My family wasn’t particularly religious growing up.

We were never forced to go to church. We didn’t even say grace before meals. But there was one thing we were always encouraged to do, and that was to talk to God.

Mom described God as a big loving presence that was always looking out for me, and she told me I could ask God for help anytime—just like calling up a good friend.

So that’s what I did.

God became my invisible buddy—someone I could talk to about anything. We built forts in the backyard and went fishing together, and whenever I felt scared, upset, or lonely, I knew I could always count on my big loving friend to be there for me.

I didn’t need church to feel connected to God, but I still liked going most Sundays. I even convinced our priest to let me take my First Communion two years early, and I became the first altar girl in our parish. I had no idea how unorthodox this was back then. I just knew I loved being part of the ceremony–even if I did forget to ring the bells half the time.

Me with my family at my grandparents’ house, celebrating my First Communion (1980).

And then when I turned twelve, things changed.

Tension between my parents reached a boiling point, and they filed for a divorce.

As devastating as it was to leave half my family and the only home I’d ever known, I was relieved the marriage was over, and I knew it was the right thing to do.

But not everyone felt that way.

As news of the divorce got around church, I noticed Mom acting strange. She gave up her role as Eucharistic minister, and when the rest of us lined up for Communion, she stayed behind with tears in her eyes–as if she’d done something very wrong.

Just to be clear, the Catholic church doesn’t prohibit divorcees from receiving Communion (unless they remarry). However, the stigma around divorce was so heavy in those days that this was a common misconception. Even our priest believed it would be inappropriate for my mother to continue to receive Communion–unless her 19-year marriage was annulled.

I asked Mom what that meant, and she told me the marriage would be considered invalid in the eyes of the church—as if it never happened.

“If the marriage never happened, that means I never happened!” I cried.

Mom tried to explain the formality, but it didn’t help me feel better. I couldn’t understand why Mom was being punished for ending an unhealthy relationship and why my family had to be erased for her to be accepted at church. At least that’s how I took it.

My trust in the church was rattled, and I became suspicious of everything I heard. Proverbs about honesty, forgiveness, and love collided with rules that didn’t make sense to me. The verses I recited countless times got stuck in my throat, and the drone of communal prayers made me want to run. It wasn’t long before I stopped going to church entirely.

Life as I knew it continued to unravel, but this time, I didn’t call my buddy God for help. Instead, I closed myself off into a tight little shell.

Alternate realities

My armor gave me a place to retreat to, but it was also cold and lonely inside.

I looked for comfort wherever I could find it, including alcohol and cigarettes. I raided Dad’s home bar, partially filling empty soda bottles with whiskey, vodka, schnapps, and whatever else might go unnoticed. And I’d stand up tall and deepen my voice when I asked the store clerk for a pack of Camels (only because I couldn’t pronounce “Marlboro”).

Meanwhile, things were looking up for Mom. She met a fellow named Bill who swept her off her feet in a wholesome Hallmark movie kind of way. Bill knew right away they were meant to be together. So did their friends and even their mothers. And after many long talks, cribbage games, and romantic trips to the grocery store, Mom accepted his proposal.

Bill was kind and patient, but I wasn’t ready to accept his parental guidance—or anyone else’s, for that matter. That is until I met my father’s new girlfriend, Brenda.

Brenda was a young bartender who mixed me fuzzy navels and asked me about my day while Dad was still at work. I loved the attention and freedom and how she treated me more like a friend than a child (even though I was barely fourteen). I was so enamored by her humor and easy-going nature that I moved in with her and my father full-time.

But things weren’t quite as they seemed…

Over time, Brenda revealed darker sides of her personality, and I got a crash course in navigating severe mental illness. Every day was a practice of sorting out truth from manipulation and reality from delusion. Sometimes I didn’t know the difference.

The rougher things got at home, the more I drank. Smoking marijuana became a regular pastime, and on my 16th birthday, I added LSD to the mix. I told myself I was exploring other worlds, but I was really just trying to escape the one I was in.

And then, on that fateful night in December of 1991, I got sick. And soon, I had no choice but to stop everything—the booze, drugs, and even cigarettes. I could no longer tolerate the substances that made life tolerable.

I pushed on with daily life, but inside, I felt raw, disoriented, and totally alone.

Breaking free

It was the spring of 1993.

I had moved back home with Mom and Bill soon after I started getting sick, and aside from my short venture into the “real world,” I’d been there ever since. And I mean that literally. The only time I left the house was for doctor’s appointments, including our most recent trip to Boston to see the Chronic Fatigue specialist.

As lucky as I was to have a safe place to live with round-the-clock care, my patience was wearing thin. I was tired of staring at the same walls day after day. I felt like a prisoner—confined to my bed with no freedom, no social life, no plans, and no relief in sight.

One night, I was lying in bed, trying to breathe through the nausea like so many nights before, when a strange numbness washed over me. It was as if I’d crawled out of my body, trying to escape the discomfort. And part of me didn’t want to come back.

Suddenly, I felt a deep ache in my chest, which welled up into my throat. The pressure intensified until I could no longer hold back the tears.

These tears were unlike anything I’d ever felt before.

They were tears of longing. Longing for something to hold on to. Something to ease my fear, loneliness, and heartache. Something to help guide me out of this darkness. My tears were a prayer of sorts. And the realization that I couldn’t do this on my own.

What happened next is hard to put into words.

I didn’t see a white light, and angels didn’t appear at my feet, but if what I felt wasn’t holy, I don’t know what is. That tight little shell that I stuffed myself into when I was twelve began to crack open. And when I peeked outside, I found the same loving presence that I knew so intimately as a child—waiting patiently for me to come back.

My tears of longing turned to grief for separating myself—not only from the pain I’d been trying to avoid, but also from love, compassion, joy, and so many other good things. And with this grief came tears of relief and gratitude for having another chance.

As I cried, I felt a distinct sense of being held, like I was being wrapped in a warm blanket. The more I surrendered, the more my protective armor softened, and the chains of sickness that confined me released their grip.

I drew this picture shortly after the night I broke free (1993).

This kind of surrender wasn’t about religion or having blind faith. It was about dropping my defenses enough to make room for something bigger. For me, that meant opening my heart to the possibility of an incomprehensible source of love and mercy. And maybe, just maybe, I could receive some of this too.

I didn’t just want to believe this was true. I needed to believe it.

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14 Responses

  1. Sharon, I am so glad, and relieved, to hear from you. I’d been thinking of reaching out to make sure you are OK! Once again, your willingness to be vulnerable and share intimate parts of your journey is inspiring. Thank you for trusting us with your story; I for one feel honored. For those of us who have had our own journeys with digestive distress, and have worked with you to find relief, you have been a beacon of hope! The wise words of Chinese Traditional Medicine often come back to me, with thoughts of gratitude to you :) My own path toward healing has been long, but overall I’m doing much better than I was. I still have flares, but much fewer and less intense. Ive learned to manage them better, by practicing acceptance and letting go of fear, as best I can. Be well,

    1. Thank you so much for thinking of me, Amy! This story has evolved into much more of a process than I ever imagined, and it means so much to me that you’d like to hear it (and be a part of it). And thank you for sharing a peek into your own healing journey. Your determination and courage is awe-inspiring, and I’m grateful to know you. ❤️

  2. What an amazing story and in some ways so parallel to my own. Thank you for sharing your story! It made me realize a few things I have been pondering lately about my religious beliefs, psychological ideal as well as larger life issues. I just started reading No Bad Parts by Richard Schwartz and this totally coincides with finding our real true self that is being defended and or protected by all these other selves that were built up inside at different times to protect us from the things we had to deal with in our reality at that time. Which then from your writing lead me to thinking about how that true self is really like “God” or being in that presence. Beautiful!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, TK! I’ve never read that book, but I’m totally on board with finding our true selves, which can sometimes get buried in stories and debris from the past. It reminds me of the Five Element tradition of Chinese medicine, where each challenge reveals something equally beautiful about us. It’s such a merciful way to see ourselves and the world, which is why I love it so much. When I allow some of that compassion to soak in and I can see even a glimmer of who I really am, I feel most in the presence of God, Allah, the Divine, or what-have-you. I love how you made that connection (if I’m understanding correctly). Thank you so much again for sharing this! 🙏

  3. Thank you Sharon
    It is as if there was a missing piece. But I hadn’t realized that before. And now your story is complete. There’s the feeling of wholeness for you and your story. Thank you for being willing to share the intimate details of your life. It’s really helpful and kind to me to be trusted by you. I believe this is how we connect and make community. By cleaning out our proverbial closets there is more room for health, compassion and love. This is how we all heal. Thank you for doing your part. And being an inspiration to anyone who reads your story.

    1. Thank you, Joanne. Yes, it was a big missing piece, and it feels really good to share it. Thank you so much for your receptivity to the whole story–even the not-so-pretty bits. I believe wholeheartedly that there’s a reason for all of it (and I look forward to writing about that too!). I’m sooooooo with you and making room for health, compassion, and love. You’re an inspiration to me too, Joanne! ❤️

  4. My dear friend! I am in awe of you and your courage in sharing and deep-diving into all the parts of your healing story!! Thank you for sharing it with us and for your willingness to be vulnerable so we all can learn even more from you and your experiences and wisdom.

  5. Sharon, thank you for sending this to us. You have given me such good food for thought. Your bravery in opening yourself to past experiences and sharing this with us is inspiring. Thank you

  6. Please keep writing!!!! Your story is so inspiring and empowering all at the same time. While I’ve been working and figuring my own life out and reading your story gives me hope. Thank you for sharing!!! Love you always!

    1. You made my day, Jessica. Thank you so much for the encouragement and for sharing your own feelings of hope. I know it’s not always easy, but it sure does make a big difference (as you already know). Love you always too! ❤️

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Hey there.

This post is part of a series called “Peeling the Onion” about my adventures healing from life-threatening digestive issues.

To view the full story, click here.