All outward appearances indicated that Nikita Desai was a happy 'tween, a model of emotional poise who nurtured a passion for piano and Indian dance. • Confident and focused, she was the kind of middle school student that teachers treasure, friends gravitate toward and parents never need to worry about. • No one could detect Nikita's daily internal struggle: the nagging thoughts and panicked feelings, the compulsions and obsessions she hid from family, friends and, on a conscious level, denied even to herself.
The only inkling the girl's mother, Bella, had that her daughter might be suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder were the late-night bedside visits when she would wake her parents and ask, "Am I not going to be smart anymore? Am I not going to be a good person?"
Eventually, Nikita admitted to her parents, who are both physicians in Sacramento, Calif., the full extent of her pathology. She told them of her numerous fears: how the presence of cigarette smoke made her feel she'd lose her intelligence; her tiring ritual of thinking about "only good people" when doing routine tasks like walking through doorways, tying shoes and zipping up her backpack; how she was so fretful of smells such as perfume or deodorant that she would breathe only through her mouth while walking the school halls.
"It was a constant struggle," says Nikita, now 15 and a high school junior. "I really didn't think I had a disorder. I just thought I was a really anxious and focused person getting too stressed out. Everyone had these stresses, and I was just taking it to the next level, I thought."
She learned that she was among the 5 million Americans living with OCD, which manifests itself in repetitive washing, checking, hoarding and arranging and a need for perfection.
There's no data on how many children and teens have OCD, but experts say adults with the disorder most likely developed the traits at a young age.
The key to controlling OCD is to catch it early, says Dr. Jeff Szymanski, director of psychological services at McLean Hospital's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute in Belmont, Mass.
Such early intervention — most notably a relatively new "exposure" therapy in which patients are forced to face their fears to overcome them — has tamed Nikita's OCD impulses so that what was all-consuming anxiety is nearly nonexistent.
She is even helping other teens deal with the disorder via a support group she started (www.ocdkids.com) detailing services and providing a forum for teens. Nikita's main point: OCD is a treatable disorder, like asthma or diabetes.
The irony, she acknowledges, is that "because I've gone through OCD treatment, I'm able to cope better than a lot of my friends on the everyday stresses. I'm able to see the big picture because of what I've gone through."
After four years of intense therapy, she is getting top marks in a rigorous International Baccalaureate program, and she was a member of a Science Olympiad team that finished 10th in a national competition.
Her mother says the change is huge.
"Nikita was always so lively and fun-loving as a child," her mother says, "and we were seeing her turn into this person who looked stressed all the time. We are a loving, laid-back family that doesn't put pressure on Nikita or (younger sister) Uma.
"It's great to see her now. She was so brave to go through the therapy and overcome this."