Mental Illness Awareness Week is Oct. 5-11 and a National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding is Oct. 7.
Growing up in St. Louis, Sue Berchied felt she lived a pretty typical life: Catholic school, playing with friends, church on Sundays. That is, until she was 11.
“In middle school, a good friend of mine who was a neighbor, her father started molesting me,” Berchied told the Denver Catholic Register Sept. 25. “It rocks your world when you’re 11, 12. You don’t know what’s going on, you’re pretty much in denial.
It also rocked her faith because she “didn’t know how to put all these pieces together.” The abuse continued for a year. It was a secret she never shared.
“It was the 70s,” said Berchied, now 52 and living in southeast Denver, a parishioner at Risen Christ Church. “It just wasn’t a conversation that people had.”
After the abuse stopped, she tried to move on.
“I felt this split in myself: part of me happy-go-lucky, and there was this other side of me that had great pain,” she said. “I started experimenting with drugs, but the feelings the shame, sadness, humiliation and guilt plagued me. The drugs weren’t cutting it.”
She isolated herself and continued to look for an escape.
“I started to binge on food,” she said, “and that’s when I realized: this is the escape I was looking for, this is the comfort.”
As middle school, high school and college wore on, she became a master of binging and purging.
“In front of friends and family I would eat normal,” Berchied explained. “But inside my head was this obsession: Where can I get food? How can I hide it? When can I binge next? Where will I purge?”
A fixation and repulsion with her body continued to worsen, and she felt buried in shame and guilt.
At 19, she met her husband David. They married in 1984, but it wasn’t until two years later that she opened up about her struggles.
“I was so weary from hiding things, our marriage wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be,” she shared. “It was devastating to own up to that because I’d never spoken those words to anybody; I’d never told anyone about my eating disorder.”
David was and continues to be “the most wonderful and amazing man,” she said of his support, though the next few years were tough for her, for him and for their marriage. They had stopped attending Mass, which a source of contention.
“I didn’t want be a part of Church, I didn’t see that fitting in. How can Christ love me in all of this muck?” she wondered.
She lived and breathed therapy, she said, and after about three years began to feel she’d made progress. Because of that hope, well as the friction in their marriage caused by being away from the Church, she reached out to a priest at Most Precious Blood: Father Milton Ryan.
“I shared my story with him, finally acknowledging it in the context of my faith, acknowledging that humiliation and shame that was preventing me from going to Church,” she said.
His response was one she will treasure forever.
“He leaned in to me,” Berchied relayed. “If I could have Christ in front of me physically, it would be him incarnate through this man. He took my hands and said, ‘Sue, if everyone who felt shame and despair and sinfulness didn’t come to church, there wouldn’t be anyone there.
“The church is open, walk across the parking lot and walk in, because he’s waiting for you.”
That day she experienced a profound moment that brought Christ back into her life.
“I could feel the Holy Spirit wrapping his arms around me,” she said. She and David became active in the parish, including a small faith-sharing group.
“They were my family,” she said of the group that’s been together for more than 20 years. “They’ve had an impact on my life that will never leave me, and that healing and faith has continued to flourish.”
Renewed in faith, she continued counseling but still felt something was missing in her healing.
“I realized if I was serious about walking in my faith, I needed a professional therapist who knew my faith,” she said. It was then that she connected with St. Raphael Counseling, an apostolate that provides psychotherapy service incorporating Catholic philosophical tradition.
“(St. Raphael’s) has helped me realize that when I’m weary, have anxiety or panic, that the Lord’s grace is enough,” she said. “In him, I’m made new again. I’m made whole. I wish I had sought counseling from a Catholic counselor before.”
As she has continued to heal, she has also felt called to help other women, and this week began co-facilitating a support group for women with a counselor from St. Raphael’s.
“Is there a soft place for women to land?” she asked. “I want to support women in their faith and healing. I feel called to that, knowing from my journey that suffering can all be redeemed.”
St. Raphael Counseling is located at 1115 Grant St. in Denver. For more information, visit www.straphaelcounseling.com or call 720-675-7796.
Mass for Catholic Psychotherapists:
When: 7-9 p.m., Oct. 2
Where: Mother of God Church, 475 Logan St., Denver
Concelebrants: Father Scott Bailey, Father Chris Hellstrom, Father Christopher Uhl
Oath: Catholic mental health professionals can take an oath of fidelity to the Church during Mass
Questions: Call 720-675-7796