Habemus papam, read the words on my television screen. We have a pope! Pope Francis has been elected as the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. White smoke wafts from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Bells peal. I’m sitting on my couch at home in California watching the spectacle of the ritual unfold on TV. I’ve never seen so many Catholics in one place. Hundreds of thousands cram into St. Peter’s Square. They cheer, wave flags, cry, pray. Their joy is palpable. As faithful believers, they overflow with hope for the church and for themselves.
Lucky bastards, I think.
I am not a faithful believer. I used to be, back when I was young. Well, actually, I used to be a little girl who wanted to believe. I wanted to be full of faith like my dad was to make him proud of his good Catholic daughter. That was forty years ago and though I have cleaved myself from that notion, with the memories, a flush of anger invades my body. I’m about to let my mind rail against the Church and its sanctimony when the phone rings. I race to answer it.
“I’m really sorry, but I have some bad news,” Dr. Allison says. I can’t move. My teenage daughter is depressed and suicidal. She’s living in a residential treatment center sixty-five miles away from me.
“Is Olivia okay?” I can’t breathe.
“Oh, yes,” Dr. Allison says, and I sigh. “But I called the team to come and evaluate her. She might need to be admitted to the hospital. She’s cutting a lot.”
What the fuck? She was supposed to be safe with you. I can’t speak this accusation. We need Dr. Allison. Olivia’s recovery rests in her hands. Before I can comment she says, “I’ll call you when I know more,” and hangs up.
I replace the handset and stare at it as the news sinks in. My poor baby, I think.
For months I reasoned with Olivia to try to make her get better. Then I begged, punished, bribed. There were doctors and therapists and intensive outpatient programs. I did what I was told and some of what I wasn’t to help my daughter heal. Nothing worked and now, after the better part of a year, she’s there with Dr. Allison.
Residential treatment was the last resort. It meant sending Olivia away from me, her dad, our home. Tom and I acquiesced only in the face of her escalating behaviors. We were in a state of chaos, hyper-alert to the nuances of her moods, the self-harm that soothed her emotional turmoil. There was no pageantry to our rituals: blood — on the floor, down the drain, on her clothes, blood when she probably should have gotten stitches but hid the wounds — and arguments. Blood and arguments. Every day.
During that last fight, I scared myself. The three of us were in the living room, family meeting to discuss her deterioration.
“It’s that bad,” I said, raising the specter of residential.
“Stop over-exaggerating,” Olivia screamed at me. She ran to her bedroom. I was right behind her. “Leave me the fuck alone,” she yelled. She grabbed a wooden box and threw it at me. I dodged. It smashed into the door and shattered. “You’re a fucking cunt.”
I saw red, the color of my fury, as my daughter cleaved herself away from me. I wanted her to hurt the way I was hurting. I had never been called that name by anyone, ever. I lunged. We dropped to the floor. One thought: I’ll show you. And thwap. I spanked her hard on the butt. Tom came in and broke the spell. “Guys,” he said. We looked at him, stunned back to reality.
Who the fuck did she think she was talking to me like that? But therein lay the problem — my daughter wasn’t speaking to me, her illness was. And it wasn’t exactly wrong, was it? What kind of mother spanks her mentally ill teenager? I wasn’t a spanker. We couldn’t go on like this.
Time apart was supposed to be a chance for Olivia to concentrate on healing and a reprieve for Tom and me from the discord and pain of watching her illness intensify and our powerlessness to stop it.
In my mind, I picture Olivia, alone and afraid, surrounded by a team of uniforms. I rage at Dr. Allison to do her damn job, give me answers, tell me Olivia will be fine. I am furious over my inability fix my daughter or the wreck of our mental healthcare system, to control anything.
I shuffle to the garage to fill Tom in.
“Are we supposed to do anything?”
“All we can do is wait.”
I watch him place a case and bullet into his reloading press and yank the lever down to seat the two components together. Reloading ammunition for target practice is a favored hobby. The work keeps his hands busy and his mouth shut. He retreats to the garage to avoid me, to avoid another confrontation. We’re angry at each other because we can’t be angry at our sick kid or the situation we find ourselves in.
Olivia is gone. Our efforts to keep her safe at home failed. He feels as responsible as I do, and, I guess, as guilty. But there is no soft net between us anymore. I don’t trust him with the tenderness of my heart. I don’t consider bridging the physical distance between us with a hug. Neither does he turn toward me. Cleaved.
I retreat to my perch in front of the television — my favored distraction. Anticipation grows for the new pope’s first appearance on the balcony. The coverage includes papal history and images of old white men in regal vestments and jewels, amidst precious works of art. No one knows the exact net worth of the church, but it’s estimated to be in the tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars. Such opulence. The hypocrisy disgusts me. Is this pomp and circumstance what God intended when he sacrificed Jesus, beaten and bloodied, on a cross? I think not. And yet. As hard as I have tried, still try, to cleave from the church, I cannot let go of the rituals. More than once since Olivia’s diagnosis I have bowed my head to pray, Please God. Save my daughter. I am the biggest hypocrite of all.
I held my dad’s hand the first time I walked into church. His hand guided mine into the small font of holy water and then to my forehead, chest, and shoulders. Together, we genuflected and slid onto a pew. Dad smiled at me. Bliss. And so, for a few years, I went with him every Sunday to St. Catherine’s. I was young, but even then I understood that through the mystery of Mass I was meant to feel love. I was meant to feel deference and respect. Comfort in rituals unchanged for millennia. We lit candles, inhaled incense, and recited prayers. Dad wanted the same solace for me that he found there. He’d survived active combat in World War II and the death of child. Dad knew suffering, but he was also grown up. He accepted the church’s failings as human not Godly. Me, I couldn’t tell the difference
I sat on the pew mesmerized by Jesus, hanging from that cross, despair carved into every feature on his face. I tried to believe. I strove to be good. I did what I was told and confessed my sins, repeated the Act of Contrition, and drank the blood and ate the body of Christ. I did some of what I wasn’t told by doubting the Word’s truth and Jesus’ divinity. I sought love and hope and community. But I was reminded, often, of my innate human inadequacy, that I would never attain the perfection God wanted from me. Good was bad. Fun was wrong. I was a failure, a ruler breaker, a sinner and therefore condemned. Guilt and shame got the better of me.
My highest aspiration, unlikely at best, was to avoid eternal damnation.
On the couch, waiting for Dr. Allison’s call, the words what if echo in my mind. What if God is punishing me through my daughter? What if her illness is my fault? What if she doesn’t get better? I can’t make sense of my disparate feelings of sadness, disappointment, confusion, hurt, wrath. Uh oh. One of the big seven deadly. I can feel hell’s heat nipping.
One billion Catholics trust the teachings of the church, and the teachers. That’s a lot of trust to place in the hands of fallible humans. Why can’t I trust like they do? I have endless questions, but no answers. I want absolution. Divine intervention. I feel completely alone and adrift.
An hour after the initial call, Dr. Allison calls again to say she’s sorry but Olivia is on her way to College Hospital, an acute psychiatric hospital with an adolescent ward. Tom and I hop in the car and head there. I call the hospital. A nurse asks me to bring Olivia some underwear, a toothbrush, pajamas. She arrived with the clothes on her back, nothing else. Really Dr. Allison? I think, coldly. An involuntary hold lasts for a minimum of three days. I call the treatment center and tell them we have to swing by to pick up some necessities.
In the lobby, Dr. Allison invites us into her office. “Since you’re here,” she says and a crushing pressure settles in my chest. We’ve heard these words from other people who were supposed to help us. “I’m really sorry,” Dr. Allison says for the third time this day, and I want to punch her in the face. Rip out her eyes. She doesn’t look sorry. She looks bored and blurts out, “Olivia can’t come back. She’s too much of a liability.”
That liability is my child, you dumb bitch.
Dr. Allison hands me a piece of paper and keeps talking. My blood buzzes loud in my head. I can’t read, can barely hear. Out of state. Lock her in. Eighteen months. This woman is the worst psychologist in the history of psychology. Sure, Olivia bears responsibility for her recovery, but she’s sick. Dr. Allison had one job to do and she failed. A good Catholic wouldn’t be bitter over her false prophecies, her startling lack of compassion. I am bitter. Very bitter. I say nothing — there’s nothing left to say.
Dr. Allison stands. The meeting is over. She says, “We have a survey for you to fill out if you wouldn’t mind.”
Oh, I mind. I really fucking mind.
Back in the lobby, there on the floor, is Olivia’s suitcase and a 30-gallon trash bag into which someone dumped most of her belongings. I understand now what they think of us. They’ve cleaved Olivia away.
We have three days.
The clock is ticking. Do we send Olivia away again? Out of state? Bring her home? There’s nowhere left to turn for answers. What if the absolute worst were to happen? What if she carries through on a plan to die by suicide? The church taught me that suicide is a mortal sin. Would my beautiful daughter’s soul be condemned to hell? The only thing I know is we cannot give up. We must keep trying.
We have three days.
Three is a holy number. There’s the trinity, God’s three attributes, the three patriarchs, the three Marys, and, of course, resurrection after three days. Jesus died to pay for the sins of the world. Tom and I baptized Olivia to wash away her original sin. I wasn’t willing to risk her eternal life, just in case. She was the most beautiful baby, blue almond-shaped eyes and dimpled cheek. In those first weeks together, I felt a connection to divinity like never before—sacred in my motherhood. The reverence I felt for our relationship shocked me. I promised to love and protect her. Tom and I cultivated safety and security. We didn’t need organized religion to help us raise our child. We had morals, good intentions, and dependability. I had everything a woman is supposed to want. The three of us were holy in our own way.
And yet. Underneath the joy of watching my daughter grow, I struggled. I was often angry. I had self-esteem and body image issues, trouble communicating in my marriage, that nagging sense of inadequacy from childhood. I quit my career to raise Olivia, but being home all the time felt dull. Something was missing. You’re lucky, you know, I thought. Yes, I was lucky and I judged myself relentlessly for sometimes feeling otherwise. Guilt and shame got the better of me, again. The problem, I was sure, was me. I just needed to work harder, perfect a shiny exterior, fix what looked broken. Be a better mother, wife, friend. Stop failing. I entombed these thoughts, deep inside, cleaving, one by one, feeble parts of myself.
I decided to try church again when Olivia was five years old. I wanted her to have what Dad had wanted me to have. “This time will be different,” I told Tom. I wanted her to find there what I couldn’t: self-acceptance administered and perpetuated by God, the ultimate authority.
My experiment back into religion failed. Despite my best effort to control life and get God’s protection, Olivia would get older and get sick. It made complete sense to me that I was responsible.
I was furious at everything and everyone and mostly at myself.
By the time Olivia is admitted to College Hospital, my rage, which had at one time felt purposeful, satisfying, even energizing, has become my addiction to feeling something far easier than anguish. My self-righteous façade cracks from the strain of internal pummeling.
Olivia will remain in the hospital for a week. Tom and I will bring her home only to return to the Emergency Room seven days later.
On a gurney, I will nestle my precious, broken girl and realize that hospitals, doctors, and treatment centers may be the sum total of her life. Every expectation and dream I had for her will evaporate. I will understand that I cannot cure my daughter, and, as omnipotent as the pope may be, neither he nor the Holy Spirit will be swooping in to rescue us. Our tidy life will be in ruins, and my anger will be eating me from the inside out. The pain will make me want to die, and I will accept, at the center of my being, I have but two choices left: succumb or surrender. I will surrender, but not to God. I will surrender to myself and the present moment. Cleave myself from the fantasy of being rescued, of a different past, of a certain future.
In the detritus of battle, I will discover what was missing. I will construct an understanding of the universe and my place in it steeped in spirituality, distinct and apart from religion. Spiritual healing will not be an outward journey. The work will not be tied to dogma, relics, or deities. The journey will delve inward, will be a process of rewinding, undoing, dismantling — a cleaving to, not from. Divinity was, is, and will always be inside me. I will finally figure out that the best way to teach Olivia to love herself unconditionally is to lead by example.
Fast-forward five years. It’s 2018 and Olivia is away at college, healthier than ever, thriving. So am I. Gratitude is my practice. Compassion is my currency. I teach, helping others who are going through what we did. I write, sharing my truth so others will know they are not alone. I bolster hope with goals and perseverance not doctrine and affected devotion. I meditate and study my thoughts. I encourage Olivia to make her own decisions about spirituality and faith. My joy is palpable. I am feeling pretty good about myself, I have to say, and more often than not, am able to maintain a modicum of equanimity in spite of the current administration’s carnage of my values. Until, that is, I turn on the television and see a conservative Catholic nominee for the Supreme Court.
Not good, I think, with an uneasy tingle in my gut. The Supreme Court is not the institution to hijack for religious agendas. We need rule of law to unify, be based in reason. People cheer, cry, pray. Flags wave both in support and protest. Debates between political adversaries rage.
Soon, a woman raises her hand and swears with one hundred percent certainty that the nominee sexually attacked her and laughed about it with his friend while doing so. The country and I learn that he is likely guilty of assault. In reaction, he screams and cries his innocence. At the very least, he has severe anger management issues. He hides behind the Church, as many an evil man has, claiming his pious faith entitles him to trust and tacit belief. The theatrics bristle. Is this pomp and circumstance what the founding fathers intended when they drafted the constitution? I think not. The hypocrisy disgusts me. The man is nominated anyway.
I wondered what could finally cleave me from Catholicism. Now I know. I didn’t fight to save my daughter’s life, and my own, for the most powerful court in our land to bow to conservative pressure and diminish women’s rights. I am outraged. I get off my couch. I buy a plane ticket to travel 3,000 miles across the country to Washington, D.C. to march in January with a million other women. We will be heard. Our volume will deafen.
Can we avoid war? I don’t know. But that’s okay because I do know I’m battle-tested, victorious, no longer addicted. Now, my anger is mature. It’s healthy. It’s patient. Tenacious.
A good Catholic wouldn’t be happy to learn that Dr. Allison got fired. But I was, really fucking happy.