Fans of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” know that Sheldon Cooper’s severe obsessive compulsive disorder is usually depicted for laughs.
That the condition can be portrayed amusingly for more than a decade is a testament to Jim Parsons’ Emmy-winning comedic genius.
But, as anyone familiar with OCD knows, there’s nothing funny about the condition for the person who has it. And that’s especially true this time of year, when the holiday season has the potential to trigger or intensify symptoms in those who struggle to manage their condition.
So says OCD national advocate Elizabeth McIngvale, a Houston, Texas-based mental health therapist and assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.
“Like with any mental illness, certain symptoms of OCD are exacerbated during stressful times,” she explains. “During the holidays, people are excited to be around other people, have meals together and do a lot of activities that they might not normally do, which can cause unexpected triggers.”
McIngvale, 30, would know. She was diagnosed with severe OCD at age 12 and said, “I still battle my OCD on a daily basis.”
McIngvale traces her OCD to adolescence when “almost overnight I started performing all these bizarre rituals.”
Beset by anxiety about her mother’s well-being when separated from her, she’d ask her mother “reassurance questions” hundreds of times a day.
This progressed to similar irrational worries about the safety and well-being of other loved ones with whom she wasn’t in close physical proximity.
Next, she says, her disease morphed into contamination fears: Would touching something make her sick? Would it make others sick?
So, she began washing her hands constantly.
As more obsessive — or, as she terms them, “intrusive” — thoughts dominated her daily existence, her cleansing behavior increased.
She remembers her reasoning was: “If I have an intrusive thought, I can ‘wash’ it away.”
The behavior progressed, she says, to the point that “within two or three years, I became completely homebound.”
Showering only happened every few weeks because McIngvale would spend five hours or more scrubbing herself raw. The showers would conclude, she recalls, “only when my mother physically pulled me out.”
Her mother would also have to help her get dressed because she had a myriad of “number issues and rituals” related to doing certain tasks a certain number of times and in hyperspecific orders.
“Every simple task that should’ve taken minutes took hours.”
By age 15, McIngvale felt “pretty hopeless and with no desire to be alive.” She credits her loving and supportive family — “who stayed with me pretty much 24 hours a day during this time” — with preventing her from truly contemplating suicide.
They also searched far and wide for effective treatment.
“We lived in Houston — the fourth-biggest city in the country — and couldn’t find a doctor who specialized in OCD.”
The doctors who did examine McIngvale told her parents that “my OCD was too severe to be treated.”
Eventually, though, McIngvale’s persistent parents found an in-patient psychiatric hospital in Topeka, Kansas that specialized in extreme cases like McIngvale’s. At age 15, she spent 90 days there — which, she says “changed my life.”
No, she wasn’t cured of OCD and concedes that “even now there are some days that are not good at all. But I learned the tools for how to manage my illness.”
And has since made it her mission to help all OCD sufferers receive the support and treatment they needed too.
In 2005, at age 18, McIngvale and her family created the nonprofit, Peace of Mind Foundation (peaceofmind.com), which provides education, research, support, and advocacy for OCD sufferers, as well as OCD training for healthc are professionals.
They also created the OCD Challenge — an interactive website (ocdchallenge.com) that provides free behavioral programs that augment an OCD sufferer’s clinical treatment and therapy.
Peace of Mind also offers a free, on-site OCD 101 training class for businesses and organizations that want to learn more about the condition.
“We teach people what OCD is — and what it isn’t,” she explains.
McIngvale’s desire to help as many folks as possible won’t surprise anyone familiar with her family background.
Her father, Jim McIngvale, is Houston’s famed “Mattress Mack” — an iconic furniture dealer and philanthropist who gained national fame for turning his showrooms into shelters for residents who were displaced from their homes after Hurricane Harvey.
“I want everyone with OCD to know that they’re not alone in the battle,” she says. “With the treatments and resources now available, you can learn to control your illness, instead of having your illness control you.”
Types of OCD symptoms, behaviors and conditions
- Counting and checking
- Intrusive thoughts
- Germ and contamination fears
- Magical thinking
- Postpartum OCD
Related disorders include hoarding, trichotillomania (pulling out hair), skin-picking and body dysmorphia
OCD treatments, stats and facts
- Exposure and response prevention: Cognitive behavioral therapy in which one is intentionally exposed to the source of his or her fears or anxieties — but does not engage in the ritual associated with it. Experts believe this retrains the brain to better manage anxiety.
- Medication: When properly prescribed under the supervision of a psychiatrist who specializes in OCD, the International OCD Foundation lists the following medications as being associated with a reduction in OCD symptoms and behaviors: fluvoxamine (Luvox); sertraline (Zoloft); citalopram (Celexa); escitalopram (Lexapro); fluoxetine (Prozac); paroxetine (Paxil); clomipramine (Anafranil); venlafaxine (Effexor).
- 1 in 40 adults — some 5 million Americans — meet, or have met, the criteria for an OCD diagnosis.
- Between 40 and 60 percent of OCD sufferers respond to medication — usually seeing a 40 to 50 percent reduction in their symptoms.
Sources: Peace of Mind Foundation; International OCD Foundation; Beyond OCD