I really ought to have my husband write this post…but that might actually make him love me less… (I’m kidding.) (Well, kiddingish.) I’m a romance writer, this post should be a piece of cake, right? Right…in theory…
I’m going to be as candid as possible without being graphic at all because I think this is valuable. If you know me in real life, this might be the post you skip, not because it’s going to be beyond a PG-13, but, well, my best friend won’t even read love scenes I write because it’s a bit TMI. This might be TMI.
Love and intimacy as a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder is going to be as varied as the condition itself–so this will be based primarily on my experience with it. I’ve seen other successful relationships between someone with OCD and someone without. My parents have been married forty-five years and my mom’s OCD issues with organization and cleanliness seem to jive really well with my dad’s military background. My husband and I have a similar sort of copacetic relationship. He’s patient in the ways I need. He’s strong in my weak spots. He needs someone to adore him–and I do.
I had a few relationships before I met my husband.
My first brush with real romance was on a trip with my family to Hawaii. I think I was fourteen or fifteen. My family has a no dating until you turn sixteen rule–which is common in my religion. I met this boy on the beaches near where we were staying and we went for long walks and talked. He left before my family was scheduled to leave and pressured me to kiss him. I kept explaining to him that I wouldn’t kiss someone until I was sixteen. The rule was as rigid in my head as it could be. I gave him my address. He said he’d write. (This was pre-email.) He didn’t. I was cutting already and I seem to remember I cut myself for trusting him and was glad I didn’t have to cut myself for breaking the “age sixteen” thing.
My second experience with romance was prior to turning sixteen too. A guy named Gary visited our area with his church group. We exchanged addresses and he wrote me…and I wrote back. He was older than me and had money to burn. He’d send me gifts which I could tell challenged my mom on the whole “no dating until age 16” thing. wWe weren’t dating, but he was writing me and sending me things…like a boyfriend. I bet her world felt a bit implodey. It was an interesting experience for me because Gary was broken in some ways. Having OCD for me means that I analyze things to death and people to pieces. I’m very intuitive. I would have made a great psychologist, but I think, in general, they like for them to be less mentally ill than their patients. In my relationship with Gary, I often felt like an outsider looking in. I could tell how he was broken and I set about fixing it with words. He never really knew me because I didn’t get the sense he could handle another broken person. Our “relationship” lasted for years, even though we didn’t meet again.
Then, I met a guy after turning sixteen. We’d known each other for a while because his brother and my brother were best friends. He sat behind me in German class. German is not the language of love, but this was the high school romance in books. He was five months younger than me, so I made him wait until he was sixteen to date me (a month and a half later) even though his family wasn’t strict on that rule. I can only assume something about my madness drew in guys because there were some definite hoops to jump through. Up until I met my husband, he was the healthiest relationship I had. It was full of angst like a solid high school relationship is. He didn’t know I had OCD. Back then, it looked a whole lot like I was the most uptight person he’d ever met…but he was okay with that. We were genuinely good for each other during that time. He followed the same moral guidelines that I did with our religion so my cutting slowed down. Neither of us was entirely mentally healthy to be honest, but together…we sort of were. We broke up, and stayed friends. We got back together, and stayed friends. We broke up again–I had other even more broken relationships–we stayed friends. Then, he left to go on an LDS mission for two years–on Valentine’s Day. He asked me to date other people while he was gone.
Being in a couple without the other person was a challenge to my OCD. I had these rules about being faithful. I was going to wait for him. I was determined. My internal rules were strict. This was allowed. This was not allowed. I was waiting. The first year went okay. Sort of.
Then shortly before turning twenty-one, I started dating someone I worked with and my world imploded. I got into a relationship with someone who recognized I was broken and sometimes exploited that, but also wanted to fix me. It was the first time my cutting came out into the open. And it wasn’t the ritualistic penance cutting that was satisfied by needle pricks and easily-hidden cuts. It was burns and gouges because I felt out of control. The rules I’d made for myself were under constant assault. I couldn’t sleep…at all. I started taking stuff to make me sleep…a lot of stuff. I let cuts get infected to further pay for whatever lapse I felt I’d made. He wasn’t a bad person, but we were so toxic together. The more broken I became, the more he felt I needed fixing. My cutting disturbed him. His sympathy and pity exacerbated it. My rules weren’t working. Nothing was working. I was drowning in my mind. I’d sit in my closet and cry and cry for hours. I took showers fully-clothed. I cut and I burnt and nothing made me feel better. I was in a fog. And then time stopped for me. Two months later, it restarted when I broke up with him on the Fourth of July. And I stuck to it.
I was so broken. My rules had been broken. I’d paid, but could I pay enough when I didn’t know what I’d done? I was a mess. And, in the middle of it, my high school boyfriend had broken it off with me, not knowing why I was behaving so erratically, but knowing he couldn’t concentrate. I was on the other side of a nervous breakdown–I’d lost it completely at one point. I was in therapy–as I said, the guy I was seeing wanted to fix me. And I was on anti-depressants, not knowing that I had really severe reactions to some of those–the suicidal fantasies kind. Broken was a reoccurring theme in my life. Broken. Broken. Broken. Rock bottom. I was at rock bottom. I’d lost control. I had a memory lapse to show for my lack of control.
I went in to my bishop (the local LDS leader) and said that I needed help coming back. I needed to repent and atone for things, but I couldn’t remember what I’d done, other than the flashbacks and nightmares…and the scars from the cutting. In his infinite wisdom and kindness, he said that mental illness released me from accountability and that God understood that I was sorry. I asked him if I could please be put on probation anyway so that I’d never doubt that I’d done what I should and on the off-chance my memory returned. He did–though I know he did it for my peace of mind, not because he felt it was warranted. Being on probation with the church means that you’re in a process of trying to repent and there are certain things you can’t partake of…and things you can. It was the first time that I didn’t have to cut to atone–something I’d been doing for myself, not for God. This time I was doing things the way I thought God would want me to. I was doing things differently and I could see other ways for coping.
Things were good. They were getting better. The pattern of repenting was a pattern I could fit into. But I still felt alone. It was me against the world, and I hated that because the world was not a place I was comfortable in.
Very shortly after that, I met a man who made me smile. No, he made me laugh. Plus, he was sort of adorable. When I met my husband, I knew within twenty-four hours we were meant to be. We were like two gears matching up. His strengths fit with my weaknesses and he liked me…the whole me…and I didn’t have to hide things with him. I was getting off antidepressants at the time and getting out of therapy–neither of which had been helping, and he knew that. He knew that I was a cutter. I had healing scars still. He asked me to stop cutting, not because it was sick or wrong or because he thought I was a sick or wrong person, but because he loved me and he didn’t want me hurting myself anymore. That was the right reason to stop. It was enough. And I fell in love. Real love. Healthy love. Love that could last. We were married within five months.
Love does not fix everything, but mental illness does not necessarily mean that you’re broken forever. Finally being able to be “me” the whole me–was freeing. We set on the path of healing me. Little by little, my husband learned my quirks and some he learned to accommodate, others we tried to work on being less strict…and then there were some things that were a source of conflict. Not all romance is a smooth path. My husband is a very strong, logical, and sane person. I’m…strong-willed…so we had that in common. Not all days were good. But I think that’s true of all relationships. I definitely have…issues.
Every time he leaves me to go somewhere–to work, etc. he knows that he has to kiss me goodbye. It’s a rule. If he kisses me goodbye, it’s a promise that we’re cool and that he’s coming back. I need that. In the eighteen years we’ve been together, he’s broken that pattern twice that I’m aware of. (He’ll swear it was only once, I suspect. We might argue over this later.) There are things like this that developed that I had to explain and other patterns we just fell into.
Intimacy with someone with a contamination phobia isn’t as…strict as you would imagine. I have this barrier circle around me that is a contamination-free zone. I need that invisible barrier to survive in this world. My kids and my husband have free tickets inside the zone. It’s a rule I’ve created in my head. I was pregnant with my kids…they were once inside me…they’re in the clear…for the most part. With my husband, he knows the dark parts of me and that acceptance helps things be okay. Outside of family, I give three hugs a year to adults. That’s it. I feel like that’s a reasonable rule. After three hugs, I’m allowed to block people and back-off. With family, I tolerate it. My family can tell you that hugging me is probably as pleasant as hugging a cardboard cut-out. I go to my husband to be hugged. I actually really, really need to be hugged, but I can only tolerate it from him. Then, there’s kissing. My contamination phobia ebbs and flows a bit. When I’m medicated, I can handle kissing–like actual kissing–most of the time. My husband has developed a sixth sense for when kissing is okay. As for more than kissing, well, it’s okay. My husband is inside the contamination-free zone. He’s got like the bracelet you get for concerts–an all-access pass of sorts.
That’s not to say there aren’t atypical aspects. I have…an affinity for pain. I’d like to say that stopping cutting ended that, but it didn’t. After a decade of cutting, you grow accustomed to the rush of endorphins from pain. Then, there is the fact that I used pain to relieve the pressure and stress of life. My brain made connections and I developed an unusual relationship between pleasure and pain. (I’m keeping this PG-13 and my mom will still be wanting to gouge her eyes out.) That’s something my husband has had to navigate in our relationship because of his own preconceived morals on the subject. From what I know of others with a history of self-mutilation, this isn’t so outside the norm.
In some ways, he’s been by my side in helping me keep my demons at bay, and in other ways, he’s been forced to step up and be my keeper. He makes sure that I never fall into agoraphobic patterns where I get too comfortable staying inside. He has to intervene sometimes when my rules and rigidity have become detrimental to the well-being of my kids or me. He’s had to say “no” when my OCD has gone too far in our relationship–when it’s controlling me rather than me controlling it. We’ve always discussed when it’s time for me to be medicated–though he has always given input and left the final decision up to me. He can’t be inside my head where the worst of the demons live but being medicated changes who I am–for better and worse so I feel like he should be part of the decision.
The reality of being someone with OCD…is not roses and candy. I won’t lie and say that I know why he does it. That alone is the great love story. The things I’ve brought to our relationship are enough and not too much for him to stand by my side and face the world. When I sit down to itemize this out, to dissect it…it doesn’t make sense. But he loves me. I know he does. He proves it every day by trying to puzzle out my needs and help me fit in the world. In that way, he’s perfect for me. He’s a solution-oriented, puzzle-solver and I’m a labyrinth of interconnected rules. Maybe I’m the ideal puzzle to solve. We work. In the end, we match and we love each other.
This is OCD in love. It’s strangely…messy, but I think even those with a cleanliness issue find it worth it. And maybe the difficulties make it into a better love story than the boring, average, don’t-have-weird-rules sort of relationships the rest of the world has. (I’m kidding.) (Well, kiddingish.)
**If you or someone you love has obsessive-compulsive disorder, a medical professional would be able to give you more specific help and guidance. Nothing I’ve said can replace seeking help or should be construed as advice. Be safe and be well and seek help if you need it. This post is based on my own experiences and my interaction with others diagnosed with OCD.**