Stories of Hope – Cecilia

Stories of Hope – Cecilia

Even though I was born Catholic, my early perception of Catholicism was that it was condemning, restrictive, involved words like “Shall / Should / Must”, “Sinners”, and “Unworthy” and that love was conditional. So I left the Church when I was a teenager and learned to be self-reliant. God was far from my mind. I was particularly angry at God and became convinced he didn’t exist when I saw the amount of pain, suffering and death in Afghanistan and Haiti (after the 2010 earthquake).

I was proud to serve Canada as a Canadian Armed Forces Critical Care Nursing Officer and felt that I offered the best of me to fulfill our Health Services motto “The Best Care Anywhere”. However, I hit rock bottom physically, mentally and spiritually at the end of 2011, roughly 6 months after returning from my second 8-month deployment in Afghanistan. The sense of hopelessness, powerlessness, anger, guilt, failure, and heaviness of the overwhelming memories seemed like a tornado ripping the tree of life from its root.

On the outside, people saw me as a successful, well-respected, dedicated officer who had everything. But inside, I was a zombie, fighting for my survival and failing miserably. I was quickly diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and major depression. I ignored my diagnosis until my physician ordered me to go on sick leave. The doctor’s order was rather unusual: “rest and just be”. The diagnosis and extended sick leave felt like a death sentence. My life seemed to be ending. I was losing everything – my job, my profession, potentially my marriage & my home…and me. I saw myself “just being” a homeless veteran.

My life seemed to be ending.

I was losing everything – my job, my profession, potentially my marriage & my home… and me.

Over the next year and a half, I underwent intensive psychotherapy for persistent nightmares, flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts. During this dark period, I was forced to examine my identity, life’s meaning and purpose. I found none until my sister, whom I hadn’t shared my struggles with, offered me a pamphlet to St. Mary’s “New Life Retreat”. I didn’t think a retreat could change my decision to end my life but I was wrong. It was a life-changing experience!

At the New Life retreat, I asked God to give me a sign that He truly existed – to give me what I needed at that very moment. When people were praying over me, I felt a brief moment of complete surreal relaxation – like I was lying on a cloud with absolutely no pain (physical pain was my reality during this time). I heard the words: “come to me and rest” in my mind. I couldn’t fully explain the experience or understand the meaning.

Later on, I also expressed anger toward God: why would He care about me when there were so many people suffering or dying for no reason? Who am I to Him? The words “I love you unconditionally and you are my precious child; let go and let God” then resonated with me. My psychologist, who was helping me process memories, was constantly encouraging me to “let go”. Although I couldn’t fully comprehend my experience, it was enough for me to stop planning to end my life. Several weeks later, someone at St. Mary’s, asked me about my experience at the New Life Retreat. I shared the words that came to me. She immediately recognized it as scripture and showed me that verse in the bible (Matthew 11:28). She further explained that God showed me a sign (complete relaxation) and gave me what I needed (rest and pain free). Then she proceeded to say the words “you are His precious child” slowly and intentionally.

I love you unconditionally; you are my precious child; let go and let God.

I gradually understood how to fulfill my doctor’s order: rest in God and just be “His precious child”. I also started to spend quiet time in the Adoration Chapel and learn to read the Bible, all while still receiving regular therapy from my psychologist. While my psychologist talked about self-nurturing and self-love to combat the negative self-talk, self-blame, extreme self-criticism and relentless perfection, God showed me words from the bible related to self-worth, true identity, and self-confidence. While my psychologist helped me process the negative memories by describing the nightmares, flashbacks and associated emotions, Jesus would appear in my nightmares and dreams when I fell asleep in the chapel.

One of my recurring nightmares saw me participating in a ramp ceremony in the Kandahar airfield. My heart felt extremely heavy. In the dream, I saw Jesus leading the fallen soldiers into the C17 Canadian military aircraft. The inside of the aircraft was heavenly bright. I realized that God was in the midst of the battle and that the heaviness of my heart was his anguish over the whole of humanity. My anger toward God disappeared! I sought spiritual direction from a priest about my dreams. He encouraged me to let God into all the negative memories and let Him show me what I needed to know.

I was slowly letting go and letting God through the combination of divine healing and psychotherapy. My nightmares, flashbacks, suicidal thoughts, and negative memories & emotions are gone. My psychologist was impressed by how quick my recovery journey was. Not only I am completely healed, I became more resilient from this journey. I’ve found my true identity as His precious daughter and my life’s purpose is to be his disciple – an agent of change and a soldier of peace.

I returned to full duty in 2014 and completed another 8-month deployment in Iraq in 2017. While I was on this mission, I felt called to a totally different kind of mission. I am called to care for souls – to be a Chaplain. May He lead the way!