A PTSD Catholic

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In 2004 I was diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD. It took three years for my 9-11 relief work to catch up with me. While most 20 years olds were partying in college or worried about exams, I was consoling 400 people whose loved ones had been murdered in the Pentagon. I had only been in the Navy two years and ended up being a part of one of the most historic and horrific events of my generation.

I was raised in a nominal Catholic home. We went to Mass often, but that was the extent of our involvement in the Church. I had fallen out of going to regular Mass on Sundays by the time I volunteered to help after the attack on the Pentagon. I still read theological works, but was separated from His Church. I did go to Mass while I was a relief worker and my Mass attendance did improve in its wake, but I was still a cultural Catholic. 9-11 was the catalyst that brought about my PTSD. There were a lot of other factors, but this single event triggered it.  Look at the picture below.  I stood there with 400 grieving families members looking at this sight straight from Hell.

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There are a lot of stereotypes and stigma associated with this mental illness. People like the Veteran who murdered people in Florida recently do not help the situation. The media perpetuates a lot of myths about the disease, while claiming compassion for the thousands of Veterans who live with this condition. The vast majority of us, are the types who work ourselves into the ground and then collapse. We take on more than we can handle, but don’t realize it until it is over. We run into danger with little thought of the long term consequences. We want to help others, but sacrifice ourselves in the process.

My PTSD manifested while I was living alone and stationed in the United Kingdom. It began when I literally cried for a week straight. My father had had a serious health scare and it was the last straw. I went to my Leading Petty Officer (LPO) and he had me go to the Air Force Base for medical care. I was on a British base so the nearest hospital was a 2 hour drive. The doctor threw different medications at me and that was that. I then started having horrific nightmares, night terrors, and panic attacks. The telltale flash backs began as well. The military continued to throw medicine at the problem while I spiraled further and further into the pit. At this point I was active in the small parish in town and attending Mass each Sunday.

I finally checked myself into the hospital for a month. Thankfully, the one thing the military did do right was get a contract with the top London mental health facility. How, I do not know? Mick Jagger was treated at the hospital I stayed in. Finally, I had doctors who were concerned with treatment that encompassed psychotropic medication and psychotherapy. It was there that I was introduced to EMDR. The single most effective treatment that I have undergone for my PTSD symptoms. The point of EMDR is to help each patient piece together memories of the event. Part of the problem for PTSD sufferers is that we have major memory loss about the event and can only remember it in pieces. Our brains cannot process incomplete memories. EMDR seeks to remedy that situation. I eventually left the hospital and continued treatment until I decided to leave the Navy after my 6 year contract was up. I had active PTSD symptoms for about 5 years.

Nowadays, I am able to function normally with my 9-11 experiences. Things have complicated a bit after having three miscarriages and serious hormone deficiencies. My PTSD symptoms have manifested in the wake of my most recent miscarriage that was traumatic in that it required emergency surgery because I hemorrhaged. I have recognized some avoidance symptoms in myself and it looks like I may need to look for an EMDR specialist in the area. PTSD does make it difficult to handle new traumas.

So, how is this tied to my Catholic Faith? It is a Cross. I have a very hard time resting calmly in the Lord’s arms. I am always pushing forward and running away. I am extremely restless, which impacts my family and my relationship with Our Lord at times. PTSD sufferers tend to drown out their pain through: drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, etc. My tendency these days is food, as I am actively trying to live a life of holiness and avoid super risky behavior. But, it is still an unhealthy, and at times sinful, way to avoid the pain. There is a deep ache that lives inside of me because of what I have seen, what I have lost, and what I have experienced. I will spend time running away from Christ, only to collapse and beg for His mercy. It takes me a while to remember that He loves me and will extend it freely.

PTSD sufferers do not tend to talk about their experiences. Why? First, because a lot of people cannot possibly understand what we have been through. Can you understand combat, a terrorist attack, rape, abuse, etc, if you have never experienced that kind of horror? No. Unfortunately, while we should talk about it, most of us have experienced the dumbest and most unkind words from people. “Suck it up”, is not a proper response. Yes, this is based on ignorance, but it is hurtful. Second, we do not want to burden people with our suffering. We tend to be the caretaker types, we want to help others, but do not want to add to other people’s struggles. Third, media stereotypes make it even harder. I had to think seriously about writing this post, because of how it could be misconstrued.

There are a lot of stereotypes about PTSD. Hollywood tends to make movies where the Special Forces Veteran murders people while having flashbacks. I have worked with Special Forces guys and they are not a bunch of sociopaths. This is so unbelievably rare. In fact, the highest risk for PTSD sufferers is suicide. We tend to suffer in silence, rather than lash out at others. Stop taking information from the media, they are doing more harm than good.

For me, I know deep down that I will remain restless and on the run until I rest in Christ. The problem is, learning how to rest in Christ. I have been in flight mode for so long that I struggle to disengage, even now. I went from PTSD to three miscarriages in a few short years. It was a constant stream of pain and grief. It makes it very hard to “Be still and know that I am God”. I know that is where I belong, but some days it is much easier to drown my sorrows in copious amounts o sugar. Then the self-loathing begins anew and the cycle begins again. Thank God, Our Lord is patient.

 

Mental illness is a clear path to Golgotha. It is a heavy Cross to bare, especially in a society that is either fearful or apathetic about those who suffer from PTSD or depression. With so many mass shootings, people think that all mentally ill people are psychopaths. This could not be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that you may work alongside someone who sufferers from PTSD, depression, or anxiety and not even know it. If you are blessed enough for someone to open up to you about their struggles be sure to show compassion, even if you yourself don’t get it. That person chose YOU to share with in their battles. As Christians, we should be helping one another in love and mercy. All of us are waging a serious battle with sin and suffering. Let’s help one another to learn to rest in God.

Gardening: Playing in God’s Creation

You care for the earth, give it water;
you fill it with riches.
Your river in heaven brims over
to provide its grain.

And thus you provide for the earth;
you drench its furrows;
you level it, soften it with showers;
you bless its growth.

Psalm 65

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This morning I was out in the morning sunshine picking kale with my daughter in our garden. I then blanched it and prepared it for freezing, so that when I need it, I can use it for soups. We are avid gardeners, my husband and I. He loads the manure, tills it into our garden, and prepares the earth each spring for our bounty. We plant from spring to fall. It is a real blessing to be able to walk into our backyard and pick fresh produce. It is also a great joy for me to find new flowers and ideas to turn our yard into a reminder of God’s love.

Working the earth is something that unites my husband and me with God. After all, he gave us the ground and seed that it might produce an abundant harvest. Working out in God’s creation gives a real sense of Christ’s presence in the world. I can hear Him whisper to each plant: grow. I can also see His Glory in each flower that I plant in our various gardens. I recently added a rose garden. Each rose bush I planted represents one of the three babies that I have lost in miscarriage. I could not place their little bodies in the earth and have a funeral Mass, so this is my earthen memorial to each of them. A beautiful rose bush to remind me of how I love and miss each on of them, but also a reminder of God’s love and beauty as each rose opens up to sunlight. A foretaste of Heaven.

My husband and I both work the earth with our bare hands. We dig into the dirt and spread it around underneath our hands. The feel of the earth increases the sense of God’s wonder and magnificance. The cool promise of prepared soil. There is also such a deep sense of childhood in planting flowers and vegetables. Our daughter loves to play in the dirt, and it appears, so do my husband and I. To me it is a reminder of innocence and it brings tremendous peace and joy. Our fearless daughter will search the newly tilled garden for worms. She likes to watch them wriggle and will pick them up and squeal with delight. Being outside and working in our suburban garden truly helps me to hear God. I may not have been consciously focused on Him the whole time, but afterwards I know that He is with me as I play in His creation.

Gardening not only brings me closer to the One who created me, but also, gives my husband, daughter, and me a closer bond. Our daughter has already helped us plant the spring and summer gardens this year. She is already cultivating a love for things that grow. She wants to be a part of our work and the rewards that come. It can be a challenge for a three year old to be patient enough to wait for each seed to go in the ground. We may get some peas in our potatoes this year. She has already experienced our harvests of kale and bok choy. Somewhere she remembers the sweetness of summer ripe tomatoes growing on the vine. Since she could walk, she has gone out to the garden each summer and feasted on deep red tomatoes while standing, juice driving down her face and arms, while her feet feel cool dirt.

Not everyone enjoys gardening, as a few of my friends have joked in horror at my love of dirt. But, for us, it deepens our Catholic Faith to be working in God’s earth. To help in His creation. To pray for our crops and rain through the intercession of St. Isidore the Farmer and St. Francis of Assisi. It is a reminder that all comes from Him. We got that reminder when we lost every single one of our 48 broccoli plants this spring because of a very cold April. He gives and takes away, always showing us the path to holiness. We don’t always understand the work he is doing in us, but we continue moving on. We plant again in faith. I pray that this summer Our Lord may grant you abundant harvests and beautiful flowers to marvel at each day.

 

 

Memorial Day

As we approach Memorial Day, remember to pray for the dead who have served our country, both those who were KIA and those who died at home. Remember to pray for the families who go on living without their loved ones. And because it is a great sacrifice, pray for those who have the invisible wounds of PTSD. If you have never seen this music video, I recommend getting a kleenex or two before you hit play.

Praying With a Toddler

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Catholics hear quite regularly how central our prayer life is in our daily living. It is what centers our lives and it is what helps us to focus and have a relationship with Jesus Christ. How to foster that prayer life, is the difficulty. Add to the mix motherhood and marriage, and things get really interesting. I have a two year old and that brings all kinds of challenges, and blessings, to my prayer life.

A year and a half ago I got the very unexpected call to become a Lay Dominican. What does that mean exactly? It means that while I am a wife and mother, I have been called to be part of a religious order. I live as a layman, but I also live as a Dominican in my “Domestic Church”. Being a Dominican comes with set prayer requirements. They are daily recitation of Lauds and Vespers, daily Rosary, daily Mass as much as possible (not much of a possibility at present), 15 minutes of study in Scripture or Church documents daily. Thankfully, it is not under penalty of sin, so when I mess up, I am not facing mortal sin. This is a curse and a blessing.

Some of you may be thinking that I am crazy to take on such a hefty requirement while raising a two year old. I feel that way some days, but Christ called me and I have to follow Him. My call, quite frankly, was rather dramatic and like the Heavens opened up. It is the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to me besides when I knew that I would marry my husband. The biggest struggle is working all of this prayer into my daily routine. Lauds is one of the biggest challenges, mainly because of my struggle with sloth. I don’t tend to get up earlier than everyone else, so that means that I am trying to fit it in mid-morning while my toddler is begging me to play with her non-stop. Every day I tell myself to get up at 5 am so that I can have some quiet time in prayer and every morning I hit snooze until the sun is well into the sky and it is 645 am and my daughter is up for the day. Yes, I am ashamed to say, my husband makes his breakfast most mornings while I try to make up for any sleep I lost because our toddler climbed into our bed in the middle of the night.

So how do I make my prayer life work around the craziness of my primary vocation? First, I have not mastered it, but I keep trying daily. Holiness is a lifetime endeavor. None of us become saints overnight. There are times I pray Lauds while my daughter plays at the park, or I wait until her naptime. I have to pray my Rosary in the car some days in order to fit it in. Vespers is done as I prepare dinner. There are days I lay down to go to sleep and realize that I forgot my 15 minutes of time in Scripture.

I do try to include my daughter in my prayer time when possible. My husband and I will pray the Rosary together a couple times a week. We fail at this sometimes, but are working on doing it together. Our daughter has little to know attention span, so she can make it through one or two Hail Marys before she is off and running. These are blessed moments and at least she will see me pray albeit poorly, each day.

Some days are filled with consolation and others are dry. That is the nature of the spiritual journey. I have noticed that many of theses dry days come when I have fallen into sinful patters, so off I go to Confession. Regular Confession is an integral part of the spiritual life. It helps us to see what sins are deeply imbedded in us and gives us the grace to overcome them. As a Dominican, monthly Confession is required, but even that is not enough for me most months. I NEED Confession like the air I breathe. And more than anything, I need the Holy Eucharist.

There are great challenges to putting Christ first. There are so many other things that need our attention, but the most important is our relationship with Our Lord. Pray in the shower, in the car, while playing with your kids, while doing the dishes. Just find time to commune with God in the middle of the craziness. Pray a Rosary in the car. Or like I need to, get up a bit earlier. No matter how insane our lives may get, we must center ourselves on Jesus. Oh look at the time, I need to pray Lauds…….

Just Say “No” to Busy

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I have not written much on this website lately.  I was taking a break to focus on my family and faith journey.  I had gotten myself into a rut where I was doing too much and accomplishing very little.  I was leading or helping out in five ministries while trying to balance being a wife, mother, and Lay Dominican.  Needless to say, it was not working out very well.  So, I took a step back and gave up two ministries in my parish for at least a year and I also am taking a break from writing for CatholicMom.com.

There is a major tendency in our culture to think of any woman who is staying home i.e. not working outside of the home and who is focused on her family, is lazy and worthless.  Only a woman who has a career or is involved in fifteen volunteer activities is worthy anything.  This is because our culture glorifies busyness, rather than authentic, quality service.  The most important job that we moms have, is just that:  being a mom and a wife.  Our families are relying on us to keep things together and then stumble along leading our family towards Heaven.  I got caught up in this thinking when I left the workforce four years ago and became pregnant with my daughter.

I always imagined myself teaching at a university after completing a PhD program.  God had other things in mind.  After I was accepted into a Master’s program in theology, I found out that I was pregnant with my daughter.  It became clear very quickly, that my schooling would have to be put on hold.  I am glad that I made that decision, because I had some health issues throughout that time period that would have made it difficult to focus on a newborn and theological studies.  I did struggle for a while, though.  I had sacrificed my dream of an education and everything our culture has to say to me would point to my being a failure.  

The fact is that society’s thoughts on my life do not matter.  What God has called me to is what matters.  For reasons that I do not entirely understand, God has called me out of professional life for now and into our home.  Being home with my daughter is a tremendous blessing and I would not change a thing.  It is a struggle for me some days because I am an intellectual woman.  Singing Old McDonald does not challenge me intellectually, but it is precisely where God has asked me to serve right now.  And that is the point of this life: service in love.  I am choosing the greater good for my family. Love comes with great sacrifice.  It means opening wide and giving everything we have, even though we do not want to do it.  It means that people may judge our actions as futile or wrong.  I always point to the fact that I will be held accountable for how I raise my daughter.  I will stand before Our Lord and give an account for my choices and whether or not I listened to Him.  I could not care less about the account some neo-feminists think that I owe them.  I am tired of feeling guilty for doing the right thing.

This means that I will no longer try to fill my calendar full to the brim.  It means that I will say “no” at times because it is what is best.  Yes, playing with my daughter is more important work than me leading every ministry possible because no one else will do it.  If I abandon her, then I will fail at the vocation Christ has called me to.  By the way, spending time in prayer is also more important than most of our activities.  Are there areas of your life where you just need to cut back?  Have you told yourself that saying “no” is okay?  Do you glorify busy?  Do activities take away from your family or your prayer life?