I was talking with a graduate student the other day with chronic obsessive-compulsive disorder. She has been making some good progress with therapy, and she made a telling observation. “One thing that I have realized as I’ve learned more about OCD,” she said, “is just how much it permeates my thinking. I used to kind of believe it was just in certain little areas. But now I’m realizing that it’s everywhere! It’s in all these little things that I never realized. So much of my thought life is consumed with it. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a lot worse that I thought!’ Now, I’m beginning to see my OCD for what it really is.”
She didn’t say this joyfully—indeed, it is a sobering realization. Sometimes I ask OCDers to estimate how much of the time they spend every day in fear or anxiety. A good number say, “just about every minute.” The fact is that anyone with anything more than mild OCD spends hours a day in a state of apprehensiveness. It does not necessarily involve full blown obsessions and compulsions. Often it is the smaller things. When driving, ‘Am I holding up that person in the car behind me?’ When cooking, ‘Will someone criticize my food?’ When working, ‘Am I doing a good enough job?’ When thinking of a friend, ‘Should I email her now? Or should I wait. Which would be more appropriate?’ Such concerns go on and on all day, like a broken record, accompanied by uncomfortable doubt and anxiety. This is not a normal thing for people to do. Yet the lot of OCDers, more or less, is to live in such a state all of their lives.
This is bad enough, but then there is a second sobering realization: No one understands this. To others, OCDers are simply “emotionally weak,” “unsure of themselves,” or “lacking confidence.” Nobody respects this sort of a person. Scarface, the psychopath in the movie, gets respect, while Monk of the TV series provokes laughter. This is certainly not fair, nor in any way reasonable. Yet, this, too, is the lot of OCDers.
Where does that leave us? We know what this condition is due to: It is a dysregulation of the fear system in the brain that is mostly genetic. We can make good progress with it through medication and CBT, but it is not going away. This is not great news. We can work with this information, but it is hardly consoling.
As Christians, however, by God’s grace we see can OCD in a light that is wonderfully consoling: It is from God, and is a means by which we are to grow closer to Him. In particular, it is a call for us to develop in what is most important of all: trust in the God who lovingly created us and leads us through our sufferings to Himself. We must endure the cross of OCD, and move forward without losing sight of our calling—not only with resignation (which is sometimes called for), but also with joy.