WICHITA, Kansas — Kansans are devout in their faith. A Pew Research poll shows six in ten consider religion important in their life and about half the state’s population attends church each week.
But for some, devotion crosses the line to obsession. What once brought them peace ultimately robs them of happiness.
Father Tom Santa has heard countless confessions — moments of honesty and vulnerability shared only by parishioner and priest. But still, there are those that stand out.
“Imagine yourself constantly doubting yourself and never getting to any point of certitude,” said Father Santa, founding director, Wichita SLC.
Extended interview with Father Tom Santa below
It is the tortured life of a person suffering from scrupulosity. They are consumed with the laws of their faith, down to the minutest detail, and often paralyzed by fear of upsetting God.
“They see that things they get really concerned about, nobody else seems to care about,” Fr. Santa added
Those may include irrational concerns over blasphemy, sexuality or impure thoughts that go well beyond the teachings of the church. The overwhelming guilt effects those of all religions. It is now diagnosed as mental illness, specifically, OCD.
“A lot of clients that I see are within the Christian community, so if they come in with OCD, many times, I’d say 75% of the time, it attaches to their faith,” said Aaron Scharenberg, executive director, Central Christian Church.
Extended interview with Aaron Scharenberg below
Rabbi Nissim Wernick, of Hebrew Congregation of Wichita, said “Some people might come to me over credible things and then we deal with that. But on something of this nature, I haven’t had this experience.”
That’s not surprising since it is so hard to detect. It shows up only occasionally as a ritual symptomatic of OCD.
Marilyn Rowland saw things like this in her son Jon.
“There were times when he was in the Catholic Church by himself and he would drink the holy water,” said Marilyn.
Jon was just a teenager when he started suffering from mental illness. It would take on many forms but the scrupulosity he dealt with as an adult became overwhelming.
“One time he was arrested for swimming naked in an apartment pool because he thought it was holy water and he was purging himself of his sins,” said Marilyn.
“There is this great fear that has to do with eternity,” said Joel Ybarra, Real Life Counseling. There is this great fear that has to do with our worth as people.”
Extended interview with Joel Ybarra below
One of the greatest challenges is convincing sufferers that retraining their mind is not sacrificing their faith.
“In the religious realm, I think there’s a danger because people hold so closely to their religious beliefs,” said Joel Ybarra, Real Life Counseling.
Scharenber adds, “There is a matter of conviction. Some people are very compassionate about their faith and it can be consuming. That’s not OCD.”
Father Santa has written books to help identify the breaking point and offer hope to Catholics who still want to honor their religion.
“There are four or five pastoral solutions that alleviate that for people,” said Fr. Santa. “Do any of those go against the teachings? None of them.”
It’s a different challenge for those who treat patients from a variety of spiritual backgrounds.
“In a lot of ways, you have to check your own beliefs and values at the door,” Ybarra said, “and focus on who your client is and what they’re trying to find.”
Jon Rowland tried therapy for years but couldn’t shake the grip of scrupulosity. He died of an accidental drug overdose four years ago. But his mom, Marilyn, continues to tell his story hoping to reach those facing the same struggles.
“This is my way to honor my son,” Marilyn said before getting choked up. “And I just want people to know that mental illness is an illness and I’m trying to fight the stigma and get as much help for these people as possible.”
If you or someone you know is suffering from scrupulosity we have compiled a list of resources that may help below.