I was talking with a friend this weekend who also has dealt with contamination OCD. We had the familiar and still frustrating discussion about how people will sometimes try to empathize with us by saying that they also have OCD because they like to clean or are organized (or something to that effect). While the intention may be good, saying something like that is nevertheless discouraging to a person who actually has obsessive compulsive disorder.
It’s a common misunderstanding for those who don’t fully comprehend OCD. It could be that they don’t even know what the “O” and the “C” stand for in the acronym. So, for today’s “Scripture Snapshot,” I will try to explain them a little bit, starting with the entry for “Free, Freedom” in “The Guide to the Scriptures.”
One of the central tenants of the gospel is that we are given agency. We can choose whether or not we will follow God or Satan, pick good or evil, etc. We aren’t forced to do what is right, nor coerced into doing what is wrong. In “The Guide to the Scriptures” under “Free, Freedom” it states that being free is
“The power or ability to make personal choices without compulsion.”
Aha! Here it is, a variation of the “C” of “OCD” making its appearance in a scripture study aid. To have a compulsion to do something means that, in effect, you are being forced or made to do something against your own free will. It negates freedom. You feel unable to stop and often feel as though it is literally not within your power to say “no” and refuse to do that thing.
This is what makes having OCD different from being super organized or really clean. Most “clean” or “organized” people have the choice to be that way. They enjoy feeling like their things are in order. They like the satisfaction of having a freshly mopped floor or scrubbed table. It brings them peace and contentment.
When you have a cleaning compulsion, you are often filled with dread and fear. You might think, “If I don’t clean, I will get sick and die” or “my family will get ill” or “someone coming to my house might get sick because of germs.” You have most likely already convinced yourself that you are a bad person if you aren’t perfectly clean because any number of awful things could happen if you don’t act out your compulsion perfectly. And even if you do, you likely don’t feel satisfied. It’s never enough. Maybe you missed a spot. Maybe something escaped your attention.
Other OCD compulsions are similarly freedom-sucking. Checking, counting, hit and run, hair pulling, self harm, intrusive thoughts… these are things that people who have OCD don’t want to do but feel like they must—for a multitude of reasons (which is another subject for another day). In short, having OCD feels as if you have lost your agency.
Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-37
Now, these verses refer to priesthood holders and how you can either maintain or lose your priesthood authority. In verse 36, it says that “the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven.” This makes sense, right?
So come with me to verse 37 where it says that when we “exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, […] behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”
I bring up these verses because I want to highlight that “compulsion” is not a happy word nor a happy place to be. The Lord wants us to be able to control ourselves using our own free will. He wants our souls to be at peace and to choose what will make them so. Since heaven is not maintained on the basis of coercion and compulsion, it makes it very difficult for a Latter-day Saint (or anybody) to live with obsessive compulsive disorder. It goes against our divine nature.
But here is where the “O” of OCD comes in: obsessive.
The compulsions are so hard to shake because of the obsessions that in many cases precede and bring them on. These obsessions are the “why” to the compulsions.
Maybe you are afraid of vomiting, so you hand sanitize all the time. Maybe you are convinced a relative will die if you don’t touch the door frame or tap your foot three times every five steps. Maybe you are worried that the oven will turn on and burn down the house if you don’t keep checking that it is off. Maybe you thought you ran over someone and will get put in jail for hit and run and manslaughter, so you have to go back and check to make sure no one is in the road.
In other words, it is the obsessions that bring you to your compulsions. You think that doing the compulsions will protect you from whatever fear you were obsessing about. But really, they just keep feeding the OCD and ensure that you remain trapped in the cycle.
And, as long as you are trapped, you cannot truly be free.