Faith, fear and therapy: Recovery from OCD
OCD in its fullest form is a highly complex and deeply distressing condition. I have had it for as long as I remember. It hampered my life as a child and started becoming really debilitating in my 20s.
As a young Christian (I made a commitment to the Christian faith as a child), OCD naturally got mixed up with my faith, especially with prayer. All sorts of fears and rituals pervaded my prayers – I had to say ‘Amen’ three times otherwise God wouldn’t acknowledge the prayer, I had to be in an absolute state of grace before any prayer otherwise God wouldn’t be able to hear it - and so on. Surviving bad episodes of OCD – which could last days or even weeks – was like trying to survive in a vacuum, completely cut off from any means of communicating, with no reference points with which to navigate myself, and no indication of how long my life could continue in this way, or even whether I was able to continue life at all.
It was not until my 20s that I learned OCD was a recognised treatable condition. I underwent 10 weeks of 1 to 1 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The understanding of OCD and the techniques I learned, together with what I have developed myself, have enabled me to manage my OCD successfully ever since.
What does the Bible say?
The Bible passages that address fear and worry are full of wisdom and give us solace in times of trouble. But they didn’t alleviate my OCD. The Bible and the Christian way of life do not protect us from the human condition – Christ himself knew more than anyone the experience of being completely cut off and alone in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. The Bible doesn’t provide a cure for OCD, or grief or heartbreak, or any other of life’s difficulties. Expecting this is to mistake faith for magic.
So, how do you go about seeking help if you have OCD? And how do you support someone who is suffering with OCD? OCD is a medical mental health condition like many other conditions, and needs the right treatment to be alleviated.
One of the enduring messages of the Bible is that the strength to overcome difficulties lies within ourselves. The best, evidence-based therapies for OCD are self-help ones, and OCD is most often overcome through the willingness of the sufferer to recover, to do the work and to face the challenges necessary to bring about that recovery.
What can help?
Many OCD sufferers find that reading about the condition and working from self-help books is all they need. There are also many organisations that provide help and advice, for example via forums and group chat facilities. If therapy is needed this can be accessed via GPs and IAPTs (self-referring NHS therapy programmes).
OCD is not technically curable, but it can be managed to the point where it is effectively cured, as has happened in my own story. The combination of my Christian faith with the therapy was my lifeline to a normal life. The therapy was difficult and my faith gave me the deep conviction that I had a strength beyond my own.
Supporting someone with OCD
It is challenging to support a person who has OCD, because OCD is an intensely private condition. Those who have it will make supreme efforts to hide it and give the impression that they function normally. A sufferer is highly unlikely to share much detail of the kind of fears which distress them mainly because they keep changing and are often almost impossible to explain, often seeming very strange or even stupid. A sufferer will only share details with someone they trust at the very highest level.
It is essential therefore that someone providing support to an afflicted person has some understanding of how OCD works, and the impact it has on a person’s everyday life. Without this understanding, the risk is, sadly, to exacerbate the OCD.
It is important to say here that it is possible to give very effective support to someone with OCD without becoming involved with their condition. All the usual means of support apply - anything from a friendly greeting to offering to spend time with them if your relationship is on that footing. One of the key ways of supporting is not to give the wrong support. For example, a desire to find and offer answers based solely within our faith is natural but not helpful. This ‘faith-based’ approach can create in the OCD sufferer a considerable fear of letting others down, or of letting God down, which then can become a source of anxiety in itself. It can also reinforce the fear of the OCD sufferer having to face people who might ask well-meaning questions, which is likely to make them withdraw and suffer all the more.
My book is for sufferers and supporters. It explains briefly, in accessible language, what OCD is, what fuels it and what makes tackling it so difficult. I also set out some practical help strategies. Over 100 cartoons help demonstrate the problems and strategies and add a touch of humour. Humour certainly helped in my own recovery.
Helena’s book Beating OCD and Anxiety: 75 Tried and Tested Strategies for Sufferers and their Supporters is available here on Amazon.
Helena Tarrant, 07/07/2021