When I was just 10 years old, my irrational behavior became apparent. My dog had died, and I thought that in order to prove I had ever loved her at all I needed to visit her grave every night at the exact time she died. While there, I had to cry, or else I didn’t truly love her.
In the same way, there are legalists in Christianity, saying you need to do certain things to be saved (you are saved by faith in Christ alone) … I was an emotional legalist, thinking I needed to feel certain ways for statements to be true.
For those that don’t understand what OCD is, it is having obsessive intrusive thoughts that are unwanted and go against someone’s morals. These thoughts bring a lot of anxiety. In an effort to get rid of the anxiety, someone with OCD will compulsively do repetitive behaviors to get the thoughts to go away.
OCD as a child
When I was 11 years old I developed an eating disorder. This was as a weight loss craze swept America. Though I didn’t know I had OCD at the time, I quickly became consumed. I started collecting workouts and weight loss tips from magazines. Every suggestion for weight loss that I saw became a command to me:
Never take the elevator! Only stairs! Don’t eat pretzels with salt! Pick off each flake of salt! Say no to every dessert or snack offered to you! Give away your food at lunch! Drink a glass of water before every meal! Chew your food slower! Don’t finish your plate! Fidget in your seat to burn calories!
Before school, I would get up and run up and down the stairs a set number of times and then work out. After school I did sports. When I came home I ran outside or did another exercise. If I felt that I had eaten too much I felt immense guilt. Television ads kept fueling my fears that I wasn’t doing enough to truly be healthy.
As I grew, so did my fears
I slowly outgrew those behaviors over the next year and a new theme plagued my middle school mind— how do I know I like men? I mean, my feet are big for a girl, didn’t lesbians have big feet? Does the size of the feet reflect someone’s sexuality? That’s a proven fact, right? I also have big hands, doesn’t hand size relate to sexual preference? I repeated thoughts like these over and over in my head every day of my life for years.
Do I even like their eye color? Did he truly mean what he said? How can I be sure this is the right relationship? From the time I awoke in the morning, it felt like a stack of bricks would hit my chest screaming “break up!“. But as soon as I did, my thoughts quickly switched and I felt I had murdered a potential generation of people. The guilt consumed me. My thoughts were constantly trying to make something illogical seem rational so I could feel guilty and anxious over it.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I knew something wasn’t right for my whole life. I sat at the dinner table with my family and a thought occurred, “What if I accidentally stab the people I love? What if I lose control?” I was terrified, I didn’t know what was wrong with me but later learned this was harm-OCD, as intrusive thoughts go against your desires and attack what you love.
I decided to seek help from religion. I started going to a bible study. I watched sermons online, a lot. They offered a lot of self-help. It seemed to me that God could help me have a nice family, and a good job, and I could maybe travel places and achieve my dreams by being a Christian.
I tried to pray and was consumed with thoughts that if I didn’t say the words right that the people I prayed for would die. I recited a bible verse rigorously to try to combat intrusive thoughts. I also learned from these movements that my thoughts and words were powerful and could change my reality. I heard that my emotions were evidence of truth. For anyone reading this, if you know anything about OCD or have experienced it, red flags should go off reading that.
In these movements, I was part of, I learned that “if I had enough faith, and stopped taking medication, God will heal me.” This is a dangerous belief that can stem from the Word of Faith and Prosperity Gospel movements in Christianity. Since I was depressed and anxious on antidepressants anyway (thinking I needed to be emotionally perfect, *as if* any human is) I decided to talk to my doctor and try it. I stopped taking medication to see if God would heal me…(Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Luke 4:12)
God did not heal me. Without the medication, I plummeted mentally. I was consumed with many subtypes of OCD for the next year, ROCD, SO-OCD, Harm OCD, Magical thinking OCD, Religious OCD, and Existential OCD.
I was having Existential OCD fears and I was researching various views on life itself, constantly. It was so overwhelming because there are just so many possibilities. I was dissociating often. I would get angry when my family would try to talk to me. In my mind, I was figuring out the entire world and using all the information to try to weave it together to create an ultimate universal truth. How could I possibly be paying attention to what they were saying? Around this time I finally received an OCD diagnosis, I was almost 24 years old.
And then I made a friend who told me, no, there are not many possibilities, there is a right way, there is only one truth….what? How countercultural is that? We live in a relativist age where every person has their own truth based on how they feel. They also implied that I was accountable for my behavior and actions. I was offended. Didn’t they know people with OCD have brains that are just wired differently? It could be genetic. I couldn’t help the way I acted!
God loved me at my worst
During this time in my life, I was at my worst. Every time I thought I found the truth it would quickly shift. It was like sand, slipping through my hands. I would run to the next “truth”, only to be disappointed. I was in despair. Each day my emotions drastically shifted from happy and hopeful to feeling depressed, and angry, back to feeling content, and then back to feeling nothing. My emotions cycled with my intrusive thoughts and I chased each one to their end, spiraling for hours and hours. I truly hated myself and I hated the world. I did not take care of myself. I felt that I was without hope. I could not see a future for myself past where I was.
“Unless the Lord had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.”
Then I watched a film called American Gospel: Christ Alone that shared the Gospel. It wasn’t full of self-help and promising to heal me like the movements I had previously been part of had said. It was about dying to yourself and accepting that God is in control of all things, not me. It was the acceptance that my plans in this life may not work out, but God’s plans will.
He had this plan from the beginning of the world, that humanity would turn from Him and do all kinds of sad and horrible things to each other and live in sin against Him. But God loved the people He created and He had a plan to save them. He sent His son Jesus Christ into the world as God in human flesh to live an absolutely perfect life with no sin. Jesus was killed and died to pay for the people’s sins. He is the only Savior the world has! Jesus rose to life, therefore, defeating death, and ascended to Heaven, creating the only way for us to live with God forever. Those that place their faith in Jesus Christ are saved from the penalty of sin against God and are free to live for Him!
The one way. The one truth, that my friend had talked about. (Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.)( “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32.)
I had initially thought if I became a Christian that God would give me a better life. I had thought He would give me what I wanted. I read the Bible and realized that’s not what it said at all. (“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24.) The Bible said we will struggle, but He will walk WITH us through the valleys. (Psalm 23) That there was nothing I could do for God to save me, praying hard enough in the exact right way wouldn’t change His mind. Salvation was a free gift, something I could not earn, only accept by believing in Jesus’s work on the cross. No amount of my OCD-driven anxiety could change His plan or His mind. He had complete control. This Gospel did not fill me with false hope, it was reliable and steady, and it took my burdens from me and placed them on God. (“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30.)
Over the next many months, I struggled with ROCD attached to my friend. It was torturous. I was grasping onto a good thing with tight fists. I felt I needed to tell them everything or else I was lying. How will they know they want to be friends with me if they don’t know literally everything? It was embarrassing, but I felt I couldn’t stop sharing everything I was thinking.
I decided to quit my job. It felt like I woke up to go sit at a desk to ruminate, then I would go home and do the same thing the next day. I was exhausted. I decided to enroll at NOCD. I had always gone to therapists that affirmed me, who assured me that I was not what my intrusive thoughts said. Then they would send me out into the world where more intrusive thoughts would continue to pop up. I would come back to therapy to get the reassurance that I craved, that these thoughts weren’t true. It’s no wonder talk therapy never helped me, it served to fuel my OCD.
I started treatment through NOCD. My ERP therapist was a lovely woman, but she did not offer me the reassurance I sought, so I didn’t like ERP at first. I would urge people who are new to ERP to stick it out! It is like a mental fitness program! My therapist described it as going to the gym, using willpower to show up, and building up new muscles.
After a few sessions, we were working on a script. I read it once and had high distress and sat with the feelings. I didn’t try to solve these until the anxiety was about half of what it was, then I read the script again. This time I didn’t feel as distressed. This terrified me. She proceeded to ask how anxious I felt and I wanted to lie! How could I admit I didn’t feel as bad this time? I wondered, would that make me a horrible person? I sheepishly admitted that though I was still anxious, this time it wasn’t as much. To my surprise, she said “good, that’s our goal”.
Then everything clicked.
Between therapy sessions, I went on a flight to Florida and fell into rumination. When I realized what I was trying to do was uphold the entire plane with my anxiety, I thought if I could ruminate and feel anxious about it that the plane wouldn’t crash, what a heavy weight to carry! I countered the thoughts with maybe the plane will crash, maybe it won’t, I don’t get to control that, I can do nothing to stop one or the other from happening, and I’m just a passenger. I have to be unsure.
This is the wonderful thing about God’s Sovereignty, I can rest on the fact that the plane could crash, or the plane could not crash, but worrying about it won’t stop it from happening. He gives us enough strength for the day, worrying is us trying to figure out tomorrow in today’s strength- we don’t have enough for it yet! All we can do is rest and follow Him.
(“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:27.) (“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:34.)
I did ERP for a few months and felt I had the tools I needed. Stopping a compulsion was as easy as choosing to turn off a light switch…if turning off a light switch felt like choosing between life and death…but it could be done!
What is so unique about the true Christian Gospel is that it is offensive as well, it does not affirm you. It challenges you, points out your problems and sins, calls you to ask forgiveness then equips and helps you overcome them— all out of love!
Changing the way I attached meaning to my thoughts
I began to have hope. Maybe I could change? Maybe I shouldn’t use OCD as an excuse for how I treated my family. Maybe saying that my OCD was genetic or that my brain was wired differently, didn’t mean I was stuck there. Maybe I wasn’t a victim of OCD at all, but simply a sinner like everyone else, which is a good thing because Jesus saves sinners!
(“There is no one who does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12.) (“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” Mark 10:18.) ( “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” Isaiah 64:6)
I am thankful for NOCD and ERP therapy for helping me understand what I was doing and recognize compulsions. I am so thankful for the true Gospel that is often obscured or changed in certain movements. I am eternally grateful to the Lord Jesus Christ for saving me and giving me a Helper who convicts me of wrongful motives and walks with me! I spent my whole life trying to find my identity in relationships, religious activity, hobbies, and everything around me in a constant quest for purpose and meaning but now my identity is in Christ and I am free.
OCD is real and painful and I am tempted to fall back into anxiety sometimes, but God gives us a way out of temptation and I have tools I learned from ERP to not engage with the intrusive thoughts if and when I fall. Healing is not a quick fix, but it is possible. It is like a daily dying to self and I don’t have to walk through it alone!