YA Weekly has teamed up with the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary general presidencies and advisory councils, as well as young adults, to respond to questions sent in by faithful women of the Church. We have loved studying these heartfelt questions and hope that what we present in these “Sister to Sister” articles can lead you to find answers through the power of the Holy Ghost.
“In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.”1
As someone who struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I sometimes find this warning from President Russell M. Nelson to be a bit daunting. I frequently wonder if I’m confusing signals from my disordered brain with promptings from the Spirit; if I have a hard time distinguishing the “influence of the Holy Ghost” from my mental illness, how will I “survive spiritually”?
Is It the Spirit or OCD?
OCD is often misunderstood—it’s not always about germs or tidiness. People with OCD experience unwanted obsessions that cause anxiety, and then they perform compulsions to help ease that anxiety.2 So OCD can be about germs, but it’s not that way for everyone.
My OCD symptoms tend to center around a fear that I have done something wrong. I worry that people are angry at me because of something I’ve done, or that I left the stove on and my apartment is burning down as I write these words, or that I forgot to complete a task at work that will have dire consequences. As a result, I engage in “checking” compulsions—I check to make sure I’ve locked my house, turned off the aforementioned stove, and put my work ID badge in my pocket over and over every day to make sure everything is “just right.”
This behavior leads to some complications, especially since my checking behaviors extend to all parts of my life. For example, I often wonder: Did I do something wrong and need to repent, or am I obsessing? Is the Holy Ghost warning me of danger, or am I just experiencing the anxiety that’s part of the OCD package?
Recognizing the Peace of God
I really struggled with these questions when I started considering marriage to my then-boyfriend. During the months that he and I discussed getting married, I felt like I was suddenly seeing him under a microscope; all of his flaws and shortcomings seemed 10 times bigger than they’d ever been, crowding out all the good qualities that had made me fall in love with him. One day I would be wanting to marry the most wonderful guy I’d ever met, and the next I’d be plagued with anxiety and telling him we should take a step back and not talk about marriage for a while.
I was so confused. Was this my OCD talking, or was the Spirit trying to warn me? How was I going to make one of the biggest decisions of my entire life if I wasn’t sure that I was feeling the Spirit?
I clearly remember a moment of overwhelming peace amid all my anxiety. For just a little while, I knew, with the deepest and most profound certainty I have ever experienced, that I was supposed to marry this man. I was filled with “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
So I got engaged.
But my OCD was quick to respond with doubts and misgivings—how could I be so sure? What if the doubts I was now experiencing were the real prompting and I wasn’t supposed to marry this guy?
Remembering “the Real Thing”
During this time, I read an address by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that addressed the “opposition that so often comes after enlightened decisions have been made, after moments of revelation and conviction have given us a peace and an assurance we thought we would never lose.”3
He went on:
“Once there has been genuine illumination, beware the temptation to retreat from a good thing. If it was right when you prayed about it and trusted it and lived for it, it is right now. …”
“… There may come after the fact some competing doubts and some confusion, but they will pale when you measure them against the real thing. Remember the real thing."4
I realized that I wasn’t struggling to receive direction from the Spirit—I was struggling to recognize it and trust that I was correctly interpreting it. I did remember the “real thing,” as Elder Holland put it, and it had been wonderful and comforting and peaceful.
And I realized that OCD feels nothing like that. OCD makes me feel paralyzed, stuck, and defeated as I agonize over anything I might have forgotten or done wrong. The Spirit urges me forward, giving me the kind of peace that encourages progress and change and growth.
A Lifelong Pursuit
Even though I’ve learned important truths about how the Spirit speaks to me, I still feel fear and apprehension. But it’s OK—learning to understand the Spirit and trust His promptings is a lifelong and worthwhile pursuit. And I believe this promise from President Camille N. Johnson, Relief Society General President: “The Savior speaks to us, personally and uniquely, and in ways we will understand.”5
Your struggles with mental health might not be the same as mine. Maybe you struggle with depression, anxiety, ADHD, or another mental illness that complicates your ability to hear and understand the Holy Ghost. During difficult times, remember what Sister Reyna I. Aburto, former Second Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, said: “If you are constantly surrounded by a ‘mist of darkness’ [1 Nephi 8:23], turn to Heavenly Father. Nothing that you have experienced can change the eternal truth that you are His child and that He loves you. Remember that Christ is your Savior and Redeemer, and God is your Father. They understand. … Do all you can, and trust in the Lord’s atoning grace.”6
Even with my disorder, I will “survive spiritually” because, as President Nelson promised, “As you continue to be obedient, expressing gratitude for every blessing the Lord gives you, and as you patiently honor the Lord’s timetable, you will be given the knowledge and understanding you seek.”7
I strongly believe that although mental illnesses can obscure our understanding for a time, Heavenly Father will not leave us without the support and direction we need to return to Him. Like Nephi, “I do not know the meaning of all things,” but “I know that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17). A wonderful, loving Father in Heaven will always ensure that we can “see as much as we need to see in order to know the Lord’s will for us and to know that he loves us beyond mortal comprehension.”8
You can find more questions and insights from sisters around the world in YA Weekly, located in the Gospel Library under Magazines or Adults > Young Adults.
You can send your own article, ideas, or feedback to YAWeekly@ChurchofJesusChrist.org. We can’t wait to hear from you!
1. Russell M. Nelson, “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,” Liahona, May 2018, 96.
2. See “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD),” Mayo Clinic, accessed Sept. 20, 2022, mayoclinic.org.
3. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence” (Brigham Young University devotional, Mar. 2, 1999), 2, speeches.byu.edu.
4. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Cast Not Away,” 4–5.
5. Camille N. Johnson, “The Savior Speaks to Us Personally, Uniquely, and in Ways We Will Understand,” Inspiration (blog), June 15, 2022, ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
6. Reyna I. Aburto, “Thru Cloud and Sunshine, Lord, Abide with Me!,” Liahona, Nov. 2019, 58–59.
7. Russell M. Nelson, “Revelation for the Church,” 95–96.
8. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Cast Not Away,” 6.