A Journey from Fear and Suffering to Control and Serenity
Essays 2020 / Finalists
In this essay, we will explore OCD, first from a medical vantage point and then as illuminated by the teachings of Chassidus, specifically the Tanya and Igros (letters) of the Rebbe. As a disclaimer, the author is neither a therapist nor a licensed medical professional, and the contents of this essay are not intended to replace the care of a mental health professional for people who require one, and which is also the Rebbe’s advice for more severe cases.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.1 The disorder manifests itself as obsessions, which are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety. In order to calm this anxiety, the person exhibits compulsions, which are repetitive behaviors he or she feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. These repetitive behaviors most often are expressed as frequent handwashing, excessive cleaning and/or organizing, repeating acts one has already done multiple times such as checking and rechecking if the door is locked or the oven is off, etc.
However, not all rituals or habits are compulsions. Many of us like to be clean and organized or to double-check things in order to be certain that they have been done. What separates people who have OCD from healthy people is that they do not freely choose to do what they do, but feel compelled to in order to alleviate their anxiety, even at the same that they recognize that their thoughts and behaviors are excessive. This in turn causes them to experience significant disruptions, loss of time, and shame in their daily life because of their thoughts and repetitive behavior. In other words, OCD can act very much like an addiction, in that it compels the person to do things he or she does not want in order to calm their urges.
For religious Jews, OCD can make it extremely hard because some of the mitzvos (commandments) can be very triggering, such as ritual handwashing, mikvah (ritual bath), Pesach (Passover) cleaning, etc. Numerous Rabbonim have spoken about OCD and the anxiety it causes for mikvah preparations which should be a time of joy. All mitzvos (commandments) should be done besimcha uvtuv levav, with joy and gladness heart, as the Rebbe often writes in his letters, and OCD unfortunately can often make that quite the opposite.
Medical treatment is typically psychotherapy, with medication added in more severe cases, and even different types of brain stimulation for those who do not respond well to the usual treatments.2 Nevertheless, OCD remains a very hard to diagnose, misunderstood disease, and its treatment is unfortunately often not very effective.
Chassidic Illuminations as Applied to OCD
We will now explore some of what Chassidus has to say on OCD, most notably a handwritten letter from the Rebbe to someone suffering from it. We will also review a number of Chassidic concepts, notably from the Tanya, that can be utilized in the treatment of OCD.
From a handwritten response of the Rebbe3:
“Your doctor has surely informed you that numerous individuals find themselves in the same situation that you describe (imagining that they did something imperfectly; that their hands are not clean, [i.e., ritualized hand washing,] for which reason they must wash their hands again, etc.).
When one makes a concentrated effort to be inattentive to these thoughts (not fighting these thoughts but being unmindful of them to the greatest possible degree), then [such thoughts] will dissipate with the passage of time, eventually disappearing entirely.
For example, when you desire to [re]wash your hands, do not make an issue of it. Rather, either say to yourself that this thought is insignificant and meaningless, [and pay the thought no heed,] or do wash your hands and then immediately occupy yourself with something that has absolutely no connection to your prior act [of washing your hands].
One’s frail general health also serves as one of the causes for this disorder. Strengthening your general health will thus be of additional assistance in easing your condition.
Also, in order to hasten your healing, you should consult with a doctor who is also a friend and follow the doctor’s directives.
Inspect the mezuzos [in your home to insure that they are all kosher according to Jewish Law].
Please convey your name and your mother’s name to me so that I may mention you in prayer at the holy resting place of my father-in-law, the Rebbe, of blessed memory, [for a full and speedy recovery].”
Fear, Shame, and Guilt
Often, in mental illness, especially in OCD when the person is engaging in behaviors that are usually noticeable by others, there is a great deal of fear and shame. This is totally wrong and can on the contrary prevent the sufferer from getting the help he or she desperately needs. Although there have been many advances in educating people about the prevalence of mental illness in our society—most notably Dr. Eli Rosen’s Neshamos.org initiative in the religious community—too many people suffer in silence. Chassidus teaches that everyone is created with two souls, the nefesh haElokis (G-dly soul) and the nefesh habehamis (animal soul) and that the animal soul has un-G-dly tendencies.4 Although they may be quite different in various people, overcoming these unG-dly tendecies (iskafia) and ultimately if possible transforming them (ishapcha) are a major part of a person’s mission in this world.5 There should be no fear involved, as Hashem (G-d) only gives a person tests in life that he or she can win; the greater the difficulty in a person’s trials and tribulations, the great the soul powers Hashem grants him or her in order to succeed.6 Similarly, there should be no shame or guilt, as there is nothing a person could have done to cause themselves to experience any mental illness. On the contrary, besides being congenital, the only thing that in some cases could have triggered it is past trauma, and in the case of OCD, also a streptococcal infection at an early age.7
Faith and Trust
On the contrary, a person should focus on serving Hashem with joy and gladness of heart8, and not worry about the OCD’s thoughts and behaviors, as the Rebbe writes in the letter quoted above. Hashem continually searches a person’s heart to see if he or she is serving Him as should be.9 The person should have the faith and trust that Hashem will help him or her overcome their ordeal, even if it quite challenging at this moment, and that ultimately he or she will emerge victorious and stronger than ever before, experiencing a personal and spiritual growth that would not have been possible otherwise.10 The Rebbe often advised people encountering challenges of all sorts in life, from health to livelihood, etc., to learn Shaar HaBitachon from Rabbeinu Bechaye’s famous Chovos Halevavos, which, particularly in addition to Chassidus, can be very comforting, uplifting, and inspiring.
Choosing to Do Our Best
Finally, a person has to remember at all times that he or she is always in control of every single one of his or her thoughts, speech, and actions.11 This is one of the axioms of Yiddishkeit (Judaism), especially Chassidus, and the life-long avodah (service) of the Beinoni—to which each one of us should aspire and has the G-d given capabilities to reach—whose every thought, word, and act is directed to Hashem’s service. The Beinoni can only reach this high level because he or she refuses to entertain any unG-dly thought12, including any obsessive thoughts to perform redundant actions. Each one of us can always be in control; we only need to recognize and choose to use that G-d given power, of the mind controlling the heart.13 Choosing to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, as will be explained below, will lead to positive words and behaviors, and can be extremely helpful in turning around the tide of control in a sufferer of OCD, as well as in prying away the disease’s control over the person and back to the person who should always be the one in control.
Ultimately, when a person is sincerely doing his or her best, he or she will surrender their will to Hashem, and trust that He will help them overcome their OCD completely, beyond anything thought possible by the medical community. “Tracht gut vet zein gut” (“think good and it will be good”), from the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad-Lubavicth Rebbe, is a clear proof of the power of trust and positive thinking. It will indeed be so for all those who choose to tackle their OCD using tools based on the concepts of Chassidus, and if one of these tools needs to be the addition of medical treatment, that is also an avenue the Rebbe recommends in severe cases of many mental illnesses, but always under the guidance of a Rov in order to be sure the therapist utilizes only methods that are permissible according to halacha (Jewish law).
Practical Tips and Examples
Here is a powerful reflection in three steps to contemplate when an obtrusive, unwanted thought hits. As one learns not to wallow in the unwanted thoughts, they should become less and less frequent until they ultimately disappear, with Hashem’s help.
- I recognize my current thought as originating from my nefesh habehamis, most specifically from my Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). I do not want to contemplate it, and as I have the final say in what I think, I will choose not to.
- As an empty mind in only an invitation for the unwanted thought to recur, I will choose to replace this bad thought with a good one, such as a concept in Torah or more specifically Chassidus, whether one that comes to me right now, or one that I have prepared in advance for this moment, such as the greatness of Hashem (G-d), and my joy at having been handpicked to serve Him and beautify His personal abode.
- As soon as I have finished my contemplation of the good thought I chose to meditate upon, I will keep my mind occupied with good things and in general keep myself busy with good things so that I do not have idle time which has more propensity for the thoughts I do not want to have.
Here are a few tips for when a person feels compelled to do the repetitive behavior. It is a good idea to preempt the problem and we will see how. We will use three examples: handwashing, mikvah, and Pesach cleaning.
For someone who often has recurring doubts as to whether they washed their hands, it is a good idea first to focus when washing one’s hands and not think about something else which will help increase memory retention and recall of the moment, and also to write down for example in the Notes app on their phone that one did or otherwise keep a reminder long enough that one will not have the thought again, for example by keeping a few droplets of water on their hands as a reminder. This should help a lot decrease the frequency of the rewashes until they ultimately stop.
The same logic can be applied to mikvah preparations. One should use a checklist, such as the very through one on Mikvah.org—and do things in order. Having a set order and focusing exclusively on the task at hand will help memory retention and recall that the act was done in addition to the checklist. A woman should learn the halachos (laws) well and ask a competent Rov many questions so she knows what is truly important and not be making up halachos that do not exist due to the OCD. One she knows the actual halachos, she should clean following the checklist and check off each item after it has been done. She needs to make a rule for herself and keep it religiously that once she has deemed an item in the preparation complete and checked it off, she will not revisit it unless she knows for a fact that she forgot a step. She should continue to follow this approach at the mikvah and act in steps so she is sure with habit that she will do everything correctly and not skip anything G-d forbid. Also, she should trust that all her immersions were kosher by being sure Hashem is guiding the mikvah lady to see everything correctly. After the mikvah, she should look right away at something kodesh (holy) such as the picture of the Rebbe, give Tzedaka (charity) unless she already did before, inform her husband of her purity, and not recheck herself or think back to all sorts of doubts. She should not think about anything mikvah-related anymore and trust Hashem that as she did her best, He made sure everything was perfectly kosher to the highest standards.
This protocol can also be applied to Pesach cleaning and any other behavior, such as double-checking doors, ovens, etc. Keeping a written record, or other visual reminder such as on Shabbos and Yom Tov when one is not allowed to write, of what was done and abiding by the rule of never repeating anything that was already done unless something was truly forgotten, should be immensely helpful and bring the joy and gladness of heart back into these beautiful mitzvos and everything else in the person’s life as it ought to always be.
Takeaway and Conclusion
It is the author’s hope that the reader will take away from this essay a few key concepts. First, that OCD is quite common and nothing to feel frightened, ashamed, or guilty of. It is a disease and does not reflect in any way on the strength of character, self-control, or intelligence of the person suffering from it. Second, that OCD is treatable and one has to believe even curable. Third, a person should channel that powerful belief into the bitachon (trust) in Hashem that he or she will indeed be cured. Fourth, the person should learn Torah, especially Halacha and Chassidus as explained in this essay. Fifth, the person should lead a healthy lifestyle of lowering their stress levels, exercising, sleeping and eating well, as the Rebbe suggests in the letter quoted above that OCD may sometimes arise from less than optimal health. Finally, the person should use the reflection and tips above to slowly but surely treat the cause of the problem in order to get rid of its symptoms by getting rid of the obtrusive thoughts that cause the repetitive behaviors.
May all this kedusha (holiness) be the vehicle for the cure, and may each and every one of us be healthy in body, mind, emotion, and soul in order to serve Hashem in the best manner possible, thereby ushering in the era when all sickness and misery will be removed from the world with the coming on Moshiach (the Messiah) speedily in our days!
- National Institute of Mental Health Website
- National Institute of Mental Health Website
- Healthy in Mind, Body & Spirit, Vol. 3, Ch. 5, SIE
- Tanya, ch. 1 and 2
- Tanya, ch. 10
- Tanya, ch. 6
- National Institute of Mental Health Website
- Tanya, ch. 28
- Tanya, ch. 41
- Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar HaBitachon, ch. 7
- Ch. 16
- Tanya, Ch. 12
- Tanya, Ch. 14