You’ve been working away at scrupulosity recovery for awhile now. You’ve found a good OCD specialist and are working hard to stop fulfilling your compulsions. You’re working hard at reducing the power of your obsessions through exposure therapy. You’re working hard at having a healthy lifestyle. You’re working hard at behaving as though God loves you, even when you don’t feel that way. You feel yourself improving, and the furthest thing from your mind is the idea of scrupulosity relapse.
You feel surprised to realize that you’re actually doing better. You may even pass through the typical period of “improvement panic,” where you start to get nervous about the fact that you’re getting better. You might even dredge up old intrusive thoughts on purpose, just to “check” if they’re still there. But you make it through this stage, too, and finally stand on the summit of recovery and shout to the world, “I’m healed!”
You’d like to imagine that scrupulosity recovery is a straight road with no twists and turns. And life does go well for quite some time. Maybe a few months, maybe a few years. Maybe a decade. But then…
You hit a rough patch in life. Maybe you have some extra stressors at work, or you have some exciting stressors like marriage and a new baby. Maybe you get off your program and stop working so hard at the techniques that have kept you well. Whatever the case, you wake up one day and realize you’re back in the pit. Obsessions are swirling around you, and you’re reaching out to compulse as fast as you ever did.
You’ve experienced a scrupulosity relapse.
Many people who experience successful scrupulosity recovery will, at some point, have a scrupulosity relapse. Studies have shown that up to 50% of people with OCD will have a relapse within five years of treatment, and 25% will relapse within two years. While these numbers may seem discouraging, it’s important to remember that relapse is a normal part of the recovery process.
Why Does Scrupulosity Relapse Happen?
Relapse is a common occurrence for those who have experienced OCD and have undergone treatment. In fact, research shows that up to 50% of those with OCD will experience a relapse at some point in their lives. But why does this happen?
One of the main causes of relapse is the nature of OCD itself. OCD is a chronic anxiety disorder, which is unique from an acute anxiety episode. The “chronic” nature of OCD means that it does dig grooves into our brains, and it takes purposeful effort to redraw the lines. There’s never really a point in life when we can relax our vigilance.
Can we find rest and recovery? Yes. But it must always be a guarded type of rest, one where we watch ourselves to monitor for potential issues. Think of it like parents who are resting on beach chairs while their children frolic in the waves. The parents can definitely have a restful time (especially once the children pass a certain age), but they will always have one eye open, watching for stranger danger, shark fins, signs of heatstroke and sunburn, or other potential issues.
Good recovery will aim for vigilant, long-term rest.
Life stressors are also a big deal for OCD management. While stressors themselves don’t cause OCD, they can trigger symptoms in those who already have the disorder. Major events such as a job loss, a breakup, or the death of a loved one can increase stress and anxiety levels, which in turn can exacerbate our OCD symptoms. Even positive stressors can be a trigger for OCD symptoms and potentially bring about a minor relapse.
OCD is a chronic condition, and as such, it requires ongoing management. It’s not a “one and done” kind of disorder, and we need to continue to use the tools and strategies we learned in treatment to maintain our recovery.
The keyword here is maintain. Think of your brain as a beautiful flower garden that needs ongoing maintenance. If you leave it without properly maintaining all the hard work you’ve put in, the weeds and grass will take over your lovely flowerbeds.
Maintain, maintain, maintain. This is our best defense against relapse.
Also, relapse doesn’t mean treatment was unsuccessful or that you’re “back to square one.” It’s simply a part of the process of managing a chronic condition. Relapses are often shorter in duration and less intense than the initial symptoms, because you know the ropes this time around.
Let’s be realistic: relapse happens. But it doesn’t mean you’re back at the beginning, and it doesn’t even mean there’s something unusual about you.
Did Anyone in the Bible Experience a Similar Relapse?
The Bible is a book filled with stories of human triumphs and failures. Many of these stories can provide comfort and encouragement to those of us who struggle with OCD relapses. In the Bible, we find our friends–strugglers and sinners and wounded souls hopeful for recovery, just like us. We read about people who faced anxiety, doubt, and the temptation to give in to compulsions.
Think of Noah.
Like us, Noah had gone through a terribly stressful experience (wouldn’t you be stressed to get tossed around inside a wooden box for weeks on end, knowing that you and your family were responsible for keeping the entire race alive?) When Noah came out of this experience, he must have felt victorious. He made a sacrifice, saw the first rainbow, and rejoiced.
But chronic stress takes its toll, and if we’re not careful, it can lead us to de-stress in unhealthy ways. Noah decided to take it easy, to let his guard down, and before you know it, we see him drunk and naked, oblivious to the world around him.
From Noah, we learn that the truly vulnerable time period might come after the stressor and it subsequent victory, not during the hard part. We must take care to maintain healthy mental habits throughout life, but particularly after the tough times, when we tend to feel that it’s okay to slack off.
In the Bible, we also read about Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. We don’t know if all seven came out at once, or if Jesus healed her repeatedly after many relapses. If her healing represented Jesus’ intervention in the case of relapses, this would provide a powerful encouragement to those of us who slide back into our obsessive-compulsive ways. We are not alone! There are many in the annals of faith who struggled, just as we do.
Although an OCD should be categorized as an illness rather than a sin, I do find the Bible passages about “backsliding” to be rather encouraging in cases of scrupulosity relapse. Here’s one of my favorites:
I will heal their backsliding,Hosea 14:4-7
I will love them freely,
For My anger has turned away from him.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
He shall grow like the lily,
And lengthen his roots like Lebanon.
His branches shall spread;
His beauty shall be like an olive tree,
And his fragrance like Lebanon.
Those who dwell under his shadow shall return;
They shall be revived like grain,
And grow like a vine.
Their scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
God knows that we will frequently fail and stumble. He doesn’t mind. He just wants us to keep coming. Here’s another promise for those of us who relapse.
“Return, you backsliding children,
And I will heal your backslidings.”
“Indeed we do come to You,Jeremiah 3:22-23
For You are the Lord our God.
Truly, in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills,
And from the multitude of mountains;
Truly, in the Lord our God
Is the salvation of Israel.”
What Should I Do If I Experience a Scrupulosity Relapse?
Experiencing a scrupulosity relapse can be discouraging and overwhelming. But let’s remember that this is pretty normal. Up to 50% of us will have them. The most realistic thing we can do is to normalize the experience so that it doesn’t freak us out when it happens.
When faced with a relapse, one of our most important weapons is hope.
Discouragement gets us looking at present realities, naval-gazing on our own failures. Like Pilgrim wallowing in the Slough of Despond, it can be all too easy to start speaking negative words to ourselves when we sense a relapse occurring. Speaking words of hope–even if they feel stilted and artificial–forces us to look outside ourselves.
Do a word search in Scripture for “hope.” Especially read the passages in Psalms. Frequently, hope was connected with dire situations full of fear and lament. Hope was not something the Bible writers kept for peachy days when everything “felt” hopeful. It was a core weapon they used to help themselves through the ditches of life.
If hope is our first weapon for dealing with relapse, our second weapon is perseverance.
Perseverance means continuing to work hard towards recovery, even when it feels like progress is slow or nonexistent. Don’t forget Thomas Edison, who famously failed thousands of times before successfully inventing the light bulb as we know it today. Edison’s perseverance through failure ultimately led to one of the most significant technological advancements in history.
While it can be frustrating to feel like progress has been lost, it is important to keep things in perspective. You HAVE made progress–a lot of it. You’ve learned and grown and become a better person throughout this journey. You’ve grown in your walk with God, and I daresay there are truths that you’ve learned about His love and faithfulness that you would have never discovered–at least not to this depth–had you not already covered so much ground with scrupulosity recovery.
Consider the progress you’ve made, not the progress you’ve temporarily lost.
Most importantly, remember that the journey towards healing ultimately rests in God’s hands. Trying to micromanage the recovery process can be exhausting. Instead, let’s trust God’s heart. He loves us. He is healing us. The healing journey might not be a straight, linear path, but we know He’ll never leave us in a half-baked condition. We can trust Him to complete the work He began.
My soul, wait silently for God alone,Psalm 62:5
For my expectation is from Him.
There was once a man who dreamed of climbing a mountain. After years of training, he finally set out on his journey. As he climbed, he encountered a series of setbacks–harsh weather, difficult terrain, and unexpected obstacles. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to reach the summit and was forced to turn back.
Feeling defeated, the man returned home. But instead of giving up on his dream, he began to train even harder. He sought out the advice of experienced climbers. He adjusted his approach. He prepared himself, physically and mentally, for another attempt.
Years later, the man stood at the base of the same mountain, ready to try again. As expected, he encountered the same challenges he had faced before. But with his newfound knowledge and experience, he was able to overcome each one. After several grueling weeks of climbing, he reached the summit he had always dreamed of conquering.
Just like the man in this story, we may face setbacks and challenges in our journey to overcoming religious OCD. But with perseverance, hope, and a dogged faith that won’t give up, we can overcome scrupulosity relapses.
Relapse is a normal part of the scrupulosity recovery journey. It’s not a failure, it’s a reminder to brush up on your maintenance skills, perhaps adjust your approach, and keep climbing.
Let’s keep pushing forward, trusting that victory is possible. Let’s hold on to hope and persevere through the challenges. God walks beside us in the good times and in the bad, and you can be sure that even in your moments of relapse, He’s still right beside you.
Best wishes on the journey,