My first brush with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder was at my family’s post-synagogue meal during our celebration of Rosh Hashanah. I was happily slurping matzah ball soup with my family until my cousin Rachel dramatically left the table after eating too fast. Upon her return, I asked if she was okay. She giggled, making a gagging motion with her finger.
I vividly remember rushing to the bathroom, feeling sick to my stomach. I then remember getting on my knees and praying to God. Kneeling on the tiled floor, my 8-year-old self squeezed shut her eyes and prayed, “Please don’t make me throw up, please. I’ll do anything, anything, I just really don’t want to throw up. So, please don’t make me throw up, please.”
And then I felt an intense need to hold my breath. If I do this, if I hold my breath for 10 seconds, then God won’t make me throw up.
1, 2, 3—
I can’t explain the logic of this situation, nor do I think I will ever be able to. There was no logic, because there is often very little logic involved in compulsions when you have OCD.
4, 5, 6—
I can’t remember having a severe fear of throwing up before this moment. I remember being able to joke about vomit, to say the word and write the word vomit, to actually vomit and not have the world implode on itself.
7, 8, 9—
After this moment, I can’t remember not having that fear ingrained in me. Even as I write this article, there’s a nagging “you can’t write the word vomit, or you’ll vomit” that sneaks into my thought process every time I type it out.
Ten seconds were up, and I felt immensely better. I knew, then, that God had saved me. Because I had done something to prove I was listening to his every command, I didn’t throw up.
For the next handful of years, when I felt the urge to complete one of these rituals, I didn’t just do them because I thought something bad would happen. No, I did them because I thought God would make something bad happen, something especially bad for me, if I didn’t. I sincerely believed I had a direct communication line with God. So, if I held my breath and tapped each part of my body 27 times on each side, God would be pleased and would therefore make sure I didn’t get sick.
Little did I know that this wasn’t something that made me healthy, nor was it something God was controlling. Instead, this behavior was proof I was already sick — just in a different way than I had tried so desperately to avoid.
My belief in God and what he wanted from me was so potent that when I actually threw up for the first time three years after I started experiencing what were actually symptoms of OCD, I was angry. I was angry because God had let me down. I had suffered through years of compulsions (although I didn’t know that was what they were called at the time) for what ultimately felt like a stab in the back.
Around this same time, my family started realizing that something was wrong. I was put on medication to help control the severity of my symptoms, and I went to a therapist twice a week for Exposure-Response Prevention therapy, a technique used to help mitigate the urge to do compulsions in the face of anxiety. Learning that the rituals God had supposedly commanded me to do were nothing more than symptoms of a psychological diagnosis… that took a toll on me. More specifically, it really, really took a toll on my relationship with Judaism.
I had been raised in a Conservative household. I went to Hebrew school three times a week for the majority of my elementary and middle school years, and I went to synagogue almost every Saturday with my family. I loved being Jewish so much that, as a fourth grader, I was convinced I was going to convert to Orthodox Judaism at some point.
But instead of getting more religious as time went on, my OCD diagnosis truly complicated my relationship to Judaism. As my OCD symptoms got better with treatment, I started to feel less connected to God. The tether that was fearing God’s judgement was withering away. Without that fear, I didn’t know how to believe in God’s power anymore.
Soon, fearing God turned into being enraged by God and what I had gone through. If God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, why was I suffering for so long? Was God to blame for my years of staying up for hours after my bedtime doing compulsions? Was God to blame for my isolation from my peers because they saw me as “other”? Was God to blame for this unshakeable feeling that I was being punished despite having done nothing to deserve this amount of pain?
OCD isn’t just an illness that attacks your sense of safety or control; anyone with OCD will tell you that this disorder will target anything and everything you love. I couldn’t imagine there being a God out there who wanted anyone to suffer the way I had.
So, I stopped imagining God altogether. I stopped going to synagogue. I stopped observing the Yom Kippur fast and the Passover restrictions. And, I stopped praying to God the way I had when I was younger.
And yet, now at 24 years old, I am finally realizing that God was not targeting me with OCD; rather, my OCD was targeting God.
OCD has always targeted my most treasured parts of who I am: drawing, writing, making music, friendships, relationships… nothing has been safe. If OCD has consistently gone after the most important parts of my life, then surely God was one of them. I have actively tried to save every other part of myself from OCD. Why should God be the exception?
At this point in my life, I still struggle with OCD symptoms on a daily basis. I still fight the urge to do compulsions. Yet, there is an important difference between 8-year-old me and 24-year-old me: I am no longer paralyzed by fear. I will not let OCD win.
If I continue to avoid my Jewish upbringing, which was so important to me in my early life, I am letting OCD win. So, despite the challenge I know it will bring, I am trying to bring Judaism back into my life. The first step has been acknowledging that I was once very proud to be connected to God, and realizing that I want to have that connection at some point again.
Though I do not know how long it will take, I truly am hopeful I will be able to pray again. And, when I do, I will thank God for standing with me all these years to fight the mental illness that I had never thought I’d be able to overcome.
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