Downtown: Religious OCD

ByABC News
June 11, 2001, 3:32 PM

June 11 -- From the moment Maria Urban wakes up, she is obsessed with performing an intricate sequence of prayers.

When she finishes her prayers to God, Mary and the guardian angel, she recites three Hail Marys and an Our Father. Then she kisses some pictures and crucifixes in her room, crosses her dog, reads Bible quotations, and crosses herself, dipping into a bottle of holy water she keeps by the kitchen sink. When she gets in her car to go to work, sometimes she'll start the prayers all over again.

"There could be some days where I may say 75 prayers," says Urban, who lives in Danbury, Conn., "and there could be some days I'd say like 175 prayers."

"I'm so frightened of hell I cannot enjoy my life right now," says Urban, who often calls every church in town just to speak with numerous priests so she can be assured she's keeping the devil at bay. "The thought of going to hell unfortunately doesn't leave my mind."

Never-Ending Rituals

While the prayers and rituals come from Urban's Roman Catholic upbringing, the compulsiveness is all her own. Her urges are so uncontrollable that she has become an expert at hiding her rituals. For example, she kisses her crucifix when co-workers aren't looking and to cross herself, she pretends she's just scratching her forehead.

For more than a decade, Urban did not know what was wrong with her. She was misdiagnosed time and again, including four times that she was hospitalized for depression. Then, this past summer, despite years of taking antidepressants, Urban says things got worse.

"It got way out of control," she says. "It probably was up to 500 prayers a day."

Finally, she found therapist Christina Taylor, who specializes in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a brain disorder that affects nearly 6.5 million Americans. Urban was diagnosed with Religious OCD, also called Scrupulosity, a variation that experts say affects up to 10 percent of all OCD patients.

While many religions require complicated daily rituals that are designed to bring spiritual fulfillment, OCD patients like Urban never feel fulfilled, and so their rituals never end.