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If you know me, you’ll know that I am a sharer. I love to tell people my life story on park benches in a way that makes Forrest Gump look closed. There is no topic left unspoken.
Actually that last bit is untrue.
Today I want to share the thing that I only ever speak to my closest, closest friends about, mainly because (this next bit sounds like I am still in high school) it’s not really my secret to tell.
The secret is that my husband has severe OCD.
OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, must be one of the most misused mental illnesses in society today. Daily, I overhear people making comments like: “I’m a bit OCD about how I like my tea” or “Being OCD I like to write lists” and I feel that this trivialises what is a horrible illness. So often, what people describe as being “a bit OCD” is just not OCD, and is instead people being picky or having specific preferences or habits. The best example I can give of this is cleanliness. People associate OCD with cleanliness because a common symptom of OCD is sufferers obsessing about keeping things spotless. But liking things to be clean and tidy can often just be a symptom of control freakery (I am totally guilty of this), rather than OCD. My husband is not a clean or tidy person. He could live in a pit of filth and be perfectly happy. This difference in opinion about a ‘normal’ standard of housework has in fact caused us to argue until I caved and got a cleaner. OCD does not necessarily equal tidiness, or organisation.
(I should caveat this last paragraph: I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach to OCD or any mental illness. I actually had one of those heart to hearts where you block out the rest of the restaurant noise chatter with my best friend on Saturday about people’s mental health and how for any mental illness, everyone sits somewhere on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy and where you are can and does change periodically.)
For a while, my husband wouldn’t talk to me about his OCD. He is, as he describes himself, “highly functioning,” (translation: “good at hiding it”). Looking back, there were some clear signs (continually turning off plug sockets, waiting outside the door for a just a handful of seconds too long before being able to lock it up and leave it…), but without something to link these behaviours to, I or any of his other close friends or family didn’t connect them together. Now he is more open about his illness to me (our friends and family still do not know), but his confidences come out in snippets, whispered under the bedcovers, apologetically admitted to mid-argument. He does not find his mental illness easy to talk about.
At its worst, OCD is like ‘someone else’ has taken over my lovely husband. There was the time he came back late to our flat and quite literally wouldn’t stop flexing his hand in a funny way because he was convinced something was wrong with it or it wasn’t there anymore. And the times he has walked off without me at night on public transport because he convinced himself he shouted something inappropriate at a member of the public. He goes into a kind of trance and won’t look me in the eye or speak to me. These episodes are frightening.
It is hard to believe that it is the same man who is always telling me not to worry: not to worry about the future, to enjoy life now, to keep calm about job interviews and whether I will be able to have kids and whether I need to lose weight or not. He is quite literally the last person I think any of our friends or family would imagine has these feelings or acts like this.
Last summer, he decided to take the step of speaking to the professionals about it. It has taken me almost six years of convincing him to talk about it to someone, to ANYONE. Convincing him that trying to fix it himself by the internet won’t work. Convincing him that I wouldn’t consider us having children together until he was trying to address it, because I didn’t want us to have to deal with what could be a really stressful time of our lives without him having help. These were difficult conversations.
The therapy is helping. I don’t know if the OCD is getting better, so when I say it is helping I mean that it is just helping us to talk about it more. He has started telling me about his obsessions, talking about them in a way he would never have done in the past. One day I came home to find him cooking dinner, having bought groceries from the supermarket. I am always the one who shops and cooks, and I always thought it was because he was a bit lazy or didn’t enjoy it. On this particular evening I’d had a terrible day at work, hadn’t planned what we would eat and was (being completely honest here) gearing up for a bit of a fight as I knew we would both get home late to a dark flat and no food and I would feel both put upon (because the assumption is that I would shop and cook) and guilty (for not shopping and cooking).
I opened the door to the smell of pasta sauce. He was in the kitchen, peeling vegetables. I asked him why – we both knew this was unusual behaviour – and he replied: “I have a challenge this week to shop in a supermarket and then cook dinner.” The dinner was delicious. Whilst eating it, we talked about why he doesn’t shop in supermarkets (obsessions about walking out without paying/with the correct amount of money, or worrying about making racist comments to cashiers). It was a lightbulb moment for me. My husband never cooks, he will always get a takeaway or eat out. In part I think this is because he loves eating out or avoiding washing up, but at least some of the times will have been purely and simply because he wants to avoid his OCD.
I am so proud that he managed (and continues to manage) to talk to someone about his illness, because part of the talking is admitting it exists, and that must have been one of the hardest things. I also know that he will never not have OCD – even if he manages to reduce his obsessions, or even not have any for a while, at times of stress I understand they might reappear in the same or different forms and we need to be watchful.
We are closer now, we understand each other better, and when we fight and the cause has been something OCD related that he has hidden, I can comfort him rather than rant at him. This is what I mean when I say the therapy is helping. We have been helped; we are getting better.
I wanted to write this post to help everyone understand a bit more about what OCD is, and how mental illness can affect people in different ways. And also to say that the people that you might think were the most sorted, happy, lucky people in the world might find life a whole lot more challenging than you might think.