Earlier this week I produced a summary of a paper written by Dr. Daniel G. Amen about combating Automatic Negative Thoughts. I decided that today I’d add something of an addendum to that post and talk a little bit about my experiences with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is an anxiety disorder in which the sufferers have repeated, unwanted thoughts which compel them to perform certain actions which provide relief from the unwanted thoughts. This relief, however, is only temporary and the feelings, unbidden, soon return. The OCD mind then demands that the actions be performed once again. The actions quickly become ritualistic, increasingly elaborate and need to be repeated over and over again with increasing frequency in order to relieve the sufferer’s mind.
Although I have no data to back it up, I would suggest that in recent years OCD awareness has increased. Growing up, I never recall hearing it mentioned but it now appears to be part of common parlance and often (incorrectly) used to describe anyone who is detail-oriented or perhaps even just a little quirky.
The subject of OCD has even featured in several films. For example, although I have not seen it, I am told that there is an OCD sufferer in the newly-released movie Silver Linings Playbook. If anyone has seen it, please tell me what you thought of it in the Comments section below.
An older film you may have seen is As Good As It Gets, a really enjoyable and generally lighthearted movie starring Jack Nicholson. The movie uses the OCD of Nicholson’s character as a source of comedy which I think was quite a gutsy thing to attempt, but in my opinion it was executed quite well.
It is Leoardo Di Caprio, however, who I think truly gives the audience a sense of the torment experienced by the Obsessive Compulsive in his movie The Aviator, which tells the story of the legendary director and aviator Howard Hughes. I thoroughly recommend it.
I personally developed OCD during my teenage years although, looking back, I can see traces of the tendency earlier in my life. I remember as a little kid being afraid of burglars and, because of this, I quite often went around the house after everyone had gone to bed in order to check the locks to make sure that my family and I were safe.
However, it was during my stressful teenage years that the OCD really started to manifest itself. It began slowly. I began double-checking the doors before going to bed or leaving the house. I then started triple-checking…and then quadruple-checking. I started checking the windows too. As the number of checks grew and grew, the time it took to leave the house grew longer and longer. It is hard to explain how debilitating and exhausting it is having your mind torment you into acting this way.
As bad as the lock checking became, the obsession which really troubled me was the issue of cleanliness, especially hand-washing. Like the lock checking, it grew over time. I began by washing my hands more thoroughly than I had previously. I then started to not just wash and dry my hands once, but several times over. I increased the temperature of the water to the point where the heat really began to hurt my hands. My skin became dry, cracked and really rather gross. Anything which I felt that could possibly contain germs would only be handled with facial tissues.
All this I managed to hide from my friends and family with great effectiveness. This, of course, only served to exacerbate the problem as it isolated me from those who cared about me and would have been able to help me.
It took a long time for the tide to turn on my OCD and I would have very much benefited from the advice of Dr. Amen found in my earlier post. I had to spend a lot of time rooting out the emotional issues which had caused the OCD to flourish in the first place. This took time, a lot of time. The Lord brought good friends into my life who helped build up my sense of self worth and confidence in myself, which helped a great deal.
Like someone quitting smoking, I slowly cut down my habit, reducing the frequency of my repetitive actions bit-by-bit. This wasn’t easy. Rather than washing my hands multiple times I would just breath deeply for several minutes.
The big lesson I had to learn was that my thoughts and feelings did not necessarily reflect reality; sometimes they lied. In an effort to counteract these shadowy whispers in my head I would have to look at myself in the mirror and then, slowly and deliberately, say out loud “Your hands are CLEAN. It is FINE”.
As I grew stronger I started to put myself into situations in which I would have to deal directly with germs or uncleanliness. I would clean toilets. I spent time around the homeless. I would visit friends who were sick. I began to confront my fears directly to prove to myself that they were illusionary and unfounded.
The effect that all this had on my spiritual life was ultimately extremely beneficial. Having OCD made me more sensitive than I otherwise would have been to the issue of mental health. For this I am grateful. It turns out that, that like other unpleasant things which I’ve experienced, it has helped form me and make me who I am today. I would not like to be have been without such experiences.
The other effect of having OCD is that it forced me to reach a point where I had to admit that I couldn’t just “pull myself together”. I had to admit that I was weak, that I needed help, that I needed God. He didn’t just zap me and take away the OCD though. Instead, it was a day-by-day journey, I had to keep trusting Him, regularly praying “Come Holy Spirit!” and asking for His strength:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” …
– 2 Corinthians 12:9
The OCD has never gone away completely. I actually don’t think it ever will. Having said that, I no longer obsessively wash my hands. I don’t constantly recheck locks and windows. However, when I’m stressed or overtired, it begins to return. You might think that this is a terrible thing, but I actually view it as a blessing.
As soon as I notice my symptoms return, it is like an early warning system, my body letting me know that something is stressing me out, either consciously or unconsciously, and needs attention. More importantly though, this early warning system drives me back to prayer. It reminds me not to trust too much in my own ability or strength but to listen to the Voice of Truth and trust in the Lord.
…Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. - 2 Corinthians 12:9