One of my first introductions to obsessive compulsive disorder was the Button Poetry performance by Neil Hilborn. I remember tearing up as he expressed his frustration and heartache. But never did I think that he and I could be suffering from the same disorder. After all, obsessive compulsive disorder had to do with repetitive handwashing and perfectly aligned patterns, right?
I would call my experience my “bad thoughts”; thoughts and images that would enter uninvited as if placed strategically. Thoughts that I could not turn off. My mother told me to tell her my thoughts, which I attempted to do, with disastrous results. The thoughts made me nauseous with shame, guilt and repulsion. Subject matter ranged from bizarre sexual to fear of committing or experiencing violence. I remember being afraid as I passed a knife; I would see flashes of myself hurting myself or someone. I would have to imagine in detail what it would be like to be in a car accident. Movies were the worst. They would trigger episodes that would last for days. A sort of shadow would pass over me and I would be bombarded over and over. I honestly believed that it was demonic oppression and even today I still do not eliminate that possibility.*
When I first read about OCD I felt like I checked all the boxes but I could not identify any physical compulsions. It was only recently when chatting with some ladies online did I realize that my compulsions could be my internal means of coping with the thoughts. I began to pay more attention to how I coped with the thoughts and realized that my mind tends to do fall into a very specific pattern, trying (and failing) to distract me.
With my obsessive thoughts also came anxiety; with anxiety came skin picking. A repetitive body focused behavior I had learned since I was 10 years old. It was a spiral of obsessions and anxiety which ultimately culminated in depression.
Just think about good things. Just stop picking your face. Just be happy
My experiences influenced my spiritual life. Converting away from a Catholicism I was haphazardly catechized in, I eventually embraced Calvinism. This was easy enough for me since I already believed that I was evil. Total depravity was an understanding of original sin I could maintain fully. I felt like I could understand the full depths of evil in my heart. Faith alone and grace alone was the only Gospel I could hold to. Once saved always saved. There could be no possibility in my theology that I was responsible for my salvation in any way. After all, with these thoughts, how could I possibly enter heaven if I had anything to do with it? Yet I did suffer immensely with the fear that I was not actually saved. What if I was not part of the elect? Sometimes I doubted my salvation or my faith would become lukewarm, did this mean I was going to hell? Whenever I would see that prayer at the back of a gospel tract I would pray it again, just in case.
But when I began to see the necessity of a visible Church and the lack of coherence with sola scriptura, the Holy Spirit brought me back to the Catholic church, kicking and screaming. Being a Catholic with OCD is not magically easier but I am blessed to be in the arms of the true Church, whose theology is biblical, balanced and not the work-based idolatry I once believed it was.
My OCD has become much more tame, by the grace of God, since I was young. The sacrament of confession is a great blessing for someone like me; hearing the words of absolution gives a peace that I simply never experienced when repenting in private. Yet even this can be a challenge- is my confession valid? Did I forget anything? A priest already diagnosed me with a case of the scruples when I confessed my dreams. The rosary is a great blessing as well. Focusing on the prayers and meditations can be difficult when one’s mind has taken flight but iconography and religious art can help with re-centering.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is not just about excessive order. Skin picking is not something I can stop overnight. Depression and anxiety sometimes need to be medicated. Mental illness is not pretty, nor is it something to dismiss carelessly.
Many people are afraid of mental illness or simply to not understand it. OCD in particular can be very scary and isolating. My psychiatrist recommended self help books but I am still afraid to face the thoughts head first. My thoughts cause my parents a lot of pain and confusion. My husband is the world to me but he can never truly understand what I go through. And that is ok because I now know that I am not alone and there is a way out despite feeling trapped inside of myself.
May St. Dymphna pray for us and may the Lord deliver us
*My descriptions of my obsessive thoughts are written in past tense despite the fact that many of these things I still experience today. It is easier for me to think of them as things that used to happen, rather than things I am still subject to. I still get the thoughts and images but I am now better able to navigate through life despite them.