can make you feel like a loser because of the medication, without even knowing how the drugs work. Some people think you should be able to control these (mental health) problems on your own. If someone can control what they believe is a mental health issue on their own I guarantee they don’t have a clinical diagnosis.
Q: Do you remember when you first felt, well, different?
A: I think if you ask this question to anyone with OCD, they’ll tell you the same thing: I always felt weird; I always felt something wasn’t right. I don’t even remember ever being completely relaxed or being able to have fun in the moment. There was always a continuous running dialogue of “what-ifs.”
Q: When were you diagnosed?
A: At about age 12. I was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic before that because a neurologist misunderstood me. When he asked me if I heard voices, I told him my mom and sister talked about me behind my back. He told my mom I was schizophrenic. That set off a lot of drama. About six months later my psychiatrist stepped in and said it was OCD, not schizophrenia.
Q: So that was better?
A: It felt like a relief. I was given all kinds of pamphlets to read. It comforted me that kids my age had this, too. One of the pamphlets said that teens spent 83 percent of time worried about what other people think of them. That helped. One of the things they tell you in group therapy is that nobody is looking at you. They’re worried about what people are thinking about them. That’s such a release.
Q: When did you go on medication?
A: Not until my early 20s. I was put on Buspar and Prozac, and I felt like an entirely different person. I was able to read two gigantic books without worrying about germs or worrying about worrying about germs.
Q: Do you have any advice for parents who are concerned about their kids?
A: The most important thing I can tell any parent that suspects anxiety issues is that for everything that you hear from your child there is something horrific that your child isn’t telling you because they’re embarrassed by it. Parents have to say: I feel there is more you want to me tell me, and when you’re ready, know that nothing is going to make me think you’re a bad person.
Q: What’s life like today?
A: I still have a fear of fire and I don’t go out in the sun. I still have rituals, like checking under the beds, and checking the windows.
Q: What about relationships?
A: I’ve been married three times and have two wonderful sons. I have a great boyfriend now, who understands me. Anxiety issues make you feel like you have to be in control of everything. I don’t blame my OCD for failed relationships. I blame my lack of knowledge on what a relationship was supposed to be.
Q: I’ve had people tell me that they’re glad they have a particular mental health disorder since it makes them more creative, able to see the world differently.
A: I don’t know about that. I wonder what life would be like if I was diagnosed earlier or if I got medication earlier. There are times when I would love to go to the mall or movies without having a pill in my purse.
Q: In your book you talk about problems with germs and lunch meat and your fear of killing your family if the lunch meat wasn’t wrapped properly. What’s it like making a sandwich today?
A: No one goes hungry. It just takes me longer and there’s a lot of plastic and counter wiping. I’d be lost without antibacterial wipes and a dust buster.
Joan Raymond is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on msnbc.com, Newsweek, the New York Times, MORE and Woman's Day.