Anatomy of an OCD thought: Part 2 – the practice

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 3.

CONTENT WARNING: In this post I discuss the content of my religious OCD. If you have religious OCD, or other forms of OCD which involve magical thinking (e.g. “if I do x then y will happen”) please take care if reading on. OCD has been known to “take on” new symptoms when hearing about other people’s symptoms. (The post starts below the picture).

I’m now going to write about a specific OCD thought that is based on the OCD lies I described in Part 1. I hope that by writing it out I can help myself to see it for what it is, and show other people what OCD looks like in detail.

A couple of weeks ago I was on my way into town and I itched my eye with my middle finger. OCD told me that this meant I was giving the middle finger to the Holy Spirit or the devil. [It is frightening for me to write that.] OCD told me that I had to “correct” it. In order to correct it, what I needed to do was itch my eye with a different finger whilst in the same position on the road and whilst listening to the same part of the song that I was listening to when I originally itched my eye. OCD says that if I can do this successfully then I will ensure that I am not insulting the Holy Spirit or the devil.

I have tried to “correct” it, but haven’t managed to do so in a way that makes me feel it’s been properly corrected and “made safe”. I can’t keep trying to make it safe at the moment, a) because I am many miles away from the place I had the thought, b) because when it comes to “correcting” something OCD is never satisfied – anyone with OCD will know that however hard you try to do as OCD wants it will keep changing the goalposts. For example it will say I wasn’t quite in the right position, or the wrong part of the song was playing (I can’t actually remember the exact position or the exact part of the song that was playing, so OCD is bound to capitalise on that).

The way it is bothering me now is that I want to plan an event for my birthday. OCD is telling me that I can’t, because the eye-itching situation has not been adequately corrected. If I were to go ahead and plan the event I would need to re-do the planning once the eye-itching thing had been made safe. This is a good example of one of OCD’s tricks – in order to stop you moving on from a situation like this it will attach itself to a situation in the future, ensuring it stays in your mind.

Another trick OCD is using at the moment is making me doubt my intentions – it’s telling me that by itching my eye with my middle finger I was intending to insult the Holy Spirit and the devil. This gives OCD more power as it’s harder to dismiss as an intrusive thought if it tells me that it was actually me who was behind the thought. I will try to tackle this in Part 3.

Anatomy of an OCD thought: Part 1 – the theory

Click here to read Part 2.

Click here to read Part 3.

CONTENT WARNING: In this post I discuss the content of my religious OCD. If you have religious OCD, or other forms of OCD which involve magical thinking (e.g. “if I do x then y will happen”) please take care if reading on. OCD has been known to “take on” new symptoms when hearing about other people’s symptoms.

OCD’s “theory”

The idea that I have insulted the Holy Spirit or the devil are the most powerful thoughts that my OCD uses. They underpin almost every OCD thought I have and every compulsion I do. I’m planning on doing a later blog post about strategies I have found useful in combating these lies that OCD tells. For now I’m mostly going to describe what they mean to me in the context of my mental illness.

There are 2 verses in the Bible in which Jesus says all sins can be forgiven, but insulting the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven. Scholars of the Bible suggest that these verses mean that if you reject God (i.e. reject God’s gift of His Spirit) then you can’t be forgiven because you are choosing not to accept His forgiveness. The verses are not referring to a specific event or to insulting language etc. I know this, but OCD still uses the verse to terrify me. The ultimate fear behind this, for me, is the idea that if I insult the Holy Spirit I will not be saved and will not go to heaven. I no longer believe that hell is a real place, but my OCD still keeps me afraid of going there. I’ve discussed in other blog posts how having OCD means you can know that something is incorrect yet still fear it.

The second thought that OCD uses, that I could insult the devil, is also ultimately linked to a fear of hell. The OCD rationale says that if I insult the devil and one day end up in hell then the devil will single me out for specifically harsh treatment. This rationale depends on cultural notions of the devil as being in charge of hell, an idea that came into fruition long after the Bible was written. This concept of the devil as a god of hell is not actually Biblical. Even if you take the view that hell is a place, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the devil is in control there. In fact many Christians believe that the devil is not a specific being, but a metaphorical concept which was used at the time the Bible was written to describe the conflicting nature of the human mind – sometimes we want to (and do) do things that are wrong because it feels good, for example. The irony here is not lost on me – it’s plausible that when the Bible refers to the devil and demons afflicting people this is a pre-scientific description of what we now understand as mental illness.

One of the reasons my OCD has settled on these thoughts is that they can’t be disproved in the way that my earlier OCD thoughts could. If OCD tells me that my mum will die if I don’t stand in a certain spot, I can ignore OCD, then check if my mum is still alive. There’s no way to check whether I have insulted the Holy Spirit or the devil, and there’s no way to check whether I have stopped myself from going to heaven when I die.

Another reason why these thoughts are so powerful is that as a Christian I believe that God knows my thoughts. OCD is a condition which is based on intrusive automatic thoughts. Recovering from OCD involves accepting that you can’t control your thoughts – “but what if,” my OCD says, “by letting these thoughts go by, I am insulting the Holy Spirit and ruining not just my life but my eternity?” This is terrifying, and gives you an idea of why religious OCD is so difficult to treat.

I also fear that the devil knows my thoughts, or listens to the things I say out loud in attempt to prevent me from getting totally stuck, such as “I am not insulting the Holy Spirit or the devil if I use my left foot”. Again these fears are not based on a thoughtful reading of the Bible, but are more based on myths created by writers such as Dante.

This post has outlined some of what lies behind my OCD thoughts. Read Part 2 to see a concrete example of what this looks like in practice.

OCD and school

I thought today I’d write a few things about the ways in which OCD affected my time at school. If this blog gains traction it might be useful for teachers.

Early signs

One of my earliest memories is from when I was 4 or 5. I thought I had stared at my teacher. I knew that I shouldn’t stare at people, and as a result I got very upset and started crying (because I had done something wrong). I don’t believe this was fear of being told off, because obviously no one else noticed my staring, if anything the teacher was probably pleased to have attention from one of her pupils. For me it was more focused on the notion that I had done wrong, and I should not do wrong. This isn’t OCD in itself, but it could have been an early warning sign of OCD traits, such as inflated responsibility and rigid thinking.

Fear of copying and cheating

In high school I was very concerned about copying others. When I took exams I spent the whole time with my hand covering the side of my face so I couldn’t accidentally see anyone else’s answers. I wouldn’t let my parents help me with homework as I felt I should do it myself, otherwise it would be cheating. I would struggle for hours rather than accept help.

In my GCSE History exam I put my pen down a couple of moments after the teacher told us to stop writing. When I got my GCSE results they were very good (if I may say so myself!) but I wasn’t able to enjoy them because I felt that I’d cheated on the History exam. I went to speak to a history teacher and found that I was 14 marks past the grade boundary – this reassured me a little as it wouldn’t be possible to gain 14 marks in 2 seconds. But the overwhelming feeling I experienced when I received the best set of marks of my life (they remain my best relative marks to this day), was that it was undeserved and that the whole set of GCSE marks (from all subjects) was tainted because I’d cheated in History. Now I am proud of them and I know I didn’t cheat, though I couldn’t tell you how long it took for me to get to this view.

Another related way in which OCD affected my school work was in a piece I wrote for English. The options were to write a story or an autobiographical piece. I wanted to write a story, but some of my friends had chosen that option and I thought I would be copying if I did the same thing, so I wrote the autobiographical piece instead…

Moral fears and scrupulosity

This autobiographical piece ended up being a nightmare to write, because my OCD made me feel like I needed to write it as a moral example for my teacher (with hindsight this is somewhat comical). I suppose I was frightened of writing anything that might lead my teacher astray morally. This could be seen as an example of scrupulosity, a type of OCD which is focused on religious or moral obsessions. I ended up getting one of the worst marks I’d ever received.

OCD’s interaction with my future

Talking of bad marks, OCD really interfered with my A levels as well. I had an offer to study at one of the best universities in the UK, but I needed to get top grades to finalise the offer. I was desperately anxious during that time (for a range of additional reasons), and my OCD was a nightmare.

It is difficult to remember exactly what happened with this next example, but I think it was a mixture of things. Part of it was that I had spent so much time as a teenager OCD-checking things that I struggled to engage with the action of checking, as it caused me so much anxiety. I expect I also had bad thoughts about which words I could write without terrible things happening. And I wouldn’t allow anyone to help me with my work as that would be cheating. I vaguely remember trying to print the piece of work and being scared to even look at it as it was so important that it was a huge target for my OCD and I could barely cope with the anxiety of handling it. [Writing this 12 years later I’m actually proud of myself for working so hard in the face of almost total panic].

This culminated in me submitting work with an obvious mistake in the title, and I ended up getting a D. I desperately needed an A overall in order to take up the offer I had from university, and this was a big blow to that. Eventually I told my teacher about my OCD and she advised me to exercise. She had no idea how ill I was, which I suppose was partly because I had been hiding it somewhat, but also because she didn’t know about mental illness. Her strategy (as I experienced it) when I struggled was to put more and more pressure on, and my grades got worse. I was also spending so much time on this subject that I didn’t have as much time to devote to Maths, which was the A level that I was least naturally suited to.

On results day I was woken up by my heart beat. My place at the top university had been declined because my grades were ABB. I rung them up and asked if they had considered what I had told them about being mentally ill, and the woman said they had thought about it but they had ‘sticklers for grades’ who would complain if they let me in. Two days later my first boyfriend broke up with me because I didn’t get into the university like he had done.

A happy ending (for a change)

School interacted badly with my OCD, partly because the teachers didn’t recognise that anything was wrong, and partly because I was adamant that the teachers shouldn’t know about it (until the very end, when it was so obviously harming my work that I felt that telling them was the only option). I’m trying to remember why I was so resistant to the teachers (and my GP) knowing – it was probably a mixture of not wanting to accept how ill I was (and still hoping I could get better on my own), self-stigma, fear of being treated differently, and not wanting to accept that attaining academic perfection might not be in my reach anymore, given how bad my OCD was.

But to the happy ending… if I didn’t have OCD I might well have got over the line on the grades, and gone to one of the best universities in the UK. But I was still able to go to a good university, and I’m at a similar place career-wise than I would have been if I’d gone to the other university – maybe a couple of years behind, but that’s ok. Most importantly I met my partner at the university I did attend, so whilst OCD won the battle for my A levels, I ultimately ended up better off as a result.