The beast of OCD
Let me tell you my story! I grew up in a volatile house where extreme arguments took place on a very regular basis. This must have contributed to me becoming an anxious boy who would worry over silly things. As a little boy I remember peeing in the showers after a swim at my local leisure centre. For weeks afterwards I would worry that somehow, someone knew and would come and find me. I was terrified when one day a sports development officer from the leisure centre came to visit my primary school. I really thought he had come for me. You can imagine my relief when he had come to tell us about the summer activities that were running.
As well as growing up in an environment that created anxiety and fear, I think that I must be a type A person. I have read in some of the literature that there are certain people who are simply wired a certain way and that are more susceptible to suffering from OCD or other anxiety/fear related problems. These people tend to be naturally very sensitive, caring and considerate. They usually display high levels of empathy and can be prone to worrying about what others think about them.
I became a Christian when I was 16. In fact the reason I became a Christian was because I used to worry that my girlfriend (at the time) would get pregnant. We weren?t even having sex. Work that one out!!! Over a period of 2 years, I really met Jesus in many wonderful ways. He healed me up of lots of my past with my family. He gave me passion for Him, His people and His world. However, I really did struggle with the area of grace and found it difficult that He accepted me as I was. I kept trying to justify myself before Him. Whilst still at school, I remember writing on my hand all the things that I did, said and thought that were wrong throughout the day. As soon as I returned home, I would go to my room and confess it all one by one. A bit obsessive and certainly lacking grace.
My first recollection of OCD was in the nature of obsessive blasphemous thoughts. A thought would enter my mind that went along the lines of, 'F**K off Jesus.' Well to a new believer and someone who loved Jesus, it was incredibly distressing. I felt responsible and guilty of saying the worst thing possible to God Himself. I of course did what I thought was the natural and only thing to do - I repented! 'Jesus, I am so sorry, I don't mean the thought, I don't know why I thought it. Amen.' Relief came until the next time, 'F**k off Jesus.' Oh no, there I go again. More repentance. Little did I know, but this was the start of years of obsessive unwanted or intrusive thoughts.
Because the thoughts to me were awful and I felt responsible for having them, it made me feel terrible inside. I felt like the worst Christian ever. I questioned if God really loved me. Little did I realise that all the worrying and confessing was actually adding to the problem. It had become part of the vicious cycle that we create. Coupled with confession (which is sometimes known in therapy terms as 'neutralising') I used to seek 'reassurance' which is another term and strategy we use to alleviate the distressing feelings of anxiety. I used to go to my pastor and tell him what I had been thinking. He would sit me down and tell me it was just an anxiety thing and that I shouldn't worry about it. We would pray, and then I would feel better again - for a while anyway.
I decided that I should see a counsellor and tell them about my past and tell them about these thoughts I was having. I met a couple of lovely older ladies for 4 weeks. We chatted about everything and we prayed each time. I certainly met God in a powerful way and it encouraged me greatly. At this point, neither I nor they knew that what I was suffering from was a medical condition called OCD. They did however prescribe me with a tool or way to combat it which certainly helped greatly and gave me the most peace I have had. They told me that whenever I had a bad thought towards God, that instead of asking for forgiveness, I should instead just say a short prayer along the lines of, 'thank you Jesus that you love me' and then go about my business. My goodness, if were just that simple. Well actually at that time it was and actually that's really good advice. I was then, able to do just that. I noticed that my levels of anxiety dropped dramatically and that the frequency of these intrusive thoughts diminished hugely.
I don't think I was ever free of these intrusive thoughts. In fact I have come to the conclusion that I don?t think that I will ever be free of them. You see, every person on this planet has on average 6000 thoughts per day many of which are unwanted and unpleasant. The difference between a ?normal? person and a person who suffers from OCD is the way we process, interpret and make wrong conclusions about the thoughts. For example, I sometimes have the thought when I'm driving that one simple turn of the wheel and I could drive head on to an on coming vehicle. Game Over! Now most people would say that that?s not a very nice thought, me included. This thought doesn't really bother me though. It doesn't bother me because it doesn?t play to my greatest fear. If my greatest fear was dying, or harming others, I am sure that such a thought would be incredibly unpleasant and would make my anxiety shoot through the roof. Sorry if you're reading this and this is 'your thing!'
My greatest fear as a new believer was of displeasing God. This fear therefore created an irrational thinking against God and was the complete opposite that I really wanted and really meant. That's why these silly thoughts that I had were so distressing.
This all changed when I met a lovely girl who later became my wife. Literally as soon as I began to fall in love with this great girl, I used to get all het up about finding other girls attractive too. I used to beat myself up if I thought they were nice looking or had parts of their body that were pleasing to the eye. I realise that this is actually perfectly normal and the way in which God has wired men. That said, I still felt guilty about finding other people attractive.
This led to unwanted thoughts. Sometimes about the way a person looked and later to fear of committing a whole manner of sexual acts. These were incredibly distressing as they were completely unwanted and never held any intention.
The nature of my OCD had changed because my greatest fear had changed. I now feared (and still do) that the worst thing that I could ever do is, commit adultery. Really and truly it is the last thing I would ever want to do and the damage it would cause would be horrific.
So, the fear drives the thoughts. How do we know? Because the thoughts cause such distress and lead me to question whether I really mean them and whether I would want to ever act on them. If this wasn't the fear, the thoughts would simply pass me by and I wouldn?t give it a second thought. Trouble is I do, even though I know the best solution is to simply allow them to pass by.
The day I realised that I had a problem and that there was more to this than simply me thinking that I was crazy or demonised, was when it changed again - slightly. I became a teacher and low and behold started getting really distressed if I thought that a pupil I was teaching was pretty. Rationally speaking, there is nothing wrong in having the thought, irrationally though it made me question the meaning behind having such thoughts. Those who are teachers will tell you that the possibility of being sued for some kind of negligence is a real possibility particularly in this culture today. What's the worst thing I could do? Inappropriate behaviour towards a pupil. What's the thing that I would have all kinds of unwanted and distressing thoughts? What?s the thing I would never ever want to do in all reality?? By now, you should see the pattern, and it was then that I did too.
I began to research stuff, online of course, because you don't really talk about this stuff openly. I diagnosed myself as having OCD. Up until that time, my understanding of the condition was someone who used to wash their hands a lot and check they had locked the door. No offence by the way if that?s your thing. Anyway, I had no idea at the time how diverse it really is and how it can affect people in many strange and silly ways. I went to the GP with my printed notes from the internet. He referred me to a psychiatric nurse who took me through 8 weeks of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). It was brilliant. I began to understand the nature of the beast and how it worked. I also began to look at ways of taming it. If I am able to offer any advice on this, one thing I would say is get knowledge and understanding on it. I have read some great books and articles concerning it and they have certainly helped.
The CBT gave me tools to help alleviate the severity and the frequency of the thinking. I gained relief and a good deal of control over it. I might add at this point that I have a great marriage and have lovely children. My wife is incredibly understanding and deals with it and me brilliantly. The thing she struggles with most is seeing me distressed when it really gets to me.
My OCD changed again slightly. Another term and thing we do is a thing called, ?avoidance?. We avoid certain people, places and situations that we know are likely to trigger thinking or cause us anxiety at some level. I found that there would be certain people that I would avoid. One day, when I saw a particular person, I looked away. They noticed me do it and actually said something like, 'why did you give me a dirty look.' This therefore made me worried that people would think I was actually being rude towards them (again not in my nature). I would also worry that they would think I actually really liked them. Again, not that I did. So I would worry obsessively that people would be offended when probably 9 times out of 10, they probably wouldn't even notice if I'd looked away. This did one thing; it completely stopped the obsessive thinking. I no longer had intrusive thoughts bombarding my every day life. The reason was because I constantly had the worry that I had actually gone ahead and really done something bad and not just thought it. This therefore helped me realise that I was a person who had simply lived with being worried. It was habit, a lifestyle an old friend that I carried around with me.
This is ungodly and not the way God intends us to live. I know this deep down in the core of my being and yet breaking the cycle is so damn difficult.
The beast changed shape again when I entered church leadership. It got worse again for the simple reason - fear had increased. If I screw up here, I am going to let a lot of people down, have to stand down from ministry and it?s going to be very messy and very public.
I wish this story had a happy ending and you probably do too as you have waded through this. But so far it's not as happy as I would like it. The beast still strikes and it still affects me. I am determined that the beast won't win though. I am called to church leadership and that is was I will continue to do. There is many a time when I have questioned my integrity and whether I should still do it, but I realise that it's all completely irrational and not the real me. In fact it's the complete opposite of the real me.
Along the journey I have learnt a few things:
OCD is a secretive thing as we are so loath to share the crazy stuff with anyone else. That said, we do need people to share it with and that will give us wise counsel and support. For some, it will require professional help and support.
Although we do need other people for support, be cautious who you tell. Some people just won't get it and you will be raising unnecessary alarm bells. This is why this article is anonymous to protect my own dignity and people misinterpreting who I really am.
Don't let it steal the dreams God has placed in you. I have no doubt that the enemy loves to play on this and twist and turn it and want to prevent us from the very things the Father has for us. Sometimes the things we are most passionate about the enemy places these fears to prevent us fulfilling our destiny.
I have had the joy of meeting 6 other people who struggle with OCD. They are friends, colleagues and people that God had put in my path. I have found the conversations with them helpful both in terms of being able to articulate for them what's going on, but also to remind myself how flippin ridiculous the whole thing is.
I hope that this honest account might encourage some of you.