Suicide, Depression, and the Need for Christ in the Culture

Depression and suicide are in the news again this week as two high profile people took their own lives: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Being a woman who loathes purses and prefers cargo pants and capris for carrying things, I don’t know much about Kate Spade. I have watched multiple shows of Anthony Bourdain’s and found them quite interesting, although I must confess, he never struck me as a particularly happy person underneath it all.

If you want to know more about people, pay attention to their eyes. I try to make very direct eye contact with people for four reasons. First, it makes me a better listener and forces me to listen more closely to what someone is saying to me. Second, it lets the person know that they have my full attention. Third, I learn a lot about people from their eyes. I can read moods more clearly and see when underneath it all, someone is struggling or when they are happy or content. I have also discovered the holiest people I know through their eyes. There is a distinct quality to them and we have to pay attention since these people also tend to be the most unassuming and quiet. Fourthly, it helps me to connect at a deeper level with people, especially my friends. Give it a try. You may be able to help someone who is going through a difficult time because you see past their words to the actual person, including someone fighting clinical depression.

Mental illness is a topic that is hard for me to articulate and it’s not something that I see easy solutions to. It is extremely complex and comes from physiological, emotional, genetic, environmental, behavioral, and spiritual dimensions. There is no one-size fits all solution.

I’ve had two very serious bouts with clinical depression. One in 2004 when I was diagnosed with PTSD from being a 9/11 relief worker, which also came with clinical depression. And 3.5 years of debilitating postpartum depression and anxiety after I had Michaela and which every miscarriage I had made worse.

Mine is not chronic. It is tied to hormones and situations. I’ve been out of it for a while now and while I have a melancholic, introvert nature and the long darkness of December drives me crazy, I no longer have clinical depression. I have friends and family who do, however.

I firmly believe the answer ultimately rests in Christ. Not as a cure, but as the Source of hope, faith, strength, and perseverance. I wouldn’t have made it through my dark nights without Him and the help of His Mother. Being a Catholic allows us to transform our suffering through the Cross. It is redemptive and that means everything when you are in a very dark abyss, and that’s exactly what clinical depression is in that moment, in my experience. The abyss robs people of hope and without Christ it is very difficult to even find hope in the darkness. We need to bring the light to those trapped in the abyss of mental illness and others in despair.

And as unpopular as it might seem, I don’t think all suicide is the result of clinical depression. There are people who kill themselves out of spite, broken-hearts, fear, financial distress, and the list goes on and on. Clinical depression is a whitewash we put on an extremely complex issue. It helps to assuage our guilt, and just like all of the other ills in our culture, it keeps us from any real and lasting introspection. There are absolutely a lot of people who commit suicide from mental illness, but not all.

No matter the needs of an individual in their treatment plan, we have an obligation to be sharing the Good News in a world of despair. Why aren’t we evangelizing more? We have the answer to the longing of every human heart: Christ Jesus. He may not cure those who are mentally ill, but He will certainly shoulder the burden and bring each person to the unending joy of everlasting life. That’s Who and what we are made for and we can only find true and lasting happiness in communion with the Most Holy Trinity.

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Our Lord’s love burns at an unimaginable intensity for each one of us. He is gently calling all people to Himself. As His disciples, we must go out and share this great burning love with the people in our lives. Only Christ can transform our culture and shed light into the dark places within each one of us. Only He can shoulder our burdens and lighten our load and only He can show us the great power of the Cross in our own lives. Everyone needs Christ. May God have mercy on all those who take their own life.

Catholic Exchange: Seeing Our Neighbor and the Long Loneliness of December

Every year a discussion about the startling rise in suicide rates during the holidays makes national news. More often than not, the cause is relegated to mental illness, stress, or family situations. While all of these may be true, they betray a purely materialist view of the human person. Mental illness in itself is a tremendous Cross for those who carry it. All illness has a bodily and a spiritual dimension. That’s why Christ gave the Church the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. There is a very real need for physical treatments, but we live in an age that focuses on the body and ignores the spirit. Far too often we ignore the needs of our neighbors. Whether it is the deepening darkness leading to the winter solstice or a heightened awareness of one’s loneliness due to the holidays, people who struggle with mental illness, family problems, stress, or a whole plethora of other issues find themselves undone this time of year. What are we doing to help them?

Do we truly see our neighbor?

I find that one of my greatest shortcomings in social gathers is that I cannot remember people’s names. This is a shortcoming, because it means that I do not stay present and truly focus on each person I meet at an event. In fact, it may take me many meetings to remember the name of a person. I am so self-absorbed that I cannot focus for a couple of minutes to remember a person’s name. It also means that I am not listening to everything else they are telling me. I am not seeing my neighbor. I do not see Christ in them either. It’s impossible to see either if I am not fully present in charity.

Everyone suffers at some point in their lives. For some people suffering is chronic and is a lived affliction. My own father has suffered with chronic illness ever since he had rheumatic fever at 7 years of age. He has lived with intense pain for 53 years. The level of his suffering over the years has only been revealed to me as an adult, since he tried to keep it from my sisters and me as children. While he would not want attention to be drawn to him, I have to wonder if people have cared to notice this Cross in their brother in Christ? Would I have noticed if he were not my own father? Chronic illness is inherently lonely, but often we fail to notice its effects in the person sitting or standing beside us. The Mystical Body is called to walk into the joys and sufferings of their neighbor. Pope Saint John Paul II in Novo Millenio Inuente explains:

A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are a part of me”. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship.

If we are truly committed to walking as disciples of Christ, then we will step into the Crosses of our neighbor, rather than flee. This requires great courage, charity, and the forming of habitual action.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

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.

Second Sunday of Advent Reflection: Lonely vs Lowly

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Last night I went to the Saturday Vigil Mass for the Second Sunday of Advent. A part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist really struck me. I actually misheard our priest who has a Nigerian accent and that mishearing really hit me. During the anaphora, or Eucharistic Prayer, there is a portion in the preface that says, “For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh…” I actually heard it as “he assumed the loneliness of human flesh”. This mistake got me thinking.

All human beings experience loneliness. It can be loneliness because we are physically alone and have no one to turn to, it can be psychological because of mental illness or other struggles, or it can be a sense of abandonment during a difficult time. This abandonment creates a loneliness and a feeling of isolation from God. So I heard the priest wrong, but perhaps I didn’t. Perhaps I needed to think about the Incarnation in a new way.

Christ came and assumed our weak, human form, including our loneliness. He was completely alone and uttered his abandonment from the Cross. While he was God, he also felt our desolation. He knows what it is to be alone, and perhaps in my own struggles, I have forgotten that Christ truly understands my sufferings.

This is a difficult time of year for a lot of people. I think that we forget that fact in the busyness of the season. Many people struggle with depression, myself included, or are lonely this time of year, many are mourning the loss of loved ones. It is the darkest part of the year. It reminds us that we are truly alone in the final analysis. We have to make the final journey alone. Christ, while He was God, went to the Cross alone to show us the way.

It is important that we reach out to our brothers and sisters this time of year and all year long. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta warned us that there is a great loneliness and feeling of being unloved in the West. We must encourage and lift up those around us who struggle and who are alone. We are the Mystical Body of Christ, we are a community, we are an organism. When one part suffers the whole body suffers.

Do you pray for the lonely, depressed, mourning,, or struggling? Do you reach out to the people in your community who are mentally ill? Do you suffer from depression yourself? Consider Christ on the Cross. He knows your loneliness and pain. Meditate on how Christ took on our lowliness, but he too understands our loneliness.

There is something of this loneliness as we wait for Our Lord to come both at Christmas and in the Second Coming. We long for Him. ‘Our souls pine for him like a deer longs for streams of water’, to paraphrase the Psalmist. Advent reminds us that we are not home. We are not reunited with the one who created us. We must always keep in mind that we wait in “joyful hope” even in our struggles. So as we wait for brighter days and lighter burdens, remember that all things pass away, and Our Lord has come to save us. I pray Our Lord blesses you during this Advent season. St. Dymphna, pray for us.

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