I knew I probably had another five minutes before he started questioning why I’d been in the bathroom for such a long time. So I speed-brushed my teeth for the third time that evening and, although I’d just stepped out of the shower, I scrubbed myself raw with a flannel, convinced I’d missed something and that he’d be turned off by the filth I felt over my body.
That might seem excessive but as a sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), this was my routine I undertook whenever I was about to have sex.
I received a surprise OCD diagnosis when I was in my early teens, at the same time as being told I had Tourette’s Syndrome. The doctor probed me for more information after I mentioned in passing my constant need to be squeaky clean, which I’d assumed was just another Tourette’s tic.
OCD is different for everyone but my personal brand is hygiene-based. At school I showered more than my friends, always carried a toothbrush and excused myself from situations that I thought had the potential to make me 'unclean'. It was easier to manage then. I could avoid swimming lessons because of 'period pain' and PE lessons because everyone else was skiving, too.
It was only when I had to factor somebody else’s hygiene into my daily routine – namely, when I got a boyfriend – that it started to affect my life and relationships.
In my adult life, my OCD was barely a hindrance, until it got to sex. In my first 'real' relationship where sex was something we did regularly, I started to feel that my condition was debilitating.
At first, like anyone in the throes of a new relationship, I tried to do everything in my power to show him I was a fun gal, just so low-key, and willing to Do It wherever and whenever he wanted. I hadn’t yet connected the dots between my aversion to sex and my hygiene issues.
I tried hard to overcome my feelings on my own. I blocked out my surroundings by shutting my eyes and turning away from him, I used alcohol as a defensive shield in order to pretend that the feel of his saliva in my mouth didn’t make me retch, that his touch didn’t make me feel like my body wasn’t my own. But I couldn’t keep it up for long.
I wanted to know exactly when he had last showered. And when he tried to touch me without verifying his cleanliness, I was repulsed. I was worried he would get the impression I didn’t like him – I’d been badly burned before by a boy at university calling me 'cold' for immediately showering after sex rather than cuddling – so I finally opened up about my OCD.
I told him that even though I was crazy about him, when he tried to hold my hand I imagined everything he had touched that day contaminating my body and seeping into my pores. I explained that to me, anything less than 'straight out of the shower' was as good as filthy. I attempted to describe the logic that when I brush my teeth (which is about five times a day), I needed him to brush his, too, for a sense of 'equal cleanliness' that I couldn’t rationalise but just needed to know existed between us.
For other young women who suffer from OCD, this story is familiar. "Sex in the shower is a huge no for me as I’m so worried about it looking worse when my hair is wet," says 26-year-old Lianne*, who struggles with trichotillomania (obsessively pulling out one’s own hair).
Lianne has been with her boyfriend for a year and doesn’t yet feel comfortable telling him about her OCD. Instead, she tries to avoid situations that could reveal the bald patches on her scalp, like sex positions where her boyfriend is behind her. She won’t let him touch her hair, pretending not to like it.
While Lianne’s OCD manifests physically as trichotillomania, she also experiences intrusive thoughts, such as being convinced she will be given an STD from any sexual contact. She tells me that this seriously affected her relationship with her ex.
In the end, she says, it led to him feeling like she didn’t trust him. Today, it still inhibits how she feels during sex, as she "constantly worries about their previous partners’ sexual history, and if the condom is on correctly."
Twenty-two-year-old Ellen* also finds it hard to trust potential partners – even her long-term boyfriend – because of the way OCD warps her rationale when it comes to sex. "I find it hard to trust even my own test results, so I don’t trust others’ either," she explains. "Even when I know, logically, they don’t have an STD."
Seemingly common ailments can trigger her obsessive thoughts. "I once had a cold and then my ex caught the same cold. I went, simply, nuts, convinced we both had HIV," she explains. Ellen's condition worsens during times of stress. The intrusive thoughts can become so severe that they make her feel physically nauseous.
That’s certainly been my experience, too. My obsessive cleanliness kicks into overdrive when I’m tired or stressed. It can be caused by a bad meeting at work that sees me come home and find solace in showering for an hour or in picking my face apart until it bleeds in the hope that I can expunge the 'dirt' I am convinced is lodged in my pores.
Of course, the intrusive thoughts which are a huge part of OCD aren’t limited to sexual health worries. Twenty-seven-year-old Lisa* has never had a one-night stand because of the obsessive nature of her thoughts. She fixates on tiny details – such as a smudge on the ceiling or a frame hanging slightly askew – and knows that this means she could never enjoy sex in an unfamiliar environment.
Lisa is currently in a relationship, but that doesn’t stop her OCD affecting intimate moments. "I have to stop sex, correct whatever’s bothering me, then go back to it," she explains. "It’s not sexy, it turns me and my partner completely off."
Dr Alison Foster is a consultant clinical psychologist specialising in OCD at the TEWV NHS Foundation Trust. She says that embarrassment is a huge problem for people with OCD. "They can often suffer with high levels of shame about having a mental illness, but also shame about their particular symptoms and triggers," she explains. "Shame is an incredibly powerful emotion which can stop people from sharing the things that they need others to do to help manage symptoms."
All of this means that OCD can be shrouded in silence. In the end, I told my boyfriend my deepest fears. I said that I worried that my condition would make me less "fun" at sex and that I feared he would eventually get bored of intimacy that required so much admin.
Practically, what I was asking for was that he showered before and after sex like I did, to be mindful of his cleanliness around me and to try to learn when and when not to touch me. It felt like a lot.
In the beginning, he was understanding, but this soon came to an end. Two years later, the relationship ended. I was unable to see a future with a man who, physically, I couldn’t stand to be around. I got into another relationship soon after, partly because both he and his house were so very clean.
After our first date I even tweeted that I had "met my dream man" because he "changed his towels and bedsheets every three days". I got hot under the collar over the way he showered twice a day.
But eventually even he wasn’t clean enough for me. I found myself explaining what I needed from him to make sex possible, let alone enjoyable for me. He, too, tried his best in the beginning but as the relationship soured for other reasons, he used my OCD against me in more and more insidious ways.
If we had an argument, he would refuse to shower before bed, knowing it would keep me awake all night. He would begrudgingly brush his teeth at my request, all the while repeatedly reminding me I was "crazy".
After we broke up, I tried my hand at app dating for the first time. It goes without saying that one-night stands and Tinder go hand in hand. In principle I am completely fine with the idea of having sex with a stranger, it’s just the uncertainty of their hygiene that I hate.
I made two attempts at one-night stands during that period. I found both guys attractive. On each occasion, they wanted to see me again. Victory, right? Nope. Neither of them had a level of personal hygiene that I could live with.
One, despite meeting me after work, refused to take my hints to wash and I couldn’t relax. At 6am, I showered in boiling water while he slept and deleted his number. The other didn’t brush his teeth before we went to bed, saying he "couldn’t be bothered" to do that every night. I lay rigid as he tried to kiss me, so I fictionalised a period, said goodnight and remained still, pretending to be asleep. I hadn’t felt comfortable enough in either of those situations to tell them about my OCD, despite the fact they probably would have complied and, maybe, even understood.
Having certain sexual desires and preferences can already carry a sense of embarrassment but adding OCD into the mix only heightens this. Dr Foster stresses the importance of communication with a partner in all sexual circumstances but especially when one or both parties suffer from OCD. "If you have OCD, communicating what you specifically need during sex is important to avoid additional OCD-related shame and guilt, or triggering symptoms and checking behaviour," she says. "If you're the partner of someone telling you they need certain things or feel a certain way, be respectful – don't try and pressure someone into 'loosening up' or 'relaxing' – sadly it isn't that simple."
But it’s not communication alone that makes sex enjoyable. To truly foster intimacy, that communication needs to be met with action and compassion.
*Names have been changed