Breaking free: Atlanta woman finds help for OCD

Andrea Martin has pulled a lot of all-nighters in her life, not because she needed to, but because she felt she had to.

"I was constantly worrying and doubting myself," Martin says.  "

"I'm a chronic re-checker. And I'm always wondering about and worrying about mistakes."

Behind the wheel, Martin was constantly dogged by the idea she was going to crash, and hurt herself or someone else.

At work, the now 31-year old interior designer would become convinced she'd made a mistake.

So she'd check and recheck her work, getting stuck.

"I actually lost a job before I got diagnosed with this. And they directly told me that I was asking too many questions."

Last year, depressed and anxious,  Martin finally got help, and a diagnosis.  She has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.

"I never would have known that I had it, because in the media it's portrayed as just about contamination fears, or cleanliness fears, or being a neat freak, which I am not."

Emory psychologist Dr. Jordan Cattie, Ph.D, an OCD expert,  says people with the disorder are constantly plagued by unwelcome, sometimes frightening thoughts.

"So somebody who has OCD has intrusive, repetitive thoughts that they can't get out of their head, incredibly stressful, painful thoughts about any number of things," Cattie says.

Cattie says the thoughts take hold in a person's brain, getting caught on a loop.

"So, because the thought feels dangerous, it feels like something has to be done: I've got to get rid of this," she explains.

That's why OCD sufferers can fall into rituals or repetitive behaviors, like washing their hands, or in Andrea's case, avoiding driving altogether, to try to silence their thoughts.

"So it's something that grows and and grows," Dr. Cattie says.

At Emory, Andrea got help with a combination of anxiety medication, group therapy, and a something known as as Exposure Reponse Prevention, or ERP.

"And what that involves is a gradual and systematic way that patients can face their fears, in order to take away that feeling of danger around the thoughts, to break the association between the thoughts and the behavior," Dr. Cattie says.

It allowed Andrea to gradually and slowly get back behind the wheel.

"Sitting in the car, turning the car on," she says.  "I remember the first thing I did was just moving the car from one parking lot to another to another part of the building."

Martin says she still thinks about crashing, but she now has perspective, and can better cope with her anxieties.

Cattie says that's the whole idea behind treating OCD, breaking the cycle between unwanted thoughts and the repetitive behaviors that give OCD its power.

"And so when most people say, 'I skipped this ritual and the sky didn't fall,' they feel powerful," Cattie says.

Andrea Martin says she'll always have OCD, but it no longer controls her life like it used to.

"It's been a long road, but over the past year, I feel like a different person now than I did last August," she says.

For more on Emory's OCD program, click here.