Showering, brushing teeth, going to sleep — the daily tasks most adults do without thinking — are obstacles for Hallee Wirtshafter, a 32-year-old Jewish woman living in Cheltenham with her parents.
She doesn’t leave the house. She doesn’t text or use social media. She doesn’t have a job and has lost touch with her friends. She doesn’t throw trash or food away, and it accumulates, taking up “half the house.”
Wirtshafter has severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a disorder characterized by uncontrollable and recurring thoughts and behaviors. What Wirtshafter does do is make lists — hundreds of lists, countless lists, lists of what her parents are wearing, lists of what items are in the house, lists of what she is afraid of forgetting. The lists overflow their house.
“I always say the OCD controls me,” Wirtshafter said. “I say Hallee is gone. My brain isn’t mine. I can’t even think straight.”
She and her family have found a program they hope will get Wirtshafter better: the Houston OCD Program.
Wirtshafter has chased treatments for the past decade, since she first started showing symptoms of OCD. She has tried both out- and inpatient programs, therapy and medication, but has relapsed many times and her condition has worsened over time.
She feels confident that this time might work because the program in Houston is a much smaller group than what she’s experienced in the past. The program offers Exposure and Response Prevention, the most effective treatment for OCD, and has outings for the patients to practice with real-world situations. In addition, because it’s a residential program, the staff is there to help with issues that come up throughout the day.
When she finishes the program and returns to the Philadelphia area, she will then enroll in Rogers Behavioral Health’s new OCD treatment program, which would serve Wirtshafter as a transitional step in her treatment. The availability of this program is a key part of why she thinks the treatment will be different this time. All the pieces that were missing before are coming together.
The program in Houston alone costs $57,000, and doesn’t take insurance. A family friend set up a GoFundMe called “Hope for Hallee” to cover the cost.
There aren’t a lot of options left, so for Wirtshafter and her family, the Houston OCD Program has to work.
“It’s really hard,” mother Iris Wirtshafter said, her voice breaking. “It’s painful. You just want the best for your children, and it’s just so hard.”
Wirtshafter’s life changed her senior year at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where she was studying electrical engineering. Seemingly out of nowhere, she started to feel like the furniture in her dorm was out of place. She spent her time moving her furniture back and forth, sometimes just by millimeters. The concern over her furniture was so great she couldn’t sleep at night, moving her furniture instead.
Wirtshafter used to love food and going out to eat. She was a hard-working student. Her family belonged to Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, where she went to Sunday school and was Bat Mitzvahed.
But her disorder has taken all of that from her.
“It’s really depressing,” she said. “My birthday was on Tuesday, and I literally cried all day because I didn’t want to answer my phone. I couldn’t do anything. My mom, she was like, ‘I don’t know what to get you because you can’t enjoy anything.’”
That first semester of her senior year lasted only one week before her parents came and took her out of school. As soon as a spot opened, Wirtshafter enrolled in a four-week intensive outpatient therapy program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.
The treatment helped. Hallee returned to Vanderbilt the next semester, only to face another obstacle: There weren’t any therapists in Nashville who were specialized enough to continue her treatment. She relapsed.
That happened several more times. She looked into transferring, but because of how far along she was in her degree, that was not an option.
It took her nine years to finish her degree, but it’s not a thought that brings her much joy.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to use it, actually,” she said. “My degree was in electrical engineering. One of the things I also wanted out of my life was a career. That was why I worked so hard my entire life to get to Vanderbilt. Growing up, I always wanted a career. I have a lot of issues with numbers and repeating. Numbers, because they’re more of a perfection thing. You can easily mess up a number. I get nervous whenever I write a number. Did I reverse two numbers? It’s too detail oriented. I definitely want to go back to school when I’m doing better, but I’m probably going to have to change what I’m doing.”
Another obstacle to Wirtshafter’s treatment is the cost. Even when programs that offer the services she needs do take health insurance — and they often don’t — they might not take her insurance. In the past, she has tried therapists who were covered, but they were not specialized enough to take on her treatment.
The first time she was in a residential program, insurance would only cover the first 30 days, but she needed to be there for 90. Each of those last 60 days cost about $800, Iris Wirtshafter said, which the family had to pay, adding up to tens of thousands of dollars.
Iris Wirtshafter said she has lost track over the years of how much her daughter’s treatment has cost, but she said it has been well above $100,000.
“That’s just how it is with something really specialized,” Iris Wirtshafter said. “It’s horrendous.”
Hallee Wirtshafter wants to get better. She wants to get her life back.
“It’s not something where I can just say I’m going to stop this on my own and just be like, ‘I’m done,’” Wirtshafter said. “Even though I’m aware that what I’m doing is kind of crazy, it’s not so easy to just stop. It’s something that you have to keep up forever.”
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