“Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30)
With these words, Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon began a seven year journey through a madness that caused him to run naked and eat grass like a beast of the field. Over the last five weeks, I have come as close to understanding this experience as I ever want to come. As I sit down to write about these experiences, I do so with a reluctance that I have never experienced before. Writing this short story is more difficult than I would have thought possible a couple months ago. The difficulty arises not only because I am sharing some of the most difficult experiences of my life, but also because in doing so I am examining the worst fears that I now have. I have decided to go through this painful process in the hope that this account will be useful to other people who have had similar experiences.
I don’t know exactly how my experience with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder began, but I remember the first symptoms. A number of years ago I noticed within myself a tremendous anxiety that occasionally occurred when I was driving. Given my history as a poor driver, this anxiety was not so surprising and I didn’t pay too much attention to it. I had, after all, been involved in a number of high speed accidents any one of which could have involved a serious injury or a fatality. I want to give an exact number here, but I find that I cannot remember the specific details of more than three of these incidents. I know that there were a number of other close calls that did not result in actual accidents, but suffice it to say that I have had a handful of terrifying experiences while driving.
Whatever the actual number may be, my anxiety while driving gradually increased until I seized an opportunity to live without a car in 2007. At that time, I decided that I was too bad a driver to continue to drive an auto-mobile in good conscience. I sold my car and determined that from that time forward I would arrange my life so that I would not have to drive again. Though not all of these accidents were my fault and everyone involved walked away from the scene, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable response to my experiences and not a surrender to irrational fears.
Giving up my car relieved my anxiety attacks for a while, but they eventually returned in a different form. About four years ago, I started having anxiety attacks when I left my apartment. “Did I turn the stove off?”, “Did I leave the water running?”, “Did I lock the door?” At first, these fears seemed normal but they gradually intensified. It was when I started double and triple checking when I left my apartment or my office that I knew I had a problem. “I am sure that I turned everything off”, I would say to myself, but I would begin to be assailed by thoughts about the consequences of being wrong. Images of my apartment building burning down and a mother dying with her infant son would assail me every time I got out of the elevator until I went back and checked my apartment “just to make sure”.
These fears eventually became so bad that I developed a system. I called it the “chip” system and I carried around a poker chip in my pocket. When I would leave my apartment or my office, I would go through a ritual. I would put the “chip” in my left hand and examine everything making sure that I had hit all the items on my list. Once I was sure that everything was okay, I would put the chip in my right hand and say, “I am now chipped. I know beyond any doubt that I have done all I need to do.” When the horrible thoughts and images would come, I would say, “I am chipped. I am sure that everything is fine.” For a long time, this system seemed to do the trick. At some point, the fears receded to the point where I no longer needed the poker chip. I still went through my check-list, but the holding the poker chip when I was done was no longer necessary.
About a year ago, I had my worst experience to that point with the irrational fears of OCD. I had rented a car for a brief period as part of a move to a new apartment. Though I did not believe that my fears would surface driving for such a short time, despite all my caution there was still a problem. After I returned the car, I had this terrible fear that I had run over someone without realizing it and left them to die. Going back to the rental car place, I checked the car over four times searching for the tiniest sign of blood or damage. The car was almost new and, thank God, in amazingly pristine condition. Despite the evidence of my eyes, I still had anxiety attacks for weeks thereafter wherein I heard the screams of my imaginary victim and saw images of the police arresting me for vehicular manslaughter.
As these fears subsided, I renewed my determination not to drive again and things seemed to go back to normal. It was on a Saturday morning about six weeks ago when I had my latest experience with the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the bottom dropped out of my world.
An Experience with Madness
I cannot speak for anyone else, but I have unwelcome, evil thoughts every once in a while. I am not going to go into any details, but these are blasphemous thoughts, violent thoughts, racist thoughts, judgmental thoughts, obscene thoughts. Normally, having one of these thoughts is like the high school experience of seeing someone you don’t like in the hallway. You keep your head down, you walk past and they are soon out of sight and out of mind. On one particular Saturday morning, unpleasant thoughts of an extreme nature became routine guests. They would no longer go away when ignored or rejected. Instead they would proliferate and become worse. Instead of walking past me in the hall, these thoughts now pursued me, surrounded me with their awful buddies and started shoving their way to the forefront of my attention.
Now if this doesn’t sound awful to you, it can only be because you have never had the experience that I am talking about. If anyone has had the kind of experiences that I had and does not recoil in horror, then I pity that person as much as I can pity any human being. Horrible, terrible and awful thoughts flooding my mind, making permanent camp, proliferating with their darker cousins and they WOULD NOT GO AWAY. If I tried to pray or read the Bible, they would intrude on me. Shaking my head or thinking of something else would temporarily drive them from my immediate attention, but always in the background they were still there beating on the door of my mind. Even now as the memory of these experiences begins to fade, describing it makes me shudder.
But I am getting a bit ahead of myself here. When I woke up on Saturday morning to go do some work on a new church building with some friends, the full extent of my problem was not yet clear to me. I knew that something was wrong but it didn’t seem so bad at first. It started out gradually as a series of dark and evil thoughts that were not that much worse than thoughts I have had in the past. As I got into the car, I asked my brothers and sisters to pray for me. Because interacting with them caused the problem to go away, I felt as though the episode had passed and things had returned to normal. It was only when I was on the train on the way home from church when I realized that the relief had only been temporary.
With growing alarm, I began going over my recent history. Had I watched a movie or a television show that I shouldn’t have? Had I read a book or played a game that had opened the door to such thoughts? Because of the wording of one of the thoughts that had tormented me the most, I soon zeroed in on a book that I had finished a few weeks prior that seemed to me the most likely candidate. When I got home, I destroyed the book and all the others that I owned of the same genre (science fiction) and prayed for forgiveness. Because I had discovered that working and cleaning alleviated the problem, I cleaned my apartment until it was time to go to bed and fell asleep confident that everything would be fine in the morning.
The next morning, things were far from fine. If anything, the experience had escalated enormously and the thoughts came with a frequency that caused me to doubt my future sanity. As visions of ending up a drooling wreck on the street terrified me, I quickly determined to give away and destroy every single item that I had that was not related to my work as a software engineer or my Christian life. I threw away books, I threw away my television and my computers, I threw away my board games. I started to fast and spent the rest of the day reading the Bible and praying until it was time to go to church. As I arrived at church on Sunday night, it was with a tremendous sense of relief. In the presence of my fellow Christians, the darkness was once again alleviated and peace returned to my mind. That night I went to sleep again confident that everything would be fine in the morning.
At work the next day, it was quickly apparent that I was not going to be able to function. I told my boss that I had a personal emergency and needed to take a few days off. I left the office and went home tremendously afraid. I continued my fast, prayer and Bible reading and began a thorough examination of my life. As I went through this process on Monday and the following Tuesday, I came up with a long list of sins which I had allowed to become a part of my life and outlook. As I repented of these with prayer and fasting, things improved marginally, but not enough for me to think that things were better.
I had accidentally discovered that careful attention to physical work alleviated the problem. I likewise discovered that having any kind of a negative thought would act as a trigger that started an avalanche. When I had a negative thought (even thinking about the word “negative” was a problem) I would shake my head to clear my thoughts and think of something positive. So after three days of fasting, cleaning my apartment, reading the scripture, repenting of every sin I could think of, shaking my head violently and thinking as many positive thoughts as possible, I met my brother Rocky for a walk in the park. While his presence banished the problem temporarily, his words offered some real long-term help.
“Rob”, he said, “You are acting as though you are going to get through this by thinking positive thoughts, reading the Bible, making lists of sins and repenting of them. What is going to get you through this is not any of those things, but your faith in Jesus Christ. Remember what he did for you and you will recover your peace.” Though these words improved my situation to the point where I was able to return to work and end my fast, I was still having sporadic difficulties. I was missing something important.
Reason to the Rescue
Nearly two weeks after the first incident, I had a particularly severe relapse. Naked and crying on the floor of my apartment with a painful headache from shaking my head too intensely, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and never come out. Getting up and going to work that morning was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I did it because I felt I had a service that I had to perform for the Lord. That night I decided that I had had enough.
Because thinking about what was happening to me had been the trigger for the most severe of my attacks, I had intentionally avoided analysing my situation. That night I said to myself, “I don’t care how painful this is, I am going to reason my way through this. Reason has always been my ally and I am not going to abandon it now.” As I began to go through what had happened step by step, waves of terrible thoughts came upon me but I fought my way through them. It was through this process that I made the important discovery that made me to want to share this experience in the hope that it would help others.
The following thought process took a long time and did not occur in precisely this way, but this form is easier to follow and gets across the essential points:
“So what seems to be the problem?”
“I am having horrible thoughts and I cannot get rid of them.”
“Why can’t you get rid of them?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have to know. It is all there in your mind. What are the possibilities?”
“The first possibility is that these thoughts are demonic in nature.”
“If they were only demonic, then according to the Scripture they would have to yield to prayer and fasting. You have done that and they are still there. What else?”
“The second possibility is that these thoughts are coming out of the deepest recesses of my heart, but that cannot be.”
“Because I am a better person than that. Racist thoughts? I haven’t had thoughts even close to being that bad in more than 20 years. My parents taught me that racism was wrong before I knew the alphabet. This cannot be coming out of my heart.”
“What if the intended target was not the people?”
“Who else is there?”
“What are the possibilities?”
“Well I guess I could be angry at God. Are you saying that I have anger at God in my heart and that this anger is coming out as terrible thoughts?”
“Are there any reasons that you might be angry?”
“No! God is good, he has done so much for me!”
“Is that how you really feel? Haven’t there been any disappointments on your journey with God?”
“Well, I am 45 years old and I am unmarried. Despite the fact that I worked hard and went to two of the best schools in the world, I have rarely had a positive bank balance. I have also done a good deal of work attempting to serve the Lord and not seen much fruit from those efforts. Could these disappointments cause me to get angry at God and nurse a resentment and hostility that comes out as horrible thoughts?”
“I don’t want that to be true, but I suppose it is possible. What can I do?”
“What would you do if angry resentments came out of your heart while you were talking to God?”
“I would repent and ask him to forgive me for the blackness of my heart. I would also ask him to refine my heart and purify it so that I no longer have such feelings.”
As I went through the process of analysing my life of the last few years, I realized that I have had what you might call a “mid-life crisis”. Upon reaching a significant milestone a year ago, I began thinking about how my life has not been anything close to what I had hoped when I was younger. In a variety of ways, I nursed these grievances until the day the bottom dropped out.
Though understanding that these thoughts were coming from resentments against God was important, the bigger part of the revelation was that apart from repentance, obedience and prayer, there is nothing that I can do about this. Even the most skilled heart surgeon in the world cannot operate on himself and only God can change a human heart. Was it not the Lord who said, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18)
As I reflect on the experience of the last 6 weeks, it is clear that the realization that God is the only one who can purify my heart was the turning point in my fight against these thoughts. Whenever an ugly thought occurs to me now, I renew my confession, “Heavenly father, I reject these thoughts completely. Please purify my heart by cutting out those parts of it that would rebel against you and putting them on the cross.” When I make this prayer, the horrible feelings of condemnation that were stealing my peace depart and the thoughts fade away.
As I have slowly recovered my mental balance in the wake of these experiences, I have determined that this is going to be the best thing that has happened to me since I became a Christian. The positives of this experience are:
- I have a renewed relationship with Jesus Christ and I have never had a higher regard for his mercy, forgiveness and love.
- I have a new appreciation for the importance of gratitude in the Christian life.
- I have reviewed every aspect of my life and trimmed away a number of things that were not contributing positively to my walk with Jesus Christ.
- Cleaning has become extremely relaxing to me and my apartment has never been cleaner.
- For whatever reason, junk food is no longer as appealing to me as once it was and I have found it much easier to stay on my diet.
- I have a much greater sympathy for people with mental disorders than I used to.
I share these very painful and personal experiences in the hope that others may find something useful in my experience. I leave you with some of the verses that got me through.
If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:20)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:1)