Catholic but Mentally Ill


I have another reason to count my blessings these days: My sleep rhythms have settled down. I can consistently sleep 9 hours a night and arise refreshed in the morning. Sounds like a pretty small triumph, doesn’t it? But I remember the days not so long ago when I was sleeping twelve hours or more, dragging myself out of bed by force of will, depressed and overmedicated, and stumbling through my day in a medication fog that left my head stuffed with cotton and my mind as dull as Grandma’s old garden hoe.

I am mentally ill. The doctors have never been able to nail down a precise diagnosis, but it’s somewhere between bipolar disorder (with major depression and psychosis) and schizoaffective disorder, a variant of schizophrenia. Whatever you call it, I’m crazy as a hoot owl on hormone therapy. When I am not on my meds, I take off in the middle of the night to go wander the streets; I listen to voices telling me to do things that are a really bad idea (like leave the restaurant without paying); I hallucinate; and sometimes I freeze up like the tin man in a rain storm, and stand stock still for an hour at a time. My most superlative exploit? Sliding under the back gate of the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, and then commanding God to set the prisoners free. I got an ambulance ride to the hospital for that one, not to mention the citation for misdemeanor trespass in the third degree (the charge was later dropped).

I have been struggling with my illness for 16 years, and on medication for 13. Apart from my Catholic faith and my relationship with Jesus I am certain I would be dead. It’s as simple as that. Whether from a bullet from a prison guard or by my own hand, I’m not sure, but the world would be getting along without me. And no one can suffer mental illness without wondering if he’d be better off dead anyway. It’s hard to imagine a cross harder to bear, or heavier, or more laden with shame. But through it all Jesus has given me hope, strength, and indefatigable peace. He has not saved me from suffering; rather, he has given me a much greater gift: he has saved me through suffering. My suffering, my weakness, is a badge of honor, and not a scarlet letter.

Since my illness began I have spent many nights outside, alone, cold and tired, even barefoot on one occasion, wandering in an oblivious haze; I’ve been thrown out of motels, restaurants, and other public places; I’ve been frisked, arrested, pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and jailed; I’ve been in and out of psych wards; I’ve been seen by many doctors (one of whom summed up my condition the most succinctly when he exclaimed “Jesus Christ, you’re crazy!”); I’ve been ignored and turned out on the streets when I obviously needed help; I’ve suffered major depression, suicidal desires, and chronic lethargy; I’ve lived for years in my mother’s basement; I’ve been fired, and I’ve quit many jobs under a cloud, either with or without notice. I’ve also gained almost 100 pounds from my medication, which carries a high risk of diabetes and other side effects even more unpleasant; and the bright spot is, I have—however imprudently—taught myself to smoke (the self-medication of nicotine calms the nerves and provides a small lift out of the mental fog, giving a few minutes of something approaching a normal self-awareness).

My Catholic faith gets me through everything. I know that I am a human person who has value, despite consistently underperforming in almost every job I’ve had in the last 13 years, and there have been many. I am not a “mentally-ill person” or a “schizophrenic”; I am a human person who struggles with mental illness. My illness does not define me; my relationship with Jesus does. And Jesus, in our relationship, looks out for me. Those prison guards didn’t shoot me that day, though they were talking about it, as I learned later. My Disability and employment income is meager but Jesus sees that I have everything I need, with my Mom helping manage my finances – and, to Mom’s chagrin, there is always a little left over for pipe tobacco. I am very grateful to our Lord, to his Church, to my family and to the members of my community who have made an independent life possible for me despite the burdens of my illness.

And there is an unlooked-for silver lining to it all. You haven’t lived until you can truly appreciate getting a good night’s sleep, waking up and feeling rested. Because I cannot cope very effectively with work, I live mainly off Disability and have a lot of free time, which I use well. I take seriously the admonition to “pray constantly.” I am always in conversation with God, and I am aware that my trials are helping myself and others. I take nothing for granted, not my Disability check, not my doctor, not my family that has always been there for me. In many ways I am the most fortunate of men.

When this is all over, then there will be a life of blessedness in Heaven. My freedoms were taken away from me in this life—freedom to work, to have a family, to be healthy, to pursue what I most wanted, the Catholic priesthood; even to be myself in many ways—and so I know I will have a glorious and never-ending freedom in the age to come. To anyone who is newly diagnosed with mental illness, or to anyone who cares for someone who is, I have this to say: Never give up. It will get better. I cannot promise you anything but the most difficult of roads, but God has entrusted you with this burden because you can bear it, and bear it well for him; and he has something very good in store for you at the end of a lot of chapters that will make all of this more than worth your while. When this is all over, you and I will be able to say together: we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Have hope, trust Jesus, and never quit.


About Author

  • Jann FritzHuspen

    Kudos to you, Anthony!

    I have a lump in my throat; you’re story is so inspiring, and it touches me deeply today, the 4th anniversary of my mom’s passing. She was an amazing, faith-filled, loving, compassionate, brilliant woman who happened to have bipolar disorder.

    I am passing this on to a sibling who is a psychiatrist, in hopes it gets shared with patients who have no where else to turn but have never turned to Christ.

    Thanks–and KEEP WRITING!

  • jeffjane99

    Dear Mr Schefter,
    Thank you for sharing about your journey to Heaven with the cross that you bear. Our 20 year old son is now in a psychiatric ward. We have no idea what the future holds for him (or any of us really) but your essay inspires me to remember that our future is heaven. And it is not degress or jobs or worldly success but our relationship with Jesus Christ which makes us whole. May God bless you.
    Jane Martin

  • Jackson

    You are one of the most spiritually healthy people I have had the pleasure of knowing of – inspiring. Sleep well, brother.

  • RozD

    Thank you for this. I’m guilty of frequently missing the person as my eyes light on the mental illness instead. Your post was a channel of grace for me.

  • Krakatoa

    Anthony, thank you for your inspiration. I am autistic with bipolar disorder and I struggle continually with the sense of “scarlet letter” vs “badge of honor.” I hope to resolve this through Christ. I’m also a Catholic convert and my only regret is not converting sooner. I have exponentialized my support network and coping skills. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing how amazing Catholicism is for support with mental illness.

  • I am deeply moved by your suffering, your courage, and your fidelity. I also struggle with mental illness as well as chronic Lyme disease, and I can relate to the frustration of having your freedom limited as well as the great blessings that come from knowing you are loved by Jesus in His Church. I too have much support from my family (my wife and five children). Your advice to those with mental illness is “Never give up!” I was very struck by that, because I wrote a book about my experiences that bears the title “Never Give Up” (Servant, 2010). The subtitle is “My Life and God’s Mercy” because I know that I would give up very quickly if I were not sustained by that Infinite Mercy. Thank you for your beautiful testimony to the power of God’s mercy in your life. Be assured of my prayers.

  • mblouin

    Anthony, what a testimony you are to others as God’s steady and faithful servant. And in doing so, Jesus walks with you and he talks with you; calls you friend and carries you on the days that are your hardest.

    Our Lord’s will is that all the earth know of His mercy, faithfulness and love.

    The most important thing that you have said here is that it has been ” through your suffering” and not because of the “relief from your suffering” that you “have been saved”.

    IMHO—It is the cross that we bear that brings the wisdom to recognize what being saved is, in the first place. As without the knowledge of slavery there can be no appreciation of liberty, pain as it relates to healing, darkness/light. etc., etc..

    The Apostle Paul had a #thorn#in his side that caused him pain, but our Lord would not remove it. Paul needed to be reminded to keep humble and that suffering for God, carry a cross, is man’s route to salvation.

    Thank you so much for sharing your testimony here with us.

  • MarkA

    Mr. Schefter,
    Thank you for writing this and thank you for the redemption of your suffering. My daily Rosary intentions include those who suffer from mental illness. God has given you the grace of great courage and blessed you with the wisdom of true love. Please pray for me and please be assured of my prayers for you. God bless you, your family, and your loved ones.
    Yours in Christ,
    Mark Angelo

  • Deirdre McQuade

    Adding my gratitude to the growing list of your admirers, below… You have an amazing gift. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us in such a powerful, honest, non-whitewashed and non-embittered way. Thank you for your witness to Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine. Thank you for the reminder that we are created for glory and joy, not sufferings and limitations. And finally, thank you for your beautiful blog. I have already shared it with others.

    I am also deeply drawn to the illustration. Did you draw it, Anthony? If not, who did, please?

    • Thank you very much for your kind words. I don’t know who drew the picture. Mary will know where she got it from.

  • You are a joy! Thank you so much. I look forward to dancing with you in heaven & know God is using you here on earth as well. Thank you Anthony, you are gloriously precious!

    • Thank you very much, though … I’ve never been much of a dancer. Can you teach?