(Barely) Living With Scrupulosity

"Perhaps the easiest way to understand scrupulosity is to recognize the manifestation of the affliction. For most sufferers the experience of scrupulosity is described as "thoughts that cannot be shaken"...Others describe the affliction as being constantly and unrelentingly "pricked by a pin.""

--Thomas M. Santa, C.Ss.R., Understanding Scrupulosity

"Studies show that scrupulosity is the fifth most common form of OCD [Obsession Compulsion Disorder] " 

--Laurie Krath, BeyondOCD.org 

One day, when I was about fifteen years old, I attended mass with my family in a beautiful church. The mass was reverently said, and I did my best to pay attention and stay focused on the words that were being said and on the prayers. As we lined up and went for communion, I looked up towards the beautiful domed ceiling and tried to properly prepare my mind to receive the Eucharist.  The person in front of me received communion. 

"The Virgin Mary is a b*tch." suddenly popped into my head, as clear as if someone had said it aloud. 

Where had that come from? Why had I thought that? I didn't believe that...did I? 

I was at the front of the line.

"The Body of Christ" the priest said.

It was too late to cross my arms, and I didn't want to hold up the line behind me. I received communion, then spent the next hour wondering if I had committed sacrilege by receiving after thinking (and was that really any better than saying?) something so disgusting and vile.

I've seen people, when the subject of scruples or struggling with scrupulosity comes up, say that perhaps it isn't a problem so much as a solution. "The Church is in a shocking state...no one is reverent anymore!" they'll say. "We would be better off if more people struggled with this." Or they'll say, "Oh, I struggle with being too liberal with God's mercy. I'm sure you're much closer to God than I am." Both of these statements do far more harm than they do good. The first simply has no awareness of the hell that those with severe scruples go through, and the second, while well intentioned and meant to reassure, implies that this way of life is somehow 'holy', and that those with scruples act out of a deep love for God. In fact, they struggle with a crushing, servile fear of Him, one that cuts them off from His love.

For years, from about the time I turned 12, I've struggled with Obsession Compulsion Disorder. During my high school and college years, this manifested in what's known as Scrupulosity--  a preoccupation with following the exact rules of a religion, and/or an obsession to reacting to intrusive thoughts. When it came to religion or the moral life, I followed all of the rules, and then some. 

My faith was never a source of peace or consolation for me, and the only strength I gained from it was the same sort of strength a man might gain to complete a task from the threat of death if he doesn't.  I've always loved learning about the 'why's' of the faith--the historical context of scripture, or the reasoning behind this or that doctrine. But when it came to an actual day-to-day relationship with God, there was no love in the actual practice of my faith, just anxious fear. 

For example, it would take me more than an hour to say a Rosary, because my mind would drift off slightly during the prayer, and I'd have to repeat that Hail Mary until I got it 'right.' Because it was so exhausting, I didn't say the Rosary very often, which was a source of constant shame to me. I knew 'good' Catholics said the Rosary. 

I'd sit in Mass trying my best to make up for the weird sexual image involving Christ on the crucifix that had flashed into my mind a few moments earlier, saying the St. Michael prayer over and over again.

I stopped receiving the Eucharist in my hand after an incident in college where I became convinced I'd dropped some and stayed late after mass to eat all the little pieces of lint on the floor around my pew that might have been a crumb.

I was terrified that I was going to sexually molest my younger brothers, or that I inadvertently had already molested them, because thoughts and graphic images about it came into my head so often. I had to 'confess' the slightest possibility of it to my mother constantly, "this brother sat on my lap for a long time and leaned against my breast and I let him", "my hand may have brushed up against him while I was helping him get dressed", etc. I needed constant reassurance that I hadn't actually done anything wrong, and if I didn't tell her, it meant I was hiding something, which is what sexual predators do.

Now, it's important to understand that I felt I HAD to do these things. To not do them was to offend God. In the case of my secret fear that I was a pedophile,  I HAD to tell my mom about any 'incidents', or it meant I was a pervert. When I slipped up, I had to 'console God' and make up for it. Not to do them was to turn my back on God and to deserve Hell. I felt I had no choice-- it was if my soul was being held hostage. Neglect something or let a thought go without specifically condemning it, and I wasn't a 'good' person any more. 

In the midst of this, I read something in a teen chastity book about a guy wearing a rubber band around his wrist. Whenever he had an impure thought, he would snap the rubber band to help himself break the habit (in retrospect, this is really bad advice that could lead to some serious issues...who wrote that book, anyway?!). I thought it sounded like a good idea, but could never find a rubber band.

So I started biting myself .

Whenever I had a 'bad' thought, and could find the privacy to do it, I would bite my hand or my arm. I never broke skin, but the marks would stick around for a couple days after I did it. And the pain offered some relief from the constant accusing voices in my head. 

From the outside, I was a model Catholic. Nothing looked wrong (no one ever noticed the bite marks). My behavior as a result of my struggles resulted in my having the reputation of a 'good girl'-- the type of girl that the youth minister sends a letter to the diocese about suggesting should be a nun. From the outside, I was a conscientious teenager who never cussed, always said the right things, and who never sneaked out or got into trouble. People would  say, "you're so holy" or "your faith really inspires me." I'd always say to myself, "You wouldn't say that if you could read the horrible thoughts in my mind."  

(An especially vicious attack of scruples almost cost me my marriage to my then-fiance...but that's a longer story, and I don't feel I can do it justice here. I may tackle it in a future post). 

Thankfully, I eventually found some relief. In college, the priest who gave me spiritual direction did research and gave me a book on scrupulosity that helped (I've written about my relationship with this priest in a previous post. My relationship with him was a bit of a mixed bag, but he did give me legitimate help). And after I got married, I finally went to a counselor who gave me the tools I needed to break those thought cycles and begin to heal. Learning to let a thought go, rather than trying to 'make up for it' or protect myself from the 'evil' by reciting prayers over and over again, was a huge victory for me-- it's difficult to convey just how much. I didn't have to be afraid any more. 

Today, I still struggle with intrusive thoughts and some minor compulsions, but they no longer hold the influence over me that they once did. I've figured out over time that my OCD symptoms become worse in response to stress, which makes sense-- the worst periods of OCD happened during times when I had significant outside stress in my life. Time away from an OCD viewpoint has given me the ability to recognize it when I start to slide back into it, and respond accordingly. And there has been a lot of graces in the Sacrament of Matrimony and with family life that have helped me to heal. 

I'm still struggling to form a relationship with God based on love rather than fear. In some ways, I've had to re-learn how to pray, and I struggle with remembering that my prayer life, and my emotional response to it, doesn't have to fit a certain mold (I'll write more about that in a future post). But I'm taking steps to work on that, and for the first time in my life, it actually seems like I might be heading the right direction. I may never 'get there' in this life, but that's ok. 

My life no longer looks like the perfect tableaux it did when I was younger, but I'm much, much happier. And, miracle of miracles, I'm sure I'm where God means for me to be.

Sources about OCD and scruples: 


  1. Thank you for this! I can't imagine the courage it takes to put all this out there. Or the people that are struggling that your words have given them hope to find a way out of the prison. You are an amazing women.


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