I fight for life to the same extent which I once fought for
is a statement I often make during recovery trainings and public
presentations. It’s true. I once pursued death because nothing
of significance was expected of me. Expectation is powerful. The
pressures of expectation can bring great anxiety while the
absence of expectation cultivates an environment of
vulnerability because we are each created for some kind of
childhood was painful. My adulthood has also been painful—more
painful than any hallucination I have experienced. When my
mental health began to deteriorate, I approached a woman a
leader at my church. As I described the turbulence of my
thoughts and emotions and calls for help, I was apologetically
told, “AJ, we don’t do that here.” Even today those words
feel like a stake being driven through my heart, because I know
if I had asked for any other kind of assistance, I would have
received a different response.
left that church. Years later, I sought out a new congregation
and confided in another woman in leadership. As I was sharing my
struggles with her, she said to me, “AJ, I think there’s
more going on here than regular life challenges. I think you
should talk with someone about this.” She then referred me to
a local mental health agency. I don’t believe this ministry
leader was any more compassionate than the woman I had confided
in many years ago. The only difference is that she was better
informed and that made her able to recognize and respond to my
mental health needs, as well as my spiritual health needs.
wish I could tell you that everything became much better after I
found a new church and obtained mental health care, but the
truth is that everything became much worse. I began attempting
suicide on an increasingly regular basis. I had numerous
psychiatric hospitalizations and at some point, began physically
abusing my body. I experienced homelessness. But more
debilitating than not having a house was that I had no hope. I
was experiencing a hollow existence as death loomed all around.
were three monumental messages of hope that changed the
trajectory of my life. In Illinois, the Division of Mental
Health (DMH) has a slogan: The expectation is recovery. In other
words, for the first time in my entire life, a message was
clearly communicated that it was
would get better. Another monumental message of hope came from
my Pastor who continuously says “People are sacred creations
of God.” He initially was making reference to having high
regard for others when I somehow realized I needed high regard
for myself. This message is consistent with a third
powerful message from the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP)
facilitator curriculum, which states that I should hold myself
“in unconditional high regard.”
I serve as Executive Director of Sacred
Creations, an Illinois not-for-profit with statewide
membership compromised entirely of individuals living with
mental health conditions. We are presently developing a training
template designed to equip faith communities with cultural
competence regarding the mental health needs of congregants. I
also work as a trainer for NAMI’s In
Our Own Voice program
and love teaching people how to share their personal experiences
in public venues.
people look at my accomplishments and make assumptions. They did
not witness the moments when I literally lost the ability to
speak out loud. They have not seen me leave a room in tears
because the noise was so painful. They were not present when I
was told I would never work again due to a psychiatric
disability, nor can they fathom my risk for
institutionalization. Observing the dilapidated lives of others
while maintaining an expectation of greatness is not easy for
anyone. It takes real courage to see what is unseen after
decades of disappointment, and it takes strength to fully
realize the reality of recovery. For those who saw this within
me, thank you. Today I fight for life because all people are
sacred creations of God.
Most Catholic parents of my mother
and father's generation named their children after saints.
My parents chose the moniker Thomas for me but never told me which
Saint Thomas they had in mind. Early on in grammar school,
the nuns encouraged all of us to choose a saint with the same name
as our own as a "patron saint." By studying our
namesake saint, we would then have a role model to assist us on
our spiritual journey. Interested in finding a Saint to
identify with, I poured over a "Lives of the Saints"
book my mother had given me. It described four saints named
Thomas. I had choices!!
The first Saint I looked at was
Thomas Aquinas. He was very smart, a "Doctor of the
Church." He wrote the Summa Theological, the greatest
theological treatise of his time and for centuries after.
My mother encouraged me to take this saint as my namesake role
model. However, the brilliance of Aquinas seemed beyond what
I could achieve and certainly too much to live up to. How
could I aspire to be someone that bright and well educated?
I crossed Aquinas off the list. Next I found St Thomas More.
I really liked and admired him. He became chancellor of
England and widely known as a man of great integrity.
However, he was beheaded for his Faith. This was definitely
a problem for me. While I was taught martyrs had a straight
path to heaven, I didn't really want to aspire to be one!
Thomas More was out as y patron saint. Third on the list was
St Thomas Beckett. He became chancellor of England and a
Bishop. He also was known as a person of integrity and
honesty. Unfortunately, like Thomas More, he was killed
because of his faith. Another martyr - I ruled him out too!
Then I discovered Thomas the Apostle. He sounded like
someone I could relate to and feel a kinship with.
Just as when I first read about
him, the story of the Apostle Thomas characterizes for me a very
human experience of God and faith journey. If you recall,
Thomas, probably a fisherman meets Jesus and is enthused about
what he hears and experiences. He listens to the word of
God, takes it into his heart and lives it along with his fellow
believers. Thomas and his friends try to understand the full
meaning of what they hear but never completely do. Despite
not fully comprehending the message, Thomas and the Disciples feel
certain they are on the right path. They experience a peace
and joy beyond what they ever had before. Then unexpectedly
Jesus is taken from them and put to a horrible death.
Thomas' world is shaken to the core. Devastated, he is now
left to pick up the pieces of a shattered dream.
Incredibly, the disciples inform
Thomas that Jesus appeared to them! Who can blame Thomas
after experiencing the high of following Jesus and the low of
seeing Jesus put to death for exclaiming to the other apostles
hiding in the upper room "I won't believe unless I see His
nail marks and put my hands in his wounds!" This
declaration was a very natural response to a crisis experience of
life, a despairing remark from a wounded believer. Even
though others reported seeing Jesus resurrected, the distraught
Thomas wanted to see for himself. Deeply wounded, feeling
abandoned, and not wanting to go through the pain of seeing hopes
and expectations dashed, he required proof. Despite Thomas
despair over losing Jesus to the cross, God never abandoned
Thomas. God was always there even when Thomas doubted.
His friends never abandoned him either for they led him to the
upper room where Thomas did experience the risen lord. He
once again could feel God's presence and he believed!
The story of Thomas the Apostle is
very human and a practical expression of what we may experience in
our faith journey. Especially those of us who have a family
member or loved one who has a major mental illness or those of us
who themselves have a mental illness. We too may have been
going through life with little or no doubts and then just like
Thomas our world gets turned upside down and we have to deal with
the harsh realty of mental illness. Do we have doubts?
Of course we do. Do we question God? Yes, it wouldn't
be natural not to. Do we lose our faith? NO, faith is
a gift from God, it is always there, but sometimes our doubts
blind us to our faith and to the love God has for us. We
have to work through those questions to uncover or rediscover our
gift of faith. It's the hard part of our faith journey.
Doubts, while unsettling, are a
very natural part of our human thought process. It is in the
questioning, the seeking of answers, that we are lead to a deeper
relationship with God. Thomas doubted but he never gave up!
Through a combination of the grace of wanting to believe and
having friends that encouraged him and stuck with him, Thomas
found his way back to the upper room. Doubts can spur us
like Thomas to look within and search for truth. It is
through this journey, this path that we are often led to a deeper
relationship with God. So ironically then out of one of the
worst experiences of life, dealing with a major mental illness for
example, we can be lead closer to God. Being in or dealing
with crisis raises profound questions that as a faith filled
people we seek the answers for.
Just as Thomas had the need to see
the nail marks and touch the wounds of Jesus in order to believe.
We need to touch the woundedness in ourselves to see that God is
present to us and loves us. We have to touch the of feeling
isolated and stigmatized in order to experience love and
acceptance. We have to touch the wound and hurt of the past
to experience the grace of the future. We have to understand
the fact that God doesn't cause mental illness or punish us with
mental illness, rather God is always there for us to help us
through the pain and frustrations and heartache of dealing with
this brain disease. We have to touch the wounds of anger and
frustration to become disciples of hope and redemption.
And where do we seek these
answers?? Through our prayer life we open ourselves to God's
grace. Meditation and reflection help us to be open to the
Spirit. Equally as important, we seek these answers in the
community that surrounds us. In the early days of
Christianity, scripture explains how the community of believers
lived as one in heart and mind and shared everything in common,
the good and the bad. Just as Thomas came face to face with
Jesus with an assist from his friends, we come face to face with
Jesus through the love of those around us. Jesus is present
to us in our families, our friends, the people who minister to us
through the church, through those who provide us with healthcare,
through NAMI and our support groups. We are in this journey
together. We share something in common and because we share
it together it lifts our burden. That is why NAMI is
important in my life. That is why the faith community to
which I belong is important to me. Both call me to prayer.
They are communities that care in a world that often time doesn't
seem to care. I am inspired by the faith of the people in
these groups, by their strength, by their tireless efforts to seek
justice for people with mental illness and their families.
Through them my faith is continuously renewed and I am able to get
in touch with my own woundedness.
We are the face of Christ to one
another; we are the helping hand of the Redeemer who not only
gives us a better tomorrow but also gives us a better today.
Together we build His kingdom each day and every day.
I will recall that I am a child
of God. I am one who is created out of Love. I am
chosen, good, holy and have purpose...a task to perform here
on Earth before I return to the Father. I deserve to be
treated as a person who has value and dignity.
I will embrace my illness or my
family members illness as a friend this day looking for what
it is teaching me about the mystery of God and Life.
I will not allow the stigma of
mental illness to defeat me this day. I will choose to
have power over stigma by detaching myself from the stigma.
I will talk to someone today
who will encourage me to see my goodness and holiness as a
child of God. Maybe we will share a prayer together for
I will look for humor and
reasons to laugh and be happy. Quiet joy will be my
I will read a passage from
Scripture or something from a book of devotion, inspiration or
spiritual reading that will encourage me to trust and hope in
the power and love of God.
I will seek twenty minutes of
solitude, silence, prayer this day. If my mind won't
quiet down, if my thoughts keep racing, I will offer that as
my prayer to God. If necessary and helpful, I will
listen to soothing instrumental music or
inspirational/religious music to quiet me and remind me that
God is present.
I will walk outdoors marveling
at a sunrise, a sunset, the song of a bird, the soothing
colors of nature...the serenity of green grass, a blue sky,
the softness of the pastel colored blossoms of Springtime and
the peaceful waters of a river, lake or stream that ripple and
flow. I will remind myself that everything in nature is
a reflection of the Creator and pleases the Creator just as it
is and so do I just as I am.
I will delight in the knowledge
that we are each created different because it is in our
differences we make a more powerful and beautiful whole.
We each reflect a different aspect of the mystery of Life and
God. Individually and together we are a Masterpiece!
In God is my hope and my joy.
I will give honor, glory and praise to God knowing and
trusting what God has in store for me. We do not seek or
like suffering but our suffering can make us strong in many
ways and more compassionate and loving to others...our
brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Knowing for sure that although I
long for God, God's longing for me is even greater. I
will rest in that knowledge this day.
For more information on how faith communities
can be involved in ministries of compassion, presence, information
and justice contact NAMI Illinois for brochures, speakers and/or