“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls…” – Thomas Merton
To say that I grew up in a very Catholic area is an understatement. The diocese of Mobile, to which my parish belongs, has roots going back to French explorers dating back to 1703. Our sister city, Pensacola, just across the state line in Florida, has historically Catholic ties from Spanish settler, once belonging to the St. Petersburg diocese, circa late-1600s.
I attended a non-Denominational Christian school when I was very young, and my parents are Christian, specifically Pentecostal. Their doctrine about parenting in the faith is opposite of my Roman Catholic requirement. They believe that a child should not undergo baptism as an infant, because the child should be of reasonable maturity to make that decision. So, where did that leave me? After being misdiagnosed for 20 years, in and out of treatment, and generally, on a mental-rollercoaster-Hell ride, I had at least decided that I was a Christian – except for a brief period that I began to contemplate things from a different perspective, and decided there could not be a God, according to my determination.
Funny how post-diagnosis, everything makes sense. Bouncing around never bothered me, because I never had a chance to get bored with any of it. But the Catholic mass remained my favorite – the ritual, the order, the notion that I was doing the same as people all over the world. I also wound up at a Catholic college, so I had plenty of exposure, and all of the tradition appealed heavily to my intellect. It really held my attention. Unfortunately for a long time… that’s all it did. Where were my graces? My spiritual gifts? Wasn’t that the whole point?
While attending the Jesuit college, I married a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. I found the practices and beliefs so lovely. He suggested, and I agreed, that I should study Zen as well. He believed it would help my anxiety. Oh, it was all so beautiful, and everything made sense, that is, for purposes of framing an argument in philosophical logic! Still, for all my efforts, theologically speaking… my brain and its comorbidity with Bipolar I and ADHD, left me spiritually… numb.
The end of 2013 yielded a traumatic serious of events for me and my family. My PTSD, which replays the brutal domestic abuse I suffered in vivid, racing color, culminated in the final three months of that year. On Christmas night I was admitted to a psychiatric facility for homicidal and suicidal thoughts. A drastic increase in a dosage of antidepressants triggered a terrifying mixed episode, for good measure. Shortly after my release, I decided to once again be initiated as a full member of the Church. I didn’t realize how serious they were about this grief thing and how much time that process can take, so quite frankly, just being around people I felt were “safe” brought me some comfort. At that point, I was looking for anything that could.
The following fall I began my second attempt at the Rite, as if somehow baptism would magically make it all go away. Well, it didn’t, and I still craved the spiritual connectedness other people claimed. A few days before baptism, all candidates were invited to a one-on-one with the Priest. I couldn’t wait for my meeting. I had a burning question to which I thought, certainly the man responsible for my baptism that Easter should have the answer! After much discussion, I asked him, “Father, why do I have a ‘block’ on my spirituality?” He looked at me with great empathy and explained that sometimes the mind can hinder your soul’s semblance with God. He told me to keep trying and I would eventually find the answer despite mental illness and meds. Needless to say, it wasn’t the miraculous solution I wanted, but I appreciated his honesty and compassion.
Not too long after confirmation, depression, triggered by another breakup and alcohol, put me back in the hospital. After that I wondered what it was going to take. I somehow felt that if I found that connection, within it I would find peace. I realize now that is merely a drop in the bucket in the whole of recovery, but I have good news. I finally found the piece that I was missing. Not to make this a theological or philosophical discussion, but this time, things are completely different. My path had been there all along – I just never saw it. I am not advocating any one religious practice over another; rather, I am illustrating that I just had to look at things differently, because my mind does not always process things the way yours does. I have combined Zen practice, which makes one aware of the self and its connection to nature and the whole of the Universe, while meditating on Catholic theology, which basically teaches the opposite – that one should leave the self behind and follow God. I have been cautioned of dangers of teachers like Thomas Merton, who combined eastern practice and Christianity, but I understood how each one compliments the other. Now I have no trepidation, and I finally have the spirituality which I sought my entire adult life. I have been in recovery for only a few months, but things are much different than ever before. I understand that therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes are of equal importance. I know I can achieve wellness long-term now, because the piece of the puzzle I finally found is… ME.
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