Choosing Life in the Face of Mental Illness
Letter from Sarah Maurer
My dear sister,
He was only hours old. I’d waited 9 months to hold him - and longer than that considering the years of their marriage. He was finally here and he was related to me. As I held my nephew in my arms for the very first time, I quietly whispered “Thank you” to this sleeping newborn. Then I made a choice for myself that I’d already made a countless number of times over the last 5 months: I chose life.
My diagnosis was major depression and a severe anxiety disorder. It began as early as age 12 after several loved ones died, including my dearest childhood friend. She and I were the same age. My grief was enormous; on the one hand I didn’t want to think of her but on the other hand, I was so afraid of forgetting her. I’d obsess over memories of our friendship. I found joy in songwriting, music in general, babysitting, and writing. I continued attending daily Mass because that’s where I felt closest to my friend. Though I couldn’t see her physical body, I could accept that our friendship had gone through a transition and now I could meet her at Mass. I wasn’t mad at God; I begged Him for the grace to be able to understand her early death, but no answer came. My grief began to make itself manifest in the form of anxiety and I began isolating myself, becoming very shy, fearful, and timid - completely opposite of the lively, outgoing girl I had been before. For the next decade, I lived in ignorance of the anxiety that I experienced every day.
Despite regularly attending my Church’s youth group, I rarely attended the outside events and I struggled to accept myself as one of my peers. Once in college, I continued to feel like an outsider. I studied Early Childhood Education and, upon graduation, accepted a job at a school that I thought was a dream come true. For the first time, I thought I was going to fit in! The work was hard but I loved teaching. The expectations placed on me were crippling but I survived the first year and enjoyed the second year. I signed a contract for the third year but then sat in my apartment, alone and lonely, hugging my knees to my chest and whispering, “Please, Lord. Do something! I don’t want to keep living like this”. In hindsight, I realize that all the signs were there but I was ignorant of them - so I’ve learned that I can’t blame myself. My ignorance of the anxiety had hardened into complete and utter denial of it and that denial eventually led to an enormous mental breakdown.
One night, shortly after Christmas during my third year of teaching, I was visiting my parents when I fainted twice consecutively and was transported to the ER all in a single evening. Of course, fainting twice was a huge shock to my system and, in the coming weeks, I fell into a major depression which unearthed a severe anxiety disorder. My world was again suddenly turned completely upside down. I experienced emotional pain like I never thought was possible and everything seemed entirely impossible. I was steadily losing control of my thoughts and they were startling. I had only pictured myself cutting my wrists but the very next morning I awoke with a terrifying thought: suicide. I felt the emptiness of life, wanted relief from my pain and out from the burden of being alive. There seemed to be no other choice. After Mass that same morning I met with my priest and told him of my ideations. He immediately prayed with and for me which was incredible of him but I clearly needed additional help and support.
A family member told me I should consider therapy. The idea terrified me because I fully believed the stigma against therapy and I couldn’t believe that even my family thought I was “that girl.” I struggled against it until another family member reassured me that the confidentiality therapists are responsible for is similar to that of the seal of confession. That gave me strength and I did schedule my first appointment. But my case became a greater emergency dramatically fast. During another visit to the ER, this time for my mental health, a Psychiatrist strongly recommended Adult Partial Hospitalization Program. I reluctantly consented to admittance and I went to the hospital daily and participated in group therapy (including Art, Music and Movement Therapy) and created my own safety plan and a list of coping skills that I enjoyed utilizing. I enjoyed meeting other people who had similar struggles as me and I also met one-on-one daily with a therapist and a psychiatrist all the while living at home. The overall experience was good, though it did not cure me. I was discharged but had no idea how to continue. I was still suicidal, had every plan in the book and sometimes circumstances would reveal new plans. By the grace of God and the help and support of my family and closest friends, I never attempted anything.
That summer, I began meeting with the seventh therapist that I would work with and, with her, I did Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which is essentially learning how to reframe negative thoughts). Through CBT, I realized the grip the many negative thoughts in my mind had on me. There were all these lies there that I believed were true: I’m ugly, I’m not worth it, I’m not lovable. I can’t possibly live up to their expectations. No one wants me. No one sees me. One more drink won’t hurt. The world would be better off without me. I can’t do this. Never before had I realized how powerful these lies were. Through CBT, I learned to write them each down as I thought of them and identify where they came from. The next step I learned was to reframe those thoughts by identifying them with a core belief - mine were always the fruits of praying with John 10:10: “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” - I am beautiful, strong, brave, lovable and loved. I am confident and capable. I am a gift. God is greater than this anxiety. I am not the anxiety. I am free and joyful. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. I will overcome this.
Slowly, the overgrown and neglected garden of my mind was pruned. It was painful, freeing, and exciting. Deep down I believed and accepted Jesus’ personal call and invitation to me to live an abundant life. I wasn’t sure yet what that meant but I was now willing to find out. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that Jesus didn’t love me less because I had anxiety. I realized the truth that even Jesus had help carrying his cross and I understood that Jesus didn’t just die for me; he rose for me and walked out of his tomb and was calling me to do the same. I was now confident that I could learn how to successfully cope with my anxiety. And I did.
I was 24 and only halfway through my ten months of carrying the excruciatingly painful and heavy cross of major depression, severe anxiety, and suicidal ideations when I finally held my sweet nephew on his birthday. I still felt clueless about successfully coping with anxiety but I was steadily on the road to recovery. I was still depressed and still suicidal but, as I held my nephew, I realized the many successes of choosing life again and again that had brought me to this moment of meeting him. So I whispered a soft “Thank you” to him because deep down I knew I wanted to live for God and I’d been searching for a meaningful way of doing so.
The lies had less power on me now. The greater power of new life had given me a reason to hold on until I met him. And holding him now, I realized that I wanted to get to know him and I again chose life for myself, this time with the determination to embrace God’s abundance as Healer and Lover.
My dear sister, I know how hard it is. I’ve been there and I remember the excruciating physical pain of severe anxiety and deep loneliness. After my mental health stabilized and I established a daily structure of prayer, I began taking steps to overcome my tendencies towards isolation including involvement in a local community theater and participating in a 12 step Christian support group called Celebrate Recovery. I’ve discovered that choosing to live an abundant life isn’t just about waking up every day but embracing the new opportunity of each day - even when they appear to be continuations of yesterday. I continue to carry the cross of anxiety but I’m still living for Heaven and I still believe that God is real. You are not alone.
All my love,
About the Writer: Sarah Maurer
Sarah Maurer is a preschool teacher by trade who also enjoys being a multi-instrumentalist musician. She has played violin for Children and Adult Choirs, and several local praise and worship bands. Most recently, she appeared as fiddler in a community theater production of A Christmas Carol set in St. Louis in the 1930s which featured live bluegrass music. Now recovered from her experience with mental illness, Sarah is beyond grateful for her newfound love and joy for life and the Catholic Church and has dedicated her Instagram (@sarahloutherese) and blog (sarahtheresetypes.blogspot.com) to offering hope through stories, music and art for those still burdened by this heavy cross. When not laughing with her sweet preschoolers or highlighting paragraphs in her Catechism, Sarah is usually practicing her calligraphy, singing her heart out, or tickling her cute nephews.