Religious OCD and Me

I’m currently dealing with mental health issues so several of my blog posts around this time will be around mental health. My health issues have changed over the years but I’m gonna start with how it began.

When I was a little kid, around 3rd grade I think, I was diagnosed with OCD. As far as I remember, I had been having “bad thoughts” about people repeatedly and this was very distressing to me as a religious child who could take things very seriously…

If you’ve never heard of religious OCD, it’s understandable…most ppl think of being a perfectionist when it comes to organizing and cleaning when they think of OCD…it’s often joked about as a personality quirk…In actuality, OCD can be a debilitating illness and is a major cause of disability. Lots of great info about OCD on the International OCD Foundation website: iocdf.org

Religious themed OCD in particular is often termed Scrupulosity

Anyway, back to my story…so you might be wondering what were these “bad thoughts” I kept having…I don’t remember many details but I think it was stuff like seeing someone and a thought would pop into my head: “they’re a monkey” which to my kid brain was a big insult and a horrible thing to think…in OCD clinical speak, these are called Intrusive Thoughts. Now a lot of OCD research shows that the thoughts that torment people with OCD aren’t necessarily something out of the ordinary, it’s that our brains take them so seriously, get so distressed over them and they pop into our heads repeatedly so it’s overwhelming. So what did my parents do about this? I was very lucky to have a doctor as a mother so I was taken to a psychiatrist even though mental health care is not commonly used in parts of South Asia. I was prescribed some medication and I felt better in a few months at which point my mom weaned me off. And then I was ok for the next 3 years…

In hindsight, I realize two things:

1) My OCD tended to flare up when experiencing a life stressor

2) I clearly had an anxiety disorder even before being diagnosed with OCD. I don’t remember this but my parents had to pull me out of first grade for a few months because I had switched schools and was so scared of my new teacher (who would scold me a bit for being behind other kids at the new school) that I went down two clothing sizes. Generally kids are supposed to get bigger not smaller and so my parents told me summer vacation had come early and pulled me from school. Thankfully, I had a new teacher in the fall and problem solved. I do remember being scared of the old teacher and waking up in the middle of the night thinking I had forgotten to do my homework. Clearly what was normal to me was bad enough for my family to pull me from school. From this, it’s clear to me that in my case at least, my mental health issues are very much something I was born with.

Ok so what happened next? Like I mentioned, things were ok for the next 3 years…then my family began the process of moving out of the country. My dad left first to start a new job and my mom and I shuttled between my grandparents’ for a few months. This was a huge life stressor for me since I was out of my regular environment and not even in school for a few months. Here’s the fun part though…my OCD came back but manifested in a completely new way. Now as I mentioned in previous post, I’m Muslim. We have five mandatory ritual prayers (called namaz in Urdu) every day. These aren’t mandatory for children but usually parents get kids to start praying a couple for practice. Except my OCD kid brain totally latched onto this and decided I must pray all five prayers every day and I must do it perfectly.

Now normally each prayer takes ppl 15 to 20 minutes including time to do a ritual washup/ablution (wuzu in Urdu) before the prayer itself. Both the ablution and prayer involve a number of repititions. This is a near perfect scenario for OCD to hijack. In my case, what should’ve been a straight forward 15 minute process turned into a 2 to 3 hour nightmare for each prayer because I would keep doubting how many times I’d done the required steps and if I had done them correctly. Sometimes I’d enlist other ppl to watch me wuzu and pray and they’d assure me that I was fine but OCD isn’t called the doubting disease for nothing. No matter what anyone said, it just wasn’t enough. So you can imagine, at its peak I was spending 10 to 15 hours a day trying to pray. I say trying because sometimes I’d take so long to do one prayer, it would be time for the next one and I still wasn’t done.

So how did we fix this? My mom took me back to the psychiatrist who wanted to give me meds (my guess is that therapy for OCD was not a thing available there at that time). My mom wasn’t comfortable giving me strong meds like tricyclic antidepressants as I still had a developing brain and SSRI usage for OCD wasn’t suggested. So what did she do? She banned me from praying to save my sanity. Imagine 11 year old me sneaking off to do wuzu and getting caught by mom and getting dragged back out. But it worked! We also moved and I started school and had a routine and things got better.

I did still take around half an hour to do wuzu when I started to try to pray again as a teenager. But this was a vast improvement. And in college, despite the stress, it went down to a normal 5 minutes because I simply didn’t have the time.

These days, with an OCD flare up in my 20s and 30s, I’m having trouble praying again for new OCD reasons. Although my mom encourages me to pray now, one day I was despairing about how I was gonna make up years worth of missed prayers and mom issued her own fatwa: I wasn’t responsible for them. No one is my family is a religious scholar but there’s language we’ve all heard saying those who are “insane” aren’t required to pray. I’ve always thought of this as someone having a condition which makes them unaware of obligations. My mom thinks it applies to me though since I want to pray but can’t without severe anxiety. I hada feeling mainstream religious scholars wouldn’t see it that way since mental health issues are poorly understood by them so I’m very glad my mom thinks her medical judgement and compassion trumps what a random scholar might say. This used to be just a feeling but it was confirmed recently when the Yaqeen Institute (a religious education org) worked with a therapist to put out this terrible video: https://yaqeeninstitute.org/najwa-awad/are-the-whispers-of-satan-a-type-of-ocd/#.XYb0P1NlA0M

It addresses scrupulosity OCD but talks about how it’s linked to waswasa (whisperings) from Satan which everyone experiences but in OCD it’s an extreme amount. This is total and complete bullshit. OCD is nothing like the regular waswasa people without OCD experience. I know this because I have those about things that aren’t part of my OCD themes. Furthermore, as far as I know religious OCD doesn’t follow different disease processes in the brain than other OCD subtypes. What makes contamination or checking or symmetry or harm OCD biological but scrupulosity OCD caused by Satan? It’s like we’re back to blaming diseases on evil spirits.

I think the solutions they offer of more praying is counterproductive. And I personally do not believe OCD thoughts have any spiritual meaning. Why do scrupulosity OCD thoughts have meaning and say harm OCD or contamination OCD do not? In general, I hate to see diseases attributed to jinn phenomenon rather than biological causes. OCD is not a spiritual disease,, it’s a neurochemical one.

While some ppl may take more comfort in praying and the spiritual interventions, I do not see these as specific to OCD like the video implies.

Above all implying there is a spiritual component to a neurochemical disability is what’s disturbing.

Moreover while it does suggest getting therapy for OCD, it also suggests stuff like eating black seed, which as far as know has no scientific evidence showing its useful for OCD, and makes no mention of taking actual proven medications (more on these later) to treat OCD. Before the haraam police comes at me about using “prophetic medicine”, remember there is a Hadith where the Prophet (pbuh) says he could be wrong about worldly matters and as far as I know, there’s also no religious basis for rejecting proven modern medicine in favour of 7th century medicine.

IMO for a therapist to be involved in producing this kind of content is completely unethical.

Anyway the point is if you’re struggling with religious themed OCD, you aren’t being tormented by Satan. This is a biological disease process. Please don’t believe bullshit videos by religious organizations.

This kind of thing is a big reason why I’m personally wary of seeing a Muslim mental health provider even though I think having common cultural experiences can be helpful.

Will stop here now. Feel free to discuss your religious OCD experiences below.

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