Mara Wilson Struggled With Anxiety, OCD After She Finished Filming ‘Matilda’

Mara Wilson remembers struggling with OCD as a child, anxiety.  (Photo: Getty Images)

Mara Wilson remembers struggling with OCD as a child, anxiety. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mara Wilson is best known for her role as Matilda in the 1996 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic, where she played an extraordinary 6-year-old who stood out from her family and friends. In her real life, Wilson said she also felt different from those around her.

Now 35 years old, the former child actress appeared on The collapse of Mayim Bialik podcast where the two discussed Wilson’s early career on camera. Despite starring in notable films including Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street and MatildaWilson recalls the onset of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and her mother’s death as the defining parts of her childhood.

“From a young age I was always very worried. I was worried about death, I was worried about illness, I was that kind of worried. I had an anxiety attack,” she explained to Bialik. “When I was in the third class, that was really when all the s*** hit the fan. The third grade was when my mother was sick, I had just finished filming Matilda. I started having panic attacks about things like my pet hamster escaping.”

At the time, Wilson was unaware of what those moments of worry or panic actually meant. She remembered “hearing the word fear,” 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 just kind of a mom who just sucks it in anyway. So she was like, ‘Okay, get over it, you’ll be fine, deal with it.’ And she had cancer, she was busy with her own things at the time.”

The panic attacks weren’t the only thing Wilson was dealing with at that age, but instead just complemented the rituals she created with her undiagnosed OCD. “I started washing my hands all the time, so much so that my hands were always red and cracked and raw and my mom had to put ointments and ointments and all that sort of thing… all her home remedies on them to make sure they would don’t hurt so much anymore,” Wilson explained. “It was a really hard time for me and I knew it was weird. That was the point. I knew I was weird, I knew this was something other people didn’t have and I was having panic attacks at school. I felt like that this wasn’t something other kids had.”

While Wilson didn’t know what she was struggling with, she had the realization to talk to her guidance counselor at school.

“I would go to the guidance counselor like every day, but they didn’t really seem to know what to do with a child with anxiety, a child 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 say, even if I didn’t have the extensive experience I think if hearing someone how I was talking, they immediately said that sounds like OCD. I think we know a little bit more about OCD now because it’s 25 years later, but I think at the time people didn’t really know that it can even happen to children.”

She did enough research on her own to know that she was related to descriptions of the disorder as a young girl.

“I looked up OCD with the rudimentary internet we had at the time and what I knew in the library and encyclopedia and things like that 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 work with her on a movie set that seemed to validate her struggle. “I confessed to her that I was weird and I didn’t tell a lot of people about it. But I told her I was like, ‘I’m really weird.’ She says, “I’m a little weird too.” And I was like, ‘No, I’m getting really anxious, I’m getting really scared.’ She was like, “I have anxiety too, it’s okay.” And it got me thinking, 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 cope.

Wilson shared that it was difficult to get her father, who was a widow and single father after her mother’s death, to “accept that something was wrong with me.” She said, “I think parents want to blame themselves. And they don’t want to damn their kids with a diagnosis.”

In the end, it was starting therapy when he was about 12 years old and getting an evaluation that changed the course for Wilson going forward.

“I think I was on Zoloft at the time. 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 functioned without it,” she said. “That diagnosis saved me.”

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