Life with OCD: My Religious Obsessions

As a kid and teenager, my faith was very important to me. I grew up going to a Lutheran church every Sunday, and I also participated in Wednesday school (where we’d get out of school early on Wednesdays and attend lessons at church for a couple of hours), Sunday school, and youth group. My goal was to be as perfect as possible, unblemished in the eyes of God and everyone else, and who doesn’t like the idea of eternal paradise? So of course OCD rooted its way into this part of my life and stripped it of all its hope and joy, leaving guilt, doubt, and despair in its wake.

Before I knew I had OCD and understood how it’s treated, I stopped going to church. Even “nice” church services had made me miserable: I’d enter a beautiful building with stained glass windows and feel guilty that the money had been spent on aesthetics instead of on starving children. Messages such as “You are the salt of the earth” made me feel empty inside: Why was I better than anyone else? Why should others have to suffer for eternity just because they didn’t believe in Jesus? Didn’t we all deserve salvation? The sermon didn’t have to be about fire and brimstone for me to feel utterly hopeless. And don’t get me started on some churches’ messages about purity – especially purity of thought. Knowing that God knew every thought that passed through my mind almost destroyed me.

For well over 15 years, I’ve avoided church services. I went to church with my husband several years ago to support my father-in-law as he delivered his final pre-retirement sermon, and I’ve been inside churches for weddings and funerals and non-church-related events such as fundraisers and support groups. As my little nephew and I walked downstairs during one of those events, both of us eager for a piece of homemade pie, he asked, “Have you ever been to church?”

“Yes, I have!” I said as enthusiastically as possible. Please don’t ask any follow-up questions, I thought. How will I explain myself?

You might be surprised, then, to know that last Sunday morning I talked about my religious obsessions in a church. Now, it wasn’t in a church service – it was between services in the basement – but I stood in front of a room full of church-going people and told them about the time of my life when I couldn’t stop doubting God and was sure I was going to hell. I even said the word sex – like a million times.

I’m not sure I could have done it if I’d been speaking to a very conservative congregation. While there were surely people in the audience who didn’t know much about OCD and were surprised by what I shared that morning, at least I was relatively certain none of them believed I was possessed by the devil instead of suffering from a brain disorder. In fact, when I mentioned that some church leaders actually say that to congregants with OCD, several people groaned.

If I were to start going to church again, I would go to a church like this. One where people are willing to learn about mental illness between church services and ask thoughtful questions. I’m just not quite there yet.

Alison Dotson


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