I am a person living with the biological brain disorder diagnosed as bipolar I illness. I have had a series of manic episodes and many years of depression, anxiety, and paranoia. But now for decades, I have the benefit of the right medicine, therapy, the support of family and friends, and much prayer which gives me a resolve to forgive myself and others. My symptoms are greatly lessened. I am more comfortable.
Sources of Healing
I am faithful to my spiritual practice and my communities. For the last 20 years, I have been an oblate of St Benedict at St Anselm's Abbey. This involves prayer with and for the monks. The abbey is a spiritual home for me, and I have found peace. When the monks chant the divine office there is present the same spirit one finds in an intensive care unit.
Prayer made it possible for me to make peace with many unfavorable things about myself. I made a poor choice in marriage and lived with violence. I have been hospitalized on the psych ward four times. I only worked for seven years in my profession. I was homeless for a month in February 1995. My misgivings over my history have lessened as I have found peace and healing.
The Importance of Growth
Two great sources of healing for me have been the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I found a wonderful reflection by Rita Sebastian Lambert in the NCPD book called Welcomed and Valued. My favorite two of her affirmations are the following.
"I will embrace my illness or my family member's illness as a friend this day looking for what it is teaching me about the mystery of God and life."
"I will not allow the stigma of mental illness to defeat me this day. I will choose to have power over stigma by detaching myself from the stigma."
Part of my work at NCPD is responding to requests for large print Roman Missal. Preparing these for mailing is especially rewarding to me because I have been attending daily Mass for 30 years, and I see this as a way of giving back for so great a gift.
At NAMI support group I learned that although there is no cure for mental illness, recovery is possible with treatment. This means that I can manage my symptoms, and live a meaningful and purposeful life that benefits society. At one time I was crushed by my mental illness. This is no longer the case. I have the confidence to meet new challenges.
Even though my illness involves my brain it does not prevent intellectual pursuits. After my second psychotic episode, I earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland. I worked as a project manager inspecting the construction. I started as a GS 5 and left as a GS 11.
God's Longing for Me is Greater
I think it would be very good for the Catholic Church to be more involved in ministry with individuals and families living with mental illness. Here in DC, we have a monthly gathering at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception since February 2003 to pray the Rosary, participate in a private Mass, and share a meal. Then in June 2014, we started monthly support and discussion group at St Anselm's Abbey. We have grown in trust, insight, fidelity to treatment, friendship, and most importantly, gratitude.
I would welcome the opportunity for conversation with anyone interested in a similar effort. Recently I read the phrase "unprecedented grace". I pray for grace for a ministry of care and concern for people with an illness that is treatable though perplexing. Saints like St. Dymphna, St. John of God, and St. Benedict Joseph Labre would witness that this is not new work for the Church.
Even so, we could do something new and beautiful for God by helping the many more who struggle with questions and concerns that involve unspeakable pain. We Catholics have a rich history, library, music, art, and liturgy that without a doubt equip us to accompany individuals as they seek answers. Daily we bring comfort, consolation, and strength to our neighbors.
In my efforts, I am encouraged by the words with which Rita Sebastian Lambert concludes her meditation. "Knowing for sure that although I long for God, God's longing for me is even greater. I will rest in that knowledge this day."
Judy Barr lives in Maryland and volunteers at NCPD.
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