What I Wish Christians Knew About Harm OCD

Harm OCDEditor’s note: The following piece was submitted by an anonymous author.  Whilst many of us invision repeated hand washing, or perhaps Monk’s compulsion to have everything orderly when we hear the words ‘OCD,’ that isn’t the only kind of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

It first happened six months after I turned eighteen, as I was walking to the chapel at my university for a required assembly. Palm fronds swished against a clear sky and a light wind brushed my face. I was thinking about how I wished I could stay in my dorm room and read rather than attend a required assembly with two thousand sweaty students.

The next thought sliced into my mind out of nowhere.

What if I stabbed a family member?

I stopped walking.

I did not just think that, I thought. I would never do that.

People surged past me, chattering about upcoming exams, the greasy cafeteria food, lack of sleep. I made myself start walking again, but my mind sank deep into thought.

How do you know you would never do that?

Because I love my family, I thought. Because I hate violence. I can’t even watch scary movies without a pillow over my face.

But does that mean you’ll never hover outside your brother’s door with the knife from the kitchen and—
Stop.
—sneak over to his bed and—
Stop, stop.

A gruesome image followed. I swore at myself to stop, to banish the image from my mind. By then I had come to the steps before the chapel. I climbed them slowly, my fingers clutching the metal rail.

You see, said my mind, you can imagine it. That means you might do it. Mightn’t you?

No.

Yes.

No, I wouldn’t. I could never do that. I love my family, I love my brother. Please, that’s enough.

How can you be sure you won’t hurt them?

I dropped into a wooden pew and tried to answer that question for the next hour. I failed, and for the rest of that week, my throat ached in the place where my mind told me I might draw a knife across a loved one’s neck. During work one evening, I called my mom, and I sobbed to her that something was wrong.

“Explain it, sweetie,” she said, but I didn’t dare. She would have no choice but to report me to the police if she did, or commit me to an insane asylum.

Sane people did not have these thoughts.

So my mom offered all she could: prayer.

But I had already begged God to take the thoughts and images away from me, and he had not answered.

I almost didn’t want to go home for the summer, for fear that I would fulfill the horrors my mind now paraded in front of me every day. I saw my life laid out before me: One day I would snap under the weight of the thoughts, and I would lose control and do the terrible thing, and then I would die in jail, a criminal who had never wanted to commit a crime. The thought slammed me into a place of crushing self-hatred. But then I knew—and this thought made me feel only slightly better—that before I let myself hurt anyone, I would kill myself first.

I tried to distract myself with my summer job, with spending time with my family. If they were all around me, where they could restrain me should I show signs of snapping, they were safe. One warm summer evening, we watched a movie that started to show my nightmare: a kid with a knife, entering his family’s house with a chilling look on his face. I left the room, slipped into the bathroom, and sat on the toilet lid, my face cradled in trembly hands. After half an hour, I edged back into the living room. I wanted to ask if the boy had done it, if he had done the unthinkable. But I didn’t, because if he had, might that not mean I could, too? It was better not to know.

Another year of college flew past, and then another summer. I tiptoed through life, avoiding situations that could cause me to hurt someone else: I stayed away from knives, from guns, from balconies. Each day I judged myself a murderer for the images that seared my mind, and one day in church as I sang a song about God’s love I felt that God had ditched me. I wanted nothing more than to meet him and ask him what was wrong with me. I wanted to talk to him in person, and ask him to heal me. Just then another horrible thought burned my mind and nearly pushed me to me knees.

I closed my mouth. The song swelled toward the ceiling. Clouds loomed over the stained-glass windows, shuttering all the light.

My biggest enemy, my snatcher of joy, lived within my own bones and smiled my smile, and not even God could squelch it.

Somehow I successfully completed a third year of college. During my senior year of college, I decided to look for help for another problem I’d been facing for years. After some online research, I ordered a book called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne. I decided to read from the beginning, and the book covers many types of anxiety disorders. I read disinterestedly about obsessive-compulsive disorder until I read this line:

“Obsessions may occur by themselves, without necessarily being accompanied by compulsions. In fact, about 20 percent of the people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder only have obsessions, and these often center around fears of causing harm to a loved one” (21).

I re-read that lifesaving line.

Eagerly I read on, and found this:

“It is very important to realize that as bizarre as obsessive-compulsive behavior may sound, it has nothing to do with ‘being crazy.’ You always recognize the irrationality and senselessness of your thoughts and behavior, and you are very frustrated (as well as depressed) about your inability to control them” (21).

Yes, that’s me, I thought.

On the next page, I got a morsel of information on how to help myself: cognitive therapy. “Fearful, superstitious, or guilty thoughts associated with obsessions are identified, challenged, and replaced. For example, the idea ‘If I have a thought of doing harm to my child, I might act on it’ is replaced with ‘The thought of doing harm is just ‘random noise’ caused by the OCD. It has no significance. Just having the thought doesn’t mean I’ll do it’” (22).

Reverently, I closed the book.

I was not psychotic, I was not evil, I was not a murderer. I probably suffered from some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I researched books specifically for OCD and found a well-rated one called The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD: A Guide to Overcoming Obsessions and Compulsions Using Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by John Hershfield and Tom Corboy. In this book I found the answer to the type of OCD from which I suffered: harm OCD, which centers around the fear of hurting loved ones. I spent hours reading about why the brain begins the thought processes it does. I learned that most people have fleeting thoughts of what if I hurt someone I love?

The difference between those people and people who suffer from harm OCD is that most people recognize such thoughts for what they are: meaningless thoughts, not threats. Their brains do not seize on the thoughts and launch into relentless cycles of questioning, fearing, and judging.

These two books started hoisting me out of the pool of darkness that I had swum in for three years. I still struggled with intrusive thoughts, but I fought the OCD with techniques I learned in the books I read. I got brave enough to search harm OCD on the Internet, and found out that, while the information on it is relatively new, hundreds of people have it—probably thousands—but few seek treatment because they are afraid of the same things I feared: that their family members will think them psychotic and evil, and that doctors and counselors will commit them to psychiatric hospitals or jail.

And sadly, sometimes the reaction to this mental illness is negative, but I have been lucky. In the past year I have told my mom, husband, and a handful of other family members and friends about my struggle with this illness, and each of them has emanated understanding.

Intrusive thoughts still plague me from time to time, and on some days I can deal with them better than others. But I’m determined to beat OCD. Each morning I make three requests of God, and one of them is that he help me conquer the OCD soon so that I can live the way I once did and worry about the things normal people worry about.

Because of my experience with OCD, I try to stay alert to clues that someone might be suffering from a mental illness they don’t understand, and while I pray that God comforts them, I also pray that he will lead them to the right tools to help them start to heal, as he did for me.

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Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a ‘recovering cancer caregiver’ who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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