Catholic but Mentally Ill

I have another reason to count my blessings these days: I’ve only been needing eight hours of sleep at night lately. I am able to go to bed at 8 and arise well-rested at 4 a.m., and get in four solid hours of prayer before I go to work. Sounds like a pretty small triumph, doesn’t it? But I remember the days not so long ago when I was sleeping ten or 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, which last happened five years ago, 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 sneak out of restaurants without paying the bill); I see visions; I suffer the delusional notion that I am turning into a tiger; 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).

crosscarry.jpgI have been struggling with my illness for 13 years, and on medication for ten. 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 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 — and blasphemously — when he exclaimed “Jesus Christ, you’re crazy!”); I’ve been ignored and turned out on the streets when I obviously and desperately 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 72 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 brings a few minutes of emotional well-being that are highly prized by one who is mentally ill).

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 ten 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. I tithe on my income and Jesus sees that I have everything I need, and most of what I want. Even though I am currently applying for Social Security Disability and am only working about 14 hours a week, I have been able to secure financial help that means that the freezer and cupboards are always full, the doctors’ bills are paid, the rent is paid, and there always seems to be a bit left over for pipe tobacco. I am very grateful to our Lord, to His Church, to the members of my community, and to all my friends and family who have made an independent life possible for me despite the burdens of my illness.

And I have hope for the future, both in this life and the next. I would like a small rental house with a yard and an agreeable landlord who will let me get a golden retriever (named Scout, because military scouts are noble souls who put themselves at risk to keep others out of danger). I want to work for a small computer shop, fixing computers — and lo and behold, I have an interview for such a job coming up. My life is going very, very well. You haven’t lived until you can truly appreciate getting a good night’s sleep, waking up and feeling rested. I take nothing for granted, not my food stamps, 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, chief among them the freedom to make my own choices about how to live my life; but also my freedom to work, to have a family, to be healthy, to pursue what I most wanted, the Catholic priesthood, and last but not least, even the freedom 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.

It’s like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: the rich man received good things, and Lazarus evil things; and so Lazarus was rewarded for all eternity, while the rich man suffered because he overlooked Lazarus’ needs. I take away from that story my own heartfelt conviction that in a very real way, it’s better to receive evil in this life than good. So be not afraid. Have hope, trust Jesus, and never quit.

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  • fatherjo

    Awesome story, Anthony. Thank you very much. You write very well.

  • Thank you, Father.

    It’s fair to say, I wouldn’t have gotten this far without the help of a number of faithful priests of the Church. Thank you for living your vocation.

  • mallys

    Thank you, Anthony, for your witness. I needed you today. I have to go in to sign the petition for guardianship for my son, who has an 11-year diagnosis of mental illness. I have always thought him extremely brave for the way he has faced it, and I think you are too. God bless you.

  • janemartin

    I, too am grateful for your witness, Mr. Schefter. (I often forget that this life is a journey to eternity. I seem to get the destination and the journey transposed in terms of importance.) You are bearing your crosses with courage and faith and I am humbled on many levels. You are a gift today from Almighty God to help me keep my eyes on Heaven. Thank you.

  • Dear Mr. Schefter, I cannot help but believe that God led me to this website today, (which I have never visited before) and to your article specifically. My friend of 12 years has almost the exact same symptoms you describe. She was Finally!! diagnosed this past week with APS (Anti Phospholipid Syndrome) a somewhat rare blood disorder, and with NPH (Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus). The doctors have just been sedating and medicating her the last 12 years without really trying to address the root of the problem. These two disorders are known to each cause the types of dementia, voices, and other behaviors you described in your article. The tests for these two conditions are not normally done. In my friends case, it took a bad falling accident which led to a blood clot and subsequent CT scan of her brain. No doctor would have normally thought to look for these things. We are praying that now the causes of her conditions can be properly addressed, and not just the symptoms. You might want to ask your doctors if there is a chance you have either/both of these conditions. Thank you for sharing your story. My family and I will add you to our daily prayer list. Blessings and peace. R

  • Jeralyn

    Thank you so much Anthony! Just before I logged on this morning,I had prayed for consolation and discernment with my own battle with mental illness and your article was the first to catch my eye. I thank God for you and your message of faith, hope and love. May God continue to bless you and all whose lives you have touched.

  • R,

    Thank you for the advice. It’s very interesting. I will bring up this possibility with my doctor the next time I see him.

    Anthony

  • cbalducc

    Reading this article is just what I needed. I had a “spell” this morning that led me to watching television in order to distract me from my obsession. God bless you, Anthony, and all those who suffer.

  • Anthony:

    Thank You! What a blessing, an incredible blessing and testimony your ariticle is today.

    God Bless.
    Suzi

  • crossedcrowns

    I am just blown away by your faith. I am sorry you have suffered so much, and so uplifted by your willingness to walk in the way of the Lord. Thank you for sharing your story, and for letting us know there are real cross-bearers out there. I am expecting Our Lord to show us what a jeweled cross you bore. Thanks again.

  • laurak

    Thank you, Anthony. It is good to hear from someone who can relate to mental illness & our faith in God.

    I wanted to cry when I read your beautiful article. I have bipolar disorder with some schizophrenia like symptoms and I am also a faithful Catholic. My illness was a lot worse when I was younger. The mass was a lifeline during those times. So was the rosary.

    I am more fortunate than many people, because I’ve had access to top quality medical care and the newest medications. My husband also took the time to learn about my illness and his support helped so much. I am able to work full-time now, because the newer medicines have worked for me.

    May I mention here, that there is an online support group for Catholics living with mental illness? This is the website: http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/Bipolar_Catholic/. I didn’t know where to find a bipolar support group and I also wanted to connect with other faithful Catholics who are living with this illness. This support group has also been a big help to me for several years, because we all share similar struggles.

    I can tell by the responses to your article that the stigma of mental illness is slowly eroding and that many people are very supportive if you do open up and let others know you have this condition.

    God bless and keep you in His loving care.

    Laura K.

  • jmtfh

    My mom, who died this past August struggled for nearly 50 years with Bipolar disorder, but what a remarkable woman she was.

    As the valdictorain of her private high school in New Orleas (in the 1950s),she received a full-ride scholarship to Tunlane University in Physics. Two years into it she quit college to marry my dad and raised 11 children. Her huge and loving heart touched many, from the sick and the outcasts in our small mid-wesern town, to homeless children whose parents could not handle the difficulty of their child’s mental illness–she would take them in.

    Her trials were hard but the Crown of Victory she wears today must be dazzling!!!

  • SolaGratia

    Anthony,

    I, too, would like to thank you for sharing the story of your cross. So much of the fears people have about mental illness are because of not knowing what’s going on – the more we know, the easier it is to put fear aside and respond compassionately.

    Along similar lines to the other comment above, a man that I met who has schizophrenia mentioned that he learned that he has a metabolic disorder – I’m so sorry that I cannot remember if it was phospholipids or something else – that was causing his symptoms and once his doctors began working to help correct the imbalance in his body, the voices & hallucinations went away.

    As a healthcare professional, I have also seen a fair number of research studies these past few years indicating that dysbiosis (unhealthy microbes colonizing the gut generating waste products that have drug-like affects) and food reactions or intolerances such as casein, gluten and others can also lead to to symptoms of schizophrenia.

    God bless you! I pray that if it is not His will that you should find healing, He will continue to strengthen you, hold you and grant you His consolation through it all!

  • jackandanita@icehouse.net

    Wow! What a heavy Cross, I know Jesus must bearing the heaviest part of it for you to be able to keep going and reaching people with your testimonies which inspires and educate!

    You are also surrounded by a cloud of unseen witnesses,angels and the communion of saints, as well as Jesus holding you close to His Heart!

    Unseen blessings are falling upon you!

  • Claire

    This is a very inspirational article.

  • steckle

    Great story! Keep up the great work, lots of people are praying for you! Another great source for Catholics suffering from mental illness is the Guild of St. Benedict Joseph Labre at http://www.guildbjlabre.com.

  • Warren Jewell

    SO-o-o-o, PrairieHawk – umm, Anthony – and even some others whose monikers I recognize –

    YOU’VE been hiding Christ-like heroism from us. What a grand inspiration. The Spirit must hold you highly in His esteem and rewards.

    That you have been among us at CE puts me in homage to your valor and in your honor. I stand in your debt in all the depth of my heart; sing, my spirit, of my gratitude. When you pray for any of us, all heaven listens and responds.

  • My goodness, Warren, don’t go over-the-top on me. I’ve never done anything so heroic as rescue a child from a burning house–heroism is mainly putting one foot in front of the other time and again when you’d sooner lay down and give up. Thank you for your kind words.

  • Warren Jewell

    My friend, Christ-like heroism accepts one’s own cross to follow Him with as little choice as Christ believed, and lived and died, that He had – none.

    ‘THIS is My Father’s will, and I WILL do it.’

    There is little exaggeration in saying to you that the Spirit and all heaven have a special place for you – others have noted it, too. Still others have nearly happily noted ‘Look! I’ve got my cross, too!’ The Spirit strummed my every heart string and urged ‘Have eyes to see, ears to hear, learn humbly that those who readily accept suffering accept the Christ every step they take, and give glory to the Father. And I will never forget them.’

    In just about his last words to his grateful readers, Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote in the weeks just before his untimely death (untimely especially for the rest of us):

    “Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. . . Who knew that at this point in my life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong”? . . . The entirety of our prayer is “Your will be done” – not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.”

    You, Anthony, are weak, as God has it; as God has it, so too are you strong. Your own parade-train of saints and angels commends us to join in their prayers for you, and that we appeal to you to pray to that formidable audience for us.

  • abbygirl

    some people are mentally ill because of gluten and wheat sensitivity. also nutrition plays a big part in illness. parasites can make you have mood swings as can overactive candidias. have your doctor do a colonoscopy and biopsy of your stomach and colon. wheat and allergies destroy villi in the stomach , so vitamins can’t be absorbed. the b vitamins have a lot to do with mental health and too much of a loss of b12 can cause paranoia, delusions and psychosis. the colon can be overun with parasites and candida, which can destroy the immune system. study different cleanses at health food stores. our ancestors did about 3 cleanses a year. star drinking ionic water that removes parasites heavy metals and medications. pray a lot and ask for Gods guidance

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