Barbara J. Kouba
A struggling believer encounters the divine.
Image

As a sometimes mischievous teenager, I was never confused with Mother Teresa. Still, a relationship with God was at the core of my being. It began with parents who gave me a strong spiritual foundation meant to sustain my pilgrimage into eternity. Priests, nuns, siblings and baby-boomer friends reinforced this faith throughout my schooling in the Archdiocese of Chicago. An average kid, I lived an ordinary life. In the middle of my 17th year, I graduated from high school and embarked on a career in corporate America. God had blessed me with a great family, caring friends, outstanding health and a bright future.

By the autumn after graduation this Norman Rockwell harmony had disintegrated into an Edvard Münch scream, when painful and energy-zapping bruises spread from my forehead to my big toe. Invasive tests ruled out leukemia, but the diagnosis was grim: a rare blood disease, a distant cousin of hemophilia, spawned bursting blood vessels. Some patients experienced spontaneous remission; others died from internal hemorrhaging or kidney failure.

At first I managed to accept my own illness. But when I witnessed the senseless suffering and death of the hospital ward’s young patients, I sank. All patients under age 20 were put on the same ward, and terminal cases were the norm. In colorless rooms, I saw listless infants with immense needles sticking out of their tiny limbs and necks. Some babies’ heads were the size of a light bulb; others were the size of a basketball. Hollow-eyed children had incurable cancers, birth defects or life-threatening injuries inflicted by abusers. Life-support machines pumped oxygen and fluids through a maze of tubes, yet many of the youngsters became shrunken wraiths. Normal child noises were replaced by mechanical ones. These gray-skinned little people were too ill and too drugged to talk, laugh or cry.

There were no Hail Marys, Our Fathers or Acts of Contrition for this. My rock-hard faith in God shattered into sand. What kind of God would allow innocents to suffer so much? Where was the just and loving God I personally knew and believed in all my life? A sense of betrayal, anger and rage consumed me like an out-of-control wildfire. My final prayer of 1971 summed it up: “I will not love you, God. You’re a monstrous sadist.”

After several hospitalizations and months of inactivity, my energy trickled back and the bruises faded. But tsunami waves of survivor’s guilt swept me into a furious sea of darkness. Why should I live when so many children would never walk through a prairie in springtime, sled down a snowy hill or play kick-the-can until the streetlights came on?

My hematologist consulted a psychiatrist. After one brief outpatient session, I was deemed depressed enough to spend the next few months in a psych ward. I went through a revolving door of psychiatric hospitalizations over the next several years, but each trip found me more deeply depressed.

The psychiatrist believed in drugs; five times a day I was given a paper cup full of pills. When I failed to improve, he increased the dosage. He hooked me up to an electroshock machine a couple of dozen times, but incinerating bolts of electricity failed to vaporize my haunting memories of sick babies. I was injected with high levels of insulin; these 20 induced comas had no therapeutic value.

I made feeble attempts to talk with my psychiatrist, a Freudian who revealed himself to be an embittered atheist. When I shared a few details of my spiritual breakdown, he scoffed at God’s existence and proudly described being in lockstep with Karl Marx’s belief that religion is the opiate of the masses. He spent hours of our sessions attacking Catholicism as a twisted religion whose clergy members berate believers into submission with unhealthy levels of guilt and superstition. My problems, however, were with God, not with the clergy, the Catholic Church or any religion. Rather than confide in the psychiatrist, I grew quiet and hopeless. Like an elevator with severed cables, my broken mind and spirit plunged until I crashed—not alive, yet not dead.

The Encounter

One desperate evening, I asked a hospital staff member to lock me inside the Quiet Room—a tiny padded cell in the psychiatric unit. The room’s thick padding provided me with a cocoon-like safety zone. Huddled in a corner, my knees pulled close to my chest, I was alone except for a vigilant orderly, who made his rounds every 15 minutes. Lights behind the small observation window illuminated his concerned face.

I was a ball of twisted pathology when an unexpected visitor flung open my spirit’s bolted door, refusing to be ignored or rejected another moment.

“I love you. I am proud of you.” The simple message was not delivered by the hospital orderly; nor was there a voice, a psychic sign or a Cecil B. DeMille production. But the communication encompassed my total being. It was God. The modus operandi was easily recognizable.

After a long pause, my nonverbal response was as subtle as a sledge hammer: “I hate you.”

Without pause, God replied, “I love you for hating me.”

I was incredulous.

“It is understandable.”

“What’s understandable?”

“That you blame me for all the suffering you witnessed.”

“Only a monster would let innocent children suffer. I can’t believe in a cruel, sadistic monster.”

“That is why I love you.”

My battered brain ached. My Irish temper seethed. I needed clarification. “You agree that you’re a monster?”

“I love you and am proud you would never believe in anyone you think could be cruel or sadistic. I want your suffering to end.”

“Why me? Why not the others?”

“Why not you?”

“But so many die.”

“Life is a series of dyings and risings. People accept this in nature, but sometimes fear death on a personal level.”

How quickly God got me to the core of things. “I don’t fear death. I want death.”

“It is not your time. I decide when it is time for souls to move on.”

“Life has no purpose.”

“It is when there is no purpose that you must find a new one.”

My mind turned into a mental video camera stuck on play. No pause or stop button. Sick baby scenes replayed with endless looping. It felt as if an icy hand gripped my heart. My breathing became labored. I cried helpless tears. I heaved with years of bottled-up anguish.

“Like it or not, the past is an essential part of your life. But you must find life’s goodness again.”

“How, God?”

“By looking within.”

“No, I’m hollow inside. I did nothing to help those kids.” It was the first time I had revealed my failures and limitations to myself.

“Once you find your goodness, you can use it to help others.”

“How? How will I ever find it?”

“I will help, but only if you open the door and accept me. You have free will, so it is your choice.” God’s reaction was gentle but firm.

“But I’m still angry.”

“Anger can be a positive emotion when it’s transformed to do good.”

“If you’re God, why not give me an instant miracle?” I reasoned.

“Miracles abound. But you must stop self-destructing. Trust me. Then every day for the rest of your life you will find a gift from me to you.”

Ever so timidly I opened my heart, mind and soul. Unconditional love, comfort and peace surrounded me from the inside out and the outside in.

Before I fell into a restorative sleep, God repeated the original message. “I love you. I am proud of you.”

I refused to share this transformative experience with the atheist psychiatrist, yet even he noticed a definite change. Within a week, I was discharged from the hospital; within months, I stopped all prescription drugs and turned completely to God, the Master Healer.

The Healing Process

Over time, I learned more about God. Saintly contemporary heroes, including Mother Teresa, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., and the Rev. Lawrence Jenko, modeled love, faith, conversion, forgiveness and a God-centered life. I met other virtuous people, like a psychiatric social worker who went out of her way to refer me to a parish church that needed a secretary. Few employers were willing to hire a recently released mental patient, but the young pastor at this parish, the Rev. A. Paul Reicher, did not hesitate.

For several years I worked part time with the pastor and the parish lay leaders, and part time with sisters from Catholic Charities. Together we helped to improve the lives of hundreds of hurting, destitute people. I began to understand Jesus’ message as a living Gospel. The most enjoyable part of the job was the 30 minutes I spent each school day monitoring the playground. Listening to children’s laughter and watching them run and play was a healing gift.

Buoyed by the piety and selflessness of the parish workers, I enlisted and served four years as a U.S. Army chaplain’s assistant, where I developed professional faith-based counseling and therapy techniques to serve fellow soldiers better. Then I earned a master’s degree in instructional technology and embarked on a new career as an assistive technology instructor and practitioner. I combined both passions—service and technology—to bridge the “digital divide” for people with disabilities. While unable to heal fragile bodies, minds and spirits, I am able to help people focus on their own capabilities.

For me, healing has not been a linear process. I was reluctant when God re-opened the door. Inch by inch it creaked, until it was wide enough for me to pass through to all that waited on the other side. Today 36 years worth of cumulative gifts are evidence of God’s love that resonates through me. The most extraordinary of God’s gifts emerge from ordinary relationships. Topping my list is my husband, David, a gentle and caring man who in 19 years of marriage has loved and accepted me in a way no one else has.

What about my anger? It’s still there. But rather than self-destructing, I channel my emotions constructively into organizations like the Special Olympics, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Catholic Charities.

A byproduct of healing is maturity. God is no longer my scapegoat for life’s problems; instead, I find answers revealed through prayer, acceptance and interactions with others. Accepting death, especially a child’s death, is still a challenge, but I better understand the process of dying and rising as exemplified by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God’s complexity is daunting; God is probably not a person, place, gender, consciousness, time or anything else I can conceive. We humans will never understand the full nature of an infinitely omnipotent God. Yet I have grown to cherish the mystery. And I have been blessed for decades with nonstop gifts from this loving source of goodness. That is why I know with certitude that God is the grandest gift of all. Faith is my humble expression of gratitude.

Barbara J. Kouba is an assistive technologist at California State University San Bernardino.

Comments

Patti Kaliss | 2/16/2011 - 11:55pm
Someone sent me a copy of this article with the middle page missing! I found the rest here online.
I can relate to this. Not much was known about PTSD at that time, and sometimes a depression that is part of a physical illness is seen a psychiatric when the mind/body connection is forgotten and the person is not treated holistically.
Psychiatry such as the author experienced can point out problems, but not give solutions. Shock therapy and pills are given but do not solve the issues.

In cases like this, of PTSD witnessing the catastrophic traumas to others, even today's treatments are sometimes inadequate. Only God Himself can ever make things alright by revealing to us that 'this is not all there is' and giving us a glimpse into His eternal reality and His mysterious solutions, in Jesus. That Jesus is alive and heaven is open makes a LOT of difference.

We find ways, in the Holy Spirit, to become instruments of God's mysterious mercy.
ARLENE TICHNELL | 8/16/2009 - 2:15pm
I am deeply touched by your witness.   Those who have known suffering can be a great blessing to others.   
Kathy Berken | 8/11/2009 - 10:05pm

Thank you, Barbara,  for your therapeutic honesty. Your affirmation of a mysterious God who is almost unknowable and yet intimately present, as God was in your padded cell, is prophetic. You just knew what God was telling you, and it was so simple: God loved you and was proud of you. Period. No matter how you responded, God's unconditional love trumped your reaction.

I'm so glad that your healing includes helping the people your visions and nightmares were filled with. And with healing comes maturity. Absolutely.

I'm waiting for your book to come out. Hopefully along the way, after you left the hospital, you had many more God experiences.You have a way with words. Another gift from God.

And this essay will heal many people, too. Such is grace.

Recently in Faith in Focus