The Victory of Defeat


There is something so whimsical and wondrous about the idea of victory. It conjures images of war heroes and survivors of unimaginable loss, of people who lived to overcome great suffering despite impossible odds.

But even though victory is always something to celebrate, it does not always show up with a pretty red bow. Most of the time it comes quietly, over seasons—even years—of battle. Sometimes, victory only comes with death as a person is finally released from the pain they've borne this side of heaven and enters into the presence of Jesus.

My struggle to live a vibrant and peaceful life with OCD is like a wave of ups and downs that only I can feel. I would even say that victory is actually the wave itself, always present, always moving, and I rarely experience it the same way twice. In September, when I stayed home with Lucy by myself for a whole weekend, victory washed over me like a 30-foot swell, completely submerging me in its depths before relinquishing me back to land, exhilarated and spent from the joy of such an exciting experience. A few days ago, victory was a slow, gentle wave, rocking me to a place of almost-peace before quietly depositing me on shore, not quite sure I had overcome anything at all.

While sufferers of mental illness will see similarities in their symptoms if diagnosed with the same disease, no two people will experience it the same way. I have a particular type of mental illness and, further still, a specific type of OCD, known as Intrusive Thought. Other sufferers of Intrusive Thought OCD will see it manifest differently in their lives than I do in mine because mental illness is so complex it, quite literally, boggles the mind. (I get to make that joke.)

My big, scary intrusive thoughts have—without fail—been triggered by spending extensive time alone or isolated from the people I love. The first intrusive thought I had burst through my quiet subconscious and lit my amygdala on fire after I'd spent months sitting at home alone following my college graduation. The second major episode happened while I was sitting at my desk one afternoon after I was laid off from my job. The third came last summer while Pierce and Lucy were both out of town and I was struggling to fall asleep one night. I've had thousands more intrusive thoughts in the years between and since, but those three were the debilitating ones, the ones that sent me spiraling so badly even the smallest amount of exposure to my fears felt like trying to move a mountain. As luck would have it, though, exposure for OCD sufferers is the prescribed and proven treatment.

I wrote a really long post about the intersection of mental illness and faith a few years ago, and, in it, I go into greater detail about what cognitive behavioral therapy is and how it works. The gist is that the brain can be retrained and every time I act out a compulsory behavior to alleviate my fears it only serves to strengthen them because, by doing so, I convince my brain that there is, in fact, something to fear. To have victory, and thereby free myself from the power of intrusive thoughts, I have to sit myself down right in front of my fear and refuse to make myself feel better, no matter how terrified such a scenario makes me.

It's really fucking exhausting.

It also works.

(Dammit.)

It's hard not to want the easy way out. It goes against everything my body is telling me when I purposefully make myself uncomfortable and do the hard, good work of healing. But this is the way of the world, is it not? We tear our muscles and then gorge on protein to build them up. We break the bones to set them right. We remove the rotten boards and replace them with stronger ones so we don't have to destroy the whole house.

We live through the night and then the sun breaks over the horizon.

~~~

I asked God to challenge me this year, to remove what hinders His work, and to help me trust Him in a way that requires actual need and not just superficial hope for my litany of wants. I am learning that when you pray this kind of prayer God's answer is always a resounding "Yes!" So we must be careful to consider our prayers because they have real power. Our words matter to God. He is not the weird, distant relative who probably won't show up to the party if you send her a pity invitation. He's the generous, loving aunt who will pull you close and laugh real loud and bust a move on the dance floor. He will RSVP Yes and show up big and you'll either hide in the corner—hoping He'll eventually forget about you—or join Him in movements that feel foreign at first but, eventually, become second nature. Actually, I think it's more like first nature, the nature of God that we battle our flesh for every single day.

When we invite God into the place that hurts the most, He does more than simply fix it for us. He heals us. He brings us to a place of surrender we cannot embrace, or even see, otherwise because it is His nature—our essential and whole, unbroken self—that comes to life. What makes inviting God in so difficult is not that He won't change anything, but that He will change everything...and it might look very different than what we expected.

I might not ever be physically free from the bondage of OCD. I believe I will be. I hope with great anticipation that I will be. But if I'm not, it does not mean that healing has not happened. I look back on five years ago when I was pregnant with Lucy, back when I couldn't bear to be alone in the house for even five minutes without panicking, and marvel at how God has already healed my deepest, darkest wounds. It has taken more time than I wanted. It has hurt longer than I hoped. But He has not wasted a moment of my pain. Indeed, the things that matter most in my world—my marriage, my child, my relationship with Jesus—have been made richer than they were before.

~~~

I'm a big believer in keeping some of the hardest moments private. (I know, I know. Me? The woman who writes novel-length Instagram posts about this shit? Yes, me.) There are some thoughts I will never share publicly because I still feel great shame about them. I know they're just thoughts, but some things are meant to remain inside the relationships we have with our dearest friends, our spouses, and our therapists. Still, if I only wrote about my OCD when I wasn't feeling it, I don't know that I'd ever get much writing done. It is an ever-present entity in my life right now. And I write all of this while in the midst of a very anxious week. I'm sitting at a computer feeling, at this very moment, the need to act on compulsions that will reduce my anxiety. I know how easy it would be to just walk away. The relief would be palpable and almost immediate.

But it would not bring healing, only greater mental bondage. And what is it Paul said?

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." (Galatians 5:1/NIV)

OCD is not the same as bipolar disorder, or depression, or PTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy is widely-used and highly-effective at treating mental illnesses, but your healing might take another route. That's okay. Medication and therapy are beautiful, useful tools that I have used in the past and plan to use again very soon. God is not limited to mindfulness or prayer or meditation. His healing is in exercise and food and friendship and sex and Wellbutrin and crying on a therapist's couch.

And I have finally reached a place where I believe my life is better than having lived without the pain in the first place.

I hate the pain. Oh, God, do I hate it. But I hate the bondage even more. I hate the rituals. I hate the constant need for reassurance. I hate feeling like I can't do even the simplest of tasks without battling with my mind. So I make myself face the fear and tell it, in no uncertain terms, to shut the fuck up already.

~~~

Just a few days ago, I had to come home alone for two nights in a row during our final church retreat of the year. (And final retreat ever for our high school students, who are graduating this May. I'm fine. Everything's fine.) We didn't have anyone to watch our animals over the weekend, so because my group was small and our students were staying with my co-leader the responsibility to check on the animals at night fell to me. I was dreading the weekend all week, which felt like a double-whammy of shame because I didn't want to go into this very important final event with my girls feeling on the edge of a panic attack.

It was a hard week. I cried a lot. I prayed a lot. I fought with Pierce about it who, God bless him, is the most supportive spouse but cannot simply climb inside my brain. I asked my adult small group to pray for me. I reminded myself that I could call Pierce if I needed to, but that it would only bring temporary relief and make it that much harder for me to be alone the next time. I experienced the gamut of emotions, from feeling powerful as a daughter of God to feeling like I wanted to rip my skin off and jump out raw.

Long story short, I made it through. I came home at night and slept by myself and didn't panic. On both Friday and Saturday nights, I stood with my hand pressed to the front door and thanked God for the fire. I cried while I said it but, beneath the tears, I knew God was using this to heal me. I knew that actually going inside my house—a place that should be a sanctuary but in that moment seemed more like the gates of hell—was the only thing that would make going inside not scary anymore.

I still acted on some compulsions. I kept to the bedroom and bathroom only. I locked my bedroom door, opened my blinds, and slept on the side closest to the window. I held onto Lucy's stuffed husky and, in moments when intrusive thoughts threatened to call out the panic in my chest, I rubbed its little ear to ground myself.

It was not perfect and neither was I. But perfection is not the goal here. Freedom is.

And when the sun broke through the clouds and shined into my bedroom window each morning? It felt like glory.

Indeed, it was.

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