This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.” Stories from the community are submitted and edited by Toni Palombi. If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.
Like all fairy tales, my story also begins with “Once upon a time.” But right there it stops being a fairy tale. My story began on a fateful Diwali (Hindu festival) evening.
I had been nagging my beautiful wife, Sonal, to hurry up because we were delayed for a family dinner. But lately, Sonal had developed this irksome cleanliness focus. The house needed to be clean as the proverbial whistle! It was routine to see her dressed to kill and holding a duster for some last-minute cleaning. This day was no different. I was ready and waiting.
“Sonal, how much longer? We will be late,” I said, exasperated.
“I don’t know,” she retorted defiantly.
Right then, she saw two ants on the table. She looked petrified and burst into tears. Her kohl mixed with her tears created dark blotches on her face. She didn’t care. All she wanted to do was wipe those ants off the table, out of the living room, and out of the house. She spent a full 20 minutes cleaning; checking and rechecking for any more ants, all the time wailing in agony that she wanted to die.
Multiple chills went down my spine. Our three-year-old son, Shlok, was crying because he couldn’t understand what was happening. Hell, even I couldn’t understand. How could ants cause my wife such abject terror? I grappled for a possible explanation. In that moment, it dawned on me that Sonal was probably mentally unwell. She needed help and she needed it fast. Thankfully, she agreed. I took her to a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist told us that Sonal had contamination obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But Sonal didn’t like her psychiatrist as she was brisk, which she concluded after a few visits when she didn’t feel “listened to” but “talked down to.” Sonal learned that she shouldn’t give into the compulsions but would end up giving in to stop the noise in her head. She used to clean the house for up to eight hours a day, sometimes 12. She would bathe four times and wash her hands about 100 times a day. Her hands had developed rashes due to the constant exposure to soap and water. She would wash the bed sheets every day and curtains every alternate day. And worse, any interruption to the routine would make her repeat the activity all over again.
Sweets had become a problem too, as they attracted ants. Jams and honey were a strict no-no. We even stopped keeping sugar at home. It was exasperating. She had exacting standards of hygiene, which we had to follow. And when we didn’t, we would fight. She would force our son against his will and we would fight again. We were fighting all the time.
After about a year of running from pillar to post, trying to get the right help for her, we heard about exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) through her psychiatrist, who knew about it but didn’t know of anyone in the city who administered it well. ERP sounded like a miracle. Supposedly, in about six to eight weeks, Sonal’s OCD would be under control. Eight weeks? That just didn’t sound possible. But we would have to go to another city for that. It was a simple choice: suffer forever or give it a go. We gave it a go.
As ERP was being explained to Sonal, I could see her squirming. And I could smell dissent which troubled me. ERP would require her to face her fears one by one and sit with the anxiety, without performing the compulsions. Sonal was naturally against the whole idea. I implored, begged, and pleaded and she finally grudgingly agreed. So, despite various hurdles, we moved to the new city. We weren’t sure that eight weeks would be sufficient, so we planned to stay there for four months.
As expected, Sonal’s progress with ERP was slow. It didn’t help that she was resistant. She would sometimes skip medicines or therapy and lie about it. I would be livid, and we would fight often. My friends would tell me, “Sunil you’re such a great husband. My husband would have given up on me long back.” I was a hero in their eyes, a martyr in my own, and Sonal was the villain.
After four months, we had to return home. What was to take eight weeks was not achieved even in four months of treatment, and I wish we could have stayed longer. Things worsened when we returned. Sonal gave up on therapy altogether. All bags, and shoes needed to be washed soon as we entered the house. She would throw away expensive handbags and shoes because of her obsessions. Copious amounts of soap and detergent would be wasted every day.
And she was almost always grumpy. Like all of it was my fault. We fought all the time. The chasm between us kept widening. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and was put on anti-depressants. We finally spoke of divorce one day and started living separately. Everyone advised us to get marital counselling. I believed that she was a horrible wife. Why would I want to reconcile? My father explained that she didn’t have control over her actions, but I did. Did that mean I was a worse husband, to wilfully be nasty? I reasoned with myself that if the situation were reversed, she would have been far more cooperative than I had been. I finally agreed to get marital counselling.
We got back together and attended marital counselling. Sonal started her therapy again and with therapy and medicines her health started improving. She is doing fairly well now. We are poised to fight this together. And even if this story didn’t sound like a fairy tale, there are two similarities. It began with: “Once upon a time,” and it will end with: “And they lived happily ever after.”
Sunil is a media professional turned psychologist (ERP counsellor), a field he turned to after his wife was diagnosed with OCD. He got into it to help his wife but realized that it was his calling, his ikigai. For the past 6 years he has been practising in Mumbai, India and is currently writing a book chronicling his experiences as a caregiver.