Sunday morning church service is a time of quiet reflection to draw nearer to God…to God. To God. To God. Stop it.
But for myself, and the rest of the one in forty adults with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, that quietness doesn’t come on Sunday. Or any other day. There is no real quiet with OCD. That quirky fella you work with who must keep the bookcase in order? He likely doesn’t have OCD. The person who throws away hundreds of dollars’ worth of books because they contain an odd number of chapters? She probably does. Especially if she also is overwhelmed by thoughts that odd numbers are can cause a relative to get cancer. (FYI: They don’t.)
But it seems church would be a place to alleviate the intrusive thoughts and the uncomfortable compulsions for an hour a week, right? Not so much.
Being dressed up for church is helpful. It affords me the chance to open the door to the rectory with my necktie thereby avoiding the germs of all the dirty souls who have come before me.
Churchgoers are creatures of habit. They like to sit in the same place every Sunday. This also works to my advantage. Familiarity and consistency are like armor against those serotonin rebuking demons living in my brain.
But when the passing of the peace comes, everything quickly goes to hell. A quiet panic fills my head. While others say “peace be with you.” I think to myself “yeah right. I saw you cough.” Half my brain logically knows that there’s no danger. The other half says that I’m a goner if I reach out. My mouth dries up and my palms start to sweat.
If I don’t comply with the ritual, I’ll be shunned at worst. Conspicuous at best. If I do comply I’ll be locked into my own ritual. Maybe for the rest of the hour or longer.
Try to fit in. Act normal.
Like a good dog, I shake. But after the onslaught of glad tidings, I start to panic. My tongue feels like its swelling and my stomach flitters. I can’t think about anything else but the germs living on my hands now. AIDS? Somehow cancer? It makes no sense. I know that. I can’t escape and wash. But it’s all I can think about: to wash. And wash. Again I’d wash. Seven times.
The sermon begins. I’m still thinking about my dirty hands. I fight for control of my mind. I listen to a bit of the sermon. Something about baseball and compassion. Doesn’t make sense. My mind wanders. I think about my hands again. I accidentally picture the minister naked.
Shit. Fuck. Piss. Stop that. Tap the pew seven times. My young son is watching me. He watches everything. Try to act normal.
It’s so hot in here. This old building. What if someone comes in and shoots us all? I hear about that on the news. Blink at the cross seven times. Wait, that didn’t count. Now blink. Good. Crisis averted. The old lady in the third row is looking at me. Try to act normal.
Communion is a Petrie dish of germs. “The body of Christ.” I’d like some the forgiveness from the back please. “The cup of salvation.” I am not drinking out of that.
My mind continues rapidly through a series of irrational thoughts. I feel like getting up and running out the door. But I stay seated. I pray. “Help me God too…Help me God too…” I have to get the words perfect. We stand to sing. But I’m still trying to get the words to my prayer right. Just right. Exactly right. “Help me God to let this go….” Argh. The organ is distracting. I can’t concentrate.
After a few false starts, I finally pray the prayer…seven times. What if I got a word wrong? It won’t count or be heard. The slight bit of theology that I know says it doesn’t work like that but the OCD tells me different. OCD says get the words right or God will not do what you ask. Praying for someone’s surgery to go well? Get it perfect of they’ll die. That’s on me.
But OCD isn’t my god. It can’t be. I tell my wife to meet me outside when church is over. I get up and walk out of the church. The sun is shining and it’s hard to see. I walk around the parking lot. Talking to myself.
“This is just OCD. The fears aren’t real. The consequences aren’t real. It is just the way my brain is wired. It is just OCD.”
Strangers passing by see a man walking in circles mumbling to himself. “He’s crazy,” they think and look away. But I’m not crazy. It’s just OCD.
My mind starts to calm down. I intentionally slow down my breathing. My heart stops pounding so hard. I’m feeling better. Thinking clearly. Then my son runs out the church doors to me.
“This is what’s real,” I say to myself. The rest is just OCD. Thank God.