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Dear Dr. Robert--

I do not wish to reveal my name. My problem is: I think I am starting to have a big obsession with my ex-boyfriend.

I met him in high school. The whole relationship lasted for about a week. He just came up and started talking to me out of the blue. The feelings I experienced with him were overwhelming. I was 18 years at the time. He broke up with me just as suddenly.

Today I am 24 and living with my new boyfriend. My ex, however managed to get into the same university as me. It is difficult to get into this program, so from this year on it is going to be only 24 people in my class. That means that I am going to see a lot of him for about 5 years into the future.

Lately I can not sleep, or eat the way I am supposed to in order to function.

He lives with his girlfriend. I am constantly online, writing his name through search engines. I don't know what I am looking for. I just want to know where he is, what he is doing. I think about him constantly, and it is pretty much destroying my life. It feels like I do not have control of my thoughts. They just appear and when this happens I can not make them stop. Usually then, I get online and stay there for hours at a time. My social life is suffering also.

I am to ashamed to go to someone locally, but I have realized that I need some help. I do not know what else to do? Can a person ever escape this? It seems to be automatic pattern, my whole life is revolving around this person. I am so tired of it. But at the same time, I can not stop. It is like a drug. I am grateful for any response.


An obsession is a preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion. Obsessions often will be accompanied by symptoms of anxiety such as the trouble eating and sleeping you mention. So I would say that your preoccupation with your ex-boyfriend certainly qualifies as an obsession in the technical, psychological sense of that word. In addition, your unending need to keep checking for your ex-boyfriend's name online suggests that you are suffering not just from obsessive thoughts about this person, but that you exhibit also very clear and pronounced signs of compulsive behavior. To make this clear, obsessions are the unwanted thoughts, and compulsions are the unwanted behaviors. Together, these two make up what is called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In order to meet the recognized diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder, two more features must be present:

1. At some point during the course of the disorder, the person (except in the case of a child) has recognized that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable.

2. The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time consuming (take more than one hour a day), or significantly interfere with the person's normal routine, occupational, or academic functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.

Judging from what you have written, these two features also seem to apply to your situation. Therefore, although it is always a bit risky to make a diagnosis without a personal interview, and I will refrain from doing so, I believe that you may be suffering from OCD, and that you should be evaluated by a psychologist as soon as possible.

Along with finding evidence for a genetic basis for OCD, the latest research has revealed that OCD is much more common than previously thought. An estimated two or three percent of the population is thought to have OCD or display OCD-like symptoms. Because of the personal nature of this condition and the stigma and embarrassment that surround it, there may be many unaccounted OCD sufferers, so that the above percentages could be even higher.

Although you imagine that your problem is simply your obsession with your ex, it is likely that the real problem is an inborn, genetic predisposition to obsessive-compulsive disorder. In other words, if your ex disappeared from the face of the Earth today, probably you soon would find yourself obsessing on something else, and find that you had developed compulsive behaviors related to the new obsession. Sometimes symptoms of OCD lessen without treatment, but usually OCD does require treatment. Although in most cases it is not dangerous to delay treatment, the personal costs of living with untreated OCD make going without proper treatment seem a poor choice.

In most cases of OCD (and please remember that I am not making a diagnosis in your case--you need a personal interview for that), I recommend medication (usually an SSRI such as Prosac or Zoloft), in combination with cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. With such a regime, the majority of OCD patients are able to function well in both their work and social lives. In other words, with proper treatment, the suffering you mention--your complaints that you cannot eat and sleep properly, that your obsessions and compulsions are ruining your social life, even that it feels as if your very life is being destroyed--will end, and you will feel normal again.

I recommend also that you learn the breath-centered meditation practice which I recommended in another ask the psychologist question. In fact, if you like, you might begin this practice even before consulting a psychologist. If you get enough relief from the meditation, perhaps you will not need further treatment at this time. But if, working with meditation on your own, you are not able to get control of your obsession and of your compulsive needs to keep checking up on your ex, you will certainly require the help of a trained, experienced professional.

You say that you are ashamed to go for help to someone locally, and that is why you have written to me. Believe me, I do understand that an interview with a psychologist may, at first, seem embarrassing. But this is true also of the physical examination necessary when one consults a medical doctor. However, when help is needed, it would be foolish to allow your feelings of shame to keep you from seeking it. I urge you to go beyond your reluctance, and consult an experienced psychologist as soon as possible.

Be well.

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