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Scrupulosity Returns Author: Kristy Cobillas M.Ed LPC

Scrupulosity. You hadn’t visited me for some time now. It's been at least seven years since I have experienced this grasping for security. What set you off this time? The state of the world? My father’s increasing dementia symptoms? Or the fact that I am 51 and realized that myself or my husband will die before the other, and one of us will be left alone. I am completely unsure.

Or is it possible that every time I go off of my medications you leave me alone for three or four years, only to come crashing back violently? This is your fifth onslaught.

You have brought on another hellish episode, reminding me of one flaw after the next and demanding that I figure out how to fix them. Yes, I told a lie five years ago. What do you expect me to do about that? You dug up the fact that I didn’t pay taxes on money I made babysitting at fifteen. I’d pay it back just to shut you up, but how much would I owe? No matter what I paid, you would still torment me with the possibility that it was the wrong amount.

The things I enjoy, you make it your business to destroy. When I merely want to play with my dogs, you torment me with thoughts that I might be worshiping them. I look at a beautiful piece of art, and you intrude with the thought that I might be looking upon an idol. My world becomes smaller and smaller and you scream louder with every move I make.

Your constant accusations are trivial. You accuse me of stealing just because I thought someone gave me an extra piece of pizza with my order. Truly, I didn’t realize what had happened until I removed the foil on our ride home. I was still shaken and terrified as I tried to grasp what my husband explained; you get two slices if you don’t order a drink. No luck. You demand that this issue be rectified! You screamed at me to go back and make sure he was right.

As that issue fades, you hit me with more. What was my motive for making that comment to that person a month ago? Was I manipulative? Was I deceitful? How about my interactions several years ago? Was I seductive? Was I a liar? My list gets longer and longer with every passing moment as I plan for how to possibly make amends. Life has become one horrific episode of My Name is Earl.

After three months, you finally ease up a bit. The whirring of mental images of past indiscretions has reduced to just one. I have continued to perseverate over this particular thought for the past two weeks. I go to sleep and wake up with the same damn thought. Yes, I have obeyed you and asked a friend for assurance about the severity of the indiscretion. I trust her judgment and perspective as a “non-OCD” person. I only asked her once. Then, despite the fact that you quickly returned screaming, I resisted you and did not seek assurance again.

The form of OCD that focuses on morality, perfection, sin, and punishment is my enemy, Scrupulosity.

Yet, any form of OCD elicits intrusive maladaptive thoughts, an inflated sense of responsibility, over-estimation of threats, and an absolute intolerance for uncertainty. It’s a voice that nags and condemns, never satisfied.

Jonathan Grayson, author of Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, correctly compares the obsessive quest for certainty to a low stakes game of Russian Roulette. You have a 10,000 round gun with one bullet in it. If you pull the trigger and don’t get the bullet you win a million dollars. Sounds like good odds?

Only one caveat: you have to point the gun at your kid. You’d never do that… Never in a million years. The risk is too high.


OCD is a matter of biology and learning. During my unfortunate childhood, my stepmother, Donna, taught me that safety was always out of reach and that I would pay for all past mistakes, no matter how small. Even when I did everything right, I still paid—heavily. The daily severe physical abuse at the hands of someone who was supposed to care for me left an indelible mark. Now my enemy, Scrupulosity, prompts me to expect God to treat me the same way.

During this whole process, I continue working, seeing approximately twenty clients per week. Despite and because of my own torment, I have been able to sit across from my clients in theirs, and have had potent sessions with them. There’s nothing like walking through hell with someone. The insight I have gained through my struggles has been invaluable.

“God is not Donna; I do not have to pay.”

“I can tolerate the anxiety I am experiencing. I do not need to make it go away.”

“When I feel the urge to search the past for mistakes, I will accept the uncertainty that my wrong actions may require restitution.”

The words seem so hollow. Unreal. Too good to be true. Yet these are the statements I hold onto as I resist the compulsion to check and re-check. Resistance is the only way to quiet your screams.

As I am exposed to intrusive thoughts, I must resist the urge to mentally “figure out” if I am damned or not. I cannot “call a friend”, I can not research on the internet, I cannot do anything that will neutralize the itchy thought. (Response Prevention)

Healing requires that I stop perseverating on my past and accept the uncertainty of possible punishment. As I stop the investigations, anxiety rises. I am physically shaking, trembling with fear.

I actively fight perfectionism. I continue to speed on the highway. I pulled an image off the internet and recklessly printed it despite possible copyright infringement. Those things were risky, but I will certainly not put more ropes around my feet by demanding perfection.

Exposure Response Therapy (ERP) is a treatment I have done many times but still sometimes get “stuck” thoughts that I can’t let go of. I am terrified to let the thought float away from me, so my mind feels unsettled and unsure. But what other choice do I have? I have to walk in the same “certainty” that everyone else does. That’s normal human life.

Eventually, the thoughts quiet down. They always do. I wish I only had book knowledge of this insidious disease. Still, I have to believe, in the end, that the fact that I have walked this path will help me clear the brush and debris off the trail for others.

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