Thursday, July 29, 2010

Scrupulosity and the Body: Lunch with the Religious

Yesterday I walked into the middle of an exposure so surreal I thought maybe my therapist orchestrated it. I was meeting a friend for lunch at a restaurant that is part of a conference center. The parking lot was packed, and as I was circling around looking for a space, I started to notice the large number of bumper stickers about respecting life, marriage and chastity(the one I am still pondering is "Chastity is for lovers.") I walked into the lobby, and my friend was sitting there in a sea of nuns in full habit and priests in clerical collars, with some lay people mixed in.

There was a long line of various religious folk at the hostess desk, but fortunately I had a reservation. We were seated next to a man in a floor length black robe and a gold cross about 8 inches long, and people kept coming up to him to reverently say hello.

I went through several years of struggling with scrupulosity centered around Catholic theology, for instance, contraception being a sin. Of course the irony is that I am not Catholic. My first boyfriend was Catholic, and later I worked at a Catholic college, and being introduced some of the central Catholic issues set off a cascade of anxiety. This is the bizarre thing about having OCD--I can latch onto a thought, and wrestle with it hoping to make it go away because it disturbs me, but which has no connection to my actual beliefs. The thoughts that I feared were "What if contraception is wrong? What if I am going to hell? What if I am supposed to be Catholic?" And this is what makes dealing with scrupulosity incredibly hard--there will be people who do believe I should convert to Catholicism, who wouldn't interpret my anxiety as OCD, and this compounds the anxiety.

So there I was yesterday, enveloped in a conference about Catholic theology of the body, and I did ok. I was uncomfortable, but I focused on my friend, who is going through a hard time right now. I didn't go home and look up the conference, or research the agenda, or the supposed immorality of contraception, or sites that say a marriage without children is a sin, or read conservative Catholic websites like I used to do. At the worst of my scrupulousness, I was subscribing to a mailing list about natural family planning, trying to figure out if there was any way I was redeemable.

Yesterday I was even able to laugh at the over-the-top exposure material. Today I am feeling tired and unsteady, but I know for me the act of faith is choosing what I believe. Yes, that is exactly what will rile some people up--and I am learning to live with that.

Although I am not Catholic, ironically I did find Scrupulous Anonymous to have some helpful articles:
Scrupulous Anonymous: Newsletter by Liguori Publications

The Scrupe Blog is moderated by a Lutheran Minister and often has quotes from religious folk who suffered from tormenting thoughts:
The Scrupe Blog

The first book I read on scrupulosity was psychologist's William Van Ornum's A Thousand Frightening Fantasies: Understanding and Healing Scrupulosity. The author did a survey of sufferers, and I realized I wasn't alone.

I heard Ian Osborn speak at one of the IOCDF Conference's and his talk about scrupulosity was very interesting.


  1. Wow, that sounds intense! Seems like you handled it great.

  2. It is so nice to see someone write about scrupulosity. Thank you for sharing this.

    I no longer really struggle with scrupulosity in a religious sense, but for several years off and on as a child and pre-teen I really had a hard time with the concept of religion and where I fell on the spectrum of piety. Of all the OCD episodes I have had, I think I can say that scrupulosity was possibly the most emotionally painful incarnation of OCD I have had. Even this past year when I got to a point where I was pretty much home-bound and was either performing hours of rituals or avoiding almost everything, I still wondered at the fact that, as difficult as it was, it often didn't seem as heart-wrenching as struggling with religion through the distorted lens of OCD.

    Maybe it was because I was a kid and was dealing with intense shame and the feeling that I needed to hide these thoughts and the depression they caused, but I just remember it being really hard emotionally.

    I'm glad that you could laugh at the irony of the situation and its perfect exposure-like nature. Sometimes when I go to church with friends now, I feel wonderfully blissful and at peace - but probably not for the same reasons other people there experience such emotions. I find it really peaceful just being able to sit there and not feel terrible for my differing religious preferences. To not feel the horrible guilt and fear I once did when in or around churches, and to not have to perform mental compulsions to "undo" my bad thoughts or to make up for my religious inadequacies, is really an amazing and incredibly uplifting experience. To be able to enter a church or religious institution without wondering if I will be "sucked back in" to the despair and fear (that I now realize were caused by OCD), is an amazingly empowering thing. Without all the fear, without all the compulsions that being in church once induced, the lack of inner turmoil makes the relative silence and calm in my head so peaceful! I may not adhere to the doctrines of whatever type of church I happen to be at, but I can glean comfort and peace from being there in my own special way :).

    It's knowing that I have overcome this form of OCD, which once caused me so much suffering, that gives me incredible hope and optimism that I will be able to overcome other obsessions and compulsions, as well!

  3. I, too, deal with/have dealt with scrupulosity. I have it under control now, and it's largely because I've been able to put God's love, not his judgment, into perspective.

    To EXPWOMAN: For some reason, your sentiment about concern that a marriage without children being a sin really grabbed me. Not being sure what you believe about God, I personally believe we are not all called to having children.

    - - - -

    Bloggerwithocd writes about the tribulations and jubilations of living with OCD at

  4. Fellow Sufferer--Thank you for sharing about the peace you feel in churches now. What a wonderful thing!

    Blogger with OCD--I appreciate you saying that we are not all called to have children. After much obsessing in my 30's, I also came to that belief that not everyone is called. The insidiousness of OCD is the wanting to know "for sure" that not everyone is called. . .but I never had a strong desire to have kids, and I am learning to trust that.

  5. This is wonderful - thank you for sharing I really relate to you. I WAS raised Catholic and although I don't agree with what a lot of the Church says, I've never really thought too much into it. I used to have severe guilt when I was younger over the most trivial things and remember asking my mom how I'd know if God wanted me to be a nun? I was almost in tears because I honestly couldn't think of a more horrible fate for myself.
    A few years ago, I was sitting in Mass with my boyfriend who I was very much in love with. A sister was giving the homily and I had a fleeting thought - what if God wants me to be a nun rather than be happy with a man? I tried to dismiss the thought but couldn' horrified me. Nothing about religious life attracts me. I recognize it as very good and holy for some people but honestly marrying Jesus to me is just weird and kind of incestuous. And thinking of never having a husband and children makes me break down in tears and want to curl up and die. For months, I struggled with feeling guilty for not wanting to be a nun and give up everything I love. I felt as if I was fighting God. But I do not believe God calls us through anxiety, etc. I obsessively researched what a "call" looks like. And honestly the information I found only intensified the scrupulosity. Things like if you don't listen to God and find your vocation you'll never be happy. Once again there's nothing attractive to me about religious life - I'm honestly considering leaving the Catholic church. The only reason I obsess and struggle over it is because the thought is so persistent. But I know that God calls to us through desire and longing so am getting treated for potential OCD. This has morphed in such a way that I feel guilty for enjoying anything earthly like vintage clothes or makeup or for pursuing a relationship with a guy. Sigh.

  6. Allison, Thank you for sharing your experience! I am so glad you got something out of this post. When I was 12, I had the thought that God wanted me to be a minister, since in my denomination women could be pastors, and spent many years struggling to figure out if it really was my calling, long past the time I realized that I *didn't* want to be a minister, so I can relate to your experience. I even went to seminary for a couple of years, and it didn't help that many people thought I'd make a good minister. I hope that you have the possibility of getting treatment for your ocd--it made such a difference in my life, and ability to enjoy things. Jonathan Grayson's book Freedom from OCD had a lot of things that helped me with my scrupulosity.

  7. Hi everyone, I am a master's counseling student studying scrupulosity. I have known many who suffer from OCD and scrupulosity and my research is aimed at helping those individuals.

    I am looking for persons to participate in an anonymous survey about scrupulosity and the family. If you could help me out by taking this survey (it takes about 15 min) you can be entered in a drawing for an $20 amazon gift card and I would be VERY grateful. Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Katie, I haven't checked my comments in awhile so I just saw this. Are you still looking for participants for your survey, and if so, do you have a link to a description of the study and informed consent form? Thanks!