Friday, May 14, 2010

When you drive down the streets of your neighborhood

When you drive down the streets of your neighborhood, do you ever wonder what's going on inside other people's houses? What really goes on behind closed doors?

Ronda is one of millions of Americans living a secret life, and her neighbors don't suspect a thing.

"My secret is I have obsessive-compulsive disorder," Ronda says. "I have taken it to the extreme that it affects not only myself, but also my family, my children. We live in a home that cannot get dirty."

Ronda's extreme fear of germs and dirt controls every aspect of her life. She spends hours every day scrubbing, mopping and vacuuming her already immaculate house. Ronda says she maintains a constant vigil against anyone touching and "infecting" her things.

Ronda's most rigid rule? Once she's bathed and in bed, her side of the mattress is off limits. "My bed is my bed," she says. "You're not going to touch it. You're not going to climb on it. You're not going to sit on it. You're not even going to go near it because it's my side of the bed."

It's not just possessions Ronda tries to protect from contamination. After her bath, no one is allowed to touch her for any reason...not even her husband and children

Ronda insists that her son, Grayson, and daughter, Michaela, follow her strict rules of cleanliness.

"Mom's rules [range from] normal things like take off your shoes when you come in, [to] shower constantly," says Grayson. Michaela says she has to wash her hands—and sometimes even shower—before she can use her mother's computer. Ronda even gave away the family pet, a dog named Delilah, because she couldn't tolerate her shedding.

Despite their best efforts to live by her rules, Ronda's family is seldom clean enough for her. "I can't bring myself to hold my daughter's hand, so I will hold her by the wrist," Ronda says. "I wish I could change, but I don't know how."

"She doesn't hug me," Michaela says, "but I wish she would. She probably just thinks I'm dirty." Grayson also misses physical affection from his mom. "Sometimes," he says, "you need a hug."

Mike, Ronda’s husband, says he has managed to cope and "get by," but living with Ronda's secret is physically and emotionally exhausting. "I am so tired," he says. "I'm just drained. I cook, I clean, and when the kids get sick, I'm the doctor. I come home and I'm frantically cleaning up the sink and putting dishes in the dishwasher and wiping down the counters so when she does get home, she doesn't go ballistic."

Mike also says Ronda's aversion to being touched is killing their intimacy. "It's been over three months [since we had sex]. ... There's so much that I feel like I'm missing out on with her."

Ronda says her obsessive-compulsive behavior started when she and her husband purchased their first home. She believes she probably inherited the condition from her grandmother, who owned a beautiful, immaculate home but refused to live it in for fear of getting it dirty. Instead, every day for 14 years, Ronda's grandmother lived in a shack in the backyard.

"I spent a lot of time with her in the little room," Ronda says. "There was no bathroom. There was a shower that she had my grandfather hook up outside. ... If it was winter, it was cold." Instead of an indoor bathroom or even an outhouse, their toilet was an area of ground spread with gravel.

"When they sold their house, it was a brand new home," Ronda says. "It was 14 years old, but if you opened the oven, you'd see the warranty inside the plastic. She didn't want anything to be used. ... I know how she felt."

Ronda says she's tried seeking help, including sessions of behavior modification—a therapy in which patients are exposed to triggers and they learn to control their response—but she says she found the treatment too uncomfortable to continue.

Dr. Tara Fields, a licensed marriage and family therapist with expertise in addictive behavior, says that Ronda is choosing to put her secret compulsion before her family.

"I can tell you for sure that this is curable," Dr. Tara says. "Until you make the decision that the pain that you're in and your family is in and your husband is in—and even that little girl inside of you that never got nurtured—can't be any worse than what you'd have to experience by doing some of those [behavior modification] exercises and making a commitment to treatment."

Dr. Tara says Mike is "feeding" Ronda's obsessive compulsive disorder and can help her get better by not facilitating her behavior. "He's absolutely enabled her out of love," Dr. Tara says. "Making excuses [and] protecting her from her fears is really just allowing the behavior to continue."

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