Coronavirus anxiety driving you to the brink? Listen to your friend with OCD

As a San Francisco teen who has suffered mightily from obsessive compulsive disorder, Kathryn Booth can tell you harrowing stories — including days when her need for academic perfection became so intense that she couldn’t finish writing the letters of her own name.

But when Booth looks back someday on her greatest struggles with OCD, the coronavirus era likely won’t even register. While stressing that the current pandemic has been a horrible time for the nation, she feels uniquely equipped to handle the emotional challenges we all face.

“To be honest, the coronavirus hasn’t really fazed me,” Booth says. The anxieties “a lot of people without the condition are experiencing for the first time, that’s something that I’ve been dealing with my whole life. … At this point, I’m just so used to it, that it feels like something I’ve been preparing for.”

Life for everyone in the Bay Area right now — with the intense handwashing, fear of leaving the home and fear of causing harm to others — resembles some of the classic OCD struggles. And indeed, OCD sufferers with contamination-related compulsions are facing heightened anxiety during the pandemic.

But many others are reporting that years of therapy have made them the calmest person in their household. And the sheltering has the potential for a big positive — a turning point for a disorder that has been marked by a lack of understanding in the media and popular culture.

Jeff Bell, a KCBS radio anchor and mental health awareness advocate who documented his own OCD struggle in the 2007 memoir “Rewind, Replay, Repeat,” said he’s already seeing signs of empathy from the public, who are getting a sample-size version of the trials of an OCD patient.

“A lot of people that I’m hearing from in the OCD community are hoping that this pandemic will prove to be a teachable moment, for lack of a better way of putting it,” Bell said. “In that I think the general public is sort of appreciating now what it’s like to live in exhausting fear and doubt and uncertainty.”

For decades, the OCD community has been facing a two-pronged fight: to effectively treat those who are afflicted, and to stamp out a pestilence of stereotypes surrounding the disorder.

Comedian Howie Mandel said in an interview about his OCD and the coronavirus: “I’ve been living with these fears from Day 1. I know you guys call it a pandemic, I call it, ‘Told you.’ ”

The term “OCD” is thrown around casually, as if it’s a quirk or even a positive trait. As a result, it’s sometimes harder for those in real need to get diagnosis and treatment.

Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation, said having an obsession with a sports team or a compulsion for cleaning doesn’t place you among the estimated 1% of the population that struggles with a clinical OCD diagnosis.

“You can say you’re obsessive, you can say you’re compulsive, but ‘I’m so OCD’ is something we’re trying to get people away from,” Szymanski said. “The ‘D’ in OCD is a psychological disorder.”

High-profile OCD sufferers, including comedian Howie Mandel and “Mrs. Doubtfire” child actress Mara Wilson, have been outspoken about the disease in memoirs and with their large social media followings.

“I’ve been living with these fears from Day 1,” Mandel said in an April 13 interview with TMZ. “I know you guys call it a pandemic, I call it, ‘Told you.’”

But the coronavirus could bring a different opportunity. Szymanski said patients who don’t have germ-related fears that are greatly amplified by COVID-19, and have been through effective treatment, will have a well-honed ability to separate normal fears and irrational fear.

“We’re seeing a section of our community that was faring better than the average person,” Szymanski said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m actually doing better about COVID than my family members are.’”

While contamination OCD is the most common subtype of the disorder, there are may other varieties. Bell had a harm-to-others OCD; at his worst he missed deadlines and was unable to drive a car, because he couldn’t travel down a street without moving rocks and twigs that he thought could, through a chain of events, hurt a bystander.

Other subtypes include superstitions and faith-based disorders where religious customs are repeated to debilitating extremes.

Find out more

Learn about OCD definitions and treatment at the International OCD Foundation website:

Booth, 18, struggles with perfection-based OCD, which was diagnosed when she was 12, and reached a peak when she began high school. Booth recently wrote on her OCD advocacy Instagram page (@the_road_to_recovery_from_ocd) about a time at Disneyland when she found out she had scored less than 100% on a math test, and it turned the trip into one of the worst times of her life — glued to her phone in such a panic that her parents deleted the school app that connected to the grade book.

“When you think about Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth,” Booth said. “I was probably the most miserable I’ve ever been.”

She spent part of her first two years of high school in outpatient treatment, undergoing exposure and response prevention therapy, before she made breakthroughs that have kept her anxieties in check.

But she says there’s still a lot more to do for others. OCD has one of the highest treatment gaps — the percentage of people who suffer from a disease or disorder and don’t get treatment — in mental health care, measured at 90% in one 2011 Singapore study.

“I think that this is one of those times that empathy can really build that bridge, and create more awareness,” Booth said.

Bell said the lessons he’s learned, and advice he’s written in his books, is more useful than ever to people who don’t suffer from OCD, whether it’s compulsively checking the news for reassurance, or taking COVID-19 safety habits to unhealthy extremes.

“I’m seeing people without OCD take a lot of ‘quote unquote’ compulsive actions, and fall in those trapdoors,” Bell said. “I’ve seen people who don’t have OCD go far beyond what the CDC is guiding us to do.”

Booth, once unable to leave her room, sees a happy ending in all the gloom. While she’s missing her in-person high school graduation, she’s looking forward to starting at St. Mary’s College in the fall — meeting new friends, living in a new place and taking psychology classes in hope of someday working in the mental health field.

That life once seemed impossible to Booth; much more impossible than a return to a post-pandemic normal seems for the rest of us sheltering in place.

“I think this is one of those times that I’m really going to remember how far I’ve come,” Booth said. “A lot of times we don’t really see how far we’ve come because we are in the present moment.”

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic. Email: Twitter: @PeterHartlaub