Note – This post about love discusses a part of my mental health story from 2018 to 2020 and may trigger unwanted thoughts or emotions in those that have suffered traumas. This post is part of a story told chronologically.
Before writing this story, I reviewed my journal entries, therapy notes, and doctor notes. Tears brimmed occasionally as I remembered the raw and visceral emotions I had experienced on a roller-coaster ride that lasted about three years. When I recalled that my grandfather, a WWII veteran, had PTSD and suffered through many night terrors, I choked up.
I listened to radio stations on shuffle when I wrote. When the Red dirt song about a friend dying in a car crash came on, or when the Red dirt song about guns and suicide came on, or when the Christian song titled Cornerstone came on, emotion instantly overwhelmed me.
The tears flowed not from dread or terror; instead, they came from thanksgiving for surviving. I felt guttural compassion for sufferers of mental illness. I walked through the land of the dead and returned to the land of the living. Yes!
The brain fog burned off more quickly and didn’t return. Like the radio dial tuned to the correct frequency, pleasant, normal thoughts flowed clearly rather than evil, abnormal thoughts occupying my mind as static.
I recalled several positive memories. Singing Johnny Cash songs while driving pushed aside the terrible voices. New friends entered my life and helped me along the journey. Joy flowed when talking with Courtney or Robyn about the Cornerstone book.
My dog was a gift. For months I planned to adopt a golden retriever from a rescue organization, but none were the right fit. Days after I deposited money for a puppy from a breeder, I spoke to the car advisor while my truck was in service. I told her my story. She then made a call and told me her friend trained service dogs for veterans. I adopted Finley from his organization when he was three months old.
I don’t know if doing anything differently would have sped up the healing. Maybe if I trusted more, I thought, or prayed more, hoped more, opened up more, surrendered more, rested more, or admitted myself to a mental hospital, would I have shortened the healing process. I don’t know. The healing was probably going to take time regardless, and I had to endure and pass through it.
The duration was the toughest part. There were intense moments during these three years of wild ups and downs, in times of mania and depression, of mystical highs and deep lows, and of full communion and vast loneliness. It seemed everything came up at once. I thanked God for the strength He gave me to endure.
During many moments when I was alone, I didn’t know if I would survive. Thoughts came in waves telling me to end the pain. It was tempting at times, but then I’d remember a word or phrase from Scripture, a positive memory with friends or family, or one of the mystical experiences when I had intimately received God’s protection and love. I often went to my room, closed my door, and sat on the floor. I stared at the crucifix, or looked at pictures of family, or looked at the drawing of a golden retriever puppy Padre had drawn for me.
I also looked at an animal cutout of a dinosaur. A Reality Ministries’ participant gave it to me during a Friday around Valentine’s Day. Like most participants, he had a developmental disability, and his thoughts often got caught in a loop. He spoke a word or sentence, then repeated it several times, until the loop broke.
He often looked at me and said in a thick, southern accent, “You alright? You look gargeous, darlin’. You my cousin, no, you my brother.” I wasn’t alright, but in those moments I was one with so many in that community. As he and I grabbed crayons, he picked red and began to color outside the lines of his dinosaur. I jokingly said he was coloring outside the lines, and he replied, “That’s alright, darlin’. This dinosaur needs surgery, he needs bad surgery.” He quickly colored the dinosaur, stopped, and handed it to me, and said, “It’s for you, darlin’.”
Then he got up from the table and spoke to someone else like the gift was no big deal. I laughed, then shed a few tears as I saw what the figure said: You are DINO-mite! This reminder of selfless love became a source of healing during many lonely nights on my bedroom floor.
Terrible thoughts attacked throughout the summer as I edited Cornerstone and traveled back and forth from Raleigh to Cincinnati, but they weren’t as intense or frequent. Nightmares came, including several that placed me in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they no longer had the power to seize or scare me. Thoughts ordering me to jump off a bridge stopped—stopped! It was hard to believe at first. Those thoughts frequented my mind each time I jogged across the bridge that separated Cincinnati from Northern Kentucky. Then, the thoughts just stopped. They didn’t come. Amen!
No longer did my mind feel like it had been ringed with plaque. Moreover, my body wasn’t as sensitive to hair triggers.
The blacksmith finished making crosses from my gun and knives. When I got home, I prayed over the crosses, sprinkled them with holy water, and placed them inside thirty-five thank-you cards.
I visited the yurt and learned more about Robyn’s death. Her husband told me that in the middle of the night, she was gasping for air and leaning up in her bed with her arms raised towards the ceiling. She was saying something about angels coming to bring her home.
As Cornerstone was being proofread during the fall of 2020, I traveled to Cincinnati. I stayed with family through November and December, then worked military all of January. The emotions during this time were a complete reversal from the year prior. Terrible thoughts and panic attacks dwindled to a trickle, and if they did come, they didn’t stick. They vanished quickly. By this point, after consultation with my psychiatrist, I was confident I could wind down the use of anti-depressants.
By the time of this writing in early March 2021, my mind has been mostly restored. I no longer think about breathing or my heart beating. With each passing week, I feel more and more alive. Without anti-depressants, the light burns more and more of my brain fog.
My body may produce a minor panic attack based on a trigger, but it doesn’t last long. Panic vapors trail me occasionally. Additionally, ghosts of the recent past linger. But I’m confident with more time, these memories will fade completely to the background. Moreover, I believe that with God’s help, these experiences will be transformative. Rather than frighten, intimidate, or threaten me, these memories will illuminate me to help others.
I can’t pinpoint the exact day when evil thoughts began to retreat. However, my journal indicates it was likely during the spring, after the wave of intimate spiritual experiences, while alone in the chapel. It was middle afternoon, and I was praying in Xavier University’s Bellarmine Chapel.
Like most days, I sat across from the statue of Mary. I prayed the Rosary silently and slowly with my eyes closed, asking her to intercede for me, to ask her Son to finally defeat the monsters terrorizing my mind. When I finished the Rosary, I remained kneeling and listened. A peace and a warmth that surpassed all understanding overshadowed me. The chapel brightened a little as the sun burst through the stained glass windows and produced a warm glow. I told Jesus I loved Him. Like the previous two years, I expected the same response: “I love you, too, Mike.”
I didn’t hear that.
Rather, I heard in a gentle and loving and beautiful tone, “We love you, Mike.”
Eyes shone wit
h tears, and my chest caved. I imagined the Father, Son, and Spirit, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and the wider community of family, friends, brothers, and sisters telling me all things would pass and be okay.
“We love you, Mike,” they said.