Grace in Unexpected Places

People sometimes applaud my bravery in being transparent about some sensitive dimensions of my life. But in all honesty, sharing about things like my experience of same-sex attraction hasn’t been too scary. I was riddled with nerves the first time I posted about it back in 2011, a mere six months after becoming a Christian. I must have smoked 50 cigarettes that day! But since that time, I’ve been pretty comfortable writing about it.

I don’t feel as comfortable about what I’m going to share today. I’ve gone back and forth for months about whether or not to publicly reveal another experience in my life. I’m not ashamed of it. But it has been painful for me and until recently has been hard for me to talk about with those outside of my immediate friends. Same-sex attraction is a heavy cross to bear. No doubt. Yet for me it pales in comparison to the crushing weight of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

If you’re not a fan of terms like “disorder” and don’t buy into “all that psycho-babble mumbo-jumbo,” I feel you. Hang tight; I’ll get to that in a minute. I just want to share a bit of my story first.

My parents will tell you that as a small child—even before going through traumas like their divorce and other unfortunate events—I wasn’t quite like other kids. I was nervous. Like, really nervous. My dad recently told me, “You didn’t have the care-free spirit that most children have, and we never really understood why that was.” When difficult circumstances did slither into my little life, my reactions to them were much more intense than that of my siblings (who went through the same stuff). I would frequently get so upset and worked up that I would throw up non-stop and get debilitating migraines. I had a very anxious and emotionally-reactive temperament.

Anxiety accompanied me throughout my adolescence and into my adulthood. I have a tendency to become fixated on and overly concerned about things that don’t warrant the attention and emotional energy I give them. This propensity has progressed in both its constancy and intensity as I’ve gotten older. In my early twenties, I would get “stuck” on something for a couple of weeks but eventually be able to let go of it and move on (until the next sticky thought came; usually a few months later). But over the last three years, this mildly troubling tendency has evolved into a monstrous beast. The things my mind began to get stuck on became increasingly odd and the fears I experienced around those things became increasingly irrational and intense. You’d think that my ability to recognize the unreasonableness of the thoughts would make it all the easier to say, “that’s dumb” and move on. But it didn’t. The extreme fear that was connected to those thoughts made them feel impossible to shake.

The mess really hit the fan when these thoughts and anxieties latched onto God. Have you heard of “scrupulosity”? It’s an excessive, fear-driven concern about spirituality and morality. It can take many shapes. John Bunyan, Martin Luther, and St. Therese of Lisieux all suffered from this (and all learned to fight it by leaning hard into the love and mercy of God despite the presence of their anxieties—more on that later). I had experienced scrupulous tendencies since my conversion, but they began to radically amplify in 2017. I would spend hours upon hours every day evaluating these fearful thoughts and trying to argue them away with logic and reason. I prayed non-stop for God to obliterate my anxieties. I read the Bible for hours and hours, trying to beat my fears to death with God’s promises. I talked with my Christian brothers about the content of my thoughts, hoping that they would say the magic words that would finally relieve me. They kept reassuring me that my thoughts were irrational and my fears unwarranted, and that I could let them go and trust the Lord.

But I couldn’t let them go. I tried every second of every day to trust the Lord (at least I thought I was), but my mind would not stop racing and my heart would not stop trembling. As time went on, the measures I took to alleviate my anxiety became more drastic and unreasonable.

I would call the police to confess to minor crimes I committed a decade ago (until they finally told me to stop calling them!), fearing that if I didn’t do so, I wouldn’t really be repentant about those things and therefore might not have saving faith. The same fears drove me to confess to my friend that one time I yelled at her dog (she laughed), to apologize to my sister for something mean I said to her when I was ten or eleven (she also laughed), and many more things like this concerning past or recent sins (or things I wasn’t sure were sins but might be sins, so I needed to confess just in case). I would mentally review each year of my life since early childhood, searching for anything I might have done that I needed to apologize for.

I would repeatedly call and text a woman with whom I’d gotten into a car wreck to make sure she was still alive. Though she didn’t suffer even a scratch, I couldn’t shake the thought that maybe she had an internal brain injury she didn’t know about, would suddenly drop dead, and it would all be my fault. When she stopped responding to my texts, I searched the internet every day for months to make sure there wasn’t an obituary.

I would check my mail five to ten times a day (even after the mail already came that day), for fear that the IRS or some government agency was going to send me something that stated I was going to go to jail or have to pay thousands of dollars in penalties (though I have no reason to be concerned about either of those things happening!). I would check my tax returns twenty or thirty times before filing them to make sure I filled everything in correctly. I would continue to check them for months after filing them. When filling out other kinds of paperwork, I would check my entries over and over again to verify their correctness—to the point that I started doubting that I actually knew my social security number, street address, etc. I would read each letter or number out loud to myself multiple times to makes sure what I entered was correct and that my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. I would google my address to make sure it was right. I feared that if I made a mistake, something terrible was going to happen.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. I share them to demonstrate that what I’ve been experiencing isn’t the normal kind of “worry” that is common to all people—health worries, financial worries, etc. This unrelenting need to attain certainty that I was an honest and truly repentant person (and therefore truly converted) so consumed me that I was no longer functioning. I couldn’t do my work. I couldn’t socialize. I couldn’t eat.

My friends had encouraged me for a long time to go see a counselor. I refused for a number of reasons. The primary one was my belief that psychology was a psuedo-science. I thought counselors were responsible for cultivating both the self-exalting (“I’m so awesome, I’m not bad, I’m good deep down”) and self-pitying (“poor me, my life is so hard, I don’t deserve this”) mentalities that permeate our culture. And those ideas didn’t jive with my biblical worldview. Humans are sinful people, not awesome people. We aren’t victims, we are perpetrators. Moping around and complaining about my problems to a therapist who was going to tell me how awesome I was just wasn’t something I was down to do. I thought it would be a waste of time and might even be dangerous. What if I started to be influenced by their humanistic ideas? What if I was drawn away from a high view of God and right view of myself and headed toward apostasy? No way. Wasn’t risking that.

But I eventually became so debilitated that I decided it was worth a shot. I made an appointment with a licensed therapist who is a Christian and counsels from a biblical worldview. And I am so glad I made that appointment. It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. My therapist was kind and compassionate, but she didn’t coddle me. She didn’t tell me how awesome I was, but rather how much God loves me despite my sin. She didn’t encourage self-pity, but rather self-control and self-denial. She wasn’t quick to throw a disorder label on me, either. But it eventually became quite clear that I had OCD.

My diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder came as no surprise to my friends at church who were trained counselors. They had tried to tell me I was dealing with OCD. But it just sounded so ridiculous to me. I wasn’t washing my hands all the time or checking doorknobs. I definitely wasn’t a neat freak! Like most of our society, I deeply misunderstood OCD.

OCD is comprised of both obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are the irrational thoughts that get stuck and are accompanied by severe anxiety. Compulsions are the things a person does (or doesn’t do) to neutralize that anxiety. The sufferer is able to recognize to some degree that the thoughts are irrational and the compulsions are unreasonable, but the intense anxiety compels them to do the compulsions, anyway. There is an endless variety of obsessions and compulsions that people can have. No two sufferers’ obsessions and compulsions are 100% alike.

Personal Examples of Obsessions/Compulsions:

Obsession: If I don’t confess past minor crimes to the police, maybe I’m not submitting to the human authorities God has placed over me and am therefore being disobedient to God, which may be an indicator that I don’t have saving faith.

Compulsion: Call the police and confess to make sure I have saving faith.

Obsession: If I don’t confess sins (or perceived sins) that didn’t cause any harm or loss to anyone, maybe I’m not really an honest or loving person. And maybe that’s evidence of an unregenerate heart.

Compulsion: Confess to parties I’ve sinned against (or think I might have sinned against), even if it was minor and that person suffered no harm or loss, to make sure I don’t have an unregenerate heart.

Obsession: I’m going to make a paperwork mistake and something terrible is going to happen to me as a result.

Compulsion: Check over it dozens of times, read numbers and letters out loud to myself, compare to previously filled-in forms or identification cards to make sure my social security number and address really are what I think they are—all to make sure nothing bad happens.

Obsession: Though I realize this thought is irrational, if I don’t act according to it, maybe I’ll be acting contrary to my conscience and be sinning against God.

Compulsion: Do the irrational thing to make sure I’m not sinning against God.

I understand many people have trouble with the concepts of “disorders” and “mental illnesses” and aren’t comfortable with clinical language. That’s okay. I tell those people, “You don’t have to believe I have a disorder, just know that the symptoms described in this supposed disorder are the symptoms I experience.” Having a name to put to the symptoms is what’s been massively helpful to me. Rather than it being this abstract, uncontained thing inside of myself that I can’t wrap my mind around, I view it as OCD–something that isn’t me and isn’t the Spirit of God but rather a collection of symptoms fueled by both the chemistry in my brain and my behaviors.

That’s right—my behaviors. There is an element of OCD that is outside of my control and more than likely biological/hereditary. But the degree to which it progresses and consumes me is largely within my control. The gas that feeds the fire of OCD are the compulsions, the things that I choose to do. When I respond to the thoughts by ruminating, confessing, checking—or even by repeatedly praying and reciting bible verses solely to make the thoughts go away—I’m validating the importance of the thoughts. I’m telling my brain, “Oh wow, thanks for sending me that signal; it’s probably a real danger that I need to attend to!” So my brain responds by continuing to send “danger! danger!”  signals so that I will act to protect or preserve myself. When anxiety functions property, it is a very good thing. If you’re getting too close to the edge of a cliff or encounter a bear in the woods or see your toddler wander into the street, your brain sends you a signal—“danger! danger!”—and a surge of anxiety so that you will act to neutralize the threat. However, the brain of an OCD sufferer sends danger signals when there is no danger. It tells you something is a threat when it’s not a threat. And the more an OCD sufferer validates the false signals by acting according to them (doing compulsions), the more frequent and powerfully those signals will fire.

This is what I didn’t understand before I started going to counseling and doing my own psycho-education. I believed the way to get the thoughts out of my head was to “do the right thing” by confessing, praying, reciting Bible verses, and being responsible by checking to make sure I did something correctly. But as I continued to do these things and act according to what I thought was my conscience (it wasn’t), my thoughts became more irrational and my anxiety grew worse. This frustrated the crap out of me. I was doing the hard work of “doing the right things”! Doing them made me miserable and embarrassed me, but I did them anyway because I thought by doing them I was being godly and obedient.

But in reality, I wasn’t being godly or obedient. I was performing fear-driven rituals to try to make myself feel better. Real godliness and obedience in this situation was to say to myself, “I know these obsessions and compulsions are irrational. I also know God is not irrational but is a God of peace who guides his children in ways that are clear and not characterized by debilitating fear. Therefore, I am not going to act according to these thoughts, no matter how much anxiety they cause me.”

This was exactly the conclusion to which my counseling and psycho-education led me. Psychologists have learned that the behavioral component of OCD is the most important and powerful part. The more you act in response to your anxious thoughts, the worse the anxiety becomes. But if you act according to what you know is true (that these thoughts aren’t worthy of your attention and you don’t need to attend to them) rather than to what your misfiring brain is telling you, your symptoms will decrease in frequency and intensity. They may not go away completely, but they will become more manageable.

What contemporary psychology has recently discovered about effectively treating OCD is essentially what the Bible prescribes: self-control and self-denial. The Scriptures exhort us over and over to rule our minds and bodies, to resist the thoughts that are contrary to the knowledge of God, and to walk according to faith—not according to fear, irrational thoughts, lust, greed, anger, etc. Exercising self-control when it comes to OCD is not easy. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a breeze or that all a person needs to do is read the Bible and pray. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life, and I’ve dealt with a lot of hard things. But thankfully, God has given us special graces to aid us, like godly counselors . . . and even medicine.

Over the years, I have been advised by people I trust to explore the possibility of medication. But I refused. I thought if I took meds I would be shutting down things in my heart that I need to work through. I was also afraid that they would change my personality, make me a zombie, and make me apathetic toward the Lord. I didn’t want to “numb” myself. However, I’ve been on Sertraline (Zoloft) for three months now, and I can joyously say that my perception about medicine was totally wrong.

Sertraline is an antidepressant prescribed for major depressive disorder in adult outpatients as well as obsessive–compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.

Do I still think our culture is over-medicated? Absolutely. I believe there are many people on meds that don’t need to be—they just need to deal with their junk. But there are also a lot of people who are dealing with their junk and wholeheartedly seeking the Lord who could greatly benefit from an SSRI, SNRI, or other medication. Sertraline has helped me tremendously. It doesn’t make my obsessive thoughts or anxiety go away completely. But it does put me in a more clear-headed frame of mind so that I can more effectively resist the thoughts and exercise faith in the God who loves me.

I know this blog post is really long. I’m not sorry! 🙂 I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this and related things in the months and years to come (I’m finishing my bachelors in psychology then pursuing my masters in Christian Counseling at a local seminary). But today I just want to publicly give thanks to God for the gifts of counseling and medication. I never dreamed these would be places where I encountered God’s goodness and grace, but they have been. They so have been. I’m slowly learning that God won’t be boxed into whatever a faith tradition or theologian or preacher says about him and the ways in which he works (though God never acts contrary to what’s revealed in the Bible). God can bless his people through ordinary, so-called “secular” means like therapy and medicine. There are many Christians who despise psychology, criticize therapy, and condemn the use of medication. I used to be among them! But I think a little education about mental health would shift many of these folks’ perspectives. I also believe the more openly sufferers in the Church talk about their struggles, the more opportunities there will be for skeptics in Church to grow in their understanding of mental health. That’s why I’m writing this post today.

If you’re struggling with the kinds of things I’ve described here and have been hesitant to see a counselor, I hope that you’ll give it a shot. It may take some time to find the right fit (not all counselors are good counselors), but there are plenty out there who are wise and godly. And counseling isn’t a forever thing for most people. I “graduated” from therapy after six months of weekly sessions. Also, I’m not a therapist or medical doctor and this is definitely not medical advice, but in my humble opinion I think it’s a good idea to try therapy before trying medication. See first how effectively you can fight without medicine. I didn’t start Sertraline until months after I began “doing the work” of trying to exercise control over my anxiety and OCD. There is no magic pill that will make all your mental and emotional struggles go away. But if you’re willing to dig your heels in and fight your anxiety by chasing after a God who wants you to trust him completely, it can be a great aid in that endeavor.


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