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An obsession with perfection nearly killed her. Then she started a family.

Gabriel Spitzer
Caroline Garry is grateful to have found a therapy for her OCD so that she can be present for her son.

This story originally aired on October 27, 2018.   

When Caroline Garry first noticed she had a problem with perfection, she was in her bedroom closet scrubbing down a pair of white leather Nikes. Caroline was in seventh grade, and like a lot of kids she had gotten attached to a new pair of school shoes. But unlike a lot of kids, Caroline would come home from school every single day and clean them. In hiding. Whether they were dirty or not.

"I just felt this compulsion. I needed to."

After she got her first car, Caroline began to realize her problem was serious. She'd bought a used '99 Ford Taurus with a silver paint job, but she protected it from scratches like it was a precious vintage automobile. Just aiming the key for the lock felt terrifying. She put on her seatbelt oh-so carefully, so that she wouldn't scratch the inside paneling.

And one day, when Caroline's mother was a passenger and reached over to adjust the radio, Caroline focused so intently on making sure she was doing it right that she ran the car off the road. She and her mother were unhurt, but the car got "one single scratch." Though she wished she could just be grateful that everyone was OK, Caroline obsessed on the scratch.

It all came to a head when Caroline began her family life, with all of its messes and challenges. A chicken dinner incident got out of hand, and her husband convinced her to seek help.

Caroline found balance through an outpatient therapy called exposure response prevention therapy. It's a cognitive behavioral therapy that targets obsessive and compulsive thoughts by teaching people to ride the wave of an aggravating incident -- a scratched car, spilled milk, a messy counter -- and let the feeling rise and subside. 

Caroline says now that she is able to ride through life with a bit more balance. When something aggravating happens, she is able to resist the impulse to immediately and obsessively google about it. Instead, she says, she just waits. "You will come down from that peak, but you have to trust that you can. It's really saved my life."

She is grateful to have learned the lesson in time to be there for her toddler son, who makes her life both messy and wonderful. "I don't really aim for perfect anymore," Caroline says. "I aim for happy, safe, alive ... Being alive is perfect."

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.