Out of the Darkness

By Susan Richman

It seems like my life changed into a nightmare overnight. One day I was happily practicing law in a high-powered, San Francisco law firm and engaged to be married. Germs were the farthest thing from my mind. The next thing I knew, I could barely leave my apartment to go out for groceries.

It all started with a dead mouse in my apartment. The fact that it died made me start thinking about contamination. It must have had some sort of disease. It must have spread that disease all over my apartment floor. Suddenly I found myself cleaning my floors with isopropyl alcohol and Lysol. But it didn’t stop there.

My mind kept creating ever-wider circles of contamination. What if the mouse wasn’t just on the floor, but had also run across the table? Then all the papers on the table were contaminated. I had to clean what I could, or keep track of the things that were contaminated that I couldn’t clean. Because if something was “contaminated,” and I touched it, then anything else I touched became contaminated.

Soon my thoughts about germs spread beyond the mouse. On the street, I became afraid of germs from garbage cans or trucks being blown on me by the wind. If someone coughed as they walked past me, I imagined germs “coming at me.” Then my clothes were contaminated, and everything I touched became contaminated. Getting to work became an ordeal of Olympic proportions because walking a block could take a half hour. I worried about spots on the sidewalk that might be “blood,” circling around them, trying to look normal in case someone who knew me walked by. By the time I got to work, I was drenched with sweat.

Once at work, I could do my tasks, but there was a soundtrack going beneath the surface that was keeping track of all the contamination. Yet I was getting rave reviews at work. I was truly living two lives.

Back home after work, I always did a total “decontamination” ritual that took several hours and included “containing” my contaminated clothes, using isopropyl alcohol on my body in the shower, and re-cleaning the shower. If I made a mistake and touched something and then later decided it had been contaminated but I’d already touched other things, I might have to start all over. I’d fall into bed at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and get up at 6:00 to go to work and do it all over again the next day.

I knew something was wrong from the start. I sought professional help immediately, from some of the best psychiatrists in the country. We talked. I tried the medications of the day (this was before SSRIs came on the scene). I worsened. Soon I could barely leave my home. My family had to bring me back to Chicago and take care of me.

I remained like this for three years—trying different medications, talking to different doctors, worsening with each day.

Finally, one day my sister was at a brunch in Washington, D.C. at which she happened to hear about Edna Foa’s OCD program in Philadelphia. I immediately went there for three weeks of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. They were tough weeks, but they gave me my life back. When my mother met me at the airport on my return to Chicago, I proudly showed off my desensitization to germs by licking the airport window! She cried, “You’re cured!” Of course, I wasn’t cured because at this point there is no cure for OCD. But I was normal again.

Three years of struggle—then my OCD symptoms disappeared in three weeks because I finally got the right treatment!

I’ve stayed healthy for the past 18 years with a combination of maintenance ERP therapy, medication, exercise to control stress, and the wonderful friends I’ve met through Beyond OCD .

Susan Richman is a co-founder of Beyond OCD and Honorary Chair.

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