Some women know they really like a guy when they're willing to sleep with him. I know I really like a guy when I'm willing to sleep in his bed.
Let me explain. It all started my senior year of high school when I got head lice for the first time. My little cousins gave it to me, and I in turn gave it to my first boyfriend. The months of war against larva left me with more baggage than there were piles of laundry. I felt like my boyfriend wasn't doing everything he could to get rid of the lice, and started to obsess over all the things I couldn't control. How could I be sure every strand on my head was clear of the tiny eggs, let alone my boyfriend's? Even if he got rid of the lice, how did we know his two little brothers weren't infested? And so on and so on. (Is your head itching yet?)
When the lice returned after a month of being dormant, I flipped the hell out. I drank from my parent's liquor cabinet for the first time, swigging dramatically from a bottle of scotch on the bathroom floor. When I came to with my first hangover, I made a decision. I resolved that being with my boyfriend could mean nothing but an endless cycle of re-infestation and anxiety.
So naturally, I dumped him.
Our breakup, not coincidentally, coincided with the end of my mom and stepdad's fifteen year relationship. It felt like all the love around me was disappearing, only to be replaced by bugs I couldn't even see. My parents had been divorced since I was two, but this second round of disillusionment was enough to buy me one ticket straight to Crazytown.
I'd had OCD impulses my whole life, but this seemingly small event pushed me into full-blown disorder. Months after the lice were gone I was still convinced I was infested. I'd spray my bed with toxic chemicals more likely to give me cancer than kill bugs. I woke up with headaches from the fumes, but I couldn't stop myself. I wore a pillowcase on my head when I slept. I felt that if I could just keep my hair from touching the bed, then at least there would be one clean place in my life left. I stopped hugging friends and family closely, afraid of infesting their hair.
Having been a mostly sane person up until this point in my life, I was ashamed. I knew what I was doing was crazy, but I felt like I had to do it anyway. I hated myself for my inability to control my impulses, so I hid them. It never occurred to me that I might have OCD. That was for people who washed their hands till they bled, or touched doorknobs ten times in a row. I was mostly normal.
During the day, I seemed like a perfectly together teenager-more than together really. I edited my high school newspaper and literary magazine. I acted in school plays, and had a large circle of good friends. My obsession was my dirty secret. And like any ashamed fetishist, I liked keeping it that way.
The summer before I started college, I went about trying to distract myself from myself. I found a boy toy— a younger ‘man' at 16— and went about statutorily raping him immediately. Like many people, I was determined to screw my way out of my own head. And while the sex was pretty great in its newness and diversion, as soon as it was over, the obsessive thoughts returned.
I told my pseudo-boyfriend nothing, convinced he couldn't handle it anyway. I was leaving to go off to NYU and was determined not to feel attached to him, or anyone I could infect. My phobia served as a way to keep him, and feelings, at a distance. After all, how could I love him when I was knowingly giving him imaginary head lice? Often, I'd break into tears after sex, and let him assume I was mourning our impending separation. Really, I was crying for myself.
By the time I headed off to college, I was exhausted. Being such a dedicated paranoid-neurotic left me little energy to enjoy New York's other favorite pastimes. I realized I needed time for normal NYU freshman worries, like what to wear to that week's ironic wine and cheese party. Slowly but deliberately, I finally decided to reach out for help. I started seeing a counselor and got on SSRIs that helped inhibit the compulsions. And mostly, it helped.
But New York provided a whole new set of triggers. Bedbug hysteria was everywhere, and provided a perfect complement to my pre-existing imaginary condition. Ads on the subway with huge red insects stared at me from every angle. Reporters warned that nowhere was safe — subway benches, movie theatres — you name it, it could be infested. But somehow, no one else seemed to care. Friends piled jackets on beds at parties, indifferent to their mass orgy of microscopic pests. They took furniture off curbs, laid down on couches at dive bars, and generally went on with their lives. But for me, bedbugs served as a constant mocking reminder: I could leave my hometown, but my fears would follow me wherever I went.
So where does love come into this downer of a story? Well, it turns out love—more than any pill— is what taught me how to cope with my phobias.
There's always that moment when you start seeing someone. That moment where for the first time, you really reveal yourself. For many of us, this is the moment we unveil our Crazy. Some people's Crazy is like mine-a mental health struggle. For others, it's a less diagnosable Crazy — a debilitating fear of commitment, or of being loved. Almost everyone we date has something they're hiding, and we all wait to find out what it is.
But I've come to believe that's not really what we should be concerned with. What really reveals something about a person? It's not their Crazy, but the way they react to hearing about yours. In my experience, how they respond is pretty much the greatest predictor of how intimate your relationship is going to be.
The first time I fell in love during college, I dreaded having this conversation. I already knew my new boyfriend had struggled with depression, but I was convinced that my Crazy was crazier than his. A bout of depression is almost a rite of passage for most guys. It can be sexy even, brooding. But having once worn pillowcases on your head? Pretty much the opposite of sexy.
When I finally did reveal my deep secret to him, I realized something great: My phobias could be told as a story. Stories are how I've always made sense of the world, and for the first time, my fears had words to them: I'm afraid of bugs. Really afraid of bugs. As soon as I said it out loud, the truth of it began to lose its power. I could laugh at plot twists that had once shamed me. I knew I needed help when even thrift shopping scared me. I could let him ask questions, and answer most of them without shame. Yes, I still think about it. The difference is now I just try to let the thoughts wash over me. And then I move on.
Because I was not yet proud of my story, I added an afterward.
You must think I'm crazy.
As soon as I said it, I realized that was the only thing I could say that sounded dumb. It was the one fear worth editing out. It was years ago, but if I had to guess, that must have been when he kissed me. That night, I slept peacefully in sheets we made dirty together.
I could do it all because I had finally found a more compelling mess to focus on: Love. And in that small way, my fears began their slow trek towards being an important part of my past, not my present. Today, I write and speak without shame about my OCD. I try to be honest, in the hopes that someone else might hear me and feel a little less crazy, a little more inclined to love instead.
These days, I see what's left of my phobias as a sort of blessing in disguise. As an impulsive and romantic person, my suspicion of questionable beds has helped me to think twice. Even when I only want something casual, my phobias ensure I never jump into bed with people I don't trust. If a guy seems arrogant or flaky, my phantom fears serve as a sort of litmus test. Where some women might wonder if a guy is worth an accidental pregnancy, I sometimes find myself asking Is this person really worth getting lice or bedbugs over?
And to my own surprise, when someone is worth sharing a bed with, the answer is so simple it's almost clean: Yes.
Rachel Krantz is a freelance writer living in New York City. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, NPR, Nerve, and elsewhere. You should probably follow her on Twitter, if only to help her appear less pathetic.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.