Joe had a certain charisma. He talked on and on about various subjects in an entertaining and humorous way, projecting a devil-may-care attitude. He reminded me of the actor John Belushi. I was definitely drawn into his aura. Since he was visiting me in a psychiatrist’s office, however, it all seemed strangely incongruous. The truth emerged fairly quickly: He was a young man completely ruled by fears. “I spend 24/7 in them,” he told me, “and I don’t lead a life.” When he wasn’t involved in an exciting activity, or drunk, he was thinking about contamination. He was so immersed in obsessions and compulsions that he hadn’t, until very recently, even realized that anything was wrong.
His fear was that if he touched something “dirty,” he would spread deadly germs, chemicals, or bodily fluids to other people and kill them. That would be taking someone else’s life, and therefore it would be a mortal sin and he would be consigned to hell (it turned out that Joe described himself as a “good Catholic”). In his mind, therefore, Joe constantly weighed the question of what he could touch and what he couldn’t. These “weighings” represented mental compulsions, and happened almost continually. All of Joe’s surroundings were divided into “safe areas” and “unsafe areas.” He no longer slept in his bed; lately just on a couch. He kept his hands in his pockets so that he wouldn’t harm anyone “about 99 percent of the time.” He never directly touched a doorknob, and he never went on a date. He watched carefully where he stepped at all times, and as a result was accused by his friends of “walking funny.” Despite all this, he got along well in his fraternity, where he was apparently regarded as coolly eccentric.
But Joe made great progress in therapy! After several months, his OCD symptoms were reduced by about 70 percent. He brought up his grades, and for the first time in years was excited about his future. He also cut down markedly in his drinking. (I once thought OCD bore little relation to alcoholism, but I have since discovered that it is not uncommon for people to abuse alcohol or drugs to escape from obsessional fears.) What worked? Somewhat surprisingly, what worked for Joe was to deal with his fear through his faith. Here’s what Joe told me, and its sound advice for all Christian OCDers.
I now see my OCD as separation from God. The problem is my pride: It’s that I want to have control over everything. I don’t really have any faith. Ultimately, it comes down to the choice of trusting in God or doing my compulsions. What I’ve decided is that I’m not going to be concerned about any sin, including the most awful thing I could think of. I’m only going to be concerned about my lack of trust in God. When I have one of my obsessions, I say to myself, ‘This is a great opportunity to prove my faith. It’s more important that I learn to trust in God than I make sure that other people are safe.’