I’m on a date, and we’re sharing some homemade potato chips at a cool new cafe in town. He drops a chip on the table and then EATS IT. I watch this in slow motion, repulsed and trying not to make a disgusted face. I envision all the germs the chip touched, all the people who have touched this table before us, and how those germs are now IN HIS MOUTH. And his mouth may later be kissing my mouth, and … EW. How am I going to kiss him?!
Hopefully, he’ll get a drink (with alcohol!) and the alcohol will kill those germs right away. And my brain can relax and I can go back to focusing on our conversation (do we even have a connection?) and NOT on the potato chip and my hypothetical being-kissed fate. That’s what dating with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is like.
I hate when someone flippantly says, “She’s so OCD” when they have no idea how bad germ-fearing OCD can actually be. Like when I used to get stuck in the shower all day, never feeling clean enough. (For more details, you can read my essay of when my OCD was at its absolute worst.) It morphs from obsessive thoughts to compulsions (behaviors), like hand-washing or avoiding triggers (like bathroom doorknobs) altogether. Some people perform repetitive behaviors, like checking to make sure their stove is off dozens of times (Sam Smith acknowledges that he’s a checker). Others have obsessive thoughts and do no compulsions, some fear germs, while some have to have everything neat, clean, and orderly (that is NOT me; I always wished I had the cleaning kind!). It’s about feeling safe and in control.
Many therapists specializing in OCD say it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and often triggered by loss and things getting out of our control. For instance, mine started when my grandpa died (I’d been living with him), my mom divorced for the second time, and I had to change schools for the fourth time. I was eight.
Now, the severity varies depending on what’s going on in my life — namely, the amount of fear and anxiety I have, how much stress I’m under, and how much control I'm lacking. Last week, a waitress dropped my ear of corn on the table and she asked if I wanted a new one. I thought nothing of it and ate it, no problem. In the past, I’d insist on new corn, panicking, stammering, and saying, “You know, would you mind getting me some new corn … there’s some black specks here on it (that will probably kill me).”
Dating’s hard enough without throwing mental illness issues into the mix, right? Yes, we all have our quirks, but what’s the difference between a quirk and a behavior that affects your day-to-day life, and not always in a positive way? It starts to affect your partner’s life, too, and soon you realize it’s more than a quirk. In this case, it’s OCD, an anxiety disorder which approximately two million Americans have (and probably more do who are undiagnosed).
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes OCD as “The thoughts and rituals associated with OCD cause distress and get in the way of daily life. The frequent upsetting thoughts are called obsessions. To try to control them, a person will feel an overwhelming urge to repeat certain rituals or behaviors called compulsions. People with OCD can't control these obsessions and compulsions. Most of the time, the rituals end up controlling them … Performing such rituals is not pleasurable. At best, it produces temporary relief from the anxiety created by obsessive thoughts.”
However, I’m in great company, for many celebrities have talked about having OCD. Like Lena Dunham, Sam Smith, Howard Stern, and Eminem. Eminem even talks about his in his song "The Monster." They live with it and are successful, and you and I can be, too. OCD doesn’t discriminate against whom it targets. It's like the Boogie Man, but it looks like me.
Most of the time, I hope the OCD will stay on its best behavior and not come out during a date, or for several. I could hide it, right? My date's not going to follow me into the bathroom if I want to wash my hands a couple of extra times, or if I want to wash them before and after using the bathroom, right? When the OCD is triggered, I plead with it: I want to be normal. Please don't come out now. I really like this guy. Don't scare him off. Please ...
And since it is sometimes dormant and practically nonexistent, when the OCD does emerge, I’m like, “Where the heck did you come from … and why now? Why on this date?” It often makes no sense. If a date has an open wound, I fear that I’ll get its germs, but then I can go camping and not take a shower for days and be fine getting dirty via nature. Like I said, it tends to appear during times of stress or when my life lacks control. It’ll emerge out of the blue, like that friend you don’t really want to hang out with (you’re tired and just want to go to bed), but they pressure you and talk you into it and suddenly you're out till 4 a.m. With OCD, it just pressures you and you have no choice about “going out” — it appears and intends to stay.
It’s very hard to get rid of. However, with an amazing hypnotherapist, I learned many ways to stop it — namely, through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In other words, practicing confronting the OCD fears when they present themselves, like eating a bunch of chips off a public restaurant table. The more you do it, the less afraid you become. CBT is amazing, and there’s a great sense of accomplishment when I do NOT give in to a compulsion. I also go to OCD support groups off and on, which makes you feel WAY less alone. (If you are in L.A., the OCD Center of Los Angeles is GREAT!) Other people have much success with a combination of talk therapy and medication (a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, SSRI, like Prozac) to balance out their serotonin levels, but CBT has worked best for me (along with talk therapy).
Often, I can pass for “normal” (whatever that is, right?). After all, in work situations, the OCD helps me by making me very detail-oriented and perfectionistic. But the longer a guy and I date, and the more stress that occurs in my life, the more likely the OCD is bound to leak out … and when I least expect it. Luckily, most of my boyfriends have been understanding (we all have something, right?). And again, sometimes it's pretty MIA and easy to hide. But I would never choose to have obsessions and compulsions. No one would.
I thought I'd share some primary issues I've struggled with while dating with OCD. As funny as the below may be, when you live it, it’s scary. You wonder: “Who is this OCD person infecting my brain?” For each of these, remember: “It’s not me, it’s my OCD” (as my old doctor used to say).
1. Dinner Dates Are Tough
At least on a first date, I prefer to go someplace where we can use forks and knives. I have trouble eating with my hands — I'll think that my hands are dirty, and even if I go wash them, I am then bound to touch the menu or something else and thus “contaminate” them again. Then again, I often hide my OCD, and just cut up my burger or sandwich and blame it on the fact that I’m a messy eater (which is not completely false).
2. Before We Hold Hands ...
I know that it’s one of life’s necessities to throw away garbage, but why can’t all cans just be OCD-friendly so we don’t have to go around pushing them open with our probably-dirty hands? And if our hands aren’t dirty, chances are some other garbage-thrower's were. So if you want to hold my hand, please don’t touch public garbage cans first!
3. Before We Kiss ...
I inspect people’s mouths for cold sores — as though I am a superhero with laser vision and can see inside their mouths (even if their lips are closed). Is that a freckle on his lip, or the beginning of a cold sore? In case you didn't know, cold sores are EXTREMELY contagious!! And none of us want them to turn into genital herpes (doctors have mixed feelings on the issue, but better to be safe)!
4. I Scan Them For Blood
I have a HUGE aversion to blood, and the same way I do with dates’ mouths, I tend to scan their hands and faces for blood (like, from average cuts and scrapes to shaving botches). I barely know you yet, so it’s too soon to become blood brothers of sorts. And what if your blood gets on me and into a cut on my hand (chapped due to washing it so much)? Then, what if I get the mystery disease you may or may not have?
5. Did They Wash Their Hands?
I think it's great to wash our hands before making dinner together (though isn't this a given?), and even moreso after using the bathroom (again, a given, right?). Then the non-hand-washer wants me to eat their bathroom-germ-laden salad ... or wants to make out. Um ... And then there's the guy who washes his hands, but then touches 101 random (questionably unclean) things before sex.
Bathroom door handles are THE WORST. So many people seem to not wash their hands, and that bacteria can live a while on surfaces like sinks, counter tops, and door handles. So I play the wash-and-wait game. Someone is bound to open the door soon (if there is not a paper towel handy with which I can open it first).
6. Wet Ones, Anyone?
Gasoline pumps? Yuck! May I offer you a Wet One before you get back in the car? I think gas stations are party spots for germs, and I can't believe so many people don't Wet One their hands after pumping gas. Not only that, but then they EAT something (with those hands) that they bought at the gas station (I am also against consuming gas station food or drinks). And then they want to kiss me with that gassy mouth. Hmm. No thank you!
When we travel, let's keep Wet Ones on hand all the time (just like parents with kids)! Now, my doctor challenges me NOT to carry them, so sometimes I don't. And guess what? I live! It's GREAT when I do NOT give in to a compulsion. However, I often feel more calm if I know the Wet Ones are in my bag versus if they're not. Then I can consciously avoid them.
7. Going Away For The Weekend
I love going away for the weekend … but don’t mind me while I do a quick inspection of the bed sheets! (Hate to say it, readers, but I have found blood stains on sheets more often than not, and at very nice places! So I recommend doing this inspection even without OCD!)
8. How's This For A Date Idea? Let's Go Get Tested For STDs!
If there was a condom out there that had the STD-fighting strength of 10 condoms, I’d buy so many of them that they’d sell out. Please don’t start to put it on, then realize it was inside-out. And certainly do NOT suggest NOT using a condom. You are trying that with the wrong girl! I am an STD dictionary! Want to know how many people have herpes? One in six aged 14-49, according to the CDC! Or chalymdia, which can lead to cervical cancer? CDC stats say 1.8 million infections nationally among 14-49-year-olds! (It is also the most frequently reported sexually transmitted infection in the United States.) And how many STIs there are out there (that are transmittable OUTSIDE of having sex)? A whopping 110 million, according to the CDC, with 20 million new infections each year. So let's go get tested!
9. Also, Let's Wait Before We Have Sex
Sex too soon? No thank you! With all the STDs and STIs and sex-related-without-even-having-full-sex diseases out there, rushing is not worth the risk for me. It’s WAY more important for me to get to know someone on an emotional level first before a bedroom one.
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