This blog I wrote was originally published as an article in our church’s quarterly magazine. This magazine is published online at http://www.rlministry.org.
I spent my freshman, sophomore, and junior year of high school praying the following prayer: “Heal me or kill me.” I meant it with all of my heart. I wanted either freedom or death, for even death seemed to offer an alternative version of freedom.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf cautioned Frodo to not be so hasty in his desire to kill Gollum. He told Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death…” I knew that suicide was taking something that was not mine to take. So, I prayed for death instead (that is, if God was not going to heal me).
Though never officially diagnosed, my life felt like one continual storm. On the outside, everything looked put together in my life including a family that loved me so much. Yet, I would end every day begging God to heal me or kill me. I was hurting and hopeless. The name of my storm? Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
At age 5, I randomly began to tell myself that if I stepped on a crack in the sidewalk, that my mom would die. By the time high school rolled around, I was eaten up, doing everything I could to hide my illness, and begging a quiet God for “green pastures” and “still waters.” I needed help, but I was so ashamed. After all, how do you tell someone that the only way you can quieten the emotional hurricane within is to turn the light switch off in a perfect manner? Huh? Let me explain. I so wanted to please God, yet I was still confused as to whether or not I was sinning when a bad thought simply entered my mind. If I could not turn the light switch on or off without a cuss word entering my mind, I had to try again and again and again. It was near impossible. If I told you not to think about a pink elephant for the next 30 seconds, good luck! The thing you try not to think about it the thing that stares right back at you.
Door knobs (in the house), door handles (vehicle), radio dials, and AC/Heat dials also created emotional havoc in my life. There was no escape. On top of that, I was experiencing overwhelming emotional urges to, at all costs, maintain a sense of psychological equilibrium. In other words, asymmetry in any of my behaviors was mentally devastating. Feeling off-balance was intolerable and would render me incapable of functioning in areas that normal people do not give a second thought too. For example, if I touched a book with my right hand, then I would feel an unbearable urge to touch the book with my left hand. This would restore my “balance.” But this was not the end of it. I was once again off balance. There was now a sequence that had to be counterbalanced. The “right-left” sequence had to be countered with a “left-right” sequence. But now there is a set of four that must be treated. Now, the sequence “right-left-left-right” had to be balanced with the sequence “left-right-right-left.” Then there was a set of eight. The only thing that stopped the sequence was either not wanting to be found out or simply not being able to remember sequences of 32 and 64. The pit seemed bottomless.
By God’s grace, this is not where the story ended.
God did not heal me overnight. Far from it. It was a 10 year journey. In Hansel and Gretel fashion, He laid out for me a 10 year breadcrumb trail to freedom. Breadcrumb #1 occurred in high school. One of the reasons I felt hopeless was because I thought it impossible to adequately explain my stupid, tormenting switch/knob/dial/symmetry problems to someone. Who would understand, right? So, God did for me what I could not do: He exposed me. I did not have the strength to expose myself, so God uncovered me. He cared too much for me to play the part of a gentleman.
I was in my bed praying right before I went to sleep. As usual, I would always repeat my prayers 10-20 times until they felt “good enough.” One night, I was so frustrated at myself that I kept getting louder and louder. I did not realize how loud I had gotten until my mom came to my door and said, “B.J., are you ok?” Immediately I asked her to turn the light on. I needed light. I really needed light. My momma came in, sat on my bed, and shared something that to this day causes me to acknowledge the brilliant, compassionate sovereignty of God. Two days before, she randomly turned on the television and got interested in an Oprah episode. The entire episode was devoted to understanding OCD. My heart leapt. I thought, “You mean I am not the only one?” She proceeded to tell me that before that episode, she would never have understood what was happening. Truly, The Lord went before me (Psalms 16:8). He made sure my mom was sitting in front of the television at just the right time so she could have the proper knowledge that night to be able to look at me and say, “You are not alone. I am here, and I do not think you are a loser, because I saw this episode.” My mom understood me. I needed at least one person who could understand me and show me compassion. That night, hope entered my heart for no other reason than my “secret” was no longer a secret. Someone knew.
Breadcrumb #2 happened during my second semester of college. I was playing basketball for Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas. One afternoon in my dorm room, I turned on David Ruis’ song, Break Dividing Walls. As I worshiped, two things happened. First, I began to weep. Second, my body began to feel really weak. Due to this weakness, I went from my feet to my knees and then from my knees to my face. I was flat on the floor. And then, in some mysterious fashion, I suddenly knew that somehow, beyond explanation, God had broken my hopeless OCD walls and set me free.
After that, I must admit, things got worse over the next few years before they got better. You say, “But I thought God set you free?” He did, but I later realized that that dorm room experience was the moment faith entered my heart. Due to the dorm room experience, I had the faith from that point on, even in the struggle to come, that somehow, someway, I was already free. This kept me going. My flesh mocked my spirit with the words, “Look at yourself. You are not free. You are worse than ever.” Yet, in my spirit, I knew that though I had not fully accessed the freedom of Christ in my daily experience, I did possess it. Jesus had set me free and I knew deep in my heart that it was only a matter of time until that freedom was fully manifested.
The third and final bread crumb that led to my freedom was the book, Grace Works, by Dudley Hall. I read this book at the age 26. When I finished the book, I was a different man. Once again, I cannot fully explain this. All I know is that the person I was after reading this book was different from the person I was when I started the book. I never again wrestled with whether or not God really loved me. All my shame was gone. I never felt condemned again. And oddly, this was the the final piece to the puzzle in overcoming OCD. Looking back, I can see how perfectionism and shame was a dark, integral piece of the OCD. The mental illness indeed had spiritual undertones. Knowing the Lord’s grace relieved me from the punishing, incessant need to be perfect. Even with all my “curves” and “edges” (song artist, John Legend), my heart was free to know His love, love Him, and love others. I no longer had to run to the stalls in a bathroom three or four times an hour in a public setting to hide and pray out of shame. Realizing His love in a deep, personal way alleviated my conscience of the need to justify myself through repetitive behaviors. Essentially, my attitude became, “Who cares what thought comes into my mind when I hit a switch! It doesn’t matter. God knows my heart.” And the shame? Knowing His love convinced me of the power that was in the blood of Jesus to really take away all my sin. Why feel ashamed? Holding on to condemnation was nothing more than exalting the power of sin over the power that was in the blood of Jesus to forgive that sin. The wonderful Holy Spirit showed me that when I receive forgiveness and let go of all the shame, I am worshiping Jesus. How? When you receive forgiveness, you are choosing to exalt the atoning sacrifice of Christ above the sin. Anytime you exalt Christ above something, it is worship. This includes sin.
Ten years and three breadcrumb moments later, I was free. I do not manage my OCD with behavioral techniques. I have not been relegated to an existence of merely coping. Rather, I AM TOTALLY FREE. Jesus was faithful. I’m now free to truly love and serve others. Needless to say, I am so happy that God chose the first option of the two I presented Him.