Mara Wilson is best known for her role as Matilda in the 1996 film adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic, where she played an extraordinary 6-year-old girl who stood out from her family and friends. In her real life, Wilson said she also felt different from those around her.
Now 35, the former child actress appeared in Mayim Bialik’s breakdown podcast where the two discussed Wilson’s early career on camera. Although he has acted in notable films, including Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street and MatildaWilson remembers the onset of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and the death of his mother as defining elements of his childhood.
“I was always very worried from a very young age. I worried about death, I worried about illness, I was that kind of worried. And it was weird because I was either, like I said, kind of an optimistic outgoing kid or I was having a panic attack,” she told Bialik. “When I was in third grade, that was really when all the shit hit the fan. Third grade was when my mom was sick, I had just finished filming Matilda. I started having panic attacks about things like my hamster running away.”
Wilson was unaware of what those moments of worry or panic actually meant at the time. She recalled “hearing the word anxiety” but never in conjunction with her behavior.
“I think my mom was probably scared because she knew mental illness ran in her family,” Wilson said. “And she was also kind of like a just suck type mom anyway. So she was just kind of like, ‘OK, get over it, you’ll be fine, handle it.’ And she had cancer, she was minding her own business at the time.”
Panic attacks weren’t the only thing Wilson was dealing with at this age, but only complemented the rituals she had created with her undiagnosed OCD. “I started washing my hands all the time, so much so that my hands were always red and chapped and raw and my mom had to put salves and ointments and all these sorts of…all her home remedies on them to s sure they wouldn’t hurt as much,” Wilson explained. “It was a really tough time for me and I knew it was weird. That was the problem. I knew I was weird, I knew it was something other people didn’t have and I started having panic attacks at school. I felt like it wasn’t something other kids had.”
Although Wilson didn’t know what she was struggling with, she had the awareness to speak with her guidance counselor at school.
“I was going to the guidance counselor like every day, but they didn’t really seem to know what to do with an anxious kid, a kid with obsessions and compulsions,” she said. “I think about it and the way I talked about my symptoms and the way I described them, if I heard a kid describe them today, I would immediately be like, even though I didn’t have the extensive experience, I think if anyone heard the way I spoke they would immediately say it sounds like OCD I think we know a little more about OCD now because it’s 25 years later, but at the time, I guess people didn’t really know it could even happen to children.”
She herself did enough research to know that as a young girl she related to the descriptions of the disorder.
“I researched the OCD with the rudimentary internet we had at the time and what I knew in the library and the encyclopedia and so on and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this. And I went to my guidance counselors, I said, ‘I think I know what’s wrong with me,'” she recalled.
Wilson also had a studio teacher working with her on a movie set who seemed to validate her struggle. “I admitted to him that I was weird and I didn’t tell a lot of people about it. But I told him I was like, ‘I’m really weird.’ She’s like, ‘I’m kinda weird too.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m getting really anxious, I’m really scared.’ She was like, ‘I have anxiety too, it’s okay.’ And it made me think, oh okay, there are adults who have this. Not everyone is in control all the time and they deal with it, they find ways to deal with it.”
Wilson shared that it was difficult to get his father, who was a widower and single father after his mother’s death, “to accept that there was something wrong with me.” She said: “I think parents want to blame themselves for this. And they don’t want to damn their kids with a diagnosis.”
Ultimately, he started therapy at around 12 and got an evaluation that changed Wilson’s course going forward.
“I think I was on Zoloft then. I’m on Lexapro now and it helps because I couldn’t function without it. And I was diagnosed with severe OCD and I couldn’t have operate without him,” she said. “This diagnosis saved me.”
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