On the Cornflower Girl timeline, the onset of OCD predates fundamentalism. It predates sexual assault and PTSD. The onset of my OCD occurred in childhood, and it integrated so seamlessly into my existence that I cannot pinpoint the moment of its genesis. However, the symptoms were triggered by trauma and exacerbated by Conservative Christian ideology. In this post, I explore the ways that church culture triggered, exacerbated, and even rewarded the repetition of my Obsessive-Compulsive behaviors.
According to Tamar Chansky in the book Freeing Your Child from OCD, OCD is “like a superstition gone way out of control.” Whether by intention or not, religious communities tend to proliferate superstition; thus, individuals who struggle with OCD are exceedingly vulnerable to religious ideology that involves magical thinking. According to verywellmind.com, “Magical thinking is the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, wishes, or actions can influence the course of events in the physical world.” Magical thinking enslaves the mind of an OCD sufferer. It enslaves and dominates, coercing the sufferer to engage in repetitive compulsions, in order to alter destiny. The if/then regulation of western Christianity intensifies the command of obsessive thoughts, impelling inflated compulsive rituals.
As a young adult, I joined a fellowship of Christian believers. I regularly attended worship service at a non-denominational church (with Pentacostal roots). Some of the maxims proclaimed from the pulpit with regularity were as follows:
- Don’t speak your fears aloud. You will give the devil a foothold.
- Pray fervently. In prayer and petition, make your requests to God.
- Memorize scripture. Pray scripture. Write scripture on the walls of your home. There is power in the word!
- Health in decline could be a sign of concealed sin.
- Control your lust. Don’t even think impure thoughts.
- God protects the righteous. Those who abide are covered under his umbrella.
- God took_______ so _________ would love Him above all others and rely only on Him.
These teachings effectively reinforced the deception of my OCD. Untreated and lacking diagnosis, terrifying obsessions incessantly battered my mind. Yet I upheld the axiom “Don’t speak your fear…” because I believed that in so doing, I would surely cause my own destruction. The devil would eavesdrop and use the fear to torment me. I reeled in horror, hostage to every pernicious thought. However, with the advice to “pray fervently,” I believed I could combat the enemy. As long as I suppressed my fears and prayed for help from God, nothing bad would happen. I compulsively prayed. The more I prayed, the more the anxiety billowed. Leaders advised me to memorize scripture to contend with my fear. I did just that. I wrote scripture on my hands and on post-it notes, and I stuck them everywhere. Pink ones on the mirror, yellow on my closet door, blue in my drawers, but not a single note, not a single word ameliorated the swelling apprehension. The activity of writing and posting scripture became nothing more than another chink in the chain of reactive behavior.
Then, there were the raging hormones. I desired physical contact. I began dating my now-husband, and we would kiss and sometimes we would get a player on base, and I just knew–without a doubt–I was skipping along the boundaries of God’s “umbrella of protection.” Sure and sudden calamity loomed, as I straddled the line of sexual purity.
The absolute worst trigger for my OCD came when I was only married for a few months. Deeply in love with my husband, my heaviest burden was the obsession that one of us would die. A friend of mine who had become a rigid adherent, bore the tragic news that one of our former classmates became a widow. Tragically, her husband died in a head on collision only a few weeks before the two were to sign a loan for their first home. The irony! The zealot discerned that the tragedy befell our classmate so that she would rely more fully on God–so she would love none above Him. This judgment was a dagger to my heart. I didn’t love God enough. I wasn’t pure enough. I lived a sinful existence. What would protect me from the same catastrophic fate?! All I could do was enlist the help of the Lord through the repetition of scripture and desperate prayers. Yet I never felt safe. I never felt sure.
“We have a feeling that the stove has been left on, we check the stove, then we have a feeling that the stove has been turned off and all is well. We do not simply know these things, we feel them…It is this feeling that people with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder cannot capture–and it is the inability to achieve this feeling that contributes to their anguish, to the torture that is their entire experience.”Tamar Chansky, Freeing Your Child from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Church culture created favorable conditions for the birth of many unnecessary and absolutely fruitless obsessions and compulsive behaviors. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I began to see the behaviors as manifestations of my condition. I participated in a women’s Bible study discussing the content of Sacred Parenting by Gary Thomas. I cannot remember what it was within that book, but something I read brought new awareness of what the word “trust” actually meant. During a group discussion, I gave voice to this new insight. I shared that I felt an impulse to pray for a thing only once, and then let it go. I realized that to pray the same prayer repetitiously was my way of trying to control an outcome over which I had no control. I realized that God was (is) a force I cannot control.
This is likely not true for people with normative neurology, but for me, the activity of praying is one that indicates my lack of trust or faith. It indicates my compulsion to influence fate. It indicates my compulsion to make certain. In recent years, I have discovered that life isn’t certain. I can’t make it certain. I cannot make certain. It is only since I have embraced this insight that I have been able to relax the tension in my chest. You know that feeling you get doing yoga or meditating? That blissful calm? I never experienced that until I realized that life is uncertain and it is not my responsibility to make certain.
I left church, officially, within the past two years. I have been deconstructing ideology for a decade, but it is only in recent years that I have come to terms with the fact that church life is detrimental to my mentality. Rather than bolster me, the catechism set the infinite loop of neurological futility in motion. It should not be that way.
I am Julie. I have OCD. I left the church, for it was not good for me.