Editor’s note: This writer uses a pseudonym, to feel freer in describing her experience of living with OCD.
My journey with prayer started out innocently, feet swinging in my plastic chair at Chabad preschool, mouthing the words to the hamotzi as my grubby hands reached for graham crackers. Over the course of my youth, I rarely communed with God — asking for Shabbos grape juice as a child, beseeching Him to ensure that my b’nai mitzvah classmates liked me in my teen years. Yet years later at Yom Kippur services, reading the siddur (prayer book) was as triggering and intimate as reading my own diary. Obsessive compulsive disorder took my relationship with prayer and turned it on its head.
Over the course of my adolescence, a healthy feeling of concern for my loved ones devolved into hyper-morality OCD. Overthinking caused me to feel responsible for the well-being of everyone around me. This distorted logic was to the point of irrationality. According to my OCD, if people in an adjacent city were homeless and hungry it was my fault. I was “selfishly” choosing to attend my AP classes when the more “humane” option was to drop out of school at age 15 and hand out homemade PB&J sandwiches. If my dad got a flat tire, it was also my fault. I should have listened enough about tire safety in Drivers Ed to warn him of possible danger. It was torturous having the weight of the world on my shoulders. I stopped seeing friends in case I accidentally did wrong by them. I stopped sleeping so I’d be too sedated to analyze the deleterious effect I had on the world.
By 17, my symptoms were so debilitating that I attended a prominent OCD program for three months. During my stay, I befriended Abe, a middle-aged Jewish man working hard in treatment so that he could go back to his wife and kids. When Pesach (Passover) rolled around, my family invited him over to share our Passover meal. As soon as Abe entered my house, he became aware of a wobbly banister on the back porch and was overcome by fear. If people fell on the stairs, it would be his fault because he had not fixed it. My family was so kind to invite him over for Pesach; was he really repaying the favor, he wondered, by risking our safety and not advocating for its repair? Abe was still in the program when I left that spring.
At the end of the program, I could finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. However, going to temple had become hard and oddly autobiographical. Reading the Passover section in the siddur was like delving into my own memories. The prayer book read, “For every exile who walked out of Egypt between walls of water, for everyone who remembered the feel of sea bottom underfoot, the sibilant roar of water rearing on the right on the left…” (Goldberg et al., 2015) I thought, “I was just there.” The recollection of those walls of water (the walls of the therapy room had been light green) and the roar of the ocean waves (one of the patients obsessively played the same piano measure again and again and again) were fresh in my mind.
Praying became difficult, triggering my mental illness, as atonement could mimic OCD compulsions. The lay person might think that a compulsion means counting cracks, hand washing or organizing pencils. However, compulsive behavior can also be cognitive. My go-to compulsion was “mental review,” where I would try to absolve myself through replaying my actions in my head. In addition, I sought complete certainty about the future, an impossible quest where the pursuit always exacerbated my symptoms. In a sad twist, prayer became maladaptive as I used it to compulsively ponder past actions and exert undue control on future ones.
I was able to find my way back to prayer through key Jewish concepts. My cantor introduced me to the transformative idea of Hineni. Meaning “Here I am”, it refers to the idea of standing authentically, even imperfectly, before God. Hineni is not just significant for my Jewish identity but also healing for my OCD. In OCD treatment one strives to cultivate “willingness” — a willingness to be human, a willingness to make mistakes. Mindfulness is also a key facet of treatment, where one learns how to stay centered in the present moment. Hineni encompasses both of these concepts through its emphasis on being grounded and staying true to oneself.
Another prayer that helped me is Hashkiveinu, which coincides with the OCD treatment module of getting in touch with one’s values. Hashkiveinu is about God making people stronger and "whole", shielding them from the enemies they face — both inside and out. The prayer says, "You are the One who cares for us and sets us free." I take this prayer literally, interpreting it to mean that God is found in anything that protects us. This means that God’s grace can be found in kind words and vegetables and wheelchairs and correct pronouns and pain meds and cognitive behavioral therapy. God can even be embodied by ingenious coping mechanisms. Recognizing all this wonder reminds me how much there is to fight for. Furthermore, widening one’s purview to see beauty in addition to pain is at the heart of OCD treatment. Instead of trying to make my symptoms go away, I swivel my attention, however briefly, to what I love. I let my attention include God.
I don’t need God to save me from my obsessions. Instead, I look to God’s goodness as a source of strength to help me weather them. Engaging in prayer is not a game of control, but rather an acknowledgement of what I can’t control; I connect with my values to persist. OCD treatment submerses people into uncertainty. In Judaism and God, there are infinite ways to thrive in that uncertainty.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015)
Hineni, Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
Hashkiveinu: Seeking Comfort and Protection Through the Night, My Jewish Learning