The Problem with Seeking Reassurance

For years, one of my biggest compulsions was seeking reassurance.

Do you think I’m going to heaven?  Do you think it was wrong I did such-and-such?  Do you think I hurt so-and-so’s feelings?  Do you think yadda yadda yadda …

My obsessions were like burns, and when someone would reassure me that things were okay, it was like sticking my burned fingertip under cold running water.  The relief felt real … but it was temporary.

Ten minutes later, I’d want to ask again.

(And quite often I would … sometimes to where I would frustrate my family and friends.  They would sigh deeply and look at me with these terribly sad eyes and repeat, “Jackie, no.”)

It functioned just like all compulsions– it provided a temporary relief from my obsession, but then it gets out of control.  I didn’t realize it at the time (and neither did my friends), but all they were doing was enabling my OCD.

What would have been better (although much, much harder for both the OC and the friend) is to say, “Look, there are a lot of things we can’t know with certainty.  What you’re afraid of is POSSIBLE … but it’s not LIKELY.  Let’s look at the available evidence.”  Of course, no obsessive-compulsive wants to hear even an ounce of uncertainty … uncertainty doesn’t soothe the burn like cold water.

At least, not immediately.

But as you introduce the idea of uncertainty into your life, and you learn to embrace it, what happens is that you start to heal.  It is hard for EVERYONE, but it is BETTER.  Reassurance only leads to seeking more reassurance.  Uncertainty leads to acceptance and healing and a new life.

Now, of course this is difficult.  Who wants to say to a crying child, “Something bad MIGHT happen if you don’t organize your locker”?  Or to a terror-stricken young adult, “It’s POSSIBLE you could catch a life-threatening disease if you don’t wash your hands right now”?  Or to someone who is weak with guilt, “We can’t KNOW for SURE that God didn’t heal your mother because of something you did”?  It’s agony all around.

But it is better.  Healthier.

And then you can follow things up with, “What evidence do we have available to help us make decisions?  Other students have messy lockers, and they usually go about their day just fine.  Even if you did get sick today, it probably wouldn’t kill anyone– in fact, lots of people have been sick at your workplace in the last year and no one has died.  It’s more likely that your mom died due to her illness than to your actions that aren’t connected.”  Obviously, these are hard.  They don’t erase uncertainty.  And that is the point.

Remember, uncertainty is the key to healing!!  That is why obsessive-compulsives need to surround themselves with cheerleaders not enablers, people who are willing to do the hard business of tough love, even in the face of tears and terror.  It means anxiety in the short term– but joy in the long term!

thoughtful girl

Quite Literally

During the many years of my life when OCD was in charge of me and not the other way around, one thing that it demanded was that every single thing I say be true– literally true.

There were no sudden exclamations to friends of “You’re my favorite!”  No declarations of “This is the best!”  If I was leaving a voicemail at 12:14, I wouldn’t say, “Hey, it’s quarter after; call me back.”  There just wasn’t any room for that in my mind and in my life.

Lyrics were difficult.  I was very careful with what lyrics came out of my mouth; I didn’t want to make any promises or statements that I couldn’t hold to or that weren’t true.  I had to stay one step ahead of the singer to gauge whether it was okay for me to sing those words.

I remember one evening, I was singing along in my car to an Andrew Peterson song.  In it, he is singing to God, and the lyrics are, “I will sing your song from sea to shining sea.”  As soon as the lyrics flew off my tongue, I started to think about how I now was required to plan a cross-country roadtrip just to keep my word.

As a writer, I was very timid about memoir, believing that if I didn’t get every detail right, it would amount to a sinful travesty.  Dialogue?  Way too risky.

Even sarcasm was difficult sometimes, though I never entirely abandoned it.  I did wonder for a time if writing fiction was sinful in and of itself, since the stories were made up … you know, lies.

I tiptoed for so many years.  I was so exact, so literal, so bent on perfection.

Today, I am an honest woman– but I have freedom.  When I tell stories, I don’t worry about getting every detail right.  I have space in my life to breathe.


in which I weigh in on the topic of profanity

I’ve been thinking lately of the topic of profanity.  I have a weird history with it.

I grew up in a home where “shut up” was strictly outlawed and, if uttered, would result in Mom scraping a bar of soap across your teeth.  My undiagnosed OCD latched onto this sin, and I spent some of my younger years tormented by swear words lambasting my mind.  I remember feeling sick and sinful and guilty, and I would confess to my mom that I was “having bad thoughts.”

Years and years later, OCD had strengthened its grip on me like a vice, such that I conditioned myself to “counteract” these bad thoughts with a repetitive prayer.  It started with curse words (most especially the f-bomb) but also words that sounded like curse words (class, bit, switch, luck, etc.) and eventually any word that started with the f sound.  All of these would trigger my compulsive prayer (so that I would avoid the intrusive thoughts the words would also trigger).  I remember one day realizing just how far it had gone when I walked by a stranger who was lightly biting down on her lower lip, and I started praying (for, of course, that is what your mouth does when you make the f sound).

In 2008, I underwent cognitive-behavioral therapy, during which I had to listen to an audio recording littered with curse words, as my doctor attempted to re-wire my brain (with success!).  I didn’t know what my conservative family would think of this therapy, but my mom was supportive and understood this was essentially my last chance to get my life back.  I didn’t talk details with my dad or sister, but my brother was disgusted when he heard about my therapy.  He was really disappointed in me, but I knew better than he did that this necessary.

CBT broke the spell for me around profanity.  For the first time in my life, I could hear it without an overwhelming reaction.  I could even say those words!  They found a home in my fiction as I realized how they added an element of realism to my story.

I do not have a filthy mouth, not by any means.  But after a lifetime of assigning too much meaning and influence to profanity, I have now found freedom from that and power over it.  It doesn’t bother me to share a curse word with a friend either in a joke or for emphasis.  I feel like I’ve escaped that cage I was in.

The other week, I used the phrase “time the hell out” on my blog, and my sister called me on it.  It bothered her, and she let me know.  We were at our parents’ house, and Mom said that profanity in my stories didn’t bother her, but it did in my real life.  My sister said both were an issue for her.  I told them then that neither bothered me and that I even felt a little profanity actually worked well for a powerful emphasis when needed and that it could even improve my witness as a Christian because I didn’t seem so much holier-than-thou.  They disagreed, citing verses like, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.”  (The version of scripture I read is ESV, which reads, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths,” which is a more literal interpretation and one that doesn’t particularly strike guilt in me.)

I do believe it wrong to use the Lord’s name in an offensive way.  That one does grate against me.

Personally, I choose not to say things like “holy cow” or “holy buckets” or any one of the slew of phrases people use in this way.  This is, to me, more offensive than profanity.  I think that language that tears someone apart is more unwholesome than words we have a special veto on simply because they are pronounced differently than their “approved” synonyms.

What are your thoughts on this?  Both sides are welcome.

OCD and the Unpardonable Sin

Scrupulosity: OCD centered around religious themes.

The story of my life.

The obsession: for many years, my head would repeat blasphemous things over and over, sometimes triggered by certain sounds and sometimes by non-specific phrases about hell, demons, souls, the devil.

The compulsion: I began to repeat one particular phrase– “Father God, I love You”– over and over in my head as a way to stem the other thoughts.

It became very difficult to handle everything that was going on: these blasphemous thoughts would crowd me– I mean, really crowd me (the image I have is of these thoughts bumping and grinding on me like dirty brutes at a dance club), and I’d be warding them off by repeating this repetitive prayer over and over (and over and over and over).  And on the outside, it didn’t look like anything.

Those who were closest to me (dear friends and roommates and family members) knew that I was going through hell, but they couldn’t see the battle that was taking place.  They only knew of it when I told them or on nights when I broke down sobbing in fear of eternal damnation.

It is hard to describe exactly what it feels like to feel as though you’re wearing a sentence of hell on your shoulders.  Here’s a shot:

Condemnation (or supposed condemnation) is like being in a tank of water with only inches of air at the top.  You have to lean your head back to put your lips to the air, and the whole while you must keep treading water.  There is no opportunity for distraction.  It consumes every moment of your life.

Anyone reading this understand me?

If so, please read this sermon.  I think it might help.  My heart aches for you, but there is hope.  Lovers of Jesus Christ don’t belong in hell.  Let’s talk.

hearing your story on someone else’s lips

The week after OCD Awareness Week, I am going to be a part of a breakout chapel service at the university where I work.  (I am employed by Northwestern College, the most wonderful Christian college in the world … as an alumnus, I’m a little biased.  Ha!)  I am going to be interviewed by one of the campus therapists, and I am just so eager to tell my story.

I think one of the most helpful things for OCs is to hear their own story on someone else’s lips.

It makes us feel less alone.

I remember my first conversation with another obsessive-compulsive.  I was sitting on a dock underneath a sky of summer stars, and as we talked, it was like shrugging off a giant sheath that had separated me from everyone else.  I was not alone; this person had the same experiences.

And when I read Kissing Doorknobs by Terri Spencer Hesser, it was like reading my own biography.  It stole power from OCD, just reading that, because it showed me how not creative the disorder is … sure, it has a variety of manifestations, but at their core, they are really very similar.

And that is what I am hoping will happen for someone in the audience on October 17th.  For that person to say, That sounds just like me!  I am not an anomoly.

compulsions become monsters

“Compulsions are a lousy solution to the problem of having obsessions.”  Fred Penzel

Some of you don’t know just how true this quote is!  I was explaining OCD to a group of student workers in my office the other day, and here’s what I had to say about compulsions:

They start as a way to provide temporary relief to the stress/terror/anxiety/disturbing nature of obsessions, but after a while, the compulsions get out of control and become monsters themselves.

For example, maybe an OC will worry that a room is contaminated and therefore, she is going to get sick herself and die.  So she washes her hands to forestall any illness, and for a moment, it relieves that anxiety.  But after awhile, she is washing her hands all the time to try to keep that anxiety at bay, and now her hands are bleached, raw, bleeding and she can’t stop.

Which is worse– the obsession or the compulsion?  I know different OCs have different answers.  I’d like to hear yours!