My story starts off, probably somewhat different from most in that I hadn’t really experienced OCD at any stage in my childhood – anxiety, most definitely, but never OCD specifically that I can recall. I guess this is what made my journey of discovery that bit longer – I really had no idea what was happening or what was wrong with me.
I remember the moment so clearly – it was September 29th 2007, and I was sitting in Burger King with my boyfriend; we were both 19 and had just celebrated our one year anniversary a week earlier. Everything was perfect…perfect being the word that would ultimately come back and bite me in the ass.
I referred to a joke that I had heard earlier that week, and after reciting it back, I distinctly remember my boyfriend responding with a polite, yet quite insincere sounding ‘chuckle’ – you know the kind when you’re not really engaged in the conversation and offer that sort of response you think the other person wants to hear? We all do it. Except, when he did it, I had a thought…a jarring thought. And it went something like this:
He didn’t laugh at that joke
He really didn’t seem interested in what I was saying
What if he doesn’t find me interesting anymore?
What if this relationship isn’t right?
And so began my spiral into what would ultimately become 9 and a half years of utter despair and anxiety towards romantic relationships.
That moment changed me; however, I got through the rest of the meal. We said our goodbyes and I got on to the bus. Soon after I sat down, I experienced my first ever panic attack.
How could this be happening? How could I be having these doubts all of a sudden? Everything was FINE! Everything was PERFECT! Of course, this was only the beginning of a long road of scrutiny with my thoughts, and the next day I called in sick to work because I was so distraught. I mentioned it to my Mum, and of course, she didn’t really know where this was coming from either. But because I was only 19 and this was my first serious relationship (I think she secretly wanted me to get out and play the field more), she openly questioned the same thing…which of course set me off even more. I started confiding in friends and other family members, begging for help. “It’ll pass” most of them said.
But it was never going to pass – every time a thought landed into my mind, I couldn’t help but entertain it…it never just crept in, it always seemed to hit me hard, with a knot in the pit of my stomach following suit. It felt literally impossible to ignore it and not analyse & consider every single angle. The most invasive and upsetting one was ‘What if you don’t love him anymore?’ The mere fact that I was having this thought was the catalyst for it to come back again and again. I would have a mental checklist of reasons why I did love my boyfriend, and ticked off each one to justify why my thought was actually not true – but if this thought isn’t true, why do you keep having it? Surely the fact you are having this thought in the first place means that your relationship is heading for disaster.
I felt I could never share what was happening to me with my boyfriend and decided to seek professional help. My first plan of action was to consult my GP – unfortunately, she wasn’t much help and suggested that I was experiencing seasonal affective disorder. I also visited a psychotherapist who had come highly recommended from a family member, but again, the result seemed inconclusive…looking back, and realising that at the time I didn’t know what was going on, it was no surprise that I wasn’t getting the answers I needed.
The relationship broke up several months later; I had become very distant and things were never really the same. He decided to move to England which conveniently became the root cause of our separation, though in the back of my mind I knew it was more than just that. Things were quite acrimonious for some time afterwards, before we reconciled a few years later – now we are on good terms and though never see each other because we live so far apart, I know that if he ever did return to Ireland to visit his family, I would love to meet for a catch up.
Fast forward some years later, a long-term singleton, and feeling like I would be perpetually alone for all of eternity. But I was living a very happy life – no anxiety in that department. Of course, it had shifted to other aspects of my life, and I spent between 2009 and 2013 pursuing a degree and masters; ergo, my perfectionist tendencies were well established there.
One day in July 2013, I started looking for websites that talked about relationship anxiety – I can’t quite remember why, but something must have triggered my anxiety for me to start researching it. That’s when I came across the term: ‘Relationship OCD’ – and just like that, my eyes had been opened. I could finally identify with something; this was real, this was a real thing. It wasn’t all in my head this entire time.
I started trawling websites on Google trying to find out anything I could about ROCD. It was bittersweet; an utter relief to know that this was something very real, but also something that I could no longer avoid in the hope that things would just ‘sort themselves out’ over time; I really needed help. But I didn’t really do much about it until 2017 – I know, crazy right? You’re thinking: ‘Well, if you knew what it was, and you wanted to learn how to manage it, then why not seek help asap?’ Thing is, I was absolutely terrified to tell anyone because it still seemed absolutely crazy that I couldn’t even accomplish the most fundamental thing in life; to be in a romantic relationship. There mere thought of it was upsetting and made me feel so inadequate.
Until the end of 2016, I avoided situations which left me vulnerable to OCD triggers; I wouldn’t ever allow myself to get close to anyone romantically. That is, until Jack came along. We knew each other for a few years through mutual friends, but he had been living in England for some time. I found out he was moving back to Ireland during the summer of 2017; we were both into the same music and it transpired that we were both booked on the same flight to England the following October to see a band that we both really liked. Both travelling solo, we naturally welcomed each other’s company. I mean, we already knew each other somewhat, so it made sense to hang out.
A few days later, I was still in the UK following the same band on tour (my passion for music goes deep!), and he sent me a message asking if I wanted to go with him to see a concert in Dublin the following month. Now, you know when you ‘just know’ that someone is into you, and you get that flurry of excitement because they are essentially asking you out on a date? Well, that’s how it goes for most people – for me, I instantly panicked. I thought ‘Oh God, is this a date? Does he want me to go on a date with him? Because I don’t even like him. And now I have to tell him. We’re just friends! This is awful.’
The rumination went on and on, but eventually I calmed down. Part of me was also intrigued by him, because it had been so long since anyone had shown remotely any interest in me, and I was very conscious of the fact that I had made little effort to improve my anxiety with relationships over the last number of years…and I wasn’t getting any younger! So I relented. We went to the concert, and I had a good time. I had decided in my head that it wasn’t a date, but I was still glad that I went through with it. We started messaging each other more, and gradually over time, things developed into a casual relationship – not boyfriend ad girlfriend, but more than just friends.
Though it was anything but plain sailing – every time I saw him, I felt sick to my stomach.
“You don’t even know if you like him”
“You have no romantic feelings for him”
“If you did like him, you’d be feeling something for him by now”
“You’re never going to feel anything but anxiety towards him”
“You’re going to lead him on and then he’ll be hurt when you finally decide you don’t want to be in a relationship with him”
I would be hot and cold with him and felt constantly conflicted. Tiny things he did would define the relationship and I would back away so fast…we were very on and off in the beginning. I didn’t really tell him about my OCD specifically, but I did mention that I experienced anxiety about relationships and that we had to keep things going really slow. It was also two months before I could even tell anyone in my family about him. I was absolutely petrified that things wouldn’t work out and draw even more attention to the fact that I just couldn’t hold down a relationship. I wanted to be absolutely certain that things would work out before I told anyone.
But by some miracle, over time, I was able to feel the anxiety and just ride it out. We still weren’t in a relationship per se, he was just someone I was ‘seeing’ – but it was still a huge deal for me regardless. He also had a child from a previous relationship, so of course this added to the mix of complications.
I think what helped me to ‘ride out’ the anxiety, and what was perhaps one of those ‘Eureka moments’ with my OCD personally, was probably the realisation that love isn’t a feeling and that it’s actually ok not to have those mushy, romantic feelings all the time. I started reading a lot about romance and what love actually means, and this really changed my perception about it. I also read the book ‘Love You, Love You Not’ by Bruno Ping & Hannah Pedersen which enhanced my understanding of how to actually love someone. I realised that there was no such thing as ‘the one’, that’s just a Hollywood fantasy. Love is hard work, it’s an action; an everyday decision to work at your relationship and get through the hard times instead of giving up. It’s about compromise.
It was also around this time when I came across Stuart’s site and learned just how many other people out there were experiencing the same kind of OCD – I joined a Facebook group too (I think it was actually mentioned on Stuart’s site somewhere) and I read other people’s stories about OCD, and how they were learning to live with it.
However, around May last year, I sort of fell into that trap of ‘I’m cured!’ – I thought that because I understood what triggered my OCD and the root cause, I was now fine and able to handle it. But I was wrong. Until now, the fears about my relationship with Jack were firmly rooted in the actual relationship itself – but one day, almost as suddenly as it had happened for the very first time, we had an argument (our first argument actually) and I immediately thought:
“Wow, he really doesn’t get me at all. He’s not emotionally intelligent enough; he’s not sensitive to my feelings. He doesn’t care about me at all – well, that’s the end of that. It was good while it lasted.”
I had the exact same sick feeling in my stomach that I had the very first time. I was convinced that this was the end and I even told him how I felt and that I didn’t think things would work out between us anymore. Naturally, he was quite taken aback and very hurt. He was also quite angry, but I just couldn’t get past his lack of ability to show more sensitivity to me. I felt like that was what I needed in life and if he couldn’t give me that, then it was an absolute deal breaker for me. I was absolutely distraught, and immediately started scouring the Internet trying to find out more information. My Google searches went something like this:
“Partner focused symptoms of ROCD – not emotionally intelligent enough”
“What are all of the partner focused symptoms of ROCD?”
“He’s not emotionally intelligent enough. Does this matter?”
I found an article written by a well-known academic who has carried out several studies on partner focused ROCD, one of which outlined several possible ‘character flaws’ – emotional intelligence wasn’t listed, which fuelled me even further. I then thought:
“Ok, emotional intelligence isn’t listed here. Oh my god, does that mean that this ISN’T ROCD? What if it isn’t?? It isn’t listed in this article, so it probably isn’t. So that pretty much means that I genuinely just can’t like Jack and progress with this relationship. It must be real, it’s not the OCD talking.”
I didn’t sleep that night, and I was ruminating about the scariest intrusive thought I had ever experienced: “What if this isn’t OCD? What if it’s just reality?” I couldn’t eat all day and had the worst feelings of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. It was so bad that I actually went to great lengths to find the email address of the author so I could get the bottom of my ever-growing concern. Here is a snippet from the actual email I sent:
“I have to ask, your research says that partner focused ROCD tends to fall into one or more of 6 categories: appearance, sociability, emotional stability, morality, intelligence and competence. But what if it’s not any of those things? What if it’s a lack of emotional intelligence on their part, a lack of sensitivity, or an inability to provide verbal reassurance? Could these also be symptoms? I know I’m checking right now and this is ironic, but I feel like I need to know. If it’s not any of these 6 categories, could it still be ROCD?”
The fact that I even admit in the email to putting him in an awkward position gives you an idea of the anxiety I was feeling at that moment in time. I knew I was ruminating and seeking reassurance, but I didn’t care. I needed answers. He did respond and tried his best not to provide any sort of ultimate reassurance, but of course, I did get that intense ‘phew!’ feeling when I accepted that it was probably just the OCD talking – it’s like a drug. You need that reassurance so badly and you just can’t function properly without it. And then when you get it, that feeling of relief, like so much weight has been lifted from your shoulders, you feel almost euphoric.
I’m glad this setback happened, because it really gave me the wake-up call I needed to finally go and seek professional help. I think the realisation that this wasn’t something that would just ‘go away’ was initially really scary for me, but the fact that I was willing to learn how to accept and live with it was what put me in the right state of mind. I found a psychotherapist who specialised in OCD, and I will never forget that feeling of relief when he told me: “I have treated people who experienced the exact same symptoms as you.” I guess a little part of me was still terrified that he would look at me awkwardly and say: “Well, I don’t actually think you have OCD, I think it’s just that you don’t really love him.”
What was also a great learning experience for me during this time was the realisation that I didn’t need to label it as ‘ROCD’ – my therapist explained that he was reluctant to compartmentalise different types of OCD as if they were completely separate from one another; yes, the intrusive thoughts and compulsions might be different, for example overt versus covert compulsions, but it all stemmed from the same anxiety disorder (on a side-note, this was actually something I heard Stuart and Chrissie Hodges speak about also during one of his podcasts; about how we don’t need to necessarily define it as ‘ROCD’ – it’s just OCD).
I learned about exposure response prevention and attended four sessions with my therapist, working through my anxiety and how to respond but not react. I learned that yes, there will be times when I have intrusive thoughts and I will want to start following the same pattern to try and make myself feel better, but that’s ok. Just ride it out – the more I pander to my intrusive thoughts and feelings in the short term, the more negative their impact will have on me will be in the long run. What appeared to be an absolute deal breaker for me in terms of a character flaw in Jack, was actually something that I was too fixated on to appreciate the reality of the situation. I was ignoring everything positive about him and focusing on that one aspect that had suddenly become the most important personality trait in the world.
Just to add some context, I have a compromised sense of ‘self’ and my own worth in general (if you hadn’t already guessed by now). I find it incredibly difficult to feel confident about something if I do not have certainty (ha, ha, ha, right?), most notably from others. Therefore, I rely on their reassurance and affirmation to know that I’m loved, accepted, doing a good job, etc. But Jack is not the type of person to offer this in the way that he shows love. And here is another ‘Eureka!’ moment – I started reading a book called: “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman. In this, he talks about the different ways that people show love: through physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, and gift giving.
I realised at some point in my journey that Jack was not a ‘words of affirmation’ kind of guy; he wouldn’t think to compliment me or offer words of encouragement or reassurance…but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love or care about me, it just means that he shows love in a different way. Likewise, he wouldn’t expect me to offer compliments or affirmation, as he doesn’t think that it represents love. He is very much a physical touch and gift giving kind of person when it comes to showing love, and this realisation was another sum in the equation that helped me to understand our relationship better. And ultimately, it’s actually helping me to develop as a person in not having to rely on reassurance and affirmation from others to know that I am loved and accepted – it also has to come from within ourselves.
Back to the sessions with my therapist: one of the most remarkable things I remember him saying was: “The thing that we seem to forget is, sometimes our feelings lie to us.” This blew my mind – another eureka moment where I realised: “Ok, so my feelings don’t always dictate the truth? This horrible gut-type feeling I have isn’t always right??”
But perhaps the biggest learning of all I experienced that I didn’t realise ten years ago, five years ago, and even two years ago, was the fact that nothing in life can be certain. That sounds quite flippant, but it really was quite a revelation when I acknowledged it. You will never be 100% certain about anything that involves human emotions and personalities, and constantly trying to seek perfection will just lead you down a rabbit hole. You need to learn to accept the flaws, the bad moods, the snide comments, and the short fuses. The doubts will come, of course they will. But they will also go away again and only linger when you let them.
I’ve come on in leaps and bounds since May last year, and I couldn’t be happier in my relationship. I can openly talk about it and I’m not afraid to acknowledge it to anyone. Although Jack doesn’t really understand the ins and outs of OCD, he has stuck by me through all of this and each of my ‘triggering moments’ – he’s not going anywhere. We finally made our relationship ‘official’ last summer, and I’m confident that we will eventually get married and (hopefully) start a family.
I’m not cured, I will always have doubts and they will never fully go away. But that’s ok, I’m comfortable to be able to say that I can settle for 80% happiness and 20% fleeting ‘what ifs’.