Maybe at one time or another, you have said, “Oh, I am so OCD about that,” or, “Oh, I wish I was OCD so I was better at staying organized!”
the below is real. It is raw. It is the truth. It is not political in nature at all, and is not an attempt to get you to see things my way. It is just my story…well, part of it, anyway. I want to give you a glimpse into real life with one of society’s most overexploited and misunderstood mental disorders. I pray that if you stick around to read it, it will be helpful to you somehow.
Ok. Let me start by saying I had a fantastic childhood with amazing parents. I was one of the lucky kids. I grew up in a very attentive, loving, accepting Christian home. I knew what the Bible said. I was never condemned. Because of that, some of the below is hard to understand. But I want everyone reading this to realize that my parents had NOTHING to do with the struggles I have faced. There was another influence, a debilitating disorder called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, that really messed up my life for a long time. We’ll get to it a little later.
The starting point is….well, you may or may not know that about twelve years ago I was severely clinically depressed.
At the time, my grandma had just passed away semi-suddenly after a short battle with cancer. I had just finished my freshman year of college, but I had made few friends due to social anxiety. My best friend was now living many hours away from me. I was recovering from a heart totally pulverized by a devastating breakup. After that, what few college friends I’d made (and some from high school) broke contact with me, because they had been my ex-boyfriend’s friends first. Additionally, I had made some bad decisions, for which I felt consuming, gut-wrenching, debilitating guilt. I also had a bunch of secret, hidden, inner scars from an emotional situation I had gone through in high school. Add that to the fact that I was already a needy and insecure young lady who had had a very difficult time adjusting to college life, and…well, perhaps you can see why I became depressed.
The depression got the attention of myself and those around me because once it hit me, I wasn’t myself any more. I didn’t want to do much, had trouble in school, and could truthfully barely get out of bed every day. I was desperate not to be alone, but as soon as I was around other people, I couldn’t wait to be alone again. I knew I was depressed, but associated the word “depressed” with being “unstable.” I was, but I sure didn’t want people to know it. I tried to keep my feelings somewhat to myself, but I have never been good at doing that.
Life became a puzzle I couldn’t solve. I remembered being happy, having fun with friends, feeling “normal”. I wanted to feel that way again. I kept telling myself to “snap out of it,” and “move on,” and I know that’s what others must have been thinking, but I didn’t know how.
It seemed to me that my problems must be spiritual. Christians were supposed to have joy and peace, and I didn’t. I thought my lack of peace was because of my own sin, even though I had repented of it. I must be screwing up somehow, I figured. I was perfectly fine, really, but just needed to get my life “right.” I thought that if I were a “good enough” Christian, I would have overcome with no help and without putting anyone out. I just needed to be a “good enough” Christian, and then it would all be ok. However, there was one tiny problem with that theory: irrationally, I was also afraid (so much of my experience was fear, really) that in the process of making some bad choices, I had committed an unforgiveable sin, and my fate was sealed: I was afraid that I was condemned, and that God had abandoned me and would never love me again.
For eternity, with no hope of rescue.
A super special part of OCD (besides thinking irrationally) is becoming obsessed with an irrational thought, which I did.
I had been raised in a Christian home. I believed in God, and in Heaven and Hell. And once it occurred to me that that the only question of my life that really mattered (Heaven or Hell? Salvation or damnation?) had probably already been answered, my life was pretty much useless, with no hope of anything mattering or any good coming from my existence ever again.
This was the thought that totally consumed my mind and my emotion, almost every waking hour of every day, for about two years…the longest two years of my life. Yes, I know that sounds melodramatic, and of course I know that it wasn’t rational. Yes, it definitely sounds unstable to anyone on the outside looking in. Yet, it was how I felt. And at the time, it made sense to me. And it was awful. I spent every single minute of every single day struggling with fear, anxiety, and sadness.
This is what life was like: every single day, when I woke up, I wondered what the point was of getting out of bed. I wondered what the point was of going to class. I wondered why it mattered whether I was nice to people or not, or whether I got good grades or not. I didn’t care what I was going to be, because I didn’t really think I could be good at anything. I loved my family, but wondered what the point was of allowing myself to enjoy them, because I was haunted by feelings that I was hopeless and evil while their lives were still good and full of possibilities. I felt like a fraud when they said they loved me or were proud of me. In my mind, I had fallen beyond God’s love, so I knew I wasn’t worthy of theirs. I also thought if only they could really see how bad I was, they wouldn’t love me.
I frequently had unwanted bad thoughts that I felt I couldn’t control. Horrible, even unspeakable thoughts and images would come into my mind, and would grow and spiral, and make me feel overwhelmed and panicked. They shocked and sickened me, and yet I couldn’t seem to make them go away. I prayed and prayed , but they didn’t stop, and I felt like I was trapped with no escape. The horrific thoughts just seemed to confirm my feeling that I was evil, worthless, unloved, abandoned, and alone. That apparent confirmation of my fears made things even worse for me. I sometimes felt like I was just waiting to die and face my fate, while simultaneously wishing I could turn back the clock and undo everything.I couldn’t go back, and there was no point in moving forward, so I was….stuck, I guess; couldn’t move or grow. I could barely even physically move around sometimes.
My mind, however, was in motion constantly. I read my Bible constantly, but felt no comfort. I kept coming across verses that seemed to say God would condemn me for being evil. I talked to people, tried to get them to understand how I was feeling, and hope they would offer comfort. I thought, I rationalized, I questioned, and I pleaded. But no one had been where I was. No one understood. No had a definitive thing to say to me that would end my mental and emotional suffering. My obsessed mind would take over and remove whatever seeds were planted by well-meaning loved ones. I felt that only I knew the real truth; only I knew how bad I was. My feelings told me I was useless and sinful, and they were so very real and felt so huge that I didn’t think I had the strength to fight them. The result was that I was in a state of perpetual fear, which sometimes escalated to terror.
For an idea of what this is like, think about your worst fear. The very WORST one you can think of. Got it?
OK, now imagine that you knew for a FACT that your worst fear was going to come true, but you didn’t know when. It could happen in a second, in a minute, in a day, in a week, in a month, in a year, in a decade, in five decades…but it WOULD happen; you knew it would because your mind and feelings constantly told you so, and everything around you seemed to confirm it) so the threat of it happening was always there, just hanging over your head, and there was nothing you could do to change it. Every minute that passed only brought you one minute closer to the realization of your fear. Every day seemed an eternity of suffering and terror, yet passed too quickly because it brought you closer to your worst fear, which would continue to torment you eternally.
See, according to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, people with OCD have a brain issue that causes unwanted thoughts accompanied by anxiety, which means basically that you have unwanted thoughts, then your brain tells your body that it’s in danger when it isn’t. A normally functioning brain tells your body it’s in danger so that you can do something to get out of danger. This is a useful tool for survival.
BRAIN(who apparently has a Jersey accent):”Yo, you’re in danger! Better move outta the street! There’s a car coming!”
BODY: “OH NO!” (heart pounding, breathes fast, feels afraid, moves out of the way)
But if you have an OCD brain, it tells your body it’s in danger for pretty much no rational reason.
Example: BRAIN: “Yo, you’re in danger! You didn’t lock the door! Someone is gonna break in and kill you!”(brings to mind images from TV or somewhere of that scenario taking place)
BODY: “OH NO!” (heart pounding, breathes fast, feels afraid, checks the door, which is already locked, gets back in bed).
BRAIN: “Yo, you’re in danger! You didn’t lock the door! Yes, you did? But what if you didn’t? Better check again so you don’t die!”
BODY: “Grrr…” (same symptoms, gets out of bed and checks the door, which is still locked. Gets back in bed, covers eyes, hopes…)
BRAIN: “Yo…the door…”
That state of anxiety was where I lived, except the locked door was only a small part of the anxiety. The biggies had to do with my safety, the safety of my loved ones, and my eternal salvation.
I almost always felt physically ill. I could feel the tension, almost painful in my chest and as surely as if I had had some sort of physical ailment. My stomach felt sick all the time. I spent a good deal of time praying, crying out to God, reading my Bible urgently, begging Him to change me, to accept me, to cleanse me, to forgive me. I couldn’t help but dare to hope sometimes that maybe He would forgive me…but then I always came back to the idea that God’s love was for those who were worthy; good, whole, and lovable. That wasn’t me. I felt He didn’t hear me, and didn’t care to. I was too bad; my secrets were too shameful. A God of pure, perfect love could never accept a person of such filth.
Perhaps the worst part of feeling that way was that, try though I might, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of it for more than a few minutes at a time. It was my overriding state of mind 24/7, with very few exceptions. Even when I would distract myself (which I tried constantly to do), before long something would happen in my surroundings that would remind me of my inner struggle. I was literally sickened by fear almost every second of every day.
Early on in my struggle, I considered suicide, very briefly. I wanted to escape my feelings. The problem for me was that suicide is no escape for someone who has an obsessive fear of hell! Another huge factor was that I also knew it would hurt my parents, who had been hurt enough already. It seemed selfish to escape and leave them to pick up the pieces. This left me the conclusion that there was no way out. Sometimes, the word “hopeless” seemed insufficient to describe how I felt.
I also came to know the meaning of the word “torment.” It was constant exhaustion, anxiety, nausea, loneliness, fear, and isolation. Little rest, physical or mental. No peace. No lasting comfort. No one who really understood. I would pray the same prayers and verses over and over to get the thoughts to stop, and cling to them desperately, trying to fill my head with them so that I could forget the terrifying thoughts. I felt like I must have cried a million tears, and wondered why God wouldn’t rescue me. I was angry at Him, and figured that only gave Him more reason to turn His back on me.
It sounds horrible now, but I remember being jealous of people who had other problems. They still had hope. I was jealous of that. I know it’s not right, but it was how I felt.
Once again, on some level I knew that my thinking wasn’t rational. Now and then, I would catch glimpses of hope at church or in conversations with loved ones. However, once I was alone, the bad thoughts would come back, and the negative record of self-condemnation in my feelings would start playing again, over, and over, and…well, I couldn’t allow myself to hope for fear of the crushing disappointment of being wrong. Looking back, I see how much the disappointment, heartache, and rejection of that past year had done a real number on me.
I doubt anyone really knew how bad it was. Mom and Dad knew more than anyone else. I am and will always be so grateful that they took the time to be there for me when I was nearly out of my mind with fear and grief. It took hours and hours of energy and love, and I know they were exhausted, especially since they couldn’t seem to fix things. They were unbelievably faithful to tell me the truth, to love on me and to do whatever they could to try to make me feel better.I was constantly talking to them, and to other Christian mentors who I thought might be able to help. They all were wonderful, and could usually calm me down for the moment. However, though their kind words brought me comfort (which I clung to like a life-preserver in a stormy sea), the comfort was always temporary. They couldn’t change my overall perception. I remember one mentor, a friend of my dad’s, suggesting that my struggle was just an attempt to get attention because I was lonely in the wake of my failed relationship. I remember feeling hurt by that, and wishing that was all it was.
By this time, I wasn’t functioning anymore. I was barely making it to class, ever; and when I did, I couldn’t focus and sometimes said strange things (still sometimes do), which wasn’t winning me any friends. I avoided people. I had trouble coping with the slightest stressors. I was spending all my time alone, though I craved affection and interaction. I was sleeping terribly, but laying in bed constantly.
After trying and trying to help me, my parents insisted that I see a psychiatrist. I did not want to go. Admitting that I needed mental help was the last thing I wanted to do. It was like giving up. It was admitting that I couldn’t do something on my own. It was letting someone into an internal mess that was becoming more and more embarrassing, conflicted, and exhausting. Worst of all, I really didn’t think it would help. I was certain my problem was spiritual, not mental, and that no psychiatrist was going to be able to change who I was, what I’d done, or how God viewed me.
Thank God for my parents. They told me it was ok to go. They told me I should go. They told me I had no other choice. They were right; I had nothing to lose.
The psychiatrist was some lady with red hair and glasses and a really superior attitude that did nothing for my self-esteem. Still, I will always be grateful to that lady, because she gave me a test and diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.
I didn’t want to believe her at first. I thought I knew about people with OCD…they were always washing their hands till they bled, cleaning their houses meticulously and repetitively… they were crazy people. Not like me… I just had a spiritual issue. I wasn’t crazy! Besides, my room was NEVER clean! Weren’t people with OCD supposed to be super-tidy and organized?
Well, guess what: I did have OCD. I was nearly a textbook example…unrelenting fear, obsessions, horrific uncontrollable thoughts, depression, repetitive prayer, checking: all of those are symptoms of OCD. The funny thing is (and my mom and I just discussed this the other day, actually) that in all my problems, even as my parents knew something was off about me, they would NEVER have assumed that OCD was the culprit. I wouldn’t have, either.
See, OCD is more than repetitive cleaning and hand washing…I’m not at all a meticulous housekeeper, and my hand washing only becomes compulsive during certain times (like flu season). Like many mental disorders, OCD is quite misunderstood, and the reality is only loosely represented by the stereotype most of us have encountered. Hand washing, checking, and other similar repetitive behaviors are compulsions, not obsessions. Also, many “OCD” behaviors we think of when we think of the disorder are actually part of OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder), not ordinary old OCD. I had the latter. Obsessions, not compulsions were the roots of many of the mental battles I was constantly fighting, though compulsions played a part (like the lock checking).
I love, love, love the show Monk, which used to come on USA Network. Tony Shaloub plays a brilliant crime solver with some major compulsive and obsessive symptoms. But alas, my beloved Mr. Monk is an embodiment of the stigma that the term “obsessive-compulsive” carries, and does not accurately depict all cases of OCD. I have a few things in common with our favorite germophobic detective: I do hate germs, flying, and shaking hands with people whose hygiene appears to be questionable. I have dealt with a fair amount of social anxiety. I’ve been depressed. I have gotten sort of “stuck” in an obsession from time to time, and not been able to move forward until it was resolved. However, I do not share Monk’s compulsion (nor ability) to keep one’s apartment perfectly clean and orderly at all times, (though I certainly wish my house was perfectly clean and orderly!). I might be wrong, but I think that this characteristic puts him in a better category for OCPD than OCD. In truth, it is common for people dealing with obsessions to neglect housework…they may actually have a harder time maintaining cleanliness and order than people without the disorder. Who knew?
Here in the real world, as time went on, my diagnosis became a relief; it was a way to understand the way I felt and thought. I was not bad. My disorder was. I was not crazy. I, like many people with OCD, just hadn’t known how to cope with the disorder. It took years, but my denial has eventually given way to a feeling of acceptance and appreciation. Not appreciation of the disorder, but of God’s faithfulness in spite of it, and of how far He has brought me since that fateful day many years ago when that rude, redheaded psychiatrist put me on a medication that adjusted the chemistry in my brain.
This medication was an answer to prayer for my parents and myself, because it subdued some of the issues I was having. It was not a miracle cure, but it short-circuited the downward spiral my thoughts would sometimes create, and it helped quiet the chaos in my head long enough for me to listen to what was real: what my spirit was saying, what my family and friends, were telling me, healthy teachings at church …. and thankfully, what the Word of God really says. I was still pretty messed up for a long time, but I was starting to have hope. Over the next few years I got some sleep, got involved in a healthy church, learned about God and myself, grew, changed, worked through the grief I was experiencing over my personal losses, made friends, changed schools, and received healing (a little at a time, over along time) from my emotional wounds and from many of the symptoms of the disorder.I still made some more bad decisions, fought more than a few more battles with myself, and went through some more tough times. I still leaned heavily on the support of my parents and those around me (and still do now).Don’t get me wrong, taking a pill is not the only solution; it just helped me function well enough to start finding my solutions. But overall, I became myself again. I have been getting better, and am MUCH better now than I was ten years ago.
Additionally, as I began to learn about the disorder, I saw patterns in my past thinking and behavior as a child that made a lot more sense to me in retrospect. Knowing more about what I had been fighting all those years gave me a sense of relief and well-being, because I suspected that it didn’t have to control me anymore. That knowledge, working together with deliverance from the One who loves me the most have brought me to a much more enjoyable place in life.
To be honest, when my kids were very little, I just assumed I was totally free of the disorder because I no longer struggled with bad thoughts and deep depression. Unfortunately, the past couple of years, I experienced a lot of anxiety, which was stealing my joy. I wasn’t depressed, just stressed out a lot of the time, and not good at coping with it. My stress erupted often and was bleeding over into my relationships, big-time. Coping with the everyday stuff of a busy life was a huge struggle sometimes, and shouldn’t have been. Also, I had trouble talking to people (still sometimes do) and often said the wrong thing, or did the wrong thing. I could see people assuming I was just unreliable or irresponsible…I can be those things, but more often than not, it isn’t as simple as that. Life just got so hard to manage. I couldn’t remember many things, couldn’t follow through with anything, and started to feel horrible about myself. Eventually, I realized I needed help again…actually, it was my mom (again) who suggested I see someone. I started thinking that maybe I was suffering from ADD or something, which wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.
I went to see a Christian behavioral therapist about why I was having such trouble dealing with life and keeping track of stuff. She kind of went, “Duh, you have OCD. It’s an ANXIETY disorder!!” She went on to tell me that it easily coupled with other disorders (like ADD) that could lead to many of the behaviors I was struggling with, and that focusing on managing the OCD could make a big difference in my experience . This made me realize that I am not 100% where I want to be in terms of my mental well-being, but it also made me realize how far I have come; old OCD me could barely make it through the day and was constantly plagued by fear and obsessions and unwanted thoughts, while the new me just gets preoccupied, socially awkward, and stressed out sometimes. Also, sometimes I get stuck on thinking about or working on something, and it is just plain hard to change channels and move on to something else. Going in for help again was a step in the right direction, though, because it has helped me move forward armed with strategies to deal with my thought patterns and anxiety.
Today I function pretty normally, I think, though imperfectly. The latest installment of my healing process has been huge. I have two beautiful, thriving children and a handsome husband (who is VERY patient with me, thank goodness). I have a full-time job that sometimes has caused me to be anxious, but other times has made my heart overflow with joy. I have emotional ups and downs that are (I think) relatively normal, and I am currently unmedicated. I do occasionally seek behavioral therapy to help manage the symptoms that remain and can sometimes interfere with the business of life (examples: poor time management, a difficult time with follow-through on things that give me anxiety, social anxiety, and until recently, what I call “extreme” perfectionism). This just helps my life flow a little more smoothly.
I am learning through my relationship with God that He specializes in loving sinners, not perfect people, and that there is absolutely nothing I could ever do for which He wouldn’t forgive me. I am learning that guilt, condemnation and self-hatred always come from the enemy; never from God. I am learning that forgiveness is what God does best, and trusting Him is the most important thing He wants us to do, for it frees Him to love us unabashedly, unrelentingly, and unconditionally, (without us getting in the way!). I am learning from my behavioral therapist to work hard, but to allow myself my imperfections, and let go of others’ opinions of me. I am learning from my children that joy and love are a way better use of my time than fear and worry. I am learning from my friends that I don’t have to please everyone. I am learning from my husband to say I’m sorry and move on when I mess up, and not to read too much negativity into situations. Most importantly, I function now with hope. I am no longer depressed. I no longer feel abandoned or unloved. I know where my treasure lies, and that hell is NOT in my future. Most of all, I know how good God is, and how special my family is! I am blessed.
I hope that something about my experience is helpful to you. I also hope to have a chance to share more of what God has done for me. He truly is strong in our weakness, and He absolutely does love ALL people.
In the mean time, if any of the symptoms I’ve discussed sound like the traits of you or someone you know, and if they are interfering with that person’s life, I encourage you to do more research. Not everyone with these symptoms has the disorder, but some do, and if you have a question, it might be worth checking it out. OCD and other disorders don’t make someone a freak or a bad person, and a mental struggle doesn’t make someone “crazy.” Depression doesn’t mean someone is lazy or just not trying hard enough. But sometimes it is something we need help from loved ones and even professionals in order to manage. I like the following sites; they give you information in a way that seems personal, not clinical:
www.ocfoundation.org (has a downloadable, super reader-friendly pamphlet about what you need to know about OCD)
www.beyondocd.org (has a great page about what OCD is and what it isn’t.)
My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has been a HUGE pain, but all things work together for good, and I know I have learned from it. Some of the things I have learned are good lessons for lots of people: trust God, let go of things that don’t matter, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Also, you don’t have to be perfect (only one Person ever has been!) . Most of all, God loves you no matter what.