I'm still convinced that I've met the most important person in my adult life, but I never imagined I'd be planning my future with someone who is often afraid to touch me. I've dated sociopaths, drug addicts, and alcoholics, but I never imagined what life could be like with someone battling OCD.
When I met Tony (not his real name) over a year ago, he immediately revealed he was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety disorder marked by intrusive, uncontrolled thoughts and performing repeated rituals. The fact that he felt the need to disclose this information is a testament to how much OCD controls his life. The disorder can be manageable, but it can also be all-consuming—one psychologist told me about hospitalized OCD patients who were too afraid to drink water they believed was contaminated.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 2.2 million people live with the condition, but men are thought to suffer in greater numbers than women, and most people are diagnosed by the age of 19. Tony was diagnosed over a decade ago, and has since been hospitalized twice. He says he just "went crazy," unable to leave his room because of perceived threats. Today, his OCD manifests itself in obsessive thoughts about hygiene; his hands are often flaky, cracked, and bleeding from repeatedly washing them. He won't touch anything he perceives as "dirty"—public door handles, used towels, even me.
Read our work on OCD, anxiety, depression, and much more in the VICE Guide to Mental Health.
But we fell in love from the start. Tony was a good listener, well-read, compassionate, and had a great sense of humor. We met on a Monday, and when I left for a trip that Friday, we were already inseparable. Though we hardly knew each other, I quickly understood that Tony was a very sensitive, loving guy. It wouldn't be until later that I fully grasped the scope of his illness.
A day with Tony looks something like this: I wake up next to him and have to stop myself from touching him. He won't touch his face or hair until he's had a shower, because of the "hidden oils" on his hands (I can't touch him either, for this reason). At one point, he wouldn't even hug me before going to work if I hadn't already showered. He still refuses physical contact if I brush against something he considers "unclean," like a public wall, or if my coat has dropped on the floor.
I do the laundry every day so that Tony can dry himself with a fresh towel after he showers. Tony needs a new one every day, and prefers them to be white, so he can see any stains that aren't readily visible on a colored one. If he dries himself with a stained towel, he will shower again and dry with a new one.
Once, I dried our mattress cover on an extremely hot cycle and when it melted, Tony refused to sleep in the bed until we'd replaced the destroyed cover. Even then, he still felt "unclean" in bed. Another time, when I used the wrong cleaning product on our sofa, he avoided sitting on it for three weeks.
It's no secret that relationships take work, but the pressure to thrive is magnified beyond belief when the most minor actions can cause a breakdown. Even when Tony can't directly communicate his boundaries, they silently dictate everything we do. I've come to view his illness as an entirely separate entity—Tony wants to be loving without constraints, but the OCD wants to control our lives. After he throws a tantrum or we have a fight, I can tell that he wants to make up like a "normal" couple would—with physical affection, a warm hug that says "I'm sorry"—but the OCD won't allow him to.
There are so many times that I've cried wishing that Tony could just be "normal." I've come to dread fun activities and special occasions because with more excitement comes a greater level of anxiety. Tony has stormed out of restaurants and bars after someone accidentally spilled drinks on him; when we're at parties, I know better than to sneak a kiss and trigger a freak-out in a public place. One time, Tony even refused to eat his meal at an upmarket restaurant because his umbrella fell on the floor. In his mind, accidents don't really happen since everything he does is premeditated—he can never be careful enough and I'm expected to follow suit.
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There is no "cure" for OCD, but like most other mental illnesses, it can be managed with the right treatment and support. Tony is currently in therapy, and takes 40 to 60 milligrams of Paroxetine (a common drug for OCD management) every day. These things are helping him, but he's still not functioning as well as he wishes he could. Without treatment, the condition rarely resolves itself.
After a year together, it's easy enough to anticipate what will bother Tony, and as his partner, I try to be a support pillar. But supporting a partner with OCD is an every-day, all-day affair. I'm constantly on edge, preoccupied with the next thing that will throw him off, and it saddens me that we struggle to enjoy the simplest things in life. Spontaneity can't exist. And without spontaneity, how can you have romance?
And yet, this is the person I love. If anything, watching Tony has made me a more compassionate person, but it's also filled me with a deep sadness as I've grown to resent the part of him that's still suffering. But in my quiet moments, I have to remind myself that Tony's living with a crippling illness, and if he could change things, he would.
Before I met Tony, I used to laugh when I heard my friends flippantly say, "Oh, I'm so OCD." Now I don't find it so funny.