In this article, I want to bring awareness to living life as a religious teen with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (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 aspect related to Torah and religious observance. 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 Torah observance, it can very easily lead into obsession over making sure you are following every single law, custom or tradition correctly. Because there are so many details in Jewish observance, it can be hard to differentiate the fine line between being very stringent and being obsessive-compulsive.

If someone is constantly redoing the same thing—such as washing and re-washing their hands for bread, just in case the first five times weren’t good enough—that is not being extra-religious; it is bordering on OCD.

If your actions lead to anxiety, stress and guilt, chances are it’s a hint of OCD.

What Others Should Know

As an objective outsider, it might be easier to recognize, but as someone who genuinely thought I was doing the right thing, it’s important not to be mocked or belittled.

It is important to be aware that OCD is not just something that you can stop doing right away. It often requires professional intervention. Having a friend, sibling, parent, neighbor or teacher telling you to “just move on,” “don’t think about it,” or “stop,” is not only not helpful, but it can actually intensify the urge and lead to the person becoming even more extreme behind closed doors where no one can see.

I often felt the need to call a rabbi to clarify anything that I wasn’t completely sure of. A rabbi 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 rabbi who understands OCD was tremendously helpful for me.

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 adding in all areas. I would find myself extremely anxious and overwhelmed by the feeling of “I have to do everything.” I took 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. I had different people I would turn to: my parents, teachers and mashpia. I trusted them and would ask about the most specific details, waiting for approval or disagreement. But even when they told me to do less, it felt wrong and I should really do more.

I would create rituals for myself to get reassurance from whatever was giving me anxiety. This played out in lots of different areas of my observance. Here are a few examples of how it affected me.

Daily Study

Daily study was a big stressor. I had a minute-to-minute daily schedule that I could not mess up. I had to say each word properly, which I could only do at home, undisturbed. I had to understand every single word, I was anxious until I finished, and when I finished I would be anxious that maybe I didn’t do it right or missed out on something.

If there was any word that I didn't fully 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 correctly, which to me equated to not having done it at all.

Psalms

I was taught that we have to say every word of Psalms carefully and properly. To make sure this was done, I would say my daily Psalms more than once, each time slightly differently just in case. It took a huge amount of concentration and caused significant stress. I once missed out on a school trip, sitting on the side because I felt I had to finish my daily Psalms in all the different versions. I came home pretty frustrated.

Prayer

There was a point that on non-school days, I would wake up early with a strong feeling of anxiety that I needed to pray. I was never able to sleep in, and it was extremely stressful to make sure I also davened properly with all the right intentions.

Ritual Hand Washing

I would wash my hands, then wash them again. And again, and again and again.

I worried that maybe I had missed a teensy spot, or that the water hadn’t covered my whole hand at once. Sometimes I would repeat the ritual many times to ensure that I did it properly. Even after that, I would worry that maybe I hadn’t done it correctly.

Speaking Truthfully

I always had to make sure that every word I said was accurate and precise. If I was unsure whether something I said was a hundred percent true, I would go back to each person that I had spoken to and 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.

Modest Dress

I would say that tzniut was probably the hardest area. Is it too clingy? Is it see-through? If I turn around does it stay in place? I added many extra rules for myself, and I was pretty extreme. The seam on the bottom of the tights might get stretched out and become transparent, so I sewed every pair of tights.

Going shopping for clothing was a nightmare. I would go back and forth, questioning and trying to decide if each item 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 it was to dress. I felt ugly and had reached rock bottom. I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s what ultimately made me reach out for help. I simply couldn’t live life like this anymore.

Up until that point, I hadn’t realized that it was not coming from a place of serving G‑d, but from a place full of anxiety and panic. Some people had noticed my extremes, but I would convince myself that I was “higher,” and shouldn’t care what people thought. I also did many of my rituals in private, and was embarrassed to tell anyone about them, 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 thought. How could she, a religious Jew like myself, tell me to stop doing all these things I had convinced myself I was doing for G‑d?! I fluctuated between realizing that I had OCD and wanting to live normally and going back to thinking that I had to do everything to the fullest extent. 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.

It was a hard and lengthy process, but I learnt to differentiate between Judaism and OCD.

I learned that Judaism is a relationship with G‑d, and that G‑d does not expect more than is humanly possible. I learned to trust rabbis and mentors and not to create expectations of myself that were unrealistic.

I learned that keeping Torah could be joyful and uplifting.

I learned that while it is beautiful to wish to serve G‑d in the best way possible, if there is painful pressure to do so in every area of life, it’s probably coming from the wrong place.

I learned to accept that I can only do what is in my ability to do. I learned to not have to feel the need to be extreme in every way. I learned to live life in a normal way. The first time I spoke to a rabbi who understood me, I felt like crying. I had never imagined that life doesn’t actually have to be as complicated as it seemed.

So if you are not sure if your urge to do something is a healthy expression of your soul or an unhealthy result of OCD, speak to a wise rabbi, a mental health professional from within the Jewish community, or a wise and experienced mentor who may be able to help you find your way.

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 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 have just spoken up a bit faster.