“In the Catholic Church, the first few years of religious education are spent preparing young boys and girls to make their first confession. If you’re unfamiliar, confession is when you sit with your parish priest and verbally list all the bad things you’ve done, or thought, or thought about thinking about. The idea being that your priest will act as an intermediary between you and God and offer you a chance to complete your penance to atone for your sins, and thus be granted God’s complete forgiveness—until you inevitably mess up again and have to go back to confession.
It usually went a little something like this:
CHILD: ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.’
PRIEST: ‘Continue, my child.’
CHILD: ‘Um, okay. Well, I hit my brother forty-three times. I yelled at my sister for touching my stuff every single day this week. I think I thought about my neighbor dying in a car crash, but I’m not sure. I stole a Coke from the fridge after my mom said not to. I think there was other stuff too, but I forget. I am sorry for all my sins.’
PRIEST: *Prays the Prayer of Absolution, makes the sign of the cross, and prescribes three Hail Marys and two Acts of Contrition.*
CHILD: *Prays prayers. BOOM! FORGIVEN.*
Now listen, I am not here to pick apart the religiosity and tradition of the Catholic Church or any church; however, *steps on a soap box* if religious bodies are going to teach generation after generation of children to believe their worth and the destination of their eternal souls is tied to their performance during their literal first try at being a human being, there’s going to be some pretty traumatic fallout.
For me, that fallout looked like crippling intrusive thoughts and clinical diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at the ripe old age of eleven. So cute, right? It was the best! My favorite part of being a kid was waking up in the morning and accidentally thinking about what would happen if I burned my house down. It was such a magical time. If you’re a person who struggles with intrusive thoughts, you know they usually stem from your worst-case scenarios. And when your entire religious upbringing centers around avoiding being the cause of worst-case scenarios, you come up with some pretty gnarly ones. But before we really dive into this conversation, please don’t hear me saying that the Catholic Church is responsible for my mental illness; it merely shaped its presentation.
The Beginnings of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
The whole thing started pretty innocuously. I worried about us having enough gas in our family car or making sure my bladder was completely empty before I left the house—not exactly huge red flags or the textbook OCD symptoms anyone had seen in What About Bob or As Good as It Gets, the cultural touchstones for all things mental illness in the nineties. So, my parents just let it ride. My worrying would flare up from time to time, but overall it was nothing too concerning, considering how weird kids are in general. Like if my parents were going to get all worked up over these seemingly benign fears, then they’d also have to have some misgivings about the fact that I was performing a full-length version of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which I played Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Judas, and Peter, in the middle of our living room every single afternoon.
That all changed around the time my youngest sister, Christine, was born. Somewhere between my time spent thinking about Sully from Dr. Quinn’s Medicine Woman and debating which was better, the live-action Flintstones film or the original Hanna-Barbara made-for-TV cartoon, I started thinking about… other stuff. Other weird stuff. What kind of weird stuff?
Well, I worried that when I walked to the gas station across the street from our house I might purposely step in old gasoline and track it back to my house and then light a match and burn the house to the ground with my family inside.
I worried that I might purposely push my best friend into traffic when I invited her over to my house to play.
I worried that I might purposely kick someone in the head while I was swinging on our swing set.
Of course, I never ever did any of those things. Or anything close to them. But still, I worried that I might, and wouldn’t that make me a bad person? The thoughts began to get so frightening that I would wake up every morning and try to create a version of white noise inside my own head to block out any thoughts for as long as I could, which usually wasn’t even long enough to make it down to the breakfast table.
As my worries began to escalate and become more and more bizarre, so did my behavior. When we talked about this experience years later, my mom would tell me she remembered seeing me put myself in harm’s way to avoid hurting people, doing things like jumping off a really high swing if another kid even entered our backyard, or making sure I walked out in the middle of the road while a friend walked safely on the sidewalk. Seeing me in action around that time was probably akin to watching Devon Sawa in Final Destination—except no one was actually about to be impaled by a log falling off the back of a truck.
Out of sheer desperation, I did discover two respites for my brain during this time. I found that:
a) If I watched The Sound of Music or Full House I could escape my otherwise non-stop intrusive thoughts.
b) If I confessed my thoughts to my mom I would feel ‘absolved.’
I can only assume that the latter came from my experience with my first holy confession. When you combine that with the fact that before we knew its proper name, we called my mental illness a ‘guilty conscience,’ it’s no wonder that my need for forgiveness ballooned faster than Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka’s factory. It wasn’t enough for me to acknowledge that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong myself, I needed someone else to tell me I wasn’t doing anything to feel bad about. I stopped trusting my own experience in the world, and the lines between reality and what was going on inside my head became very, very blurry.
By the time I’d reached middle school, I was calling my mom to collect me  from the pay phone outside the gym several times every single day to confess all the terrible things I ‘might’ have done or thought.
* Remember collect calls? Actually, forget collect calls. Remember long-distance phone service commercials? MCI should be ashamed of the emotional manipulation they employed in trying to get a generation of adults to feel bad about not calling home enough.*
The calls would sound something like:
‘You have a collect call from: I cheated on my social studies test. I think I brushed up against an eighth-grader in the hallway on purpose. I thought about wanting my boobs to grow. I maybe thought about the librarian dying. I think I—’
My mom knew better than to accept the call. There was nothing she could say. As a mom myself now, I can’t even imagine how it felt to hear those things (and worse) come out of her daughter’s mouth. But we had developed a rhythm: I would spew black bile from my soul and she would listen, without flinching. Sometimes I’d leave some of my confessions written in unintelligible chicken scratch on her pillow or whisper them to her while she was making dinner. In return, she would write me a sweet note using a piece of my dolphin stationery or give me a squeeze while she mashed up meatloaf with two-thirds of a bottle of Heinz 57.
But never once, not one single time, do I remember her making me feel ashamed or embarrassed about what I said. Oh sure, at times she seemed exasperated or stressed, times when I’d creep into her room late at night to confess something while she was sitting up late, literally reading the textbooks she’d checked out of the Emerson Hospital Research Library to help her make sense of what the heck was going on with her daughter. But she never, ever said anything to make me feel like anything less than her regular old Kelly.
We limped along like this for a while, me confessing and my mom listening. It was hell on both of us, but I dulled the pain with Maria Von Trapp and the Full House gang and assumed, ‘This is my life now. It sucks, but at least I’m not Kimmy Gibbler.’
I was thirty-three years old before I learned there were others like me out there. That there were other kids who woke up one morning and felt completely unable to get out of bed. Those other kids sat in psychiatrists’ waiting rooms listening to tiny noise machines, wondering if their next Prozac dosing would be the one that fixed everything. And I could tell you that all those experiences made me feel really alone. That I suffered from my OCD and intrusive thoughts for twenty-one years before I felt accepted or normal. And that would make for a very interesting back story, but it would be completely untrue.
Because I never ever felt alone or broken or sick, for one very specific reason: my parents. They supported the ever-loving heck out of me, and that is the kind of grace every child deserves. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel grateful my parents didn’t kowtow to the stigma of mental illness in the nineties or shame me because some of my intrusive thoughts were sex-based. Instead of just trying to make the OCD go away, they fought to help me become myself again, in whatever way served me best. I still get verklempt any time I think too much about it. I mean, they went to the library, you guys! And got textbooks! Made of paper! I was so privileged to walk through this dark time with their encouragement, especially because even though it should be, we all know this is not the story of every child who struggles with mental illness.
The Light At The End Of A Tunnel
Slowly, my collect calls became more and more infrequent, so much so that I don’t remember batting an eyelash when our school eventually removed all the pay phones in favor of making kids call home from the supervised front office. I still feel the need to confess from time to time, even now as an adult. It’s something I’m working toward outgrowing by the time I turn sixty, but my hopes are not high. Because that’s how mental illness works, it waxes and wanes like the moon.  Some days are good, others are not. I remember my psychiatrist Dr. Joshi telling me as much from her chair in her small office at Boston Children’s Hospital, that things would never truly be all the way better, which is a little scary to think about as a pre-teen. But really, mental illness or not, are any of us ever all the way better? Or are we just constantly ebbing and flowing through life like the tides,  with some days more difficult than others.
* Does anyone really know which direction is ‘waxing’ and which is ‘waning?’ I mean besides seventh-grade earth science teachers …
* Again, not sure which way is which.
There was a story that came out not that long ago about a Boston lobsterman who was nearly swallowed by a humpback whale while he was diving to check on some of his lobster traps. Apparently, the whale scooped him up like a piece of human krill and held him inside his mouth for a minute or so before spitting him back into the land of the living. During a news interview immediately after his close encounter, the lobsterman likened getting swallowed by the whale to being ‘hit by a truck’ and that the inside of the whale’s mouth felt ‘hard all around.’ He went on to say that after a few terrifying moments of wondering if he was about to live or die, he saw a light at the front of the whale’s mouth, and almost instantly the whole experience was over.
A week after that story hit the news, my sister Christine was in LA, where she lives now, hanging out at the Roosevelt Hotel pool, when a man with a heavy Boston accent started chatting with her. He was in LA for the first time with his wife because Jimmy Kimmel had invited him onto his late-night talk show.
‘Why?’ my sister asked.
‘Because I’m the guy that got swallowed by the whale!’ he boasted, proud as you please, before returning to join his wife on their lounge chairs. Now, this might seem like a weird, name-drop-y story, but it might also seem, at its core, to be a story about how a person can go from arguably the darkest, hardest moment in their life, to the total opposite, which according to my calculations is having a super fun pool day with your partner in sunny California. Life’s never going to be ‘all the way’ better, but it’s also not going to eat you alive.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kelly Bandas. Follow her journey on Instagram and TikTok. You can pre-order her book here. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more from Kelly here:
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‘I was still in I-might-die-at-any-moment panic mode. Nothing could change that. ‘Do you guys know Jesus loves you?’ Except that.’: Woman pursuing international adoption sits next to very religious man on flight
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