Today is the final day of the Grit and Virtue’s Identity Challenge and also the Tuesday in Mental Health Awareness Week, so it seems like a fitting time to look at the intersection between mental health and the way we look at ourselves. For some people, the relationship goes from the way they look at themselves to developing mental health issues, but for others, their identity becomes skewed by our mental health problems. In many people, the two happen simultaneously. We are complex people.
The past few weeks have been an opportunity for me to dig deeper into what has happened since the last time I went to a therapy session, and whether I should be going back to it. I have experienced a period of burnout, with many episodes of depressive feelings, anxiety and worst of all, intrusive thoughts. Some of them were circumstantial, but a lot were not. The obvious Catholic response, at least in some circles, would be to spiritualise the issue and just dive head first into the deep end of a more extensive prayer life, and so that’s what I did. I set myself not to work until 2pm, wake up naturally and take my morning to pray, read and relax before I got thinking about anything. This, however, was not the solution. What it highlighted was, instead, an aspect of how my anxiety reveals itself now I have gone deeper into my faith from the time when I had just about gone back to church in the CofE and I felt that the answer to how unhappy I was in my career was to become a religious minister (a process that eventually convinced me that I actually liked the Catholic view of the priesthood).
This new facet is scrupolosity, which goes hand in hand with the way my intrusive thoughts develop (contrary to the now popularised version of OCD on TV going from excessive cleanliness to sexual thoughts, most religious people seem to suffer with intrusive thoughts of a religious nature). I may have spent more time in prayer, but it was not a fruitful time because it was a coping mechanism to try and control my mind which has famously been unable to quiet down enough for contemplative prayer. The turning point was praying the Divine Mercy novena. While discovering podcasts with the Scriptural Rosary has somewhat improved my relationship with what I find the hardest prayer to pray, the simplicity of the Divine Mercy chaplet makes it easier for me to meditate, especially also because it’s easier to focus on the famous icon of the Divine Mercy and the wounds of Jesus than trying to conjure an image of a scriptural event for the length of 10 Hail Marys at a time. Anyways, it has made switching off my brain possible and somewhat easier than I have anticipated. I still bring spiritual readings to Holy Hour but it’s not all that I do, and I have stopped worrying about mental verbal prayer after communion. I just do what we are told to do: behold the Lamb of God.
Addressing the spiritual side of scrupolisity (including for once confessing to the scrupolosity itself instead of meticulously making a list I would forget the moment I kneel at the confessional) was only part of the steps forward: one was acknowledging that a medical problem requires a medical solution, and so going back to CBT. I have not (or at least not yet) gone to see a new therapist, but I have returned to what I have learnt and stopped doing over time. After all, if I am rewriting my brain patterns to address physical pain, shouldn’t I see the benefit of doing so for my mental health too? I had started with Pacifica, but we have since parted ways. As a relatively high functioning person, using half of the app felt forced: I made up challenges that just weren’t there, and the way they deal with negative thinking felt to me like it requires you to recognise the thought pattern in the first place, and then go on the app to do it, and the way it evaluates the day had me put a long streak of OK days. In the way that sometimes my input on Shine is that I’m not grateful for anything in particular, most of my days seem plagued by a degree of apathy. On rare occasions I would have something recognisably positive or negative (the latter more frequently than the former), but one big part of it was the feeling of being trapped in the Medium Place. I am currently looking at alternative apps, in particular Worry Watch which was created with anxiety and OCD in mind.
I don’t have much to offer to anyone looking for a solution, but people always talk about the need to combat stigma and how people should speak up, but few ever do and most of the voices remain people telling others they should do it (it’s a new form of virtue signalling, people are open to the discussion and let other people know that, but rarely many will be having that discussion) so this post really is more about opening up. The Lord came to redeem our brokennes, not to keep us hiding in shame.
This relates to identity for me in two ways: one, the challenge it poses to seeing ourselves as worthy and enough, especially when we are used to messages reinforcing our sense that we are not; the latter, more insidious, is how not to turn this brokenness we recognise in ourselves into a personal problem that makes us beyond help and salvation. It can become so familiar we hold on to it instead of embracing the unknown that comes from the freedom found in healing. So, in the spirit of the challenge, I declare that I am enough, a truth that remains true even when I don’t feel like it.
There are resources for Catholics with mental health issues or interested in supporting others at the Catholic Mental Health Project.
The Hobo for Christ podcast by the wonderful Meg Hunter-Kilmer has an episode on mental health that is really good.
This article on The Catholic Company talks about 5 saints to turn to when suffering with mental health problems (including St Dymphna whose feast day is tomorrow -15th of May- and features in my list of Saints of the Month for May). Many more not on this list have suffered with troubles of their own.
Lastly, this article explores beautifully the pastoral dimension of mental health in the Catholic Church, and links to a few other resources.