Why being lovesick is a form of mental illness

Why being lovesick is a form of mental illness: By a clinical psychologist who reveals his battle to help a happily married woman who became dangerously obsessed with her dentist

  • Unrequited love is a frequent cause of suicide, particularly among young people
  • Clinical psychologist Dr Frank Tallis believes lovesickness is a serious condition
  • Married patient Megan became obsessed with her dentist, even stalking him
  • Megan believed she could see her dentist’s love for her in his eyes  
  • Dr Frank discussed De Clerambault syndrome associated with unrequited love

Megan was in her mid-40s, wearing sensible shoes and a calf-length skirt. Her dark brown hair was neatly bobbed and she looked unassuming, even dowdy. A barrister’s clerk, she had no children, but had been happily married to Philip, an accountant, for 20 years. 

Quietly spoken, she had a kind face and a self-conscious smile. Outwardly, there was nothing to suggest her internal turmoil. But gentle- seeming Megan had fallen head over heels in love with her dentist. 

This was not some affair or mutual crush. Instead, with no warning and for no apparent reason, Megan had become besotted with Daman Verma. By the time we met, she had been obsessed with him for two years and stalked him for nearly 18 months — causing him huge distress, not to mention her loyal husband. 

Megan was lucky not to have been reported to the police. Instead, her odd behaviour had resulted in a GP referral to me for therapy to try to help her accept reality. Dr Verma was married with two young children and had never felt the same way about her. 

Clinical psychologist Dr Frank Tallis explains his experience with lovesick patient Megan, who was happily married but became obsessed with her dentist (file photo)

This passionate love affair was being conducted entirely inside her head. You could say Megan was suffering from a form of lovesickness. As most of us know, falling in love can be painful — and when we are not loved in return, the anguish can be unbearable. 

Centuries ago, lovesickness was considered a valid medical diagnosis. Nowadays, those hopelessly in love can expect teasing, or perhaps a little sympathy and a wry, knowing smile. But the line that separates normal from abnormal love is frequently blurred and lovesickness is not a trivial matter. 

I believe the merest spark of sexual attraction can cause a fire that has the potential to consume every one of us.  Unrequited love is a frequent cause of suicide, particularly among the young, and about 10 per cent of all murders are connected with sexual jealousy. Moreover, there is a view that troubled close relationships are not merely associated with mental illness, but may be a primary cause of it.

I believe the problems arising from love — infatuation, jealousy, heartbreak , trauma and addiction, to name a few — merit serious consideration. I have often found myself sitting in front of lovesick patients whose psychological pain and behavioural disturbances were equal in severity to any major psychiatric illness. 

Such patients are usually embarrassed to share their feelings, having accepted the prevailing view that lovesickness is transitory, adolescent , inconsequential or ridiculous. This is untrue. The consequences of falling in love can be enduring and profound. 

I have seen conventional lives unravel on account of wild passions; watched people suffer prolonged agonies because of rejection. Like Sleeping Beauty, Megan’s story involved a deep slumber. In her case, though, she wasn’t awoken by a prince’s kiss, but came round from general anaesthetic after Dr Verma had performed a tricky tooth extraction. 

At our first session, Megan told  me she had already developed strong feelings for him when they had met briefly before the operation, but afterwards these were consolidated. ‘I opened my eyes and looked up at a light on the ceiling and I remember thinking: “I’ve got to see him.” I didn’t want to know how the operation had gone. All I wanted was to see him.’ 

The dentist was called to the recovery room. He held Megan’s hand and probably said some words of reassurance. But she wasn’t really listening. All her attention was on his face, which suddenly struck her as unnaturally beautiful. Looking into his eyes, she then realised something so extraordinary it almost made her gasp: it was crystal clear to her that he felt the same way. 

Megan was convinced that her dentist was in love with her because she could ‘see it in his eyes’ despite no physical or verbal confirmation (FILE photo)

It seems improbable that strangers can form an instant meaningful bond. Yet a high proportion of the general population claim to have experienced love at first sight, and many of these couples stay together. Megan insisted her dentist was in love with her because she could ‘see it in his eyes’.

People often talk about being on the same wavelength, but few would say they have certain knowledge of someone else’s feelings, especially after such a short acquaintance. The truth, of course, was that Dr Verma hadn’t shared Megan’s epiphany. There was not the faintest glimmer of desire in his eyes. 

To him, Megan was just another patient. But to Megan, he was the love of her life. After her operation, Megan obsessed about Dr Verma day and night. She couldn’t sleep properly and when she returned to work she couldn’t concentrate. Eventually, she rang the practice and asked to speak to the dentist. An awkward conversation ended when she suggested meeting for coffee. 

‘He made some excuse and hung up,’ she recalled. But to Megan this rebuff merely meant he was frightened by the strength of his feelings for her. Her stalking escalated. She began ringing the dentist, sometimes several times a day. Then the dental secretaries asked her to stop, so she got hold of Dr Verma’s home number and rang that instead. 

When his wife, Angee, picked up the phone, Megan did her best to explain the situation sympathetically — that she and Dr Verma had fallen in love — but the dentist’ wife told her to ‘get help’. Still Megan refused to accept Dr Verma didn’t love her. She wrote him letters every day; long, detailed letters begging him to recognise that their love could not be denied. 

Dr Verma contacted Megan’s GP after she began stalking his work place and calling his home  (File photo)

When the dentist found her waiting outside his practice one day, he contacted Megan’s GP. What was wrong with Megan? Before meeting Dr Verma, her life had been routine — a steady job, holidays and hobbies, the company of her husband. All that had suddenly changed. Megan was suffering from a mental illness called De Clerambault’s syndrome. 

Typically, the affected woman (three out of four sufferers are women) falls in love with a man with whom she has had little or no prior contact, and comes to believe he is also passionately in love with her. The man is often older, of higher social status, or a celebrity. His inaccessibility may act as a spur. A hapless pursuit follows, which is experienced by the victim as extreme harassment. Very few sufferers recover. 

Now officially called delusional disorder: erotomanic type, it is a behaviour that has been described for centuries. What people may find surprising is that throughout all this, Megan insisted she still loved her husband. Indeed, they never stopped making love — and while he was deeply hurt, he continued to stand by her, recognising that she was ill, not unfaithful. How could Megan love both her husband and the dentist? Megan’s love for Dr Verma wasn’t driven by lust. 

The only way she could explain it was that she had an unassailable feeling they were ‘meant to be’ together. Megan’s employer recognised she was having mental health problems and gave her time off. Initially, she was referred to a psychiatrist. Because it is thought this condition may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, she was prescribed an anti-psychotic drug that reduces delusional thinking. But Megan’s longing only deepened. 

Megan began to realise her dentist didn’t have feelings for her after he was forced to move to Dubai with his family (file photo)

She would wait all day outside the dentist’s practice, hiding in a doorway or behind a parked van, glad just to be close to him. One afternoon she followed him home. She stood beneath a lamp-post opposite his front door. When his wife spotted her from an upstairs window, Dr Verma stormed out of his house and  confronted Megan. Furious, he threatened to call the police. 

But Megan found his performance unconvincing: ‘He was pretending, for his wife’s sake. Really, in his heart, he wanted me to be there.’ Worried for their children, who were just ten and eight, Angee and Daman Verma began arguing about how to stop Megan. Not long afterwards he applied for a job in Dubai, hoping to escape the problem. He and his family had been in Dubai for six months when Megan was referred to me. 

Ultimately, no one knows exactly what causes De Clerambault’s syndrome. It has been attributed to neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain. Dopamine — the chemical messenger that carries signals between brain cells — may play a role. But Megan’s medication, which worked by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain, had no effect on her. Another possibility is abnormal electrical activity in specific parts of the brain. Whatever the root of herdelusions, my role was to try to help Megan see them for what they were. 

She admitted she thought about Dr Verma all the time and had considered phoning him or even travelling to Dubai. Over the following months I tried my best to gently challenge her beliefs. But Megan continued to maintain they were fated to be together. ‘He doesn’t want to upset his wife’ became something of a mantra.

Eventually, one day, I asked Megan why she hadn’t followed him to Dubai. All of a sudden she sighed, a colossal expulsion of air that created an illusion of shrinkage. Her shoulders curved inwards and her knees lifted slightly in a movement strongly suggestive of the foetal position. Her hands became tight fists, pressed tight against her stomach. 

Then all she said was: ‘Iknow… I know.’ What did she know? Megan had finally allowed herself to contemplate the possibility that Dr Verma didn’t love her, their love was not fated and they would never be together. She had looked into the abyss and her pain was as devastating as if a family member had died. Tears tumbled down her cheeks and splashed on her skirt. 

For Megan, there would never be love with the dentist. There was no hope, no future. I was humbled by the magnitude of her agony. She had come to accept that she would have to live her life separated from Dr Verma. But there was no cure for her heart. She would love him for ever.

All names have been changed. The Incurable Romantic, by Frank Tallis (Little Brown, £18.99). To order a copy for £14.24 (25 per cent discount),visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.p&p free on orders over £15.Offer valid until June 7, 2018.© Dr Frank Tallis 2018.

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