by Rev. Katie O’Dunne
On the surface, I am an ordained minister, school chaplain, religious educator, and ultra-marathon runner who has it all together. In my more private life, I’ve battled obsessive- compulsive disorder since childhood, with a significant relapse while serving in ministry a few years ago.
Many of us with OCD are amazing at “appearing” to have it all together while spending countless hours a day completing compulsions and struggling to function. Honestly, just a few years ago, I struggled to consider any possibility of a future, despite appearing to thrive in my ministry supporting students each day.
Unfortunately, many clinicians (outside of OCD experts) and faith leaders interact with those experiencing untreated OCD each day, but many are not knowledgeable on evidence-based treatment or resources. This lack of understanding about OCD and stigma within religious communities negatively impacted me through most of my life, as I always experienced what my community called “worries.”
In elementary school, I worried that if I didn’t touch objects in a particular order or offer complete honesty, catastrophe would ensue. I confessed the tiniest moral imperfections, receiving reassurance that I was a good person. But in third grade, I experienced my first true spiral after the death of my aunt to cancer, which I believed was my fault. My thoughts began focusing on death and harm, as I believed that I was a dangerous individual, despite the evidence school citizenship awards and church leadership provided to the contrary. Even after seeking therapy (which was not evidence-based therapy for OCD), I did not experience any relief, as I was simply an eight-year-old pretending to “get better” so that the practitioner would feel like they were skilled in their job.
Throughout my life, these “worries” continued and intensified. And yet, I followed the path to ordained ministry due to a passion for faith and helping others. Moving through seminary and psychological evaluations for ordination, I was skilled at keeping my compulsions hidden to maintain the facade of perfection. My courses in psychology alerted me that I might have OCD, but I was fearful that a diagnosis would end my vocation in ministry. I wondered how individuals would feel seeing a leader in the church and knowing they battled these debilitating “worries” on a daily basis. As a result, rather than seek treatment, I lied on every psychological evaluation, which only increased feelings of guilt and shame.
As I moved through my graduate degree and neared the end of the ordination process, my facade of outward academic perfection continued, but my inward sense of self-worth rapidly declined.
When I finally began my first role in ministry as an interfaith school chaplain, my OCD exploded, latching onto everything significant to me. I spent each night obsessing that I had somehow called someone a derogatory name, shouted obscenities, touched someone inappropriately, kicked a child on crutches, written something nasty on a birthday card, or committed a violent crime before blocking it out. I spent my nights ruminating to prepare for a call from the police and my days carefully taking pictures of actions to check later. On the outside, I appeared to be a compassionate minister caring for thousands of people. On the inside, I feared I was a horrible monster unworthy of worshipping God or supporting those around me.
I eventually reached a point where evidence-based treatment was the only option to continue to follow my values of supporting the students I loved so much, particularly through their own periods of trauma and loss. And as their chaplain, I had two options in supporting them: try to find certainty and continue to get sicker … or live in uncertainty with the possibility of continuing to use the gifts God had given me.
As challenging as it was, exposure and response prevention saved my life. Through my ERP journey, I learned that the “worries” I’ve experienced throughout my life are no more than creative fiction created by my brain, known as intrusive thoughts. They simply become sticky because they are about content that is so important to me. And yes, even knowing this, I’ve experienced ups and downs, particularly in the midst of some difficult losses in my chaplaincy role. And yet, continuing to expose myself to my fears each day (while resisting compulsions) seems worth the risk when I see my students who need someone to help them navigate their own mental health struggles in religious communities.
Many of my students are navigating OCD or other disorders but fear judgment from their religious community, whether they identify as Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, or Jewish. As a result, my goal is to encourage a deeper understanding of mental health concerns within diverse religious communities, while fostering positive, collaborative relationships between religious practitioners and mental health providers. Spirituality and clinical mental health treatment do not have to be mutually exclusive. Rather, my faith is so significant to my recovery AND evidence-based treatment saved my life. I truly believe God has created beauty out of brokenness in my life. I am continuing to lead as an interfaith chaplain, serving as an OCD advocate, and beginning a doctoral program focused on the intersection of faith/mental health. I am aware that my OCD will always latch onto the things most important to me (like my students and my faith). However, this simply means these are the things I value most! As I tell my students, even faith leaders need outside help sometimes — and that’s okay. Every single person is worthy of getting the help needed to reclaim their life and use the beautiful gifts God has given them.