It started one night about a month after we’d met, when he said something funny and I didn’t react quickly enough.
He was staying at my place, a one-bedroom house I was renting in the Mojave Desert. The space between his joke and my late laughter had felt awkward. What if he thought I didn’t “get” his sense of humor? He didn’t seem to notice, so I tried to brush it off, but later, when there was another lull in our conversation, I started to obsess. Maybe he felt our connection was waning. Maybe he wouldn’t call me again after this date. Relationships were so precarious, my head told me, and one could never be certain. He yawned.
“Are you feeling like you want to leave?” I asked him.
“What? No.” Suddenly, he looked disturbed.
“Are you sure? You seem kind of freaked out.”
“I’m not.” He shifted on the couch. “I just don’t know where that question is coming from.”
My blood went cold. I was venturing into dangerous territory. These were the questions that tended to make people disappear.
I knew I should just leave it alone, try to carry on with the evening — but I didn’t know how. “How do you know you really like me?” I asked.
I could see the question wounded him, or else irritated him.
“I think we have a connection,” he said finally. As he said it, he softened. It sounded like he meant it.
This was a good start. The ice in my veins thawed slightly.
“Do you feel happy when you’re around me?” I just needed a convincing affirmative, and then I knew I could move on.
“Yes,” he said. But it wasn’t good enough.
I’m told my questions started when I was 2 years old and my brother was born. I’d watch my parents cradling him from across the room. They belong together, I’d think. I belong somewhere else. The thoughts were distressing, but I couldn’t seem to swat them away. To mitigate my anxiety, I’d ask my parents the question that would come to possess me for decades: “Do you still love me?”
But when they said yes, I kept asking. Each “yes” was like a hit of morphine, decreasing my angst just a little bit. My questions disturbed them. They sent me to therapy, but it didn’t help. I started to think something was wrong with me, that I was repellant to love because I grasped it too tightly.
In the seventh grade, I stopped asking my parents and started asking my friends. With preteen girls, getting the answers I needed was trickier. When they told me they loved me the right way — like they meant it — a flood of warm liquid washed through my entire body. I could breathe. When their answers were exasperated or indifferent, I was inconsolable. I’d call them after school from my home landline, my heart pounding, wrapping my pointer finger through the telephone cord’s ringlets to calm myself.
Once, a friend’s mother picked up the phone. “I’m not comfortable with you talking to Jessica,” she said. “Your questions are upsetting her. Please don’t call here again.” This happened more than once. I felt like a hungry, insatiable monster gobbling up innocent girls, hurting them, bringing my darkness into their lives. I knew I didn’t deserve their love, but I intensely needed it.
“Although I desperately wanted love and intimacy, my questions kept people at arms’ length.”
I soon found that boys were a slightly more reliable source. There, the cycle was the same: as soon as I got close to a boyfriend, intrusive thoughts began to skirt the edges of my mind, prompting the need to ask. Soon, the asking itself prompted the need for more questions:
“Do you think it’s weird that I’m asking these questions?”
“Are you turned off by how insecure I am?”
“Am I pushing you away?”
It was a cycle I was powerless to overcome. As I got older, I had some relationships, but they mostly didn’t last long. Although I desperately wanted love and intimacy, my questions kept people at arms’ length. In fact, after the questions started, I was often the first one to abandon ship. I simply couldn’t bear the person I became when I “loved” someone too much.
In January 2021, when I was 31, another relationship ended, and I decided I would learn how to be alone. I had tried everything: talk therapy, group trauma therapy, 12-step recovery, shamanic healing, manifestation, creative writing, hot yoga, full-body awareness, Kundalini yoga, two-hour meditations, and breathwork. Nothing had worked. I felt like a lunatic. I didn’t know how to escape my questions, so I decided to escape people altogether.
After living in Los Angeles for 10 years, I put my things in storage, packed my car, and moved to the desert. To get to the house I was renting, I had to drive three miles on a mostly empty dirt road. My nearest neighbor was a shack that had been abandoned in the ’90s, and the closest grocery store was a 20-minute drive away. The first few months were peaceful, but soon the loneliness slunk in. I found myself getting irritated that it took so long to get a cup of coffee, to see another living person. I was flooded with emotion when a cashier’s hand accidentally brushed against mine. At night, the endless blackness started to feel menacing, rather than infinite. All that emptiness was making me claustrophobic. I decided to try one last time.
I met Cole on a dating app. He lived in Palm Desert, an hour and a half away, but he came to see me every week. After months of solitude, closeness with another person was both terrifying and joyful. Cole made me laugh, he had integrity, and he turned me on. Something about him made my heart feel full, like the feeling I got when I was writing, surrounded by family, or in the middle of nature. It was unlike anything I’d experienced with a romantic partner. I hoped that this time, I wouldn’t feel the need to ask questions.
But I did.
In fact, it was as though the legitimacy of the relationship made my desire to ask even stronger. There were days when Cole and I would laugh and go on hikes and make fun of each other while we watched TV shows in bed. There were also days when I could think of nothing to add to the conversation but the questions that were poking incessantly at the corners of my mind. Often, my questions would lead to fights.
“Why don’t you believe me?” he’d ask, his voice fraying at the edges of his words. “Do you not trust me?”
How could I tell him that I had never, not once in my life, fully trusted anyone?
I resolved to stop asking questions — no matter what. I started to avoid topics, activities, and places that made me anxious. I vetoed romantic TV shows, movies with beautiful women, discussions about sex and books that made me feel too much. My asking always got worse at night, so I planned evening activities with friends so I’d be out of the house when Cole got home. It didn’t work. Even after a night out, I’d still find myself asking relentlessly until we both passed out from exhaustion.
Still, soon after we moved in together, Cole brought up the topic of marriage. A part of me was thrilled — I loved this man and wanted to spend my life with him — but another part of me was baffled. Didn’t my constant question-asking indicate to him that I was defective? What, exactly, did I offer him that made him want to marry me? I felt like such a failure that I wanted him to be specific about what I’d done right, so I could repeat it.
My question-asking got much worse. I became obsessed with him, his actions, his moods. Some nights, I couldn’t even sit in front of the TV with him without experiencing enormous waves of anxiety — everything he said and did, however innocent, seemed to be a “clue” that he was going to leave me. One night, I shut myself in my office and cried, refusing to come out. I was terrified to face him and start the cycle of questioning again. I fantasized about leaving before he did, telling myself he would be better off without me anyway.
But we both stayed. Fueled by the prospect of marrying the man I loved and finally finding some semblance of peace, I decided to try to heal one last time. I started working with a somatic therapist. One day, she asked me to describe, step by step, what happened with Cole every night.
“Cole gets home, and he ... he usually does something that upsets me,” I said.
“Such as?” she asked.
“He’ll talk about something a female co-worker said, and I’ll think he’s interested in her, and then I can’t get the thought out of my head.”
“OK,” she said. “Then what happens?”
“Then I feel this ... urge to ask him about it. So I’ll say, ‘Are you attracted to her?’” I shifted in my desk chair, embarrassed at how self-centered I sounded. “He’ll get irritated with that question, and I’ll feel panic at his irritation, which will lead to more questions.”
“Does he ever actually answer your questions?” she asked.
“He always answers them.”
She looked surprised. “Well, what does he say?”
“He says he’s not attracted to her, and that he loves me.”
She paused, then asked, “So what’s the problem?”
“He’s not saying it right,” I insisted. I knew I sounded childish, that my voice had taken on a tone of petulance. “He’s not using the right words. He’s not saying it like he means it.”
She paused again. “I have to be honest with you, Sam,” she said. I braced myself for what I knew was coming: character assassination, condemnation, shame.
“This sounds like a compulsion,” she said. “Have you ever been diagnosed with OCD?”
It was the question that changed my life.
She officially diagnosed me with OCD a week later. The fact that Cole’s reassurance only worked sometimes, and that I had to repeat my questions, had clued her in that I was suffering from highly specific compulsions. In the following days, I scoured the internet for information about the disorder. I discovered Relationship OCD (ROCD), a less common subtype of OCD that’s characterized by obsessive, intrusive doubts about the “rightness” of one’s romantic relationship. I fit the bill. Although ROCD is not yet in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used by psychologists, more and more medical professionals are diagnosing it as a specific subtype of OCD.
I got educated about the maddening cycle of the disorder: a trigger leads to anxiety, which leads to compulsions (my questions), which bring relief — until the next trigger. I came to understand that engaging in compulsions only made the next compulsion even stronger. Asking more questions was like telling my OCD that it was right — that I was actually in danger of being abandoned. I felt relief at understanding, for the first time in my life, that my questions weren’t my fault. It wasn’t that something in me was defective, or that I was extremely self-centered, or that I was “repellant” to love. Although I had certainly hurt people, I was dealing with something completely beyond my control.
My treatment involved exposing myself to the triggers that start the OCD cycle — the very triggers I’d done my best to avoid — and NOT “compulsing.” I also started medication, which took the edge off the excruciating anxiety I had been feeling daily. Cole is a director at a mental health facility, so he was exceptionally supportive of my treatment. My symptoms soon lessened in frequency, intensity and duration. I now know that the more I simply resist asking, the weaker my OCD becomes. I understand that even if I don’t ask for reassurance, Cole will eventually organically show me that he loves me because that’s just what a loving partner does. I still struggle sometimes, but this knowledge makes an enormous difference.
On Christmas Eve 2022, surrounded by towering redwood trees in Humboldt, California, Cole got down on one knee and asked me a question — a big one. As he slipped the ring on my finger, I wept, not just because I had always wanted to marry him, but also because, having gone through hell and coming out the other side, I finally believed I deserved it.
Although OCD derailed so much of my life, I’ve developed some gratitude for what it’s taught me. OCD is all about finding uncertainty intolerable. The idea that I don’t know what will happen next used to devastate me. Now, I understand that uncertainty is a part of life. Even if Cole were to assure me every single day that he loves me more than anything in the world, he could still decide tomorrow that he’s found someone “better.” There’s simply nothing I can do to change that. All I can do is remind myself that giving into my compulsions is the old way — the way that hurt me and those around me — and that there is a better, more rewarding way to live and love.
Samantha Colicchio is a San Diego-based writer who focuses on feminism, sex, and mental health. She writes regularly for lifestyle and wellness blogs. Her work was a finalist in The Sewanee Review’s 2021 Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction Contest and she was nominated for the 2021 Allegra Johnson Prize. She is currently working on a book of fiction. You can learn more about her here.
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