I’ve come to think of myself as a daredevil, at least in terms of my OCD.
I’m not a big risk-taker in general. I like to stick to what I know and what I’m comfortable with. I’m not a big thrill-seeker, although I like rollercoasters maybe a little more than the average person. But I remember one of the turning points in my journey towards recovery, maybe THE biggest turning point, and it supplied me with the model for what I wanted all of my exposures to be like. And that, I think, made me into a bit of a daredevil. A thrill-seeker. An adrenaline junkie. This is why I say my “maybe, maybe-nots” with a smile. Doesn’t it sound fun to troll something that has trolled you for so long?
The turning point happened when I first started therapy. I’d been reading tons of blogs from different people talking about their experiences throughout their OCD recovery and exposure. In one of her posts, Shala Nicely described a sort of “field trip” she’d gone on with a group of people who had OCD, where they’d all looked for as many ways out in the “real” world to poke at their OCD by exposing themselves to what really triggered it. Having contamination OCD, she and several others were challenged by their group leader to touch the inside of a dumpster and not wash their hand. For someone who has a compulsive urge to repeatedly perform rituals that will (supposedly) keep themselves completely free from germs or illness or whatever it is they’re afraid of catching, this would be extraordinarily difficult. But Shala took a deep breath and did it. Yay! She proudly looked at her group leader, expecting his congratulations. Instead, he upped the ante: “Now, lick your hand.” I remember my own stomach turning with anxiety when I read this. Who would do that? I thought. But the adrenaline that had charged through me in reaction to the leader’s challenge turned to chills when I read Shala’s next words:
“I licked my hand, palm to fingertips.
Bring it on, baby.”
In that moment, I caught a wave of the adrenaline rush that metaphorically holding up a middle finger to OCD by doing EXACTLY what it would ABHOR for you to do can bring. And from that moment, I wanted in on it. I was sold. And over the next year, that is what I learned to do – but I learned that before you can get to the fun part, the adrenaline rush, the “Oh snap! I just did that!” high that you can get from doing things solely for the purpose of poking your OCD, there is much pain and discomfort and feeling like you’re getting nowhere to walk through first. Like anyone who’s ever accomplished any huge but difficult goal, there are many failures to be waged before the victories come.
That being said, I feel as though I’ve just recently begun to be able to apply all of the strategies I’ve learned to my spiritual OCD. But as I’ve slowly and surely changed my ways of processing anxiety, I’ve grown more and more familiar with what my daredevil exposures, my adrenaline junkie moments look like when applied to my relationship with God. And it looks a lot different from how I always thought it would.
I could honestly pinpoint 4 distinct waves in which came my doubts about God throughout my Christian life. The first wave was when I was in middle school, and the unquestioning fervor with which I’d up to that point believed in God all of a sudden began to crumble. All of a sudden I started to realize that I actually didn’t have any proof that God was actually there. That was about as complicated it as it got back then, and I chalked it up to attacks from Satan. I beat myself up inside until I felt adequately chastized and deservedly demeaned, and that made me feel better. The second wave came in the middle of high school. This time the doubts scared me more than anything, because what did they mean? No one at church, in the gatherings in which I partook of spiritual nourishment, talked of having doubts about God. In fact, the one sin you COULD go to hell for was disbelief. And here I was, flirting with it. What in the world could mean, except that maybe I wasn’t actually saved? I told no one. I fought to find proof, reassurance, either through experience or rational data, that God was real, or if nothing else, that I was still a true Christian in spite of these thoughts. Really, all I got was a lot of guilt.
The third wave was in college, and this is where I want to camp out for a minute. I went to Bible college for two years. I remember the lonely nights in my dorm with my Systematic Theology textbook, feeling the strain of having to reduce this faith that had in recent times felt so real, so alive and rich and meaningful, down to formulas and systems and right answers on tests. I cringed at the way our studies into the history of Christianity left me wondering how it was really even any different, any more relevant or more full of truth and realness, from any other religion in the world. Like, the books of the Bible were determined by some guys who all sat down and just kind of decided which ones they wanted to be in there. How was that anything other than arbitrary? My questions scared me, I mean they scared the hell out of me. This was what it looked like to lose your faith, I just knew it. This was how it started. And now it was happening to me. Like when a character in a sci-fi movie starts showing the early symptoms of the dreaded virus everyone’s dying from, I looked in the mirror and saw what looked like something I’d always feared now taking over me too. I didn’t stay at that college. After two years, I quit. I couldn’t handle the toll it was taking on my relationship with God. With each new way that a complex system and culture of the belief system was being forcefully sewn into my perception of reality, my faith got a little more strained. So I switched schools and promptly stumbled into my first big OCD crisis.
I’ve detailed this crisis at length, so all you need to know is that my OCD crisis over knowing God’s will left me at a huge impasse. I couldn’t listen to what my brain told me *might* be the voice of God, because when that was at its worst, it told me one time to kill myself and I’d had to decide I wasn’t going to do that. So I had to ignore that, but when I ignored it, my conscience screamed at me that I was ignoring God and couldn’t be in good standing with Him as long as I kept ignoring him. I felt like Jonah in the Old Testament when he’d run from God’s command to go to Ninevah, or maybe Abraham’s evil twin, the imaginary one who refused to kill his son when God told him to because, I don’t know, he didn’t want to kill his son. You know – the Abraham we all would probably be if we were honest with ourselves. So finally, in an exhausted, angry act of once and for all defiance, I threw up my hands and declared that I was done. I’ve talked about that on here before. I was done with trying to figure out what God wanted from me. Whatever. Just, whatever. Thus came the fourth wave of doubt.
This is the kind of doubt that follows naturally after you stop actively engaging in your faith. I’d entered kind of a blackout period with God. I didn’t actively disbelieve. I didn’t actively want to rebel. I was just….nothing. I just closed that room and locked it up and declared I was done trying to sort through all of its jumbled contents. I wasn’t done with God. But I was done trying. I was just gonna leave God alone for a little while. And in so doing, all of the squelched questions I’d pushed down in fear during my first 3 doubt waves started bubbling back up. And for the first time, I was just disillusioned enough and brave enough to actually study them this time.
Honestly I don’t think that this post is the place for me to unpack the contents of those locked boxes of questions and doubts that I finally opened and began tentatively looking through. Honestly I don’t really think it matters, because there were no questions that I asked that people haven’t asked before about God. Questions like, how do I know the Bible is true? What makes it more legitimate than any other holy book of any other religion? What about all of the ancient civilizations of people who never knew about Jesus and never got the chance to know about him? Did they all go to hell? And if so, why?
Oh trust me, I know the answers. I know every canned answer to every damn one of those questions and a billion more. I spent my entire growing up life learning them. It wasn’t that my “Christian answers to life’s tough questions/things to say to ensure that your belief system is never threatened” database was wiped clean. I knew it all still; I just had stopped trusting it. It was all a house of cards. When I stopped trusting in the notion that God’s will/direction for my life was knowable, I found I could no longer trust in any of it. The principles tend to hold true across the board, especially for the OCD sufferer. If you can’t know the one thing, can you really know any of it?
What if it’s all a big scam? What if it’s all just another attempt to ascribe meaning to life’s complexities, to find answers to life’s unknowable questions? What if we’ve all been duped, manipulated into believing something that no one really has any clue about? What if all of the confidence and certainty expressed by the pastors and leaders and teachers in my life was all fake? Everyone’s just as clueless as me? The plunge down into the depths of this possible discovery was excruciating. It was scary. I felt like I was becoming someone who I’d always been afraid of. Who I’d always been taught, always believed had been duped by the devil, destined to spend eternity in hell for rejecting God. Feeling like my genuine convictions and intellect were pulling me in a direction that according to everything I’d ever believed, everything my loved ones believed, was a highway to hell, was terrifying. It was lonely. But it was a path that didn’t seem to go in reverse. It was one-way. If I went back to blindly believing things simply because that was the safe path, knowing full well that in my deepest depths I questioned its authenticity, it would be fake anyway. It would be for fear only. Fear of rejection. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being wrong. Fear of hell. I knew we weren’t supposed to use salvation as eternal fire insurance, but when the threat is hanging over your head when you are choosing what to believe, it’s hard to say that your ultimate decision is motivated by anything but that. It’s like someone holding a gun to your head while you’re choosing where to go to dinner, saying if you don’t choose O’Charley’s I’ll kill you, but don’t pick O’Charley’s just because you don’t want to die. Pick it because you actually want it. What if you don’t actually want it? It doesn’t really matter, now does it? If it’s a decision between life and death, you’re gonna pick O’Charley’s, like it or not. That’s kind of how it was for me at this time. Unlike my O’Charley’s analogy, though, it wasn’t that I didn’t want it. It was that I couldn’t have all of the things I felt I needed in order to continue on the path I’d been on. I needed intellectual integrity. I needed certainty that I was doing it right, believing it right. And most of all, I just needed Him. I desperately needed His grace, His help, His love. I was finding that I couldn’t quite hold all three. I had to let go of one.
This was my daredevil move.