Mental Health Within The Church: My Battle With OCD

Those of you who know me will know that I am a very neat person. I like to have things organized; I like to know what’s happening, and I like to know where everything is. But that’s not the reason why I have OCD.

I have OCD because I tap the sink five times with my toothbrush when I’ve finished brushing my teeth. I spray deodorant under my left arm, then my right arm, then right, then left, and then left again. I smile at myself every time I look in a mirror. When I lock my phone, I look at all the numbers on the screen (the date, time, and alarm clock) in a certain order. My bag has to be completely done up. I have to make sure the zip on my pencil case is tightly closed. I always take five sips of a drink at a time. I pat my hair dry nine times. When doing my makeup, I put powder over my left eyelid, then right, right, left, left, then the same routine under my eyes, and then behind my ears. When putting the last tin can on the shelf at work, I gently squeeze my left hand, then my right, and then right, left, left. Sometimes I need to read sentences forwards, and then backwards. Other times I have to blink hard at the beginning of the sentence, read to the end, blink, and then read it backwards. I do certain things a certain number of times in a certain way.

THIS is why I have OCD.

OCD is not always about neatness. It is about having a compulsion, or an obsession, to do things. And yes, that can definitely involve keeping things neat and organized. But that’s not the form of OCD that I have.

I can’t remember exactly when it started, but I do remember a time in secondary school when things got difficult. There would be a voice in my head that said, “Do this and then this bad thing won’t happen.” The ‘bad thing’ could be anything from death to embarrassing myself in front of my classmates. Logically, I knew that doing these OCD rituals would not stop events from happening, but it was as if the irrational part of my mind had a list of things that could control bad things from happening, and the OCD rituals were on the list. Even though I knew it almost certainly didn’t control anything, there was a part of me that said, “Do it anyway - at least it’ll cross it off the list, and that’s another thing out of the equation. Better to be safe than sorry.”

My therapist told me this analogy that sums it up well:

A small boy stands at the bus stop every day with a red balloon. His next-door neighbor notices that he is never without said balloon, and wonders why. One day, she decides to ask him why he always carries the red balloon with him. “It’s to keep the tigers away,” he explained. “But there aren’t any tigers here,” replied the neighbor. He exclaimed confidently, “I know! It’s working, isn’t it!”

OCD convinces you that bad things aren’t happening because of what it is making you do. There is a part of my mind that thinks the bad things aren’t happening because I am continuing these rituals, and the thought of stopping these is terrifying, because I start to think, “What if? What if I stop doing these things and they really did control bad things after all?!” The truth is, OCD does not control the happenings of the world, but sometimes my mind doesn’t think like that.

It takes more energy for me to walk away from doing a ritual than it does carrying it out. I often do these rituals without thinking what bad thing it’s protecting me from, but rather because it has become a part of my behavior; I have managed to retrain my brain to do these things without even realizing that I am doing them. And the moment I interrupt that flow, I am filled with anxiety. I do the ritual ‘just in case.’ But the trouble is, OCD is a very slippery slope. One day I am tapping the edge of the sink with my toothbrush five times, and a week later it’ll be fifteen times. It’ll keep on increasing until it takes over my life.

The type of OCD I have can definitely seem superstitious. So how can I be a Christian, not believing in superstition and actively professing that only God is in control, yet still carry out these ritualistic behaviors?

The answer is simple: we are in a fallen state. That means that ever since the Fall, the whole cosmos is fractured. God created everything perfectly, but now sin has found its way into the world and has caused death, illness, and ruin. I’m not for a moment saying that God has given me OCD as a punishment for my sins; that is not the case at all. In fact, my mind is incredible because God made it that way. I think in ways that not many other people can, and I am learning how to use my mind and ideas more and more for His glory. But I am also living in a body that has been fractured by a humanity that wanted to do things without God. It is a fact that things go wrong in the world: people are hurting, people are ill, and people die. But I know that God does not want it to be this way. How do I know this?

Revelation 21:4 explains it for me:

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will pass] away.’

In Heaven, everything will be made perfect again. There will be no more death or crying or pain, because the ways of the world will have left. This verse shows me that it was never God’s intention for us to be hurting, and that one day He will restore us completely. And I also know that we can see glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth right now. But the truth is, we are in a spiritual battle. The enemy wants to steal, kill, and destroy everything that God has created. And we’ve got to fight back.

So how can we address mental health within the Church?

First and foremost, we need to understand that mental health is just as much of a legitimate illness as any other physical illness. It’s just as real and can be just as painful. Secondly, we need to create a space where people feel able to talk about mental health. For years I didn’t even realize that I had OCD (perhaps because I did all of the above rituals without anyone noticing for fear of being seen as weird or strange). I remember telling one of my dearest Christian friends that I thought I had OCD and explained only a few of the rituals I carry out, and she told me that God wanted me to be free from that. She said something like, “It’s okay, you don’t sound crazy. I’m going to stick by you as Jesus sets you free, and as you step into life in all its abundance.” As I sat in her car telling her everything that was on my mind, I felt safe. I didn’t feel judged, I didn’t feel crazy, and I didn’t feel stupid. That’s the kind of atmosphere we need to create within the Church.

We also need to understand our true identity. One of the things I struggled with the most was understanding that the OCD is not a part of me. Because it’s a mental health illness, it can feel like it’s taking over every aspect of my life and it can be difficult to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t. I’ve learnt that just because I think something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. Only God’s word is true. And just because I have OCD, it doesn’t mean that it’s a defining feature of who I am. I am a child of God, a daughter of the King, and the OCD is something that’s trying to undermine that. Having OCD does not mean I have a weak faith, it does not mean I am doubting God, and it does not mean that God hasn’t saved me. You wouldn’t tell someone who has cancer that their faith in God is weak, and so we shouldn’t tell someone with OCD (or any other mental health illness) that they are not trusting God enough.

So where am I at now? Well, I am currently having therapy sessions, and they’ve been extremely helpful. I would recommend that any Christian struggling with a mental health illness would first and foremost get prayer, and then look at medical help. I made sure I prayed for the right therapist to be given to me, and that I would have a metaphorical filter when in those therapy sessions, that I would use everything in a Godly context and always bring it back to God. We’ve not only got to take practical steps towards our healing (such as talking to people we trust), but we need to take spiritual steps; we need to take medicine in the form of prayer and scriptures. We need to have pieces of scripture in our minds that we can ‘take’ whenever we are feeling ill.

My therapist has helped me to understand what is going on in my mind, but I don’t think I will ever get truly better unless I keep bringing it back to God.

The way that I will beat OCD is by understanding that I am completely safe in God. My therapist tells me to try and understand that I am safe - that I am loved by friends, family, and many other people around me. But the thing is, my friends and family still fail me because they are human. I will never be able to have true security in this world, because this world is temporary. But the more I understand about the security that I have in Jesus, that He is holding me and will never let me go (even when bad things come my way), the more I understand that His security is not contingent on my belief in it, the more I understand that God is sturdy and safe even when I don’t feel it, the more and more the OCD just seems to fall away.

It’s about embracing the parts of our minds that are ‘true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy’ (Philippians 4:8) and managing and healing the parts of us that are fractured by leaning on God and understanding His incredible love for us.

I’ll finish with an image God gave me during one of my therapy sessions. My therapist asked me to imagine myself at work (I work in retail, and some shifts can be a real struggle for me because I am presented with lots of situations where the OCD runs rampant). She asked me to picture myself looking at the tin cans and seeing them in a way that I’d want to sort them out and do a ritual over. I looked at myself through the eyes of God, and had a great compassion on myself. I saw dark, heavy clouds around my head and heart, with a mechanical like thing moving and rotating (working like clockwork) in my chest. It was as though a battle was going on as I was fighting to move away from the tins and to walk away from the pulls of the OCD. I was using a lot of mental energy and really straining. Then, I saw Jesus putting His arm around me and He gently led me away from the tins, around the corner. I just collapsed into His arms, completely exhausted and upset. And then, to my complete surprise, I saw my boyfriend was waiting around the corner. I was taken aback and lost for words. Jesus patted me on the back as if to say, “Go on”, and I ran towards my boyfriend, hugging him and crying tears of happiness. Jesus was looking on and smiling.

OCD can prevent someone from living their life to the fullest. And Jesus told us in John 10:10 that He came to give us life in all of its abundance. The more I learn to let go of the OCD rituals and simply fall into the security of God, the more I will be free to walk in the blessings that God has given me. If I had stayed in the tin aisle, fighting the OCD on my own, I would never have moved around the corner and seen my boyfriend. But as soon as JESUS gently moved me away, I was then able to run to the many blessings that He has poured out on my life.

In that moment I was free, and I know that one day, whether that be on this earth or in Heaven, I will be completely and utterly free, forever.

Alice is 18 and from England. She gave her life to Jesus about 5 years ago, and was baptized in July 2015. She feels that she is called to creative evangelism after receiving many prophecies from various people. She's a keen musician, photographer, writer, and speaker, and she hopes to involve all of these passions when sharing the love of Jesus to the world. She looks forward to moving to a city to attend university, engrossing herself in youth culture and wider communities.