Snakes and Ladders: My Battle with OCD

According to Truman Capote, “The things we’re ashamed of are what make us interesting.” So let’s talk about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

When I first wrote this post a couple of years ago, I made up my mind that I would not publish it until I had conquered OCD. Now, anyone who struggles with OCD knows very well that it doesn’t work simply to make up your mind to end it. The thing is smarter than you are and your mind is no match for it. However, I prayed, imploring God’s help, and waited patiently for opportunities, if not to defeat this ogre, at least to make progress against it. 

My problem manifests mainly around bedtime, and many nights I can almost completely eliminate all my usual OCD behaviors. But then I’ll have an especially tired or stressful day, it will be far too late by bedtime, and once again the compulsions break out with a vengeance. Victims of OCD know this vicious cycle all too well: endless resolutions, endlessly broken. In seeking to develop new habits of any sort, the great fallacy is in thinking that we can do always what we can really only do sometimes. In a good mood, anything seems possible. But since no one is always in a good mood, chronic failings tend to remain chronic. Nowhere is this more true than with physical or mental habits, repeated patterns of behavior that have been imprinted into the brain’s plastic circuits. And so I’ve struggled and struggled, playing a perpetual game of snakes and ladders: small advances and huge setbacks, or big gains followed by incremental losses.

I can see you wondering: What sort of stuff does he do? In the OCD biz, what I do is called ‘checking and staring.’ Check and re-check locks and light switches; stare at my alarm clock to see if it’s set right; tighten and re-tighten caps to ensure they’re screwed on … that sort of thing. Pretty harmless stuff, but it adds around twenty minutes to my bedtime ritual, half an hour on a bad night. Sometimes I justify it by thinking my brain actually needs this mindless, repetitive activity in order to help me settle down. But justifying wrong never produces true justification. 

At times, so overwrought by my inability to defeat this obsessiveness, I’ve asked for healing prayer. One occasion sticks out in my memory, when I phoned my good friend Chris. To my distress, he wasn’t home, but a minute later by ‘coincidence’ the doorbell rang and there was Chris. After I bared my soul about my problem he said, “You’re afraid of this obsessive side of yourself and you want to disown it. Don’t do that. Instead, embrace it. Let the Father love you in your obsessiveness. Let His love flow into that part of you. He delights in you; even your faults are endearing to Him.” 

Well! I couldn’t have received wiser advice from a saint in heaven. Chris’s words were exactly what I needed to hear, for what I really needed was not to be relieved of my problem but to be relieved of guilt and distress. What Chris told me was the truth and it liberated me. The timing of his visit and the clarity and passion with which he spoke convinced me that this message was straight from the Lord. 

That same night I dreamed I had a son who was rather oafish and dull-witted. I kept trying to find an opportunity to tell my son that I loved him, but he kept putting me off, giving me the slip. His attitude was always, “Later, Daddy-O, later. Right now I’m busy.” Upon awaking I saw too clearly how this was a picture of me and God. The Father really wanted me to receive His love and to know that nothing (including my obsessions) could separate me from Him. What better way to learn this than by having a problem as petty and humiliating as OCD? 

We all like to quote the Leonard Cohen line, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” But who wants to have cracks? And given that we do have cracks, the last thing we want is to expose them to the light. But let me tell you a mystery: The time when I have the strongest sense of God’s presence—and I mean exceptionally strong, even to the point of bliss—is last thing at night when I fall into bed after a particularly bad bout of OCD. Feeling rattled, exhausted, defeated, shamed—that’s when the Lord comes and puts His arms around me. 

I find it ironic that OCD also stands for Ordo Carmelitarum Discalceatorum: the Order of Discalced Carmelites. This is the contemplative order founded by Teresa of Avila, whose monks and nuns focus on silence, solitude, and prayer. I wonder how many of them have OCD? They need to know that the real problem is not OCD but condemnation. “For there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). 

Does this mean I can relax my fight against OCD? On the contrary, with a conscience cleared of guilt and shame I’m positioned to fight all the harder. Knowing that the problem is not me, I have a place to stand against the foe: not in weakness and shame but in righteousness and the strength of the Lord. This is what Christ does for us, loosing the bondages in our inner being and setting us free to oppose our moribund outer shell. 

Next Post:  Perfect Peace: My First Lesson in Contemplative Prayer

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