Obsessed – Times Publications, February 2008
On-off. On-off. On-off.
Bob Hobbs Jr. repeatedly flicks the light switch on the back patio of his posh Paradise Valley home.
On-off. On-off. On-off.
The ritual stops once it “feels right.”
“It sounds funny,” says the 37-year-old Valley native and motivational speaker. “I joke that my neighbors think I’m doing Morse code.”
Twenty-year-old Tara Schwab can’t turn off the lights in her Phoenix apartment.
If she flicks them once, she simply has to flick them twice. The number of times she touches the light switch in a day must add up to an odd number. If it doesn’t, she panics.
“If the light is on and I turn it off, I’ll have to turn it back on anyway so there’s really no point in doing that,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll turn it off with my head. It helps when it’s not my hands. I’ve also used my nose.”
Hobbs and Schwab have never met, but they share more than just complicated rituals surrounding their light switches. They have both been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
At one time deemed the “silent disorder” because people tended to suffer from it in secret, OCD has experienced a revolution in its public perception, even making some of its related idiosyncrasies the subjects of casual conversation. But the psychological disorder can ruin lives.
“It’s almost considered cool now,” says Dr. Michael Zatkowsky of the OCD Spectrum Clinic in Scottsdale. “Sitting around at a party, you’ll hear people say, ‘I have OCD,’ and someone else will say, ‘Oh, I have that too.’ It’s almost like a badge of honor today.”
No longer ashamed of their secret rituals, people like Hobbs and Schwab are opening up about their experiences with OCD, hoping to shed a positive light on what is for many a mentally crippling disorder.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
OCD is characterized by intrusive obsessive thoughts or images, which drive sufferers to compulsively act out these often time-consuming rituals.
More than two percent of the U.S. population, or about one in every 50 people, suffer from some level of OCD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, making it two to three times more common than schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Unwanted thoughts and images crowd the mind of an OCD sufferer, perpetuating a neurosis which can, if untreated, become a significant obstacle. Thoughts like: “Is my car locked?” “Will my parents die in a car crash?” “Am I covered in germs?” are all reminiscent of OCD-like fixations.
To reduce the anxiety caused by these thoughts, those with OCD perform elaborate rituals such as checking and rechecking the door locks, avoiding unlucky numbers or even washing their hands until they become raw.
“People will spend hours and hours every day doing this stuff,” says Zatkowsky. “They’ll go back and forth all day, checking locks or walking through doorways. It ruins their lives.”
Zatkowsky says having OCD is like thinking you’re going crazy. People with the disorder know their actions are irrational, yet are compelled by their anxiety and emotions.
“Logically, people with OCD know its ridiculous,” Zatkowsky says. “But the anxiety of someone with OCD can be as high as someone facing a battle in Iraq. These people feel life-threatening levels of anxiety very often.”
The disorder has a variety of manifestations, like compulsive checking, fear of germs, ordering, ritualizing and counting.
Most of these stem from amplified worries about safety, cleanliness and order that most everyone normally has, but the concerns become a compulsion. Those suffering from OCD will typically experience a variety of compulsions throughout their lifetimes.
While the disorder can be severe and disabling, most of those afflicted are able to meet their basic obligations.
“It becomes a question of how well do you want to function,” Zatkowsky says. “How much time do you want to waste doing this compulsive stuff?”
Five. Seven. Nine. Eleven.
“I’m deathly afraid of the number 13, and I have no idea why,” says Tara Schwab, who has had OCD since she was a teenager. “Because I’m also afraid of even numbers, I try and avoid 12 and 14. So when I step into a room that many times, it gets pretty silly because I keep going in and out, in and out.”
A fixation with numbers is Schwab’s biggest “thing.”
Everything has to be done an odd number of times. From pumping her mascara to climbing the staircase at her apartment complex, Schwab says she counts and catalogs every routine activity.
“It’s to the point where it’s literally every single thing I do. Everything I touch, everything I look at. Everything I eat. It’s crazy,” she says ardently.
In addition to a fixation with odd numbers, Schwab is also consumed with symmetry.
When she sets something on a table it has to be in a “certain place.” At night, before going to bed, she’ll spend hours taking off her rings and placing them carefully on her vanity, one on top of the other.
While she says she used to conceal her rituals in public, she no longer attempts to cover them up. Although at times, she says, she realizes how “silly” it looks to do everything multiple times.
“It got to the point where it’s just funny,” she says, giggling. “I just made it into a joke, where I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have OCD. I’m pretty bad.’”
The aspiring model and part-time office worker first started performing rituals when she was in middle school.
At first, she says, she had no idea what OCD was and was ashamed of her behavior. It wasn’t until she saw an MTV special about a girl with OCD, that she was able to diagnose herself.
“I thought there was something seriously wrong with me,” she says. “Once I figured out it was OCD, I was like, ‘Oh, it makes sense now.’”
Schwab, who has no medical insurance, has never sought treatment or taken medication for the disorder.
Instead, she manages with the help of her mother and boyfriend, who assist in her rituals.
For the most part, Schwab considers her OCD to be manageable, although there are times when it has become disabling.
“I used to be ashamed, but now I’m very proud. I tell everyone about it,” she says. “I think of it as it makes me special. It makes me different. I’m not just normal.”
Tall and lean, with a defined jaw covered by a hint of stubble, you may expect Bob Hobbs’ portrait to come tucked inside a new leather wallet. He has a beautiful wife and two kids, a successful career and a home in one of the Valley’s most upscale neighborhoods.
“People think I just have the perfect lifestyle,” he says. “They would not believe I’ve been struggling with this.”
Hobbs was first diagnosed with OCD in 1985, when little was known about the disorder and there were a limited number of medications available to treat it.
Before being diagnosed, Hobbs learned to mask his symptoms while in public and lived the life of a popular high school jock. But in private, he was consumed by obsessive thoughts, ritualistic behavior, repetitive counting and a profound fear of germs.
“I couldn’t get these things out of my head,” says Hobbs, pulling his fingers through his spiked black hair while recalling his OCD condition.
At the time, Hobbs was convinced he or his family would die if he didn’t perform a series of “quirky” rituals.
“I’d have to turn my alarm clock off, then turn it back on, off, on and off, three or four times. Get out of bed. Twirl around before I went through the doorway. Get in the shower and touch the soap five times before I could use it. It’s just a routine, basically,” he says. “It took me forever to get ready. Then choosing clothes? It was ridiculous.”
That’s when, Hobbs says, he hit his melting point.
Hobbs had associated negative thoughts with every piece of clothing in his wardrobe. If he wore a certain shirt, his mom might die in a car crash; a pair of shorts could cause his father to have a heart attack.
“Eventually, I had assigned all these different labels to these shirts, shorts and pants, and I had nothing to wear,” he says. “I couldn’t wear anything, so I couldn’t put on clothing. I literally got to the point where I was stuck in my closet.”
That’s where Hobbs’ father discovered the trembling teenager, standing in his boxer shorts. Without hesitation, he sought treatment for his son with a psychologist, who diagnosed him with OCD.
“I couldn’t believe they knew what it was,” Hobbs says. “It was such a relief to know that there was something they could put a finger on and now they’d have a plan of attack.”
Hobbs was put on medication and treated through behavioral therapy, which forced him to resist performing rituals and to confront his obsessive thoughts.
With the exception of a relapse in 2000, that combination has helped him manage the disorder, although, he says, he still occasionally finds himself repeatedly checking the door locks or flicking the light switches.
Hobbs says that after he had his OCD under control, he was still embarrassed to reveal his condition to his friends and co-workers. Until two years ago, Hobbs was in the public eye as an executive at the family’s business, Naumann Hobbs Materials Handling.
After his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and his parents both battled cancer, Hobbs decided to make a drastic life change.
He came clean about his OCD and resigned from the family business to begin a career as a motivational speaker.
Today he speaks about his experience with the disorder, as well as his other personal struggles, in an effort to inspire others to turn their tragedies into triumph.
“I’m an all-American guy. No one would look at me in a million years and think I had this,” he says. “My motivation was to open it up and put a better picture on OCD. It doesn’t mean you’re a complete wack-job. It’s something I’m not proud to have. But I have it and I’m not afraid to talk about it.”
Today the OCD stigma that existed as recently as a decade ago has all but disappeared. Films like “As Good As It Gets,” which portrays Jack Nicholson’s character as a compulsive hand washer, and television shows about an obsessive-compulsive detective named Monk have helped to bring the disorder into the mainstream.
Psychologists agree that increased public awareness has done more than just remove the negative perception surrounding the disorder; it has also helped to advance medical options and encourage sufferers to seek treatment.
OCD is a genetic disorder caused by an imbalance of serotonin, a chemical that acts as a messenger in the brain. That imbalance causes messages traveling from one part of the brain to another to somehow become distorted, resulting in repetitive thoughts.
A chronic illness, there is no complete cure for obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it can be controlled through medication and therapy.
“The medication makes a huge difference and gives you a platform on which to practice effective therapy options,” says Zatkowsky. “And without that platform, often you can’t get to that point where you’re successful at managing it yourself.”
In addition to medication, many psychologists recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps retrain the brain to resist OCD urges.