Tag Archives: mental health

Making Sense of Suffering

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

Why do we suffer?

I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.

If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?

I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints.  They told me that suffering — the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional — can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.

But suffering didn’t do that for me — it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.

This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.

Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?

My dislike — no, loathing — of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.

I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache — an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.

Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.

At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.

Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.

And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.

When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.

It became so much easier to carry that cross.

Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.

Not more fun — as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good — something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation — helped make me less bitter and more at peace.

I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?

But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption — even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.

Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.

Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into Yours so that I may spend eternity with You.

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Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

Superheroes: Overcoming trauma, and Self-sacrifice

All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once. Am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else… only you won’t admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there’s some point to all the struggling! God, you make me want to puke. I mean, what is it with you? What made you what you are?
JokerBatman: The Killing Joke

Most comic book characters, whether hero or villain, have tragic backstories. Some have had their loved ones murdered, like Batman, Spider-Man and the Joker. Others have been in a horrible chemical accident or attacked by a creature which transmitted powers to them while disfiguring and ostracizing them from the human community, like the Anchoress or the Confessor. Still others were born with certain powers that enhance their abilities while marking them as freaks, like the X-Men mutants.

These characters may seem removed from our world, fantastic figments of imagination with impossible stories. But if we look closer, we can recognize ourselves in them.

An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and up to 20 percent of these people go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. An estimated 5 percent of Americans—more than 13 million people—have PTSD at any given time.
— Sidran Institute, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Fact Sheet

The experience of trauma tends to make one feel vulnerable, wounded and afraid. It diminishes one’s trust and colors one’s self-image, worldview and interpretation of others’ actions. Most of all, it makes one feel helpless, shorn of one’s agency and self-determination.

It takes time to heal from trauma, and the repercussions can extend beyond your lifetime, as wounds are passed on to the next generation. However, genocide survivors like Immaculée Ilibagiza and Eva Mozes Kor, as well as atomic bomb survivor Takashi Nagai, have been able to break the chains of hatred and hurt by extending forgiveness to those who decimated their families and nearly killed them.

Some superheroes, like Batman, carry survivor guilt with them all their lives, imprisoned by their anger while channeling it into crime-fighting, doing their best to save others from similar trauma. Their own suffering compels them to serve others, even at great personal cost.

Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben’s famous line is: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spider-Man’s constant crime-fighting takes him away from his girlfriend, and even endangers her when he makes enemies. He tries to keep his alter-ego secret from her for her safety, and he sacrifices his personal happiness for the good of others.

Sometimes, it is very tempting to stay in a safe bubble and detach from the world, which seems so full of miseries. However, as Christians we are challenged to be God’s hands and feet, bringing His Good News to the broken and wounded. Christ Himself is the paramount example of self-sacrifice, descending from Heaven and taking upon Himself the sins of the world so as to save mankind from eternal damnation.

Trauma tends to turn us inward, keeping us fixated on nursing our wounds, and triggering us to act in selfish ways that hurt others, like the many villains of comic books. Moving forward from trauma involves re-engaging with others in a healthy and compassionate way, acting for their good as well as ours. Although it can be difficult to regain self-control and self-dignity after a traumatic experience, we can do all things in Christ, Who strengthens us. Let us choose the good always, especially when it is most trying. At the same time, as a wise friend once told me when I was completely drained from listening to depressed classmates: “We should be giving them Christ’s Blood, not our blood.” We are not God, merely His instruments of love and mercy; let us lean on Him for the supernatural strength needed to heal the wounds of our broken world.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
— Isaiah 52:7

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Image: PD/US

The Joy and Dignity of Work

No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him.
– James Russell Lowell, poet

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.
– J.K. Rowling, Harvard commencement address

Work is often seen as a miserable burden. It can be stressful, soul-destroying and, at worst, suicide-inducing. When I was admitted to court as a solicitor, the presiding judge spent half her welcome speech advising us not to become so consumed by work as to neglect simple things like walking the dog, breaks from work which can preserve mental health. However, the sad thing is that in the modern workplace, humans are often treated as machines and pressured to keep producing more and more. The thing is, machines too need breaks before they break down. Even God took a rest after His splendid work of creation! In Israel, the ultra-orthodox Jews are careful not to do even a smidgen of work on the Sabbath Day, for fear of placing themselves above God. They hire Gentiles to work the elevator buttons.

Work is in fact a gift from God, a loving invitation to participate in His ongoing work of creation and salvation. The word “salvation” comes from the Latin salus, meaning “health”. When work is performed well, it contributes to the health of the individual and of society. It gives us purpose and joy when we are able to create useful and beautiful things, establish order in the world around us, serve others, and provide for those who depend on us. As a child gains confidence and matures when entrusted with responsibility for housework, so do we mature as persons when granted opportunities for productive work, growing in likeness to God our Father and building His kingdom.

Yet, in today’s post-industrial society, work is rife with pitfalls. Some jobs are stressful because they now demand so much multi-tasking as to obscure the original point of the job – one thinks of teaching, where in some places teachers are now expected to perform as social workers and substitute parents, while taking on more administrative tasks as well. Others are disheartening because they involve a single repetitive, mundane task, as in factory work. A friend of mine who works in a carrot factory during summer breaks shared how he yearns for meaningful work which employs his intellectual gifts, not deadening tasks which make him feel like a mere cog in a machine.

Some people shy away from work, while others idolize work and its proceeds, seeing work or the acquisition of money as their sole purpose in life. As Australia has a welfare system, some people subsist on the dole, turning down jobs – this is borne out by a factory-owner I know, who often has people asking him for work, only to make excuses and disappear after a day or two, having fulfilled their quota of job applications. My boyfriend just started work picking strawberries at a farm, which wants to employ Australians, but is manned mainly by Asian workers because the Australians tend to vanish after a few weeks. At the other extreme, my carrot-picking friend related how a Taiwanese worker griped about having Sundays off, because he wanted to make more money to spend on gambling. Both extremes demonstrate a lack of virtue, succumbing to either sloth or greed. Virtue is found in a healthy appreciation of honest work, while not mistaking it as one’s entire reason for existence.

Work is an essential part of human life, building character, bringing us into connection with others, and keeping our societies functioning. At a disability support training workshop which I attended yesterday, the presenter noted that we usually identify people with their occupations, because their work shapes who they are. As a mother of a disabled son, she knew how important work is for the human being, and helped her non-verbal son start a fruit and veg distribution business. Now when he goes out for walks, his customers greet him, and he feels a sense of pride in his work, besides having gained a certain status in society.

When one has worked well and is then able to disengage from work, one is better able to appreciate periods of rest and leisure. I have found that while searching for full-time employment, it is difficult for me to simply relax and enjoy a good book, because of the worry that comes with having something important undone. However, whether one is employed or not, all circumstances are opportunities to trust in God, offering Him the uncertainty of this transient life, at peace in knowing that whatever state one is in, one finds true rest and purpose in Him Who is Love, the source and end of our being.

Our stories are all stories of searching. We search for a good self to be and for good work to do. We search to become human in a world that tempts us always to be less than human or looks to us to be more. We search to love and to be loved. And in a world where it is often hard to believe in much of anything, we search to believe in something holy and beautiful and life-transcending that will give meaning and purpose to the lives we live.
– Frederick Buechner

We must not drift away from the humble works, because these are the works nobody will do. It is never too small. We are so small we look at things in a small way. But God, being Almighty, sees everything great. Therefore, even if you write a letter for a blind man or you just go sit and listen, or you take the mail for him, or you visit somebody or bring a flower to somebody—small things—or wash clothes for somebody, or clean the house. Very humble work, that is where you and I must be. For there are many people who can do big things. But there are very few people who will do the small things.
– Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Love: A Fruit Always in Season

Let those who think their work has no value recognise that by fulfilling their insignificant tasks out of love for God, those tasks assume supernatural worth. The aged who bear the taunts of the young, the sick crucified to their beds, the street cleaner and the garbage collector, the chorus girl who never had a line, the unemployed carpenter – all these will be enthroned above dictators, presidents, kings, and Cardinals if a greater love of God inspires their humbler tasks than inspires those who play nobler roles with less love.
– Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen

All work is holy. Through it we walk the royal road of Christ.
– Servant of God Catherine Doherty, “The Holiness of Work

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

resolutions
Become STRONGER

New year, new you!—a motto that makes me want to vomit. What’s so great about a new me if I couldn’t even love the old me? And thinking that I’d have to create a new me every year just makes my anxiety flare. Lose that weight, make that money, achieve that goal, by all means! But all of these things should be done because we love ourselves (and God and those around us), not because we loathe looking in the mirror or think we are failures for not having a ton of disposable income. When we can set goals or resolutions that draw us out of our weaknesses and into lives lived more fully, for ourselves and others, then we have set good, solid resolutions. So, instead of a traditional resolution, this year I have decided on a theme: be stronger. I want to be stronger physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. (NOTE: Change is essential and necessary and we will all become new creations, but not in the way that New Years resolutions tend to lead us to believe. The great Simcha Fisher wrote a really poignant article on this metamorphosis we shall all go through.)

To be stronger physically—This doesn’t only mean losing weight, but, I think more importantly, it means building my stamina again, helping my lungs grow strong to deal with my asthma, toning my arms, legs, and abs, and eating foods that I enjoy and that will also nourish my body. I’m achieving this by learning more about proper nutrition for myself and taking at least one class a day at my local YMCA (I’m taking a mix of classes to keep things interesting, including Zumba, Insanity, Body Combat, and an abs class). This will make me strong enough to keep up with my kids, hopefully not be in pain most of the time, and to start treating my body like the temple it is. The body is an important aspect of our beings and taking care of it helps to give us the discipline necessary in other aspects of our lives. Here is more about the importance of the body.

To be stronger mentally—For me, this will consist mostly of reading more books, and on more varied topics. I am determined to finally finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy this year and also, hopefully, The Silmarillion! There are also some various books on American history on my list. I’ve also subscribed to Lumosity to have a few simple games a day to stretch and train my brain in other ways. This is important because the mind, the intellect, is a gift to guide us in the right direction to God, to rule over our passions, and to order those passions correctly. A strong intellect will not only order the passions but also help to keep the will in check, especially in situations where the will might become weakened.

To be stronger emotionally—I keep it no secret that I struggle with depression and anxiety (which also cross over into the mental category), but getting help for these conditions is not the only way I want to grow stronger emotionally. Learning to rule my emotions instead of allowing them to rule me—especially anger/frustration and especially with my children—is actually at the top of my list. Those little moments throughout the day when I think ill of someone else, when I practice disgust instead of understanding, when I cannot or will not remain calm and at peace. These smaller, everyday moments are the most telling sign of someone’s emotional state, and I want mine to be in much better shape. I’m tired of feeling out of control and all over the place. This will be an exercise of the will, learning to not let myself be ruled by emotions and to stand firm in truth and righteousness even when my emotions are raging.

To be stronger spiritually—This is the most important one, the one that will ground and make possible all the others. So first things first, get my prayer life in order. Some of the changes I’m making are simple, like kneeling beside my bed for prayers in the evening. Others are old habits being resurrected, like praying Liturgy of the Hours. Next, I’m making Confession a much bigger priority than it used to be for me and going to receive the sacrament at least once a month. Getting a spiritual director is also in order. Here are a bunch of other Catholic, spiritual resolutions to get your noodle going with ideas. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). If I trust in Him, if I turn over all my weak areas (the physical ones, too!), and make myself a complete offering to Him, He will give me His own strength and not just help me achieve strength but to be strength for others- I will be a vehicle of love and Truth to all that I encounter in every aspect of my life because He will radiate through me. This is the real purpose of becoming strong spiritually- knowing and loving God and then being His light to others.

Maybe your theme for this year is different; maybe it’s something like “die to self more” and that makes the actions of these same categories look different than how they look for me. That’s good! Becoming stronger in these ways will not only make me a better person, it will also give me the tools I need to achieve some long-sought goals and will also make me depend more on God, the ultimate source of strength. What is your theme for the year? What is God calling you to focus on? How will you set about to achieve that?

St. John Paul II on Depression

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Since this website features the Catholic perspective on young adult concerns, and since depression is a growing mental health concern among young adults, I decided to write about the address of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II to participants in the 18th International Congress promoted by the Pontifical Council For Health Pastoral Care On The Theme Of “Depression”, which was delivered on November 14, 2003.

In his address, St. John Paul II expressed his concern about the growing spread of depression, and stressed that it reveals “human, psychological and spiritual frailties which, at least in part, are induced by society”. He highlights “the effect on people of messages conveyed by the media which exalt consumerism, the immediate satisfaction of desires and the race for ever greater material well-being”. He stresses the need to “propose new ways so that each person may build his or her own personality by cultivating spiritual life, the foundation of a mature existence” and for “policies for youth aimed at offering the young generations motives for hope to protect them from emptiness or from dangerous fillers.”

Any perceptive observer of modern society will find it hard to disagree with these thoughts. At the same time, however, the question arises of whether being spiritual-minded and knowing the meaning of life is enough to prevent depression. St. John Paul II himself recognized that depression has “different complex aspects” and does not dismiss the role of therapy in curing this modern malady.

For me, regardless of what the real cause or causes of the modern depression epidemic are, one of the most important parts of the address is where St. John Paul II exhorted everyone – and not just therapists – to reach out to those suffering from depression. He said:

“The role of those who care for depressed persons and who do not have a specifically therapeutic task consists above all in helping them to rediscover their self-esteem, confidence in their own abilities, interest in the future, the desire to live. It is therefore important to stretch out a hand to the sick, to make them perceive the tenderness of God, to integrate them into a community of faith and life in which they can feel accepted, understood, supported, respected; in a word, in which they can love and be loved. For them as for everyone else, contemplating Christ means letting oneself be “looked at” by him, an experience that opens one to hope and convinces one to choose life”.

Indeed, reaching out to the depressed is a corporal work of mercy (“to visit the sick”) as well as a spiritual one (“to console the sorrowful”) in demand. A depressed person is a brother or sister in Christ, one of the least of Christ’s brethren in whom we serve Christ Himself. Reaching out to the depressed may difficult as they may seem to refuse help and we may be clueless on how to approach them (fortunately, there are articles and other resources such as this one). But in the end, they appreciate that we accompany them in their sufferings, although we may not be able to solve their problems.

St. John Paul II also gave practical advice to help depressed persons in the spiritual life. He said:

“In the spiritual process, reading and meditation on the Psalms, in which the sacred author expresses his joys and anxieties in prayer, can be of great help. The recitation of the Rosary makes it possible to find in Mary a loving Mother who teaches us how to live in Christ.
Participation in the Eucharist is a source of inner peace, because of the effectiveness of the Word and of the Bread of Life, and because of the integration into the ecclesial community that it achieves. Aware of the effort it costs a depressed person to do something which to others appears simple and spontaneous, one must endeavour to help him with patience and sensitivity, remembering the observation of St Theresa of the Child Jesus: “Little ones take little steps”.”

The last point he suggested is very important. Those who’ve experienced the illness tell me that for a depressed person, the littlest spiritual struggles can be overwhelming: waking up early to go to mass, concentrating in prayer, being patient with a well-meaning friend who wants to help but does not know how. The teaching on spiritual childhood has been, for them, a very encouraging reminder that God appreciates the littlest efforts made out of love for Him, and readily forgives us and lifts us up from our falls.

Finally, St. John Paul II has very consoling words for those suffering from depression:

“In his infinite love, God is always close to those who are suffering. Depressive illness can be a way to discover other aspects of oneself and new forms of encounter with God. Christ listens to the cry of those whose boat is rocked by the storm (cf. Mk 4: 35-41). He is present beside them to help them in the crossing and guide them to the harbour of rediscovered peace. “