Living with OCD: My Time in Israel

Editor’s Note: Before reading this piece, it is recommended that you read Max’s first piece, “Living with OCD“, for important context.

Going to a yeshiva program in Israel is an exciting step many people take after high school. I went to yeshiva in 2017-2018 and gained a lot from it. However, the mistake I made was that I thought that leaving home also meant leaving my problems at home. I soon learned that life doesn’t just pause; it’s dynamic. 

Like many boys who go to yeshiva for the year, the thought crossed my mind to join the Israeli army. But I thought to myself, “How could I go to the army and do combat if I was on a couple of medications?” So, with the help of a doctor, I slowly got off of one of my medications. I immediately noticed my anxiety spike, but it was manageable. So I went through the rest of the year relatively stressed but able to function.

Enter My Second Yeshiva Year

The summer after my first year, instead of going home, I stayed in Israel and became a volunteer first responder for Magen David Adom, the Israeli ambulance corps. I had a great time volunteering, but I also noticed how slowly but surely my anxiety and OCD started to bother me more and more. Towards the end of the summer, as I started my second year in yeshiva, I had relapsed. By relapse I mean my symptoms from when I was 14 came back full-fledged. This was so painful, especially because I had already gotten past these symptoms such as taking hours to daven, excessive washing of my hands, taking a long time in the bathroom, and even intrusive thoughts. I had to balance these painful symptoms while trying to enjoy yeshiva.

Yeshiva was still great, but my mind was in two different places. Many times learning became a chore. It was so hard to read through the parsha, because I couldn’t deal with the thought that I may have missed a word or didn’t understand something. I would spend countless hours repeating things to try to alleviate some anxiety, which made it hard for me to enjoy learning and resulted in less time to learn other topics and hang out with friends.

OCD Doesn’t Do Gray Areas

There is a common struggle that many yeshiva and seminary students find themselves in, and that is how religious they want to be. For me, this was particularly stressful because OCD hates gray areas; it only likes black and white. So there I was, a modern orthodox boy who has friends who are either hardcore “flipping out” (becoming ultra-religious) or choosing a middle ground type of lifestyle. But for me, in my head, it just seemed like it was all or nothing. Chareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) or go home, you know? Of course, this black and white choice is not the case, but that’s how I saw it. So this made yeshiva that much more confusing which translated into me overthinking a lot more than I enjoyed. For this reason, I tell people that I liked my first year of yeshiva more than my second, because I didn’t obsess about how religious I wanted to be in the first year nearly as much as I did in my second.

Getting Help

I saw a therapist in Israel which helped, but I still wasn’t in a good place. The summer after my second year in yeshiva, I started going to CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) for the first time in my life. I had been to a few therapists and psychiatrists ever since I was diagnosed with OCD at the age of 14, but no one recommended that I do CBT or ERP (exposure response prevention therapy). The crazy thing is that anyone who took psychology 101 knows that CBT and ERP are the most effective treatments for OCD, combined with medication as well of course. So I was pretty annoyed about the general ignorance there was in the medical community with regards to mental health and proper treatment.

One of my therapists said something so profound.

He said that it’s funny, when someone has pain in any part of their body below the neck they’ll immediately go to a doctor and get it checked out, but the second it comes to a different type of pain above the neck, such as a mental pain, many people think God forbid they should be weak and go seek help from a doctor and therapist. 

I encourage everyone to work on their physical health as well as their mental health. Working out and aerobic exercise is its own kind of medicine. With the endorphin release and the ability to get lost in exercise and music instead of endless thoughts, exercising can be very therapeutic. I’m sure some of you know that studies show how medication and therapy combined with exercise can significantly improve one’s mental health. 

Resist The Stigma

There is a stigma in society that only crazy people go to therapists, when in fact so much of the population goes to one. Never be embarrassed to help yourself. The stage of life you are in doesn’t make a difference. Whether someone is in elementary school, middle school, high school, yeshiva, college, the workforce, or retired, there is never a bad time to start going to therapy. You also don’t need to have a mental disorder to go to therapy. Life can be stressful and often times it is very helpful to talk things out with a therapist rather than keep them bottled up. This was especially true for me in yeshiva, and I think most people would agree with me that therapy can be an important part of the spiritual and mental growth process in yeshiva.

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Max Engel
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