My Journey with Mental Illness
One day in prayer, I was reflecting on my four years as a FOCUS missionary on campus. I loved being a missionary on campus! So many great conversations, awesome Bible studies, and even student conversions. So, in prayer I asked Jesus, “in all that time as a missionary on campus, when were you most proud of me?” His answer wasn’t what I expected. He did not show me all the ways I had been a good missionary, He did not give me an insight into all the souls my life had touched. Instead an image, a distinct memory, came immediately to my mind: I saw myself curled up in the front seat of my car at a rest stop in New Jersey… having a massive panic attack.
I was fairly young when I first started struggling with my mental health, maybe middle school. My best friend had moved out of our neighborhood and I experienced thoughts of suicide. This passed, but a lingering mild depression did not. As I hit puberty and my teen years, depression became part of my daily life. I knew something wasn’t right, so I asked my parents to take me to the doctor where I was put on a mild anti-depressant. That was pretty much the end of the conversation about my mental health. My parents did what they knew best, but my mental health wasn’t cured. Over the years I wondered if I should try counseling, but I always quickly dismissed the thought. I was ashamed, and my problems weren’t THAT bad. It wasn’t anything that I couldn’t deal with myself. So, I dealt with it as my cradle-Catholic self knew how, I prayed and asked Jesus to heal me. I even went to a healing Mass once or twice and asked to be prayed over that Jesus might miraculously heal my mental health. I always left disappointed, I didn’t feel any different. I resigned myself to grit my teeth and get through life. I thought that Christians were called to choose joy, but that God must not mean for us to be happy in this life. This struggle with my mental health must just be a cross I was meant to carry. I shouldered that cross and started trying to handle life all by myself.
In college I was defined by my achievements. I worked 20 hours a week to pay for tuition and didn’t take out a single student loan. I was on leadership in campus ministry, regularly attended Bible Study, and went to all the Newman Center events. On top of work and campus ministry I maintained a 4.0 GPA and student taught. I was a full-blown perfectionist, and I defined my worth by accomplishments. I wanted to show everyone (including God) how good I was at handling it all, then maybe they would accept me and love me and not care about the fact that I had a mental illness. Of course, my depression was there, but I was so busy squelching my emotions that I ignored it. I also failed to realize that my desperate plan to control my life was leading me straight towards an anxiety disorder.
After graduation and a brief stint at teaching, I became a FOCUS missionary. I had a genuine heart for mission, but I also brought my perfectionism and control with me. I wanted to be the best missionary possible for my students and teammates. I thought this meant having all the answers, being a good leader, and helping other people with their problems and sufferings. There was no room for my problems and my emotions. I thought these would be a burden to others, so I kept my mouth shut. I struggled with vulnerability and I wasn’t ready to admit that I wasn’t always okay.
And so it was that I found myself at the rest stop in New Jersey having a panic attack. After years of stuffing all my emotions in and trying to control my life, they all came busting out. It was overwhelming, but I finally admitted that I needed help and began seeing a Catholic therapist. Through regular therapy, spiritual direction, and a daily prayer life, I have slowly learned to accept my emotions. I have learned to love and accept myself as I am. I have been able to receive the Lord’s unconditional love and surrender to Him even the parts of myself I do not like. I have learned tools to help me “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and learned to be truly vulnerable with those around me.
Yes, in my four years on campus students came to know Jesus through my effort. I led some awesome Bible Studies. Students received healing on retreats that we held and others found their lifelong vocations. But in all of this, Jesus was most proud of me during my massive panic attack. Why? Because for once I wasn’t trying to do it all myself. In that moment I was little, I was authentically myself, and I was fully reliant on him. While I was ashamed of my mental health, he was proud of me! He is also proud of what I did with that moment. I allowed Him to use that moment to begin a deep and intense journey of healing. A journey that continues to this day. I am grateful for this moment and for this journey, because I can see how the Lord used it in my life. The mission I do today is because of the cross I have carried personally. A cross I tried to carry by myself for too long!
If you are carrying the heavy cross of a mental health struggle be it depression, anxiety, anger, addiction, or an eating disorder remember you are not alone! If you have ever thought about going to counseling I challenge you to find a Catholic Therapist near you and give it a try. Maybe you’ve been to counseling before and are disenchanted with the process, why not give it another try? The Lord desires so much healing for you! He desires you to be happy, healthy, and holy. God loves you, the Church loves you, and I love you. You will be in my prayers.
***If you are currently experiencing a mental health crisis, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 741-741for assistance.***