The Secret Disorder

A psychiatrist at Rhode Island Hospital is changing the course of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a shadowy, under-recognized condition marked by obsessions with imagined or minor physical defects.

Imagine you’re staring out at the world. Everyone looks happy. Everyone looks normal. But you just can’t step out from the shadows to join them. This is Heather Davis’s waking nightmare. “I have to protect myself,” she says. “If people get too close, they’ll see what I see. They’ll make fun of me.”

Heather is a thirty-six-year-old speech therapist from Fall River. She has fair features, girlish freckles and naturally full lashes that most women lust after. But when she looks in the mirror, her mind’s eye shows her something else entirely: red blotches, too many freckles.

Heather felt the first pangs of insecurity in seventh grade; she was teased because of her acne, and her classmates often called her ugly. But even after her preteen tormenters subsided, Heather was convinced she was repulsive, and thought that dying might be the only escape. “I thought I was so ugly that I couldn’t go out in public,” she says. “I got very, very depressed, and was constantly looking in the mirror at the freckles all over my face, my pimples and the redness on my skin.”

As chance would have it, Heather’s mother switched on the television one afternoon to a program featuring Dr. Katharine Phillips, a young and, incidentally, very pretty psychiatrist out of Butler Hospital in Providence. Phillips was the nation’s best-known authority on Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a condition in which people are tormented by insignificant or imagined flaws in their appearance, most commonly on their face.

Prior to her diagnosis, Heather had never heard of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and didn’t know of another person who was troubled in the same way she was. “I didn’t think what I had had a name,” she says. “I was despondent. If I knew help was out there, I would have gotten it much sooner.”



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