“Why can’t I stop repeating this random word in my head?”
“I wonder what she means by that inflection?”
“Does this obtrusive image mean I’m not a Christian?”
When I’ve been off my medication for OCD and ADHD, my wife is the first to notice. She sees when I start to withdraw, spend inordinate amounts of time obsessing over various philosophical projects, isolate behind my study desk, etcetera. She perceives when I’ve forgotten to take my medication for days on end. And she can tell, after about a week, when I’m consistently back on my medication. When my symptoms are not kept at bay, about a thousand thoughts (no exaggeration!) fly through my head throughout the day. I start to feel literally sick, burdened with a headache; I’ve even become feverish in my inability to get out of my head.
OCD-ADHD is a varied disorder. Many people are familiar with the external, compulsive element of OCD—washing hands again and again, constantly checking a locked door, repeating a word to one’s self. It also tends to run in families; my brother has the more observable, compulsive version, whereas I suffer with a more internally obsessive version. How does a man like me find rest in a space like Lent?
“You are dust, and to dust you will return; repent and believe the gospel.”
I’ve often heard it said, in some attempts to comfort me, “OCD is like your superpower. It can enable you to focus for long hours at a time on a given task.” I understand the sentiment behind this appeal. But ultimately, such statements are unhelpful—at least to me. If OCD were functioning like my “superpower,” it wouldn’t be disordered. The non-disordered version is just a busy mind.
The story of Scripture makes much more sense to me. “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” My mental illness is an illness. It is a mark of the Fall, a symptom of a world under the curse. It is a manifestation of the conditions of our brokenness and mortality.
“Repent and believe the gospel.”
How can we say “repent” to a man struggling with mental illness? That’s a difficult question. I can only share what’s been true for me. While I don’t have control over many thoughts that pop into my head, I do have control over my response to them. Thus, I repent for my own failures to respond appropriately, normally by praying and resuming my medication.
I find that I stop praying about my mental illness when I start striving to fight it in my own effort. That is, when I cease thinking about my OCD-ADHD in the context of the redemption story, I begin to think that I have to overcome it myself. When I fail to meditate on the victory Christ wrought, and the coming redemption of my body and brain, despair almost overtakes me. Believing the gospel, then, involves trusting that the gift of the Spirit, given in Baptism and sustained in the Eucharist, is the beginning of my own renewal which will culminate in my final resurrection. I believe the good news of a gracious Lord who rules history in the light and love of the resurrection. His ruling of history includes providence over my mental illness.
That doesn’t always make the unwanted thoughts stop. But believing the gospel in the midst of them gives me access to an indescribable peace. The Lord of glory, who suffered with humanity on the cross, sits with me in the hellscape of my mind. That hellscape, like the horror of the cross, then becomes infused with the promise of his peace. Because Jesus lives, I belong to God. My mind belongs to God. And the peace which surpasses all understanding guards my mind in the One who overcame death and its shadow. I can sit in that space if my risen Lord sits with me. The taste of his all-satisfying reality gives hope to a dust-returning, dust-destined-for-resurrection man like me.
S.L. has been a parishioner at Rez since 2017. He loves thinking and writing about how the glory of the gospel permeates all of life.