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    Praying for My Basal Ganglia

    How Anxiety Took Me to Holy Ground

    Jeff Peabody

    February 8, 2021
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    • Mackenzie H

      I have this form of OCD thank you for bringing it to light for a community to learn from. And for people like me to learn from what God has taught you and to be reminded of what he has taught us. I’m grateful for how well this was communicated. Thank you!!

    • Olivia

      I relate to so much of what was shared here. I too suffer from OCD and have experienced that mental torment many times, with the feeling of it being a losing battle showing how again and again. Being diagnosed does help—having a name for it, as the author says. I love how the author processes this. It’s helping me today. Thank you.

    • Virginia Heimer

      Sharing our struggles with others takes courage but it is part of the pathway to healing for all of us. Your words touched me deeply and helped me to see my own struggles as opportunities for God's grace to work in my life. Thank you!

    • Fritz Loewe

      What a beautiful testimony to the power of grace. The vulnerability of the author left me speechless. Thanks so much.

    When our neighbors were the victims of an attempted break-in, they decided it was time for a guard dog. So they bought a Doberman Pinscher puppy and named him Leo. We watched Leo grow up, running around with little cones taped to his ears, training them to stand fiercely at attention.

    Leo has seen members of our family regularly enough to know who we are. We live right next door. But anytime he hears us leave or arrive home, he barks vigilantly as if we are dangerous intruders, as if we pose a menacing threat to his existence. He can’t seem to distinguish between friend and foe. We always just say, “Hi Leo,” and walk past his alarmed yapping.

    I have named my brain Leo in his honor.

    Since childhood, my conscience has had a high startle reflex, barking incessantly at me. At times, the sense of guilt I experience over possible missteps can be crushing and disproportionately strong. I have often said it feels like my conscience has been seared, although I’m not sure that’s how the Apostle Paul used the term. Luther referred to the “afflicted conscience,” and that sounds about right. Mine felt damaged in some way that made it hyper-vigilant. I didn’t dwell on it; it was just part of who I was.

    A few years ago, things intensified. I found myself being bombarded by dark thoughts that felt disturbingly out of character for me. Ideas and images tormented me and I could not shake them. There was no real risk I would act on any of these thoughts, but my conscience couldn’t seem to make that distinction. I had no idea I was experiencing a textbook case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

    I bore not only the weight of the anxiety but the burdensome sense that it was wrong for me to feel the way I did.

    The anxiety was overwhelming. In response to the alarm I felt, I tried to tighten control of my mind. I circled my wagons and shrunk my world to avoid triggers – which only worsened the situation. Imagine noticing a leaky faucet, then cranking the knob so hard that it breaks off and water gushes out. The more I tried to rein in my mind, the stronger the torrent became. This only increased my fears and made me try harder. It was a bewildering, corrosive cycle. And Leo barked ever louder.

    Badly shaken, I went on a walk with my good friend, Bill, who just happens to be a therapist by profession. He listened graciously as the words and tears poured out. I got to the end of my verbal torrent, and in utter disbelief I said emphatically, “I’m not an anxious person.”

    Bill laughed. Out loud.

    Not the response I was hoping to get from a supportive friend. He wasn’t being mean: It was an involuntary, irrepressible reaction that seemed to say, “You’re kidding, right? Have you even met you?”

    That single laugh pulled me up short. My self-image has always been this even-keeled, unflappable person. And I thought I had a strong mind, with a firm grip on that mind at all times. This was not like me, was it? This fearful person battling unspeakable thoughts, this person who wanted to withdraw completely into a shell of avoidance – who was I?

    That’s a tough place to find yourself when you’re a pastor, whose job is to engage people with the hope and freedom of the gospel. I bore not only the weight of the anxiety but the burdensome sense that it was wrong for me to feel the way I did.

    One night, lying in bed, struggling against panic as my mind spun itself into another frenzy, I reached for the armor of God. I knew how Paul described it in his letter to the Ephesians:

    Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

    Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:10-18)

    That night, I imagined myself hunkering down under the shield of faith. I cried out for protection against what felt like a volley of flaming arrows. I prayed intensely and passionately, invoking the Lord’s covering. Surely this was spiritual warfare and the very setting I most needed the armor of God.

    I felt like my brain was short-circuiting. My head was no longer safe. The helmet of salvation moved from being a word picture to a lifesaving necessity. I reached for it with both hands, desperate for its help.

    I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t get it.

    No peace that passeth understanding settled over me. The torment in my mind did not abate. It was not what I would call a spiritual victory. In fact, it was the opposite. It was a complete letdown.

    Frank Lake, founder of the Clinical Theology Association, once wrote, “God works well with broken or near broken people whose defensive delusions about themselves are already on the way out.” Sometimes God allows our misconceptions of him to be shattered, making room for more truth.

    Try as I might, I finally had to admit, “I can’t.” And in response, Christ said, “I know.”

    With the help of my wife and some compassionate, skilled professionals, I discovered I was far more emotionally disconnected (and yes, anxious) than I had previously acknowledged. OCD was just a new label to realities that had been lurking below the surface for decades. What felt like a sharp break from the norm was not so far from where I had been living for a very long time. I simply reached a tipping point.

    As I searched for answers to what my meltdown was all about, I found I was exhibiting all the symptoms of a type of OCD known as scrupulosity. It is a disorder of the conscience, the spiritual equivalent of compulsive hand-washing where you can never be clean enough.

    Up until this point, I had always considered my hypersensitive conscience to be a rather admirable trait. My halo shined just a little bit brighter than everyone else’s because I cared so much about sin. I was a suffering saint, burdened with a desire for holiness that was out of reach for the masses. I wouldn’t have phrased it that way, but I prided myself on my above-and-beyond concern over right and wrong.

    And now here I was, suddenly learning what I thought had been a strength was actually a distress signal. My badge of honor turned out to show indications of mental disorder and dysfunction. What I thought was me at my best was in reality a place where I deeply needed grace.

    The nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “When God puts your prayers and my sermons under his microscopic eye, they are not at all what we thought they were, but quite the opposite!”

    That revelation proved more than humbling: it changed my self-perception. My identity had been linked tightly to my self-control. I lived for doing the right thing, gaining my sense of well-being from performing up to expectations. Suddenly I found myself in a place where I was out of control, where my mind was defying my will. I was powerless to stop it. Try as I might, I finally had to admit, “I can’t.” And in response, Christ said, “I know.”

    photo of a window with spatter artwork painted over

    Artwork by Jr Korpa

    My newfound helplessness led me to a far more personal understanding of the grace I had always preached. I found myself clinging to it like never before, gulping it down because my thirsty soul couldn’t get enough. Previously, I would have assumed the goal of discipleship was to need the cross less and less as I matured. Instead I found the opposite was true: I needed it more and more. And I began to see that the Bible challenges us to grow in grace – not grow out of it.

    I also gained a deeper compassion for people experiencing all types of mental anguish. In the past, I tended to view anyone struggling with anxiety as needing to come in line with the myriad of Scripture passages that tell us not to be anxious, worried, or afraid. But I read those verses differently now, more full of reassurance than reprimand.

    Psalm 94:19 says, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” Consolation, not chastisement, is the salve. When someone is experiencing suffering that is both irrational and involuntary, we must take great care to not multiply the pain by mischaracterizing it as sinful.

    Anxiety is highly complex, an intermingling of cognitive, emotional, and spiritual elements. The body factors in as well. According to psychiatrist Dr. Ian Osborn, “OCD has been officially recognized as being just as ‘biologically based’ as diabetes or heart disease.”

    Scientists have found a distinct physical component that plays a role in OCD, a cluster of neurons near the base of the brain called the basal ganglia. Buried deep in the center of the brain, the basal ganglia tells your body which circumstances pose a threat that requires a response. In an article in Psychology Today, Joel Frohlich described it this way: “Like a secret agent, we only notice the basal ganglia when it does its job wrong. This secret agent of the brain facilitates wanted behaviors and stops unwanted behaviors.”

    If the basal ganglia becomes damaged in some way (caused by anything from a virus to a lack of oxygen), thoughts that would normally be ignored as just unpleasant or unwanted are mistakenly interpreted as dangerous.

    Psychologist Dr. Eric Klinger has found in his research that the average person thinks approximately four thousand distinct thoughts each day. Of those, roughly five hundred will be unwanted, “intrusive” ideas. A normally functioning basal ganglia will dismiss the extraneous thoughts, allowing them to slip downstream and out of consciousness. But when that part of the brain malfunctions, the unimportant thoughts snag and register as harmful, causing fear and requiring inordinate attention. What should be dismissable cannot be dismissed.

    I found it strangely comforting to hear I have a misfiring basal ganglia. Not that I needed a scapegoat to blame for what I was experiencing, but it gave me a name. Now I had something specific I could pray about. My basal ganglia became symbolic of my anxiety.

    Initially, armed with this new information, I prayed for God to fix my basal ganglia. “Whatever is wrong with it, heal it up and make it better.” My heart was quick to assume that would be God’s primary desire for me, too. After all, isn’t he the Great Physician?

    I had this distinct visual of a poisoned thorn lodged in my head. That’s what it felt like and I just wanted someone to remove it. Yet as soon as that image came to mind, it inevitably took me to Paul, praying unsuccessfully for the extraction of his own thorn. And I realized God might have other things he could do with this trial than simply end it.

    The helmet of salvation isn’t only for preventing injuries from the outside. It also protects our already wounded heads.

    The Scottish theologian P. T. Forsyth once wrote, “It is a greater thing to pray for pain’s conversion than for its removal. It is more of grace to pray that God would make a sacrament of it.”

    A sacrament. Could the very thing that I hated become a vehicle for experiencing more grace? Could God turn my fear and uncertainty into a means of growing my faith?

    Dr. Osborn has done a compelling study of the lives of Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Thérèse of Lisieux. Descriptions from their own writings suggest that if they were alive today, they would be diagnosed as suffering from OCD. The rescue for all three came when they reached a point of realizing they had to let go of trust in their scrupulous behavior and throw themselves completely on the goodness and mercy of God.

    As they did that, the impact reverberated around the world. God redeemed their personal struggles with OCD, using the insights they gained to reestablish the centrality of grace in the church at large.

    My prayers for my basal ganglia have changed. Instead of focusing on some kind of miraculous healing (which I still wouldn’t mind), I am learning to say, “Meet me in this. Take it and do whatever will help my faith grow.”

    When you can name something and put words around it, you take away its power. Speaking the name of my basal ganglia out loud is my defiant act to diminish its authority over me.

    The Bible says the name of Jesus is above every name. I have come to believe that does not just include personal names and titles. The Lord’s name is also above every named thing. By naming my basal ganglia, I could say, “Jesus your name is bigger than this. This is under your care.”

    No matter what caused my anxiety, no matter what blame I bear for my own mess, no matter what role the devil plays in attacking my mind, if I am offering it up to Jesus, God wins and the devil loses.

    Victory, it turns out, is much bigger than freedom from anxiety. It is freedom from the power of anxiety. I do not need it to disappear – God is inviting me to trust him in the face of it. Instead of treating it like a threatening voice in my head, I can think of it the way I would tinnitus. The ringing in my ears may remain, but that doesn’t have to stop me from enjoying the music of life that is much richer and more important.

    Praise God he is answering the bigger prayer for me. While I wouldn’t choose OCD, I can honestly say I am grateful for what has come out of this struggle. And when I sense the familiar dread and uncertainty creeping into my consciousness, it does not own me the way it once did. Even a basal ganglia must bow to the name of Jesus.

    My therapist gave me an exercise in which I visualize myself on the battlefield with all my fearful thoughts racing toward me. Then, rather than engaging them, I simply stand firm as Paul instructed, and wait for the Lord to fight for me.

    I think about the armor of God differently now – particularly the helmet of salvation. Have you ever seen someone in the hospital who has experienced major head trauma or undergone a brain operation? Often, doctors will have a patient wear a helmet to protect the damaged skull and hold it in place.

    The helmet of salvation isn’t only for preventing injuries from the outside. It also protects our already wounded heads. Whatever horrors rage inside our minds are covered by the blood of Jesus.

    When I think of the crown of thorns digging into Christ’s head, I see all the poisonous barbs from my own mind transferred to him. And that renews my mind.

    Jesus said he is the Way, and I imagine him being the way in my brain, mapping new paths for my mind to travel, new synapses for the neurons. And all the while, I am cradled by the helmet of salvation, guarding me from what is outside, and keeping what is inside safe under his care.

    It is comforting to remember that nothing about our struggles is a surprise to God. I am beginning to understand that whatever he allows in my life has the potential to increase my trust in him.

    What is occupying a disproportionate place in your thoughts? What has you worried or sidetracked? Name it. Call it out and say, “I am placing you where you belong, beneath the authority of Christ himself.”

    It may not go away. But it cannot have first place. There is only one name written across the top of all the world. Everything else must take the knee.

    Contributed By

    Jeff Peabody is a writer and lead pastor of New Day Church in Northeast Tacoma, Washington.

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