You may have noticed that it’s been eons since I last posted in my Lightning in a Jar series. That I suddenly stopped and left the story in limbo. My story. As with most things, there’s a reason for that. I wasn’t ready. It’s scary to put yourself out there. To reveal secrets about yourself that have been hidden for so long and feel like they happened to someone else. Was this really me? Did I really do this? Why? The mind of my young self will always be a curious puzzlement to my older and, hopefully, wiser self. I cannot explain decisions made then, any more than I can explain why the sky is blue or why the chicken crossed the road. That young self should have been happier. She had much going for her, I know that now. Yet she couldn’t see that and lived in a state of fear. Fear of the unknown, mostly. Fear of not being able to handle it.
So now, my friends, bear with me. Take one more trip into the past and please don’t judge this girl too harshly. She’s only human, after all.
There but for the grace of God.
Teenagers are not known for making wise choices that take into account their best interests or that of others. If that were the case, they wouldn’t binge drink, have unprotected sex, go drag racing, skip out on class or smoke. They’d be more inclined to study hard, eat balanced, nutritious meals, stay drug-free, and get a full night’s sleep.
But, we know better. Many times, the selections made are based on impulse, peer pressure, trends or sheer desperation. You can categorize me in the latter, for in my senior year of high school, it was sheer desperation that propelled me to make a choice that nearly cost me my life.
There but for the grace of God go I.
This is what transpired during my senior year:
1. I joined the “Free School,” a new, independent study program developed at my school, where you could pretty much study what you wanted on your own terms, providing it was approved by an assigned teacher. (Don’t forget, this was the 70s.) I used the time to write a play, a really awful one at that, set in a USO Canteen during World War II.
2. My brother, who was attending a prestigious university in Massachusetts, phoned me, urging me to apply to a school in the vicinity of his. It, too, was considered a good school and I wondered whether I had the chops for it, considering it hadn’t been on my guidance counselor’s list of schools for me. But my brother egged me on, and so I went ahead and applied, making a mental note not to inform my guidance counselor about it.
3. I became obsessed with writing poetry. I practically wrote a tome of poems everyday. Profusely, deliberately, each one darker than the next. Macabre words poured from my aching heart as I became increasingly depressed about the present and the future, which I knew from Doris Day, was not mine to see.
Then, with graduation just three months away, I reached my breaking point on a night that included a litany of mistakes, miscommunication and crushing disappointment. Truthfully, I remember little of the night. I suspect I’ve blocked out most of it in order to protect myself.
I have only a handful of memories. A group of friends gathered. Feelings were hurt. I was distraught. Words were exchanged, some with regret. Tempers flared and friendships were severed. Someone was blamed, justly or unjustly, and when it was over, when I was alone, I was terrified and at a loss. Feeling hopeless, I tried to end my life.
More than that, I cannot tell you. After all, some things are better left unsaid.
Obviously though, I wasn’t successful. I remember waking, dazed and in a dense fog, in the mental ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York. I’d taken a whole bottle of prescription pills and my stomach had to be pumped many times over. Feeling empty and defeated, frankly, I was startled to be alive.
They say suicide is painless. But it isn’t. I caused a lot of agony to myself and to those around me, particularly my mother.
I was forced to see a psychiatrist, a man who, right off the bat, I didn’t trust. Each session, I’d arrive and we’d have a staring fest. He wanted me to talk and I wanted him to ask me questions that would get the conversation going. Anything–what was I thinking, what did I eat for breakfast. But he didn’t. He sat stoically behind his desk while I remained numbly quiet, waiting for the hour to end.
My school was located next to a Catholic church. One day, still feeling moody, desperate and unloved, I felt compelled to walk out of school and head toward the church. I wasn’t sure why I was going as I hadn’t been inside in ages. Nobody tried to stop me from leaving school. Nobody seemed to notice as I made my way purposefully, as if in a trance, through the thicket of trees and underbrush to the other side where the church stood in a clearing.
With sudden trepidation, I walked up the steps to the front entrance and into the sanctuary. There was no mass in progress that afternoon, but there were a few people kneeling in prayer. As a child, I’d been to many masses there. I was familiar with the scent of the church, the feel of the pews.
A sense of warmth and comfort overtook me in the flickering shadows reflected by the stained glass light. I could feel my knees quiver as I took a seat in a row directly behind a middle-aged woman wearing a purple scarf tied around her head. I did not know her but I somehow I needed to feel connected to someone. Anyone. In my emotional state, sitting behind her seemed the logical thing to do.
And then, no longer able to withstand the depth of my despair, and no longer able to hold back the tears, I cried.
The woman turned around and asked me what was wrong, but I was too choked to respond. So, she handed me a kerchief, and said,
“Maybe you should talk to Father Francis. Let’s go see if he’s available, shall we?”
I nodded as I let her lead me by the hand, down the stairs to the administrative offices, where we found the priest. She placed my hand in his and that simple gesture proved to be my salvation. For Father Francis spoke to me in a way no adult had ever before. Sincerely, and with genuine trust. We bonded over a love of poetry. Turns out he was a published poet.
Father Francis spoke to my school, my parents and the psychiatrist, which cleared the way for me being allowed to leave school whenever I wanted to meet with him. We’d read our poetry aloud to each other, share our feelings, and chat about anything else on our minds. I looked forward to these visits, and with each one, I began to feel a little bit better.
The college letters started to arrive. I got into all the schools my guidance counselor had told me to apply to. I also got into the school my brother had urged me to apply to–complete with a package deal of part scholarship, part loan. Father Francis whooped like a cowboy when I told him the news. That I’d be going to Massachusetts in the fall.
As for my guidance counselor, her jaw dropped and her face turned ashen when I told her what school I’d be attending. She seemed confounded to think that I could get into such a good university.
Father Francis changed my life. He helped me look ahead to my future with promise and hope. He helped me draw from my own strength and see that I was already more independent than I ever realized. And, through his candor and sincerity, he gently guided me to the next passage of my life: my adulthood. At one of our last visits, Father Francis gave me a small book of his poetry. Inside he’d written,
“For Monica, Whatever you do, wherever you go, I have faith in you. Lovingly, Father Francis.”
For graduation, my mother sewed for me a red halter dress with white polka dots and white trim. I loved that dress. It felt good to wear. Graduation day arrived and I was ready. Ready to start anew, away from high school memories. I needed to say goodbye and turn my back on all of it. But then I thought of James, whose love had been so real and felt so good. I thought about all the guilt I’d carried in knowing he was younger than me.
Ah, the whims and whimsy of youth. How trivial it can all seem in retrospect. But, I shook my head sadly, knowing that moving forward meant needing to wipe the slate clean. I’d have to say goodbye to James, too.
I had lots to look forward to, including spending the summer with family in Venezuela. And in the fall, I’d be heading to Massachusetts.
Next Chapter: The Epilogue
Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.
Wow, Monica, you are so brave to write of this painful experience in your life, but what a message you have sent. Thanks to the kindness of a stranger and the trusted father, you are here today for us to celebrate for your life and your gifts.
Thank you, Susan! I’m so glad you got to read this story. For me, it’s such a relief to finally complete it. It’s like this load has been lifted off my back. Whew.
I am so moved, I hardly have the words to write. I think it is because this is so raw, so painful and yet so endearing. Such a metamorphosis – you met someone who was wise enough to show you the way, without making a big deal about it. How wonderful that you both had poetry in common. Father Francis healed you through verse. You didn’t need reveal everything, I got it- your writing is so good my friend, that you conveyed your pain with simplicity.
A beautiful and moving chapter Monica. I am so glad I came back to spend some time with Lightening in a Jar. I think this series really shows who you are as a person, the adult you are today. Do you think your experiences prepared you for when your kids were teens?
MM, thank you for reading this and being touched by my story. Yes, it was a priest that helped me! Sometimes I think of the bad rap priests get, and I remember this one. He truly saved me and gave me my life back. And here’s the thing, we never talked about religion. There was no proselytizing. He never said I should attend church more. No guilt trips. Just relating on a human level. Didn’t talk down to me, didn’t make me revere him because of his position. It was such a gift and remembering him overwhelms me with gratitude.
Monica, when I think of a priest in any religion, that is how I see it. Yes, they do get a bad rap because of so many incidents but, the ones who quietly change a life or lives are truly inspiring. I am so glad he came into your life when you needed someone… I love that he did not talk down to you nor talk about going to church. It was enough that you shared poetry and went to see him. What a blessing.
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this last chapter. What a difficult time–and what redemption! I’m on to read the epilogue. THANK you SO much for not letting me miss this!!!!
Kathy, I thank you for reading and for your kind words. I’m so glad it meant something to you, my friend.
Don’t you feel better getting that out?! Whew! I feel better for you – then and now. I was rooting for you to get the healing that you needed – the opening in the confession, the vulnerability.
You’re right though – no one needs the details of the events in our lives that we consider sordid, or less than savory. What we need to know is not only how you feel/ felt, but how you morphed through all of it, how you transformed. I read this closely and understood that.
I thank God for the Father Francises He created. Everyone needs one… but ah, the facilitator! That woman with the purple headdress! She was attentive and obedient to Spirit and led you safely “home”, to that metaphysical, transcendent space.
Amen! Feels like I just went to church. 🙂
Yes, SomerE, I do feel better. Thank you for rooting for me and for your rock solid assessment of my story. If I had asked my readers to write an essay about its meaning and significance, I’d give you an A! You capture it well, and understand the importance of the woman in purple. Without her I may never have connected to Father Francis. It is said that purple is the color of good judgment. It is the color of people seeking spiritual fulfillment.
Monica, they say pain allows a writer to bleed on a page and with this installment, you’ve proved that to be utterly true. This post is beautiful. Powerful. Inspiring. And it shows us a side of you that we haven’t seen before–vulnerability. You words truly come from deep inside, and like so many others who have commented, I too agree that it must have not been easy to write this chapter. Yet, you show us that strength lies not in one’s ability to remain standing, but in one’s ability to get up when one has been knocked down. I’m so happy the series is back! I think this is an important part of your blog which serves to showcase your talent as a writer as well as your versatility. You give us humor, hard core reality, and everything in between. Thank goodness for Father Francis! How wonderful to have had such a mentor in your life! Hugs! 🙂
Hey Bella, good to see you back, reading and commenting. I’ve truly missed you.
I hope you know it was you who inspired me and motivated me to write this series, because of all the nice things you’ve said about my personal stories. With each chapter I knew I was getting closer to this part, the part I’ve buried for so many years. It was nerve-wracking to write. I wanted to be sure I told it in the right way, with just the right note of teenage angst, mixed with optimism and hope. It was difficult to post, and I stalled for a long time. Then, it was like letting go. And what a relief when I saw the positive feedback. The support from my blogger friends is overwhelming and I am sincerely thankful. I hope you can feel me hugging you right back!
Be sure to read the last chapter, the epilogue, which I posted earlier this week!
Monica, I am honored. This series is one of most important facets of your blog. I love it! I’m so happy you have continued writing it!
That’s good to know. I hope one day when you have time, you’ll grab a cup of coffee and read the chapters you’ve missed. Roxy will curl up on your lap and peacefully nap while you do. Or, how about this? I come over and read aloud to you while you get comfy with Roxy on the couch? What fun!
Oh, oh…just read over my comment and realize I wrote it must have been “easy” when I meant to say “difficult.” Can you tell I wrote this comment at 4am my time?? Ay Dios mio! Sorry, hon. Feel free to edit and delete this comment! 🙂
Actually Bella, what you said was correct:
“I too agree that it must have not been easy to write this chapter.”
Anyway, I understood what you were trying to say. Thanks! 😉
**We’d read our poetry aloud to each other, share our feelings, and chat about anything else on our minds. I looked forward to these visits, and with each one, I began to feel a little bit better.**
absolutely amazing! I love this! XXXxxx
Thank you, Kim. Sometimes the help you need comes from unexpected places in unexpected ways. As it did for me. A priest who wrote poetry and could relate? What were the odds?
I’m truly touched and sorry that you had to go through all of that. I can tell by the shift in voice that this is still difficult for you. I’m glad you shared. It helps to have an ending leading to a more hopeful future.
Thank you, Lisa. It means a lot to me, all the kind words I’m receiving. It was hard to write and now it’s like a load has been removed from by back. Guess I’ve been carrying this for a long time.
Powerful, Monica! I got chills reading this. I’m so glad you’re writing more with your Lightening in a Jar series — you need to tell this story.
Thank you so much! I’ve nearly reached the end of the story and it’s been a story that’s been fun to relive, and also wrenching. Glad you’ve enjoyed it. Cheers!
“But for the grace of God” indeed. How very many times I have said that and continue to say it. So happy you are with us, my friend.
Thanks, Jayne. I’m happy to be here, too. Happy New Year!
Thankful you found an adult who could offer you the empathy and compassion you so needed at that time of your life. Also thankful you were brave enough to step out and take a risk, even against the naysayers. I completely had tears streaming down my face for the young Monica, but I along with Father Francis let out a whoop. I am thankful you are here and telling your story.
Thanks, Val. What I wish more than anything is to tell my story to young people who may feel the way i did then. To let them know that there is hope. That there is a way out and that you’re not carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s temporary and it can go away, with help.
Your positive spirit, clear voice and joy that comes through in your writing are the things that brought me to following your blog. I can imagine this was the hardest chapter to write. Thank goodness and what a miracle it was that you met an accidental mentor to sensitively listen to you back then, who believed in you and understood. It’s amazing the strength we derive from such rewarding relationships. I look forward to reading the epilogue. I have missed the “next installment” and even visited your LitJ page thinking I may have missed it.
In spite of all you went through, congratulations on getting into the school of your choice and not settling on another’s expectations of you. No wonder Fr. Francis let out a woop.
Thank you so much, Georgette. Love your description of my writing and am thrilled it comes across in this way. I’m sorry you were missing the Lightning series but now you know why. It took a lot of grappling and finding the right way to convey it. Many rewrites were involved and I finally decided the best way to tell it was to focus more on the outcome and how a priest ended up pulling me out of the abyss.
How brave you are to share that dark chapter. And how lucky we all are that you found your way through, found a connection with Father Francis and found a way to voice your thoughts and feelings through your writing.
Shary, I was lucky and I was blessed. Too many teens opt for suicide. I was one of the lucky ones. Thanks for reading!
Thank heaven for Father Francis. School counselors aren’t of much use. You should share snippets of your play. By the way, we’re not judging you. You’re quite the comeback kid, I’d say.
Yes, Totsy, I agree. Thank heavens for Father Francis. I’ve never met a better man of the cloth, one who came into my life when I needed him most. I am also grateful to the woman who led me to him. Thanks for saying I’m the comeback kid. Never thought about it, but it’s true. Indeed I am!
Monica, this might very well be my favorite installment in your series! You’ve written passionately, from the heart, with honesty and candor, and it brings back the angst of those teenaged years.
How blessed you were, to follow God’s guiding to such a compassionate, wonderful priest! Too often, we hear stories of priests abusing young people, when those of us who grew up in the Church know how many GOOD priests there are. Fr. Francis was just the person you needed at that time to ease you into the next stage of growing up, and to bolster your sagging self-confidence.
Finding just one person to have faith in us and our abilities might be the one thing that saves all of us from the brink of despair. I’m so glad you survived this precarious time — and emerged stronger and wiser!
Meeting Father Francis was like opening the floodgates. Everything I kept inside I was finally able to release. It made me so happy that he cleared the way for me to be able to drop by anytime I needed to talk and that he never treated me as a child. Always with great respect and compassion. He saved me. I am grateful for priests like Father Francis.
This must rate up there in your top five blog posts Monica.
It bought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes reading it.
I think in life at some stage we always go and visit a dark place, and how we come away from that visit shapes us for the future. Along the way we will meet people who will inspire us and whose actions will guide us towards the future, our future is like a compass dial, we can go many ways some forwards and some backwards. But we have to go one of the ways and the way we choose governs our future.
You are one clever and inspiring lady Monica, and if we never manage to meet then that will surely be my loss.
Thank you, Robert. I’m touched by your words. Very kind of you. I am grateful for Father Francis. He somehow knew how to help me in a way no other adult could. When I discovered his love for poetry it was as if someone had turned on a light for me. He got it. He understood and he never, never judged me.
Monica, Totally crying and thankful and touched by all of it. So glad you found him. You were passionate from such a young age and always full of promise! Thank you for sharing! ❤
Thanks, Jodi. Father Francis came along at the right time. He was just what I needed. A very nice and compassionate priest.