Finding God in Midst of Mental Illness

I don’t know how literally I mean this (I think I mean it at least a little literally), but in many ways the experience of OCD is like living with a demonic presence. It feels at times to have a life of its own. It knows exactly where I’m most vulnerable and how to scare me in my weakness. Over the past few months it’s been more active than usual. This is to be expected: I am undergoing massive shifts in the way I relate to God and the world, and if there’s one thing OCD doesn’t like, it’s change. It wants me to hold on to the old ways of knowing and thinking, even if they don’t serve me, because it wants to preserve as much power as it can. We’d struck a delicate balance that kept the worst of its terrors at bay and allowed me to feel adequately safe. But I am being called to let go of some of those structures and to find new ways of feeling safe–ways that don’t involve such precise moral vigilance and needing to know all the right answers, ways that are grounded in my trust of a loving God–and it makes my OCD jealous. It prefers me to trust it, not God.

One unexpected gift of this process has been an ability to begin to discern God’s presence in the midst of it all. This was not the case in my last extended bout with OCD a few years ago. But this time, as I’m diving into the false beliefs and assumptions that give OCD room to thrive (along with the usual CBT and mindfulness techniques I’ve learned to manage it), I’m noticing something else–God in the darkness.

For example:

My OCD reminds me of my human frailty. When I am tempted to believe that I can save myself, that I can take it from here, God, thank you very much, the fear and doubt of my disorder rob all hope of self-justification. I cannot do this on my own. Whew.

My OCD has shown me the depths of hell–and through it, the joys of heaven. Hell is to live from a lie, and when my OCD was at its worst and I had no idea what it was, I spent years there. To begin to heal from OCD, to see beyond it, to recognize it for what it is–and to hold onto God’s grace and mercy in its place–is liberation. It brings joy and gratitude and peace. Even when hell returns for me and attempts to draw me in, it doesn’t hold the same power as it once did. My thoughts can do what they want (and God knows they do): but I am free (even when I’m not fully free).

My OCD has taught me to become comfortable with ambiguity and complexity. I have learned, over the years, to breathe through the fear–to feel it, to acknowledge it, to attend to it, and then by God’s grace to live from something else, something higher. It is there, yes, the sinking sensation in my stomach, the tightness in my shoulders, the clenching of my jaw; but so too is the gentle whisper of grace. They can exist simultaneously, in the same person at the same moment. My OCD has taught me that it’s okay to live in ambiguity, that I can cling to the best of what I believe about God, the world, and myself, even when I can’t see it.

My OCD reminds me that redemption is now and not yet; that we live in a time of in between. Experiencing faith and fear, love and anguish, peace and anxiety, all at the same time is a powerful reminder that I am dying and being raised in Christ day by day, moment by moment.

I have been turning lately to 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul speaks of being “afflicted but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” All of it can happen at once, the affliction and the perplexity and the persecution and the striking, along with love and joy and redemption and humor and hope. I don’t know that I would have ever had occasion to know what this feels like in my body without OCD. I’m not saying God “gave” me OCD, but God has used it in my life for good: it fuels my theological reflection, it drives me deeper into the arms of Christ, it teaches me to give up the illusion of control.

For, ultimately, God’s grace triumphs over even the most insurmountable darkness, and “everything is for [our] sake” (2 Cor 4:15). If my OCD has taught me to trust anything, it is this. And I see God in that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *