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).
I 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.