So, what’s it like to struggle with Religious OCD? It’s not really possible for me to share all the ways that it effected me because there wouldn’t be enough words or written expressions to really convey the whole of it. But, I can share a bit of it with the hope that maybe what I say might resonate with someone else who is suffering or maybe create a level of understanding and empathy in families who have a loved one who struggles with it.
Before going any further on I need to clarify that my experience with Religious OCD may differ from that of others because my OCD is not typical to what people might generally expect to see in a person with my disorder. I don’t perform outwardly observable rituals or compulsions as do many people with the classic or typical form of OCD. The only compulsion that I share with that form of OCD is avoidance. Other than that, the vast majority of my compulsive activity is carried out within my mind in a non observable way. This form of OCD is usually referred to as Pure O or Purely Obsessional OCD. This terminology, although it’s helpful in defining the differences between these two forms of OCD, can be misleading in that it seems to suggest that there isn’t any compulsive activity associated with Pure O. Yet, anyone with Pure O will agree that when the disorder is severe, the compulsive activity is being carried out every waking minute of the day.
The compulsive activity of Pure O is as follows:
1. Rumination: This is the all encompassing term which covers most Pure O compulsions. Rumination means that the intrusive/ distressing thoughts, questions doubts are mulled over or attended to every waking minute. I mean this quite literally. The thoughts greet you as soon as your eyes pop open in the morning and they are the last thing on your mind just before you fall asleep.. that is IF you can fall asleep. To state that you are preoccupied with them is an enormous understatement.
2. Reassurance seeking: Asking close family/friends certain questions in order to provoke reassuring statements from them in an effort to fight off the fear.
3. Problem solving; Intense mental effort to try and figure out why you are struggling with the obsessional theme.
4. Arguing: Mental argumentation against the disturbing thoughts in an effort to try and gain some feeling of reassurance that they aren’t true. Many times this can be logical reasoning but no matter how much sense the argument makes it doesn’t erase the obsession or the anxiety because you can’t out logic OCD. (Why? that’s another topic for another post.)
5. Canceling/countering: These are mental statements or repetitive words or phrases which are made to try and undo or cancel the unwanted thought. Praying and confessing are often employed in a repetitive way in order to try and cancel the intrusive thoughts because the sufferer feels that they are to blame for having them.
6, Research: Internet searches aimed at gaining some feeling of reassurance. For example: if you are struggling with health obsessions you may research certain health topics. If you struggle with Religious OCD you might continually research topics like: eternal security or the unpardonable sin, or doubting your salvation.
(1-6 are all about trying to gain a feeling of certainty or reassurance which the sufferer believes will finally lay it all to rest.)
6. Avoidance: Avoiding things related to the obsession because those things trigger intense anxiety and put you in the place of having to sit with or face the fear. This is when Pure O can become very disabling as the sufferer begins to avoid the normal every day activities of life because the anxiety has become so intense.
(This list is not an exhaustive one, just a very basic overview of the compulsive activity of Pure O.)
Religious OCD roared into my life about eight years ago. During that time I had already been struggling for several months with other obsessional themes; health related obsessions and self-harm obsessions. At that time, however, I still hadn’t been diagnosed with OCD but had a long standing diagnosis of Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It’s sad that I’d struggled with OCD for so long without knowing what it was, but sadly that’s the case for a lot of folk. Therefore, when Religious OCD first reared it’s ugly head, I fought it blindly without a shred of knowledge as to why these horrible thoughts were plaguing me or what I could do to escape from them.
My Religious OCD:
The first assault came on like the charge of a lion that had been hiding in tall grass, just waiting for the opportune time to leap out and catch me off guard. I had been listening to a sermon on a CD while doing dishes when just one sentence from the speaker seemed to shout, accuse and terrify me. It went something like this: “If you are still struggling with sin on a daily basis, maybe you need to consider the possibility that you might not be a true believer.” As that sentence sliced into my mind, the following thoughts poured out one right after another like water from a burst dam; “I struggle with sin in one way or another nearly every day. What if this means I’m not a true believer?! What if this is why I’m going through this season of unrelenting fear and terrifying thoughts?! Maybe God’s been trying to tell me something! How can I be sure I’m a true believer?!” These thoughts were accompanied by the most crushing feeling of terror. I found it hard to breathe, my heart began racing, a cold sweat broke out, I felt like I might vomit and my ears began ringing. This was serious! At least that’s how my brain perceived it at that time. And that was the beginning of one my worst OCD obsessional themes which I refer to in my book as: The “Tower of Terror”.
From that moment forward I began a desperate search for certainty regarding my standing with God. I would mentally review my past relationship with Christ; “when did it begin, how had I been assured of my salvation in the past, was there evidence that I was a believer, did I have real faith and how could I obtain absolute proof that I was a genuine Christian?”
Suddenly the health obsessions took a back seat and the strange and bizarre self-harm thoughts wandered out to the fringes of my thinking rather than residing front and center. Each morning I would wake up, stretch for a moment and then – WHAM! – it would hit me that I still needed to find a way to make certain that I was saved. One day while deep in the rumination process I suddenly had the thought: “Maybe God isn’t real after all, maybe it’s all been a sham.” Words will always fall short of my being able to describe what utter despair and torture this mental utterance had on me. I wanted to un-think that thought, to find a way to erase it from my mind. I was screaming back at it in my head: “NO, I do not believe that! I know God is real and I’ve known true intimacy with Christ for most of my adult life! Words from a familiar hymn came to mind: “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!” And yet for all my utter rejection of that thought, the fear that followed directly on its heels was more convincing than my argumentation. To think that such a thing could have entered my mind was just absolutely crushing. I prayed for God to forgive me for it and prayed again and again. “Surely He would forgive me for having a thought that I didn’t want to have. He would understand.” But, my OCD wasted no time in coming up with yet another horrid possibility. I had been studying several good apologetic books just prior to these events and one day this thought dropped into my mind to twist all that around into something evil: “The only reason you were even reading all those books was because deep down inside you’ve never been sure that you believed any of it at all.” My OCD had taken something that had been a delight to my heart and twisted it into a way to accuse. That’s how it works, just when you feel you’re finding the smallest shred of reassurance another horrid possibility crops up which is typically worst than the last. As the weeks and even months wore on I started to experience intrusive thoughts that made me feel like I might be wanting to become an atheist. With Pure O – OCD, whatever you don’t want to think is exactly what your mind goes to. The harder you fight against the thoughts the more stuck and insistent they become. And the anxiety…(I wish there was a better word for it) is just indescribable. I suppose if my head had been shoved into a guillotine with the blade about to drop that might come close to the intensity of the fear that accompanied these thoughts. After all, the most important relationship of my entire life was being threatened. The One who filled my life with love, joy, hope and purpose might be lost to me forever and with that my eternal state would be utterly without hope. There were days when I would just have this sudden realization that the whole thing was utter nonsense and I could actually breathe again and eat and sleep, but they were short- lived. I remember one of those days when it suddenly occurred to me how odd it would be for an Atheist to be terrified of losing Christ or terrified of the prospect of hell. How can you be afraid of losing someone you don’t believe in or fear something you don’t think exists? Those logical moments should have laid the whole matter to rest, but in the end it turns out that you cannot out logic OCD because it’s fueled by two things: Anxiety and any or all attending to its questions and doubts. For every logical counter statement, every reassurance, every problem you think you’ve solved – there is always going to be another dread filled “what if”? OCD is a hungry beast that thrives on attention. It’s obsessions grow fatter and take up more and more space in the mind every single time you attend to them. When it’s thoroughly saturated your every waking moment that’s when it’s got you where it wants you. The more you attend the more certain you will feel that the whole matter is the most urgent thing in your entire life. To not pay attention to it, to cease trying sort it all might seem akin to ignoring a blaring fire alarm that’s warning you to either douse the fire or flee from your house. OCD sets huge fires of anxiety and doubt in the mind that compel the sufferer to feel that they must take action.
As my Religious OCD began to take over my life it also began to rob me of the joy of participating in the very things that had been most meaningful to me. When I read my Bible I would stumble upon a verse that would seem to reinforce the fears I was struggling with. When I prayed it felt like I was just going through the motions while detached from the One I was praying to. When I went to church I felt like I didn’t belong, that I was a contamination in the midst of the saints. All those people that I knew to be Christians stood in stark contrast to me. All of it was so triggering in regard to the obsessions and I found it so hard to stay in the presence of these things because of how intense the Anxiety would get. All that I loved most seemed to have been ripped away from me. I felt desolate and alone – a freakish anomaly among the people of God.
So that’s the shortened version of what it’s like to be afflicted with Religious OCD. It’s pretty awful and sad to say I’m not alone in my experience with it. There are many others; young and old, male and female, those who love the Lord, those who serve the Lord, missionaries, teachers of the Word, pastors and pastors wives. OCD doesn’t discriminate in regard to who it picks on.
Thankfully what I’ve related here isn’t the end of my story. My OCD doesn’t manage me any longer, I manage it. It is a very treatable condition. I’m thankful that I was able to obtain a diagnosis and learn how to manage it effectively. God has answered my prayer: “Return to me the joy of my salvation!”
My OCD Story: