Mental Health

Confessions of an OCD Catholic

God is Our Greatest Encourager | Libero Magazine 2

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Note: While this article contains religious elements, Libero is a secular organization.

I find it interesting that so often OCD and religion go hand in hand. The OCD Foundation website includes Religious Obsessions (Scrupulosity) as one of the common themes of OCD.

I am Catholic. Catholics often seem to be the textbook examples of OCD.

Some of the great saints in Catholic tradition were thought to have had OCD.

In a religious context, it is referred to as Scrupulosity. An unhealthy fear that I will somehow offend God through my actions and so, as a result, I perform compulsive “penances” to relieve my fear and appease God.

There is a definite link between strong moral values and OCD. Perhaps we don’t know which comes first really. Do strong moral convictions make one more susceptible to OCD? Or is it a coincidental combination that happens to make unfortunately fertile ground for OCD to take root?

According to the NHS, experts are not one hundred percent sure what causes OCD, but there is a general consensus that a variety of factors come into play.

Last year November I was living in London. I had been there for nearly four months when I was thrown into the worst episode of OCD I have ever experienced.

I knew what it was, but it hit me so hard I lost sight of myself. It was absolutely terrifying.

It started me wondering where mental illness fits into God’s “design.” Where did my “disorder” stop and where did I begin? I was so afraid that my intrusive thoughts would manifest into reality that I begged God to save me before I was lost forever.

I had a dream where I ran into a stormy sea screaming at God to “Take me!” It was a truly dark space.

Was I destined to be doomed? Was that the meaning behind all my thoughts? Where did OCD fit into God’s plan for my life?

I was alone, I was afraid and I was angry. This was the first stage of my “faith transformation.”

In Catholic tradition we have a practice called The Stations of the Cross. We usually pray and reflect on “the Stations” during lent as they recount the 14 stages leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. One of the Stations, the 10th, tells of Jesus being stripped of His garments just before the Roman soldiers nailed Him to the cross.

I bring this up because I believe that difficult time in London was my “stripping.”

God stripped me of my preconceptions of faith. He stripped me of judgmentalism. He stripped me of the belief that I was in control. It is a bit like when God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand” (Job 38: 4).

I found myself strangely compelled to stop and chat to the homeless. I think it was because I saw myself in them. We were broken together. That was an important moment of realisation because so often when we perform charity, we do it from an unintended place of superiority. We patronise those we are trying to help. In my desolation I saw that I was no different to the outcasts and downtrodden. They were human beings with wounds as real and painful as mine.

I felt abandoned, as if God had thrown me out, Given up on me. When I looked to the future, all I saw was darkness. One night I sat up until the early morning, weeping gut-wrenching sobs. I started writing letters to all my friends because I wanted to capture their memories and if I ended up in a Psychiatric Hospital, I wanted people to see that I was once loved. Perhaps I could equate this time of darkness to the 11th Station of the Cross, “The Crucifixion” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, NIV)

Looking back, it was God who carried me through that time. The way I managed to keep body and soul together for those two weeks is nothing short of miraculous.

I flew back to South Africa in the first week of December and stayed with my mum for three months. I had time to reflect on my experience and fell into an existential crisis. I slowly came to see that many of my perceptions of God and how I related to Him had been very unhealthy.

The biggest and healthiest realization, perhaps, was that God still loved me.

In all my brokenness and woundedness, He embraced me. From the rubble of my life, He began to build again. This was the 14th Station in my journey, “Jesus is laid in the tomb”.

There is a 15th Station of the Cross. It is usually only included when the prayer is said outside of Lent. It is, of course, the Resurrection.

Am I in the 15th station now? I think I am. I returned to Cape Town in March and have slowly found my feet again. But something has changed inside of me and I can’t really explain it.

God reached into me – within my suffering – and helped me see that at the core of our faith as Christians is love.

God is Love. So much of what we get hung up on in our lives and with each other is irrelevant. When I was in the depths of Mental Illness, all I could do was cling to God. Cling to the Cross as the waves battered my boat. I realised my utter dependence on God.

I believe my OCD finds its fuel in a deep-rooted fear that I might not be a good person. What if I am bad? What if I am capable of these terrifying thoughts? The last few months have been a process of learning to let go of fear and let go of control. I’ve embraced my cross. It used to weigh me down, but that was when I believed I needed to get rid of it or carry it by myself.
Now I see Christ is next to me, helping me to carry it.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  (John 14: 27, NIV)

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Sebastian is learning life by living it. Born in Zimbabwe, High Schooled in Zambia, and living in Cape Town, he isn’t really sure what to say when people ask, “Where are you from?” Seb went to Film School in Cape Town and has worked as a video editor for the last four years. He has battled with anxiety his whole life and has been through two severe episodes, experiencing intrusive thoughts and depression. He is on the road of recovery and has found that peace and a life free of fear is possible.

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