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Two Years Ago I Was a Psych Patient

by JON HOCHSCHARTNER

When I landed in my first psychiatric hospital, I was convinced no one could ever love me again. I believed my disturbing, unwanted thoughts, which I would later learn were a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, had pushed me beyond the bounds of romantic acceptability. I was wrong. Two years later, I’m engaged to an amazing person, whose patience and understanding of my problems leave me in a near-constant state of grateful awe. I love her madly, no pun intended.

Amanda and I went to elementary school together and reconnected last summer over Facebook. It was one of those thoroughly 21st-century romances. What started as flirtatious messages evolved into chats on the phone, and finally real-life meetings. I was determined to give her as full a picture of my mental-health history as possible, and thus what she was getting into, before we started dating. I’d been told by therapists that this instinct came from a pathological need to confess. But for my part, it just seemed pragmatic. So much of my past included potential deal-breakers I thought it made sense to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

And so I told her everything. I told her about how I’d swallowed a bottle of aspirin and nearly had to be put on dialysis. I even told her about the intrusive thoughts that had landed me in the hospital the first time, the ones my therapist told me not to share in group sessions as they could emotionally trigger my fellow patients. And she listened. Amanda never let on if she was scared or repulsed, which was the reaction I was most familiar with, and that made all of the difference.

Of course, she had questions. I tried to answer them as best I could. But within a few weeks she had read more OCD literature than I had. Given that the two out-patient therapists I visited prior to being hospitalized had never heard of the specific form of the disorder with which I was diagnosed, it’s not hyperbole to say in a month Amanda likely knew more about the subject than most mental-health professionals. And so she was prepared when my intrusive thoughts inevitably came back in a different form.

A quick explanation is in order. Everyone, I’m told, has the occasional random, terrible thought. Most people are able to shrug these off. But people with OCD perseverate on them endlessly, until they become terrifyingly immense and seemingly real. Intrusive thoughts indicate nothing more than the sufferer has a disorder. But when one is in the grip of severe anxiety, it’s hard to be reassured by this knowledge, even after one has been diagnosed.

These unwanted thoughts often center on those sufferers most care about, which makes sense, as OCD is an anxiety disorder, and it is these people we most fear hurting or losing. Amanda is a petite, Hispanic woman. So with her, my obsessive fears generally revolved around visions of battering her or doing or sometimes even thinking something racist. She knew what to expect and how to deal with it. Amanda made jokes of my awful thoughts, and nothing brought some realistic perspective back to my thinking quite like laughter.

This is not to say it was easy. There were many times, for instance, Amanda and I wanted to talk with others about how my intrusive thoughts were effecting our relationship, how they were making me colder and more distant. Besides our parents, who knew all about my OCD, who could we discuss this with? How could her friends understand that I worried I would call her racial epithets and hit her? How could my friends? We wanted to see a therapist together, but unfortunately the therapists in the area who specialized in OCD were not accepting new patients. Without professional guidance, we managed to struggle through my crazed anxiety.

And at times, our relationship could be described as unhealthily codependent. Obviously, Amanda, like everyone else, had issues of her own on which she was working. Most noticeably, she suffered from an overwhelming fear of abandonment, which she traced to being given up for adoption as a baby and her adoptive father dying of cancer when she was young. Often, for instance, when we were going to be apart for a week, she felt the need to talk on the phone mere hours after we kissed goodbye. I tried to treat her problems with the same irreverence she did mine. Our joke was she hadn’t yet acquired object permanence, the understanding infants gain that objects continue to exist even when they’re not visible.

Knowing this about her, one might be able to understand her recent reaction when, speaking on the phone, I told her I’d been dealing with some intrusive thoughts that day. She sighed, presumably ready to hear the usual suspects of my imagined abusive behavior toward her. Actually, I told her, my worries at that moment were about something completely unrelated. To both our amusement, we realized that she was jealous and I was apologetic my intrusive thoughts were not this time directed at her.

But we’re working on it. And I think as long as we’re willing to do so, embarrassingly earnest as it might sound, we can overcome whatever my disorder and her insecurity throws our way. Because we love each other, flaws and all.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. Visit his website at JonHochschartner.com.

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