St. Frances of Rome

I love stories that illustrate, without a doubt, God’s guiding hand, His providence, giving evidence of something more than just coincidence.  This is one such story.

At the beginning of this year, I used Jennifer Fulwiler’s website to randomly select my patron saint for 2017.   St. Frances of Rome was the winner.  I was pretty excited about the selection because from a quick glance at her bio, it appeared that she was the patron saint of discernment.  And wouldn’t you know it – my husband and I were in the midst of making a big decision for our family.

You see, we were trying to determine whether or not we should move back to our hometown.  For a long time I had felt a pull to relocate our family closer to our roots.  Currently, we only live an hour away.  I know, I know.  It’s a relatively short distance!  I could be an airplane ride away.  But I was longing for the type of proximity that would allow my children to truly grow up with their cousins, go on impromptu adventures with aunts and uncles, and spend summer afternoons swimming with grandparents.

I also really wanted help.  If you’ve been reading my blog or know me in real life, you know that our son Theo is not a neurotypical child.  Although at this moment I finally feel like our family’s arriving at a somewhat well adjusted place, for a while we were drowning.  Well, I should specifically say that I was drowning and I wanted to be nearest to the people who loved us the most, our family.

So what was holding us back from picking up and moving?   Aside from job issues, our biggest concern was Theo’s education.  He’s currently in a self-contained classroom in a special education preschool.  He receives an abundant amount of speech therapy services as well as some occupational and other social services.  After doing my research it seemed likely that Theo would not receive the same amount of services if we moved to a school district in or near our hometown.

Despite the possible decrease in educational services, I still felt we were being called to move.  However, at that time I wasn’t completely at peace with either option, staying or leaving.  So, my husband and I prayed and prayed looking for clarity.  I also frequently prayed a St. Frances prayer for discernment.

I decided to tour a couple of schools that Theo would possibly attend if we moved.   I thought that after viewing the schools I would feel a definitive answer in my heart. Instead, I felt more confusion.

My mom was watching my three children while I toured the schools.  After I was done I figured I’d take advantage of having a little alone time and headed to a boutique makeup store to treat myself to a new lipstick, something I probably hadn’t done in about eight years.  On my walk from the parking lot to the storefront, my fingers moved from bead to bead, praying a bit of a rosary.

Upon entering the store, I was greeted by a couple of familiar faces, asking me what I was doing in town.  Another woman, who I did not recognize, began to help me search for the perfect neutral pink tone for my lips as I explained my reasons for being in town. Some tears came to my eyes as I explained my concerns for my son who was mostly nonverbal at 4 years old.  As soon as I started to get to the part about relocating our family, the woman helping me just blurted out,

“I don’t think you should move here.”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear…but I listened.

She went on to explain that she had a close friend who had grown up in the area and now has a son with autism.  The previous spring this friend and her husband had decided to move their family away from their friends and family so that her son could receive more therapy and other educational services at a different school.

“Wait,” she stopped in her tracks. “Where did you say you live now?”

“Crystal Lake,” I responded.

“Oh! That’s where they moved!”

No way.  Then I asked her if she happened to know where the child was going to school. She texted the mother, her friend, and the response gave me chills.

Her son went to my son’s school.

I had been praying for God to just be blunt, to tell me what we should do.  And through this stranger at the make up store, He spoke to me in no uncertain terms.  We needed to stay put.  I felt this sense of peace wash over me in that moment, knowing we were where we needed to be for our son.

Even though I had this peace that comes with being in alignment with God’s will, I still felt a mix of emotions.  I was elated thinking that I had received this most amazing God moment.  But I was also deeply saddened that living a 5 minute drive from most our extended family was not in God’s plan at this time.

As I left the store and looked down at my rosary bracelet I remembered that just the day before I had completed a 28-day rosary challenge.  You may or may not recall that one of the fifteen rosary promises is “whoever shall faithfully serve me by the recitation of the Rosary, shall receive signal graces.”  That had certainly just happened.

Later that evening, I was scanning Twitter and I noticed a link to an article that I had retweeted earlier in that same day so that I would be reminded to read it later.  The article initially caught my eye for two reasons, first it was about St. Frances of Rome, my saint for the year.  And second, the title was St. Frances’ Secret to Finding God Through Your Family.  

After the day was done, I read the article.  Although I had learned a little about St. Frances when I initially picked her for my 2017 saint, I didn’t know her full story.   She had thought she felt a calling in a certain direction and then came to find out that it really wasn’t where God wanted her at the time.  It turned out that the calling she felt was real and in agreement with God’s will, but the timing was not.  And once I read this, my day made so much more sense.

I called one of my close and faithful friends to tell her about the signal grace at the make up store and the article about St. Frances.  She knew how long my husband and I had been discerning this decision.   At some point she interjected,

“Courtney, isn’t it the feast of St. Frances of Rome today?”

I had chills for the second time that day as my quick google search revealed that, yes, that day (March 9) was indeed the feast of St. Frances of Rome, patron saint of discernment, and my saint for the year.

Sometimes I really need God to slam me over the head with his will.  That day I don’t think it could have been any any clearer.

Friends, if you are discerning something, I strongly encourage you to try to make the rosary a daily habit and then check out St. Frances of Rome.  She’s pretty amazing.

St. Frances of Rome, pray for us!

When Prayers Aren’t Enough

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About a year ago or more, feelings of panic, anxiety and sadness started to bubble up inside of me.  I figured I was exhausted and overwhelmed from having three children, one of which has some special needs.  However, when I look back now, with the help of a therapist, I realize that I was suffering from a mixture of postpartum depression and grief.

I often don’t feel like I have permission to grieve, which has compounded those feelings of grief. My son isn’t dying.  He doesn’t even have a potentially terminal illness.  But still, I’ve been grieving. Much like I grieved the loss of my family as I knew it when my parents got divorced fourteen years ago, I have been grieving the loss of the “typical” childhood that I expected my son to have.

For a long time, I resisted anti-depressants.  I just did not like putting any possibly unnecessary drugs into my body.  I had put myself through many physical challenges in the past – playing Division I soccer, running marathons, delivering babies with no pain medication.  Why would I need medication to help my mental wellness? I felt I was too tough for that.

Along with some denial that I was even grieving or clinically depressed, the other factor that played into the resistance to medication was my faith.  I thought my panicked feelings of desperation and loneliness were due to some sort of spiritual laziness and that maybe if I just prayed the rosary with more reverence, or (ahem!) prayed it at all, or went to confession more frequently, then perhaps I would get back to feeling better.

So, I went to confession.  I admitted, through streaming tears, that I felt like I had let myself fall into despair. I told the priest that I didn’t know if I was truly depressed or just wasn’t praying enough but that I feared that I really had an issue and needed help.

The priest told me that the fact that I could see this was a gift from God.  (I remember him gently pointing out to me,  “you can’t stop crying….listen to yourself.”) The Holy Spirit was giving me the gift of self awareness.  He told me that there was no shame in asking for help and that it’s a blessing that we have medication to help us when we need it.

I felt a sense of relief because for too long I had thought that I was under some sort of spiritual attack that could only be warded off through prayer.  But, before going straight down the medication route, I decided to seek out a Catholic counselor.  Unfortunately, we didn’t click. (Rather than feeling better, I left one of my sessions crying and feeling worse.) I decided that I didn’t have time to seek out another therapist and I made the appointment with my doctor who prescribed an anti-depressant.  Counseling would just have to wait.

It was around this time that I heard about a book called The Catholic Guide to Depression.  This book confirmed what the priest had told me in confession, showing me that what I was going through was not just a lack of piety, but actually depression.  With the help of what I fondly referred to as my “chill pills”, much of my anxiety and despair subsided.

A couple months later, I was feeling so good that I decided to wean myself off the medication.  For a month or so, I was doing alright.  But little by little the panicked feelings returned.  Stress increased as my 3 1/2 year old son’s aggressive behavior increased.  I started to feel out of control.  And the tears returned.  Every day.  Many times a day.

My son’s aggression along with my anxiety and feelings of inadequacy as a mother continued to increase until they finally came to a point that pushed me over the edge.  One Friday last fall we had a horrible morning.  So much hitting, so many tears.  They weren’t just my tears.  My daughter was crying just from watching what was transpiring between me and her brother.

I felt low.  So very low.  I went to a very dark place.  Motherhood was looking very different than what I had expected.

Now, believe me, I know we all romanticize motherhood before we actually have children of our own.  But, I see other people with their children.  And I’m reminded that our family has extra challenges.  And on that particular Friday, those extra challenges just seemed to pile up, weighing me down.  I cried almost all day.  I started to feel like I was never going to stop crying.

I felt like a horrible mother.  What was I doing wrong?  Why did my son hit and punch and kick me?  I even googled “Mothers of children with autism who commit suicide”.  I’m a numbers gal and I wanted to know the stats.  (I already knew that parents of a child with special needs have a higher chance of getting divorced.)  Truly, I didn’t feel suicidal.  But intellectually I knew that I could be going down a very dark path if all I could do in a day was lay on the couch crying.

I looked around at my beautiful house, my lovely backyard and I felt guilty for crying.  I had so many blessings but I was just so sad and feeling so lonely.  I realized that something was wrong with me if I couldn’t truly see the beauty in my life.  And, the fact that I was crying even though I knew I had so much made me want to cry even more.

I texted my husband to pray for me because I had no desire to pray myself.   I started feeling that I was pointless because I didn’t know what to do to help my son.  My husband suggested that it was time to put him on medication.

Then, I had a lightbulb moment that I assume was a gift from the Holy Spirit.  My son didn’t need the medication.  Not yet, anyways.  I needed it.

Theo is incredibly sensitive to light and other sensory inputs.  He is extremely sensitive to the emotions of others, particularly mine.  Typically, if I stay calm, Theo will stay calm.

I had to fix myself before I could even attempt to help him.

I still had some leftover anti-depressants.  I promptly popped a pill and called a new therapist, a therapist who had been recommended to me months beforehand.  I had waited way too long to call her.

Today I’m still seeing that therapist.  And after going on and off…and on and off again..I’m back on my medication.  For so long I had way too much pride to get the help I needed.   I battled depression on and off years ago and I know that it will always be something that I will have to look out for in my life.

My hope in sharing this story is that if you are struggling in a similar way, that you will reach out and find the help that you need.

It’s OK to ask for help.

It’s OK if that help comes in the form of a pill… so long as you’re also talking to someone (whether they are a professional or just a close friend) about your struggles.

It’s OK to acknowledge that sometimes prayer alone is not enough.