Struggling to live, battling to stay alive

A year ago today, I left hospital in Dublin after my first spinal surgery. Though I was in pain, I was chirpy and full of hope. The surgery had gone well, I had been told. The bolt had been inserted and held in place with four shiny screws. Over the coming weeks, as the graft took hold and the wound healed, my strength should return and the pain should ease and eventually subside. That was the plan and the promise.
I came here to Limerick to begin my recuperation and, though the wound healed nicely over the following couple of weeks, the pain never disappeared. I waited and I fretted and I hoped, but it never went away. It was clear that the procedure hadn’t worked and I was despondent.

A subsequent scan showed that the screws had come loose and no healing had occurred. A new procedure was recommended. I jumped at it. Surely, once those blasted screws stayed in place, then the pain would disappear. I had the second surgery and a third two weeks later to add further support, but the pain never disappeared.

One year after my first surgery and six months after the follow-up surgeries, my pain is worse than ever. All I have for all my troubles is a titanium bolt and seven screws. I feel screwed both literally and metaphorically.

With injections having achieved nothing except to fill my back with alien fluids, and with the failure of various alternative treatments to make any difference, I am left with strong medication to help me through each day.

Now there is talk of inserting a spinal cord stimulator to deflect the pain. I don’t know precisely how it works, except from reading the literature there is no guarantee that it will succeed either. Some kind of morphine pump seems a last resort.

It is no exaggeration to say that the joy has gone out of my life and I have no pleasure in being alive in my current state. I have been doing a little extra work of late, but all I look forward to and the only thing that offers any solace is sleep. Thank God, with the help of a pill, I can get a relatively good night’s sleep. 

I dislike the advent of each new day, because it means another day of pain. Some days are better than others, but no day is good. I cannot remember what it is like to be without pain.

I am full of self-pity, though I am no less deserving of chronic pain than anyone else. I try to focus on the positives – and there are many of those: a supportive community that gives me the luxury of allowing me to work at my own pace and that provides the financial resources I need; a loving family and a mother restored to good health after we thought we had lost her; 52 years of life during which I had no pain and got to see so much of the world; the knowledge that so many people are praying for me and sending me good thoughts.

Still, my natural tendency is to see the half-empty glass. Much of the time, all I can think of is escaping from the pain. I can’t see myself living into old age if my situation remains as it is. I can’t see myself enduring even another two years of this daily purgatory. My thoughts turn very dark and I am tempted to despair and self-destruction.

I pray every day for the strength to keep going and for a breakthrough to take place, for I find this agony so difficult to endure. 

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It’s as if pain is shrinking my brain

There may even be some scientific evidence for it, but I think chronic pain, or more likely, the medication I’m taking for the pain, is slowly making mush of my brain.

I’m certainly more drowsy than in the past and that is a definite side effect of the pills, but what I feel much of the time is more than drowsiness, almost as if there is a void where my brain used to be. There are days when I sit down to write and I can’t think of anything to say. I sit down to read, and nothing sinks in. I end up watching repeats of The Big Bang Theory, which at least has the advantage of distracting me from the pain as well as killing time.

I try to think or write and it’s like turning the ignition key to start the car and nothing happens. Or the engine heaves and splutters before slowly cranking into life.

It frightens me because I never had a problem expressing an opinion or being creative in the good old days before my back gave out and my life ground to a halt. I had no problem putting together a homily or posting a witty comment on Twitter. Now I try to think of things to say and nothing enters my head. I want to comment on issues of the day but come up empty.

All I like to do is sleep because then I enter a pain-free realm, a world of the unconscious where there is no suffering or struggle simply to stay alive and interested and focused.

The curious case of my ordination day appendix

On the morning of my ordination – October 2, 1988 – I woke up feeling the worse for wear. I had been out the night before, on what you could label a kind of clerical equivalent of a stag night, and I had a couple of drinks, so I concluded that what I had was a hangover. A good shower and a walk by the river would sort me out.
But they didn’t. I struggled back to the house barely able to keep my feet under me. Deep down I knew it wasn’t a hangover (nobody gets hungover on three beers!) and I began to wonder and worry. I was throwing up and sweating and trembling. I had no strength and had to get back into bed, though the ceremony was due to take place in a couple of hours and the bus full of excited family, relatives and friends was due to arrive soon.

They may have been excited but I wasn’t. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me and why it had to happen on this of all days. My colleagues, increasingly worried, decided to get a doctor.

Three of us were being ordained that day. It was the culmination of nine long years of study and preparation, and the man who was going to do the ordaining was the recently appointed archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell.

My family arrived at about the same time as the doctor, but it was decided not to tell them that I was ill in bed. The official story was that I was still getting ready and would be down to welcome them in a few minutes. But my family found it hard to believe. They knew that one thing I would never be is late.

Meanwhile, the doctor was unsure as to the reason for my illness. He recommended that I forget about the ordination, stating that I was not up to taking part in any kind of ceremony.

I pleaded with him and with my colleagues who were in charge to let me go ahead, that I could get through it. Reluctantly, they relented. I was given a pain-killing injection and the ceremony was postponed for an hour to give me a chance to recover.

All the while, my Redemptorist colleagues and the many others who had arrived for the big day were wondering what was really going on. Was I having last minute nerves? Was I going to back out? Still not having laid eyes on me, my family were beginning to ask the same questions.

Finally, my parents were allowed up to my room, and they helped me to get ready.

I was ordained in a chair with a basin underneath in case I needed to throw up. I never prostrated myself or knelt for the laying on of hands. The archbishop and the concelebrants came down to me, not me up to them. And I made it through to the end. I was successfully ordained, and as a result now ontologically different, even if the circumstances were unusual!

Family photographs taken, in which I looked as miserable as I felt, I went back to bed while the celebratory dinner was taking place. But I got up to make an end of dinner speech. I had spent days working on it, and no matter how ill I was, I was determined to deliver it. I love speechifying!

Then it was home to County Limerick on the bus with my family. But I felt increasingly weak and miserable. It was supposed to be a wonderful happy day – and of course it was – but I wasn’t feeling it. I just wanted to get into bed.

And that’s what I did as soon as I got home, but within the hour I was out of bed again, being rushed by my father into hospital in Limerick. Our family doctor had called in to look at me after we got home and straight away announced that I had appendicitis and needed it dealt with without delay.

“So, what do you do?” the young nursed asked me as I was being wheeled to theatre.

“I’m a priest,” I said, scarcely believing those words myself.

“Gosh, you look very young to be a priest. How long are you ordained?”

“A few hours,” I answered.

“Oh my God,” she exclaimed, or whatever was the equivalent of OMG back in 1988.

It was an extraordinary coincidence.

The next day, appendix successfully extracted and First Mass postponed, I was inundated with visits from family and friends.

“Just as well you had an appendix,” my sister said. “Otherwise, they’d all be saying you were trying to back out.”

But I have often wondered about that extraordinary coincidence, especially since I developed back pain on the very weekend 26 years later that I was due to begin my sabbatical. Another absolutely extraordinary coincidence.

Was my body trying to tell me something on the morning of October 2, 1988? Was it telling me to think again about what I was going to do? Could nerves trigger an appendix? Or was it just one of those one in a million coincidences that simply cannot be explained?

My tears for a lost innocence

The choir began the hymn and suddenly I felt the tears trickle down my cheeks. It was no special occasion and it wasn’t a particularly beautiful rendition of the hymn. It wasn’t even a very good hymn. “Our God Reigns” has never been popular with the liturgical types. So, why the tears?Because that is a song I associate with my young days, the days of youth and optimism, and those are long gone now.

“Our God Reigns” reminds me in particular of the pope’s visit to Ireland in September 1979. I was at the youth Mass in Galway, having entered the seminary just two weeks before. And at the Mass, where the warm-up acts included Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, I was allocated a seat in the section close to the altar, the section reserved for priests and seminarians. The pope was just one hundred yards away.

I was 17 years old. I was innocent and naïve and awestruck and, like so many others present that day, swept away in the euphoria of it all.

We were celebrating the swan song of the church in Ireland during those three days of the pope’s visit but we had no idea that is what we were doing. The hundreds of bishops and priests and religious present must have felt a warm glow of satisfaction and assurance as they gazed out at the vast sea of faces. The future of the church in Ireland seemed secure. All those young people had travelled to Galway from every corner of the country tired, but full of faith and vigor and love for the church, and singing “Our God Reigns.”

The day before almost the entire population of Dublin had gathered in the Phoenix Park in another extraordinary display of faith and emotion. The church was safe for several generations more.

I was 17 years old and had no cynicism in me, or disappointment or disillusionment with the church or the world. My experience of both had been nothing but positive. Full of zeal, I wanted to make my contribution.

It’s hard to believe that was almost 37 years ago. The young clergy who had brought bus loads of teenagers to Galway from all over the country are old and wearied now, morale is sapped, the energy and exuberance of those days long gone, as churches empty and monasteries close and parishes cluster and vocations disappear.

The tears I shed were for the innocent, fragile me of all those years ago with my naïve enthusiasm but also for the church that through arrogance and complacency and abuse of power lost the love and trust of its people and won’t ever get it back.

Feeling broken on my second anniversary of chronic pain 

Exactly two years ago, life as I knew it came to an end. I went to bed on May 9, 2014 tired but excited about my sabbatical in America which was due to begin three days later.
But I noticed a pain in my lower back when I awoke on May 10. I wasn’t worried about it. I worked on my homily for the next day, which would be the last time for eight months at least, that I would be preaching in Rathgar. Then I went for my customary walk, which I was sure would iron out the pain that continued to nag at me, but by the time I got home the pain had intensified.

I cursed my luck. Imagine damaging my back right before heading off to America. It was the last thing I needed.

I got to see a doctor, a parishioner, and he filled out a prescription for me. Some anti-inflammatory medication, and I would be fine. And so off I went to Indianapolis, where I would spend the first weeks of my break, before then going to Boston College and finally to a retreat centre in the Arizona desert.

I had it all planned for months in advance. And I had worked so hard to get ready for it. I had written Mass commentaries for a whole year ahead; I had written our Christmas special in March! I had tried to make everything as smooth as I could for the guest editors who would be filling in for me in my absence. After 22 years, I would be able to enjoy time without the pressure of deadlines and budgets and keeping a small publishing house on the road.

It was going to be fun.

I flew to America on May 12, excited and as relaxed as I could be given the persistent pain in my lower back. But I was sure the pills would kick in and the pain would go away.

I was helping out in a lovely parish in downtown Indianapolis. There was so much to do and see and so many short trips out of town I had planned on making, but the pain would not go away. Instead it got worse. There are few things worse than falling ill in a country where you know few people and have no medical contacts. Eventually I found a chiropractor I could reach by bus, and after taking some x-rays, which indicated considerable wear and tear in the lower back, he promised to have me pain-free in three weeks. It would cost quite a bit, however.

I didn’t care about the money, I just wanted rid of the pain. I went to him three or four days a week. He put me on various machines and performed all sorts of manipulations, but nothing changed. The pain didn’t ease. It was getting worse, and I began to get increasingly concerned.

Finally, with the date of my Boston course drawing ever nearer, I made the decision to abandon the sabbatical and go home.

I was devastated, but I was sure that once home, my back would be swiftly repaired and I might even be able to return for the final leg of the sabbatical.

I remember the tremendous disappointment I felt back home in Dublin. I remember getting up in the middle of the night and wandering around the house, the pain preventing sleep, and shaking my head in disbelief. How could this be happening to me? And why had it to be now? I was in denial.

But denial quickly turned to frustration and then to self-pity, as every effort to treat the pain came to naught. I had four epidurals, and extensive physiotherapy. I tried acupuncture and ‘cupping.’ I went from one specialist to another, and none could help.

I remember receiving a whole series of injections into the muscles from one very prominent medic. At the end of the session, he asked me, “Do you feel better?” I shook my head and then he shook his. “There’s nothing more I can do for you,” he said, sadly. After I left his room, his nurse rushed to hold me. I was shaking and ashen and broken. “Can I get you water or something?” she asked. “A gun, if you have one,” I replied. I cried all the way home in the car that night.

And then I found hope. My doctor referred me to the man considered to be the top spinal specialist in the country. I was told that he only sees those he thinks he can help, based on his analysis of their MRI scans. So when he agreed to see me I was thrilled. Clearly, he thought he could help me. There was light at the end of the tunnel. The surgery was scheduled for May 20, 2015. The three weeks leading up to it were full of hope. I couldn’t wait to go under the knife. I couldn’t wait to be pain free after one whole year of agony.

I had the surgery. Four screws and a titanium bolt were placed in my back at L4/S1. The doc pronounced it a success. I should begin to feel better within a few weeks.

But it never happened. If anything, I felt worse, and the disappointment was tremendous. I was on more medication than ever before, I was spending longer in bed, I felt capable of doing nothing.

I began to see a counselor, and to try to practice mindfulness. I read several books on healing back pain and to read testimonies of people who had recovered from chronic pain. But nothing seemed to help me. Nothing worked.

And then a new scan showed that the screws inserted during my surgery were loose. The fusion had not healed. The surgeon recommended we do it again. And so I was full of hope once more. No wonder I still had pain with all those loose screws rattling around in my back.

The second surgery took place on November 2nd. The doc reported that no healing had taken place at all from the first op, that the bone was very brittle, and that he’d like to support the fusion by going in from the front via the abdomen. And so I had a second op on November 18th. It was tough. My blood pressure collapsed and they spent the night trying to get it back up.

I was just out of hospital when my father died unexpectedly, increasing my emotional turmoil.

Even worse, these surgeries were no more successful than the first, except that now I had seven screws instead of four. So bad was the pain that they took me back into hospital for two weeks before Christmas for pain management.

All the hope I had for the back surgeries turned to intense regret that I had them at all. So much pain, so much trauma to my body and for nothing.

The constant chronic pain has left me broken in mind and spirit as well as in body. So many days I have wept bitter tears. So many days I have given into hopelessness and despair. People have encouraged me to unite my sufferings with the sufferings of Christ and thus participate in the great mystery of salvation. But I must confess that this doesn’t help me much.

Many times in the last few months, as disappointment followed disappointment, I have considered ending it all. I cannot imagine going on for another year, not to mind the rest of my life, with this kind of pain. I am not able to endure it. I try to keep going for the sake of my mother and my family. Every day I make it through alive is one less day of pain that they would have to face.

The price of celibacy 

I joined the seminary before I had my first shave. I joined without ever having had a girlfriend, or ever going on a proper date. I joined without giving much thought to girls or relationships or the implications of living a celibate life.
I was 17 years old when I decided to become a Redemptorist. I understood that if you wanted to be a priest or religious, you couldn’t get married, that celibacy was part of the package. But I was young and full of idealism. Making vows of chastity seemed like no big commitment. It’s how Jesus lived. It’s how priests and brothers and nuns lived. It gave them the freedom to give themselves totally to God. They seemed to manage it well enough. So also would I, I was sure. 

And, anyway, I was joining a religious order. I wasn’t going to be a secular priest who, most likely, would end up living, isolated, on his own. I would be part of a community of priests and brothers living as one under the same roof.  

And religious life has been good to me. I have received wonderful support from my religious brothers, especially when I ran into trouble with the Vatican and, later, when my health collapsed. I have not had to worry about supporting myself financially or getting the best medical care. I have been allowed the freedom to do as little or as much work as my health has allowed. I lack for nothing.

But there is one drawback to the celibate life that I have become acutely conscious of since I became ill – lack of physical affection.

I’m not talking about sexual affection or expression. I’m not talking about breaking the vow of chastity. I’m simply talking about the sort of physical contact that most family members or partners take for granted – a hug, an embrace, a stroke of the cheek, a gentle massage, a rub of the shoulders, holding hands. The warmth of simple human contact that nourishes, soothes, relaxes, gives life.

Much of it is my own fault. Unlike my father, I have never been a tactile person. When people would try to hug me I’d instinctively pull away. I was never good at demonstrating or receiving affection.

But we need human touch – hand to hand, skin on skin – to be fully alive. Since I’ve become ill, my tendency has been to want to withdraw even more from people, to curl up in my own pain-filled, self-pitying, shrinking world.

It’s not the fault of the brothers I live with or my family or my friends. They all want what’s best for me. I know I’m loved. But celibacy does have a price. It’s just the way things are.

It’s time women were allowed preach in the Catholic Church – and lay and married men too

Last Sunday I preached on love. It was the first time I have done Sunday preaching since I went under the knife (twice) last November. When you preach in our Limerick church on a weekend, you do so at all the Masses. So I performed four times.The response was positive. I love preaching. Actually, I love public speaking. I was no more than 10 or 11 years old when I began delivering passionate political addresses with a hairbrush as a microphone.

I will never forget the first time I got to use a real microphone. I was reading in church at Sunday Mass. I was about 14 years old, and I tried to imagine I was Lincoln, or Churchill, or JFK, but it’s hard to electrify a crowd when all you have to work with is a dull passage from the Old Testament. Still, the experience exhilarated me. I was buzzing afterwards. I knew that whatever career I would choose would have a public speaking element.

For a long time, I was determined to become a barrister. It would be exciting to stand before a jury like one of the TV lawyers and use my oratorical skills to brilliantly and forensically demolish my opponent’s argument.

I also dreamed of a career in politics. It wasn’t the humdrum constituency work I was interested in, or messy meetings in smoke-filled rooms, but the opportunity to make speeches, and argue points, and even, eventually, once I got to the top, to address the nation. I could recite large parts of JFK’s inaugural address and MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I could imagine delivering speeches like that, but, of course, it never came to be because I got derailed down the religion road.

I still often wonder ‘What if?’

At least being a clergyman offers the opportunity to speak in public, like I did on Sunday. And, occasionally, to debate in public also. I have taken part in a number of university debates against top quality opponents over the years and won them all on a show of hands. There are few bigger thrills than having a student audience declare you the victor.

Not all my preaching has been a success. I remember vividly the Christmas midnight Mass when I got it spectacularly wrong. The little church was packed, lots of young families were in attendance, and I spoke about how at Christmas many people can experience the absence of God rather than God’s presence. I used a story from Auschwitz to illustrate my point.

I knew half way through the homily that it wasn’t going down well, and after the Mass was over and I stood at the back to greet people as they left, several made sure to let me know what they thought of my performance.

“Disgraceful!” one man exclaimed. His wife tried to be more diplomatic. “It wasn’t that bad, Father, don’t listen to him,” she said. “No, he needs to hear the truth,” the husband retorted. “Someone needs to tell him.”

Another woman, two kids in tow, told me forcefully never to preach that sermon again. Others said the same thing.

I was distraught. I knew I had miscalculated badly. Christmas should be uplifting and cuddly and child-friendly. Mine was the opposite. I vowed never to make a mistake like that again. And I haven’t.

I think one of the great weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been the quality of its preachers and preaching. Some preachers are always going to be better than others. They have an aptitude for it. They work at it. They enjoy it.

Some will never be brilliant but, with determination and effort, they can and do improve.

But a lot of clergy, it seems to me, do not try very hard. And maybe do not care a great deal any more. They are too tired or too busy to prepare adequately. They commit little or nothing to paper. They feel they have said it all before, or they have a few pet topics they keep returning to. The whole exercise is a chore for them as well as for the congregation. I sometimes wonder how so many people put up with it week after week.

And of course it is difficult for both priest and people when the priest has to face the same people every Sunday and the people have to face the same priest.

The preaching problem will become even more acute as the number of priests continues to fall. Importing clergy from overseas, who have no knowledge of our culture and for whom English is not their first language, will only exacerbate the problem.

Priests need more training. When the Redemptorists ran renewal courses for clergy and religious back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the preaching segment was the bit the participants disliked most. Each had to compose a homily and deliver it to camera as if in his own parish setting. And then the others were encouraged to critique his performance. He would naturally get defensive and his colleagues would always be reluctant to say something negative about his content or delivery.

Most of them found the whole ordeal excruciating, most made excuses about being in an unnatural environment that put them off their game. Many were in denial about how dreadful they actually were. I doubt that most took any lessons on board at all.

And yet priests need training and regular refresher days, because preaching is such a vital part of their ministry. Not all are going to be spellbinding orators or storytellers, but everyone can do better, if they try and if they prepare.

It is a shame and unjust that only priests and deacons are permitted to preach at the Eucharist. Women’s voices are never heard (unless occasionally one is invited to “say a few words” after communion). Married voices, unless the preacher is one of the few convert priests, are never heard either. So much wisdom is being lost. So much needs to change.

But change won’t come while we remain trapped in the current clerical model of church. Maybe the slow disappearance of priests in Ireland and the western world will bring about the change that is needed. Then good lay people will be required to preach and teach. For if they are not, the gospel will not be proclaimed and the church will become even more irrelevant.