Mikvah and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Mikvah and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an disorder of the mind. The sufferer is plagued with unwanted repetitive thoughts – ideas, images, or impulses that run through the sufferer’s mind like a film loop, over and over again. The person is led to compulsive behaviors that are repeated continuously in his or her attempt to get rid of the obsessive thoughts.

Most people with OCD know that the behaviors don’t make sense, but they cannot stop themselves from repeating them. Of course OCD patients do not want these thoughts or behaviors to control them, and they find them disturbing.

For some, the thoughts occur only once in a while and are mildly annoying. For others, the thoughts are constant. The behaviors tend to make them nervous and afraid of their lack of control.

There are many common OCD thoughts. One is fear of germs: these patients can be found constantly washing their hands. Through repetitive washing they find temporary relief from the anxiety of contact with germs, but soon afterward the nervousness returns and they find themselves back once again at the sink, in an attempt once again to find some relief.

There are also classic OCD behaviors in religious rituals. For example, a housewife might obsess about milk touching meat products or dishes. There is Pesach and the fear that all chametz (leaven) has not been thoroughly removed. There is fear of tamei (impurity) in negel vaser (hand-washing basin), so they wash and wash.

And then there is the mikvah OCD patient. Many frum (observant) women may not know they have this disorder. Because of their lack of awareness, these women really have no clue that what they are suffering is a classified, DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual) disorder. Most of the time they function normally; however, in the area of ritual (and for some, more than one area), their brains go “haywire.” OCD is what my Psych 101 professor called a “broken-pocketed brain syndrome” -- meaning all other parts of the brain seem to work, except for this one part.

In the Water

While to an outsider a woman preparing herself for the mikvah might be praised for being extra scrupulous, the OCD patient is operating in a totally different orbit. The scenario goes like this:

First (I’ll call her Malki) spends 10-15 minutes, twice a day, checking her bedika (white) cloths. She keeps asking herself, “Did I cover all areas?” “Are the bedika cloths completely white?” “Can I start counting?” “Did I check in the correct lighting?”

The few days before immersion she begins the process. She then has the nagging thought that she did not sufficiently clean herself in a particular part of her body. So she then cleans herself over and over again until she has scrubbed herself raw.

Malki checks the next area, her teeth. For over a half hour she keeps flossing, until her gums start to bleed. She cuts her nails all the way below the nail line until her fingers hurt, and then removes the cuticles, until they start to bleed as well.

It is a living hell for these women. The agony they go through is unimaginable. Dinner is not cooked, laundry not folded -- the to-do list never becomes a “done” – because all Malki has been doing the whole day is getting ready for the mikvah. Yet the minute the mikvah opens up, she is there and she is still always the last to leave – yes, even way past the time the mikvah was supposed to close.

The hour is midnight. While in the mikvah, she is super-stressed, since there are other women waiting and the mikvah lady is even knocking on her door to see if everything is alright. This alone is embarrassing, and by now Malki is on the verge of tears.

“What’s wrong with me? How come I’m not managing like the other women?” She cries deep within, “Help! Help! I have to stop, I have to get going!” Then when she is finally done and ready to immerse, she breaks out in a cold sweat.

 “Did I do the proper bedika?” she still wonders. “Did I check enough, scrub enough?” Even her red, raw skin doesn’t convince her she did it right. She immerses with safeikos (doubts), worried not only because she again has inadvertently caused not only the mikvah attendant to stay late, but her husband to wait and wait again. Coming home, Malki is again embarrassed. She does not reveal her problem to her husband. Rather, she keeps her secret deep inside. Her obsessive thoughts creep up again, making her feel too non-kosher to be intimate with him. She panics and wants to call the rav again. Yes, again.

So she phones the rav, who reassures her that after the fact, even if she did not scrub an area of her thigh she is still kosher. She explains again and again, the rav reassures her again and again. As Malki hangs up the phone she broods, “Maybe I did not explain myself clearly to the rav. Maybe I did not give him all the details!” She feels that she is on the spot. Now it is one a.m. and she is exhausted. Nevertheless, she gives in and has relations.

The husband at this point may think, “What is wrong? Is this what every man goes through with his wife? Is this what G-d has intended? No one warned me about this!”

You might think this is the end of it. Unfortunately, the turmoil is just beginning. Now Malki wonders if she has caused her husband to sin by having relations with her when she may be tamei and, if she has conceived, will the new baby is “kosher.” Every day she worries; every day she panics. She wants to get pregnant, but then again she hopes she does not, because of her fear of having created a “tamei” baby.  

Then the day comes and she finds out she is pregnant. She has mixed feelings, mostly not good. In her affliction she miscarries yet feels relieved, because of her doubts.

But that is still not the end of it. In another two weeks’ time she again has to return to this living nightmare.

Feeling Their Pain

When I began working with these women, I felt such pain in my heart for what they were going through month after month. I knew that whatever solution I had to offer was through Tanya study, meditation, and behavioral modification. Considering that there needed to be some sort of solution that could be used until the results of our efforts would kick in. I decided to assist them on the day of their mikvah immersion and actually be with them at the mikvah. Kind of like a midwife -- coaching them every step of the way.

I would first check off the confirmation list, so that I was their witness to the ritual. I resolved to be there to stop them from spending too much time with their compulsions.

Forming a checklist especially designed for OCD and approved by Rabbi Chaikin and a psychiatrist, Dr. Trappler, I approached a friend of mine with this idea. This friend happened to discuss it with her friend, who in turn was highly interested in helping me proceed.

Now these women sufferers had a chance to leave the mikvah at ten and not at midnight. Now the shalom bayis (peace in the home) could be positively affected. Now they could come home less stressed or embarrassed. Above all, their dignity would be restored.

The next day, when her obsessive thoughts would return, “Malki” now had someone to turn to, someone to consult. She wouldn’t have to call the rav in a panic with the same questions over and over again, thus adding to her humiliation.

These women got the support they needed whenever they began to doubt if they had done every bedika correctly. When they had the check list handy at home and saw me check it off, they had someone who was a witness.

At times when I was out of town or had a speaking engagement, I felt bad that I was unable to be that surrogate helper. I wished I could duplicate myself – or at least get a substitute when I was away. I thought about all the other women in the world that I wanted to help. I am just one person.

Out of nowhere, the idea struck me. This is a program that is desperately needed, not only to get the information out to these women, to supply them with the special checklist, but also to get a roster of volunteers who would help them until they do get the proper care.

After months of lessons in Tanya on healing of the mind (more about this in my book The Power of Prayer and Meditation); behavioral modification programs -- literally staging a rehearsal with them as if they were going to the mikvah, to get the brain to habituate itself toward desired behaviors; guided imagery sessions (visualizing the successful behaviors); and escorting them, month after month, acting as that pillar of support, I finally saw these women become far less panicked. I saw fewer tears, less stress, less depression. They were laughing and smiling more freely. Eventually they reached the point that allowed them go to the mikvah without my help and even with joy. Yes, they also conceived with joy after years of miscarriages. We smile at the nes (miracle), at the baby holding his or her happy mommy.

Friend in Need

Many women had been on various medications for years, yet found no relief for their affliction. Others told me that while the medication took off the edge, they still felt tormented and were in desperate search of a better solution.

With this new program called “Adopt a Friend in Need,” these women can get the help they need. All the efforts that went into initiating this program are worth all the lives that are saved -- the OCD woman herself, her husband, and their future babies. This is literally saving the lives of unborn children.

To those who question whether it’s wise to put forth so much effort for the sake of possibly one or two community members, I will bring up the true story of a yechidus (audience) between a rabbi and the Rebbe. When the Rebbe asked this rabbi to start a Taharas HaMispacha (Family Purity) class in his shul, the rabbi answered that he knew his congregants. They were very interested in Kabala and mysticism, but not Family Purity.

“Try anyway,” said the Rebbe. And so the rabbi, a true Chassid, implemented the Rebbe’s directive. He paid for advertisements and hired a secretary to phone the congregants.

Week after week they phoned, but in the end only one student showed up. When the rabbi returned to report to the Rebbe, he mentioned sadly that only one student showed up after all the time and money.

The Rebbe brilliantly answered, “And how many mothers did Moshe Rabbeinu have?”

If was this was his response for that program, how much more so for this one that can literally save so many lives! Click here to view the mikvah preparation checklist.




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