For Me, He Was Willing to Face His Worst Fear

By | May 17, 2019

During my first few months as an inpatient on the obsessive-compulsive disorder ward, I would stare at the ceiling at night and list all the reasons I wasn’t crazy.

However, the day I paraded across the unit, sleep-deprived, eyes bleary and pushing a moving cart filled with everything I had brought with me and accumulated while there, the task of convincing myself of my sanity became more difficult.

In our hoarding prevention group, the therapist ushered me to stand before the other members, many of them college students on medical leave, like me. That day, I had been chosen to serve as their example of how not to behave during treatment. My error had been furtively accepting various gifts from departing patients so they wouldn’t have to throw them away. My punishment was this public purging.

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“You know the drill,” the therapist said. “A third of this junk you can keep. A third goes in the donation pile. The last third you can toss.”

I looked back and forth between the piles of pet rocks with glued-on googly eyes and deflated balloons covered with crudely drawn smiley faces.

Sensing my anxiety, the therapist selected a crumpled, handmade card and said, “How’s this? We’ll start with an easy one.”

I recoiled as if she had suggested cutting off my left arm.

The card was nothing special: small, plain and white, with a simple, if barely legible, message: “There aren’t enough words.”

Josh’s words.

I know that some people find the act of abandoning anything associated with an ex to be cathartic. And I get it. I’m a sucker for metaphors and appreciate the symbolism of erasing all evidence of another person’s involvement in your life, maybe while burning incense and chanting motivational phrases.

However, this kind of purging is much harder when the ex is sitting across from you. When the ex is another resident at the institution. When the ex is someone you met here, see here and still love.

I wasn’t ashamed for Josh to see me cry. Everyone had seen everyone else cry. The tears usually started the minute our families drove off. I was no exception.

That first day, my face was red and blotchy with tears. Yet, when Josh knocked on my door to introduce himself, he told me I cried less than most. Then he asked me out for coffee.

Tall, frail and almost grotesquely skinny, Josh was the kind of person who looked as if the only suntan he’d gotten in recent years was from the glow of a laptop screen. After weighing the merits of joining this strange boy for coffee versus those of counting the holes in my ceiling panels, I agreed.

I would soon learn that he was in the hospital for a slew of reasons, the main one being emetophobia, a fear of vomiting. He was also a fellow hoarder.

“What do you hoard?” I asked.

“Stuffed animals,” he said with a sheepish shrug. “Ever since the ‘Toy Story’ movies, I can’t seem to get rid of them. I know they’re probably not alive and probably don’t have feelings, but what if they do? I don’t want to let them go. Is that crazy?”

It didn’t sound crazy to me, but I wasn’t the best judge. Questions I routinely asked myself included: If I step on a crack, will I really break my mother’s back? If the zombie apocalypse actually does happen, will I die of thirst because I threw away that half-empty water bottle? Is it possible that I’m too broken and defective to ever properly be loved by anyone, even this vomit-fearing boy who loves old stuffed animals?

You get the idea.

Our unconventional romance began when I noticed him scooting his seat closer to mine during therapy, crossing the distance that separated us one chair scrape at a time.

He squirmed when I confronted him. “Sorry. It’s just that when I’m around you, I don’t feel nauseous,” he said. “I don’t get to feel that way very often, so I want to hold onto it.”

This confused me. I wasn’t sneaking him Tums (the doctors had confiscated my stash). I wasn’t a particularly warm or comforting presence. I was just a girl, crippled by severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Nevertheless, every day Josh would go out of his way to sit next to me in treatment, during free time, even on field trips (forgoing his anti-nausea seat in the front of the bus to sit with me in the back).

“I’d rather be nauseous with you than not nauseous without you,” he’d say, leaning his head against mine with a weak smile.

The bus arrived at our lakeside destination by nightfall. As we counted the stars, I confided that my previous boyfriend was patient and devoted but couldn’t understand my eccentric love language, where gestures like not holding his hand meant “I haven’t Purelled yet so it isn’t safe to touch you,” or wincing when he called me perfect translated into “I don’t know if I’m good enough to be loved by you.”

Since it seemed no one else could understand our respective love languages, Josh and I developed our own. He never took my hand without asking. And rather than call me “perfect,” he used words like “capable,” “strong” or, simply, “enough.”

After a while, I began to take pride in my role as Josh’s medicine, and he became mine. But too much of anything, including medicine, isn’t a good thing.

Around our third month together, Josh started losing sleep because of nightmares and intrusive thoughts in which I played a starring role. The doctors pulled me aside and told me they were concerned. Relationships while hospitalized, they said, are not advisable because patients tend to associate the gains they make in treatment with their partners and become dependent. When that person leaves, the progress can be erased.

Of course, that hardly stopped anyone. Most of the patients on the ward were young, emotionally vulnerable and living in close quarters. Relationships among us, from hookups to longer term, were more common than not.

The danger with Josh and me, as the doctors said, was that he would associate being in my company with feeling good. For his own mental health, he would need to learn how to feel well without me. And I would have to do the same.

Soon after, I found myself broken up with, feeling abandoned in the way I did when my parents’ car pulled away. Later it would occur to me that the doctors probably gave Josh the same speech about hindering the other’s progress, and he had taken it to heart.

But as I stood in hoarding prevention group that day, clutching that stupid card like a lifeline, the notion had not crossed my mind. The pain ached like a fresh wound. My only thought was that I had been let go and was being forced to let go in turn.

As I began to sob, I felt a pair of arms encircle me. I knew immediately whose they were. And although the romantic in me rejoiced, the more primal part screamed in protest. My insides churned as if having a gastrointestinal reaction to being loved.

I knew the words to make him let go: “Josh. Please stop. If you don’t, I’m going to throw up on you.”

He shook his head into my shoulder. “I don’t care,” he said.

I doubt many couples’ most romantic moment involves one person threatening to throw up on the other and having him say O.K., but it was ours. And I wish I could say that afterward we left the institution and raced off into the sunset arm in arm, stomping on cracks in the pavement all the while, but that’s not what happened.

We did leave the institution, but not together. And we didn’t leave finding ourselves miraculously healed either.

And that’s O.K.

I still appreciate the love I shared with Josh. I cherish the things I was able to do with him by my side, even more so because those accomplishments remained after I let him go.

I will always have obsessive-compulsive disorder. I will always have the urge to jump over sidewalk cracks and stash old water bottles in case of natural disaster. I will always have the urge to shut myself down and shut people out because my struggles are mine, my junk cart is mine, my baggage is mine and mine alone. But suffering from mental illness doesn’t mean you need to carry your load by yourself.

We are all broken, flawed, either in the same way or in ways that complement each other. With Josh and me, loving what was broken about him helped me learn to love what was broken about myself. Accepting parts of Josh taught me to accept parts I could not accept in myself.

While that hasn’t made me perfect, it has made me feel like I’m enough.


Meaghan Mahoney, a finalist in the Modern Love college essay contest, graduates this month from Columbia University.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

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