You may have heard someone say, "Oh, she's so OCD; she alphabetizes her spices."
Or, "I'm so OCD, I must have the place totally clean before I can have anyone over."
Or, "He's so OCD, he has to have a neat desk all the time."
People smile and laugh at those statements.
Except, when you really have OCD, they aren't that funny.
My name is Tina, and I have OCD.
OCD stands for "obsessive-compulsive disorder." According to the website at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 2.2 million people suffer from OCD. It's more than just a desire for an organized house, or a neat desk, or the desire to get something done by a deadline.
The NIMH website goes on to describe people with OCD: "[they] feel the need to check things repeatedly, or have certain thought or perform rituals over and over. [Those] thoughts and rituals . . . cause distress and get in the way of daily life."
The difference between someone who just wants a neat house or a neat desk, and the person with OCD, is this: The "neat freak" will probably devote a Saturday to housecleaning, or an afternoon to organizing their desk. The OCD sufferer will scrub a floor over and over, yet it's never "clean enough". Or, they will straighten a desk, but it's never straight enough; and a box of paper clips placed on the wrong side of the desk causes anxiety. Or, they will imagine that if their desk isn't totally clean--or, if the paper clips are not arranged in piles of three and five (for example)--something horrible will happen to them as a punishment. Obsessions--the thoughts of anxiety and fear, and other unwanted thoughts--and compulsions--the behaviors people use to relieve the compulsive thoughts--control people with OCD. The obsessions, and the compulsions, are often debilitating, and they end up interfering with daily life. (Any of you that have ever seen the series "Hoarders" have seen a manifestation of OCD in action.) The people who do these rituals don't like them. Rather, they're driven by the thought, "I have to do it. I must do it. Something awful will happen if I don't do it."
I don't, to my knowledge, engage in compulsions. My OCD is what is called "pure O"--the distressing thoughts without the accompanying compulsive behaviors. I won't go into all of the details of what I call "the thoughts".
Part of the way my OCD manifests itself is in a disorder called scrupulosity. The dictionary definition of "scrupluous" is "diligent, thorough, and extremely attentive to details; very concerned to avoid doing wrong". Scrupulosity, the disorder, is described as "pathological guilt about moral or religious issues." This is not the same thing as the concern over getting things doctrinally correct. There are legitimate concerns about false doctrine addressed in the Bible, and I think it's important to line up what I believe with what the Bible says. Where scrupulosity comes in for me is the constant concern of, "But what if I'm wrong?" and nothing--no research, no sermon, nothing--will alleviate that fear.
My OCD began when I was around 14. I was sitting in church, and all of a sudden, I suddenly started thinking swear words. I think one of the words may have been the one that takes the Lord's name in vain. I was horrified. I mean, "thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" is one of the Ten Commandments--and this was happening in church, of all places! So I said a quick prayer: "Dear Lord, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to do this. Please forgive me and help me not to do it again. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen."
What was the next thing I thought? The word. Again. So I prayed another prayer. But the prayers didn't make the thoughts go away.
Part of my scrupulosity, I believe, came from a form of Christianity that emphasized the "don'ts"--no swearing, no sex before marriage, no exposing yourself to things that are "bad" or "unholy"--and if you even think about those things, you've committed a sin and you need to ask God for forgiveness. After all, there is such a thing as sinning in your thoughts. (Didn't Jesus say that anyone who merely lusted after someone had already committed adultery in their heart?)
It's not wrong to not swear (I don't like the language and I try not to use it), and abstaining from sex before marriage is something I strongly recommend. And there are some things, such as pornography, that I won't go looking for. But pure O is different. These are thoughts that drop into your head with no warning.
In trying to control the thoughts, I attempted self-censorship. I tried not to read books that had swear words in them, and when sex scenes came on TV or in the movies, I wouldn't look. Same with scenes that were overly violent or bloody. I can remember blanking out words in a book I was reading in an attempt to not read swear words (a form of Bowdlerization). And when people swore in front of me, or in movies, I got very offended (probably self-righteously so.)
When I became a Christian at age 18, it was only a matter of days before "the thoughts" returned. In fact, I remember going to a prayer night, or devotional, and making a list of things to pray about. The number one item on my list was, "My swearing--stop!" The prayers didn't help. The thoughts still remained; in fact, they got worse. I confessed "the thoughts" as sin a couple of times. I still struggled with them.
For years and years, I thought that "the thoughts" were just simply sin; sins against God. And I was embarrassed and ashamed. Christians didn't think like I was thinking. Christians weren't obsessed with swearing and other "bad thoughts". Didn't Jesus take away sin? Didn't he help with resisting temptation? So, why wasn't He helping me?
I can't remember when it was that I did a Google search about "the thoughts" and discovered the term "pure O". It sounded so much like what I was dealing with, and yet, I was reluctant to say, "I have OCD." Didn't OCD sufferers wash their hands 20 times a day, or stuff like that? I didn't do that. I couldn't have OCD.
One book I discovered that was helpful to me was by Lee Baer, called The Imp Of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts. That was where I first learned that "thoughts" were just that--they were thoughts. They were not good, nor were they bad. The stuff that simply dropped into your head--they just were. (Of course, if I were to pursue the thoughts, that would be another story . . .)
I've been in counseling for a number of years, with different counselors, about different issues, and I don't think I ever brought up the issue of "the thoughts". So they could never be dealt with. Finally, though, I swallowed, and during a counseling session with the person my husband and I see, told them both about "the thoughts", and told them that I thought I might have "pure O" in the form of scrupulosity. The counselor said that I might be on to something.
I swallowed again, did some research, looked for a counselor that took my insurance, was pretty close to me, and specialized in OCD . . . and found one. And since the counselor had email; I used that. I mean, do you know how hard it is to pick up the phone, call an office, and say, "I think I suffer from reoccuring bad thoughts"?
The person I'm now seeing confirmed that "thoughts" were just that, "thoughts". Thoughts that drop into your head don't make you a bad person. Everyone has them. Unfortunately, because of the way my brain is wired, and because of some things in my background, I end up obsessing over them; and trying to resist "the thoughts" only makes it worse. That's not sin. It's an illness. (I worry that I am using OCD as an excuse to sin, which I don't want to do. I think it would be a sin if I pursued some of the thoughts.)
Right now, we're working on reprogramming my brain. I wish that "the thoughts" would leave me alone. They have not. But these days, I don't see "the thoughts" as threatening or sinful. They just are. With some of "the thoughts", I take them to an extreme, to see just how ridiculous they are. The more ridiculous I see "the thoughts" as being, the less power they have over me. I believe this is the "help" that God provided and that God is using in my life.
I'm trying not to be offended by swearing, although I still don't use the words, and I'd rather people not swear around me. (There are times I understand the feelings behind the language.) I still dislike swearing and graphic sex scenes in books, and in my own writing, I prefer not to use them. On the other hand, I also think that my efforts to "shield" myself from "sinful" things seriously boomeranged where I was concerned. Not cussing didn't make me not think about cussing. Nor did attempting not to think about sex keep me from thinking about sex. It's also occurred to me that even Jesus heard swearing, and he even saw some pretty nasty stuff while he lived on this earth.
(I think we're seeing this "boomerang effect" in the case of Josh Duggar. The Duggar boys were taught to look away when a scantily clad woman walked by. The girls were taught to dress "modestly". Josh practiced courtship, instead of dating, with his wife Anna. This was the "recipe" for a successful Christian life . . . and it didn't work. Josh ended up molesting his sisters and cheating on his wife. This effort to "wall off" the "sinful world" backfired in a serious way.)
What are the answers to OCD? To scrupulosity? How do you handle "the thoughts" and not fall into sin? I don't know all the answers to those questions. In my opinion, if you're a Christian, and a bad thought drops into your head, and you're horrified by it and didn't seek it out--the odds are very good that you won't act on it.
I'm on medication for depression, and one med is supposed to be helpful for OCD. My main form of therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a way of re-teaching the brain healthier ways of thinking. I see a counselor weekly. Other people with OCD may need more intensive therapy.
This week is OCD Awareness Week. I'd like to think that the stigma from mental health doesn't exist anymore; sadly, that's not true. "Willpower" and "just getting over it" won't help mental illness. Telling people with OCD, "Just don't think about it," or "just don't do it", isn't going to help, either. People with a mental illness need help, not just words.
If you have OCD, even if it's "pure O", you don't need to suffer in silence and shame. There is help. I used Psychology Today's website to find the person I'm seeing now.
If you're a Christian and dealing with OCD, you're not suffering from unconfessed sin. You have an illness, and it can be treated. There's no shame in getting treatment. Getting treatment doesn't mean that you have failed God or that you have allowed yourself to fall into sin.
It just means that you are a person who has OCD.
Just like me.
My name is Tina, and I have OCD.
Just my .04, adjusted for inflation.