Anyone who lives with a person with OCD knows the ups and downs of the illness all too well.
“The symptoms ebb and flow, but because people with OCD are plagued by doubt even during the good times, they often want reassuranceand sometimes theres no way you can provide that,” says Peter Manis, a Chicago attorney, who met his wife, Susan Richman, when they worked at the same law firm about 20 years ago.
“For instance, I can reassure Susan that the basement door is really locked, but if she asks me ‘Do you think that stain on the sidewalk could be blood? theres no way I can give her an adequate answerand Ive learned that theres no way you can talk someone out of their anxiety.”
Instead of providing reassurance, Manis has learned other ways of coping. “I either say, ‘I cant answer that question or I to try to joke her out of it by presenting an absurd worst-case scenario, like, ‘Ill bet that is blood and its probably from a person with a communicable disease and youre probably a goner because you stepped in it. Sometimes she thinks its funny, sometimes she doesnt, but it relieves some of the tension for me.”
During their 16-year marriage, the low point of Susans illness came after the birth of their son, now 14. Susan had anticipated a relapse, so during her pregnancy she accompanied a therapist on exposure response prevention (ERP) “field trips”theyd walk around the city streets dragging a dishrag on a yardstick, then wipe it around her houseto try to keep her symptoms in check.
It worked very well for her during the pregnancy. Even so, for a year or so after the baby was born, Susan was so worried he would get sick that “she thought everything I did was putting our sons health in jeopardy,” Manis recalls. "It definitely put a strain on our marriage."
Richman eventually went on Prozac, which took the edge off her symptoms, and continued doing ERP on a regular basis. “When she got anxious we used to go out and touch dumpsters, then not wash our hands,” Manis says. "It really helped her stay desensitized to the idea of germs being around the house."
Despite the unusual challenges in their marriage, Manis is happy. “Everyones got their craziness. When you marry someone you buy a package, with good points and bad points,” he says, adding, “I admire how hard Susan has worked to keep her illness in check. Because of her OCD, shes worked a lot harder at self improvement than I have, so whos to say which of us has the more challenging partner?”