How a Mental Health Disorder Can Greatly Affect Our Recovery

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In some of my previous articles, I may have mentioned my diagnosis with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) but I haven’t really written about it at great length. Nor have I articulated it in reference to my recovery journey. I’m convinced both in my experience of sitting in 12-step meetings and recovery rooms, doing research, and speaking with therapists, that many people struggling with addictions also have some underlying mental health issues. 

My hope is that, by sharing my own experience, if you also struggle with a mental health disorder affecting your recovery and/or behaviors that you will be encouraged to seek professional help for it.

How OCD and “Scrupulosity” Affects Me

OCD is a mental health disorder on the anxiety spectrum. I think the public generally has this image that OCD manifests itself as germaphobia or the excessive washing of hands. Those are certainly forms of OCD. But this doesn’t describe my experience with OCD. In fact, my experience with OCD is actually religious in nature.

My OCD has manifested mostly through what are known as intrusive thoughts. In other words, it’s more of a mental thing for me. Intrusive thoughts are exactly what they sound like—thoughts that jump into my mind that don’t exactly reflect my desire or intended action. Usually, they are contrary to one’s character. 

They tend to be about taboo things, such as violence and sexuality (but can be about anything). I would think that most people in the world have experienced an intrusive thought or two from time to time. However, most people are able to brush them off. Those with OCD go into inner turmoil because they believe that the thought says something about their character.

For me, my OCD first began as “religious OCD,” also known as “scrupulosity.” Scrupulosity is an intense and excessive preoccupation with one’s spiritual state or religious devotions. These obsessions range from excessive fears of Hell, repeating prayers that weren’t said “perfectly,” attending religious services excessively, and so on. 

Usually, these are driven by some sort of fear or fixation. Many famous saints, such as St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Therese of Lisieux, are believed to have suffered from scrupulosity. Even Martin Luther, the man who started the Protestant Reformation, is believed to have struggled his whole life with scrupulosity. 

My Religious OCD began when I was 10 years old. I came to believe that if I prayed the Rosary every day that good things would happen. However, I also came to believe that if I didn’t pray the Rosary bad things would happen. Oftentimes, OCD tends to “attack” things or people that individuals love the most and, for me, that meant believing bad things would happen to my family.

It would often take me over an hour to pray the Rosary because I believed that I had to pray it perfectly, and when I would lose track of how many “Hail Mary’s” I had prayed, I would start the whole Rosary over. Sometimes I would believe that I needed to pray the Rosary twice a day. Other times, I believed if I didn’t say the prayers on my knees the prayers didn’t count.

In my younger years, other antics included the following: believing that skipping praying the Rosary would bring harm upon my family, punishing myself for sins I committed, and skipping school recesses and playing poorly in sports to sacrifice for souls in purgatory (believing they would go to Hell if I didn’t make that sacrifice). Nobody but me knew that I had these little obsessions and fears, which is quite common for people suffering from OCD.

How OCD Harmed My Relationship with God

There are many other things I could share. At some point, my obsession with praying the Rosary sort of dwindled away but I never resolved the core issue. In high school, my new preoccupation became going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation every week because I believed I had mortal sins to confess. However, looking back, I know this wasn’t true. I had an active mind that sometimes produced disturbing thoughts. But I wasn’t willing or desiring these thoughts.

The thing about OCD is that the harder you try to suppress intrusive thoughts, the stronger you reinforce them. In effect, it’s a self-defeating strategy. Over time, my dependency on the Sacrament of Reconciliation became more of a mask for my OCD than a real experience of mercy. My relationship with confession was addictive in that I used the sacrament to make myself feel better—compulsively.

While my dedication to a weekly confession was noble it had adverse effects. First off, it didn’t resolve my OCD and actually reinforced it. Further, it damaged my relationship with God. The shame induced by some of the thoughts that came through my mind made me believe I’m unlovable. And my excessive dependency on confession gave me a sense that I have to “perform” a certain way to be in God’s favor. I can remember leaving the confession with a disaster management strategy—how long can I make it before the thoughts come back and I’m in mortal sin again?

I kept that confession-a-week pace up for nearly a decade. Sometimes, especially during college, I would go to confession twice a week. Other times, I wanted to go to daily Mass but didn’t because I was so afraid that I was in mortal sin and needed to go to confession again. When I began using pornography in my early twenties, I continued to use confession excessively without dealing with the underlying issues. It made me feel shameful about myself and my sexuality. 

Taking a Step Toward Greater Freedom from OCD in My Recovery 

Through the experience of my home 12-step group, it was suggested I start seeing a good therapist for my pornography usage. Over the course of working with this therapist for months, he suggested that my long-term recovery would greatly benefit from going to inpatient rehab

It was through my experience at inpatient rehab that I was finally diagnosed with OCD after quietly struggling with this issue for fifteen years. In fact, I really didn’t even focus on my pornography issue while at inpatient rehab—it was believed by the staff and faculty that my OCD and history of trauma were more important issues to focus on. I tend to agree.

My experience at inpatient rehab was over three years ago. To be honest, it has been a struggle to find a good therapist and spiritual advisor who understands OCD since my experience at inpatient rehab. However, I will say, I have broken from the habit of going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation every week. I don’t necessarily have a schedule, but on average it is on more of a bi-monthly basis.

My message isn’t to discourage anybody from going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but to share my personal story of how OCD has been detrimental to my faith. And to bring to light that, for some of us in recovery, our addictive behavior may be tied to other undermining mental disorders. 

In short, even really good things can be taken too far. And I for one can testify to this. If anything I have written about with respect to OCD, scrupulosity, trauma, or some other disorder has resonated with you, I strongly encourage you to seek out professional help as part of your recovery. It will only lead to greater freedom.

Quarter Joe is a lifelong Catholic and has been in recovery for pornography addiction for nearly three years. He is passionate about the spiritual path of the 12-step model and the power of Jesus in the Eucharist in bringing healing and transformation.