A few weeks back I posted the first in this series on my depression, promising a second part soon thereafter. It’s taken me a while to post this, the aforementioned second part, because I kept changing my mind about what I wanted to say with it. I wrote and deleted a few drafts because they felt tangential or not very well thought out. I started getting busy with work and just kind of forgot to revisit this one.
I feel I owe it to the three people who read this blog to finish up the train of thought I started in part I. I’ve spent the past few days thinking about what I want to say and I decided I would focus Part II on a specific incident. This was definitely the one event which from which I still haven’t recovered fully.
In 2013 I was directing my 600th Teen ACTS retreat when my life got twist-turned upside down. Part of these retreats, as I’m sure many of my readers know, is personal witness. On a retreat like ACTS, leaders will share personal stories and use them as lessons for the retreatants. These talks tend to be personal and many times retreat leaders and participants can get exceptionally vulnerable as a response to hearing them.
On this particular retreat one of our teen presenters went “off script” during their presentation and spoke about an experience with sexual assault. Without getting into it too much (these aren’t my stories to tell, obviously), long story short, five more teens opened up about sexual and physical abuse that weekend. At night I sat in my room with a handful of my closest friends and leaders in the youth program and went through the necessary steps for reporting everything we had heard. Over the following months I spoke with parents, counselors, and law enforcement frequently as we worked through the aftermath.
Anyone who has worked with kids has probably had a similar experience. Up to that point even I had been through similar things in my program, but nothing even approaching that level of intensity. Suddenly I found myself in charge of five victims and their stories as well as, to some degree, the weight of responsibility for getting them justice. The level of tragedy, the volume of heartbreaking stories, and the small amount of time in which we were hit with it all was too much for me. I have never felt the same. The job never felt the same. The parish never felt the same.
I’ve never been the victim of sexual assault, but I know and love too many people who have been. I like to think of myself as a strong person, but this particular form of pain is in many ways my kryptonite. My second major depressive episode in life was in high school when I learned that a good friend of mine was dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault. She was depressed and suicidal and had a host of mental and physical issues as a result and, again, I couldn’t handle the tragedy. While I’ve gotten better at dealing with that weight as I’ve gotten older, I’m still not good at it. Nothing hurts me deeper than this issue.
After that weekend, in the course of my work in the parish, I had more students who shared similar experiences with me and I went through this process with them every time. (The folks at the Archdiocesan Youth Ministry Office knew me well. I still wonder if I was the only one who reported these things or if I was just the only one who witnessed them. I seemed to be the only one who was approaching the diocese with these cases with any regularity.) Each time I was stripped down emotionally. Three years later I may not be struggling with hearing those kinds of stories specifically, but I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of my personality and my mental health from those events.
I could write more about this, about my thoughts on youth ministry workers’ roles and about safe environment training and implementation or about my personal experiences personally and professionally and how they changed after this event, but I honestly don’t want to. I’m done for now.