Hi, I’m Jaimie. I’m a Christian, and I’d like to tell you how I overcame religious OCD.
Most people think that OCD involves excessive handwashing and rearranging of picture frames. But I’ve never cared much about germs, and although I do notice crooked objects, it doesn’t bother me too much.
So how in the world did I get a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder—and how did it become so earth-shattering that at one point I was suicidal and sent to inpatient treatment?
Well, for some of us, OCD can hide in plain sight. Scrupulosity—the religious manifestation of OCD—can seem like piety, or mission-mindedness, or spiritual devotion. We and our loved ones are slow to catch on when something so good—like a relationship with God—gets mixed up with toxic and compulsive behaviors.
In the years before I knew I had OCD, I never shared my obsessive thoughts with anyone. I wanted to be a serious disciple of Jesus Christ, and while attending a conservative Bible college I threw myself into positive devotional habits and evangelism. But somewhere along the way, my spiritual devotion was hijacked by anxiety. I had to constantly check to make sure I was right with God. I became nitpicky and particular about my devotional life, holding myself to extreme standards. I had intense internal battles about the unimportant minutiae of life, like whether God wanted me to wear the pink shirt or the blue shirt. I feared that if I chose wrongly on such details, it meant I wasn’t “in tune” with God’s voice…which, ultimately, meant my salvation wasn’t secure.
And, like many people with scrupulosity, I was constantly on edge about sin in my life.
Was it sinful to have a secret crush? Was it sinful to take too much salad dressing? Was it sinful to rest on my day off when some people were going on volunteer community outreach trips, constituting a case of “knowing to do good but not doing it?” Was it sinful to give a male classmate a ride to another state since we would be alone in the car together, giving a possible “appearance of sin?”
There were other manifestations of OCD, as well. I feared I might turn the car into oncoming traffic, or I might lose control of myself and doing something awful, like kissing a stranger, stripping naked in public, or shouting obscenities into a crowd. I had existential obsessions about whether God was real or whether we live in a matrix. I didn’t like these weird, unwanted thoughts, and I fought to tamp them down and forget about them.
I didn’t know that these were all forms of clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder.
They drained me, exhausting my spiritual enthusiasm and making me feel chronically insecure with God. As time went on, the struggle became more intense and more distressing.
I graduated, married, and left the US to work abroad. My unrecognized mental health struggles grew heavier and more disruptive. Eventually, I came to a breaking point.
My husband and I were living in Beirut, Lebanon, where I had a job working with Syrian refugees. I had learned to speak Arabic okay enough to go without a translator, and every day I visited vulnerable segments of the urban refugee population in Beirut. In a way, I loved my job—the people were lovely, and I felt safe as a woman working alone. I made many Syrian friends and felt happy whenever I enrolled a new family in our food supplementation program or helped them get medical care that saved their lives. Some refugees asked me about my faith, and I was able to testify about Christ in a sensitive way that many of them seemed to appreciate.
But even good things can be stressful.
And stress, we know, exacerbates OCD.
As the stress and workload increased, I began to obsess more. I developed one major existential-spiritual fixation: my life needed to be successful and fruit-bearing in order for me to be acceptable to God. This thought came with an immense amount of anxious guilt.
I can still remember the day that I woke up and had the frantic thought, my ministry is a failure.
Why a failure? Because there was no visible “fruit.” I hadn’t baptized anyone. Although I had planted and watered seeds, metaphorically speaking, I hadn’t led anyone to Christ. Never mind the missiological literature that says it takes an average of seven years to lead a Muslim to Christ. I needed to see results now, because I couldn’t handle the thought that my ministry was a failure. Never mind the fact that feeding the hungry is every bit as legitimate as preaching the word. I needed the capstone success of saving souls, not just hungry bodies. I craved the reassurance that I was good enough for God. That my work was acceptable to Him.
But no matter how much affirmation my work received, it wasn’t enough. I needed to hear it from God Himself. I wanted an impossible level of certainty that yes, I was accepted.
It was no longer a spiritual question. It was an obsession—a clinical fixation that would not go away.
For, if my ministry was a failure, then I was a failure. And what could that mean except…that God had rejected me? And if God had rejected me, then I was good for nothing except hellfire.
Writing it now, years after the fact, sounds absurd. But if you’re anything like me (and indeed, most of the OCD community), our obsessions don’t feel absurd when we’re in the middle of them. They are pressing, urgent, and come with all the panicked feelings of an emotional tidal wave.
Still having zero clue about OCD, I spiraled quickly. I listened to my thoughts as if they were gospel truth. Soon I was so depressed and anxious that I could barely work. I was so sure that God had rejected me that I often spent several hours or even half a day crying on my bed, trying to “figure it out” and find answers that would soothe my troubled mind.
Eventually, my struggle took a severe turn when I started having suicidal ideations. My outlook seemed hopeless, and I felt that I was lost already. In that ugly, desperate space of googling for the easiest way to kill myself and feeling drawn by strange, suicidal urges, God placed a gentle hand upon me. Without even realizing how it happened, I got help.
After hitting rock bottom, I struggled on for several years, trying to figure out what monster I was battling, and then, once I had an OCD diagnosis, trying to figure out how to fight it appropriately. Slowly, I began to see the light again.
I did cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure and response-prevention therapy, a ten-day intensive inpatient treatment program, nutritive (orthomolecular) therapy, and lifestyle modification. As I mentioned, it took several years, but eventually I came out the other side much stronger, much more aware of my thoughts, and much better equipped to handle my disorder.
While in recovery, I participated heavily in online support forums for scrupulosity. Because I have a background in theology (I recently finished my third religious degree, a doctorate), I was able to “connect the dots” more easily on some of the spiritual questions people asked. As I reached out to support others, I found that it helped solidify in my own mind what I needed to do to keep moving forward. And as I supported them, they started to tag me and send private messages, asking me to help answer their questions.
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