HELP My Unbelief! : When Doubt is a Disorder

Having lived with OCD for quite some time and experienced a lot of diverse obsessional themes, I can tell you that any persistent or long held obsession is most certainly going to create a painful and debilitating level of anxiety which is often accompanied by depression.

Therefore, in order to demonstrate a level of respect and empathy for others, it will be important for those of us with OCD to recognize that while our obsessional themes may differ, this doesn’t mean that our experience is more legitimate or painful than that of others.

Which, is what brings me to the point of this blog: Religious OCD or Scrupulosity may not seem like a big deal to a person with OCD who isn’t a Christian but to those of us who have struggled with it, it is a very big deal.  It might not even seem to be all that big of a deal to a psychologist who isn’t a Christian, because they cannot relate to the experience of being a Christian in comparison to the things which they deem to be real/legitimate to their own life experience.  And, conversely; It might seem like a really big deal to a pastor who is trying to help someone who is suffering from Religious OCD, but this may be because, rather than the pastor seeing it as a disorder, he might misunderstand it to be a spiritual problem which needs to be addressed through the application of scriptural truth.

These types of errant views about Religious OCD or Scrupulosity can cause the person who is afflicted with it to feel even more isolated in their suffering. The isolation might go on for a very long time until and if  they encounter other Christian’s who are going through the same thing or happen upon a Christian psychologist who specializes in the treatment of OCD.

The truth of the matter is that for the person with OCD who struggles with blasphemous thoughts or unrelenting questions and doubts concerning their relationship to God it’s sheer torture.  John Bunyan in describing how this form of OCD impacted him said: “Of all the temptations that ever I met with in my life, to question the being of God, and the truth of His gospel, is the worst, and the worst to be borne; when this temptation comes, it takes away my girdle from me, and removeth the foundation from under me.” (1)

The effect that this form of OCD had on me while it was raging was utterly debilitating.  All that had brought purpose, meaning, joy, hope and security to my existence was suddenly threatened in such a way that just being alive and trying to function took an enormous amount of grit and perseverance.

While it may be true that most genuine believers will likely experience doubt at some point in their lives, most often it is of the fleeting sort and most definitely the sort which is laid to rest by the reassurance and truth’ of the Word of God.  C.S. Lewis acknowledged this when he wrote that; “The soul that has once been waked, or stung, or uplifted by the desire for God, will inevitably (I think) awake to the fear of losing Him.” (2)

The experience of Religious OCD is, however, entirely different; in cause, in duration and most importantly in the level of suffering it creates in the person who is afflicted.

The reason I wanted to address this form of OCD is that recently I’ve encountered a mindset on several OCD forums which either minimizes it in comparison to other obsessional themes or suggests that deep down the person who is experiencing it doesn’t really believe in God and therefore, should just let go of any or all efforts to know God or pursue religion of any sort.

Both of these attitudes have erred in regard to what it’s really like for the genuine believer to suffer from Religious OCD and also in regard to what to do about it.  Both of these attitudes will also increase the level of suffering that this form of OCD creates in a person who has a genuine relationship with Christ.  To suggest that it’s no big deal is to invalidate the experience of suffering.  To suggest that the person should just let go of their silly notions in regard to faith in Christ only serves to reinforce the obsessional theme, to the point that the sufferer will feel prompted to keep on searching for reassurance because : “What if they are right? What if this means I don’t have genuine faith in Christ? What if deep down inside I’m an unbeliever?”

The first mindset suggests that the experience of Religious OCD cannot compare to the pain of other obsessions because for those who make this assertion; religion is just a point of view rather than the foundation and underpinnings of life which frames the entire world view of the person who is afflicted.   But, for the true Christian, religion isn’t just a point of view.  Our “religion” is based in a very real and very meaningful relationship with the person of Jesus Christ.  For those of us who have entered into this relationship, it is, the central and most important aspect of what it means to be fully human.   Our experience is different from the unbeliever because;

“In Him, we live and move and have our being.” (3)

The second mindset will also completely dismiss the experience of Religious OCD as being legitimate because the persons who are making this assertion feel that any belief in God is utterly nonsensical.  To them, being anxious over the loss of a relationship with Christ would be akin to an adult falling apart because they weren’t sure that Santa Claus was real.

I have had several online conversations with people on OCD forums who have suggested to me that my “religious” obsessions could be easily overcome by my admitting that deep down I didn’t really believe in God at all.  These same people are quick to acknowledge the legitimacy of, as well as the agony of other types of  obsessional themes such as contamination/germ fears, health related fears, sexual orientation, harming themes and themes which threaten close human relationships.  And yet, they remain dismissive of the experience of Religious OCD.

Several of them have said things like; ” Yeah, I used to struggle with fears about God, but I finally realized that there isn’t any God, so I stopped going to church and now I’m not bothered by it any more.”  Their solution to Religious OCD is to suggest avoidance.  Little do they realize that avoidance won’t work for a person who truly knows and loves Christ any more than it would work for the person who is struggling with harming themes or relationship themes in regard to  a close family member.  The only thing that avoidance accomplishes in all  forms of OCD is to validate the obsessional fear and thereby bring even more distress and anxiety to the sufferer.  These individuals would never suggest that the person who is suffering from harming obsessions or relationship OCD should avoid their child or their spouse, so why would they suggest that the Christian avoid Christ?  The only answer I can come up with, is that they aren’t now or ever were true believers and followers of Christ. Perhaps they’ve never really understood what it means to have a relationship with Christ.  Perhaps, they have never had the opportunity to actually; “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, in the way that I have. (4)

My goal in sharing about my Religious OCD is to reach out to those who are struggling with it and are feeling isolated and entirely alone in their experience.  I want them to know that there are others out there who truly “get” what they are going through and therefore, can empathize and offer up encouragement and hope.

Religious OCD, while it has it’s roots in an actual disorder of the brain, also has it’s roots in the fact that OCD can only create obsessional themes about that which is nearest and dearest to the sufferer.  And, for the Christian who is afflicted with OCD, it is, just as CS Lewis suggested, only natural that it would eventually pick on the most important relationship in ones life.

To read more about my experiences with Anxiety Disorders and OCD please check out my E-book on Amazon at the following link:

(1)”Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners”: John Bunyan, Penguin Books Ltd.

(2) “Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer”, CS Lewis, Harcourt, Inc., Chapter Fourteen, Page 76.

(3) Acts 17:28 NIV Bible

(4) Psalm 34:8 NIV Bible

Medication for OCD: Why? – Because it Really Hurts!

Here I go again, bearing my soul to the world in regard to my experience of living with a mental illness. (My readers: “Well that’s because your nuts!”) But seriously; this is not my favorite thing to do. It makes me extremely self-conscious.  I wonder what people will think of me; if they’ll treat me differently after they know these things about me. But the risk is worth it to me if, in my doing so, other’s who share my affliction might some gain hope and encouragement.  So here goes:

My kids are all grown. I gave birth to them back in the late seventies and early eighties. Back in those days, natural/medication free childbirth was highly touted as being the safest and healthiest thing you could do for your unborn child. Therefore, I, like so many others in my day, attended Lamaze classes where we learned about using breathing/relaxation techniques while staring at a focal point in order to ride out the pain of the contractions. And its because of that training that I was able to go through the labor of all my pregnancies without using any pain medication.  But, I’ll tell you what, it took every bit of concentration that I could muster up to be able to do that.  The only way you could tell that I was in pain was that during a contraction I  would fall completely silent, my breathing patterns changed and I would only look at my focal point.  I couldn’t converse with anyone, or look at anything else or focus on what people were saying. All of my efforts were put into riding out the pain.

I remember the details of the births of my children very clearly.   I remember that my water broke at midnight on a Monday with our first child, a daughter, and that she wasn’t born until Wednesday; just about dinner time.  It was long and arduous.  I had no idea how much longer it would go on or if the level of pain I was feeling. just before she was born, was the worst, or if I hadn’t reached the pinnacle yet.  My doctor wouldn’t check my dilation progress for fear of infection as it had been too  long since my water broke and therefore I had no idea how close to the finish line I was.  I did, however, know it would come before the night ended, either naturally or by C-section. I’d been given that promise from my doctor.

With the second birth, our eldest son, my labor still lasted through one whole night and into late afternoon the next day. The difference was, that this time, I recognized, by my symptoms, when I was nearing the finish line.  It was a tough birth. His head was pretty big, he was in distress and my doctor had to use forceps to help him out of the birth canal.  It hurt like crazy, but I kept silent, knowing it would be over soon.

I was very ill with Pre-eclampsia for most of my third pregnancy.  I was in and out of the hospital, put on bed rest and given anti-seizure medication.  My doctor finally induced labor when he felt assured that the baby was full term.  They started inducing at seven in the morning.  I finally reached full dilation by early evening and spent more than an hour pushing but making no progress. My baby, began showing serious sign of distress and the decision was made for me to stop all pushing and undergo a C-section.  I was told, not to push at all, because when I did the babies heart rate would plummet and it would take  way too long to come back to normal.   My body was shaking uncontrollably as I made every effort to keep all my muscles relaxed over against the enormous amount of pain I was feeling and the incredible urge to push which seemed to want to take over my body against my will.   It was only a half hour wait but it seemed like an eternity.  Once I reached the operating room, my doctor wanted to give me a general as he was anxious to get the baby out. At that point I was more than happy to oblige, just relieved to get a break from the pain.  Our youngest son was a very big baby; nine pounds – fourteen ounces.

So why am I writing about labor pain when this blog is supposed to be about OCD and medication?  Well, for starters I have often looked back on my labor pain and compared it to the pain I’ve experienced with my OCD. Those comparison’s have been enormously helpful in regard to my getting over the guilt I’ve had as regarding the medication that I take for my OCD.

The first comparison has to do with the intensity of the pain and how it interferes with daily functioning.  When OCD is running the show, the mental pain can be overwhelming.   The mind is preoccupied every waking minute with the obsessional theme and the anxiety that accompanies the theme is incredibly intense.  It takes an enormous amount of effort to ignore the obsession and to just ride out the pain of the anxiety.   But, regardless of the amount of pain we are in, we still have to be able to function.  We still have to take care of our responsibilities.  We can’t just lie in bed, doing deep breathing and staring at a focal point, although I will confess that there have been days when the pain has been so bad that this is exactly what I’ve done.  I couldn’t stay there though, I had to get up and get at it no matter how wretched I felt.  It takes a lot of grit to carry on with life when OCD is at it’s worse.

The second comparison has to do with the finish line.  When you’re in labor, you know that if you just hang in there, it will all be over with soon. With OCD, you have no idea how long you’re going to be in pain and when it’s been going on for month after month or even years, you wonder how you’ll ever make it through.  You  may find yourself, like I did, trying to strike up some kind of a bargain with God: “Lord, I don’t know if I can take this anymore.  I really need for it to end. If this is going to go on indefinitely, I would rather that you just take me home to heaven. Can I make a trade?  If this isn’t going to stop can I trade this mental anguish for a terminal illness?  Because at least then, I’ll be able to see the finish line.”

I know that probably sounds incredible, but is it  – really?  Many people who are suffering with a terminal illness get to the point where they pray for God to take them home and release them from suffering.  Mental illness hurts too.  It hurts really bad and the suffering can be very prolonged, most especially if a person has bought into this errant notion that to use medication to help alleviate some of the pain of their disorder is a sin or demonstrates a lack of faith.

I remember sitting in my G.P.’s office some eight years ago when I’d been going through a very difficult time with my OCD.  I was in a tremendous amount of mental pain.  As I sat there, I thought: “I wonder what she’d think of me, if I told her, that at this very moment, I’d rather have my hand smashed with a sledge hammer than to endure one more day of this agony?”  I didn’t need to bother going into that description with her because she was insistent that I should go on medication to alleviate some of my suffering.  She cared very deeply about the quality of my life and I’m very grateful that she convinced me that it’s more than okay to medicate the pain of my disorder when it’s having such a negative impact on my life.

The medication that I’ve taken for my OCD is indeed a Godsend.  It alleviates, some, not all of my mental pain.  It allows me to feel strong enough to do the hard work of therapy.  It takes the edge off  the mental pain to the point where I can function normally.  It allows for me to enjoy the simple things of life; things like eating and sleeping, reading a good book, taking a walk or conversing with a friend. What medication does for me, can probably be compared to what it would be like to have a migraine headache every single waking minute of every day or to just have a mild but tolerable headache to the point where I can feel the pain but it’s minor enough that it doesn’t interfere with my ability to function.

OCD is a chronic disorder. It waxes and wanes. When I’ve been doing a good job managing my OCD, using all the right tools, living a healthy lifestyle, getting good sleep, eating right and life isn’t too stressful, I’ve been able to drop my medication down to a lower dosage and even been able to come off it for long periods. The reason I mention these things is that I in no way condone a medication only approach any more than I would condone a diabetic taking insulin shots just so they can eat whatever they please.  Managing OCD involves a whole lot more than just shoving a pill down your throat, but that’s not much different than any other chronic illness.

But, having said all that, it just very true that life will often throw a wrench into all our good intentions and even with the healthiest approach to managing it, OCD is still an opportunistic disorder that hits you when you’re down. None of us can go through life without any stress whatsoever and OCD feeds off stress, in the very same way many other chronic illnesses do. Therefore, I’ve just come to expect and accept that my need for medication will  change according to the severity of my symptoms.

The reason I chose to write this blog today was to encourage any of you who have been feeling guilty or struggling with the decision in regard using medication as a way to help manage your OCD. I want for you to just be able to let go of all of that. If people criticize you for it, it’s because they really can’t begin to grasp the kind of pain you are in.  It doesn’t matter what they think.  They aren’t having to live with this disorder and if they did, they’d change their tune in a heartbeat.

Speaking of change; it would seem to me that there’s been a huge change in regard to the level of suffering a woman should have to endure during the labor of childbirth.  They have these wonderful things called epidurals now and when my own daughter’s labor got to the level of intensity where I knew she was suffering, I was the one who convinced her to go ahead and let the doctor give her the epidural.  Why on earth would I want her to suffer if she didn’t have to? That, in my opinion is just a normal response to wanting to alleviate suffering in another individual.

It would be really awesome though, wouldn’t it, if most of the people we encounter would take on that same attitude as regarding the pain of mental illness.  Just imagine how nice it would be if no one ever felt the need to hide the fact that they had a mental illness or that they took medication to help manage it.  They wouldn’t have to hide any of that, because they’d know that pretty much everyone would understand and support them.  People would just get it that:  a. No one chooses to have a mental illness and b. That mental illness causes extreme pain and therefore, it’s just a matter of common sense to try and alleviate that pain and medication is just one very practical way to do just that.

The tide is turning, people are starting to understand and when they “get it”, empathy compassion and support abound.  And – this is why I blog about my OCD: I want to be a part of that change.

An Open Letter to: Pastors, Biblical Counselors, Psychologists and Psychiatrists

I’m a Christian.  What I mean by that is I’m a believer and follower of Jesus Christ and therefore, I try to live my life under His Lordship.  And, like most Christians I have experienced trials and afflictions of varying sorts throughout my life.  This is normal and I haven’t expected that I would be exempt from that.  Several of my afflictions are chronic in that they have waxed and waned throughout my life.  I’m not suggesting that my experience of suffering from these afflictions is any worse than all the kinds of afflictions that a person may experience, but what I am saying is that my afflictions do indeed cause suffering and sometimes that suffering can be excruciating. The afflictions that I’m referring to are my Panic Disorder and my Pure O-OCD.

What I’d like to express in this blog is that it’s often much harder for a Christian who has a mental illness to get the help and support they need than a person who isn’t a Christian.  First off, we may feel ashamed of our illness because of the stigma that still remains within some churches which suggests that mental illnesses are spiritual problems.  We may even believe this kind of thing all on our own, based upon the things we’ve heard over the years.  But the second reason,  has to do with the fact that we often feel confused and torn in regard to seeking help.  Should we seek help from a pastor or Biblical counselor or, should we seek help from a doctor; such as a psychologist or psychiatrist?  The good news for me, is that I have been able to obtain help for my disorders. The bad news is that I avoided getting help for many, many years.

There are a lot of reasons for this and those are the things that I wanted to share about in this blog/letter. But before I jump in, I wanted to express that I have the greatest admiration for all of you.  I thank God for pastors and Biblical counselors; for the heart they have to serve the Lord which in turn compels them to serve His people.  I have been greatly blessed in my own life by the way God has used my Pastors to teach and comfort me.  But, I also thank God for psychologists and psychiatrists, especially now that I’ve benefited from your medical expertise and your desire to help alleviate the suffering that mental disorders cause to those of us who are afflicted. Please hold these assertions in mind should choose to press on through the rest of this blog.

Now that I’ve made that clear, I feel ready to move on to the thing that I see going on between a fairly large number of ministers of the faith and ministers of health that can really throw up a roadblock for those of us who need help and encouragement from all of you.  There are some Pastors and Biblical counselors who discourage people who have a mental health diagnosis from seeking help from a psychologist or a psychiatrist.  And, there are some psychologists and psychiatrists who tell their patients to avoid talking to their pastor or Biblical counselor about their suffering.  This makes me sad because there is benefit to be had for Christians who suffer from mental illness from the whole lot of you.

So why would some pastors/Biblical counselors discourage us from seeking professional help?  I think I’ve uncovered a few of those reasons, although there are likely other reasons that I’m not aware of.  First off; there are still some, not all,  of you who don’t believe that mental illnesses are valid afflictions. You may really imagine that you are correct; not because you are a mean or judgmental individual but just because you lack an education in regard to the cause and management of mental illnesses and therefore, you have nothing to go on in regard to your point of view, other than presupposition.  I know this is true, because now that I’m “out there” about my anxiety disorders some of you have told me that my problem isn’t a mental illness at all,  but rather a lack of faith. (This was what I feared might happen.)  There are some of you who have insisted that those of us who are suffering, just need to have more faith, read our Bible more and pray for healing and all shall be most well.  I’ve been very blessed that none of my Pastors have ever held these opinions, but over the years I’ve heard stories where this kind of counsel was given to other people like me and I hear tell that it’s pretty painful to be blamed for something that you didn’t choose.  Then, what if you follow that counsel and work even harder at reading your Bible, praying, and trying to muster up enough faith to make your mental illness disappear and it’s still there? What are you to do when this counsel hasn’t worked? Will you despair? Sadly, some do – even of life itself.   I know these attitudes are still out there within the church because I’ve heard them being espoused in Bible studies and on Christian talk radio.  And, it’s these attitudes and these stories which played a role in regard to why I held back from seeking help and chose to just keep my suffering to myself rather than run the risk of opening up and being chastised for a weak spiritual condition or a lack of Biblical understanding.

Secondly, some of you may have heard some ugly tales of Christians who sought professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist, who were then given counsel which violated or disrespected their faith and so you may feel the need to protect the folk in your congregation from the harm that you think might happen to their faith if they seek professional help for their disorder.  If so, your motive may be pure, but their still remains this major hurdle in regard to your limits: You can only do so much to help the person in your congregation who is afflicted with a mental illness just as you can only do so much for the person who is afflicted with cancer, or a heart condition, or diabetes. You are not trained to diagnose and treat all the differing kinds of mental illness and in order to do so you would need more than a doctorate in theology.  You would also need a doctorate in psychology or psychiatry.  This isn’t to say that the people in your congregation who are suffering don’t need your encouragement, your prayers, your support and your compassion, but you need to offer it to those of us with mental illnesses in the exact same way you offer it to people with differing afflictions.  I’m quite sure you’d  be very quick to acknowledge your limits in regard to what you are able to do for the folk who are afflicted with other  types of illness. I’m sure you wouldn’t pull out a stethoscope and diagnose a heart condition or pull out a prescription pad and write a script for insulin for the diabetic and therefore, if you believe that mental illnesses are valid afflictions which are caused by chemical imbalances and even genetically inherited, then surely you must realize that more often than not, professional assistance is also needed. But you see here’s the thing you may not have considered; your opinions carry a lot of weight with those of us who are suffering.  If you tell us that it’s a sin for us to seek professional help, we probably won’t do it.  If you tell us that using medication to treat our illness demonstrates a lack of faith, we probably won’t use it because we are trusting you to counsel us in such a way that we will live a life that’s pleasing to our Lord.   And sadly, this, in turn, may be one of the reasons why some psychologists and psychiatrists tell their Christian patients to steer clear of you.  And that’s definitely not a good thing for us either!

Moving right along to the other side of this issue; there are also ways that some, not all, psychologists/psychiatrists may make it very hard for a Christian to get the help they need for their mental illness.  The main reason will likely be a scoffing or disrespectful attitude toward our faith and the moral ethical choices that are married to it.  How do I know that this happens?  I’ve had conversations with some people who are afflicted with my disorder, OCD, who have shared about some pretty awful encounters.  For instance; I used to struggle with Religious OCD and one of the ways that I managed the obsessional themes that came with this type of OCD was to employ a behavioral therapy approach called: “Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy or ERP.  (It should come as no surprise to those ministers of faith who are reading this blog that they don’t understand what this means.  That’s okay, I don’t expect you to.)

The obsessions that can plague a Christian with OCD will often be those which run completely against the grain of our faith and our desire to live a life that is obedient to Christ. You professionals will typically reference these thoughts as being ego-dystonic.  These obsessions can cause the OCD sufferer to feel that the their relationship with Christ is at risk.  These feelings are false and are part and parcel of how OCD operates.  A well schooled psychologist/behavioral therapist will know this.  And yet, there are some of you who don’t take this particular obsessional theme as seriously as you would other obsessional themes and therefore, you may suggest things to the Christian which run completely counter to their faith and allegiance to Christ.  You may be more than ready to help the person who struggles with Relationship OCD by telling them that they need to stay in a relationship with their spouse and not allow the OCD to make them run from it, while at the same time, telling the Christian with Religious OCD that if going to church, reading their Bible or praying makes them feel anxious or uncomfortable that it’s okay to stop doing those things, as if they don’t really matter.  Why would you make such a suggestion when you are well aware that in OCD avoidance is a compulsion and compulsions only make OCD worse? Do you think it would be right to promote the insignificance or separation of a human relationship just because of OCD?  Would you tell the mother with Harm OCD to quit taking care of her children?  If you did, you could certainly be accused of endorsing neglect.  The only reason I can think of for a psychologist to tell a Christian that they don’t need to bother about reading their Bible, praying or going to church would more than likely be just a general disrespect and disregard for the validity or importance of their Christian patient’s faith.  When you treat our faith as being insignificant we can no longer come to you for help. And, when we can no longer come to you for help, we are often left grappling with a disorder that is creating enormous pain and not knowing where to turn next. This is just one of many scenarios that I’ve heard about where a Christian with OCD might be expressing fears in regard to religious themes where a psychologist, rather than treating the patient according to protocol, interjects their worldview or philosophy into the treatment and then suddenly the Christian patient is left without the help they need to manage their illness because they can’t work with a professional who disrespects their faith and their moral and ethical beliefs.

These are just some of the roadblocks that this tug of war between ministers of the Gospel and ministers of health create for the Christian who is afflicted with a mental illness.  There are certainly valid reasons on both sides of the aisle for distrust, but do any of you ever take into consideration how all of this impacts the Christian who is afflicted? I can tell you that this creates just a huge amount of confusion and  trepidation in regard to our being able to seek and receive the help we need.

Those of us who live with these disorders need to be ministered to from all of you.  It shouldn’t be an either/or thing but rather a both/and thing.   The last thing we need when we are experiencing the pain of our disorder is to be confused or made to feel guilty about where to go for help.

While I certainly don’t know everything that needs to happen to overcome this sad state of affairs,  I do know that there are some doors opening up for the church and it’s leaders to become better equipped to minister to those in the flock who are afflicted with mental disorders.  Education is certainly key, but that can’t happen if the will to disbelieve in the validity of mental illness is stronger than a willingness to listen to another point of view.  This willingness needs to happen on both sides of the aisle. My faith teaches me that I am to show respect and honor toward all people.  I think this is a pretty good way to open up a line of communication with others whether you are a Christian or not.

Below I’ve listed several organizations which are working toward educating the church in regard to how they can be better equipped to minister to those who have mental health disorders:

My Story:

OCD: “But you Don’t Understand – I Can’t Help it!!!!”

I have Pure O – OCD and believe it or not,  there actually are some things that it causes that I really can’t help.  I didn’t choose this disorder.  I didn’t choose to feel such a crushing weight of anxiety.  I didn’t even choose to think all those disturbing thoughts.  I can’t control any of that.  But, even in acknowledging this,  there yet remains something that does lie within my power to choose.  I can choose what to do when an intrusive thought and it’s constant companion, anxiety, barge into my brain as unwelcome guests.

In this blog I want to cover both aspects of Pure O; the things I don’t choose and the things I need to choose in order to learn to manage my Pure O.

I’ve had people say things like; “you need to stop feeling so anxious” and “you need to stop thinking those thoughts”, as if I really want to feel this crushing weight of anxiety, or as if I enjoy the experience of distressing thoughts.  One thing I can promise you, is that every single person who has OCD has already spent endless hours lecturing themselves in this way.  And, until we begin to grasp how OCD operates we are usually completely disgusted with ourselves in regard to the presence of the thoughts and the anxiety we feel.

Lecturing someone with OCD by telling them to “stop feeling so anxious” or to “stop thinking those thoughts”, is a bit like telling someone with an allergy to stop reacting to the things they are allergic to: “Oh for Pete’s sake would you please just stop sneezing and quit breaking out in hives!  And…while your at it  – STOP scratching!!” The reason I like to use this analogy is because Pure O causes a person to experience an intense anxiety reaction to unwanted thoughts, which don’t cause any kind of abnormally anxious reaction in people who don’t have OCD.  The OCD brain has an abnormal reaction to the thoughts in the same way a person with allergies has an abnormal reaction to an allergen.

Another thing that needs to be understood is that there is an enormous difference in how a OCD obsession first presents itself in comparison to when we are choosing to dwell on negative or self-deprecating thoughts.  The obsessional themes that plague the person with OCD usually begin with just one distressing intrusive thought, doubt or question that most often just crops up out of the blue. It isn’t chosen. It’s shoves into the consciousness without the consent of the person in the same way you might get a stupid or irritating song stuck in your brain.  The thought usually takes us by surprise, or an even better way to describe it, would be to say that it takes us by storm.  When the thought crops up it creates such an intense surge of anxiety that our fear whips up into a frenzy within a heartbeat.  The anxiety that accompanies the thought is what causes us to feel that the thought is extremely urgent.  It’s an over abundance of anxiety that drives the OCD machine.  If it weren’t for that inappropriate/disproportionate anxiety response, we could, like most people,  just observe that we don’t agree with or accept the thought as being true or valid and therefore it would just pass harmlessly on through our mind.  But that’s not how the OCD brain operates.  The OCD brain is already in a heightened or hyper alert state before the intrusive thought enters the the consciousness.  I suppose you could compare it to a Venus Fly Trap plant that is wide open to receive and clamp down on any insect that happens to fly within it’s reach.  With OCD, when the intrusive thought pops into the mind, the brain has just been waiting for something to latch on to in order to expend all that needless anxiety that it’s been generating. The entrance of the intrusive thought gives the brain a reason to “be upset” and therefore, just like the fly trap it will clamp down on it and begin to chew on it.  This is nothing more than an inappropriate, albeit instinctive, fear response. It’s this uncontrolled event that ignites the obsessional cycle: The intrusive thought pops into the brain, then the brain, because it’s already primed to over react, sends out a huge adrenaline rush and the person experiences a severe anxiety response.  Once that happens. then the person with OCD will begin to try and do something to alleviate the anxiety and this is how the compulsive activity begins.

This brings me to the thing that actually does lie within the realm of my control:  I can choose to attend to the thought in an effort to try and alleviate the anxiety by engaging in the compulsive activity of Pure O, or,  I can refuse to attend to it and just let it lie there unchallenged even though to do so will mean that I will feel anxious.   But,  in order to make this choice I have to be schooled in regard to what constitutes the compulsive activity of Pure O.

Pure O differs from the classic form of OCD because in Pure O most of the compulsive activity is carried out within the mind and therefore, it isn’t observable like the rituals or checking compulsions that are seen in the typical form of OCD. I would say that for me there are only few compulsions that I engage in with my Pure O which are observable: avoidance, research and reassurance seeking.  Avoidance just means that I will attempt to avoid the things which trigger or stir up the thoughts and the anxiety.  An example of this would be;  if I was struggling with harming thoughts,  I wouldn’t want to be left alone with people that I love.  Or, if I’m struggling with Religious themes, I might want to avoid going to church or reading my Bible because those things would trigger the obsessions.  Research is done in order to find some kind of information that might reassure me that the obsessional theme isn’t really true.  If I’m struggling with a specific health obsession I might try to read up on symptoms in order to reassure myself that I don’t have a certain disease.  If I’m struggling with the idea that I may have lost my salvation I might research articles on eternal security.  Reassurance seeking might mean that I ask others questions: “Do you think I act like a believer? Do you think I’m a good Mom? Do you think this tiny lump on my wrist could be cancer?”  If they reassure me when I ask these questions, I might experience a temporary feeling of relief but the bad aspect of reassurance is that the answer validates the question as being worthy of my attention.  This is counterproductive when it comes to moving past an OCD obsession.

The hidden compulsions of Pure O involve all sorts of  ruminating which, when it’s bad will go on all day long.  When I ruminate I will be carrying on this internal dialogue on the topic of the obsession in an effort to try and solve it, argue with it, reassure myself, cancel it by making opposite or undoing mental statements, or try to use my logic to counter it.  Every bit of this is done to try and alleviate the anxiety and yet instead of my being able to move past the obsession, all the attention that I’m giving it only makes it seem even more urgent and threatening and before I know it, I am fighting an exhausting and excruciating mental war that I just can’t seem to win no matter how hard I try.

The most important thing for a person who has Pure O to understand is that all of the aforementioned activities make Pure O worse and keep us stuck on our obsessional theme. So, having established this, if we want to get better we have to stop engaging in the compulsions and allow the intrusive thoughts to just lie there in our mind, unattended, unanswered and unchallenged.  This might seem to be an easy choice for those who don’t suffer from Pure O, but for those of us who have a brain that is over reacting to the thoughts with such intense anxiety it feels extremely risky to just let these thoughts be.  The anxiety is making us feel compelled to do something about them.  Leaving them alone means that, for a time we may feel even more anxious, but as we practice just letting them be, our brain becomes habituated to their presence and eventually lets go of them.  If we fight against them our brain will continue to perceive them as threatening.  No battle – and the war will eventually end.

So to sum things up; people with Pure O don’t choose their obsessions and they don’t choose the excruciating anxiety that accompanies them.  We can, however, choose how to respond to them. When we feel afraid our brain tries to protect us by initiating the fight or flight response. But in Pure O we have to accept that it’s just misfiring over thoughts which apart from our disorder we would  be able to easily dismiss.  Therefore, we have to  force ourselves to ignore the thoughts even while we are experiencing intense anxiety.  This takes a lot of grit and a lot of patience with the process. If you’ve been waging war with an obsession for awhile it’s going to take awhile for your brain to let go of it.  This is the choice that lies within our control when struggling with Pure O and it has to be our choice.  No one can force us to do this.  It’s something we have to choose when we’re ready.  But it’s  also something that is so worth it when we are finally able to move past an obsessional theme.

So go ahead –  just let it be – ignore that thought.  I dare ya!!

My OCD story:

OCD and Checking our Emotions: A Fruitless and Counterproductive Practice

One of the ways OCD keeps us stuck in rumination is to cause us to try and examine our emotions in an effort to check whether or not the intrusive thoughts have any validity.  This is never a good idea because the moment we try to discern how we are feeling, the flow of our natural emotions becomes blocked by the effort we are making to try and muster up the desired feelings.

These are some of the ways I have attempted to measure or check my feelings while suffering with Pure O – OCD:

( Note: Before going on any further into this blog, it’s good to keep in mind that all forms of checking are part and parcel of the compulsive activity of OCD and only serve to reinforce the obsessional themes.)

1. While struggling with Religious OCD I would often try to discern whether or not I felt my faith.  Sadly, this was a disheartening experience because all the effort I put into trying to feel my faith only caused me to feel even more anxious that I’d lost it.

2. When I was going through a period where I was obsessing about being clinically depressed and whether or not I would ever feel happy again,  I remember trying to test my emotions in an attempt to gain reassurance that I wasn’t clinically depressed.  One experiment that I did involved an attempt to try and discover whether or not I could laugh about something funny.  I decided to watch one of my favorite comedians in order to see whether or not I still had the ability to laugh.  About ten minutes into his performance I had to shut the TV off because I hadn’t been able to muster up even the tiniest chuckle. This only made matters worse because the fact that I hadn’t laughed seemed an ominous sign that I was in really bad shape mentally.

3. While struggling with Harm OCD I would often try to measure my feelings about my loved ones.  I would go back over the past when those feelings  had seemed to flow out naturally and compare them to how I was feeling at the time,  while in the midst of experiencing all those horrid intrusive thoughts.  Questions like: “Am I feeling love for my child, my grandchild, my spouse etc.”  are a common experience for those of us who struggle with Pure O.  But again,  every effort we make to try and muster up or find evidence for these feelings will only be met with more uncertainty and fear because the frantic effort we put into this search blocks our ability to feel anything but fear.

4. Eventually all these differing forms of checking in regard to my emotional state started to cause me to be deeply concerned that I might be some kind of sociopath who was incapable of healthy/normal human emotions.  I remember singing at the funeral of a neighbor and trying to discern if I was feeling normal grief and sadness.  Again, all the effort I was putting into trying to check whether or not I actually felt sad blocked the natural flow of sadness and the only emotion I was left with was anxiety.

For a very long time I didn’t understand how all this navel gazing in regard to my emotions had a detrimental effect on my OCD.  I didn’t even consider this type of thing to be a compulsion.  Now I get it that ANY kind of checking or reassurance seeking about ANY obsessional theme only serves to reinforce it and gives it a measure of weight and validity that it doesn’t deserve.  So I had to learn to stop checking my feelings and emotions.

Later on I read something from CS Lewis which served to reinforce this lesson. (This was in regard to looking inward for emotional validation in regard to faith.):

Lewis: “Yes, yes, I know.  The moment one asks oneself ‘Do I believe?’ all belief seems to go.  I think this is because one is trying to turn round and look at something which is there to be used and worked from – trying to take one’s eyes out instead of keeping them in the right place and seeing with them.  I find that this happens about other matters as well as faith. In my experience only very robust pleasures will stand the question; ‘Am I enjoying this?’ Or attention – the moment I begin thinking about my attention (to a book or a lecture) I have ipso facto ceased attending.  St Paul speaks of ‘Faith actualized in love’. And the heart is deceitful; you know better than I how very unreliable introspection is. I should be more alarmed about your progress if you wrote claiming to be overflowing with Faith, Hope and Charity.” (“The Collected Letters of CS Lewis”, Volume 2, Harper Collins, Page 983, “To Mrs. Lockley”, Sept. 1949 )

This quote demonstrates just how futile it is to try and examine or scrutinize whether faith is present or operative in our lives. But if you have OCD it’s even more detrimental to do so.  Any attempt to check our emotions and feelings; to try and take them out and examine them, is actually a  compulsion that we need turn away from.  Just as soon as we ask any of the following questions:  “Am I feeling my faith? Do I feel love for this person? Do I feel happy? Do I feel sad? etc.,  we will quickly discover that we won’t be able to feel the desired emotions which we think would provide certainty that all is most well.

Feelings are not meant to measure faith or truth.  They are as fickle as the weather and they will not flourish in the way they are meant to when we try to scrutinize or force them.  Doing so blunts and blocks them. I had to learn this the hard way and I often need reminding of it.  This is the reason I chose this as the topic for my blog today.  The person I’m preaching at the most when I write about these things is me.  I pray that God will help me to practice what I preach.   

To read more about my experiences with Anxiety and OCD visit my books page at:


Living with an Anxiety Disorder can rob us of our confidence.  The experience of distressing OCD thoughts can make us feel like we are a horrid individual.  When the intense emotions of fear, doubt and sadness are with us every waking minute of the day they can effect our countenance as well as our behavior.  While it’s true that we certainly don’t choose the emotions we are feeling or the intrusive thoughts that shove in, we are still able to control of how we act.

With OCD we will often avoid the things that trigger the fear.  With the constant and nagging doubts we will begin to shy away from life itself.  When we feel desolate and sad we may choose to isolate ourselves and curl up in a ball in bed.  All of these choices reinforce our anxiety and depression.  If our brain is saying “be afraid” and we choose to act afraid we are validating that fear.  If our brain is full of doubt and we constantly search for reassurance we are validating that doubt.  If we feel full of sadness and walk around with drooping shoulders, messy hair and grungy sweat pants, we are validating the depressed feelings.

One of the things that my psychologist told me to do in regard to all of these painful emotions was to “act as if” I felt the opposite.  Basically I took it to mean that I was supposed to fake it until I make it.

I had serious doubts that this would be at all helpful until I remembered a day in my past when I was going through a very debilitating period of Pure O – OCD. (I didn’t know it was OCD at the time.)  I was in bad shape.  I was barely able to eat and my weight had plummeted to 115 pounds which, on my large frame of 5′ 8″, made me look like an anorexic.  I slept about 3 hours a night and spent my days in constant mental warfare against the distressing thoughts.  I was assaulted by panic attacks over and over throughout my day and if I went anywhere in public they only got worse.  And it was right in the midst of all this torture that my mom, bless her heart, thought it would be good for me to go on an all day shopping trip with my sister in laws in Detroit.  The others had already cleared their schedules, the day was planned and all they were waiting for was for me to agree to it. “UGH!!”  I knew what my mom was up to. I knew that the shopping trip was for my benefit and that she was counting on me to go.

I’ll tell you what; I absolutely dreaded every single aspect of this outing.  I had zero desire and zero interest in going.  My vision of this trip would be me sitting in the back seat of the car experiencing one panic attack after another and being completely drained by the time we arrived in Detroit.  I figured by then I’d have a migraine, be overcome with nausea unable to eat my lunch, barely able to walk without passing out and they’d probably have to take me the ER because it would appear to them that I might actually be dying.  The panic attacks, (I didn’t know what they were back then), made me feel like I was dying so I was pretty sure I’d act like I was dying.

Long story short, since I couldn’t come up with a valid reason for not going and since I wasn’t about to tell anyone about the “craziness” that had been going on inside my head I was forced to give in and agree to going.  I had no idea how this day was going to play out and spent every day leading up to it full of dread.

I remember the night before the outing, as I was praying; just surrendering the whole ordeal to the Lord: “Lord I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this, but I know I have to do it. I know I should do it.  Please just show me how to get through it. Make me strong for one day, for the sake of my family.”  When I got up the next morning it was as though in my surrendering to my fate I felt calmer than I had in months.  I suddenly had it in mind that I would just do my level best to fake enjoyment, to pretend I was calm and confident, to smile even though I felt sad, to laugh even though I hadn’t felt a moment of happiness for a very long time.  I thought it would be the right thing to do these things so that I wouldn’t wreck the day for everyone else.  I had no idea if I could pull it off but I was determined to do it.

I picked out a nice outfit, put on my makeup, fixed my hair, looked into the mirror and tried on my very best smile. As I looked in the mirror, the young woman staring back at me with that confident smile gave me a boost of hope that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. Maybe she could pull this off!  She stood up straighter than she had in months, she put her shoulders back, chin up,  grabbed her purse and went and sat on the couch waiting for her family to arrive.

It was nothing short of miracle that by the time my family arrived I had morphed back into my old self and what was even more amazing was that I felt a sense of happiness and anticipation of what fun the day might hold  in store for the four of us.  That whole day I made the choice to “act as if” I was confident, happy and enjoying my time with my family.  Every single time the fear would try to push me back into rumination I ignored it and kept on “acting as if”.

The day was a truly miraculous for me. God had provided a way for me to not just get through it but to revel in it.  You know how it is when winter just hangs on and on even into March and it’s just been so harsh, bleak and freezing for days on end that you just wish you could be suddenly transported onto a sunny beach with 80 degree temperatures and balmy tropical breezes?  Well that’s the best analogy I can come up with to describe what it felt like to be relieved of the symptoms of my disorder for one whole day.  The winter of my OCD had melted into summer.  I wish I could tell you that from then on I was fine but that’s not how it played out.  I did eventually get better but the process was much more gradual.  But years later when my psychologist was instructing me to “act as if” the  remembrance of this one day provided the evidence I needed to follow her counsel

Using this seemingly simple  tool; “act as if” has led me to believe that my brain will eventually catch up to my behavior if I refuse to let my pain filled emotions dictate my choices.  This is no easy task.  It’s hard to press through anxiety.  It feels wrong to ignore intrusive thoughts. It’s seems silly to slap a smile  on your face when your heart feels crushed.  It takes grit and perseverance to “act as if”, but if we keep on practicing we will be surprised to find that over time our feelings really do catch up to our actions.

I don’t want to imply that I do this perfectly.  I have my bad days too.  That’s okay.  I find that it’s best to put the bad days and hours behind me and allow each day to be a chance for a fresh start a new opportunity to “act as if.”


This is a question that used to plague me a lot when my Pure O was flaring up.  The thoughts were so horribly disturbing and I would often wonder where such evil imaginings were coming from.

I’ve been on many Christian forums and websites where I would read that the presence of these thoughts in my mind were evidence of some kind of demonic assault.  These articles would insist that Satan was planting them in my brain.  (Just here; in order to get the full effect of how the name “Satan” affected me when I’d read these things; you might want to picture Dana Carvey’s church lady character: “And who’s to blame for this?!  SATAN!!! …echo….echo…echo…”)

The insistence by many Christian’s that Satan or demons were either planting thoughts in my head or controlling what I was choosing to think pretty much freaked me out.  I remember when my first episode of Harm OCD took an ugly turn after sitting in a church service and listening to a missionary’s sermon.  I think a good title for his sermon might have been:  “All about Demons and why you should be afraid of them.”   If his intention was to scare the lot of us, he thoroughly accomplished his goal with me.  I went home that morning with a new obsessional theme to add to the one I’d already been battling with for months.  My thoughts went like this: “What if the reason you’ve been having these horrid thoughts is because of some kind of demonic activity?”  I had a hard time shaking that notion because the speaker had insisted that being a Christian provided zero protection from demon possession.    And, it did seem plausible to me because the thoughts had been so hideous, violent and had made my stomach turn.  So then, my new goal in regard to reassurance was to find out whether or not I might be demon possessed.  (Ah…the memories…)  I actually called up the pastor who had shepherded me for most of my life and asked him: “Can a Christian be demon possessed?”  He started to chuckle which I’m pretty sure was because he knew that I knew better than to even ask that.   But being the patient, loving and sweet man he’d always been, he set about to put my mind at ease teaching me from the scriptures why this wasn’t possible.  And that just laid the whole thing to rest……. NOT!   Although my logic told me that my pastor was correct my emotions wouldn’t validate that logic.  That’s the really rotten thing about OCD; emotion trumps logic.   It FEELS threatening so therefore, it surely must BE threatening.

Anyhow, getting back to the question:  “why do I get these thoughts?”; I believe the answer lies in our brains capacity to store up and remember a huge amount of information.  We just know a whole lot of stuff and as we age our brain stores up more and more of it.  Our memory banks are just chock full of information, some of it pleasant and some of not so pleasant.   We know that there were actual cases of demon possession as recorded in the scriptures, we know that people who seemed to love one another get divorced, we know that sometimes people jump off very high building or bridges, sometimes adults molest children, sometimes mother’s kill their children, sometimes people choose atheism and sometimes people get horrid diseases.  To put it very bluntly there’s just a whole boatload of crap in our brains; stuff we wish we’d never heard of or had to know about.  Right alongside of the “crap” there are good memories, happy thoughts and even some pretty useless and nonsensical things.  Just to make my point, I get the song “There are Chickens in the Trees” from Sesame Street stuck in my head all the time.  Not that my OCD latches onto that because what danger is there in thinking that chickens might have decided to hang out in trees.  And what danger or threat is there in regard to the happy and pleasant things that our brain knows, like in a couple months Spring will be here. “YES!!!” (Cue: “Here comes the sun… doot- n- do- do, here comes the sun….….”)

It’s been proven that the vast majority of people experience unpleasant and unwanted intrusive thoughts even without having OCD.  These thoughts are not in keeping with their true desires or character; they are in conflict with their true ego or self-image.   Psychologists refer to these kinds of thoughts as being ego dystonic.  And yet, most people are just able to recognize that an intrusive thought is irrelevant and not in keeping with their real character and therefore they just ignore it and  allow it to pass on through the mind without becoming horribly anxious about the fact that they thought it in the first place.

An ego dystonic thought will just float up to the surface of our consciousness without our actually choosing to think it in the very same way that annoying chicken song crops up in my mind. Yeah… I’m probably going to be hearing that irritating little ditty all day long now that I’ve thought of it. But that’s all it is, just annoying, not at all threatening.  But what if the thought is of a disturbing or troubling nature?  And, what if my brain is already in this perpetual state of feeling anxious, even anxious without a target to be anxious about?  This will make all the difference in how my brain reacts to an ego-dystonic thought.  In OCD the brain is already primed to over react to these kinds of thoughts.  People with anxiety disorders will often feel very anxious even without something to be anxious about.  I experience this as “free floating anxiety.” It’s just this overall sense of doom or dread.  I get panic attacks out of the blue, not because I’ve been worrying myself up into a tizzy about one thing or another, they just happen; sometimes even while I’m sleeping.  Therefore if my brain is already in an anxious state, then when an ego dystonic thought crops up my perception of that thought is going to be a hugely exaggerated anxiety response.  It’s like my brain has just been searching for a target, something to actually BE upset about and so when the thought comes floating in it’s like: “Thank you very much. Now I have something to chew on!”

This exaggerated anxiety response to these thoughts is what makes them seem so threatening and scary and it’s what keeps those of us with OCD trying to find some kind of reassurance that the thought doesn’t present a real threat.  But the thoughts themselves are really of no importance or consequence at all.  Having them does not mean they are valid.  The problem with OCD is that because we feel so anxious about them we begin to treat them as being valid and when we do that our brain begins to perceive them as being valid which, in turn serves to reinforce the anxiety.  It’s a vicious cycle.  So what can those of us with OCD do to stop this vicious cycle?  That’s a topic for another blog on another day.

Just know this; everyone experiences these kinds of thoughts but only those of us with OCD become obsessed with them.  It’s the disorder that makes them seem so urgent, so devastating.    And, as it turns out, this has more do to with how our brains operate than it has to do with “SATAN!!!”  (Cue the church lady.)

Religious OCD: Clinging to Jesus

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:

Mental Illness: Too Scared to Share – Why most Christians won’t talk About “IT”

The “IT” in the title of this blog is in reference to the Mental Illness that afflicts approximately 25% of people from all walks of life.  There are numerous reasons for our silence but I would say that the biggest, is the fear of how people will view us and even treat us once they know we have a mental illness.  We know there is stigma attached to it.  We know that most people won’t have the basic knowledge in regard to the cause and the effects of our particular illness that would allow them to view it as a valid affliction.  We know that there are uneducated ideas born out of assumption and presuppositions that people have accepted for most of their lives in regard to mental illnesses. So when we are struggling and suffering many of us just stay silent.  I know we do because I did that for most of my life. It can be especially hard to open up in Christian circles because there still exists this false assumption that mental illness is either the result of a person sinning or having a lack of faith.

I remember sitting in my adult Sunday school class during a particularly bad flare of my  Pure O -OCD.  It took all the grit I could muster up just to go to church.  My mind was in a continual state of terror, my body tense every waking minute. I had been unable to sleep for weeks on end, unable to eat due to the nausea that always accompanies a bad flare of my OCD.  The distress had reached a debilitating level and I wanted and needed for God’s people to pray for me.  I finally made the decision to lift my hand and ask for prayer.  I remember how furiously my heart was pounding in my chest, how hard it was to even breathe at that moment.  The hives on my skin were just raging and I could not control the trembling in my hands or the nausea that was churning in my gut, but I was desperate for my family, my brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for me and yet this is all I could manage: “I’m going through a rough time, please pray for me.”

I just couldn’t bring myself to say what I really needed to say: “I am really struggling with a horrific flare of OCD right now and the mental anguish of it all has become nearly unbearable.  I would SO appreciate your prayers for me as I walk through this valley.  Pray for me to persevere. Pray for me to lay hold of God’s grace and strength in and though this. And please pray that I’ll feel better soon. Thank you!”

If I had said that, would people even understand that I was asking for prayer for a valid affliction? Would they know what it meant for a person to suffer with OCD in the same way they might know what it meant for a person to suffer from things like Crohn’s disease, chronic migraines, cancer, heart disease, lupus, diabetes, etc.?

I had to assume that they wouldn’t know because I had never heard a person with a mental illness lift their hand in church asking for people to pray for them in regard to their: Depression, Panic disorder, OCD, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, etc., and I wasn’t about to be the first one who did.  I was terrified of what people might think of me after that.  I was afraid that my illness might be viewed as an obstacle to my being able to take on any kind of role in ministry.  I was afraid because I had sat in a Bible study and kept my mouth shut after hearing this statement:

“They say that all mental illness is rooted in anger at God.”

I have no idea who “they” were as represented in this statement. I wondered if “they” even had a medical degree. What I didn’t need to wonder about was how this statement made me feel, especially when every other person in the room began to nod in agreement.  No one challenged it.

Then, on another occasion I sat completely mute and stunned when mental illness was included in a list of “sins” for which restoration through repentance were possible.  Here’s the list: “Adultery, gambling, abusive behavior, addictions, sexual sins, pornography and mental illness.”  That was a hard one to swallow and in fact, for a few moments, I actually couldn’t swallow after hearing it because that is a common symptom of anxiety for me.  I recall feeling so ashamed and really just wanting to  crawl under the table. I wanted to challenge it.  I wanted to say something like; “why on earth is mental illness included on a list of sins and how can I possibly repent of something I haven’t chosen?”  Instead I just sat there feeling those stupid hives pop out on on my face, neck and torso which stood as a very real reminder that I had an Anxiety disorder, a mental illness.  I had made “the list.”  I was the person in the room who needed to figure out how to repent of it so God could forgive me.

So yeah… it’s pretty hard to talk about “IT”.

Finally I broke my silence and I began to open up and share about my particular “IT”.  And, as I did, I was amazed at how many people just needed to hear that they weren’t alone.  It’s been an incredible blessing to be able to encourage others just by telling my own story. Doing so has provided an opportunity for me to be of comfort to others as they finally are able to talk to someone who knows what they’ve been going through. Suddenly they know that they are not the freakish anomaly they’d always thought themselves to be. It’s been a privilege to be able to reach out in sincere empathy and to have an opportunity to point others in the right direction so they can finally obtain very real help for a very real and often very excruciating disorder.  Finally, sharing the lessons that my OCD has brought about in my own life;  the incomparable gift of embracing God’s grace, strength, provision and purpose IN and through my affliction is something that years ago I could have never imagined.

What I’ve discovered,  is that when I dared to share,  that God would also bless my heart by bringing the most amazing and dear people into my life.  These were people that He had prepared to come alongside and encourage me because they also knew what it was like to live with OCD.

Does it still feel risky to talk so openly about my OCD?  Yeah –  it does, but the privilege and joy of being able to encourage just one other person has made this risk seem insignificant to me.  My prayer is that, in time, people will be able to share about their mental illness without any fear of stigma.  I believe the tide is turning  and I want to be a part of that.

My name is Mitzi VanCleve and I am a believer and follower of Jesus Christ.  I have OCD and Panic Disorder and I thank the Lord for the lessons He is teaching me in regard who He is that I may have never known apart from these afflictions.  I agree with Mr. John Bunyan when he proclaimed: “God doth order it for my good!!”

My Story:

Allow me to introduce you to my OCD; something I couldn’t do, until I learned it’s name.

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I was ignorant. I didn’t know what was wrong with me for the first 50 years of my life. I never claimed to know everything, but one would think that I’d at least know the name of the disorder that would from time to time bring about such intense suffering through the seasons of my life. Although I didn’t know it’s name, I was well acquainted with it in regard to the cruel and unusual punishment it could dole out. I suppose that the term bizarre is more fitting than the term unusual because over the years, when it reared it’s ugly head it made me feel like some sort of freakish anomaly.

As far back as I can remember I’ve struggled with what  I would call “one topic fears”. What I mean is that my mind would latch on to a fearful idea in such a way that it would dominate my thoughts for a very long time.  Some examples of this from my childhood are: “what if I poke my eyes out, what if I swallow my tongue, what if I have a brain aneurysm, what if my Dad has a heart attack and what if a plane drops a bomb on our house?”  When these thoughts would make their very first appearance, I’d feel a great deal of anxiety and because of that I’d begin to dwell on them to the point that whenever there was a lull in my day to day activity my mind would take up one of these topics in such a way that I couldn’t  seem to stop thinking about it and feeling intensely frightened by it.   Bedtime seemed to provide ample opportunity for these fears to just overwhelm my mind.  These weren’t fleeting fears that bothered me one day and then were gone the next, they stuck around for long periods of time.  Just as an example the fear that my Dad might have a heart attack plagued me for a whole summer and pretty much ruined my entire summer vacation.  I think I was about ten years old at the time.

I kept most of this to myself because whenever I’d think about telling my Mom or Dad what was scaring me, I had some kind of realization that the fears were really quite silly.  And yet, even that knowledge had zero effect on how much they tortured me.  I’d often get up in the night, feeling like I might vomit and shaking all over from fear. I’d be crying, but when my folks tried to find out what was wrong, I’d just say “I don’t feel good!”

I actually managed quite well because as long as I had things to do to distract me I had relief from the fear and eventually each one of my “topics” would fade away and then I’d get a break until another one cropped up.

Fast forward to early adulthood after I’d been married several years and had given birth to two children and suddenly my problem with these “one topic fears” was exacerbated by an additional problem.  I began to experience panic attacks out of the blue.  The very first attack was a nocturnal one that occurred just after I’d fallen asleep.  I hadn’t even been struggling with any particular fearful theme at the time when the attack happened.  I’d never heard of panic attacks so I immediately began to speculate as to what this event was all about: “Is something wrong with my heart? Am I about to die? Why did this happen? What is it? Does this mean I’m having a nervous breakdown – maybe even going crazy?”

Long story short, I began to experience numerous panic attacks every day and every night and eventually my “one topic fear” settled into: “What if this means I’m going insane.”  Again, I refused to speak about any of this to anyone.  I kept it all bottled inside, only crying out to God for help and relief, often for many a long and sleepless night huddled on my living room floor with a blanket thrown over my shoulders, Bible open reading and praying to my Father for answers and “HELP!!”  Eventually my fear of going insane morphed into a fear of my harming one of my children because I might go insane and who knows what I’d be capable of if that happened.  This was triggered by reading an article about a mother who had harmed her infant in a very disturbing way.  All my childhood topics paled in comparison to this.  Every waking moment was spent fighting off fearful thoughts, intrusive images and horrific doubts on this topic.  My weight plummeted as the nausea I experienced in this period was so intense that food typically made me gag.  If I slept at all it was only for very brief periods of maybe two to three hours. This topic lasted for several years and nearly turned me into a recluse because it was so hard for me to keep up the facade’ in public and doing so generally triggered excruciating panic attacks.

Eventually I learned that I had panic disorder and that knowledge enabled me to press through that difficult season.  I learned about anxiety disorders and took up new lifestyle habits in order to keep the disorder under control and began to experience long seasons of relief, just as I’d experienced in my childhood where the fears were mostly tolerable.

Over the years I would still go through pain filled periods of “one topic fears”.  Often these would be related to health themes, but at times the thoughts of doing harm would slide back into my daily life and I struggled to keep them at bay.

Fast forward again to just about eight years ago, just when I figured I had found a way to live with and tolerate the presence of anxiety in relation to these topics when out of the blue I’m dealing with a new and dreadful topic that seemed to dwarf all the others. I have a name for this topic, I call it “The Towering Terror.”  I could have never imagined that after living so many years comforted, strengthened and carried by my relationship with Jesus Christ that I’d be questioning whether or not I was even a believer and even wondering if I was turning into an atheist. Words will always fall short of my being able to relate the dark and torturous place that this theme put me in.  I wanted to die, but to die might have meant that I would be eternally separated from the very person who had not just given me life but sustained me and brought all meaning and purpose into my very existence.  “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28 NIV) This, for me was the very meaning and essence of Hell.

It was during this very dark and excruciating period in my life that I finally gained the knowledge that what had been plaguing me from childhood right on up to the age of 50 had a name.  It’s name was OCD and more specifically in my case: Purely Obsessional OCD or “Pure O”.

That discovery brought so much comfort to me and prompted me to learn all I could about the disorder in order to effectively manage it.  Throughout that process I have met so many folk who share my disorder and even my exact “topics”.  We can pretty much finish each others sentences when it comes to our experiences with Pure O.

I have discovered that in sharing about my experiences with Pure O that God has opened up doors for me to be a comfort and encouragement to others.  Eventually I wrote about my journey in a book titled: “Strivings Within- The OCD Christian.”   My own experience with this distressing disorder has taught me that there is nothing so comforting as finding just one other person who grasps what you are going through because they have experienced it themselves.  God has used my OCD to teach me great and valuable lessons about His grace and strength. It would seem that I’m not the first one who needed to be taught this because the apostle Paul had to learn it too while he was going through his own journey of affliction. The Lord to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9 NIV)  I have discovered that with God there is always a good purpose in affliction and that OCD is no exception to that rule.  I take great joy in being able to come alongside others who share my disorder and minister to them as they navigate their way through the often excruciating experience of living with Pure O – OCD.  I have made a decision to follow the counsel of scripture regarding my experience of suffering as guided by these verses: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)