Befriending Uncertainty, Unfriending Responsibility

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By Serena Lee
Photography by Aaron Huang
Oct 08, 2020 | 8 min read
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One of the first times I started experiencing anxiety-provoking intrusive thoughts was on a Sunday morning at church. During the middle of the sermon, my brain suddenly flashed an image of me forcefully kissing my pastor.

I was horrified. It felt like one of the worst things my brain had ever come up with. An overwhelming sense of anxiety, guilt, and discomfort made me nauseous as I attempted to ignore the image. I kept telling my brain to get rid of it, but somehow the image replayed over and over again. It seemed like the harder I tried to stop the image from interrupting my thoughts, the more intrusive it became.

For the next few months, I struggled to control these inappropriate thoughts. I would spend three to four hours every day obsessing over the meaning of all this disturbing content, and even more hours performing physical and mental compulsions to temporarily relieve the anxiety brought on by my obsessive thoughts. I scoured the internet for answers, took ridiculous quizzes titled “Am I a terrible person?”, and read every article I could find on abuse to examine if I had committed these deeds. I often texted my friends and significant other at the time to reassure myself that I had not done anything to hurt them. Even so, I examined and replayed my interactions with others, looking for something to repent of. And for every inappropriate thought I had, I prayed this prayer like a “Hail Mary”:

“Dear heavenly Father, please forgive me. Please, forgive me Lord.” Then count to 12. Mark the sign of the cross. Say “amen.” Repeat.

These compulsions exhausted me. I became utterly depressed. At the peak of this tormenting episode, I isolated myself from as many people as possible to ensure I would protect others from my monstrous self. I genuinely believed others would be safer and happier if I didn’t exist.

Obsessive, Compulsive, and Never Certain

Among other mental health issues, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) within the past few years, though in hindsight I exhibited tendencies at an early age and experienced major episodes in college. However, my OCD never manifested with the classic physical compulsions most people think about, like washing hands 50 times a day, lining up items in perfect 90-degree angles, or repeating motions in multiples of four. For me, OCD has mostly been an invisible, mental struggle. As a result, I often felt like my OCD was reduced to a cute, quirky trait of mine.

“I’m so OCD too!”

“Yeah, I get annoyed when my stuff isn’t in the right place.”

“Just don’t think like that!”

Those were real responses from some people to whom I had disclosed my disorder. None of them knew how painful it was to constantly think about terrible things I had no choice in imagining. I could not share that every time I drove over a pothole, I would drive back to check it or ruminate about it for an hour out of fear I had run over a person. I was embarrassed that I spent six hours a day researching schizophrenia instead of doing homework because I felt afraid I was becoming psychotic. Sometimes I became so overwhelmed by these intrusive thoughts that it was easier to fantasize about suicide. I never felt “cute” living with OCD. I felt insane.

Thankfully, I can now effectively manage my OCD, especially as it runs its course episodically. However, many others living with this illness experience chronic OCD, their lives severely impaired due to the intensity and time-consuming nature of their symptoms. Regardless of severity, the experience itself can be humiliating because people with OCD are quite aware that their fears are irrational. Awareness and beliefs still cannot guarantee the one thing every person with an anxiety disorder wishes for: certainty.

OCD makes it difficult for someone to ignore their anxieties surrounding tasks with no known outcome. For this reason, uncertainty often hinders those with OCD from trusting everyday situations that most people engage with in order to move through their day efficiently.

I came to these conclusions after discovering psychoeducational resources on OCD, which prompted my curiosity on what happened to me that taught me to feel anxious about uncertainty. Why was I afraid of imagining provocative images? Was I born this way? Who do I think God is? I realized it was not enough to heal my psyche with therapy and medication alone; I needed to dive into deep existential and theological reflection on the meaning of my experience.

Tiger Moms are Scary

“Do it again,” Mama said in Taiwanese. I could tell her anger was increasing as she erased my homework a second time. “Make it neater or I’ll erase it again.” The worksheet was already pretty crumpled, with eraser streaks and residual pencil markings defiling Mama’s picture of perfection. Still, I did the best my 7-year-old self could do and completed my homework for the third time. I tried not to cry, bowing my head down to hide my tears.

Growing up with Taiwanese immigrant parents who have higher education degrees certainly came with the rich blessing of my cultural and ethnic heritage, a love for food and sharing, and the value of intergenerational connection. However, it also came with toxic expectations for perfection, immense pressure to succeed, and the use of guilt, shame, and honor to measure one’s worth. I learned to associate my value as a human being with how useful I was to others. The problem with this worldview was that no task, success, or reward could convince me that I was worthy. Nothing I did could be louder than the words I heard at home.

“Why are you so stupid?”

“Stop being lazy! Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean you can relax.”

“You are making me sick. I have a headache because of you!”

My siblings and I endured countless lectures and yelling matches a week because it was easy to get in trouble with so many house rules. In order to keep the peace in my family, I abided as much as I could, taking on the role of the quiet, obedient child to appease my parents rather than further burden them. I learned to become responsible for my parents’ happiness.

Checklist Culture

As a child, church had always been a haven from the daily chaos of my home. Unfortunately, church started to turn sour as youth group meetings began to feel suffocating. I didn’t feel safe to share the pain of living under extreme pressure at home, because the very same rule-based culture dictating my household had infiltrated my faith community. At the time, the only way I knew how to be a good Christian was to act toward God the way I endlessly strived to please my mother. Among countless practices on an invisible checklist, I often prayed up to three hours a day, heavily evangelized to non-Christians, and systematically punished myself while I repented of my sins, all in fear that without my good deeds, there would be nothing God could possibly love. I started to wonder if God’s love was real, since being a Christian felt disheartening. Feeling utterly alone, many Friday nights I would lead worship, escape to the bathroom to hide in a stall, and silently weep because the words I sang felt empty and false.

Perhaps the most damaging practice constructed by shame was my self-harming behavior, which began the year I took a public vow promising to save my purity for my “true love waits”. At 14 years old, I had no clue what I signed up for. I only knew the rules: no holding hands, no kissing, no closed doors when alone with a boy, or anything else that could potentially lead to sex. So as my body continued to take its natural course through adolescence, I became distraught when I experienced new sensations of pleasure. No one had taught me that desiring an intimate embrace or a gentle touch was natural and good. I felt the only option to cope with shame and deal with my body was to severely condemn it for its sinful nature. For every “lustful” thought or desire, I matched with a scar. I had no idea that a similar pattern would manifest in my OCD.

These legalistic rules that shaped my Christian life essentially measured my success or failure to prove my worthiness to God. The caveat, of course, was that I could always find a reason for God to despise me. Just as I felt responsible for my parents’ happiness, I felt responsible for making God love me. This scrupulous evangelical checklist culture, my rigid and suffocating home environment, and most likely a genetic predisposition for anxiety created the perfect storm for the development of my OCD. I was imprisoned in a cycle of anxiety, futile confessions, shame, and hopelessness. What I needed beyond cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, and social support, was a reorientation toward the grace of God.

Wholly Human

Shortly after receiving my OCD diagnosis, I decided to visit my alma mater to catch up with friends and mentors. I knocked on my former theology professor’s office door, which quickly swung open as he embraced me. I told him everything that transpired, expressing how painful the past few years had been. After serving me some hot tea and lots of tissues, Dr. Work responded:

“Do you know who else probably had OCD?” I shook my head no. “Martin Luther. Saint Augustine. Saint Therese.”

I was familiar with these historical Christian figures because of my religious studies degree, but I was confused about the connection. “How would we know if they had OCD?” I asked skeptically.

Dr. Work proceeded to teach me about scrupulosity in the Christian faith, defined as an overconcern about one’s thoughts, words, or actions that may be sinful or immoral according to religious doctrine. I began to recall class lectures on Luther’s life, as well as Saint Therese and her obsession of “the little flower”. I thought about Saint Augustine and his distress over his sexual desires and how hateful he was toward himself. Yet, the one pivotal moment in each of their stories hinges on their discovery of the liberating grace of God. I was flooded with a genuine desire to be free from the psychological prison in which I was trapped.

A conversation like this years before would have triggered an adverse response to spiritual statements addressing mental health struggles. After all, my faith deconstruction was catalyzed in college after many people prayed for “healing” over my depression, encouraged me to stop psychotropic medication, and minimized my mental health issues as a lack of faith. In other words, I’ve had my fair share of Christians over-spiritualizing my emotional and mental pain. Unbeknownst to me, these negative interactions with other Christians shaped my belief that mental health could only be appropriately addressed by mental health professionals.

That assumption could not be further from the truth. Discovering myself as a complex, multi-dimensional human who is made of a body, mind, and spirit ultimately expanded my capacity for healing. For example, many of my mental health struggles found respite when I engaged my body in rock climbing two years ago, which eventually doubled as a spiritual exercise for resilience and patience. I learned that practicing mindfulness not only helped me connect more deeply with God, but also allowed me to sleep more soundly at night. I found my OCD much more manageable when I frequently engaged in conversations with friends about the reality of God’s grace. Every aspect of my humanness was intricately and beautifully intertwined.

Dr. Work reminded me, “Let God be responsible for loving you.”

My therapist tells me, “You are not responsible for what and how your parents feel.”

Friends always reassure me by saying, “Let me be the one who decides to love you and care about you. Don’t make that decision for me by running away because you assume you will burden me.”

Hearing these words from my supportive community of friends, mentors, and mental health team was music to my ears. They were asking me to relinquish the very responsibilities I was taught were mine to carry. I still fight the temptation to withdraw from vulnerability when my anxiety reminds me that I am not in control. I spin outrageous stories to justify why my friends should abandon me. I seldom speak up at home when I disagree with my mother (our relationship is still healing). Nevertheless, I am hopeful for the future and gladly continue on. I no longer keep myself bound by anxiety and shame, but rest in the freedom of the grace and love of God.

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Serena Lee

Serena Lee (she/her/hers) is an associate clinical social worker practicing as a therapist in Orange County providing mental health services for under-resourced individuals and groups. Serena graduated from Azusa Pacific University in Spring 2021 and is hoping to eventually earn her license and Ph.D in social work. Three most important passions in her life include church community, mental health and restorative justice, and theology. Some things that give her life are bouldering, playing and writing music, and hanging out with her friends!

Aaron Huang

Aaron Huang was born in a Christian family, but never had an “aha” moment. Traveling and nature photography help him experience the beauty of God’s creation and remind him of his own insignificance and God’s grandeur. Find him on Instagram @heyeyron.

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