A Wife's Journey: Supporting My Husband with OCD

One woman recounts her experiences as the spouse of a Pure O sufferer.

Written by Isabelle Harris

A Wife's Journey: Supporting My Husband with OCD

01 Isabelle Harris' husband is diagnosed with Pure OCD, amongst other disorders. His struggles began after their son was born.

02 The challenges of supporting a loved one with OCD often go undiscussed. Family and friends may be so consumed with taking care of the sufferer, that the mental health of their spouse is overlooked.

03 Spouses of people with OCD should not feel guilty for being tired, overwhelmed, isolated or sad. They should not refrain from seeking help because they don't see themselves as "the sick one."

The Mental Breakdown

I didn’t understand, I couldn’t understand, when my husband pushed our baby into my arms one Friday evening and walked away from me in tears.

He’d been increasingly anxious and emotional over the past month. He repeatedly needed to be told that he was a good father and sought out declarations of love as if his life depended on it. In all honesty, I was irritated by his behavior and oblivious to what was behind it.

That evening, I bathed our 7 month old with tears running down my face. I didn’t know what to do; we wouldn’t be able to see a doctor until Monday morning. I was fortunate that friends were visiting that evening and could sit with us while we processed our terrifying and all consuming new reality.

I stumbled through the weekend. My mum arrived to help out with the baby. I even went to work on Monday morning. The first thing he said to me that day was that he had spent the night thinking about suicide. In hindsight, I don’t know how or why I went to work. It was probably the only way I could process what was happening. To suddenly be faced with a father who couldn’t be alone with his own child was overwhelming. I did not feel equipped to parent alone and it was easier to leave them both in the care of my own mum and retreat into my professional life.

His GP agreed that he needed help, so along with some anti-depressants, he was referred to a talking therapy service. It was in the initial call that he was told he was experiencing intrusive thoughts. The relief he felt was immediately visible. He went from being completely closed off to having a vocabulary he could use to explain to me what was happening. He started being more willing to look after our son.

But he was still clearly being tormented by his intrusive thoughts. He would obsess over what they meant, why he was thinking them, why he couldn’t stop. He would tell me they were ‘horrible, horrible things’ but he was too scared to say more. Over the next few days, I persuaded him to tell me what his thoughts were. They weren’t pretty. But they also weren’t real. I remember laughing when he asked me if I was going to take our son away from him. Nothing could have been more ridiculous to me.

To suddenly be faced with a father who couldn’t be alone with his own child was overwhelming. I did not feel equipped to parent alone.

Although anxiety and depression were also factors in his mental health, the obsessive intrusive thoughts and lack of compulsions led to a diagnosis of Primarily Obsessive OCD. This rapid diagnosis made us very lucky, and a course of CBT was started. Exposure therapy was highly effective at building his confidence around his triggers of responsibility as a father. Mindfulness and meditation helped him when he felt vulnerable. 6 months after he felt ‘recovered’, he came off the medication.

I thought it was all over.

The Relapse

Relapse was always on my mind. I understood little about the condition and was too scared to look it up, especially since everything seemed fine. We had a full 6 months of normality. I changed jobs, we went on holiday, we made plans for our future.

He decided to come off the anti-depressants. We truly thought everything was fixed. We’d made a few lifestyle changes, but all in all, we were normal again, despite my underlying anxiety about a relapse. But with the medication out his system, little things started going wrong. Stressful situations became overwhelming and intrusive thoughts reappeared. This time, they focussed on self-harm. He sought out a counsellor who claimed to be experienced in OCD, but in the session she recoiled from him at the mention of intrusive thoughts.

The GP recommended him going back on medication. 24 hours after that, he was back in the doctor’s office, having become even more unstable. The drugs were increasing his anxiety levels. From there things got steadily worse. His parents arrived. He was unable to be alone for more than a few minutes. I couldn’t work full time and look after our toddler. We were referred to psychiatry, but had to wait for an assessment date to come through. In the meantime, I was given contact details for the crisis team in case anything went wrong.

With the medication out his system, little things started going wrong. Stressful situations became overwhelming and intrusive thoughts reappeared.

In addition to all this, I had arranged to speak to a counsellor. We knew enough about mental health to know that I also needed support. As I walked out the house to meet them for the first time, he asked me to promise that I would keep him safe. It’s the only time I’ve made a promise I knew I could not keep. I spent that first therapy session in tears.

By the time I got home that evening, less than a week since the first meeting with the GP, it was clear we needed to call in the crisis team. I sat next to him on our bed as I listened to his despair, trying to remember everything they said. I remember thinking that if we did have to go to the Emergency Department in the middle of the night, the stress of the waiting room might finish him off.

The next morning, we sat with a psychiatric nurse at our dining room table. Changing medication was their first priority, and his new prescription increased his appetite and made him drowsy. He could finally rest and refuel. That was the start of things getting better.

The Present

At times, this period has felt like the hardest. It shouldn’t, because we aren’t dealing with crisis teams. I'm able to work. I'm able to watch my husband interact with our son again. But it’s still brutal. In all honesty, there are times when I preferred the firefight. The 24/7 job of staying afloat in the maelstrom of anxiety, obsessive thoughts and depression, all while raising a beautiful 2 year old boy.

Now, I have to deal with it all: the struggle, the fear and the sheer bloody effort.

We went through many iterations of prescriptions until we found the one that worked. Each time he would be subjected to an increase in mental agony brought on by the changing chemicals. He'd become dependent on me reassuring him that we had made the right decision; cajoling him into carrying on for the next 24 hours. I would have to hope and pray each time that we wouldn’t ever have to change again, whilst portraying a pseudo confidence that we would have the strength to repeat this as many times as necessary.

We found him a therapist who specialized in OCD. I’ll never forget the relief I felt after our first conversations, knowing that I was no longer shouldering my burden alone. I was also never physically alone. For the best part of 6 months, we were completely dependent on family staying with us, never having a full 48 hours without someone sleeping in our front room.

The additional houseguests were in many ways, lifesavers. They cooked and cleaned, and enabled me to leave the house to go to work almost every day. They helped me organize our calendar so we could make sure he was never alone, and I was able to attend all his appointments without having to worry about childcare. One of the silver linings of this whole experience has been watching the bond between grandson and grandparents blossom.

Having said that, I found the constant intrusion into my life crippling. I had no respite from the endless conversations about OCD and mental health. I had no say over the food that would be served to me. I had no peace and quiet. Anytime I had alone with my son, which was often wonderful, was overshadowed by knowing that when we would return home, he would be ushered away from me by his grandparents so I could sit with my distraught husband.

Between his medications, therapy and familial support, we muddled on. This was hard. There was no escape from remembering how far we were from the life we thought we should be living. I would sit in my car in the driveway, feeling trapped and alone. I wouldn’t know what was waiting for me inside my own home, but I knew the moment I stepped through the door I would have to shift into my role as caretaker. As much as I loved my family, I felt as though my emotional reserves were being drained. I couldn’t carve out much in the way of self-care for myself, although at that point, I didn’t have the energy to even try.

To control his anxiety, we would have to plan out every hour of the day, but no more than one day in advance. This left no flexibility for anything to change. If I was ill – physically or mentally – it would make him crash. If the toddler had a meltdown – it would make him crash. If the weather was too hot that day – it would make him crash. A crash meant overwhelming worry and emotions for him, and juggling between mother and caretaker for me. I would essentially triage the two of them, trying to put myself in the place I could be most effective.

I’ll never forget the relief I felt after our first conversations, knowing that I was no longer shouldering my burden alone.

Thankfully, the steady medication regime and powerful support from his therapist – both at weekly sessions and in emergency phone calls – meant that our plans gradually shifted from hour to hour to day to day. And in time, week to week. Still dependent on live-in support, he started to go back to work from his home office. This meant he was able to carefully increase his hours while maintaining his self-care. It also meant that we could have people stay in the house with him as he adapted to the change.

Despite this adding to his stress, it also gave him a renewed confidence and we started reducing the days we had people staying with us. This was a significant relief for me, as I started having more space of my own, even if I had to spend that time taking on chores that had been done for us by others for the months before. Normally, I hated to cook. Now I relish being able to plan our menu.

We argue more now than we used to, and I’m struggling with my own mental health as I adapt to a new way of life with a future I don’t fully recognize. We currently live without support but I know our journey isn’t over. I remember with clarity the things his anxiety-riddled brain said to me, and the times I would find myself planning how to live as a widow and single mother. I feel the constant guilt at feeling bad when I knew he felt worse, and I hate how I constantly look at greener grass in everyone else’s life. I feel angry at being in this situation in the first place.

The OCD makes him vulnerable to a sense of overwhelming responsibility. If I forgot to put the bins out it could trigger him. If I said I was struggling with sleep, the pressure he felt to help me would trigger him. If I was in a bad mood, he would take it to mean he had done something horrifically wrong. I felt at times as though I was the only thing making him ill, and the only thing that could keep him well. I lived on eggshells — everything I said had the potential to upset him, anything I did could have been construed to be uncaring.

Most recently, he was triggered because I hadn’t said ‘thank you’ for a chore he had done. I’d said ‘well done’ instead, but his irrational, obsessive brain had twisted it into something ugly. These triggers can be extremely isolating. On the evening I took a beloved pet to the vet to be put down, I was all alone without anywhere to turn. My grief had made him too sad to support me.

Fortunately, this is improving. We are both learning how to listen for the rational voice in our irrational outbursts. We have slowed down, accepted more help, and actively look for more beauty in the world.

That doesn’t make it easy though.

About the author

Isabelle is married to a Pure O sufferer, whose symptoms were triggered by the birth of their son in 2015. She lives in the UK, and works full time while caring for her family. They are currently working through recovery, using medication and psychotherapy for both her and her husband.

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