Though bright academically, he was thrown into a tailspin of anxiety by sudden transitions or unexpected requests. Normally a real charmer, with precocious flashes of wit and insight, he started to become an irritable, inflexible perfectionist. By age nine he developed a number of odd obsessions, such as having to repeat explanations over and over and over. Angry outbursts became all too common, triggered by very minor incidents. We consulted school psychologists and doctors and received plenty of well-meant advice, but no explanations of why this was happening.
When Peter started displaying odd, jerky movements in the fifth grade, our concern turned to alarm. We managed to get referred to a pediatric psychiatrist over the Christmas break. As Peter followed us into his office, all the while tapping his foot on the floor and snapping his neck sideways, the psychiatrist looked at my husband and I, and then announced in a gentle voice, "I believe this young man has Tourette Syndrome." Wham.
The psychiatrist's intuition proved to be correct, his diagnosis confirmed after a battery of tests, family interviews and observations by a medical team at the clinic. In some ways, it was a comfort to have a name for Peter's quirky behaviour, but in another way it felt like being hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. We read everything we could get our hands on about Tourette Syndrome (TS), and found out that a diagnosis of this neurological disorder is not like receiving a death sentence. Most people learn to cope with TS and lead normal lives, and in fact the symptoms often abate somewhat by early adulthood. But the diagnosis started our family down a road to a new life, albeit a twisting and often lonely road. If you had told us at that point that the journey would include my husband and I joining the Catholic Church, we would have laughed in your face.
Like most parents faced with a situation like Peter's, we quickly became experts about the disorder. We found out that some cases of TS can be very mild, and often go undiagnosed, but Peter's case was quite severe. His involuntary jerky movements were called tics, the hallmark of TS, and they became more pronounced in the following months. Vocal tics started showing up – loud barking sounds that he had no control over. We were happy to discover that "swearing" tics (known as copralalia), most often associated with TS in the media, are actually quite uncommon, affecting only about 10% of individuals with TS.
Tics aren't the only symptom of this rather bizarre disorder, however. About two thirds of the time, it is accompanied by other neurological challenges such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and hyperactivity. Difficulty managing frustration and anger also occurs frequently. Our son's rage-filled outbursts became a familiar daily occurrence, and his obsessions and compulsions became more convoluted and unrelenting. Our life began to unravel.
School became a nightmare. Even though the school staff and many of his fellow students were trying to be compassionate and tolerant, he still felt humiliated, confused, sad and out of control. My husband and I were called into the school on an almost daily basis because of his disconcerting and often abrasive behavior. Finally, we made the decision to home school Peter for the rest of the year, in an attempt to salvage our collective sanity. I quit my job as a school administrator.
I've noticed that, from my childhood, when faced with frightening or worrying experiences I seek solace in books, and this was no exception. As Peter and I launched into this new experience of home schooling, I buried myself in the works of authors I have long loved, including C. S. Lewis, in my spare time. Though Peter was calmer, his symptoms continued unabated. I retreated even further into quiet despair.
An insight from Lewis' book The Problem of Pain had a profound impact on me: "Pain removes the veil. It plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul." As I sat one day at our dining room table, reading and absorbing those words with my twitching, barking son beside me working on his math lesson, it did indeed feel as if a veil was being ripped off my old perceptions of myself, of God and of the world. I knew I needed to go deeper, to find a new way to live with our reality, to cope with the hopelessness and bitterness I felt, to make sense of the suffering my son was enduring, and to find the strength of spirit to help him rise above his challenges.
C. S. Lewis led me to one of his favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton, whose books I ate up with an eagerness that alarmed my husband. Hugely intrigued by Chesterton's conversion to Catholicism, I started reading the works of other notable converts – Cardinal John Henry Newman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Scott Hahn, Richard John Neuhaus and Thomas Howard. I joined in an experience common to almost all of these authors, a letting-go of my perception of how I thought God works. It became increasingly clear to me that I was in love with God's blessings, but not with God. I had long been worshipping a deity of my own construction that conveniently propped up my own ideas and plans. Needless to say, my life was now looking much different than I'd ever imagined.
Part of the problem was that I was no longer in control. The outward signs of neurological disorders such as TS are so easily misinterpreted. Peter's physical symptoms didn't allow us the luxury of pretending that everything was okay, even if we wanted to. Many of his completely unintentional urges resulted in behaviour that looked both deliberate and extremely peculiar, even disturbing – such as tapping on my face with his fingers or squatting down every third step as he walked. I've been in many shopping malls and watched people stare. I've sat in restaurants and noticed how uncomfortable everyone is. I've seen people uneasily cross to the other side of the street when they heard Peter coming, barking and yipping. It hurts. But all of these experiences forced me to deal with one of the biggest obstacles in my own spiritual growth – worrying about "what other people might think." I realized that this worry was my obsession, and that it had in fact become one of the ruling passions of my life. It affected my priorities, my schedule, my choices and my mood. And it had to go, along with the mask of self-sufficiency I was hiding behind.
The books I was reading caused me to feel drawn, like a magnet, to a little Catholic church in our neighborhood. I had never been inside, even though we had lived just a few blocks away for over fifteen years, and walked our dogs around it almost every night. As I entered, I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but I also had no baggage to drag behind me.
I soon found myself signed up for a course called Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, with a group of other spiritual explorers. I was increasingly fascinated by what I was hearing from the instructors every Tuesday night, and could think or talk of little else. Out of curiosity, my husband soon joined me. Here we found a group of people unafraid to gaze on Christ's suffering – and as I followed their gaze, I found a love that shook me to the core. Tuesday after Tuesday, I grasped more fully the truth of Chesterton's astute comment: "The Catholic Church is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside." In fact, what I found inside those doors was a new heaven and a new earth that I had long been looking for. At the next Easter Vigil, those doors were thrown wide open for my husband and I, as we were received into the Church.
In the Eucharist I embraced an invitation to come, eat, drink, find strength, accept forgiveness and forget myself in God's love and Christ's sacrifice. For me, it also brought a new boldness, a carelessness, which came through the epiphany that the only opinion that really matters is God's opinion. This led to other epiphanies, such as the realization that Jesus' time on earth was mostly spent hammering home the simple message that God is good and that He can be trusted, even in times of trial. Another epiphany was that I needed healing even more than my son, who was in fact learning to cope quite well with his disorder.
But that wasn't all. In the prayers and practices of the Church I discovered a timeless connection, reaching back to the apostles, which backfilled missing elements in my faith. In the lives of the saints I read story after story that gave direction and vigor to my spiritual growth. When I first encountered the writings of the early Church Fathers and great mystics, it was like a discovery of priceless treasure (with a twinge of irritation that my Protestant pastors had never mentioned them!) Studying the commentaries and letters of Christians from the first century after Christ's death, such as Justin Martyr, and realizing that their descriptions of early Christian services is almost identical to Mass as we celebrate it today, has been a huge revelation. The Catholic Church truly is the one instituted by Jesus and experienced by His first followers.
In the Church's liturgy and sacraments I have experienced a gateway to God's profound mercy and kindness, available to me every day. Immersing myself in these divine mysteries of the Church has strengthened my attachment to God and given me a keener awareness of His eternal kingdom. It's been like going up to the balcony and seeing the bigger view – suddenly much of the "stuff" that took up a lot of my emotional energy and was a source of anxiety now seems pretty trivial and insignificant. A number of priests and sisters I have come to know have further energized my spiritual growth, by their compassion, humility, integrity and unflagging sense of humor. A few in particular have taught me through their words and actions that to live by faith can mean to live joyfully. And in the assortment of ordinary folks who are my neighbors and fellow parishioners, I have found genuine, robust community.
The great unity and great diversity found in the Catholic Church is one of its many challenging paradoxes. James Joyce once described Catholicism as "here comes everybody", which is so true, so delightful, and so often an excellent recipe for utter frustration. But imperfections and sin and brokenness, rather than being things to hide, seem to be the very things that bring us together as followers of a Savior who knows what it is like to be marginalized, living on the edge of society, a Man of sorrows.
It has now been almost four years since my husband and I joined the Catholic Church. Our son's condition has improved, partly due to medications, but mostly because of his own self-awareness and acceptance. He still has tics, obsessions and the occasional 'neurological storm', but he has learned to live gracefully with the typical waxing and waning pattern of TS. He tempers his expectations and activity level during his bad days, and is a joy-filled, grateful young man on the good days. We are still "homeschoolers", but now it is by choice, because he and I are having so much fun together.
A key change for our whole family is our perspective. We understand now that regardless of mental, physical or neurological health, God gives us all a spirit that is whole and eternal. Our most significant prayers have been answered, as we watch Peter growing to become a considerate, friendly and hopeful young man, full of faith in God's care and unwilling to be bothered one iota by the fact that he's a little "different". He has become a mentor and role model to other youth with TS in our community, and is a popular speaker at local schools, educating teachers and students about the disorder.
Our conversion has not been without some personal challenges. Our family members and Protestant friends seem to fall into a few camps – those who are very supportive though slightly puzzled; those who are totally bewildered and don't seem to want to talk about it; and those who are rather dismayed by our decision. This latter group tends to rather gleefully make a point of asking our opinion on stories in the media about immoral priests or on some of the more appalling periods of the Church's history. We encounter daily the misconceptions about the Catholic Church that we, too formerly believed. We have also been saddened by the cynical or blasé attitudes of some "cradle Catholics" we have met, who don't seem to have much appreciation for the rich spiritual traditions and truths of their heritage. But we happily soldier on.
Our faith has deepened as we've come to understand that when we suffer, Christ is fully able and willing to enter into even our innermost pain and walk that road with us. Furthermore, in trusting Christ and offering up our suffering to unite with His, we somehow become participants in God's unfathomably merciful plan of salvation. We are not simply recipients of God's grace; we are also invited to play a role in the working out of His grace in the world. And we are accompanied by a "cloud of witnesses", to quote St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews – a community of saints to help us on our faith journey by the shining example of their lives on earth and their continued intercession for us in heaven.
It has become clear to me that as we live and move in God's grace, competition breaks down and real community can begin. We receive the gift of freedom – freedom from our fears and our precious reputations. It's all about learning to find and love what Merton calls the "true self", buried underneath our common insecurities and individual egos. It's also about finding that true self in others, looking beyond how they may look or act or measure up by the world's standards. And in that quest, the kingdom of God bursts forth into our reality, disturbing and transforming everything by its unexpected beauty. Which is a lesson my son teaches me every day.
Laura's current labor of love is researching and writing a history of her church, which will be 100 years old in 2012. She and her husband Bill are active volunteers in their parish, and also with the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada, where they lead support groups for families and youth. Laura and her son Peter facilitate workshops in schools and community agencies, helping others understand the realities of living with Tourette Syndrome.