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Spiritual order from a neurological disorder

The road to Catholicism for new converts is as varied as the personalities of the converts themselves. Mine came by means of the sublimely cracked perspective of a neurological disorder called Tourette Syndrome (TS).

I was raised in a mainstream Protestant church, and in early adult life I found myself drawn to evangelical circles by the zeal and commitment I found there. Active church involvement, university, marriage, three kids and a fulfilling career in education filled the years that followed. Time sailed along at the hectic pace of most young families, until our youngest son, Peter, started having difficulty coping with the normal stresses of school life.

Though bright academically, he was thrown into a tailspin of anxiety by sudden transitions or unexpected requests. Normally a real charmer, he started to become an irritable, inflexible perfectionist. By age nine he developed a number of odd obsessions, such as having to repeat explanations over and over and over. Angry outbursts became all too common, triggered by minor incidents.

A devastating diagonsis

When Peter started displaying odd, jerky movements in the fifth grade, our concern turned to fear. We managed to see a pediatric psychiatrist over the Christmas break. As Peter followed us into his office, all the while tapping his foot on the floor and snapping his neck sideways, the psychiatrist looked at my husband and me and then said in a gentle voice, “This young man has Tourette Syndrome.” Wham.

In some ways, it was a comfort to have a name for Peter’s quirky behavior, but in another way it felt like being hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. We read everything we could get our hands on about TS and found out that many people cope with it and lead normal lives. But the diagnosis started our family down a road to a new life, albeit a twisting and often lonely road. If you had told us at that point that the journey would include my husband and me joining the Catholic Church, we would have laughed in your face.

We found out that some mild cases of TS often go undiagnosed, but Peter’s case was severe. His involuntary jerky movements—tics, the hallmark of TS—became more pronounced in the following months. Vocal tics started showing up—loud barking sounds that he had no control over. We were happy to discover that the swearing tics (known as copralalia) most often associated with TS in television and movies are actually quite uncommon.

Tics aren’t the only symptom of this rather bizarre disorder. About two-thirds of the time, it is accompanied by other neurological challenges such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, hyperactivity, and difficulty managing anger. Our son’s rage-filled outbursts became a daily occurrence, and his obsessions and compulsions became more convoluted and unrelenting. Our lives began to unravel.

School became a nightmare. My husband and I were called in on an almost daily basis because of his disconcerting and often abrasive behavior. Finally, we made the decision to homeschool Peter for the rest of the year in an attempt to salvage our collective sanity. I quit my job as a school administrator.

Buried in reading

I’ve noticed that, from my childhood, when faced with frightening or worrying experiences I seek solace in books, and this was no exception. As Peter and I launched into this new experience of homeschooling, in my spare time I buried myself in the works of authors I had long loved, including C. S. Lewis. Though Peter was calmer, his symptoms continued unabated. I retreated further into quiet despair.

An insight from Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain had a profound impact on me: “Pain removes the veil. It plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”As I sat one day at our dining room table, reading and absorbing those words with my twitching, barking son beside me working on his math lesson, it did indeed feel as if a veil was being ripped off my old perceptions of life. I knew I needed to go deeper, to find a new way to live with our reality, to cope with the hopelessness and bitterness I felt, to make sense of the suffering my son was enduring and to help him rise above his challenges.

C. S. Lewis led me to one of his favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton, whose books I ate up with an eagerness that alarmed my husband. Hugely intrigued by Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism, I started reading the works of other notable converts: Cardinal John Henry Newman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Scott Hahn, Richard John Neuhaus, and Thomas Howard. I experienced something common to almost all of these authors: a letting go of my perception of how God works. It became increasingly clear to me that I was in love with God’s blessings but not with God. I had long been worshiping a deity of my own construction that conveniently propped up my own plans.

Part of the problem was that I was no longer in control. The outward signs of TS are easily misinterpreted. Peter’s physical symptoms didn’t allow us the luxury of pretending that everything was okay, even if we had wanted to. Many of his unintentional urges resulted in behavior that looked deliberate and peculiar, even disturbing—such as tapping on my face with his fingers or squatting down every third step as he walked. I’ve been in many shopping malls and watched people stare. I’ve sat in restaurants and noticed how uncomfortable everyone was. I’ve seen people uneasily cross to the other side of the street when they heard Peter coming, barking and yipping.

But all of these experiences forced me to deal with one of the biggest obstacles in my own spiritual growth—worrying about what other people might think. I realized that this worry was my obsession and that it had in fact become one of the ruling fears of my life. It had to go, along with the mask of self-sufficiency I was hiding behind.

Drawn like a magnet

The books I was reading caused me to feel drawn, like a magnet, to a little Catholic parish in our neighborhood. I had never been inside a Catholic church before and so had no idea what to expect but also no baggage to drag behind me.

I found myself signed up for a course called Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and soon could think or talk of little else. Intrigued, my husband joined me. Tuesday after Tuesday, we grasped more fully the truth of Chesterton’s comment, “The Catholic Church is larger on the inside than it is on the outside.” At the Easter Vigil, the doors to the Church were thrown wide open to us.

In the Eucharist I embraced an invitation to come, accept forgiveness, and find nourishment in God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice. For me, it also brought a new boldness, a carelessness, which came through the epiphany that the only opinion that really matters is God’s opinion. This led to another epiphany: that I needed healing more than my son did.

But that wasn’t all. In the prayers and practices of the Church I discovered a timeless connection, reaching back to the apostles, that backfilled missing elements in my faith. In the lives of the saints I read story after story that gave direction and vigor to my spiritual growth. When I first encountered the writings of the Church Fathers and great mystics, it was like a discovery of priceless treasure (with a twinge of irritation that my Protestant pastors had never mentioned them!). It was a huge revelation to study the commentaries and letters of Christians such as Justin Martyr from the first century after Christ’s death and realize that their descriptions of early Christian services are almost identical to Mass as we celebrate it today.

In the Church’s liturgy and sacraments I experienced a gateway to God’s profound mercy and kindness. Immersing myself in these divine mysteries has been like going up to the balcony and seeing the bigger view—suddenly much of the “stuff” that took up a lot of my emotional energy now seems pretty insignificant. The sacrament of reconciliation has helped me detach from some habits and obstacles that were hampering my spiritual development. The priests and nuns I have come to know have energized my growth through the example of their compassion, humility, integrity, and unflagging sense of humor. And in the assortment of ordinary folks who are my neighbors and fellow parishioners, I have found genuine, robust community.

“Here comes everybody”

The great unity and great diversity found in the Catholic Church is one of its many challenging paradoxes. James Joyce once described being Catholic as “here comes everybody,” which is so true, so delightful, and so often an excellent recipe for utter frustration. But imperfections and sin and brokenness, rather than being things to hide, seem to be the very things that bring us together as followers of a Savior who knows what it is like to be marginalized, living on the edge of society, a man of sorrows.

It has now been more than four years since my husband and I joined the Catholic Church. Our son’s condition has improved, partly due to medication but mostly because of his own self-awareness. Peter still has tics, obsessions and “neurological storms,” but he has learned to temper his expectations and activity level during his bad days. On the good days he is a joy-filled, grateful young man. We continued homeschooling through high school, and Peter is now working and studying independently. He has become a mentor and role model to other youth with TS in our community and is a popular speaker at local schools, educating teachers and students about the disorder.

Our conversion has not been without some personal challenges. Our family members and Protestant friends seem to fall into a few camps—those who are supportive though slightly puzzled, those who are bewildered and don’t seem to want to talk about it, and those who are dismayed by our decision. We encounter daily the misconceptions about the Catholic Church that we, too, formerly believed. We have also been saddened by the cynical or blasé attitudes of some “cradle Catholics” we have met who don’t seem to have much appreciation for the rich spiritual traditions and truths of their heritage. But we happily soldier on.

As a family, our faith has deepened as we have come to recognize a pattern in how God works: bringing life out of death. It’s a transformative pattern, and it almost always involves suffering. But if we trust God in all things, especially our challenges in life, then he can use them to bring about transformation, helping us become more and more like Jesus. We are called to participate with Christ in his glorious Resurrection but also in his suffering. By uniting our suffering with his, we somehow join in his merciful work of loving the world.

It’s a mystery. But we see it come to life when we apply the lessons we’ve learned from our own suffering to comfort and encourage others who are hurting. Our family has learned that we are never powerless in the experience of suffering; we can always love, as challenging as that can sometimes be. How enlightening to discover that we are not simply recipients of God’s grace, we are also invited to play a role in the giving of that grace. When we live and move in that grace, competition breaks down and real community can begin.

It’s all about learning to find and love what Merton and many other religious writers through the centuries call the “true self” —simply a child of God, buried underneath our common insecurities and individual egos. It’s also about finding that true self in others, looking beyond how they may look or act or measure up by the world’s standards. In that quest, the kingdom of God bursts forth into our reality, unsettling and transforming everything by its beauty. Which is a lesson my son teaches me every day.

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