Wanda’s Secrets
A Story About a Girl with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder  

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 aren’t 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 OCD.

Compulsive behaviors and rituals are quite normal in children between the ages of two and eight. They seem to be a response to children’s 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 Wanda’s 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.

Chapter 1: Wanda Washes Up

Wanda Simpson wiggled in her seat. Will recess never come? I can’t 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 didn’t mean to startle you,” Mrs. Chester said. “Are you about done? You’ve been in here a long time. I was worried about you.”

“I’m okay . . . really. I just had to wash the glue off my hands. I’ll 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 don’t 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 gooey. 

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 for her.

Her mother’s 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 haven’t 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 that’s why your hands are so red and chapped. Mrs. Chester says you ask to go to the bathroom nine to ten times a day.”     

“I won’t go!” Wanda yelled and threw herself across the bed.

“We have to go dear. I told Mrs. Chester we’d be there. She’s not angry.  She just wants to help.”

“Leave me alone for a while Mom. I’ll think about it.”

Her mother left the room and Wanda pulled Cuddles close to her. “What will I do Cuddles? They’re going to find out. I’m 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. She’s going to find out about me, Cuddles. I just know it. She’ll think I’m crazy. Maybe I am crazy. What am I going to do? I’ve tried to stop washing my hands so much, but I can’t help it. I can’t 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! Don’t forget to pet me!”

“Don’t worry Wanda.  Mrs. Chester just wants to talk. It’ll be okay.”

“But Mom, you don’t understand,” Wanda moaned.

No one understands, Wanda thought. How can they understand when I don’t 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 wasn’t 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, I’ve been noticing you wash your hands a lot.” She looked at Wanda’s hands, folded in her lap. “Your hands are red and chapped too.”

Wanda squirmed in the seat between her parents and covered her hands with her sweater.

“I’ve 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 don’t 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?” Wanda’s green eyes widened. “Do you wash your hands a lot too?”

“No, I don’t 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 that’ll 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 can’t wait for the next chance to wash?”

Wanda lowered her eyes and nodded her head again. “That’s exactly how I feel. But . . . but how did you know?”

“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. That’s when I realized I needed help. Besides checking papers, I checked the lights and the gerbil’s 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 wrong?”

 “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. He’ll probably send her to a psychiatrist.”

Wanda couldn’t stop the tears from sliding down her face. “Do you think he could help me? I don’t 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, “We’ll find someone who can help.”

Chapter 4:  The Secrets are Out

Wanda sat next to her mother in the doctor’s office. She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. How did she get into this? Why couldn’t she just stop washing her hands? They were red and dry and they hurt.

“Wanda Simpson!” Wanda jumped when she heard her name called. This was it.

Doctor Martin asked Wanda a million questions. It seemed like a million anyway. Wanda’s 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 wasn’t 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 doesn’t 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. You’re lucky because today we have good treatments for OCD. We’ll send you to a therapist that can help with special kind of therapy. It’s called cognitive-behavior therapy. We’ll give you medicine that can help, as well. Together these things help your brain learn new ways to work. Ways that won’t make you so nervous and scared. That’ll help you stop washing so much.”

“It sounds scary!” Wanda said. “I’ve tried to stop and it’s hard.”

“Yes, it sure is scary,” Dr. Martin said. “It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. You’ll 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 didn’t 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 something.”

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.

“Oh, It’s 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 Wanda’s 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 couldn’t seem to control my constant checking.”

“You’re right,” Wanda said. “But, for me, it’s washing. I feel like I can’t stop.”

“After a few months of medication and therapy, you’ll feel more like a butterfly,” Mrs. Chester said. “You will break free from OCD – like a butterfly breaks free from its cocoon.”

“Do you feel like a butterfly, Mrs. Chester?”

“That’s 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 you’ll ever be a butterfly every day, Mrs. Chester? I want to be a butterfly every day, not just some days.”

Mrs. Chester looked into Wanda’s blue eyes. “Maybe someday they’ll have a cure for OCD. We’ll 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

“I’ll 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. Chester’s desk. She spread her hands on the desk. “What do you think?”

“I’ve noticed Wanda! Your hands look beautiful. No redness. I imagine they feel better too. And you haven’t made near as many trips to the bathroom.”

Wanda looked at the butterfly pinned to her blouse. “I’m 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 white background.

“I stitched it myself,” Wanda said. “Do you like it?”

“I love it. I’ll hang it right here on the wall by my desk. On our caterpillar days, it’ll remind us both of all the butterfly days we’ve had.”

“And all the butterfly days we will have,” Wanda said.

Return to Cherry's Website
Click here for information about The OCD Workbook!