Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thirty-eight years ago, I began recovery from an illness that causes death in many people.  It was a problem with my metabolism: my body chemistry could not mix well with the chemicals in a very commonly used ingredient.  Through the grace of God, I began a process of recovery that continues to today.  Twenty-some years ago I had a blood test that revealed, in one category, levels that were one-third of the lowest level considered to be healthy. I had a chemical imbalance requiring my taking certain medications for the rest of my life. I have been doing so, and the illness is, for the most part, pretty well controlled. Just about a year ago, tests  suggested another illness.  This one required surgery and there has been an inconsistent recovery, requiring painful follow-up and ongoing medication to minimize its affect.

How do these sentences speak to you: I am sick; I have an illness.  I  am mentally ill.  I have a mental illness.  I am a human being; I have a variety of illnesses?  Do some of them generate negative feelings?  Which seem ok, or even positive?  All of them are true about me, but how I think of them makes a strong difference in my attitude toward myself and toward life.  

The illness of thirty-eight years ago is alcoholism.  Twenty-some years ago I was diagnosed with chronic depression.  Last year, it was Barrett’s disease.  I react negatively to “I am mentally ill,” but not to “I am physically ill.”  One almost connotes permanence; the other, hope for recovery.  “I am mentally ill” seems to define me; I”I am physically ill” is merely something about me.  So while I do not talk much about any of them, I am most comfortable talking about Barrett’s.

But why should it be that if someone says I look unwell it is easier to say “it’s just the Barrett’s”  than to admit “My depression is getting the better of me today?”  One word: stigma.  We can accept someone with a cold or flu, but have a much harder time dealing with mental and emotional illnesses—our own and that of others.  The truth is that illness is illness, but we judge some types acceptable and others not.  People get over a cold, but we are yet to have a way for full recovery from mental illnesses.  Someone with schizophrenia will always have schizophrenia.  A person with chronic alcoholism will never be able to drink successfully.  I will always have that and depression.
But what I have learned here, from our many guests and others who have some mental illness, is that while society as a whole might not be comfortable with us or our condition, once disclosed, we can be.  So can a caring community.  Next time I’m asked if I’m unwell, maybe I’ll be able to say “Oh, it’s just my depression!”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Love Thee, Notre Dame

2012 was a storybook year at the University of Notre Dame, as far as football was concerned. The season began with minimum expectations, just like the prior 25 years. The team was unranked at the beginning of the season. A leading national sport writer had written that Notre Dame football was no longer relevant. Six nationally ranked teams were on the schedule. It was going to be another long, disappointing fall for Notre Dame fans everywhere. Until… 

One by one, week‐by‐week, the team defeated each ranked team and every other team on its schedule. Some of the games were won as if by magic, as if by divine right. The Notre Dame mystique was back! The team shot through the national rankings all the way to the top. The sport writer did penance by shining the golden helmets of each player before the final home game. Notre Dame went undefeated for the entire 2012 season, and was headed to play for the National Championship in early 2013. Notre Dame was back! 

The internet was full of excitement. Students and alums as well were planning on a great trip to Miami, the scene for the January 7 national championship game against Alabama. Top dollar—ridiculous amounts‐ was being paid for the inevitable crowning. It was pre‐destined. America’s team did not have the sort of season ND had without bringing it to completion. Movies would be made. Books would be written. Stories would be told for generations.

Seven Notre Dame students ( among others, I am sure) had no intention of attending the game and its accompanying festivities in Miami’s warm clime. The reasons were not financial (although I have no idea if any of them could have afforded to go or not). Nor was there a lack of school spirit or pride. They didn’t go because they had made a commitment. They were going to do an Urban Plunge in Portland, at St. AndrĂ© Bessette Catholic Church and the Old Town neighborhood. 

All of them, covering each year from freshman through grad student, became very involved in the ministry of the parish and its neighborhood partners. They lived out the corporal works of mercy by feeding the hungry, clothing the unclothed, visiting those who rarely had young people taking any interest in their lives and circumstances—the poorest of the poor, by American standards. What could have been a time of great collegiate fun for them was, by their own choice, a time of service. 

Monday night, January 7, the students joined the priests in the rectory to watch the Notre Dame game. They would excitedly cheer when one of their dorm or class mates appeared on the screen, moan when Alabama scored and cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. Then the game was over. The students went back to the basement, where they were sleeping on the floor for seven nights. They resumed serving our guests in the morning, with a spirit of joy and pleasure. One might think Notre Dame had won. In fact, I think it did.