We’re very excited to welcome writer, actress, and mental health advocate Mara Wilson as our keynote speaker at the 26th Annual OCD Conference!
Mara, best known for her childhood roles in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda, was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder at an early age and has written extensively about her experience, most notably in her memoir Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame. Mara is actively involved in mental health awareness initiatives and has lent her voice to organizations such as Project UROK and Okay to Say. She continues to speak openly about her own mental health and challenge stigma as a public figure.
Here, Mara talks a little bit about her experience with OCD, what it’s like to be an advocate for those affected by OCD, and how it feels to be asked to speak at this year’s Conference.
Many people know you as the little girl in films such as Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda. What did you take away from those experiences? Why do you think those films resonated with people?
I think I’m very fortunate to have had those opportunities! I think it was sometimes difficult for me to see the impact that it had on people when I was a child; I definitely had impostor syndrome. But now, as an adult, I feel grateful, and it’s an honor to know that what I did so long ago still resonates with people.
Matilda is a story about someone using her love of learning, friendship, and justice to develop powers, using those powers for good, and making a happy life and family for herself. I think anyone who has ever felt like the underdog in an unjust situation can relate to that! As for Mrs. Doubtfire, a lot of people’s lives have been touched by family difficulties, so I think it’s cathartic for them to be able to laugh about it.
What was it like before you were diagnosed with OCD, and how did you come to be diagnosed?
I’d always been an anxious child, but things got much worse when I was about eight. My mother was dying from cancer, and I started obsessing about sickness and loss — washing my hands until they were so chapped and red that they would bleed, compulsively checking on my pets, thinking sometime terrible would happen if I didn’t walk through a door a certain way, and having multiple panic attacks a day. Sometimes I would go for days without eating or sleeping, because my body was just too wracked with anxiety. On top of that, I knew the things I was feeling or doing weren’t “normal,” so I felt deeply ashamed and afraid of what would happen to me if anyone found out. It was four years of fear, shame, and isolation.
Then, when I was twelve, I read a book called Kissing Doorknobs, about a teenage girl with OCD. I cried as I read it, because I finally knew what was wrong with me, and that there was help. I brought it to my school guidance counselors and to my father, and finally was able to get help, going into therapy and getting onto medication. That book changed my life.
What would you say to someone who’s struggling with OCD and doesn’t know how to ask for help?
Don’t be afraid to open up. The world is a more open place than you’d think, and the people who love you will love you no matter what. There’s no shame in having something you can’t control, and there are so many people out there willing to help you. And there are so many of us out there with OCD, that you are definitely not alone!
What inspired you to go public with your diagnosis, and what are your advocacy goals?
I knew from a young age that if I grew up to have any kind of platform, I wanted to use it to speak up about OCD. I felt it was my responsibility, and I knew the importance of accurate portrayals and discussion of OCD in media and literature, because it was a book that got me help!
As for advocacy, I think it’s important to destigmatize OCD and fight the stereotypes about it. It’s not a personality quirk or type, it’s a debilitating illness. There needs to be more understanding of what it actually is! I also want to help ensure that everyone who needs help for OCD can get it, regardless of where or who they are.
What would you say to someone who wants to advocate for those affected by OCD and related disorders?
If you aren’t living with OCD, listen to people who are, and ask what they need, instead of just assuming. Though I have found that I have a lot in common with friends with OCD, no two OCD cases are exactly alike. Learn as much as you can about it, and make sure people know you are there for them, there is still so much to be done!
What does it mean to you to be able to speak at the Annual OCD Conference?
It is a tremendous honor, one I know my thirteen-year-old self would be thrilled about — and one my thirty-one-year-old self is thrilled about!
My essay about OCD in my book Where Am I Now? was one of the hardest to write. I had to take frequent breaks and cried a lot, probably because for the first time, I was seeing myself from the outside. I saw myself as a terribly lonely eight-year-old girl, suffering with something she didn’t understand. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did it, because there’s nothing more rewarding than having people tell me “Your writing is to me what Kissing Doorknobs was to you. It’s helped me get treatment.” That is an honor and a privilege, and I know speaking at the conference will be just as rewarding.
Mara will deliver the Keynote Address for the 26th Annual OCD Conference on Saturday and will be signing copies of her book (available for purchase) Friday morning at the Conference Bookstore. You can also follow her on Twitter. Register for the Conference today!