(Versions of this article have been published on catholicexchange.com in January, 2009, and on catholiclane.com in August, 2012.)
I have another reason to count my blessings these days: My sleep rhythms have settled down. I can consistently sleep 9 hours a night and arise refreshed in the morning. Sounds like a pretty small triumph, doesn’t it? But I remember the days not so long ago when I was sleeping twelve hours or more, dragging myself out of bed by force of will, depressed and overmedicated, and stumbling through my day in a medication fog that left my head stuffed with cotton and my mind as dull as Grandma’s old garden hoe.
I am mentally ill. The doctors have never been able to nail down a precise diagnosis, but it’s somewhere between bipolar disorder (with major depression and psychosis) and schizoaffective disorder, a variant of schizophrenia. Whatever you call it, I’m crazy as a hoot owl on hormone therapy. When I am not on my meds, I take off in the middle of the night to go wander the streets; I listen to voices telling me to do things that are a really bad idea (like leave the restaurant without paying); I hallucinate; and sometimes I freeze up like the tin man in a rain storm, and stand stock still for an hour at a time. My most superlative exploit? Sliding under the back gate of the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, and then commanding God to set the prisoners free. I got an ambulance ride to the hospital for that one, not to mention the citation for misdemeanor trespass in the third degree (the charge was later dropped).
I have been struggling with my illness for 21 years, and on medication for 18. Apart from my Catholic faith and my relationship with Jesus I am certain I would be dead. It’s as simple as that. Whether from a bullet from a prison guard or by my own hand, I’m not sure, but the world would be getting along without me. And no one can suffer mental illness without wondering if he’d be better off dead anyway. It’s hard to imagine a cross harder to bear, or heavier, or more laden with shame. But through it all Jesus has given me hope, strength, and indefatigable peace. He has not saved me from suffering; rather, he has given me a much greater gift: he has saved me through suffering. My suffering, my weakness, is a badge of honor, and not a scarlet letter.
Since my illness began I have spent many nights outside, alone, cold and tired, even barefoot on one occasion, wandering in an oblivious haze; I’ve been thrown out of motels, restaurants, and other public places; I’ve been frisked, arrested, pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and jailed; I’ve been in and out of psych wards; I’ve been seen by many doctors (one of whom summed up my condition the most succinctly when he exclaimed “Jesus Christ, you’re crazy!”); I’ve been ignored and turned out on the streets when I obviously needed help; I’ve suffered major depression, suicidal desires, and chronic lethargy; I’ve lived for years in my mother’s basement; I’ve been fired, and I’ve quit many jobs under a cloud, either with or without notice. I’ve also gained almost 100 pounds from my medication, which carries a high risk of diabetes and other side effects even more unpleasant; and the bright spot is, I have—however imprudently—taught myself to smoke (the self-medication of nicotine calms the nerves and provides a small lift out of the mental fog, giving a few minutes of something approaching a normal self-awareness).
My Catholic faith gets me through everything. I know that I am a human person who has value, despite consistently underperforming in almost every job I’ve had in the last 21 years, and there have been many. I am not a “mentally-ill person” or a “schizophrenic”; I am a human person who struggles with mental illness. My illness does not define me; my relationship with Jesus does. And Jesus, in our relationship, looks out for me. Those prison guards didn’t shoot me that day, though they were talking about it, as I learned later. My Disability and employment income are meager but Jesus sees that I have everything I need, with my Mom helping manage my finances – and, to Mom’s chagrin, there is always a little left over for pipe tobacco. I am very grateful to our Lord, to his Church, to my family and to the members of my community who have made an independent life possible for me despite the burdens of my illness.
And there is an unlooked-for silver lining to it all. You haven’t lived until you can truly appreciate getting a good night’s sleep, waking up and feeling rested. Because I cannot cope very effectively with work, I live mainly off Disability and have a lot of free time, which I use well. I take seriously the admonition to “pray constantly.” I am always in conversation with God, and I am aware that my trials are helping myself and others. I take nothing for granted, not my Disability check, not my doctor, not my family that has always been there for me. In many ways I am the most fortunate of men.
When this is all over, then there will be a life of blessedness in Heaven. My freedoms were taken away from me in this life—freedom to work, to have a family, to be healthy, to pursue what I most wanted, the Catholic priesthood; even to be myself in many ways—and so I know I will have a glorious and never-ending freedom in the age to come. To anyone who is newly diagnosed with mental illness, or to anyone who cares for someone who is, I have this to say: Never give up. It will get better. I cannot promise you anything but the most difficult of roads, but God has entrusted you with this burden because you can bear it, and bear it well for him; and he has something very good in store for you at the end of a lot of chapters that will make all of this more than worth your while. When this is all over, you and I will be able to say together: we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Have hope, trust Jesus, and never quit.