When I was a kid, I read my scriptures every night. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I believed that if I skipped even one night, God would blind me for my disobedience.
After watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I also worried that I’d sell my soul to the devil by accident. Edmund sold his to the White Witch, the villain who imprisons Edmund the moment he succumbs to temptation, for something as simple as Turkish Delight. What if I damned myself, too, without realizing what I’d done?
Sometimes I’d accidentally think, I’m giving my soul to the devil. The mind is frustrating like that, always letting the thoughts we fear the most stick around the longest. Whenever that happened, I’d have to repeat the following phrase in my head, I just want to follow God. I just want to follow God. I just want to follow God.
Three times. Three was important. Three was a holy number.
But my mind never felt clean, and I worried that when I died, I’d go to hell. Most people from my religious background don’t grow up with this fear. Members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints — Mormons — don’t believe in hell as such. Our doctrine teaches that pretty much everyone, even the wicked, goes to heaven. But the fire and brimstone still felt like a real threat to me.
I was devout from a young age. Part of that is because I grew up in St. George, a city in Southern Utah where Mormonism is the cultural majority. But I also suffered from a psychological condition that amplified my beliefs to unhealthy levels: a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder called scrupulosity.
Though relatively uncommon, scrupulosity can take a significant toll on a person’s beliefs and overall wellbeing. It can cause intrusive thoughts about religion or morality that the sufferer alleviates by giving into compulsions. These compulsions could be physical, like feeling a need to go to confession or frequently seeking assurance from others that they’re not going to hell. But sometimes they’re internal, like excessive prayer.
In 2012, John Dehlin, doctoral candidate studying scrupulosity in Mormonism at Utah State University, noted that the cause isn’t religion itself so much as the importance a person places on their faith. “OCD tends to attack the things that you care most about,” he said in an interview. “So if you care about your faith — you can be more vulnerable to scrupulosity in some cases.”
Once, when my mom picked me up from preschool, I asked her on the ride home, “So how did we all get here to Earth? Did we go down a slide or something?” Clearly, trying to understand the purpose of life is something that I’ve cared about for a long time. It’s one of the driving forces in my life to this day. I saw the world as a frightening, uncertain place as a kid. Religion provided structure but, because of my OCD, it also gave me a whole new set of fears.
The history of scrupulosity is as old as spirituality itself. It’s been documented in most faiths, though it’s most common in orthodox religions. Various scholars have retroactively diagnosed a number of major Christian historical figures with the disorder, including St. Ignatius of Loyola (the co-founder of the Jesuits), St. Alphonsus Liguori (the patron saint of confessors), and Protestant reformer Martin Luther. As a young monk, Luther was tormented by intrusive thoughts about blaspheming Jesus and images of “the Devil’s behind.” He went to confession so much that it annoyed the priests, and he practiced compulsive rituals to the extent that he wrote, “If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”
Later, Martin Luther would spearhead the Protestant Reformation, a movement that placed faith in God as more important than good works. If I were in his place, I imagine that this belief would have eased my troubled mind. Scrupulous OCD can often make a person feel so guilty that no matter what they do, God will never forgive them.
Certain Christian historical figures have been retroactively diagnosed with scrupulosity — like Martin Luther, who went to confession so much he annoyed the priests.
When I attended counseling in college, I would divide my life into two parts: “before OCD” and “after OCD.” If I reflect, though, I showed signs of it all my life. But during my teen years, when I discovered parts of my identity that conflicted with my religious upbringing, my OCD started to take over my life.
Not all of my obsessions or compulsions were religious; since OCD is such a pervasive disorder, sufferers often fixate on a few different concerns. For me, health was a major obsession. I worried that I’d have a heart attack after reading about them online and would compulsively monitor my pulse. I also had to tap the books on my shelf in a specific order every night or, I thought, I would get cancer.
But my biggest obsession revolved around religion and my sexual orientation. The more time I spent around my best friend, whom I’ll refer to as Natasha, the more I realized that the feelings I had for her weren’t platonic. And as I entered puberty, I also felt a dissonance between my gender identity and my body. I wouldn’t have the name for the latter feeling — transgender — until I was 16, but I obsessed over whether my feelings for Natasha were sinful.
In the middle of this crisis, an eighth-grade teacher gave an unprompted talk to our class about how LGBT people would bring about the downfall of society “like in ancient Rome.” Comments like this weren’t — and still aren’t — unusual in my religious community; just last October, Mormon leader Dallin H. Oaks said that advocating for LGBTQ people is a temptation that comes from Satan during the church’s international conference.
Religion provided structure but, because of my OCD, it also gave me a whole new set of fears.
I don’t think those saying stuff like this always realize how traumatic they can be for queer members of the church. They think they’re talking about “the gay agenda,” an external adversary that threatens their way of life, but really, they’re talking about closeted loved ones who already feel alienated. Hearing something so damning from someone you love can have painful, long-lasting effects on a person’s well-being.
I’d grown up hearing people who I admired and respected referring to gay people as sinful or mentally ill, but this time in particular, the timing seemed too uncanny. I felt like God was talking to me through her and I became so consumed by my OCD that I couldn’t function anymore. I stopped going to school and lost 10 pounds in a month because I couldn’t eat and hardly slept. When I returned, I broke down and told a friend that I didn’t want to live anymore.
My parents enrolled me in a counseling program recommended by a therapist and friend of my mom. Though I felt too ashamed to tell them about my attraction to Natasha at that time, they knew that I felt suicidal and needed help. After a few sessions, I received a diagnosis — obsessive-compulsive disorder. In some ways, I felt relieved to have a name for the rituals and intrusive thoughts that had controlled my life.
But it would take years for me to change my spiritual beliefs. Growing up, religion felt like a two-sided coin: hope on one side and shame on the other. I wanted to believe that God loved me, but when I thought about my feelings for Natasha, I didn’t think that anyone ever could. I longed for religion to give me the comfort it seemed to provide for others, but as I threw myself into my religious rituals, I felt even more miserable.
Around this time, my compulsions took a new form: making promises with God. Since I couldn’t get rid of my attraction to women or gender dysphoria, I worried that God would punish me. So my prayers started to sound like this: Dear God, please don’t hurt me for my feelings towards Natasha. I promise that if you don’t hurt me, I won’t have crushes on girls anymore.
Or, when I realized that I was transgender, Dear God, please forgive me for reading an article about transitioning to male online. If you don’t punish me, I promise to be happy with the body I have and never do that again.
I longed for religion to give me the comfort it seemed to provide for others, but as I threw myself into my religious rituals, I felt even more miserable.
I’d always end up breaking them. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change my sexual orientation or make my dysphoria go away. And once I inevitably wished I were born male or felt attracted to a girl again, I worried that since I “broken the promise,” God would punish me.
After high school I attended college at Brigham Young University, where my compulsions spiraled into a crisis point. During my freshman year, I started self-harming to “punish” myself for my transgender identity and my attraction to women.
Later, through a Medieval Studies course I took during my sophomore year, I realized that I was falling into the same mental distortion that very may well have caused Martin Luther to whip, starve, and deprive himself of sleep as a young monk. I thought that it would take away the guilt and maybe make things right with God.
But the guilt (or more accurately, intrusive thoughts) just kept getting worse, as did my compulsions. Several months later, I ended up in the emergency room for suicidal ideation. I knew something had to change because I literally couldn’t keep living with that pain.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is traditionally treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy, but for scrupulosity, sometimes adjustments need to be made. To treat scrupulosity, a clinician needs to both help a patient recognize intrusive thoughts and compulsions as well as “detoxify” a person’s relationship with religion. Often, this involves helping a patient shift their belief in God from an angry, unforgiving figure to one that is compassionate and understanding.
Once I inevitably wished I were born male or felt attracted to a girl again, I worried that God would punish me.
Viewing the divine as punitive and vengeful in this way is strongly linked to mental illness, according to the study “Beliefs About God and Mental Health Among American Adults” published in 2014 by the Journal of Religion Health. According to its authors, seeing God as a figure who will punish them at the first misstep is “positively associated with general anxiety, social anxiety, depression, paranoia, and obsession-compulsion” among religious populations. As a transgender Mormon, I felt like every step I took was deserving of that punishment and my mental health suffered because of it.
The summer after my hospital visit, I began attending support groups for transgender Mormons. Here, I met people who would become some of my best friends. Among others, I met a non-binary parent who felt torn between their gender identity and their family, a fellow trans BYU student who shared my love of books, and an older trans woman who gave me a handmade leather journal for Christmas, which this day is one of my most prized posessions.
For a long time, I thought that my gender identity meant that I was unworthy of love, especially love from God. But I couldn’t imagine telling any of my transgender friends that they didn’t deserve to find happiness in life. Between them and continued treatment for my OCD, I finally found peace with my gender identity and decided to transition during my sophomore year.
Several years later, I became one of the first openly transgender men to graduate at BYU. My years in college led to some of the most meaningful and challenging moments in my life. Between the strict policies towards LGBT students and my own challenges with OCD, I don’t think I could have done it again. But because of the queer students I met who helped me develop a healthier relationship with faith, I also wouldn’t trade it for anything.
As a queer religious person, I’m sometimes asked how I balance these conflicting identities. Many LGBTQ Mormons feel like they’ll be rejected by God and their community because of who they are. Some Mormon families are more progressive than others but overall, the admonition to “love the sinner, not the sin” translates into plenty of queer children who are shunned by their families once they transition or date someone of the same sex.
I guess in some ways, I’ve felt that rejection from God all my life — just not strictly for being transgender. But I’ve realized those feelings are a combination of internalized shame and a psychological disorder. I think that through shifting my beliefs from a punitive to a loving God, I’ve been able to separate my spirituality from some of the stricter beliefs held within the Latter-Day Saint community.
My prayers started to sound like this: Dear God, please don’t hurt me for my feelings towards Natasha. I promise that if you don’t hurt me, I won’t have crushes on girls anymore.
These days, I take an anti-anxiety medication to keep the neurological aspects of my OCD regulated. When it flares up, I seek therapy. And I’m also lucky to have a family and a partner who are patient enough to listen and support me through my struggles.
But for the most part, I’m at peace with religion, maybe for the first time in my life. I don’t blame God or my faith for the pain that scrupulosity caused me. Its roots lie in a neurological condition that could affect anyone — even atheists can develop scrupulosity. I could blame my brain for its faulty wiring, but that seems as effective as a diabetic blaming their pancreas for failing to make insulin.
There’s a verse in Mormon scripture that, when referring to God, reads, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”
I don’t know why I was born with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I don’t know why people suffer from mental illness, or why the queer community has to endure so much discrimination, or why suffering exists at all. Life doesn’t always give easy answers. But I believe that God loves us as we are and not as we believe we need to be, even if my OCD tries to persuade me otherwise.