By IOCDF Advocate Alexandra Reynolds
Learn more about navigating OCD in the religious and spiritual context- visit the Faith & OCD Resource Center
My experiences with religion are typical for a first-generation Puerto Rican living in the United States. As a child, I was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. Both sides of my family are traditional and consider the Church their anchor; statues of the Virgin Mary, rosary beads, and paintings of saints were all common. Church and God were to be obeyed.
My parents often spoke about God and how important it was to obey the commandments. They would take my brother and me to church every Sunday and were active in the community. When I was old enough, my parents signed me up to be an altar server at the church. From the outside, it seemed that I was growing up in a home full of love and good values. On the inside, my relationship with religion had already begun to fracture.
Religion became the fodder feeding my anxieties.
I was always full of anxious thoughts and ruminations about topics most would deem too heavy for a kid. I worried non-stop about harm coming to my Mom or brother. About wars and my health, my nights were spent lying awake contemplating my existence, and death. Nightmares and sleep terrors were my rewards when I finally fell asleep. Religion became the fodder feeding my anxieties. My home life was a war zone. Suffering through chronic abuse I parented my brother and myself and learned to become small in order to survive.
My first memories of religion come from my father. He often used bible verses to keep my brother and me in our places. Things like: Children are to be seen and not heard, they come after marriage and are supposed to be dutiful and obedient. There was never room for error. As I grew older and was able to follow and understand the stories in Church, I believed that God was supposed to be loving and compassionate. That He helped the downtrodden and those who needed Him most. I began to pray regularly and learned to recite the rosary. I was convinced that, if I prayed enough, God would send someone to save us.
Prayers and religion became something new for my OCD to latch onto. My prayers grew longer, and I prayed more often. I really started to think that they might actually be able to influence the present. Fear that if I thought the wrong thing something bad would happen to my Mom or brother grew, and I’d try to cancel out the bad thoughts with a Hail Mary or a prayer. Anxiety piled atop anxiety.
I felt betrayed and abandoned by God.
One day I realized the prayers weren’t working. No one was going to save us. I felt betrayed and abandoned by God. How could He let innocent children suffer the way my brother and I had if He loved everyone? That was the beginning of my break with religion. I couldn’t bring myself to pray anymore. I stopped caring about the Church and grew into an angry and rebellious teenager. I was angry with my parents, angry with every adult who’d ever failed me and angry with God for being nothing but an empty promise. I carried this anger with me into adulthood. At times, I would toy with the idea of returning to Church, or at least spirituality, only to be met head-on by my own trauma and OCD. I would begin to obsess over the existence of God and compulsively pray. The ruminations and constant questioning were too much to handle so I developed an attitude of indifference. I wish that I could say that my attitudes toward religion softened with time, but they didn’t. There are some things in life that don’t get better with time. They require professional help in order to help you move forward. I hesitate to use the word “heal” here because, in my experience, healing is complicated and an ongoing process.
Slowly work to change my relationship
What really happened was that I got into therapy with a Trauma Specialist alongside my OCD Specialist. Together, they have worked through parallel treatment to help me learn to cope with my CPTSD symptoms and navigate the marks trauma has left on my mind and heart while also addressing my Religious/Scrupulosity OCD. With their support and knowledge, I have been able to identify religion as both parts of my trauma and OCD and slowly work to change my relationship with it. I am not at the point where I can say that I am religious, but I am learning to examine its place in my life with it from a place of openness and curiosity. Right now, I think that’s perfect for me.
Reading your post I felt sorrow for what you had to endure as a child, I hate to see and hear of children suffering . As a person who has OCD and has struggled with religious themed OCD, I can relate to your pain. I encourage you to read the book titled “Gentle and Lowly, the heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers” by Dane Ortland. If I could describe the book in one word it would LIBERATING! Jesus was most critical of the religious; Jesus is all about relationship.
God bless you
Well said Jon
Thank you for sharing, Jon. I struggle with OCD, too.
For me it happened gradually out of losses of resources and failures that accumulated. Then anger got a hold of me. And anger became a habit.
Everything seems to be some kind of habit we get used to doing and gets reinforced by chemicals that give us energy. And/or relief that can feel energizing. Intrusive thoughts come because of unresolved negative feelings we keep experiencing because of a situation or a condition about our lives or personality we cannot seem to change.
It is really all about coping skills. Some.coping skills make our situations worse and reinforce habits that keep us trapped doing the same things and keeping us miserable.
From.my experience, religion is a way to view the world together with a group of people who keep reinforcing specific practices and beliefs that support their views on the things in life we all struggle to answer that frighten us and make our lives unbearable. Sometimes these groups help people to overcome fears that can be debilitating and aupport them to live in a social way that other people with similar values and customs can trust are safe to be around.
Also in my experience, when it works and we feel a belonging and are able to get needs met and fulfill our goals as a person and receive positive affiliations with people in the roles we play with them then many of the OCF issues subside. The beliefs and stories held inside a religious group are to be understood in context that they are not all to be applied universally, but within reason and with wisdom about what the priority is and what our roles are and how others perceive our words and actions. If something causes more fear and inappropriately so. then we need to get curious about what we are doing or saying that is not working and replace it with ideas and actions and practices that do.
Just remember we absorb what is in our environments and we become like the people and groups we associate with. So if you want to be a more relaxed person, you need to be around more relaxing people
Often times chirch people are uptight because they arent there to be relaxed but to prove to themselves and everyone else they are a good person. The fact is no one can prove this definitively. So it has to be something we individually claim for ourselves. The Bible actually can help with this if we focus on what it says in Genesis that God proclaimed our goodness when he made us. If you don’t believe you are good there is no way to ear n goodness. Because it can always be taken away by someone who we give authority to. That’s why we are not to put anyone above God’s opinion of us.
Now can we lose our goodness? I think we can. But this is where practicing goodness comes into play and reclaiming your original birthright that God gives every soul. By reminding ourselves of God’s promises and being around others who remind us it can help us to live into that goodness on a daily basis. Soon fear based OCD habits are replaced by habits that help us feel.stronger and more aligned with practices we want to be doing that lead us to more positive feelings about ourselves and the people around us.
Good luck to you and know you are already good enough no matter what others say or what your thoughts might tell you..