what it feels like

I just had an OCD dream.  Is that even possible?

In it, my mom was talking about Halloween and beseeching me to guard myself against dark powers on that day (my mom is not generally a nut about these kinds of things, but she was very passionate in my dream), and I was telling her that I was protected because I have Christ … when I began to doubt my salvation.  In my dream. 

Weird.  Never have done that before.

And I woke up to those same old feelings of terror that dominated me for so long.

I was reading OCDTalk blog and read a post about what OCD felt like (the link will take you there).  She wrote:

* You have that feeling you get after swerving to avoid a potentially fatal car accident.

* You have that feeling you get when you take your eyes off of your child in a store for one minute, and then he/she is gone.

With the above examples, your physical and mental distress dissipates once the blackboard scratching stops, you avoid the accident, or you’ve located your child. But try to imagine having those feelings of intense anxiety repeatedly, perhaps hundreds of times a day. That is what some sufferers say life with severe OCD feels like.

Those were the two examples that resonated most with me– I wrote a couple things over the past three years trying to describe what OCD felt like.  Here’s a poem that reminds me of how I just woke up from my dream– the feeling that I’m trying to let drain out of me right now as I blog:


 I remember in junior high when for Christmas I received
an old-fashioned alarm clock, two bells like golden mushrooms
and the tiny hammer that trilled between them. 
The alarm was like crashing through four levels of reality
in mere seconds, like being doused with water from the Atlantic,
like defibrillator plates on my chest, shocking me into the morning,
like frozen hands slapping my brain.  These days,
it is as though the golden clock of my childhood has taken up residence
inside my chest, where it is continuously ringing, jolting me back to the
Issue at Hand whenever I forget, for a moment, to be scared.

Here’s another line from my book:

I worked myself into hysterics by that evening, an amusement park ride spinning out of control.  Terror licked at my heart and felt permanent: I just knew that nothing would ever be right again. 

And here’s one last one.  I hope it helps you to understand.

It reminded me of my later years of high school, when Charlotte’s and my friend Terri started to go to parties in our classmates’ cornfields, where she would steal cigarettes from boys’ mouths to take her own drag.  Jeremy Mason’s back forty was the preferred party spot for our small class, although from time to time, the melee would move over to Madison Prewett’s pasture pond.  And sometimes, as if they were begging to be stereotyped, the group would convene for indiscretion at the railroad trestle just outside of the Collins Falls city limits.

At the time, I was stuck in my own paradoxical world—worrying that God wasn’t real, and that because I thought so, He would send me to hell—and so had no time for petty crimes like underaged drinking, which would only muddy my already-soiled “record.” 

            The one time I made it out to the trestle was on a Sunday afternoon, the day after a party where half of my class had gotten minors.  Terri had shirked the police but dropped her cell phone while fleeing the scene, so the next day, she asked me and Charlotte to help her look.  Charlotte, who had just gotten both her license and the Voyager, drove us to the scene in a reckless fashion she’d never outgrow.

            The site had an abandoned, makeshift fire pit and empty cans of Coors Light scattered all around like eggs at an Easter hunt.  The fire pit had a few hay bales around it that someone or another had brought out in his pickup truck, and all this was at the base of the western hill.  From the top of that hill, the trestle bridge ran out straight to the eastern bank, at least 120 feet high in the center of
the bridge and about a quarter of a mile from one end to the other.  It looked rickety and ominous, like the oldest rollercoaster at the amusement park.

            “Call my number,” demanded Terri, as we started to climb the western hill.  “I ran this way, trying to get into the trees.” 

            We were nearly at the top when we heard the old Nokia ring.  Terri located it and wiped it off on her jeans.  “Good as new,” she pronounced.

            The three of us turned around and looked down the hill, then across the long stretch of tracks with the support frames branching out beneath them like Tim Burton’s grotesque version of gothic
giraffe legs or the Imperial walkers on planet Hoth.  “Let’s go across it,” said Terri, her eyes shining.

            “Oh gosh,” said Charlotte.  “Really?”

            “I’ve done it before,” said Terri.  “It’s really not that big of a deal.”

            “What if a train comes?” I asked.

            “That’s the point,” said Terri.  “It’s scary because you don’t know if a train could be coming just around the corner.  I mean, it probably won’t, but you don’t know that.  If a train comes, then you
have to run for it.”

            “Okay,” I said, and the words shocked me as they left my mouth.  I felt as if someone had bumped into me and I’d accidentally burped them out. 

            “Really?” asked Terri.

            “Yeah, really?” asked Charlotte.

            Now my stomach was reeling as I looked down the side of the hill we’d come up.  It was a long way down.  I moved over to the tracks and stood in the middle of them, facing the bridge.  It was so far across, and so terribly narrow.  I wondered briefly if we could somehow climb down the support beams if the worst came to the worst.  “Let’s just do it,” I said.  “Let’s get going.  It’s going to be fine.”

            And so we walked across the trestle then, a quarter mile from safety to safety, and the whole time we marched across those wooden slats, none of us spoke but Terri, who said, “Whoa,” in the
middle of the bridge, when she looked over the edge.  She said, “It’s actually worse in daylight,” and then we continued on, a silent march, ears tuned for any shrieking whistle just around the bend.  I felt bent over with tension, as if my shoulders were knotting up the way water boils in a pot.  My stomach felt hollow and greasy. 

            It’s nothing, I told myself.  Nothing is coming.   But it didn’t calm me. My heart beat like a steady roll on a snare.  It was one of the most terrible and memorable experiences of my young life, and my mind was ravaged with images of three bodies lying still in the rushes below.  Every step felt like sheer panic flowing up from my toes to my chest, rattling my heart then moving like a laser beam to my head, where I manufactured nightmares.

            And now, all these years later, this memory was like putting a finger on the pulse of that evening: absolute terror, only this time, there was no safety in sight.  Just the feel of walking on an endless, narrow railroad trestle, listening, straining for the sound of destruction on its way to meet me.

CBT prep …

  I looked at the back cover of Freedom for Today’s Obsessive-Compulsive.  Apparently Steve Jewett and James Nash were some big names in the OCD world.  “Open this book,” the back cover read, “and unlock the doors of your mind’s prison.  What lies ahead of you is freedom.”  The goal was appealing, and I liked the confident wording.  Just straight to the point: “What lies ahead of you is freedom.”  Well, okay.

            I opened to a random page and read, If I were to say to you, ‘Don’t think about a red unicorn,’ what would happen next?  Why, immediately, you’d begin to think of a red unicorn!  In fact, I’m sure that’s what’s in your mind’s eye right now as you continue to read this page.  That is what we’re dealing with as we fight OCD.  An obsessive-compulsive experiences an intrusive, unwanted thought, and because it is intrusive, he feels disgusted by it, wants to stop thinking that particular thought.  But just as my telling you, ‘Don’t think about a red unicorn’ results in your immediately doing so, the obsessive-compulsive’s panic and desire to stop thinking the intrusive thought actually drive him to continue thinking about that very thing.”

            Well, that was certainly true enough.  When my worst thoughts arose in my mind and I tried to stamp them out, it was a battle of escalation.  The harder I fought, the harder I needed to fight. 

            “In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT),” the book continued, “we encourage the obsessive-compulsive to give in to those intrusive thoughts, to stop fighting them.  Time and time again, CBT experts have found that it is when an obsessive-compulsive stops fighting the intrusive thoughts and actually embraces them that he finds freedom from them.”

            Oh gosh.  I set the book down, my heart beginning to race.  It wasn’t new information to me—Ruth’s brochure had given me the basics of behavior therapy—but the way it was worded gave me a chill.  “Give in to those intrusive thoughts.” 

             “So I’m reading this book for Dr. Foster, right?” I said a couple nights later at Rosie’s Place to Stella before she opened her laptop.  “It’s like reading my own biography.”

            “Yeah?” she asked, taking a sip of something foamy.  “What do you mean?”

            “Well,” I said, “you know how all my ‘issues’ seem so bizarre?  Some of them are not bizarre at all, I mean in the world of OCD.  I’m textbook.  It’s crazy really.” 

            “Like?”  Stella began to sort through the tangled mess of beads she was wearing—black, red, maroon, picasso jasper.  These, in addition to a floral chambray shirt and hiking shorts.

            “Okay,” I said, “so there are all these made-up scenarios, and the book circles back to revisit these same examples.  One of them is a dad who’s sure he’s going to kill his baby girl, so he won’t even hold her.  He gets all these images in his head of suffocating her, stabbing her in her little chest, shaking her, drowning her.”

            “Ew,” she said, still fussing with her beads.

            “Yeah, but these thought make him completely sick,” I explained.  “It’s clear to everyone else, including his wife and therapist, that he would never ever hurt his daughter.  I mean, they’re not freaking out.  He’s the one avoiding alone time with his daughter.

            “And there’s this lady who thinks she might be a lesbian even though she isn’t attracted to women.  Every woman she walks by, she thinks, ‘Am I attracted to her?  Do I want to kiss her?’ then she imagines herself kissing that woman.  She’s just sick over it, but instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I guess not.  That’s not a pleasing image to me,’ she thinks, ‘I must be gay.  Why else would I be thinking so much about kissing women?’  This is called HOCD—homosexual OCD.

“But then get this.  One of the example scenarios is about this girl who has these blasphemous images attack her mind.  She … she pictures herself having sex with Jesus.”  Stella looked bemused, but I continued.  “She doesn’t want to think about that, but there are all these triggers in her normal day—when she sees someone praying, or a cross around someone’s neck, or a kissing scene in a movie or on TV.  And whenever there’s nothing else to think about, that’s where her thoughts go.  She believes that her thoughts are blasphemous, so she believes that she will go to hell.  She thinks about hell all the time.  The book even said that she confessed to her priest, and even he said she was fine, but she couldn’t believe it.  Whenever the image of having sex with Christ came into her head, she said a Hail Mary to alleviate her guilt and drive the image away.  Eventually she had to quit her job because she was too distracted saying her Hail Marys to get work done.”

            Stella’s eyebrows furrowed.  “Gosh, that does sound like you!”  She abandoned the necklaces she’d been working on and clasped her hands together on the table between us, leaning forward as she listened.

            “I know!  I mean, elements are different, for sure, but the basic idea is the same.”

            Stella sighed.  “I used to think that OCD meant that people were super clean.”  She chewed on the inside of her cheek.  I knew what she was thinking, even though she didn’t say it aloud: It’s so much worse than that.

            “Yeah,” I said, agreeing both with what was said and unsaid.  “Even the people who are really clean, or who wash their hands all the time—they’re driven to it.  They think something horrible is going to happen if they don’t do it. It’s so much bigger than just being a neat freak.  It kinda drives me nuts when people with quirks say, ‘I’m a little OCD myself.’”

Stella nodded violently.  “Remember that receptionist job I took at that plastic surgeon’s?  One day this nose-job lady came in, right?  She sat beside a burn survivor, pointed at his dressings, then at her own protective shell covering the bridge of her nose, and said, ‘I know how you feel.  Hang in there.’”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, jaw dropped.  “You’re joking.”

“I’m not,” she said.  “I’ve never been so pissed at a job site before.  I’d take the call center perverts over those rich bastards any day.”  She shook her head in disbelief.  “So … therapy?”

            “Therapy,” I said.  “I guess it’s like a pyramid, and you climb to the top, step by step—if you don’t reach the pinnacle event, CBT probably won’t work.  In the book examples, the dad had to write down all the ways he was going to murder his daughter—graphically!—and then record himself reading it, and he had to listen to it over and over.” 

Stella looked disgusted.

            “The HOCD person had to rate women’s butts and record everything in a notebook, and she had to read a couple LGBT novels.  And the one with religious obsessions had to write a story about having sex with Jesus Christ and then read it over and over again without saying any Hail Mary prayers.”

            Stella made a face but nodded slowly.  “So what will you have to do?”

            I shrugged.  “All I know is that it will be terrible.”

            And for once, I appreciated it when Stella didn’t reassure me.  There was more strength in knowing she agreed.  “I don’t know what to do,” I confessed. 

            “Write about it,” she said.  So I did.


There he is, that scarlet beast,
black horn like a railway spike.
I check myself against the blood-red giant,
close my eyes, cover my ears,
two-thirds of the famous monkey trio
where I sit cross-legged between cloven hooves.
Do not think of a red unicorn.  Do not do it.
But I can feel his wet, warm breaths like humid whispers

as he lowers his nostrils to my neck, crimson ears at salute
like a maddening accusation.

CBT intake

“This will be different from other kinds of therapy, Neely,” said Dr. Foster, as if he could read my mind and there see my image of Ruth.  “You’ll have homework and be expected to go through various exposures when we meet together.”  He picked up the top coaster off a stack of them on the coffee table between us and set his coffee mug on it.  It had had writing on it.  I looked at what was now the top coaster on the stack.  It read, “Uncertainty and mystery are energies of life. R.I. Fitzhenry.”

For the next hour Dr. Foster tuned in carefully for any mention of rituals, anxiety, and triggers.  I knew that he was combing through my words for his options, already working on his plan of attack for how he would prompt anxiety in me like a gun’s trigger, asking over and over, “If you couldn’t do that, would you have a lot of anxiety?” I blathered, but he was only seeking one thing: what would stress me out to the max.

“When I hear words that start with the f sound, I start praying over and over again in my head,” I revealed.  

“How would you feel if you were prevented from repeating the prayer at those times?”

My heart clenched a little in my chest.  My prayer was the key to counteracting the whole chain of ugliness that lead to blasphemy and hell.  “Um, anxious, nervous, crazy.”

“Mmm hmmm.”  Dr. Foster was jotting notes furiously.

“It’s because of hell,” I shared, explaining how curse words and the sound of the letter f  made me think of cursing the Holy Spirit, which I believed to be unforgivable.  “I’m always scared of hell—only sometimes it’s in the background, like elevator music.”

 He continued to write and encouraged me to keep talking.  “When you’re nervous about going to hell, how do you calm yourself down?”

 “I can’t calm myself down,” I admitted.  “But I ask my friends and family what they think.  Even though it doesn’t convince me, I still like to hear them say I’m okay.”

 “Hmm,” said Dr. Foster in recognition.  “Seeking reassurance is another of your compulsions, another thing you do to ease your anxiety.  Pay attention this week—I bet sometimes you do this passively, like mentioning that you’re a bad person.  Watch for it.”

 We continued on this way, Dr. Foster asking the questions and me providing the answers, feeling ridiculous and unhelpful and as if I were maybe wasting Dr. Foster’s time. 

 “Do you have any questions?” he asked as we were wrapping things up.

 “My faith plays a huge role in my OCD,” I said.  “Do you … ”                                  

 “I believe in God, yes,” he interrupted.  The way he spoke made me certain that he did not feel about God the way that I did.  I gulped.

 “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people are skeptical going into this,” he told me, his face like a stone.  I wondered if he ever smiled, even at home.

 “Okay, because I am,” I said.  It felt appropriate to tell him this, even though I was intimidated by his seriousness.  “I think I understand how this works,” I said, “but I’m a little confused.  Like, for example, a washer would be prevented from washing, and then they’d realize that nothing bad happened when they didn’t wash—they still lived.  So how will that work for me?”

 “You’re misunderstanding a fundamental part of cognitive-behavioral therapy,” said Dr. Foster, folding his hands across his stomach.  “The point is not to take away the person’s uncertainty.  The point is to make him or her okay with uncertainty.”

Well.  That didn’t sound so good.

He continued, “Just because a washer doesn’t get contaminated after being prevented from washing one time doesn’t mean that the person won’t still fear a deadly disease the next time.  Each time is a new adventure.”  He raised his eyebrows.  “And with you, well, we can’t fast-forward to the end of your life and see whether you’re going to heaven or hell.  CBT will teach you how to live with uncertainty.”  He tapped on the top coaster in the pile.  “Energies of life.”


That is, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

It’s 567 true-or-false questions, and I had to take it when I started meeting with my first therapist (whom I disliked and called “Shrinkie” behind her back).

567 questions takes a long time.

567 questions for an obsessive-compulsive takes even longer.

I kept running into statements and BEATING THEM TO DEATH WITH MY BRAIN.

For example, I believe one of the questions was similar to the following:
I believe God hears me when I pray to Him.

Thought process:
I am a Christian– I should put yes.  But then again, I have committed the unforgivable sin, so He probably doesn’t hear my prayers.  But do I really believe I’ve committed that sin?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Probably.  I should just put yes.  They want me to put yes because it will help the test to identify my beliefs.  But what if that is inconsistent with my beliefs?  On the other hand, maybe I should put no, because then it will identify that as an issue for me.  It’s definitely an issue for me.  But could I really, honestly say that I don’t believe God hears me when I pray?  I’m just being silly when I think that, right?  As a Christian, I should put yes.  I believe yes.  But then again, maybe I’m not a Christian.  If I’ve committed the unforgivable sin, then how can I still call myself a Christian?  I should just put my gut reaction.  Which is yes.  But why put a gut reaction down instead of a thought-out answer?  If I really think it through, then I don’t believe it.  Well, I think I do actually believe it– TODAY– but it could very well be a concern for me tomorrow or every day next week.  Should I put down how I feel right now in this moment, or should I put down how I usually feel, which is no?  I guess that’s not how I usually feel– maybe one-third of the time.  But most so-called “Christians” would think that one-third of the time is huge, in which case, it’s a bigger deal, and I should put down no.  Really– one-third?  Seems like a lot more.  If I think about it again, it’s probably more than one-third.  It’s maybe one-third of the time really BOLD– time when I’m terrified.  But even those other two-thirds I’m still doubtful of my salvation.  It’s just quieter.  So how do I interpret that?  One-third TERROR, two-thirds doubt.  Compared to the normal, which is little to no questioning of one’s salvation, that is a LOT.  So I should put no, so that the test correctly interprets that I have major issues with this particular scenario.


I’ll come back to it later.

You get the point. 🙂

the biggie, continued

I tried to explain my way out of it, any way I could.  Maybe because these curses were just in my head and not outloud they didn’t truly meet the “criteria” for blasphemy of the Spirit.  And then there was always the confusing line in the Mark 3 passage:

28 o“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever pblasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

For they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”  Now, what did that mean?  That it wasn’t really a word spoken against the Spirit that was the condemning act?  That it was, in fact, something else– the attributing of the Holy Spirit’s works to Satan.

Well, that’s like laying out a feast for OCD.  It jumped all over it.  Almost immediately I began to doubt if Jesus was really who He said He was.  I let my mind go so far that I started to wonder if Jesus might really be Satan in disguise. 

Now I was sure I was condemned.  One way or the other, I must have committed the unforgivable sin!  Any way you cut that cake, you’d find hell in the center.

I was devastated, hopeless.  Have you been there?  Are you there now?  Leave a comment.  I want to encourage you– because there IS still hope.  My life has turned around, and in spite of OCD, I am confident that my heart belongs to Christ.

the biggie

I can still remember the day at summer camp when a fellow camper first mentioned the unforgivable sin to me.  It sounded completely foreign, like something a cult-member had made up, nothing like what I’d heard my whole life: Jesus loves you.  Jesus can forgive you for anything.  ANYTHING.

Years later, this unforgivable sin (actually mentioned in Matthew 12 and Mark 3) would become the torment of my life.  Nothing has stolen more joy from me than OCD making me doubt my salvation.

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

22 wThen a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 xAnd all the people were amazed, and said, x“Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, y“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 zKnowing their thoughts, ahe said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, bby whom do cyour sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is dby the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then ethe kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or fhow can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed ghe may plunder his house. 30 hWhoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 iTherefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but jthe blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word kagainst the Son of Man lwill be forgiven, but jwhoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in mthis age or in the age to come.

So of course– my intial thoughts were that cursing the Holy Spirit was unforgivable.  To me, this would clearly be “speaking against the Holy Spirit.”  Immediately, my head began to think of curses toward the Spirit.  I was plagued by this for years actually, so much so that I eventually developed a prayer compulsion to combat it.  If I’d start thinking of a curse in my head, I would instead redirect it to a prayer: “Father God, I love You.”  This happened so frequently that it was liking hearing one track in my head overlaid against the track I heard from the real world.