Sheila’s Story, Part V
This is one of a thirty part exposé on the Children of the Legion. This group of women, then girls, in the Regnum Christi, share their stories of abuse, neglect and the aftermath of being children in the Regnum Christi. For a complete list of stories to date, view Children of the Legion.
I ended Part IV in my spiritual director Sally’s office. (Her name is not really Sally.)
I tried to tell her about my giant conversion experience and how I was really committed to Regnum Christi now and that I was sure I had a vocation. She wasn’t really interested. She told me that it was way too soon to worry about whether or not I had a vocation.
What she really wanted to talk about was my Program of Life. This is a plan naming your primary vice (out of the three “dominant passions” Pride, Vanity, and Sensuality) and the virtue you want to work on that year. Then you list a bunch of resolutions that will help you defeat your vice and attain your virtue. I was supposed to make this over my retreat, but I wasn’t even sure where to start.
“Well,” she asked, “what do you think is your dominant passion?”
“It’s definitely vanity,” I said. “I really care what people think of me.”
“I really don’t think so,” she said. “What else?”
“Well, then, it must be sensuality. I’ve got a lot of that. I’m very lazy. That’s why I hate serving team so much.”
“I don’t think it’s that either,” she said.
“You think it’s pride? I honestly don’t think I have a lot of pride.” That was the polite way of putting it. I was so filled with self-loathing and shame, I really didn’t see room for any pride.
“That’s definitely it,” she said confidently. “Pride is what makes you hate criticism so much. That’s why you try to defend yourself, because you think you know better than your formators. And when your feelings get hurt, it’s because you think that you’re too good to have failed like that. Shame is just a result of excessive pride. And the fact that you think you aren’t proud, that’s pride too.”
I didn’t really believe her. She didn’t even know me that well. But I had been told that your spiritual director expresses God’s will for you. So I figured, even if pride wasn’t my main issue, I must have a little of it somewhere deep down, and God wanted me to expunge it from my soul. So I agreed. I made a nice little program about humility and imagining myself like Christ before Pilate every time I was corrected, never defending myself or speaking a word of argument. I was going to be perfect. We wouldn’t have any more meltdowns or embarrassing tears. I’d be grown-up and mature and humble.
From the very beginning, it was difficult. It seemed my formators were singling me out for correction more and more often. My personal demon was sports. We played basketball and went jogging in the afternoons, which was the highlight of some people’s day. Not mine. I have never been athletic, and I had never played basketball in my life when I arrived. And I had struggled with some health problems my first year. I had a hacking cough, and I often felt like there was a weight on my chest when I got out of breath, so that it was a struggle to breathe. Asthma was suspected, and I was dispensed from any running until they were able to get me to a specialist.
Only I didn’t have asthma. The doctor was not interested in figuring out what was wrong, so he sent me home with a diagnosis of “Well, it’s not asthma.” So I was told I had to start running again. I think everyone thought I’d been faking the whole thing. I wasn’t, and I still found physical activity incredibly difficult. Maybe it was just the humid air, or that I was so out of shape. It was just hard.
I tried hard, though. I felt I had to, if I was going to be perfect. There would be no excuses this time. I would run up and down the court the whole game (which lasted an hour). At least, that was my goal. In reality, I was never able to do it. By halfway through the game, I would be lagging and out of breath. And one consecrated woman from Colombia, whom we’ll call Juanita, made it her personal crusade to motivate me. Chances are, this was a commandment from above, but I’ll never know. Every day, she would take me aside and tell me that I didn’t love Jesus because I wasn’t really trying. Or that I should get into the game to make my companions happy. Or that I was just trying to get attention by pretending to be sick. One time that I’ll never forget, she yelled in frustration, “Why can’t you just be like everyone else?”
I felt shattered. If my goal should be like everyone else, that meant everyone else was better than me. I was the very worst person in the whole place.
I already felt that way. I was so lonely. I kept feeling like everyone else liked each other, but didn’t like me. I was sure they all judged me for being such a crybaby and always being in trouble. Even in a place like that, there were still “popular girls.” There was no particular test for this, but I could just tell. I would never be one of them.
And even if I had been “popular,” I wouldn’t have been any less lonely. We couldn’t discuss our health, our spiritual lives, or anything negative. We never had the chance to get to know each other well, as our dining room seats and conversation groups were always changing. We also weren’t supposed to hug each other, so months would go by without my touching another human being. As a huggy, snuggly girl from a huggy, snuggly family, that was really hard.
I started getting more and more depressed. I had the habit for awhile of spending my last free time before night prayers sitting in the living room writing in my journal, quoting Shakespeare to myself, and getting melancholy. But my spiritual director put a stop to that. She had me spend the time writing a memo to her instead. I would write about how my day had gone and how I’d tried to do better that day. Every night I poured my soul onto those memo slips for her to read. Nine times out of ten, they were returned with nothing but a check mark. I felt desolate.
My mopey, melancholy evenings disappeared, but I was feeling more and more unhappy. Without the emotional relief of thinking depressing thoughts and imagining my own funeral (remember, I was 15, which I think is the peak of teenage angst anyway), the tears started breaking out of me all the time. The slightest correction sent me into silent sobs. First, the shame that I had done wrong in the first place. And then, the shame of not having reacted correctly, of still being hurt, which showed I was as prideful as ever.
I was rebuked again and again for crying. I was told it was my duty to “keep my face for the others.” The other girls deserved to see me happy. They did not want to be brought down and made depressed by my gloomy face. So I tried and tried. I stifled sobs under my pillow at night, hoping someone would notice and come over, and that whoever it was would not be mad at me. I locked myself in the basement bathroom and cried during recess. I would bite and scratch my arms and hands because the physical pain made the emotional pain a little less. The reason I admitted to myself was that I was just trying to keep myself from crying. The reason I didn’t admit was that I hoped someone would see the marks and ask if I was okay. I would tell them that I was just trying to stay calm, to put the brave face on that they asked of me, and they would finally realize I was trying my best. They would say, “Wow, Sheila, I had no idea you were trying so hard. You really do love God. We should be easier on you.” But that did not happen.
I developed daily headaches. I’ve always been prone to them, especially when I’m stressed, but they became constant. To my great relief, I was dispensed from having to ask permission every time I took an aspirin. I could just go to the medicine closet and get one from the consecrated in charge whenever my head hurt. And she would shake her head and say, “What are we to do with you?” We would talk from time to time, trying to figure out what was causing the headaches, but we never did figure anything out. Later, at a dentist visit, the dentist told me I was grinding my teeth a lot, producing a ton of wear and tear, “as if I’d been eating sand.” So that was probably why.
This was around when 9/11 happened, by the way. It wasn’t a huge deal to me, because I didn’t really understand what was going on or what it meant. The numbers of victims were unreal to me. But when we got the news my dad would be deployed, that hit home well enough. A lot of the other girls had military dads, too, and we worried a lot.
My biggest consolation was my schoolwork. I loved school, every single subject. I tutored many of my classmates, and felt a big boost at being good at it. Literature was my favorite, though my grades weren’t good. (I had a lot of “potential” I wasn’t realizing, apparently.) I loved my history teacher, a motherly woman with a strong Boston accent and a sympathy for Rush Limbaugh. And I even excelled in math and science.
I was urged to become more organized and to actually plan my study time. But this was one area where I didn’t bother to try to be perfect. I knew I was doing fine in school, and didn’t see any reason to study things I wasn’t in the mood for, just to follow a “plan.” So I would write the plan, and then check things off as if I’d been following it. It was a white lie, I guess. Just like my habit of writing a term paper first, and then writing the outline later. I had my own way of doing things. I got a little grief over my disorganized habits, but not much, because I was a good student.
This story is a testimony from the 49 Weeks Blog. You can see this and more stories by visiting 49 Weeks.