by Cherry Pedrick, RN
Reprinted from Suite101.com, published in seven parts from February 17 to May 1, 2001
Approximately 1% of children
200,000 American children and teenagers
have OCD. Studies show that one-third to one-half of the cases identified in adults
began during childhood. Obsessive-compulsive disorder may develop in young adulthood,
adolescence or childhood.
Children want to feel accepted
by others, to fit in, so they often hide their obsessive thoughts and compulsive
behaviors. The thoughts and behaviors seem strange, weird and that makes them feel
they are strange and weird. Or they may think they are going crazy and will surely be
locked up or sent to a mental institution.
Treating OCD early is best.
The longer it goes untreated, the more generalized the symptoms can become.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder invades more and more of the child's life making it more
difficult to treat. Often, children
arent referred for treatment until they exhibit unacceptable behavior and difficulty
in school. Children and their parents need to know there is hope and help for people with
Compulsive behaviors and
rituals are quite normal in children between the ages of two and eight. They seem to be a
response to childrens needs to control their environment and master childhood fears
and anxieties. These childhood rituals enhance socialization, advance development and help
children deal with separation anxiety. Rituals help young children develop new abilities
and define their environment. As children mature, most ritualistic behaviors disappear on
their own. In contrast, rituals of the child with OCD are painful, disabling, and result
in feelings of shame and isolation. Trying to stop results in extreme anxiety.
As in Wandas Secrets, the first step in recovery is recognizing a problem. A psychiatrist can help determine if OCD is the problem. When it is, there is much hope for getting better. Cognitive-behavior therapy and medication are the most widely accepted treatments for OCD.
Wanda Washes Up
Wanda Simpson wiggled in her seat. Will recess never come? I cant wait. I have to go now! Wanda inched her hand up.
May I go to the bathroom? Wanda asked Mrs. Chester.
Her teacher raised her
eyebrows, Okay, but hurry back. You just went to the bathroom ten minutes ago.
I know, but I have to
wash my hands. I got glue on them.
Wanda hurried to the bathroom.
Her blond pony tail bounced behind her. Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty. Fifty steps to the
bathroom door. She always counted them and knew exactly how many it would be.
In the bathroom, Wanda turned
on the hot water. She spread her fingers out and rinsed them. Then she pumped soap into
her left hand. She scrubbed each finger twenty times. Then she washed the back of her
hands and her wrists. Now they would be clean.
Wanda jumped when the door
opened. You scared me!
I didnt mean to
startle you, Mrs. Chester said. Are you about done? Youve been in here a
long time. I was worried about you.
Im okay . . .
really. I just had to wash the glue off my hands. Ill be done in a second.
As Mrs. Chester left the
bathroom, Wanda got a paper towel and used it to turn off the water. Make sure you dont touch the faucet with your
hands, she told herself. Then she would
have to wash all over again.
Wanda looked at her hands. They were red and chapped. But no glue, no stickiness.
Why do we have to use glue anyway?
Fourth graders are too old to be gluing and coloring, Wanda thought. If it were up to her,
she would never touch the stuff, but sometimes she had no choice. After drying her hands,
one finger at a time, she pulled down a fresh paper towel. Wanda opened the bathroom door
with it and walked quickly to her classroom.
Chapter 2: The Secrets
Wanda went straight to her
bedroom after school. She felt safe there. Her room was clean. She felt like it was
anyway. There was no paint, chalk, glue or paste in her room. Nothing sticky, wet or
After choosing clean clothes,
she went down the hall to take a shower. Back in her room, she flopped down on her bed.
Her black and white cat jumped up and cuddled next to her. Cuddles was the perfect name
Her mothers voice
startled her. Wanda, Mrs. Chester called today. She wants your Dad and me to come in
after school tomorrow. She wants to talk to all of us.
Wanda sat up. About what
Mom? I havent done anything wrong.
Mrs. Simpson sat down next to
Wanda and took her hand. She said something about you washing your hands a lot. Your
dad and I have noticed you wash your hands a lot too. Maybe thats why your hands are
so red and chapped. Mrs. Chester says you ask to go to the bathroom nine to ten times a
I wont go!
Wanda yelled and threw herself across the bed.
We have to go dear. I told Mrs. Chester wed be there. Shes not angry. She just wants to help.
Leave me alone for a
while Mom. Ill think about it.
Her mother left the room and
Wanda pulled Cuddles close to her. What will I do Cuddles? Theyre going to
find out. Im so scared.
She smoothed Cuddles
long soft fur. Wanda could tell Cuddles anything and she still loved her. Cats understood
about being clean. Cuddles was always licking her paws and her black and white fur to keep
them clean. Wanda was afraid of being caught in her lies. Lies about glue and dirty hands
and stickiness. She knew her hands were never really dirty. Wanda never got glue on her
hands. They just felt dirty.
Now Mrs. Chester
suspects something. Shes going to find out about me, Cuddles. I just know it.
Shell think Im crazy. Maybe I am crazy. What am I going to do? Ive tried
to stop washing my hands so much, but I cant help it. I cant stop. Tears
slid down her face.
Mom knocked on the door.
May I come in?
Wanda wiped the tears from her
eyes and said softly, Yes Mom, come on in.
She sat beside Wanda and
rubbed her shoulder. Cuddles nudged her hand as if to say, Me too! Dont forget
to pet me!
Dont worry Wanda. Mrs. Chester just wants to talk. Itll be
But Mom, you dont
understand, Wanda moaned.
No one understands, Wanda thought. How can they understand when I dont understand? Why am I so scared all the time?
Wanda was scared of dirt and germs and poisons. Poisons! That was the worst fear. She remembered the day paint spilled. Her whole body shook, she was so scared. What if it got on her? No, that wasnt the biggest fear. Her biggest fear was that someone would find out her secrets. The secret hand washing and counting.
Chapter 3: Mrs. Chester Checks
Mrs. Chester smiled from
behind her desk. Wanda, Ive been noticing you wash your hands a lot. She
looked at Wandas hands, folded in her lap. Your hands are red and chapped
Wanda squirmed in the seat
between her parents and covered her hands with her sweater.
Ive tried all
kinds of lotions and nothing seems to help, Mrs. Simpson said. The doctor even
prescribed a special cream. Do you have any ideas?
Well, I dont know
much about lotion, but I do have a few ideas about the hand washing. Mrs. Chester
looked at Wanda. I think you may have a problem like mine.
A problem like
yours? Wandas green eyes widened. Do you wash your hands a lot
No, I dont wash my
hands any more than most people. But I may have the same type of feelings you have when
you feel like you have to wash your hands. Do you feel nervous and scared sometimes? And
the only thing thatll help is to wash your hands?
Wanda nodded her head and
leaned forward in her chair. How did Mrs. Chester know?
Then after you wash your
hands, do you start feeling bad all over again? You want to wash your hands again and you
cant wait for the next chance to wash?
Wanda lowered her eyes and
nodded her head again. Thats exactly how I feel. But . . . but how did you
You know how I check
papers a lot? Mrs. Chester asked. Well, last year I checked them even more.
One day I checked the class papers and gave them back to my students. I was so scared I
had made a mistake I collected them again. I took them home and checked them over and
over. Thats when I realized I needed help. Besides checking papers, I checked the
lights and the gerbils food again and again before leaving the classroom every
night. And I was always nervous. I was scared because I thought something really bad was
wrong with me.
Wanda stared at Mrs. Chester.
She really did understand! You seem okay now, she said. What was
I went to my doctor. He sent me to a special
doctor, a psychiatrist. That doctor said I have obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD.
He gave me some medicine and helped me learn how to stop checking so much. I still get the
urge to check things sometimes, but not nearly as much.
Do you think Wanda could
have OCD? Mr. Simpson asked.
She might, said
Mrs. Chester. Your doctor could help you find out. Hell probably send her to a
Wanda couldnt stop the
tears from sliding down her face. Do you think he could help me? I dont want
to wash my hands all the time. My hands hurt and sometimes they bleed, but I still feel
like I need to clean them. They feel dirty when I touch certain things.
Mrs. Simpson put her arms
around Wanda, Well find someone who can help.
Chapter 4: The Secrets are Out
Wanda sat next to her mother
in the doctors office. She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. How did she
get into this? Why couldnt she just stop washing her hands? They were red and dry
and they hurt.
Wanda jumped when she heard her name called. This was it.
Doctor Martin asked Wanda a
million questions. It seemed like a million anyway. Wandas mom answered some of
them. Then he had her leave the room and talked to Wanda alone. That was okay because she
felt like she knew him by then. He was a nice guy. He wasnt at all surprised that
she washed her hands up to 100 times some days.
All those questions were
tests to find out how your brain works, Wanda, Doctor Martin said. The tests
show that you have OCD. That means your brain works different. Not bad, it doesnt
work in a bad way. It just works differently.
Is there anything you
can do to make my brain work right? Wanda asked.
Dr. Martin smiled. Yes, we can help. Youre lucky because today we have good treatments for OCD. Well send you to a therapist that can help with special kind of therapy. Its called cognitive-behavior therapy. Well give you medicine that can help, as well. Together these things help your brain learn new ways to work. Ways that wont make you so nervous and scared. Thatll help you stop washing so much.
It sounds scary!
Wanda said. Ive tried to stop and its hard.
Yes, it sure is
scary, Dr. Martin said. Its hard work, but its worth it.
Youll feel better and be proud of your success.
Chapter 5: From OCD Caterpillars to Beautiful Butterflies
How did it go?
Mrs. Chester asked after school the next day.
Great! The doctor was
nice and he didnt think I was crazy. He said my brain just works differently. He
said he can help me, Wanda said.
I told you there was help.
Before I felt like a
weirdo. Dr. Martin made it seem almost normal. Like having a broken leg or
Mrs. Chester laughed.
You know, I felt the same way when I first found out I had OCD. I have a present for
you. She handed Wanda a small box wrapped in shiny purple paper.
beautiful! Wanda cried. A butterfly rested in the box.
Mrs. Chester lifted the gold
and brown butterfly pin out of the box and pinned it on Wandas sweater. This
is a reminder of what you and I will someday be Wanda.
What do you mean?
Well, I think you feel a
lot like I did when my OCD was stronger than I was. I felt like a caterpillar. I felt
trapped inside my brain like a caterpillar trapped in a cocoon. I couldnt
seem to control my constant checking.
Wanda said. But, for me, its washing. I feel like I cant stop.
After a few months of
medication and therapy, youll feel more like a butterfly, Mrs. Chester said.
You will break free from OCD like a butterfly breaks free from its
Do you feel like a
butterfly, Mrs. Chester?
Thats a good
question, Wanda. Mrs. Chester thought about it a minute. Some days I feel like
a butterfly and some days I still feel like a caterpillar. But it seems like every month I
have more and more butterfly days.
Do you think youll
ever be a butterfly every day, Mrs. Chester? I want to be a butterfly every day, not just
Mrs. Chester looked into
Wandas blue eyes. Maybe someday theyll have a cure for OCD. Well
be able to break free and be butterflies every day. But for now, I am happy to be a
butterfly most of the time.
Chapter 6: Breaking Free
Ill see you all in
one week! Mrs. Chester said over the noise of thirty excited fourth graders heading
out the door for Spring break.
When everyone had left the
room, Wanda approached Mrs. Chesters desk. She spread her hands on the desk.
What do you think?
Ive noticed Wanda!
Your hands look beautiful. No redness. I imagine they feel better too. And you
havent made near as many trips to the bathroom.
Wanda looked at the butterfly
pinned to her blouse. Im having lots and lots of butterfly days now! She
pulled a box out of her backpack. This is for you.
For me? Thank you,
Mrs. Chester said as she picked at the red ribbon on the brightly wrapped package.
Oh how wonderful! Inside a wooden frame, a cross stitch butterfly rested on a
I stitched it myself, Wanda said. Do you like it?
I love it. Ill
hang it right here on the wall by my desk. On our caterpillar days, itll remind us
both of all the butterfly days weve had.
And all the butterfly days we will have, Wanda said.
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