As a kid, my goal was someday to become the pope. My reality was pretty far away from my dreams. I had a very strong sense that God was working in my life, but I just didn’t know how. I was going to a local Catholic grammar school and attempting to lead a God-fearing life in my mind and heart. Growing up in a single-parent home, I always longed for a father-figure in my life. Sometimes this resulted in “talking to God.” I could access this “God” sometimes by attempting to pray. The voice would interrupt me in the middle of a prayer, and soon the voice and I were engaged in a conversation. I seriously thought that the voice was God, and I most certainly believed its reassurance that one day I would overcome my difficulty with prayer and become a future pope. The voice even reassured me that it was my birthright as God’s little chosen one. As a child, this all sounded like a wonderful plan, and I was glad I had been brought on board.
Storms and Tears
While this intimate conversation took place on the inside, my lips said something different. Like most other schoolchildren, I had very deep doubts about my faith and its truth. Unlike most other schoolchildren, I said things most people prefer to keep private. I condemned everything Catholic. In place of John Paul II, I called myself the pope. I could not understand the Catechism and rejected nearly everything in it. I swore obscenities at the Blessed Virgin Mary rather than venerate her while praying the rosary at school. I swore obscenities at Father. At one point in the confessional, I became so angry that I pounded on the wall. Sometimes I interrupted the priest in the middle of his homily to proclaim myself the priest and future pope. With my ego going wild, I knew that something eventually had to give. I just wondered when and what shape it would take.
The priests who ministered to me in my formative years were very understanding. Rather than rebuke me for interrupting, they allowed me to vent. Rather than ignore me entirely, they merely nodded their head from the pulpit. I did not understand why these spontaneous outbursts occurred, and many times I wondered why the outbursts said the opposite of what the Church taught and what I wanted to say and think and feel. If I did not interrupt a homily, I oftentimes was so moved by the priest’s words that I would cry and wail. During consecrations, I was prompted to quaking and tears by God’s true Presence.
Since I was an altar server, I got to know my pastors at St. Mary’s better than if I had sat in the pew. Both of the monsignors encouraged me to seek spiritual direction. They explained that they were familiar with directing people with my problems. They tried to help me see that I had the unthinkable: a mental illness. This seemed impossible to me, and I chose to follow my other dream—graduating from a research university and pursuing a career as a biologist.
My mother wanted me to be confirmed so that I would grow up with good morals and not reject my faith. Nonetheless, I did a great deal of soul-searching prior to my confirmation because I believed very little of the Catechism. I finally resolved that despite my doubts, being confirmed would be foundational. I hoped with all my heart that God would do some work on me later.
A Lost and Wounded Sheep
In college, my mom encouraged me to go to the Newman Center. I started going, but felt that I was losing time I could use studying. By the end of my first quarter at college, I was skipping Mass entirely. Over the next few years my life gradually fell apart at the seams. My relationship with my roommate became worse, and I fell into a very bitter depression. Finally I made a confession to a priest at St. James, a local parish. I began going to Sunday Mass more often and prayed that God might help me.
After college graduation, I eventually returned home due to unsuccessful employment. During this time, my obsessions surfaced, and I began taking medication. I took the medication for a brief period of time and then abruptly stopped because I had not requested refills from the doctor. My mind spun into schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (also called schizoaffective disorder). I sensed things that were not there (hallucinations). I had delusions that I was an exalted person—namely, the pope. I entered an acute treatment facility; years went by while my doctors used trial and error to come up with the best medication or combination.
My journey toward reality involved three things. The first was understanding that the medication masked the symptoms of the illness. The next was therapy, turning non-reality into reality. The third was supernatural grace which helped me cope with the chaos of the illness.
We finally arrived on the right combination, and my life seemed to be taking a turn for the better. Then suddenly I found myself in the hospital with an adverse reaction from my medications. I was in ICU before being correctly diagnosed. The doctors took me off all of my medication, and my physical body recovered. The doctors informed me that if my adverse reaction had not been correctly diagnosed when it was, I possibly could have gone into renal failure. While I was recovering, I refused to take any medication, and I blamed my problems on my mom. This was the most difficult part of our relationship.
A Share in the Passion
Amid the chaos of my illness, I went to the only priest I felt comfortable with and requested spiritual direction. As an altar boy I had served Masses with Fr. Greg and found his disposition to be humble, gentle, and compassionate. (I admire these qualities in others because I have difficulty cultivating them within myself.) My heart was pounding as I made the initial contact. After several sessions, my anxieties were overcome.
At that time, I was suffering from hallucinations which told me to pray a lot. Prayers were the only respite I seemed to receive from the torment of my illness. Complying with the prayer voice seemed to help dampen the voices, so I naturally acquiesced to these command hallucinations. Fr. Greg helped me find some balance between prayer and the rest of life. He brought me back to the simplicity of my faith. After a few years, Fr. Greg knew it was time for even deeper growth, so he sent me to a different priest. Fr. John helped me allow God to touch my wounds and heal them. He helped me to see that my wounds are united to the passion, suffering, and death of Christ before the dawn of an eternal Easter in heaven.
The Way of Suffering Leads to Peace
These wounds finally give meaning to my lost-sheep childhood. I used to wake up in the morning wishing that God would take my life. I thought the culture of death was good. But as a result of coming so close to dying in the hospital, I today thank God for the gift of my life.
The most powerful icon of conversion for me was Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and my prayers to her provided the most powerful healing throughout my illness. Whenever I kiss this sacred icon, I can usually feel its healing power flow through me like a fountain of God’s love.
My illness engages me in a fierce battle that makes it difficult to complete my prayers. The most difficult prayers to participate in are the Eucharist, rosary, and Divine Office, respectively. It happens that these are also our most powerful weapons against Satan. When I am in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, my voices sometimes become worse. My illness often tries to prevent my completing the rosary. After experimenting with a myriad of different techniques, I say a morning and evening prayer on weekdays and pray with the EWTN Mass on Sundays.
As a result of God’s conversion within me, I now believe everything in the Catechism. I once wished I could be normal in Church, and I now recognize that I am part of the diversity of the Church. When I call myself a pope, this is really my illness speaking. When I say things against my religion and my superiors, this is my illness speaking. When I cry at homilies and consecrations it is because I am touched by the divine. When I suffer I no longer blame God, because God is love. My conversion likely would not have taken place without the devastation of my illness. I spent much of my earlier life in a restless search for God. Years later, God’s conversion within me is continuing, and I am more at peace than at any other point in my life.