Well, as they say, better late than never! Here’s the final installment of this blog series on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In this post, I’d like to talk about how to battle this monster. This blog is a bit long, but if you suffer from OCD, it’ll be worth the read. There’s three ways to attack:
Humbling yourself somehow turns God’s eyes toward you. Check this verse out: “For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isaiah 57:15). So where does God live? In heaven—and with the broken heart. Remain in a place of dependence through honest prayer.
Part of humility is honesty. Look at the ruthless naked honesty of the prophets (Jeremiah 15:18) or of so many others (1 Samuel 1:10-11, Psalm 22) in the Bible. The bottom line is this: you can’t be intimate with someone you can’t be honest with. If you fake it with God, you get a fake move of God.
Knowing the truth will anchor you in reality as you battle with OCD. In some ways, OCD, and many other anxiety disorders, amounts to emotional insanity. The anxiety literally comes from the same part of the brain that causes children to have temper tantrums. So we anchor our minds in truth and reality.
First of all, we must expose our minds to the truths of the gospel. The gospel tells us who we really are in Christ and what our true state is, even if we don’t feel it is so.
Romans 6:14 says, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” Anchoring ourselves with a gospel truth like this will help us engage in battle knowing that we are promised freedom from slavery through Christ. Our victory is sure!
In John 8:32, Jesus said, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Arming yourself with gospel truth helps you battle lies, which is what OCD amounts to. And the truth will set you free from lies.
One final thought on truth…I think anyone with OCD would benefit from knowing that he or she is not going crazy. OCD is literally how the brain works! It just magnifies a normal function of the human brain. We get a “spike” (an anxiety-provoking thought), flag it as threatening, and this “flagging” makes the thought cycle back around again and again. An OCD sufferer has tremendous anxiety associated with this thought, and causes one to feel as though they are going crazy or dying.
Strangely, knowing this biological, psychological fact doesn’t necessarily help an OCD sufferer when an anxiety attack hits, though it may give one more bravery to face the fears.
By “vigiliance,” I mean finding practical strategies to battle against sin, or in this case, fear. When I was in the throes of slavery to OCD, I was so confused. I didn’t know how to fight. Then I did what James tells us to do: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).
Though I had a strong aversion to the psychiatric community for many of my own reasons, I sensed the Lord directing me to study “cognitive therapy.” This basically means that the therapy will come only through mental exercise, counsel, and investigation, not from chemical drugs.
As with any fear, the only way to beat it is to confront it. This was where I got off the boat with some “spiritual warfare” teaching I’d bought into over the years. I always believed that “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) meant that I had to battle my wicked thoughts by constantly trying to reject them. This is the worst thing an OCD sufferer can do. The very attempt to reject a fearful thought perpetuates that thought and magnifies it. In a word, it makes it worse!
It’s far more biblical to confront your fears, being so convinced they are false that you are willing to challenge them; to provoke them; even to conjure them in your mind; to become so used to them that they are no longer threatening, and even boring. It’s like someone with a fear of heights visiting a roof every day for a month. That’s why Dr. Steven Phillipson, an expert in cognitive therapy for OCD, uses language like “dance with the devil” and “throw a rock at the bear.”
We out-fox OCD.
What does this look like practically?
This means that we eliminate rituals associated with our spikes.
Let’s use a hypochondriac as an example—the obsessive fear of germs. A hypochondriac’s ritual might be to avoid touching doorknobs. To confront his fear, he must choose to live with the minimal risk that what he fears could happen (touching a doorknob could make him sick), and he must touch the doorknob. At first, the anxiety associated with this event will likely be through the roof, but over time, he’ll train his brain and heart that what he fears is not legitimate.
A washer must choose to stop washing his hands.
A “checker” must stop checking to see if he ran someone over in the road, or checking five times to see if the cord is plugged all the way in, or checking 10 times to see if he shut the door.
Someone with Responsibility OC must choose to leave the piece of trash on the sidewalk.
For someone with “Pure-O,” things get a little trickier. Since there are no outward rituals, the rituals become the ruminations—the constant mental reasoning and dialogue used to try to combat the paramount unanswerable question or the frightening thought. Someone with Pure-O always believes that if they can just think about this a little more, the answer is just around the corner! But like a vapor, it goes away. The anxiety returns. They think that if they can read one more book or article (or study the Bible a little more), the answer will come and they’ll have permanent peace. But it never comes.
Because we are giving into our fears. We are legitimizing them.
In Phillipson’s words, we have to “build a hotel” for the thoughts. We have to let them come and not fight them. Eventually, the thought that would once cause panic attacks will seem less and less frightening.
I liken it to a “ghost rig.” It’s like you are on a road, and a rig is heading right for you. You know it’s not real, but everything within you seems to say otherwise. You want to run, but force yourself to face it in faith. Your heart is pounding. A cold sweat breaks out on your forehead. Here it comes. Point of no return! Suddenly, it goes right over you, and there you are, unharmed. Repeat this exercise, with the Lord Jesus holding your hand, and you will overcome your fear.
This was the only way I could beat my obsessions and escape the slavery of OCD. Like the movie “A Beautiful Mind” with Russell Crowe, eventually I was able to function in life again, even though the thoughts were always nearby. How shocked I was as the days went on, and found that there were hours at a time, and sometimes days, when the once-obsessive thoughts wouldn’t even enter my mind! I didn’t think that was possible! The truth anchored me as I trained my broken brain and emotions that these frightening thoughts were not real.
A few other pointers:
First, arm yourself with the understanding that having the horrible thought is not equal to committing the horrible act or suffering the horrible fate. Fearing being gay and thinking a gay thought does not mean you are gay. Fearing going crazy and killing someone does not mean you have hurt anyone.
Second, it’s ok to have a bad day. A lot of experts in cognitive therapy talk about this. Give yourself permission. It’s ok to have a bad week or even a bad month. Not giving yourself permission to have a bad day perpetuates the OCD.
Let’s say that you’re walking down a narrow street between two apartment buildings and suddenly someone comes to a window and yells, “You’re a loser! You’ll never make it to the end of the street!”
What does the most defeated person do? They sit down and sulk. “Maybe he’s right!” they say. “Maybe I am a loser. I probably won’t make it!”
What does the second most defeated person do? They stop walking and spend all their time arguing with the liar.
What does the victorious person do?
They just keep walking.
I hope this blog series has helped some of you to keep walking. I’m sure this affliction is strange to those of you who haven’t had it, but I hope this gives all of us more compassion and understanding. May God’s grace be with you.