St. Therese of Lisieux

Today is the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, a woman who writes in her autobiography that her life was divided into three stages: the happiest (birth to four and a half years old), “the most unhappy” (four and a half years old to fourteen years old), and her life at Carmel (fifteen years old until her death).

When Therese was four and a half, her mother died.  Early death of a parent is a risk factor for depressive illness.

Shortly after, Therese’s older sisters left for the cloistered convent. They had been her new mothers after her own mother’s death. Catastrophic losses are a risk factor for depressive illness.  These kinds of events trigger stress chemicals in the brain, which over a long period of time can be a harbinger of depression.

At the age of ten she suffered what appeared to be a nervous breakdown, thrashing around in her bed, banging her head against the post, and hallucinations were some of the symptoms.  At twelve she became scrupulous, a mental health problem that she never overcame. Today we know scrupulosity to be symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, describes herself as having extreme doubts of God’s existence.  She called the atheists of the time her brothers and sisters and imagined herself dining with them.  Losing hope is a symptom of depression.

After years of suffering tuberculosis, these doubts, and “a depressed spirit” she was tempted to suicide. Now we know that chronic health problems are a risk factor for depression and suicide a fatal outcome of depressive illness.

St Therese held on to her faith not because of health, good spirits, comforting assurances, miraculous healings, or religious experiences but by the tenacity of her choice to believe

She also had another side to her, a side that wrote profoundly of God’s love and living that love.  She recognized by choice that God was with her in the physical and mental pain and in spite of doubts. She experienced that love by the caring people in her community.

Depression did not define St. Therese of Lisieux. It need not define us. We are more than our illnesses.

Facts from: O’Malley, Vincent J., Ordinary Suffering of Extraordinary Saints. Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.