Once is not enough for OCD sufferers

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 11, 2006

As young as 4, Cynthia Cossu was aware she was different from other children; she just didn’t know why. As she grew older, she learned more about herself, and she hid, as best she could, her differences from others. Today, at 36, she is managing those differences in her everyday life.

Cossu, like millions of others, suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a form of mental illness that can range from simple redundant acts, such as checking and rechecking to see if a door is locked, to totally debilitating activities.

For Cossu, OCD means she washes her hands numerous times each day, avoids certain situations that will cause her anxiety, and counts things over and over again in her head.


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“I used to go into the grocery store and come out the same door,” she said. “I would touch everything with both hands and read and re-read things over and over.”

In high school, when she took her college entrance exams, she had to get the little circle filled in.

“I wasn’t satisfied until it was filled in perfectly.”

Cossu said OCD is also known as the doubting disease, causing a person to check and recheck until they achieve perfection.

If she had known what was wrong with her back then, she would have sought help.

“I knew I was different, but I didn’t know what it was.”

As she became older, she found ways of hiding her affliction.

“No child wants to be a freak or an outcast,” she said. And if others discovered the malady, she knew they would tease and taunt her.

Her ignorance of the disease is not uncommon.

“Many people have it and don’t know what it is. They have a need to be perfect and don’t know why.”

With age comes wisdom. For Cossu, that meant getting her hands on anything she could that would tell her more about OCD, its origins, its manifestations and its treatment.

That compiling of material, newsletters, books, medical journals and more, has led to quite a collection today, one she shares with others.

Cossu says she has come a long way since that little four-year-old girl who knew she was different. Today, with her knowledge, and with the help of a number of support groups, she manages her OCD. And while she realizes she is better, she also knows this is something that will never go away.

“You just live with it every day,” she said. “The issues come and go (but they never disappear).”

Cossu’s main issue today is counting. She counts the words that people speak to her, hoping that they will always say an even number of them.

Even numbers are good. They are her favorite ones. She doesn’t know why, she just knows they are.

And if there is a bit of irony to Cossu’s story, she recently bought the Ladybug Quilt Shop on West Washington Street, where her every waking moment is consumed with numbers n counting change, cutting fabric, ordering inventory, and filling out the endless tax forms and other required business records.

She said all of those things are part of her job, and realizing that, she does them, even though they may make her uncomfortable.

“When you deal with the public, you have to touch things,” she said with a certain air of surrender.

If there is one thing she wishes she could do, it would be to shut her brain down for just five minutes.

“I’m constantly counting,” she said. “The brain never shuts down.”

She said she would be a different person were it not for the OCD. However, there are some positive aspects, as least in her case.

“It has given me a good work ethic,” she said, adding that staying busy helps her to deal with the affliction. “I have to finish things.”

As Cossu learned more about OCD, she sought out others who were also suffering. That led her to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation in Connecticut. Through that association, she has begun an affiliated chapter here in Southside Virginia. She also assists with a group on the Peninsula.

Locally, she addressed the school board and received its blessing for her working in the schools with OCD children.

She attends annual conferences and camps, or weekend retreats, several times a year where she interacts with others suffering from the disorder.

She recalled her first such outing, one that left her with a lasting impression.

The accommodations were sparse, to say the least, she recalled.

Even though everybody came with their own gear, including sleeping bags, the facilitators made them trade it all in for other equipment.

They were only allowed four minutes in which to take a shower.

It was cold and rainy, and the toilet facilities were nothing more than outhouses. To this day she remembers having to use them, all the time thinking about the germs.

Toilets weren’t the only things shared that weekend. The people running the camp controlled the water. Cossu remembers one man pouring some into a glass and then licking the inside rim before offering to share it with the others in the group.

It was a hard weekend to get through, recalled Cossu, but the lessons she learned were extremely valuable.

“This is a serious thing,” she said. “But I know that God only gives you what He knows you can handle.”

She also believes He provides the tools necessary for her to cope. One of those tools, perhaps the most important one of all, is a little dog she rescued some years ago.

It wasn’t her first dog, but it is the first one she has ever been able to be physically close to without it causing an anxious moment or two.

Bog, an 8-year-old Shitzu, not only lives with Cossu, but comes with her to work each day. Through her association with the little dog, she has been able to overcome some of her issues with cleanliness, but not all of them.

“He’s great therapy,” she said.

Another tool she uses is her sense of humor.

Cossu also uses medications to help her over some of the “bumps.” She also uses behavioral therapy.

Cossu’s father had OCD, and her mother showed signs of it. And Cossu has resigned herself to the fact that she will have to live with it, period.

But living with OCD doesn’t mean she can’t steer clear of those things that offend her the most n crowds, hugging and eating at certain restaurants, particularly buffets.

And as best she can, she avoids shaking hands. If she must take another’s hand in hers, she follows it up with a hand sanitizer, something she keeps close at all times.

Oh, and that little dog that works his therapeutic magic on her – she’ll accept a kiss now and again, but not too many.