OCD’s Morality Mind Games (And How I Manage)

AJ Tanksley
7 min readFeb 23, 2024
Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

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OCD manifests differently for all sufferers in terms of obsession themes (ie germs or violence) and how we manage. Uncertainty, however, is the most consistent and insidious symptom: how do I know I won’t get salmonella? I had a gross thought about a child today: am I a monster? What if I’ve been a bad person all along, and just in denial about it?

OCD demands black-and-white answers to complicated questions and scenarios. It refuses to entertain the possibility that maybe we aren’t in control of what virus or bacterial infection will take us out this time, or that we can’t prevent our loved ones from coming to harm because bad things happening is just a part of life.

Or, that we are not all saints or all monsters.

This inability to sit with uncertainty is not belligerence or insanity; it is the most challenging OCD symptom to live with. This anxiety manifests in my life as uncertainty about my own moral standing. I am an extremely-flawed human being who says and does the wrong things all the time. I’ve been slowly learning accepting this reality for a whole decade, with lots of backwards sliding along the way.

Yet somehow, I cannot shake the idea that if I engage in actions that go against my moral values, I am damned and have an irredeemably-tainted soul.

My OCD symptoms have cooperated wonderfully with my religious upbringing and political to make my life a joyous living hell. Even after years of deconstructing the harmful beliefs I internalized, it’s remarkably difficult to shake the idea of original sin, or the idea that the righteous are always rewarded and the wicked, punished. I frequently resort to self-punishment when I believe I’ve done something wrong, as I struggle to shake the belief that “someone’s gotta hold me in line.”

Within my political identity, I never feel like I am doing enough. I also carry a paranoid, simmering resentment for other people with my political beliefs, rooted in my fear of being scrutinized for not being socially or morally correct. When you’re autistic, you say and do the wrong thing all the time, and this is something I’m agonizingly cognizant of 24/7; it makes navigating most political circles a nightmare for me.

A major part of my recent values deconstruction has been realizing just how much my OCD sounds like an outraged Twitter feed, constantly scrutinizing my every word and action — past, present, and future — to paint me as some kind of monster. There is no room for nuance, curiosity, or compassion: either you suck and should die, or you suck and should die. This violent, biting morality rod creates a frustrating reality where I’m never really certain where I stand, morally speaking.

“For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” -Romans 7:19–20

Now, here’s the delightful thing about being human: we do things that go against our values all the time. And here’s the thing about being in my twenties: I occasionally make questionable life decisions. And here’s the thing about the recovering religiously-traumatized: we tend to want to try ALL THE SINFUL THINGS. Combine these three natural tendencies, and congratulations! You’re just a normal person trying to navigate the world at a strange time in your life!

However, my OCD doesn’t want me to believe that. Oh my god, you did that?? Again?? How fucking stupid and evil are you! You stupid piece of shit. Go read your Bible and stop being so wicked and vile. You’re slipping away and becoming this vile, tainted thing that people won’t recognize, and then one day your family will find you in a gutter and they’ll make a Lifetime movie wondering what happened to this sweet, straight-A…

And so on, and so forth.

OCD speaks to me like some monstrous love child between Twitter and an asshole version of Jiminy Cricket. I have a hard time discerning between normal pinpricks of my conscience (“Hey, maybe this isn’t safe for me to do, and I might feel crummy about it the next day”) and OCD bellowing (“Put those away, or you’ll get pregnant and die”). There is no rationality to OCD, and no way to reason with it.

This illness fucks with my values and sense of morality like no other aspect of my kooky brain wiring does. With autism, I’m learning to embrace my weirdness. Anxiety motivates me and helps me “git ‘er done,” and mild doses of depression force me to pump the brakes and slow down. There’s not much of a silver lining to my OCD: it’s just a shitty, angry inner voice that never goes away and doesn’t shut up. Nor does it pay rent, the bastard.

“Evil cannot create anything new, they can only corrupt and ruin good forces have invented or made.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

How, therefore, do I manage? I can’t prevent scenarios from triggering my intrusive thoughts, even when I try my hardest, and I can’t evict my OCD. It’s how my brain is wired, and I have to work with what I’ve got.

In addition to medication, therapy, diet, exercise, blah blah blah, I’ve had to learn to see the good in my OCD — even where I feel like none exists. My OCD manifests ultimately as a corruption of my conscience. My conscience motivates me to do things that align with my values, and sends out little nudges when I do things that go against my values. It also keeps me safe, and from doing things that harm my body in the long run.

OCD is if someone grabbed my conscience, threw him in solitary confinement, and repeatedly tortured him, saying all sorts of horrible and nasty things about who he is while pulling out his fingernails. And then, taking that wrecked, traumatized inner voice, and giving him a metal arm and weapons of mass destruction.

Winter Soldier reference aside, that’s all my OCD is: my traumatized conscience trying to make sense of the world around me with a neurology that frequently short-circuits. There’s nothing wrong or evil that I’ve done or that I can do warranting the sort of abuse that my OCD inflicts on me. I am a human being who’s made mistakes, makes mistakes, and will continue to make mistakes, and I have a brain that doesn’t like that.

There is one hobby that pairs remarkably well with obsessions and compulsions: cooking. I can channel the ruthless perfectionism that my OCD gives me into continuously upping my culinary game, and my intrusive, hateful thoughts about myself are redirected towards meal planning and recipe modifications. In the past, I’ve tried to replace my horrible thoughts with Bible verses, but that didn’t work. However, with reminding myself to add more lime to rice uruguayan (and WAY upping the salt), I can manage. Sorry, Jesus!

The same obsessiveness that causes me to fixate on every morally-bad decision I’ve made since childhood is the same obsessiveness that helps me hone in on a particularly complex recipe. I am not sure why this redirection works so well with cooking whereas redirection to other things have failed in the past. Maybe cooking well requires a certain degree of insanity?

Finally, understanding how all the ugliness of OCD and self-loathing has manifested in my family has helped me re-contextualize my illness as…well, an illness. My grandma, while not officially diagnosed with any formal mental disorder, had some very obvious OCD tendencies. She was constantly anxious and seeking control, gave out money as a compulsion rather than simply out of generosity, and hoarded. When she passed away this January and we cleared out her home, my dad, uncle, and I counted out ninety pairs of reading glasses. NINETY.

My grandma struggled with never feeling like she was enough, with being afraid to let things go “just in case she needed it,” and needing to be responsible for the wellbeing of every single person in her life. I can only hope that in her final days, she had a break from those ugly, screaming voices. OCD has existed in my family for generations, and the havoc it’s wreaked has been profound — but also survivable.

My many mentally-ill family members and I have collectively survived numerous traumas: severe poverty, houselessness, domestic violence, verbal and emotional abuse, gun violence, and addiction, among other things. Some of our traumas are ones we’ve inflicted on each other. Does this make us good or bad people? How many other families do you know have endured the same, and still wake up every morning and survive?

OCD lies, good and evil isn’t always that clear-cut, and chances are, you probably don’t suck more or less than the average person. Remember that the next time your mind chews away at you again.

Memento mori.

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AJ Tanksley

A lifelong learner and poet, AJ (they/she/he) writes about the intersection of neurodiversity, mental health, spirituality, and identity.