Obsessive compulsive disorder---OCD---is a hell of a thing.
I don’t suffer from it personally---thank God---but I’ve watched my wife, Sarah, struggle with it for years. I still remember when I first found out that she had it. It was just after we’d started dating. We’d always met at the location we planned to visit. It seemed like she didn’t want me to pick her up. One night, I finally addressed it.
“Why do we always meet at these places? Why do you never let me pick you up?”
She stayed quiet for a while and hung her head. “If I tell you,” she said at last, “you have to promise you won’t think I’m crazy.”
“I promise,” I said. Inside, I was sweating. What could her reason possibly have been with an introduction like that?
She took a deep breath. “I have OCD,” she said. “It’s really difficult for me to get into other people’s cars because I don’t think they’re… clean.” I watched her cheeks turn red. “I mean, I don’t think you’re messy or dirty. It’s just---”
“Sarah,” I said, interrupting her, “you should have just told me sooner.” I relished the relief that washed over me.
“You don’t think I’m crazy?” she asked, her eyes lighting up.
“Of course not,” I said. “The only thing that makes you crazy is picking me for a boyfriend.”
She laughed. I love her laugh. It’s been so long since I’ve heard it.
The years went by and we got married. Throughout our whole relationship, I’ve watched Sarah dip in and out of periods where the OCD is her master. Each episode has an object or category of objects as its focus. Keys, TV and computer screens, shoes. These things somehow become unclean, and scouring them is Sarah’s only goal.
Her most recent episode involved plastic food containers. Day in and day out, I watched her scrub and scrub each one of them. She’d stack them on different sides of the sink. On one side were the ones she still had yet to do. On the other were the finished ones. Once all of the containers were in the finished pile, it would become the dirty pile, and she’d start all over again.
It broke my heart to see how much misery this caused her. But what could I do for her? I couldn’t open up her skull and tweak her brain to make it work differently. The most I could do was be there for her when she needed me.
Still, there were times when I was forced to leave Sarah alone. Her illness made it impossible for her to hold a job, so I was the sole breadwinner in our household. I hated leaving her alone, but I was determined to make her life as secure as possible, even if the disease wouldn’t let her enjoy it.
I woke up one morning to the sound of the kitchen faucet on full blast. She was already up and at it at six o’clock. I knew she would be in for a hard day. For a moment, I considered calling in sick from work, but we needed every penny I brought in. I would simply have to be extra loving and supportive when I came home.
I got dressed and walked into the kitchen. Sure enough, there was Sarah standing at the sink. Her back was still and painfully straight. She frantically turned the container over and over in her hands, allowing the sponge she clutched to reach into every corner. The constant, oppressive roar of the faucet added to the urgency of the whole thing.
“I’m off to work, honey,” I said. “Have a good day.”
“Have a good day,” she said weakly. I could barely hear her above the water.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
I watched a moment longer, just to make sure she wasn’t going to pass out, and then I headed out the door.
When I came home that evening, the atmosphere had changed. Every window in the front of the house was dark. There were no signs of life whatsoever. A chill ran up my spine. Even on her worst days, Sarah always turned the lights on when it got dark and greeted me when I came home. Something had to be wrong.
I let myself in and called, “Sarah?”
A small voice responded from the living room. “Mm?”
I turned the corner into the room and found Sarah seated on the sofa. She didn’t even look at me when I came in, but started intently at the pile of food containers that lay on the coffee table. The look in her eyes alarmed me the most. They seemed dead, completely devoid of passion or vibrance. I’d never seen her like that before.
“Honey,” I said softly, “what’s going on?”
There was a moment of silence before she answered. It went on for so long that I wasn’t even sure she heard me. I was just about to repeat myself when she spoke.
She gave the slowest nod I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
“You mean the containers?”
“Yes.” Even her voice lacked any sort of life. Anxiety tightened my chest.
“That’s great,” I offered. “Right?” She was silent. “Now you don’t have to clean them anymore,” I added.
Again, she nodded slowly.
“Honey,” I said, “what’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m perfectly fine.” Her words had an unmistakable sadness in them that contradicted their meaning.
I tried to make sense of what I was hearing and seeing. “You look pretty tired,” I said. “Maybe you should head to bed early.”
For the first time since I’d returned, she turned her head to look at me. She followed this by standing up. For a moment, I was encouraged.
“Yes,” she said. “You’re right. I am very tired.”
Any encouragement I felt was crushed by the flatness of her response.
“I can bring you something, if you---”
“No,” she cut me off. “No, thank you.”
With that, she turned and walked out of the room. I just stood and watched her go. This woman, this hollow shell, was not my Sarah. It was her body, her face, and her voice, but none of her personality. I remembered her words.
A terrible thought occurred to me, one which I still feel so immensely guilty for thinking. This woman who was here in Sarah’s place was someone without purpose. Someone who had nothing left to live for.
Sarah was lying in bed awake when I came to turn in for the night. Even though she was faced away from me, I knew she was awake. My wife snores---something else I love about her---but tonight she was completely silent.
I crawled into bed. The silence in the room was heavy and suffocating. I needed to say something.
“I bet you’ll find lots of great stuff to do tomorrow.” I immediately regretted the words. They just sounded so stupid coming out of my mouth.
“Everything is clean,” she answered in her devastated monotone, as if that were a completely natural answer to what I’d just said.
“Then you don’t have to clean,” I offered, trying my hardest to sound supportive.
“I know,” she said.
With that, the conversation had effectively shut down. I didn’t know where to take it from there, so I said, “Good night,” and rolled over.
The next thing I knew, it was three o’clock in the morning. I know this because I was facing the clock when the noises woke me up. For a minute, I lay there trying to make out what I was hearing.
Laughter. Yes. Laughter in another room.
I reached over to wake up Sarah. All I found were sheets and blankets. Instantly, my throat clamped and my stomach dropped. The sound of the faraway laughter became clearer.
It was unmistakably Sarah’s voice.
I jumped out of bed, not bothering with clothes, and bounded out of the room. Down the stairs I hurried. Now, I could tell the laughter was coming from the kitchen. And it no longer sounded like just laughter. There was a grunting desperation in it.
I threw open the kitchen door. What I saw sent me to my knees.
Sarah was crawling on all fours. With a gigantic, soaking wet sponge, she smeared streaks of red over the white tiles---red that trickled from the hideous slashes at her wrists.
“Get off the floor,” she said between manic laugh-sobs. “It’s filthy! I need to clean it! I need to clean it!”
Written by Jdeschene