From the Anash.org inbox: Up until that point, I took every Halacha extremely literally and thought I was being Frum. I didn’t realize that it was not coming from a place of serving Hashem, rather it was coming from a different place, a place full of anxiety and panic.
In this article I want to bring awareness to living life as a Lubavitcher teen with OCD. Please note that this is my personal experience and how I dealt with it. Although it affected me in many areas of my life, in this article I will focus primarily on the frum aspect.
OCD plays out differently for each person in their own circumstances. If you are concerned that you are struggling with OCD, consult with someone qualified in this area for further guidance. My goal is just to bring awareness and let people know that they are not alone in this struggle.
The core issue of OCD revolves around a need for certainty. I have often heard people speak about double-checking the locks and doors again and again, being excessively careful about cleanliness or making sure no one is following you. When it comes to Yiddishkeit, it can very easily lead into obsession over making sure you followed every single halacha, minhag and chumra correctly. Because there are a lot of details when it comes to Yiddishkeit, it can be hard to differentiate the fine line between being very machmir and being OCD. If someone is constantly redoing the same thing – such as washing negel vasser, just in case the first five times weren’t good enough, that is not being extra frum, that is bordering on OCD.
Throughout this whole time, I was sure that I was being so frum and machmir. The fact that I felt like I was choking in the shirt I was wearing? Such mesiras nefesh! It can be very challenging to differentiate between OCD and being strict in Halacha. If your actions lead to anxiety, stress and guilt, chances are it’s a hint of OCD. It might be easier to tell from a more subjective view, but as someone who genuinely thought I was doing the right thing, it’s important not to be mocked or belittled.
I think it is important to be aware that OCD is not just something that you can ‘’stop’’ doing right away. Oftentimes it requires professional intervention, and having a friend, sibling, parent, neighbor or teacher telling you to ‘’just move on,’’ ‘’stop it,’’ or ‘’just don’t think about it,’’ is not only not helpful, but can actually intensify the urge and need for certainty, and can very likely end up with the person becoming more extreme behind closed doors, where no one can see.
I would very often feel the need to call a Rav to clarify anything that I wasn’t completely sure of. A rav who doesn’t fully understand the concept and thought process behind OCD, can have good intentions but might make things even harder. Speaking to a Rav who is familiar with this, was a huge help for me.
As a Lubavitcher, one of my big struggles is the fact that there are always more things we should take on and do. We are encouraged to push ourselves, keep going and keep adding in all areas, whether it be Mivtzoyim, Chitas or any other Mivtza. I would find myself being extremely anxious after each Farbrengen, overwhelmed by the feeling of ‘I have to do everything.’ I would take everything literally which just led to anxiety and panic rather than action.
For someone struggling with OCD, it is common to try to find someone that can offer assurance. At different points I had different people I would turn to, that became my assurance seeker; my parents, teachers and mashpia. I trusted them and would ask about the most specific details, waiting for approval or disagreement. If they would tell me to do less, I would feel as if I’m not actually supposed to do that, and I should really do more.
Very often I found that I would create rituals myself to get reassurance from whatever was giving me anxiety. This played out in a lot of different areas of Yiddishkeit. Here are a few examples of how it affected me.
Chitas was a big stresser. I had a minute-to-minute daily schedule that I could not mess up. I had to say each word properly, so I could only do that at home, undisturbed. I had to understand every single word, I would be anxious until I finished Chitas, and then once I finished I would be anxious that maybe I didn’t do it right or I missed out on something.
I would learn Rambam, and if there was any word that I didn’t understand, I would write it down on a paper to ask someone to explain it to me later. This made me feel anxious all day, because it didn’t feel as if I did it right, which to me equated to not having done it.
I would read a few different explanations, and again I would feel anxious if there was even one concept or idea that I didn’t fully understand. I would have to ask someone to make sure I understood it.
I was taught that we have to say every word of Tehillim carefully and properly. To make sure this was done, I would say my daily Tehillim more than once, each time a drop differently – just in case. It took a lot of concentration and caused a lot of stress. I once missed out on a trip, sitting on the side because I had to finish my daily Tehillim in all the different versions. I came home pretty frustrated. Suddenly I had this feeling that it’s okay, I don’t have to repeat it so many times. This feeling lasted a few days, and I felt like the Rebbe had pulled me out of this situation.
Wherever you go, you have the opportunity to do Mivtzoyim. Whenever I went somewhere I made sure to have a few Neshek kits and the Sheva Mitzvos cards in a few different languages. Any person I passed by, I felt that I had to run after, ask them if they are Jewish and explain to them everything I was able to. The Rebbe says to spread the message of Moshiach, so I decided I need to make a card to add to the Neshek. It took a very long time with lots of discussions with teachers, classmates, Rabbanim and anyone who was willing to listen. The message had to be precise and accurate. What if I worded it wrong? What if someone didn’t understand? What if it turned someone off? I was paranoid to do the wrong thing, so it took almost a year until I was convinced to print it the way it was.
There was a point that on non-school days, I would wake up early with a strong feeling of anxiety that I needed to daven. I was never able to sleep in, and it was extremely stressful to make sure I also davened properly with all the right Kavanos.
I would wash my hands, then wash them again. And again, and again and again. I was worried that maybe I had missed a teensy spot, or maybe it didn’t touch my whole hand at once. Sometimes I would repeat Negel Vasser a lot of times, to ensure that I did it properly. Even after that, I would worry that maybe I didn’t do it right.
When I would make money, giving Maaser was a whole saga. If a thought crossed my mind to donate it to a specific cause, and then another opportunity to give Tzedakah came up, I felt that I couldn’t ‘’break my promise,’’ even if it had just been a fleeting thought. I would scramble to find a piece of paper to write that I am not committing to giving anywhere specific until I get home. Eventually a Rav who understood the situation said that action is what counts – until you actually put the money in the Pushka or give it to a specific organization, it doesn’t make a difference what you thought in your head.
I always had to make sure that every word I said was accurate and precise. I couldn’t check off ‘’I covered my elbows’’ on my checklist – just in case maybe for a split second my elbows had shown. If I was unsure whether something I said wasn’t true, I would go back to each person that I had spoken to, to make sure everyone heard and understood that maybe it wasn’t true. If I felt that I had done something wrong to someone, I would apologize over and over to make sure that I was fully forgiven.
I would say that Tznius was probably the hardest area. Is it too clingy? Is it see-through? If I turn around does it stay in place? I would add a lot of extra rules for myself in Tznius, and I was pretty extreme. The seam on the bottom of the tights might get stretched out and see-through, so I sewed every pair of tights. Going shopping for clothing was a nightmare. Each item I would go back and forth, questioning and trying to decide if it was okay or not. I would change my mind pretty often, deciding that my skirt is okay, but then a minute later I would decide it’s not okay. The anxiety that would follow was enough to make me not want to look at clothes for a long time. At some point, I couldn’t get out of bed thinking about how hard tznius is. I felt ugly and had reached rock bottom. I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s what made me turn for help. I simply couldn’t live life like this.
Up until that point, I took every Halacha extremely literally and thought I was being Frum. I didn’t realize that it was not coming from a place of serving Hashem, rather it was coming from a different place, a place full of anxiety and panic.
Some people had noticed my extremes, but I would convince myself that I was ‘’higher,’’ and I shouldn’t care what people think. I would do a lot of my rituals in private, and was embarrassed to tell anyone about it, for fear of them making fun of me or trying to convince me to stop.
Finally, I spoke to a professional. It took me a long time to listen to what she had to say – she was telling me to do less! That couldn’t be right! I would fluctuate between realizing that I had OCD and wanting to live normally, then go back to thinking that I had to do everything to the full extent that I was doing it. It was a lot of back-and-forth, convincing and trying to retrain my brain.
With much, much hard work, effort and time, I started slowly realizing the struggle I had been facing this whole time. This took a long time, and was a very hard process. I learnt to differentiate between Halacha and OCD. I learnt to accept that I can only do what is in my ability to do. I learnt to not have to feel the need to be extreme in every way. I learnt to live life in a normal way. The first time I spoke to a Rav who understood me, I felt like crying, because I never imagined that life doesn’t actually have to be as complicated as it seemed.
My point here is not to diagnose, give ideas or confuse anyone. For the longest of times I thought I was the only crazy one in the world who struggled with such things. It was extremely isolating and lonely, and made it even harder. If any of the above resonated with you, know you are not alone. You don’t have to continue this way. There is hope and there is help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone. If I had read this a few years back, I may just have spoken up a bit faster.