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Honorable mention — Persons of color essay contest: Sarah Niles

Rejecting Catholicism for mental health

By Sarah Niles

Sarah Niles

My mother was born to immigrant parents from Mexico and was raised in a strict Catholic household. By the time I was born, she was a single mother and struggled to support my brothers and me while working long hours. She wanted structure in our lives, so she got us involved in the Catholic Church. We went to Mass often, celebrated Catholic holidays, and I started to go to catechism at age 11, when I became more aware of the religious doctrine. Every so often, I would go live with my father, who was an atheist. He often talked about the Catholic Church and believed that the doctrine’s main purpose was to brainwash its followers. With my father being an atheist, and my mom slowly pulling away from the Catholic Church, herself, I really started questioning what was being said in the church and in catechism.

One of the biggest issues I had with the Catholic doctrine was the idea that all people who aren’t followers of the Catholic Church are going to hell. I really struggled with this idea, especially because it didn’t make sense to me that good people who work for the betterment of society will still go to hell just for not following the Catholic doctrine.

Another aspect of the church I struggled with was the intensity of thought control. In the Catholic Church, you were considered a sinner if you even thought about “sinful” things. As a child, this made me especially anxious because I felt the need to reject and push down “shameful” thoughts. One of the last biggest issues I had with the Catholic church had to do with sexuality and virginity. Especially since I’m female, virginity and purity were heavily emphasized in the Catholic teachings.

Unfortunately, as a child, I was sexually abused for several years. I felt that it was my fault for somehow being impure, and I felt so ashamed and disgusted with my own body. Because of the emphasis on female virginity and purity, my shame became so unbearable that I tried my best to numb myself and ignore the sexual abuse by self-harming and starving myself. I also refused to tell anyone in my family because of this shame.

Fortunately, my mother began to reject the Catholic Church completely when I was 13. I stopped going to catechism and began going to therapy because I was suffering from depression and anxiety. As I started to take therapy more seriously when I got into high school, I was able to look at the church and other aspects of my childhood through an objective point of view. When I was 15, I finally told my mother about the sexual abuse I’d experienced years earlier. My mom didn’t reject me or blame me for being impure, as I had feared when I was in the church. Because of that, I decided to reject the Catholic Church entirely because I realized that living a secular life is best for my mental health. Today, I embrace secular thinking, and I have my own moral code that makes logical sense to me, instead of blindly following a moral code written thousands of years ago.

Once I started living a secular life, my mental health improved exponentially. I’ve been going to therapy for four years, and I’m working on healing from my past and overcoming my depression and anxiety. I’ve also worked hard in school to be able to have the opportunity to go to college, so I can have a career, as a therapist, to help children who are being manipulated and exploited like I was as a child. I don’t regret leaving the church and going on my own individual path in life — it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Sarah, 17, is from Azusa, Calif., and attends the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she plans to major in developmental psychology. She is a first-generation college student. Sarah’s future goal is to become a child therapist, specializing in children who have experienced sexual abuse and/or exploitation.