In place of Fr. Mark’s column, parishioner Terresa Ford shares her thoughts.

My name is Terresa Ford. I am a long-time parishioner of St. Thomas More. In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, I want to share with you some of my experience as an African-American Catholic woman with schizophrenia.

My Catholic faith has played a significant role in my recovery from mental illness. It has shaped my perception of myself and how I relate to others in many ways. Specifically, my ever-deepening relationship with Jesus has given all my challenges purpose and meaning.

Those who have never experienced a mental health challenge may wonder what it is like to live with mental illness. For me, mental illness has taken the shape of social withdrawal, hypersensitivity, bouts of depression, anxiety and thought distortions. Until I came to the Catholic church 23 years ago, my illness had control over my life, and I was held captive by debilitating symptoms. With no formal faith tradition growing up, I had a distorted view of God. I saw God as an absentee father whose main function was to punish bad deeds. For many, many years my suffering was a confirmation for me of my badness.

All of this changed as I came to know Jesus personally. I experienced the compassion of Jesus for my suffering because he himself had suffered. I saw Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. In his mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish, I saw my own. I knew Jesus could walk with me through my suffering because he had conquered his. Not only could he walk with me; he would walk with me simply because he loved me. How could I be bad if the God of the universe loved me?

The realization that Jesus loved me, me a Black woman, broken and marginalized, turned my world upside down in the best way. My response to his love was to want to give back to him. But how could I love the One who is love? Through prayer, the Spirit showed me that to give back to God, I must give to God’s people.

I looked around in STM parish for examples, and I found many in the form of angels watching over me. Sarah and Andy Otto, Father Mark and Father Tim are a few of those angels. They have supported me and loved me, and I am forever grateful. These individuals were able to see beyond my illness to see me. This is all people with mental health issues want: to be seen for who they are. In September of 2019, Jesus led me to enroll in a Master’s program at Candler School of Theology and to make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Both experiences have shaped me in ways that I could never have imagined. My studies at Candler are giving me the academic skills that will help me minister effectively to others, and the Spiritual Exercises are giving me a familiarity with Jesus who will be my model for ministry.

Whereas Candler is giving me tools for ministry, the Spiritual Exercises are giving me a heart for ministry. If someone had said to me a year ago that I, an African-American Catholic woman with the severe and persistent mental illness of schizophrenia, would be studying to become a hospital chaplain, I would have laughed in disbelief.

Jesus has shown me that my illness can be a blessing. I see that, as I share his suffering, I also share his victory. As God freed Jesus from the power of death, God is freeing me from the dying that is schizophrenia. As Jesus was raised, I am raised to help others who suffer from their own mental health challenges. As Jesus loves me into fuller life, I can love others into life.

Terresa Ford