It was around 8:30 p.m. last November when I sat my wife down and told her that I’d been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. We were in our living room, and our three children were in bed, which was unusual for this time. Normally, we don’t get a moment to chat for at least another hour.
“The therapist told me that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or at least I did. I’ve learned how to manage it on my own over the years. I still have some of what she calls ‘tics,’ but for the most part, I live a pretty normal life.“
We call her, “The Therapist” not to be disrespectful. She has a name, and PhD, and she’s a very nice woman who is also very smart and qualified. But for some reason calling her “The Therapist” added a little lightheartedness to what had become a serious situation.
A few weeks earlier, when things became particularly stressful at work and I had to be sent home because of it, I started seeing a therapist for the first time in 15 years. During that time, I had avoided therapy out of some kind of embarrassment. It felt like seeing a professional meant that I was making my mental illness official, and I didn’t feel ready for that. Now I finally had a name for what I’d been struggling with for so long. And while having a name for it was comforting, I still really struggled with how to explain it to anyone, including my wife of 12 years.
Mel looked at me with sincerity, her brow furrowed a little bit, and said “What does that mean exactly?”
People throw around the term OCD a lot. They use it to describe the reason they are so clean, or why they need to have their DVD collection in order so it doesn’t look odd. OCD is now a joke, really, so when The Therapist told me I’d been suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder for the past 14 years, it didn’t seem right. I’m not all that clean of a person. My desk, house, car, it’s all a mess. I don’t obsess over washing my hands or counting steps like Jack Nicholson did in As Good As It Gets, although I shouldn’t be surprised that Hollywood got it wrong, or that when someone says OCD, they mean something very different than the actual disorder.
I had to try to explain something that really doesn’t make sense, even to me, and yet in the moment, when I’m having a full-blown, four-alarm panic attack, it’s very real and very frustrating, and above all, terrifying.
I told Mel how OCD has a lot to do with anxiety and control. I reminded her of my problems with sleep — how if I don’t get to bed at the right time, or if there’s too much going on, I get anxious.
If you think this doesn’t sound like much, you are right. It isn’t. It took me a long time to get to this point though. Fifteen years earlier, if I didn’t go to bed at the same time, get up at the same time, and do a very particular exercise routine that lasted four hours, I’d have a full-blown panic attack. I went almost three years never missing a day of my routine. I was miserable. I thought a lot about suicide.
And as I explained this all to Mel, I felt fearful. The thing is, mental illness isn’t just something that goes away. It’s not something that you get over, or move on from, or you can take a pill and not have to worry about it anymore. It’s always with you. And while I’d been living with this disorder for the duration of our marriage, there was something about having a name for it that made it seem much more weighty and real than before, and as I told my wife what I knew about it, how it would continue to be a part of our marriage for the rest of our time together, I felt so very scared that she would think about leaving me because this was something that had no clear end.
I don’t know how normal this feeling is. Perhaps a lot of people with mental illness have this same fear. The hardest part about all of it is that it’s so misunderstood. I’d love to get to the point where people view mental illness like diabetes or some other long-term but physical illness. But that still isn’t the case.
In so many ways it feels like the expectation is for you to just buck up and be happy — to not obsess but to move on and live a normal life because obviously all of it’s in your head, or just some pathetic cry for attention, or an excuse to mope. Although I felt confident that Mel didn’t feel this way, I knew that she’d seen the fringes of all of it for years, and nothing of what I was telling her should have been all that shocking. The reality was, I didn’t 100% know how she would respond, and that uncertainty frightened the hell out of me.
“What do you think of all this?” I asked. “Does it scare you?”
Mel leaned back a bit. She crossed her legs, and she shrugged. But it wasn’t an “I don’t really care” shrug, or an “I’m over this” shrug, or “That’s your problem” shrug. It was more of a “We are in this together” shrug. It was a “This doesn’t change the way I feel about you” shrug. And although she didn’t really say anything, in so many ways it was exactly what I needed.
Part of having OCD is making big deals out of small inconsequential things, and to have her give me a glimpse into the reality that our marriage was still strong despite what I had told her, in a very casual way, gave me more comfort and reassurance than I expected. In that moment, it was exactly what I needed.