I prefer our December newsletter to be joyful as we anticipate the feast of the Incarnation, Christmas. At first glance, it may seem that this year’s December column breaks that tradition, but this story is actually a Christmas gift that can bring you a lifetime of joy if you take its message to heart.
I recently had an e-mail conversation with a Scrupulous Anonymous member in which my participation was limited to reading a bombardment of e-mails demanding clarification and guidance. He was struggling with the diagnosis that his behaviors were caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He insisted his struggles were not behavioral and emotional, but spiritual: the pursuit of vain glory, taking too much pride in characteristics or achievements.
Experience has taught me how these conversations will end, but I nevertheless hoped this one would be different, that my participation would be helpful. I was lulled into a false sense that I was simply answering a question, even though I knew in my heart that my efforts were useless. Questions asked by people with scrupulosity powered by OCD are followed by more questions instead of acceptance; more expended energy instead of less; more anxiety instead of peace; and, finally, an explosion of frustration at the uselessness of the process.
The kindest and most pastoral response I could have provided was none at all. It’s very difficult to ignore questions, especially when you can feel the questioner’s pain and anxiety, but no response is the most loving response. The emotional energy OCD generates can be overwhelming, with a seemingly harmless question quickly escalating into the full-blown, raging manifestation of fear, anxiety, and dread of sin and eternal damnation.
And that’s what happened here. I answered the first question and received an explosive reply complete with the results of frantic research, links to articles, and more questions that led to even more questions, research, and anxiety.
On one level, the depth of the research was impressive, but on another level it was disheartening. I could only imagine the anxiety and pain that had fueled the relentless search for the false promise each link symbolized. What I was witnessing was not a research project; it was a full-blown manifestation of OCD behavior that was destructive in both obsession and compulsion. It was clear that I would have to be the one to pull the plug and refuse to participate in the destructive behavior.
As expected, the SA member’s anger and disappointment were swift. I had interrupted the process that he believed would have led to an answer if only I had cooperated.
The chain had been broken, but the pain and suffering hadn’t ended. In fact, abandoned in his struggle, the SA member now felt even more isolated.
The realization that little good comes from participating in OCD-manifested behavior and emotion is quite discouraging to confessors, caregivers, friends, families, and spouses of people with OCD. Knowing it must be played out and endured until the energy is dissipated—after which it will soon start up again—is the primary frustration experienced by everyone involved because it makes them feel helpless.
Let me repeat what I’ve already said so often: OCD/scrupulosity cannot be healed or tempered by will power alone, prayer alone, or research alone. It can be tempered only with an integrated approach using variety of healing tools. All of the tools must be used, and they must be used together.
That is the most honest and loving response I can offer. It might not be the Christmas gift you’re looking for, but in both the short run and the long run, it’s a gift you’ll long treasure if you take this advice.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa