I grew up as the oldest of three in Texas with a loving family and wonderful parents. Some people say that babies are born atheists because they can't believe in God, but my first memories were naturally of God, of being awed by the world and my ability to do new things, and of loving my family with all my heart. I spent a lot of time outdoors and on my paternal grandparents' farm with their young daughter who was like a big sister to me. There was never any doubt that I was loved and that I could make people happy. Those are my first memories.
I was a naturally shy child. The first time I remember fear is not from a dangerous or physically painful situation, but at my second birthday party surrounded by so many people. I didn't know what they expected of me, and I remember hiding in my room with my maternal grandmother. She is the one who later taught me to read my Bible daily and write down my prayers. I still have them because my mother saved them for me.
My shyness made me anxious in grade school, and I was medically treated for it in Kindergarten. I didn't understand people. I liked being alone but I wanted to please others too, and to do the right thing. I often felt misunderstood. When my overzealous hand came down from my heart after the Pledge of Allegiance in Kindergarten and broke a leaf on a nearby plant, I was shamed in front of others. When I accidentally fell on a slide I was spanked for bad behavior. When I was told not to talk on the bus, I was ridiculed by other kids for very literally obeying.
There was an undercurrent of racism where I grew up in the 1970's, and I do not ever remember hearing of the Catholic Church as a young child. There is so much I did not understand. I remember a single mother who brought her mixed-race child to our Baptist church one Sunday. She sat in the back and during the invitation when the preacher called for anyone to come forward who wanted to be "saved," she held her daughter's hand and walked down the aisle in humility before the small congregation.
She requested membership in the church and, as was customary, the congregation voted with a verbal "Aye" or "Nay." People were of course always voted in with lots of affirmative votes, and I never heard that last word used even once, until that day. The same people who taught me to follow the Bible and to "Love thy neighbor as thyself" rejected and humiliated a woman who was broken.
I remember watching the mother leave with her daughter, in tears, and wanting to run after them, to leave that church and never go back, to scream that it was all so wrong. My parents, kind and loving people, hated it too but no one knew what to do. I was a child and I didn't know what to do. Thus began my doubting of religion. That is not the God I read about in the Bible. It seemed that everywhere there was hypocrisy and contradiction.
The Baptists taught me to follow the Bible, but they condemned drinking alcohol and dancing –however gymnastics were applauded and being asked to prom was a high honor. Alcohol was so forbidden that we wondered if cooking with it was sinful. I was told that sex outside of marriage was wrong, but beautiful people on TV disobeyed that rule religiously. People gossiped and I was constantly worried about what others were saying. Sunday seemed to be more about wearing the right dress and worrying about who was going to perform what song. It seemed all a performance.
Over the years I learned to perform well, as that seemed to be when people were most loved. I, like all children, wanted to be loved. I was in beauty pageants, and I was so loved. I won talent shows, dancing and doing gymnastics, and I was so loved. I was a cheerleader, and I was loved. I became a feature twirler, and I was loved. I learned to play the piano and the violin and the clarinet and every time I was on stage, I was so loved. I was addicted to that feeling and I excelled at whatever I did that would put me on a stage – so I could feel loved.
I know now that God gives us the desire to be loved so we will seek Him. If we seek love without seeking God we will be desperate because that desire will never be satisfied. Performing was stressful because I was shy, but the love I felt when I was on stage was wonderful so I kept performing. I learned to tell people what they wanted to hear and to behave as people wanted me to behave. God gives us the desire to learn so we will know Him and know ourselves, but without seeking Him that love of learning turns to sinful pride.
In this confusion, anxiety, and stress I formed private compulsive behaviors in my early teens, my secret physical pains. I pulled out my eyelashes and eyebrows and bit my nails until they bled. The compulsion caused me to feel ugly and ashamed, and that made me more stressed and anxious. To perform well I had to be pretty and without eyelashes, eyebrows or fingernails I thought I was very ugly and doomed to be unloved. I grew angry and more confused.
In my first year of college I began drinking and partying sorority-style because I got attention when I did. I remained alcohol-free and chaste until college but when I was surrounded by popular people living promiscuously I conformed, and performed, so I could feel loved. I knew it was wrong, but I wanted to feel loved.
By the summer of that first year I found out I was pregnant before my worried mother could take me to the doctor for birth control. "Don't have sex, but let's get birth control just in case you do." I don't fault her for that; it was the message of our culture. Birth control was the responsible thing to use if you weren't going to be responsible in the first place. Like I said, contradictions abounded.
I loved my parents and I knew I disappointed them, and I loved my baby so I vowed to be a good mother and to finish college in spite of "screwing up." The leather wedding dress I insisted on might have been a clue to someone that I was indeed harboring some serious anger.
In 1991 when I found myself divorced and rejected by an unfaithful man, I took the popular advice of the rock group R.E.M. and "lost my religion." Finally something made sense. After trying so hard to please people and failing, it felt like freedom to let it go. So what if I was a divorced single mother at the age of 22? Wasn't I living just like the soap opera, sit-com and movie stars? All around me the sophisticated and pretty people were the ones free of religion and the complication of "marriage." Just me and my baby out to conquer the world.
"Oh, life is bigger. It's bigger than you, and you are not me. The lengths that I will go to..."
I finished school in record time and taught high school for two years. It was during those days that I discovered Ayn Rand and wanted to be like her, to climb higher and excel as an academic. Eventually I decided to go back to school for a Ph.D. in Chemistry. What success! I appeared to be a pretty and modern single mother who hadn't let the world stop her, who had survived in a man's world. Alone I was terrified because I couldn't control the hair pulling and self-injury and I felt worthless. The pain felt good.
I was a horrible mother and I knew it. I didn't have any time to raise my little daughter, but I couldn't even entertain the idea of giving up my career. Rand-style-rugged-individualism meant I had to show the world, and my daughter, that I could make it. "That's what women should do, and they should do it without men." The weird thing is, I obsessively had to have a boyfriend, one right after the other, because I had to perform to feel loved. The relationships never lasted and I still remember the look of sadness on my daughter's face as I ignored her day after day after day. I was too busy chasing an appearance so I could feel loved when real love was staring at me every day through two big hazel eyes.
"The distance in your eyes..."
I grew angrier but suppressed it, more dependent on the approval of others and addicted to the appearance of success. I met people in Dallas and became involved in the dark world of cocktails and "sexual freedom," ecstasy and cocaine, image and "everybody's somebody" attitude – the extreme and fabulous Dallas night life. I thought this was how to be really free. In a few months' time a man proposed and agreed to move to Pennsylvania with me as I began graduate school in 1994. I became pregnant the week he arrived and gave birth in my first year. He stayed home with the baby and he tried to do the right thing, but I belittled him as if I were the only one in the new family that mattered. Nothing mattered more than my career, my craving for attention.
From time to time I wanted to revisit religion again. I tried a Unitarian church, but why bother? You may as well stay in bed and just say a quick prayer. I was "married" by an Indian medicine man on a cliff, ironically a legendary place of suicide for failing college students. As the medicine man chanted and I finished my vows (which I made up at the last minute) two black crows flew up in a gust of wind, like a dark warning. The whole thing was ominous. I wondered what commitment I really had just made.
"Oh no, I've said too much. I set it up..."
While I was pregnant he took me to lunch one day and I remember thinking maybe we would be happy. Then, two college girls walked by and the skirt of one of them blew up. Rather than pretend not to see it, he was giddy about her red underwear. Maybe that should be harmless enough - even on television men do that and wives laugh along good-naturedly - but on that day, in that moment, it cut so deeply and severed a thread of sanity. If someone out-performed me, I feared I would not be loved. In jealous revenge, that was when I set out to make him never look at another woman again, to be his superstar, and then to ruin him...oddly, for love.
I did not leave this newly found party life behind even as a graduate student and mother. I did, however, leave my two children behind often with babysitters, anyone I could find to watch them, so I could go out at night. I managed to do well by day in classes and in the laboratory; I managed to do my part to get my children to school and keep them fed and clothed, but I was becoming dangerously detached. My ego thrived on attention, and I became brilliant at getting it, at being noticed, at being the life of any party, but the nights ended in the wee hours of the morning, often in a dark closet or a bathroom crying in the corner like a deranged child afraid of her own shadow. I did love my baby boy and I loved my little girl, but there were so many contradictions, so much confusion.
"That's me in the corner. That's me in the spotlight. I'm losing my religion, trying to keep up with you. And I don't know if I can do it..."
I discovered strip clubs, and was instantly jealous. Few would believe that a mother of two, a supposedly intelligent woman who had it all, used a stage name and took money for dancing while attending graduate school. The stage was where I was loved, and at least a bare body with fake eyelashes and fake fingernails could perform in the dark and pretend to be loved while a terrified spirit retreated further from reality. It wasn't enough. I began to experiment sexually outside the relationship, I spiraled further, every day losing more of myself and living a lie, every day raping myself. The anger was uncontrollable and the hair-pulling and self-injury turned to self-hatred, self-battery and self-destruction. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but no one seemed to care. My hateful façade was impenetrable and everyone thought I was so free. Even the unreligious professors who found out about my double life hailed me as the "new paradigm."
"Consider this, the hint of the century. Consider this, the slip that brought me to my knees failed. What if all these fantasies come flailing around..."
Not once did I ever stop believing in God. I stopped believing in religion. If that single woman with a mixed-race child was rejected, why should I even try? It was later in Virginia, where I got my first job, that the "marriage" ended after six years of unmentionable tragedy, after I found myself alone and hated, after a cloud of close calls and substance overdose, after missing the childhood of my children, after realizing my career was only that, after getting the shame I deserved in my community, after alienating my parents, after hurting so many people, after realizing I had nothing to offer the world...that I just one time called out to God. "Please God let me remember what it's like to be a baby again."
Like an infant learning to walk I tried to take new steps but fell often with nothing to guide me. Sometimes I clawed my way back up, but I had nothing to hang onto. As the random story goes, I found myself one day in North Carolina on a business trip. A man from Missouri passed me in the hallway and in the morning sunshine he looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Good morning." That moment stands out, and even though the demons in me raged for years to come, I look back and know without a doubt that that was the answer to my prayer. I felt hope in that moment for the first time in my adult life and God was mercifully leading me home.
"Every whisper. Of every waking hour I'm choosing my confessions."
He said he was a Catholic man, but I refused a Catholic wedding because they wanted me to wait a year. We were married quickly in a chapel. We both loved numbers so we married on 01/02/03, the only three consecutive prime numbers whose sum and product equal the same thing. I learned two weeks later that I was ten weeks pregnant.
This was my third (civil) marriage and my third time as a pregnant bride. I didn't understand marriage, love or commitment, and all I knew was that I couldn't survive this man rejecting me too so I panicked. My fits of rage and self-battery became torment. Fear became a prison and I just wanted it to end. When my aunt, my "big sister" of my childhood on my grandparents' farm, committed suicide that year because she found herself facing divorce and living alone, I knew exactly why she did it. Yet, I was spared.
With my husband's help and love, I took on those demons. I have been hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and spent years in therapy. I have heard the internal screams, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that is hell. I have beaten and burned my body in gross and ugly ways to shut them out, and they have only laughed. They are real, and physical pain is at least a pain with limits. The harder I tried to do good, the more fearful I became because I knew I did not deserve anything good. Instead of loving my committed husband back, I only tried to hurt him before he could hurt me. One day, amidst all that confusion, my husband asked me in a moment of clarity to answer one single, critical question. "Stacy, how do you define success?"
"I thought that I heard you laughing. I thought that I heard you sing. I think I thought I saw you try...."
That was the light that reached my cowered soul. For the first time since childhood I thought about what I wanted, not what I thought others wanted me to want. I kept thinking about dolls. How I once loved dolls! I once wanted to be my mother so badly. I left my job when our daughter was born and began homeschooling my older two children who had never really had a mother present. I taught them all I could. They were already hurt and I had a lot to make up to them, but I had the day and I had the chance and so I took it. I learned that each day is a gift. When I wanted to know more about my husband's Roman Catholic faith, he suggested I enroll in an RCIA program and he went to every class with me. I thought I would struggle mightily with the idea of Transubstantiation but I did not. It was an instinctive grasp of the simplest and deepest reality. I learned to believe. I learned about living with purpose and being open to life. By grace our family grew and we had four daughters in the first four years, even as I was still confronting my demons. We made it through because we clung to the Sacraments. These children have always had a mother present no matter what.
It has not been easy and the past still haunts me, but it also drives me. My penance is my daily prayer that my life will shine light where there is darkness. I don't want any little girl to ever suffer from confusion and anxiety the way I did. I know what Marriage is now and I have found the One True Religion. I said in the beginning that I have at least a decade of children. I used birth control for many years and there may be children I never knew existed. We sadly lost two in miscarriage in 2010 and then were blessed with a baby boy.
And there's one who briefly lived in a time and place on a college campus in Texas where single mothers who have lost their religion could make a terrible but legal choice to try to forget all about life and head to graduate school. I killed my own child by paying for an abortion – a suicide unto itself – just before I met a man in Dallas and begged him to show me freedom. Children are created to love their mother and mothers are created to love their children. I do love that child and I don't forget. I never will. Not a day passes that I don't mourn that loss and although I can't undo that terrible action, I can live to stop the lies that led to it. That's what a redeemed mother does.
I'm blessed eternally with children, and I live for them all now by living for God who created, knows and loves us all. Across the world, and right in front of me, there are lost and broken people, broken families and broken communities. Children need to be taught the Truth, without compromise, so that as they grow up they will know right from wrong, and that they are loved unconditionally by their Creator.
For the two years it took to finally finish RCIA, I went to daily Mass without receiving Communion just to be in the presence of the Truth and Love I so desperately sought all my life. The Church does not ask me to perform. She asks me to serve, to love, to be loved, to know and to be known for the Kingdom of Heaven. I am not worthy, but I know that the Lord only has to say the Word and I am healed.
When I finally stepped forward and uncrossed my arms from my heart to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, a broken and lost woman became a healed and whole daughter welcomed into the community of faith. Somewhere there is a dark-skinned woman about my age whose single mother was rejected from religion while I watched and I pray that they both found their way home too.
We celebrated the Sacrament of Marriage the same day as my First Communion and we were instructed to select scripture. Inspired by it during a Mass, we chose Isaiah 61:10, "I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; For he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, Like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels." When the demons of my past try to cower or taunt me now, to stop me from telling the truth, to tell me to be afraid, I make one gigantic sign of the cross over my body and raise my hands Heavenward, and then I let that robe and that mantle clothe me in protection. There's work to be done for the Kingdom of Heaven.
After our Sacrament of Marriage, a friend of my husband's randomly gave him a daily devotional book as a gift. It seemed remarkable because my husband had also just purchased a copy of the same book a few days earlier to give to me as a gift. For no apparent reason we both had a copy of the same book, seemingly random gifts of kindness. Weeks later he called me at home on the date of our original wedding anniversary – January 2nd, the day we had selected to begin our life together four years earlier 01/02/03 - and told me in tears to look at the scripture for that day.
It was Isaiah 61:10. God was telling us, "I am here, I was then and I always am." I know this family will survive. I know I will survive. By grace and because I am loved, I am a child of God, a wife to my husband and a mother to my children. All of them. And that is the truth of my life, and why I'm Catholic.
To read more about what a scientist turned homemaker and joyful convert to Catholicism is learning about faith, reason, order, infinity and life please follow her blog "Accepting Abundance".