Mercy was essential for my mental health journey. Now I want to pass it on to others.
Late last summer I was settling into a new apartment and into a routine of preparation for my first time teaching introductory theology at a Catholic liberal arts college in northeastern Wisconsin. I opened my small maroon journal and began my regular practice of reflecting on the day that had passed.
My entries included a range of emotions. There were reasons for gratitude: I went to a riverside concert with my roommate. The WiFi in our apartment had been installed after a delay of a couple weeks. I had a list of things to do the next day: meet with a former professor and now colleague to go over my syllabus, finish my syllabus, and write a letter to a friend.
I also made one short note with a minus sign next to it: “I hurt myself this morning and was cruel to myself. I hate myself.”
I wish I could reach out to myself across time and tell him that life will get better.
Reading those lines now makes me pensive, sorrowful and a little scared. I wish I could reach out to myself across time and tell him that life will get better as he asks for help. I also want to remind him that he has always been, is, and always will be loved unconditionally by God, a truth that is easier for his future self to accept.
Part of hating myself came from my inability to be honest about what I had done to myself that morning. Even in the privacy of my journal, and even to God in prayer, I could not bear to write down the fact that, over the past several months, when I felt extremely stressed, overwhelmed or frustrated, I had started slapping myself.
The same day I wrote the intentionally vague line in my journal—I hurt myself and was cruel to myself—I had also sunk my nails into my calves until I drew blood. I was praying to God for relief from my misery as I did so. I could not see that I was putting myself through a misery that God would never want me to experience.
I was praying to God for relief from my misery as I hurt myself.
Part of my hatred of myself came from the reasons I harmed myself that day. I hurt myself because there was a delay in the installation of wireless Internet in my apartment. I thought not having the wi-fi set up in my apartment would make me look incompetent and rude to my new roommate. From my perspective while journaling, this was a pathetic reason to injure myself, yet earlier in the day that reason seemed so momentous that injuring myself was the only “right” and “logical” thing to do.
Another part of my hatred came from my repeated use of self-harm as a coping mechanism. Sinking my nails into my skin was the most severe episode, but several months previously I had started to slap myself whenever I felt like I was losing control. At that time, I had ended a job that provided my housing and moved three times in two months before finding a stable place to live. In these situations where I lacked control, where I did not know exactly what my future would hold, I failed to be patient. I failed to reach out to my loved ones. I did not trust God.
Instead, I latched onto my crutch of perfectionism, deciding that to be “perfect like my heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) meant I had to always do and be “right.” In a way, I tried to set myself up as my own god. And I was an unforgiving, exacting and ultimately violent god.
I thought being 'perfect like my heavenly Father is perfect' meant I had to always do and be “right.”
Part of my self-hatred came from my continuing struggle to search for and accept help for my mental health. I had gone to therapy a few times in the last half of 2020 at the urging of my sisters, and it helped with my thoughts and habits of self-degradation for a few months.
However, I had gone onstage as an actor for over a decade. When those thoughts and habits of self-destruction started creeping back into my daily life, I knew how to play the role of a stable, happy, productive person and hide the reality of my life from my family, my friends and myself.
“I hurt myself this morning” covered up the full reality of how I had physically harmed the body God has given me. It canceled out the truth that God cherishes me, and wishes to raise me up in the resurrection on the last day. You could also say “I hurt myself” was also about the extent to which I was hurting myself through my dishonesty, perfectionism and refusal to seek help with my mental health.
All these habits damaged my relationship with God and the loving people in my life.
Hurting myself canceled out the truth that God cherishes me, and wishes to raise me up in the resurrection on the last day.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus prays that all who believe in him may be one and be brought to perfection in the unity between himself and the Father (John 17:20-23). I believe that communion with God is our goal as Christians and our fulfillment as people. By hurting myself, I was missing the target of my fundamental purpose. Both the Hebrew chata and Greek hamartia mean "to miss the mark", and these are the principal words used in the Bible for sin. By hurting myself and believing that I needed and deserved to be hurt, I was sinning.
I thought I was trying to love God and my neighbors with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength by being a perfect Christian, son, sibling, friend and worker; by never admitting my failures and doubts or asking for help with my struggles. In reality, I was failing to recognize that I needed to love my neighbor as much as I loved myself, as the rest of that passage goes. (Mk 12:30-31) And I was not loving God by recognizing and accepting the infinite and abiding love God had for me.
By believing that I needed and deserved to be hurt, I was sinning.
In my unhealthy pursuit of divine perfection, I could not, or would not, read the passage in Luke 6:36 that parallels Matthew 5:48: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Mercy is the divine trait Jesus tells us to emulate and that he modeled in his ministry, death and resurrection. It involves loving the people pushed to the margins of our societies.
More specifically, mercy involves acts of charity addressing suffering and acts of justice addressing the root causes of that suffering. Mercy also involves acknowledging and healing the traits that push us to the margins of our own self worth: our own weaknesses, our fears, our limits and our sorrows.
Our perfection, my perfection, does not come from exercising total control over life. It is not about knowing what to say or do in every situation. It is not about magically getting the Internet set up on time. It comes from gratefully receiving God’s mercy and humbly embodying and extending it to others in our daily lives.
Mercy also involves acknowledging and healing the traits that push us to the margins of our own self worth.
God has extended immense mercy to me in my support network. The people to whom I eventually disclosed my episodes of self-harm urged me to return to therapy. My friends and my therapist challenged me to honestly confront how, through my play-acting, I was deceiving myself and them about my mental health. This network of friends, family and my therapist challenged me, fundamentally, to love myself honestly.
Perfectionism remains a part of my life. I am trying to become more comfortable asking for help with difficult tasks, sharing my sorrows or frustrations with others, and accepting the typos and small mistakes that are a part of everyday human life. Temptations to hurt myself in words and even, very rarely, in actions also persist. I am grateful to write that I have not followed the latter temptation into physically harming myself since last year.
God’s grace is active in the therapist I saw, in the people who love me, and in the habits of prayer I have cultivated. These all keep me on a safe path. God, through all these blessings, reminds me that I am closest to perfection when I am merciful with myself and others—imperfections and all. That truth about the need for mercy in my life, is always on my list of things to give thanks for. It is something I want to teach, and to practice.
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental distress, mental illness or suicidal ideation, please call the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988.