Thursday, May 18, 2006

My Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

For the vast, enormous, immense audience of readers who frequent this blog, you may or may not know that I suffer and struggle every day with something that is called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Some people believe these types of "disorders" to be a clinical cover-up for sinful behavior. Some, to the other extreme, consign them completely to the realm of "chemical imbalances" and dismiss any type of related emotional, moral, or spiritual issue. Still others, though a minority, insist upon demonic or satanic influence. As for OCD, I do not know what the cause is, to be honest. After reading about it and personally suffering with it for years, I do not believe it to be sinful in itself (ie. the content of the unwanted obsessions are not sins, themselves, particularly because they are so unwanted!), but I do believe there is often a spiritual component and cannot neglect the emotional or possibly physical components, as well. There is no blood test for it -it is diagnosed purely by its horrible symptoms. The one thing I know for sure is that OCD is very real and very invasive.

Most OCD sufferers live in silent despair. I have met a number of Christians, ones I am blessed to be convinced are true believers, who live every day in turmoil, silently, because they are ashamed and not wanting to explain this to their family member and members of the Body of Christ. The fear is that they will be misunderstood, judged, or relegated to a group of people who are just really "weak in their faith". And many of these fears are probably justified -particularly because most people, not only Christians, don't have a grasp of what OCD is and, sadly, many Christian counselors don't either. I recall one individual I know who revealed their horrible obsessions to their Christian counselor only to be met with blank stares and unease.

OCD is characterized by repetitive, intrusive, unwanted thoughts, feelings, images, or impulses that trigger a high amount of anxiety and are usually met with some type of repetitive behavior which is done in an attempt to quell the high levels of anxiety. The anxiety and obsessing really obscures reality such that you can't "see" things that you otherwise know to be true. The brand of OCD that attacks spiritual issues is often called "scrupulosity".

For me, personally, I am a pure mental obsessor. Some people obsess about more physical things (contamination with germs, touching things the "right way", etc.) I obsess over Christian doctrine and salvation, mostly. It is the strongest obsession with me because God's truth, and being saved by Christ, are by far the most important things to me. There is nothing more horrible to me in all the world than being separated from Jesus Christ. OCD is great at attacking that which is the most critical to you.

I have said to myself before, "I wish I knew why it seems so easy for others to believe and rest in Christ, yet for me it is so hard." I realize two things: 1) That is sort of a myth. Every believer has a struggle, a battle on their hands. and 2) The particular reason is that the "normal" person can hear an explanation of something, such as the Gospel, see a general correspondence with the Scriptures, and take comfort in it without being pressed to go any further. I am not able to do that, much of the time. The perfectionistic obsessions are so strong that I can't just "leave it", and the microscope gets focused in tighter and tighter until I can't see anything at all anymore. It is the proverbial "can't see the forest for the trees". I realize that I don't need to have perfect knowledge, that even a warped presentation of the Gospel can be "sufficient" for the Holy Spirit to save with, yet knowing and experiencing are often two different things. That is another part of OCD -at some point the OCD sufferer realizes that the obsessions are silly, unrealistic, and at best exaggerated, but they still lack the capacity to stop. It is actually the process of trying to stop the thoughts and anxiety that reinforces the obsessive cycle. Mental analysis and written analysis are often "compulsions' for me -things done in an attempt to find my way out of the maze, but the process only serves to concrete myself more deeply in it. That is another hallmark of OCD.

In that support group for OCD I used to be in we had a common way of describing OCD. We called it the "polar bear principle". It works like this: try as hard as you can to NOT think about a polar bear for 5 seconds. What happened during that 5 seconds? The harder you tried to NOT think about a polar bear, the more the thought of a polar bear is stuck in your mind. Now, add some high levels of anxiety to the mix. Imagine there was a guy with a brain-meter that could see what you were thinking and he was holding a gun to your head and saying, "If you think about a polar bear, I will blow your head off. Do NOT think about a polar bear!" It would be impossible to do. So, that is how it is for OCD. It is a paradoxical mental trap. The OCD person has no recourse by trying to stop the thoughts, which are really just mental noise that normal folks just dismiss without thinking. The OCD person, instead of dismissing the thought, gets fixated upon it because of how much anxiety it produces. The OCD person, using the Polar Bear analogy, would then start to worry, "I must WANT to die, because why else would I not be able to stop thinking about Polar Bears when this guy is threatening to shoot me if I do!"

So how does this translate to me and my obsessions. Well, using the example of my obsession with grasping the Gospel accurately, I might know full well that I do not need perfect knowledge to be saved, nor do I need a perfect articulation of the Gospel, but you would be amazed at what an unwanted sense of isolation and potential "lost-ness" does in motivating you to focus right in and check, check, check, over and over, to make sure the Gospel you know is the Gospel and that you "believe in Christ". The more fervently I try to dig my way out of it or debate and argue with this unwanted sense of lost-ness, the more immersed in it and blinded by it I become. It comes over and against any sense of peace that I have in Christ, attacking it, wearing at its foundation. The anxiety and confusion is almost unbearably intense. The illogical nature of it is seen best in occasions where I lend some counsel to someone hurting in the Gospel or explain it to someone. I can explain it clearly and, by God's grace, with power (see them lifted up, by the Spirit of God), yet that self-same message is "unsure" to me because of the persistent "sense" that attacks me and pushes me to check and re-check to perfect it. It is much akin to the common example of the "light-switch" where the OCD person has to come back and keep checking the light-switch and touching it to get the "completed" feeling, so that they can move on. The funny thing is that all of this exists as a layer over what is truly there in reality and in the heart. This is why I prefer to describe it as "blinding". When the obsessions fade for a spell, I realize that Christ was never gone, that all is well, that I am His, that He has called my by name as His sheep.

I have noticed that doctrine does make some difference, but only to a certain degree. For example, "scrupulosity" is often associated with being a "Roman Catholic" disease. With all respect and concern to those individuals who are Roman Catholics, this is well understood given Rome's teachings on justification. Who wouldn't be terrified if they were constantly under the gun of maintaining their justification through their own purity? But it is not found only among Roman Catholics. The next highest group, in my experience, is among those from charismatic backgrounds. I can't include all charismatic circles, but the high emphasis on "cooperation" in salvation and subjective impressions from God in our feelings that is characteristic among many (though, not all) charismatic groups is, logically and in my personal experience through talking with some individuals, a huge stumbling block. It seems to feed a tendency to obsess over our own personal purity and the quality of our feelings -or whatever standard of "right-ness" we are holding to. However, there are also many among more Biblically orthodox schools of thought who suffer. You can have a very orthodox presentation of justification, of the Gospel, of Christ, of God's sovereignty in salvation, and yet be absolutely destroyed by this daily. Why? Because, as we saw earlier, you can know that the obsessions aren't based on reality, but that doesn't make them stop. You can reason your way out of it to anybody who is suffering from it, but in yourself it is a different story. You can know the truth very well, believe it somewhere deep down, and still be enslaved to this beast of blindness, isolation, and fear.

All that said, I do still believe that the Gospel is the remedy for this constant sense of "not-right-ness" within us that we obsess to try to fix. I am not talking about a perfectly articulated formula for the Gospel. I am talking about the principles of Law and grace that undergird the Gospel. This is one reason why I am an adimant advocate of clear teaching of the Gospel -again, not a perfect articulation, but a regular, consistent proclamation of grace to the needy. I am adimant about it being clearly preached, regularly, to God's people in the context of worship and the proclamation of the Word. I reject the idea that the Gospel is just for getting pagans to be believers. The Gospel is the lifeblood of the Church, and I believe it needs to be heard regularly. Purely practical preaching is great, but even in the most practical of matters there is the potential for being swept into the presence of God in all of our sinfulness and having that hot coal being brought to our lips in the proclamation of grace. I am not talking about having an invitation at the end of every service. I am talking about a clear representation of our sinfulness under God's Law and the proclamation of life for the sake of Christ's death and resurrection. Anyway, I must stop before I continue to digress...

So, this is a brief summary of my struggle. I deal with it in some measure every single day. It seeks to rob me of my peace every day almost without exception. Some days are more calm, many more days are wrought with inner turmoil, yet every day it is there in some degree. Most days I awaken with anxiety, a tightness in my chest, for no real reason whatsoever. At that time, I don't even know what I'm really anxious about... yet.

I am sure, for me, there are many tangential issues: perfectionism, perhaps some unbelief, relying upon my own understanding, etc., which I am daily in prayer about. I cannot relegate it purely to being a physical affliction, yet a real affliction it is -a terribly crippling one that is emotionally exhausting and prone to make us isolated and self-absorbed. It is an affliction I have borne for about 6-7 years now. There were times when the anguish was so bad that I would lay on the floor in my closet with the door closed and just put my face to the carpet and cry. I have improved with it and learned much, especially about God's grace, but sometimes I am just purely laid out flat and can barely raise my brow.

What can I do but press on one day at a time, depending upon God's grace to get me through? It sounds really stupid to me, and I am often ashamed because there are so many who suffer with such horrible things (death of loved ones, poverty, terrible illness, persecution, etc.), and this thing is literally "all in my head". I ask the reader to know that I am not writing this for pity, but for information for you, for encouragement to fellow-sufferers, and for a personal release for me. I have tried to articulate to people in the past about what this thing is, but I am not sure that I have done so adequately. I hope this serves at least as a primer. I pray God would establish me and give me victory over this, but I must realize that it may be that I suffer with this for the rest of my life. If that is the case, then I pray that God would be merciful and, in time, lessen its grip, even if its group does not completely disappear in this life. Whatever it is, I know that it is for the glory of God somehow, since He has so ordained it. That is good to reflect upon.


Anonymous said...

I have never met another christian with OCD, but i have it. for me, it is mostly about one issue: fear of the unforgivable sin. the first 3 years, the pain was UNIMAGINABLE. Now, it has taken other subjects. with your writing ability and the benefit of experience, you could write a book about this to help other christians. just a suggestion.

also, i knew a calvinist who was haunted by thoughts that he had "false faith" and was not "elect."

Tim said...

There is some comfort in knowing other Christians who suffer -even though you certainly wish nobody else suffered with it at all! The unforgivable sin one is really, really common. I was in an online support group a while ago, and it seemed like more than half of the people who came in were stuck in that. And then, yup, it finds something else to latch on to. OCD is *great* like that, huh? I do believe there are unifying underlying principles, though they may differ slightly from person to person.

I heard the first chapter of James read yesterday where he talks about our trials and how we ought to see them as instruments God uses to build, strengthen, and increase our faith. It seems hard to believe sometimes, with this, but I think it is so true. And then the part about asking for wisdom -that is priceless. I am thankful that God has kept right with me through all of this, and I believe He has supplied me with wisdom and hope he continues to. As painful as this is, I know I wouldn't be the same without it, and I bet that is how it is for you.

I identify with the Calvinist you describe. I have had those fears, too. Mine were mostly around the doctrine of limited atonement. It put me in quite a pickle because I believe it is true, yet I began to *hate* it because of how much turmoil and confusion it would throw me into. OCD can take anything beautiful and make it horrible -anything that is meant to comfort us and make it a reason for anguish.

I've thought about writing a book, but I'm so good at starting things and never finishing them. Maybe I will eventually :). Thanks for reading. Be blessed!