Sonya Hamasaki with Gatsby and Misty in July 2017.
Tom Larson/CNN
Sonya Hamasaki with Gatsby and Misty in July 2017.

Story highlights

Sonya Hamasaki has lived with OCD impulses since childhood

Taking care of her ill horse made her realize she should seek out help as well

CNN —  

Beef jerky, bottled water, and Fireball whiskey. This is where my journey began, at the grocery store, buying “survival” items on Thanksgiving Day.

I was meant to join a gaggle of screaming children at the kids’ table. But Gatsby, my ex-race-horse-turned-ungrateful-teenager, had just spiked a 105-degree fever. I was in for a long night.

I hurried back to the barn, parked, locked my car, and started heading in. But something stopped me in my tracks: a familiar, gravitational pull which begins as a small thought in the back of my mind, and pushes its way front and center within a matter of seconds. The sum of all its parts become greater than logic, evidence and truth.

I walked backed to my car and started the ritual. Tap each window five times. Stop. Go back, and do it again. Check the door locks. Pull each handle up five times. Stop.

Move to the trunk. Open. Close. Check the lock five times.

The last trick is to move away from the car without having any “bad” thoughts. I had to keep only “good” thoughts in my mind, because if I didn’t do it correctly, a catastrophic event would occur. A friend would suffer a heart attack. My neighbor’s dog would get hit by a car. The tree above my bedroom window would come crashing down. But the good news is, I could prevent it all from happening, if I “secure” my car a certain way.

Am I nuts, you ask? Perhaps. But this is just another day, living with obsessive compulsive disorder, known as OCD.

Here’s a shocker. I missed a tap that night, and absolutely nothing happened.

Home is where the horse is

Gatsby was my dream horse.

Correction: Gatsby was my idea of a dream horse.

Growing up, my horses were teachers, baby-sitters, co-conspirators and confidants. There were haughty and naughty ponies, and mares who ran through sprinklers with me in the summer.

A typical afternoon growing up in the 1990s, with sweet Honey Bear and Sandy, the golden retriever.
Courtesy Sonya Hamasaki
A typical afternoon growing up in the 1990s, with sweet Honey Bear and Sandy, the golden retriever.

But a beautiful thoroughbred with natural athleticism and a born-to-be-bad attitude – now that was my type of horse.

But then, life happened. I moved away to college, joined the workforce and started navigating life in Los Angeles, where the pace is always set at a medium-high.

For years, horses weren’t within the realm of possibility.

But in 2012, I got back in the saddle, and eased back into life at a barn. I befriended a young mare, who was rescued on her way to slaughter outside the United States. She only knew how to do two things: speed-walk, and gallop with her hair on fire.

Misty quickly became my partner – we spent our days trail riding, sharing watermelon and developing our own language where words aren’t necessary.

People often ask me why I love horses. This is why.

Misty was nervous and shy, but what I saw in her was the most soulful being I’d ever encountered. She still is.

But the dream horse – a tall glass of water with a confident spirit – that dream lived on.

Under lock and key

My earliest memories of OCD date back to when I was 7 or 8 years old. I lay in bed at night, my mind whirling with thoughts about whether the doors and windows were locked. Mind you, we lived in a safe, rural neighborhood in Encinitas, California, during the glorious 1980s. As kids, we’d ride bikes to the beach after breakfast, eat ice cream for lunch, and return around sunset.

But when the lights went out, the negative images played on repeat. A home invasion robbery. Broken glass. Gunmen wearing ski masks. Serial killers would finish us off, and terrorize our neighbors. They’d hit up the next street, and the next. The entire town would be wiped out. Gone. My mind would spin and spin. It was annoying as it sounds.

The only way to settle my thoughts was to give in to the obsession. This manifested itself in a bizarre lock-checking ritual after my parents were asleep.

I started upstairs, checking six windows and a sliding door.

Push the locks repeatedly. Stare at it. Still locked? Yup. Repeat. Don’t touch it. What if the lock unlocked itself? (There’s a riddle for you). Check again. Then tiptoe through the rest of the house. If an intruder dared to climb through our tiny window that a cat could barely fit into, they wouldn’t be able to get in anyway. Because it was locked!

Twenty-one locks, multiplied by two minutes each. It was time-consuming to say the least. And to say the most, OCD robbed me of many peaceful nights in my childhood.

Born to be wild

One afternoon in 2014, I was at the bottom of the Rattlesnake trail in Griffith Park, deep in negotiations with a horse named Dunbeath. He was for sale, and I was trying him out for fun. And because he was handsome.

Did I need two horses ? No.

Did I need a “beautiful thoroughbred with natural athleticism, and a born-to-be-bad attitude?” Yes.

I was on the fence. He was feisty, arrogant and a troublemaker – I knew he’d make me work for his heart and mind.

So I made him a deal. I told Dunbeath we’d race up Rattlesnake to the highest ridge – we’d be reckless, stupid and take blind turns with no abandon. If I was still on him when we reached the top, and not in a ditch somewhere, I would keep him.

Well … guess who stayed on?

I changed Dunbeath’s name to Gatsby’s Mint Julep. But let’s be real, I call him G.

He’s not a mean-spirited punk, but he pushes my buttons and drives me to the brink of insanity. Over the years, he’s amassed a comedic repertoire, which includes:

  • Screaming and jumping in the air, upon encountering a small pig walking on the street.
  • Crafting a Houdini-style escape from an arena, and trampling someone’s rose garden.
  • Kicking me with his giant horseshoes … because he didn’t want to take a bath.
  • Dismantling his entire Mad Hatter Halloween costume (long story) in less than two minutes (short story).

His penchant for mischief and mayhem is unrivaled. But, he gets credit for never reaching a level of naughtiness I wouldn’t be able to handle.

Because I know he’s tempted.

Hiding in plain sight

Outside the barn on Thanksgiving, I pulled myself away from my lock-checking extravaganza after four attempts. Round five was cut short by a passing car. I stopped immediately when I saw headlights approach, and let my thoughts fester in my head. By that time, keeping OCD hidden was second-nature to me.

Old friends, new friends, colleagues, family. Even my Mom had no clue.

I barely knew it myself.

The night unfolded in a spectacular fashion. Our veterinarian came out for an emergency field trip and confirmed my worries.

Earlier that month, the Burbank horse community was dealt a rare outbreak of the equine herpesvirus. The highly contagious virus didn’t reach our barn, but the facility next door was quarantined, as mandated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Several horses were seriously ill, and sadly, others died. A primary symptom of EHV is a high fever, so Gatsby’s blood samples were put on a plane to undergo testing at a laboratory in Sacramento.

At the end of the night, Gatsby was sequestered in a dark isolation area, with only a small window to peer out into the world.


The following day, I had this great idea to buy a boom box radio so Gatsby could listen to Christmas carols. If you didn’t think I was bonkers before … well, I think this confirms it!

My ideal Black Friday is spent light-years away from OCD-and-anxiety-inducing retail festivities. But I was on a mission to buy an entertainment system for a horse, so I had to get over myself and go to Target.

Throughout my life, the intensity of OCD has ebbed and flowed, as I developed new obsessions and compulsions.

Making contact with certain objects – like tile flooring and grass – often leaves me feeling absolutely disgusting until I take a shower. Whenever I pass a public restroom, I experience crippling anxiety over germs in my hair. But the most ridiculous obsession is fear of driving through certain freeway underpasses, where the air flow is restricted.

Sometimes, my symptoms are on full blast, but there are also blissful stretches where I’m relatively fine. My college years were nearly symptom-free. I was probably too busy making jungle juice to care.

Hamasaki's first horse, Lindy, an Appaloosa mare who loved to run off as they rode.
Courtesy Sonya Hamasaki
Hamasaki's first horse, Lindy, an Appaloosa mare who loved to run off as they rode.

I wish there were a rhyme or reason for this madness. I’m happy spending all day with horses, covered in dirt and bugs. But I avoid walking too close to garbage cans at the barn, so as to avoid airborne contaminants. When I see others touching them with bare hands, my heart starts racing.

It’s the nature of the beast.

Standing outside Target, I didn’t make my usual game plan to avoid “contamination” from certain locations and objects. I went inside wearing mental blinders. Get a cart. Touch it. Push it. Turn left. Get the radio. Batteries. Grab a basketball for Gatsby to play with (or destroy, depending on his mood.) Stand in the checkout line. Don’t think. Get in the car and drive off.

I had to get it done. So I did.

I spent the next 10 days convincing Gatsby he wasn’t part of a strange Medieval science project.

I brought a camping chair into his stall, and sat there for hours. I did my Christmas shopping online, and scared myself silly reading mysteries in the dark. He ate carrots while I had lunch, and we listened to the news on the radio.

Meanwhile, the lab results started coming back. The first one was negative. So was the second. On day 11, the third test came back, and he was a free man. We chalked up his fevers to a different virus strain, and he stepped outside, squinting in the sunlight.

The entire barn celebrated his release. I felt the love, and so did he. I began to think of Gatsby and me as friends. Maybe even family.

When I arrived at his stall three days later, he wasn’t eating breakfast. He stood in the corner, and gave me a withering look. I don’t why I said this out loud, but I told him “Nobody puts baby in the corner,” and took his temperature.

The thermometer read 104.6 degrees.

Truth vs. fiction

Death is a recurring theme in my OCD sequences.

In 2013, I had a medical scare which had me spinning, and of course, it turned out to be nothing. But in the six days I lived in purgatory between doctors’ appointments, I convinced myself I was going to die. Always prepare for the worst, hope for the best right? For me, that’s a dangerous road to travel.

I was furious no one took me seriously. I started lashing out and threw tantrums like 3-year-old. And one wonders why I’m still single! Really, I can’t imagine why.

Back then, I didn’t know there’s a psychological term for it: Catastrophizing.

When Gatsby fell ill again, there wasn’t time to catastrophize. Call the vet. Encourage him to drink. It was though I were outside myself, telling this other person what to do.

I thought Gatsby was going to die.

Turns out, this time, I wasn’t far from the truth.

To live or to die

It didn’t take long for the switch to flip, as Gatsby’s condition worsened. His eyes grew sleepy, his fluffy coat went drab, and I could see this soul was tired of fighting.

I was, too.

The sugar-coated version is that I pondered this at home on a chilly afternoon.

The truth is, I sat on my bed, stoned off a cocktail of anti-anxiety meds and anti-depressants. I felt nothing. I was just there, staring at the clock and letting time pass.

The phone rang. My friend Bristol had found Gatsby on the ground, having a seizure.

My horse was thrashing violently, his eyes rolling back into his head — while I was completely checked out. I should have been there with him. I was horrified and ashamed of myself.

This was my crossroads – the moment I decided to get out of my head for good.

A path to mindfulness

Bristol got him on his feet, and an hour later, he was trotting around the arena like nothing happened.

But his rise from the ashes was short-lived. He was deteriorating. His eyes fluttered erratically, as he slipped in and out of lucidity.

I contemplated euthanasia. Nobody ventured to say it out loud, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where things were going. I brought Misty into the arena, and she stood quietly next to him, his silent partner.

Locking rituals, tapping windows, and dirty shopping carts meant nothing to me in that moment, and in those that followed.

While he was dying, I became fully present to life.

Everything had always been there, I just never had the mindset to notice: my coworkers laughing, the hint of chimney smoke in the air, the streets decked out in twinkly lights. They were all new to me.

The next day, lab tests revealed abnormalities with Gatsby’s liver system. He was admitted to Chino Valley Equine Hospital and monitored 24/7 while we waited for a diagnosis.

But instead of hiding at home in a drug-induced trance, I made a point to visit him, focus on work, and simply be mindful and present to my surroundings. My thoughts were quiet, humbled, if you will … for now.

I received the news in rush hour traffic, surrounded by blinking red and yellow lights.

Gatsby had a form of liver disease called biliary hyperplasia, an extremely rare condition his surgeon hadn’t seen in 30 years.

Turn the beat around

The veterinarians worked tirelessly to treat him and determine a prognosis – and before I knew it, the light in Gatsby’s eyes began to return.

On Christmas Eve, a horse trailer pulled up in front of the barn. After 10 days in the hospital, Gatsby was home.

It felt bittersweet. I was happy he was alive, nervous because he wasn’t out of the woods, and terrified of caring for him largely on my own. But I could actually feel these emotions. In another time, a term like “biliary hyperplasia” would have sent me into a tailspin. This time, the emotions overtook the anxiety and panic that constantly occupy my mind.

When my OCD grew out of control, I shut out my friends. I was in a perpetually bad mood, and chose to ignore or be snarky to people.

It was the wrong choice.

Hamasaki's friends at the barn provided tremendous support when Gatsby was ill.
Courtesy Sonya Hamasaki
Hamasaki's friends at the barn provided tremendous support when Gatsby was ill.

During Gatsby’s illness, I re-learned the meaning of friendship and camaraderie. On Thanksgiving night, Davee and Vivian stood with me outside in the cold. Bristol and Colleen spent an entire afternoon with me at the equine hospital. Donna and Molly cared for Misty when I couldn’t. And I spent hours texting Maggie and Nancy, who had recently moved to other barns, but made me feel like they never left.

My friends sent “good vibes” and “positive energy” over Facebook. I used to laugh at people and their “healing thoughts” — until they were directed towards me.

I didn’t deserve them.

The veterinarians prescribed Gatsby a powerful antibiotic which can cause dangerous bone marrow suppression to humans who are exposed.

He had to be dosed every six hours, and I was under strict orders to wear latex gloves, a mask, goggles and a smock. When I approached him in my Hazmat costume, he would pin his ears back in disgust, walk to the corner and sulk. I would often sulk alongside him, in solidarity.

This went on for days, which turned into weeks, which turned into months. There were baby steps, backward steps, temper tantrums – and days full of leaps and bounds. His wonderful vet, Dr. David Wheat, remained positive about his prognosis, and so did I.

My eyes were open. There wasn’t space to spin into a never-ending abyss of checking locks and fleeing trash cans. There was just this horse, my friend, my family.

Five months later, Gatsby got the all-clear. My champion pulled through.

We were both fully present. And alive.

The great Gatsby

Gatsby’s plight pushed me to seek help. He was the sole, unlikely being on Earth who could pull me from the deepest waters – but it was up to me to find the shoreline.

Gatsby’s brave, sensitive spirit had always been there, merely awaiting recognition. I didn’t listen and allowed OCD to nearly paralyze me. But this horse forced me to listen, and although I wish it were under different circumstances, I finally heard him.

This spring, at the suggestion of my psychiatrist, I entered outpatient treatment at the OCD Center of Los Angeles.

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I’m learning how to restructure my thought patterns and address some of my irrational fears.

Through cognitive behavioral therapy combined with other methods, I am finally making progress toward being free from the chains of this disease.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to touch a trash can, then touch my hair, and just let it be dirty for hours! There will definitely be champagne that day.

Back in December, in the midst of this mess, I ran into Faye, an animal communicator who often visits our barn. Whether I believe in this type of conveyance is irrelevant – I simply find it fascinating to hear what she has to say.

I brought Gatsby to her and asked, “Is he going to die?”

I will never forget her response: “He says he won’t give up on you, if you don’t give up on him. You’re his hero.”

I didn’t think much of it afterward … but today, I understand what this means.

Gatsby saved me from myself without saying a word.

How humbling it is to be my hero’s hero.