The Darkest Days

artwork  in retro style,  woman and cup of teaThere is a little Caribou Coffee in Long Lake, Minnesota, where I sat one morning since I’d arrived too early to my visit to Orono High School. I stared at my steaming hot cocoa and repeated to myself: You are going to hell. 

Swallow that down, I told myself. You are going to hell, and there is nothing you can do to change it. This realization is your eternal reality.

In the car, I’d been listening to “Spirit” by Switchfoot on repeat: I’ve found all that I want, all that I long for, in You.

It was true then. It’s true now. But in those days, it was a truth that I imagined fell on deaf ears. Spirit, come be my joy.  It was the cry of my heart, but I knew I was damned and that joy would be forever inaccessible to me.

I can’t detail exactly how creepy it is become a cardboard person.

To ride the rollercoaster to the deepest depths and then to climb off there.

A reader asked me if I’d ever felt like God wasn’t with me through the storms of my life.  Have I felt that way? Yes, intensely.

But I was wrong.

Praise God I was wrong.

All these years later, God has stormed in, torn off my blindfold, wrapped me in his arms, and repeated truth to me till I came to believe it.

Do I still have moments where I doubt? Yes.

But my anchor holds.

I wrote this to remind myself of the truth– the truth that no disorder or devil can withhold from me because my God is stronger:

anchor manifesto

A War in the Mind

war in my mindI remember the Sunday mornings in church when my mind was a war zone.

An intrusive thought would show itself, and with my Pure-O compulsions, I’d mentally bat it down (usually with repetitive prayer).  I was a ninja with my compulsion moves, but OCD was just as fast and furious.  Back and forth, back and forth, like a relentless game of Whac-a-Mole.

And no one knew.

All these happy people around me, worshiping God, taking in the sermon, happy and safe in their suburban church sanctuary– and, for me, it was a battle field.

Pure-O: so invisible, so dark, so exhausting.

I praise God that those days are a part of my past.  If you want to learn how I survived (and WON) this war, click here.  Your mind doesn’t have to be a scary place.

For (lots!) more about OCD and ERP, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

Image credit: unknown.

OCD & Faith

I was recently asked how my faith survived 20 years of abuse at the hand of OCD.  This fellow sufferer wondered how I reconciled/justified my continued believe in God after so much hurt and such a sense of betrayal.

It’s a great question.

I am a Christian, that is, I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s only son, that he came to earth to rescue men, died on a cross on a Friday, and rose again to life the following Sunday.  

It’s actually the story of the cross and the resurrection that have allowed me to cling to my faith.

The agony of the cross shows me that Jesus understands my suffering; we identify with one another. And the victory of the resurrection prompts me to have hope in my suffering, knowing that only a weekend separated the worst story from becoming the best; I am filled with hope that, just as I identify with him in his suffering, I will also identify with him in his victory.

The truth is that without the gospel of Christ, it would be difficult for me to justify my continued faith.

 

For more about my faith, go to jackieleasommers.com/faith.
For (lots!) more about OCD and ERP, go to jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

cross and resurrection

The Long Journey … to the Starting Line

"Cross That Line" by xLadyDaisyx on deviantArt

“Cross That Line” by xLadyDaisyx on deviantArt

It is SO HARD for an obsessive-compulsive to be correctly diagnosed and then find the right treatment and a good cognitive-behavioral therapist.  In fact, it takes an average of 14-17 years for someone to access effective treatment.

That stat stings my heart.  I feel it deeply because of my own personal struggle.

I developed a sudden onset of OCD at the age of 7.  I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was 22.  I started ERP (exposure and response prevention) therapy at 27.  That’s twenty years, folks– fifteen just till diagnosis alone.

Growing up, I just assumed that I “thought too much”– was an “overthinker” and especially sensitive to issues of morality. I didn’t understand that other people were also undergoing the same doubts as I was but were able to move past them with ease.  I, on the other hand, would get trapped.  The exit door to my brain was stuck shut, so all my thoughts just milled and churned and generated intense anxiety.  I didn’t know that others even had the same thoughts as I did, nor did I realize how it would be possible to let such thoughts come and go.

In childhood, I cried all the time.  In fact, I cried every single night for three years in a row.  I never told my parents about this.  I was so scared that they wouldn’t be able to “fix” me that I preferred to just rest in my own sadness, still clinging to the hope that *someday* I could be fixed.  As long as no one told me it was impossible, it still felt possible, and even thought I was terrifically sad, I kept that hope as my lifeline.

High school was a beast.  I got straight A’s (OCD drove me to perfectionism) and graduated at the top of my class.  I was a class clown, and I had some amazing friends.  But I battled intense spiritual doubts and lived in great fear.  My tenth grade year was one of the hardest of my whole life.  Only those closest to me knew it.

My doubts intensified in college.  They escalated to a whole new level.  Thankfully, I had a solid support system in my new friends (people who remain my support system to this day!).  And though they couldn’t understand what I was going through, they loved me.

After undergrad, things fell apart.  In a nutshell, I lost my grip on reality– my doubts had grown so large and out of control that I no longer knew if I could trust my friends or my own human experience.  Finally, for the first time in my lifesomeone used the words mental illness with me.  It felt shocking.

I was encouraged to meet with a therapist (unfortunately, a talk therapist– not effective for OCD), who also got me in to meet with a psychiatrist, and I was finally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  A diagnosis fifteen years in the making.

I spent about a year with that first talk therapist, and it was more damaging than anything else.  I finally “escaped” and never again set foot in that clinic.  Meanwhile, I was an SSRI lab rat, trying out a slew of various medications to treat my OCD.  I eventually went back to talk therapy– this time to a much better therapist, who was a true blessing, although she still didn’t truly understand OCD, and so my therapy included a lot of reassurances.  In other words, this kind, amazing woman who loved me was just reinforcing my compulsions.  Not good.  I also took a break from trying out medications after one stole all my energy and made me rapidly gain weight.  I was overweight for the first time in my life– all due to a medication– and have struggled with my weight ever since.

Five years after that initial diagnosis, my psychiatrist was out of ideas.  Literally.  She asked me what I thought we should do next.  I, of course, had no clue.  She referred me to an OCD specialist.

This incredible man– Dr. Suck Won Kim– changed my life.  He got me onto the right medication (almost immediately) and essentially required that I begin ERP, even giving me the name and contact information for the therapist who would ultimately allow me to bottle up my OCD and put a stopper in it.  Dr. Chris Donahue, to whom I’m forever indebted.

Twelve weeks was all it took.  In one sense.  In another, it took twenty years.

My life was a mix of depression, anxiety, compulsions, “bad” thoughts, and wrongness, and then twelve weeks later, I felt the burden of OCD lift from my shoulders.  I was giddy with freedom.  Five years later, I still am.

I hear from obsessive-compulsives every week who are in their 50’s, 60’s, or even older, who are still seeking appropriate treatment.  This absolutely breaks my heart.

On the flip side, I’ve had the incredible experience of meeting Maddie, 11, and her incredible parents, who leapt into action almost immediately and got her into ERP within months of her OCD onset.  In the same year, she developed OCD, was diagnosed, and was treated.  Marvelous!

That’s one of the reasons I blog about OCD.  To help people to understand earlier what they are dealing with and to encourage them to seek appropriate treatment (ERP, with or without medication).  It still just boggles my mind that in 2013, mental health practitioners still don’t know that ERP is the answer.  People get passed around from talk therapist to talk therapist, when the solution should be so ready, so available.

Over at The Redeeming Things

Today, I am blogging over at The Redeeming Things, the blog of Trinity City Church, where I am blessed to worship and fellowship here in the Twin Cities.  I’m blogging about the intersection of my faith and my mental illness.

Here’s the beginning:

RedeemingThingsJLSLast week, while listening to an audiobook by Anne Lamott, she mentioned a line she tries to live by: “And may the free make others free.”

I had to rewind a few seconds and listen to it over again. And again, amazed at the stark and beautiful way these few words summarize the last four years of my life.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder that preyed on all I most value: faith, friendships, vocation. Forget all media has ever taught you about OCD—it is not a funny, quirky, bothersome nuisance. Instead, it is a hellish, tormenting thief and tyrant. It caused me to question whether God was real, if he loved me, if I loved him, if I was going to hell, if writing fiction was sinful, if people were demons, if real life was real life– but not in the normal way that all or most people question such things. With “normal” minds, thoughts come and go freely, but with OCD, the gate is broken, and the thoughts get trapped inside the head, never making progress or finding resolution. Without the resolution, an obsessive-compulsive becomes lodged in a perpetual state of panic and terror. OCD is slavery, and I was in bondage to it for over twenty years. I was a tormented pot that complained to the Potter, “Why-why-why did you make me this way?”

To read the rest, jump on over here.
photo credit: izarbeltza via photopin cc

Christian Culture’s (Sad) Response to Mental Illness

It’s in the Title: Mental Illness is an Illness

Salads and sandwiches and a shared mental illness, all of it on the tiny table between us.

“There is help for OCD,” I told her.  “The most effective treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Between that and my medication, I got my life back.  I know you can too.”  (The evangelical zeal I have for this particular therapy reminds me of the way I love Jesus: both took me from darkness into light, both make me want to throw parades in their honor.)

“Oh, I don’t know,” said my friend, poking at her salad with a fork, sounding hesitant.  “I think before I take any extreme methods, I want to just pray about it more.  I know that God can bring me through this.”

I wanted to say, But you have been praying about this for years!  I also believe God can bring you through this—and I am telling you how.

There is a pervasive and unhealthy attitude in the Christian culture toward mental illness.  Many believe that one should be able to “pray away” a disorder.  Some think that mental illness is, quite simply, spiritual warfare; some think it’s the result of unresolved sin issues.  One of my friends has said before that a real Christian can’t be clinically depressed.  I saw a Facebook status once that read, “Depression is a choice.”

These sentiments light a fire in me, especially for the way that they marginalize a group of people that are often already more susceptible to guilt.  I know that in my OCD hey-day, I felt continual guilt and severe shame; for someone to intimate to me that these feelings were the appropriate ones would only mean that my Christian brothers and sisters were siding with my disorder—and against me.

Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. 

friendsGod and Satan can work through them just the same way as they could through, say, cancer or diabetes.  All issues are spiritual issues, simply because we are spiritual beings, but it is not helpful to label a chemical issue with a giant term like spiritual warfare.  To say that a Christian cannot be depressed is like saying a real Christian can’t get the flu.  To say that depression is a choice is like saying strep throat is a choice.

If you break a bone, do you get it set in a cast?  If you learn you’re diabetic, do you take insulin?  If cancer steps into your body, do you pursue chemotherapy?

The answer is usually yes.  Yes—and pray.  (Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for prayer!  And for medical innovation!)

That is why I am unashamed of my OCD, my depression.  Instead, I am proud of my God for seeing me through a therapy as difficult as CBT and for being my strength through five years of side effects in the search for the right medication.

Unfortunately, my friend left the sandwich shop that evening feeling obligated to “pray away” a spiritual flaw instead of feeling empowered to fight illness, in spite of my best efforts.  My voice is being drowned out by the multitude of louder voices of the Christian culture, a culture that should be supporting this demographic, not alienating it.

OCD, ERP, and Christianity

ocd and christianityI often hear from obsessive-compulsive Christians asking, “If my OCD is centered around my faith, will ERP still work even if my therapist is not a Christian?”

I’ve written elsewhere about how OCD is an arsonist, setting fires (obsessions) in our minds and how our compulsions are like shortsidedly trying to put out the fires instead of going for the arsonist directly.  You don’t need a Christian cognitive-behavioral therapist.  You just need someone who knows ERP and knows it well.  In other words, you need an OCD assassin.

If you are obsessing about the unforgivable sin or something else faith-related, you don’t need a great theologian to dialogue with you about it.  (In fact, chances are that you’ve already discussed this with all your Christian friends and maybe even a respected pastor.)  After that conversation with the theologian, you’re probably just going to start obsessing again, either about the same thing or something else.  You need someone who can take out the OCD, and yes, I mean “take out” in a sniper kind of way.

“But I’m worried that ERP is just going to cover up my real issues.  I don’t want to just forget about these things.  I want to solve them.”

First of all, you’re misunderstanding ERP.  It doesn’t sweep issues under a rug.  It’s not like you’re brainwashed into believing that life is now perfect.  Not at all!  It rewires your brain so that you can think the way “normal” people do– less circularly.

Secondly, you’re misunderstanding life and faith.  These things aren’t “solvable”– at least, not generally.  Sure, you might be the one person in a million who has God audibly speak to you one day– but probably not.  Life is full of uncertainty.  It’s a FACT.  And faith is about TRUSTING God even in uncertainty.

You need to get it out of your head that you will ever be rid of uncertainty in this life.

Back to the original question …

Your ERP therapist is not going to talk you through theological issues.  That’s not his/her job, and actually, it would be counterproductive to what ERP is all about.

If you can find an incredible cognitive-behavioral therapist who is also a follower of Christ, then yes, by all means, go to that person!  But if healing and health are your goals, then your first order of business is finding someone who knows how to do Exposure and Response Prevention.  You are looking for an OCD assassin, not someone to have tea and Bible study with.

Thoughts?  Further questions?

 

ERP & Imaginal Exposures

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP) and how different my life is after I underwent an intense 12 weeks of this type of cognitive-behavioral therapy.  ERP is exactly what the name says it is: you are exposed to something that will trigger your obsessions and then you are prevented from responding with a compulsion that will relieve your anxiety.

For example, someone who has contamination obsessions and hand-washing compulsions might be made to touch garbage and then is not allowed to wash her hands.  Instead, she sits with that anxiety, feeling it intensely.  If someone has HOCD obsessions and seeking reassurance compulsions, she might have to look through a Victoria’s Secret catalog and is not allowed to ask, “Am I gay?  Am I straight?”

So, what happens when you have Pure-O obsessions?  What if your obsession is that you will kill your newborn daughter and your compulsion is to stay away from her crib?  What if your obsession is that you’re going to blaspheme God and go to hell and your compulsion is repeating a prayer in your head?

Then what?  You can’t really kill your daughter (um, big DUH there, but you get it!) and you can’t really go to hell, so how in the world are you able to practice an exposure then?

"little sad song" by *TrixyPixie on deviantART

“little sad song” by *TrixyPixie on deviantART

Imaginal exposures, baby.  Brilliant and brutal.

In situations like these, what you might be expected to do is to write down all the ways you could kill your daughter, read it into a digital recorder, and then listen to it over and over.  Or maybe you’ll create a story in which you go to hell, where you’re forever condemned, and you read that story again and again.

If you’re an obsessive-compulsive, trust me, these imaginal exposures are going to FREAK. YOU. OUT.  They will be so triggering and so terrifying that your anxiety is going to spike, no problem.

Meanwhile, no compulsions allowed.

Meanwhile, ERP is re-wiring your brain.

Meanwhile, you’re stepping toward freedom.  And “all” you had to do was listen to a story.

This was my particular brand of ERP actually.  I had to listen to my recording for about 80 minutes a day until my anxiety levels (self-measured at the beginning, middle, and end) decreased by 50%.  For the first ten weeks or so, my anxiety levels were NOT dropping, and I very nearly gave up.  I mean, why put myself through this misery and terror every day if it was doing no good?

But then.

Sometime during week eleven, those anxiety levels started to drop.  I developed a whole new way of looking at my intrusive thoughts.  I tiptoed up to OCD.  I can still remember the day when I was listening (again) to that horrid recording, and instead of feeling anxious, my thought was, “This is getting so annoying.

And then I laughed … because … because finally.  You know what I mean.

Satan is the accuser; Christ is our defender.

Recently, one of my blog readers asked me how I could tell when a thought came from OCD or from God, especially because one of my formerly intrusive thoughts was of a Bible verse that seemed to condemn me.  She wrote, “I keep reading that Bible verses spontaneously popping into one’s head is a prime way God speaks to people.”

What a great question.  One I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to tackle, although I do know that the more I learn about and understand my OCD, the easier and easier it is for me to spot it.  I can recognize its tell-tale voice from a mile away now.  And while I don’t think that OCD = Satan (at all), they are both my enemies and they are both accusers.

Here is the (in flux) conclusion (is that an oxymoron?) I’ve come to:

I guess the big thing is this: when OCD would bring up that Bible verse, it worked like an intrusive thought and brought deep anxiety to me, but with God … his kindness leads us to repentance, not to shame.  The voice of God showers me with kindness, grace, conviction that leads to change … but I don’t think God’s voice is one of shame and accusation. In fact, scripture even tells us that SATAN is the accuser and CHRIST is the one who defends us.

Remember, Satan used and twisted scripture when Christ was going through his temptations, so we know that it’s part of the devil’s arsenal.

frustration4My friend Erica told me something fascinating she’d once heard: “The Holy Spirit does not motivate with guilt.”  Likewise, my incredibly wise writing professor Judy said, “I know the voice of God because that voice invites me to move closer without shame while the voice of Satan fills me with an electric dread that makes me want to hide.”

As always, I encouraged this blog reader to explore Exposure and Response Prevention therapy.  In the four years since my ERP, the voice of OCD has become so easy to recognize.  I finally know my enemy’s voice.

And better yet, I know my savior’s.