Elizabeth Ando's Nightmare

One mother's obsessive cleaning almost cost her everything

Mark Hume

Reprinted in "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(2) pp. 14-15

stock photoAt first she seemed like an ultra-domestic housewife. Everything was in its place, the floors were polished, the counters scrubbed. But like the broom that went berserk in Walt Disney's story about the magician's apprentice, Elizabeth Ando simply didn't know how to stop cleaning. She cleaned and re-cleaned her house with a compulsion that often left her exhausted.

At first she explained away her household obsession as simply a means of escaping from an unhappy (first) marriage and the discomfort of living in the woods, in an isolated old house that desperately needed cleaning. But she realized things had gone wrong in her head when she moved into a new house – and immediately began to clean . . . and clean . . . and clean. "If anything, it got worse after that move," she says today, as she battles to overcome an anxiety known as obsessive- compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition that afflicts 1 to 3% of the population and in part is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

It is a disorder that seems almost comical at first glance, but which can torment people and, as Ando knows, destroy lives. People with OCD typically feel compelled to perform a ritual or routine over and over again in order to relieve a sense of anxiety. Although they realize their compulsions are senseless, they have great difficulty in stopping. Some people are so worried about contamination that they wash their hands or clean their homes almost constantly. Some check things, looking hundreds of times a day, for example, to see if the stove is turned off. Others ritualize things, like stopping on every step on the front porch for several minutes, even when rushing for an appointment.

For Ando, OCD is not just a troubling medical condition, it is a curse that very nearly cost her the things she holds most precious in life: her marriage and her new baby. "It has been a nightmare," she says in a recent interview, as her one-year-old daughter, Megan, a typically messy baby, gurgles happily nearby. Ando, 34, can speak openly and with a sense of humour about her problems now, but a year ago, when she lost her baby, she was so distraught she couldn't even talk.

On March 1, 1998, two hours after she'd given birth to Megan at 19 minutes after four on a Sunday afternoon, social workers came to her hospital room and told her they were taking the baby. Ministry officials, who'd visited her home during her pregnancy for routine checkups, had taken note of Ando's cleaning compulsion. The smell of bleach in the home was so strong that a visiting doctor developed a headache within 20 minutes. The baby, they said, was being taken away for her own protection.

"It was a pretty horrible experience," says Ando. She recognized that she had a compulsive disorder, and had been taking drugs to counteract it; however, she'd stopped the medication during her pregnancy because she was afraid the drugs would affect her baby's health. Without drugs, her compulsion became stronger. "I tried to enter a hospital at the end of my pregnancy because my symptoms were out of control. But they wouldn't let me," she says.

She knew the social workers were concerned about her medical problem, but they never told her what was at stake. Until the last minute, neither she nor her husband knew that the government might take their child.

When it happened, she was alone at the hospital. Her voice catches with emotion as she recalls the moment. "That was the worst, when they took her from the hospital. We didn't know where she was going or if we'd get her back." She called her husband to tell him what had happened, but was unable to speak. "All I could do was cry into the phone. I was just so overwhelmed, I couldn't talk."

When her 23-year-old husband, Thomas, did learn what had happened, he was shocked and angry, both with the government and his wife. "At first my husband was totally resentful, blaming me. It wasn't my fault, but it was, because I was the one with OCD," she says.

The marriage, her second, has survived, but it has been rough. The crisis they went through with Megan has "done a lot of damage," she says.

Shortly after she was released from hospital, Ando began a campaign to get her baby back. "We didn't know anything. We didn't understand how the government had done this," she says. "I spent nights phoning lawyers trying to get legal aid, trying to figure out how it had happened."

Why couldn't she have kept the baby, with social workers coming to visit every day? Why hadn't her husband been given the chance to care for the baby? Those questions haunted her then, and have never been adequately answered, she says. "I still don't think this had to happen the way it did."

Four weeks after the baby was seized at the hospital, Ando was in court. But a judge ruled that the government had made the right decision. Judge Jeanne Harvey urged Ando to get professional treatment. Only then, she said, could the baby be returned.

Ando began treatment at the University of British Columbia's (UBC) Anxiety Disorder Clinic a short time later. At first, she was only allowed to visit her baby for eight hours at a time. Returning her baby at the end of each day was heart-wrenching. "Every time they took her, I cried over her diapers – because that's all I had left of her," says Ando.

Six months ago, after half a year of treatment, she was able to prove to the courts that she had her compulsive cleaning disorder under control. "UBC is amazing," she says. "They took a totally different approach to treatment. They got to the bottom of it. I'd seen many doctors and they never knew what was driving my problem."

Dr. Maureen Whittal, at UBC's Anxiety Disorder Clinic, says the type of problem experienced by Ando is not as rare as it seems. "Contamination/washing is one of the most common [obsessive-compulsive disorders], along with obsessive doubting/checking," she says. "It's a lot more common than you think. It's a hidden problem, because people are ashamed. They know that what they're doing, the compulsion they're engaged in, is ridiculous."

The biggest step for many is to recognize that they have a problem, and to seek help. There is no "cure' for OCD, says Whittal, but treatment can reduce the amount of compulsive behaviour by 60% within a few months. Some people can reduce it by 95%, virtually eradicating it.

But those afflicted with OCD will always feel urges to follow their compulsions. The trick is to learn how to manage the disorder by identifying it and resisting.

With social workers watching her progress, Ando is aware that a relapse could jeopardize her motherhood, and that the baby she describes as "a wonderful joy" could be taken away again. "I'm working at it extremely hard. I'm hopeful," she says. "Some experts say you will have to live with it forever, but others say it can be beaten. All I can do at this point is fight it and try and get rid of it.

"I'm really hoping I can get over it. I see the changes. I can do some things now that, even two months ago, I never dreamed of. People can walk in the apartment now with shoes on and it doesn't bother me. I don't have to go around cleaning up after them." She laughs, because that seems like such a ridiculously small thing. But to someone with OCD, she says, it is a major accomplishment. "If you can overcome things like that, it lessens the anxiety. And then you can go on to something else."

As part of her therapy, she has had to return to the old house where, 10 years ago, her compulsion first took hold. "I have had to go there and sleep in that house, and face right up to it," she says. "It's rough. But that's what it takes — and that's what I'm doing."

Having Megan at home has helped, she says, because the baby is a daily reminder of what she's struggling for. "Who knows? Maybe someday I can say, "I've overcome it.' That's what I dream of."

Originally from National Post (May 12, 1999), B1, B3. Reprinted with permission.