I have in the past written articles and blog posts about mental illness in general and depression in particular. Though some have thanked me for my courage, I have in these instances very often chosen the easy route, by only talking about depression. For, though depression is often debilitating, misunderstood, and stigmatized, it is in my experience often the “easy” mental illness to talk about. I say “in my experience” because I don’t want to make presumptions about other people’s experiences talking about depression, nor do I want to create the impression that there is something inferior in what they say. I do know, though, that I somehow feel like I can talk fairly openly about depression with people and still feel normal in a way I can’t as much with my OCD.
For those who are not familiar with it, the best way of describing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is that it is like a malfunctioning fire alarm – instead of going off when there is a fire, it goes off in response to all kinds of things – and every time it goes off, the same level of panic and anxiety is caused that non-OCD people would experience upon hearing a real fire alarm. So, in the most stereotypical instance of OCD, the person washing his/her hands over and over is receiving a signal like that of someone who has in fact handled dangerous materials, or who washes his/her hands in preparation for an operation. Of course, there is much more to OCD than this stereotype; often sufferers can get similar messages fearing that they will hurt a loved one, either physically or sexually; often they can develop rituals for dealing with these fears that even they know make no sense even as they find themselves repeating them over and over again.
In any case, this is something I have had since I was a child, and what I would like to begin to do is talk about it from a Christian perspective, since little has been done in this area – though I expect talking about it from a Christian perspective must begin with simply learning to talk about it. In my childhood, I experienced all kinds of obsessions and compulsions, which often changed and migrated as I grew up. I did go through a period of hand washing, but I would like to talk about some of the lesser known symptoms. I would, for instance, have a deep fear of having accidentally glared at someone. You might wonder why this would be a problem. It was a problem because I was a good Christian. You see, I was supposed to be a good witness for Christ. And if I glared at someone, they might not like it and might not become a Christian and then they would go to hell and it would be my fault. Bad theology, yes. Bad logic, yes. And I knew it, at least in part – I wasn’t dumb. But the curse of OCD is that even if you can’t explain the obsession and compulsion reasonably to someone else, it is the other person who doesn’t understand. The OCD person knows in his heart that every inch of the universe is laced with hidden traps set for those who do not take care – and OCD makes you take care, over and over and over again. There can even be fear in a handful of dust.
There were of course other things. Fear of committing the unforgivable sin. The need to repeat every word in my head slowly when I read silently – otherwise I would be lying if I told someone I had read the book in its entirety. Intrusive sexual and violent thoughts that conjured up whatever was most abhorrent to me and flashed it across my brain. The inability to look at people directly for fear of looking at them sexually.
The difficult thing of course was that the Christian culture I was in played right into the hands of my OCD. I was praised for having a sensitive conscience, and when people are dealing with children and teens, the least of their concerns are those who behave extra well – why question it when I was clearly (from the outside) a model child, student, and Christian.
And then there were the issues made particularly bad by two aspects of the Evangelical culture I was in. The first was the expectation that God works in unexpected and bizarre – often arbitrary – ways. I was used to testimonies of people who would do something very crazy-sounding and it would somehow end up being a way of sharing the gospel or something like that. Such stories gave infinite license to my OCD – sure my compulsion didn’t sound reasonable, but what if the impulse was from God working in a very mysterious dose of the wisdom of God which is foolishness to the world?
The second issue was the push to “find God’s will for your life.” Phillip Cary has recently addressed the problems with Evangelical treatment of this issue in his recent Good News for Anxious Christians – you can read about it here or at the blog of my good friend Captain Thin. However, Phillip Cary had not written his book when I was growing up and my OCD might have mistrusted it anyway. In any case, there was always the sense that one was supposed to find God’s will for one’s life – not generally in terms of actually living what the Bible and Church say, but something very specific and particular. Of course, for me with my OCD, my fear was always that I would blink and miss God’s will for my life and then find myself accidentally running away from God like Jonah. And when you put this together with the prior problem, you will see that my conception of God was of someone completely unpredictable who would torment me with his will in undertones so puzzling that if I didn’t pay very close attention, I might miss them – and even if I did I might miss them. This was – and is to a certain extent now – my condition. Medication helps, as has counseling, but the OCD still pops up here and there, in the ceaseless editing of papers and the skin-picking that comes from nervousness.
Though I do not here want to propose a full answer (what answer is there short of heaven?), I do want to offer some preliminary thoughts regarding things I have learned as I journey on with God in the midst of OCD. First, it is not God and it is not faith that is the problem. OCD will latch onto whatever it can get its talons into. If a person is religious, the OCD will take that shape, but it can just as easily manifest in things like the fear of germs – here, one of the deepest fears of modernity replaces the religious fears. My point though is that a Christian with OCD should no more blame Christianity or God for his/her illness than someone afraid of germs should blame the scientist who studies them. The person frightened of germs may not be able to interact with germs as the scientist does, even as the Christian may have to learn creative ways of interacting with God – what is a spiritual solace for some can become a tormenting hell for those with OCD.
And these are a few of the things I have learned as I go along, and I impart them in the hope of helping other Christians who have OCD. Christian tradition and the communion of saints are your best friends. You see, when your smoke alarm – your conscience and sensitivity – is broken, you will feel guilty about doing anything other than crawling under a rock and dying, though you’d feel bad about that too because it would be suicide. So you need to look at people whose consciences and spiritual sensitivities are working and learn from them. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (and this verse incidentally is quoted as a prefatory to the great cloud of witnesses), so where we cannot see with our own hearts – where our own hearts will only tell us tormenting lies – we need to act in faith and model ourselves after Christ’s body as encounter it in the institution of the church. The fleshiness and embodiedness of the church is very important here, because it is less subject to the abstractions favored by OCD. One of the best pieces of advice one of my priests gave me was to pray the prayer book aloud with no repeating regardless of what happens. The church is that scary place where we speak – and speak to God even – without rehearsing; the liturgy is not a staged show we rehearse for, but a participation – no room for edits.
Second, God is not the niggling voice in your head. I learned this after a long time of hearing others talk about God and reading the Bible and reading Christian literature. God is not an arbitrary trickster waiting for you to make the wrong move. Sometimes it feels like that, as it did to Job. But our knowledge of Christ, the self revelation of God, shows Job’s experience to be an encounter with only the fringes of God. At his very heart God is love, and not the merciless voice I hear in my head. God is reasonable. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, we offer ourselves to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. By suggesting that God is reasonable we do not mean that he is respectable or not surprising or containable in the little box of human reason. Rather, what we mean is that God is trustworthy in the same way that the created world is trustworthy. If I drop something on the ground and then pick it up, I am generally in the habit of trusting that, were I to drop it again, it would fall to the ground rather than float into the sky. In the same way, I can trust the love of God to be the same yesterday, today, and forever, and can trust that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also the God I worship. I can learn to trust God in the same way I learn to trust the rules that govern a reasonable world made by him, and I can rely on this trust conveyed by others when my own reason goes haywire. Perhaps this is why I find comfort in documents like Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, which opens with the bold statement: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”