Welcome to god is my special interest, a newsletter all about late-diagnosed neurodivergence and high control religion. This month we are discussing Religious OCD, and I am so excited for today’s guest post! Aly Prades is someone who has done the work to interrogate how religious OCD can show up in evangelical spaces—be sure to follow her work (here’s her substack):
And check out all the amazing resources she listed at the end!
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What if it’s not God?
I can still remember the drop of red food coloring my Sunday school teacher squeezed into a jar of water as an illustration of sin. She lined up three clear jars and added in increasing amounts of red dye to each. The deep red ink bloomed and spread, tainting the whole glass. The lesson was meant to be a call to repentance, an “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” kind of deal. I only saw my worst fears confirmed; just one mistake will poison the whole.
Therapist Hilary L. McBride said, “Spiritual trauma is someone handing you an inner critic and telling you it’s the voice of God.”
OCD sufferers already have an inner critic; our brains are pre-wired to notice and fixate on the tiniest imperfections.
As a kindergartner, I would rip up my book reports if my illustration didn’t match the caliber of the book cover.
Why would they show us the cover if ours wasn’t supposed to look like that? I thought. I can remember the frustration building in my tiny body as I tried with all my might to draw a recognizable Brother and Sister Bear to accompany my one sentence summary: brother and sister ate too much junk food. I gripped the pencil harder and harder, focused my eyes on minuscule details—the C curve of Brother’s ear, how Sister’s mouth made a backwards number 2, but my lines came out squiggly, the bears somehow both childish and grotesque.
I balled up the paper and threw it at the wall. My cheeks flushed hot and I swallowed back tears.
I enlisted my mom to try. Begged her to just trace it, just this one time, please!
“You’re in kindergarten!” she replied. “No one is expecting any more than scribbles.”
Her words only heightened my distress. Why was I the only one aware of the failure?
Sobs shaking my shoulders, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I only knew my drawing wasn’t good enough. And no one else seemed to care.
My mom eventually gave in. I steadied the book cover against our sliding glass door as she traced the bear shapes backlit by the sun. Everything was working until my fingers tired and the paper slid, causing her to make an errant mark.
Immediately I balled up the drawing, heaving and crying as I did.
Not good enough either.
I could see the good I ought to do, staring right back at me in cartoon illustration, and I could not—did not—do it. I didn’t know the word for my feelings then, but guilt and shame consumed me. I had failed. I was a failure.
Growing up in the evangelical church in the 90s, with its own obsession with personal holiness, certainty, and right and wrong behavior, my mental health condition did not just go undiagnosed, but was given space and language to bloom.
I latched on to the verse from James 4:17: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
In Sunday school, I knew all the answers. I memorized all the verses. On the outside I did all the right things; internally, I could not stop cataloging my ever-growing list of sins.
I could have been nicer to my brother.
I could have tried harder on that test.
I could have talked to my unsaved grandmother about Jesus.
Sin. Sin. Sin.
Every missed opportunity to do good felt like a drop of poison in my metaphorical sin cup.
I knew with cold conviction: I was bad to the core.
In high school, I prayed every hour on the hour; I compulsively recited Psalm 26, seeking desperately to lead a blameless life. I taped Bible verses to my mirror to obscure my own reflection. “More of You, less of me,” I prayed over and over and over. I set an evangelism calendar: talk to John on the bus about Jesus on Monday, Michele at gymnastics on Tuesday, Nini, my grandma, on Wednesday.
I did all of these things not out of a love for God, but festering fear that I would be found out. In youth group, we sang lyrics like “You've taken me from the miry clay, You've set my feet upon the rock, Now I know,” yet I didn’t know. I couldn’t claim God’s transforming love in my life. Not if I was being honest. And that dissonance chipped away at my sense of self, a drip drip drip of Poison in my veins, in my brain, coloring everything with shame and guilt.
I believed the guilt was conviction from the Holy Spirit. I didn’t have a framework to recognize intrusive thoughts or even name my experience of anxiety.
I thought—no, knew—I deserved to feel this way.
I was 35 the first time a therapist asked me, “What if it’s not God?”
“What if it’s an Obsession? A Compulsion? Disorder?”
My therapist explained that the OCD cycle is just that—a loop that you get stuck in. It starts with an obsession, which can be an intrusive thought OR feeling, image, or urge. For me, it most often presents as a gut punch of guilt and a statement, “I did something wrong.”
The intrusive feeling causes so much distress that one will do almost anything to get rid of it. These urgent, desperate actions are compulsions.
Most are aware of physical compulsions: repetitive lock checking or hand washing. We have a reference for Howie Mendel not shaking hands (pre-Covid and fist bumps) on Deal or No Deal. Avoidance can be a compulsion.
What people may not know about—and I certainly didn’t!—is that it’s possible to engage in mental compulsions. Mental compulsions are internal actions of checking and rechecking, seeking reassurance, ruminating, or trying to solve a problem that can’t be solved.
These compulsions bring relief temporarily, but ultimately fuel the OCD cycle by reinforcing to your brain that the intrusive thought or worry or feeling was indeed dangerous or true and warranted a response.
As my therapist explained all this, I didn’t feel relief. I felt the familiar pit of shame in my stomach, fresh tears on my cheeks.
No, of course it’s not God. I felt fucking foolish. Images flashed of me at five, stacking my blocks in numerical order, eating my food from least favorite to favorite, rotating my clothes and stuffed animals for fairness, ripping up the book reports. At 15, color coding and reorganizing my physics notes. Rewriting rewriting rewriting into the early hours of the morning and showing up sick and exhausted, but with a completed essay for English class at 7:26am. Of course I have OCD.
I should have known.
My first response to a mental health diagnosis was to berate myself and list all of the ways I’ve failed because I didn’t figure it out before the trained specialist.
I jumped straight into my mental compulsions even as my therapist explained them to me.
He sat in silence as I cried. Then said, “What if I told you this cycle is optional and I can teach you how to get out?”
By this time in my thirties, I had undergone a faith deconstruction and rebuilding. I had moved from obsessing about evangelizing and saving souls to the downward mobility of liberation theology to a social ethic of progressive Christianity. My theology had shifted, but my need for certainty had not. I still operated under the assumption that there was one “right” choice to be made in every moment—and that God would make that choice clear if you prayed and listened faithfully enough.
I could still list twenty failures off the top of my head at any moment. I was spending almost all of my waking hours trying to figure out if I had made a mistake, was currently making a mistake, or would make a mistake in the future.
Jon Hershfield calls the OCD cycle a “glitch in the good enough system.” For a person with OCD, they can never be clean enough, sure enough, good enough.
OCD is also called the “doubting disorder.” You doubt your cleanliness, your goodness, your character. OCD can make you doubt anything that you care about.
I am learning that I don’t HAVE to feel bad about every decision all the time. And more importantly I am CHOOSING not to figure out if I made the right choice or not.
Prayer feels like an enigma, but I am practicing self-compassion.
For now, I’m giving myself permission to be inconsistent. (And, yes, it feels yucky just to type that phrase.)
I’m letting myself pause on figuring out exactly what I believe about prayer and discernment and the tangle of God’s voice with my own obsessions, and I’m showing up to church anyway. I’m choosing to serve and be in community and participate in the parts of church that are life-giving, even if it feels inauthentic, even if I’m not “all in.”
OCD thrives on the all-or-nothing. I am slowly experimenting with the in-between.
I am learning to acknowledge the good I ought to do and not do it. I can respond, “I can and I don’t have to.”
It sounds irresponsible, I know. That’s exactly the point.
In recovery, I am re-learning and re-wiring. I am moving toward the fear and accepting uncertainty–about my choices, about God, about life’s unanswerable questions. I am learning to tolerate my “mistakes.” I am even making mistakes on purpose!
While I am still tempted to ruminate on my failures, I am experiencing relief, freedom, progress, hope.
“But how will I know I’m doing the right thing?” I pleaded with my therapist a few weeks into treatment.
“You won’t,” he replied.
Aly Prades is an OCD coach and ESL writing teacher in San Diego, CA (Like DL, she too, got her MA in TESOL to work with refugees!). She’s an Enneagram One with moral scrupulosity and perfectionism OCD. She has two kids, loves Zumba, one-on-one coffee dates, and firmly believes she is the best version of herself when she is outside. She’s been published in Relevant and Coffee and Crumbs. She’d love it if you’d follow along with her brand new baby Substack called A Glitch in the Good Enough, where she is sharing her OCD-related reflections and resources. Find her pursuing creativity alongside OCD recovery on Instagram @justwriteocd and you can check out her OCD coaching services, sign up for an OCD and creativity cohort, and view additional resources on her website: alyprades.com/ocd.
The OCD Recovery Formula This is the online OCD recovery program I did when I was first diagnosed and I recommend Brad and his program 1000%--practical, manageable steps for getting out of the OCD cycle!
OCD Tests This was the first OCD test I took that helped me realize I was spending 95% of my waking hours performing mental compulsions.
Instagram Accounts to Follow (IG is not a replacement for therapy, but I’ve found so much helpful info and community here!)
The ACT Workbook for OCD by Marisa Mazza PsyD and Lisa Coyne PhD, (I have gone through this one myself and love it!)
The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD by Jon Hershfield MFT, Tom Corboy, MFT, and James Claiborn PhD
The Self-Compassion Workbook for OCD by Kimberly Quinlan LMFT
Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by Jonathan Grayson, PhD
Treat My OCD I have personally used this one and love it for tracking my obsessions and compulsions and planning exposures
IOCDF compiled a list and ratings for many of the OCD apps available!
Thank you Ally for the incredible, insightful post! I’m curious if other folks relate to the experience of not recognizing that inner compulsions can be nurtured in frameworks like evangelical theology. Has this been your experience?
Romans 3:23 NIV - for all have sinned and fall short of - Bible Gateway
Hillary L McBride on Twitter: "Spiritual trauma is someone handing you an inner critic and telling you it’s the voice of God" / Twitter
Error Processing and Inhibitory Control in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Meta-analysis Using Statistical Parametric Maps - PubMed (nih.gov) Researchers found “A hyperactive error processing mechanism in conjunction with impairments in implementing inhibitory control may underlie deficits in stopping unwanted compulsive behaviors in the disorder.”
Jon Hershfield, MFT | Sheppard Pratt (I can’t find his original quote, but I know it is attributed to him)
The gold standard for OCD treatment is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), where you purposefully expose yourself to your triggers and DON’T perform your safety rituals. This may look different for autistic people. Sarah Stanton provided a wonderful explanation of how she approaches ERP as an autistic.
I really identify with learning about religious OCD and then feeling SHAME for not recognizing that this is clearly something I had been dealing with for many, many years . . . poor poor us. Of course we didn't recognize it, it was actively encouraged in my life thanks to religious institutions and leaders and Christian publishing benefitting from my mental illness.
Such a good post! I am not diagnosed with OCD, but I’ve always said I have some tendencies. But after reading this and remembering how I had my many stuffed animals lined up on the end of my bed in order, all were named and when I got a new one I would introduce the new one to each old one by name. And that’s just the stuffed animals.
I have always had the compulsion to do spiritual disciplines and the guilt for not, for forgetting, for not wanting too.
I really appreciate you saying you still go to church and participate. I don’t want to stop, but feel my faith changing. I love the community of my church for myself and my kids. But I no longer lead the kids work or do anything beyond attending and of course that makes me feel guilty.
Recently, Laura Jean Truman (also on Substack and IG) wrote this:
One interpretation of YHWH is the sound of breath. The idea that every time I breath I say God’s name.
We notice we’re breathing. When we stop noticing, our breath still carries us.
We notice God is here. When we stop noticing, Love is still with us.
That’s where I’m at: sometimes I notice and feel connected, then I forget and start to feel guilt, but I don’t have to feel guilt. We can’t notice our breathing all the time. That’s just not how our bodies have to work (thankfully!).