Habits can make life easier. They can also drive us crazy. A good habit, freely chosen, can become a virtue, as when one decides to develop an attitude of gratitude — to God and others — and practices it to the point of it becoming a mark of one’s identity: that is, a grateful person, or a kind or a gentle or a compassionate one, as the case may be. Good habits free us to be who we are called by grace to be.

Bad habits are patterns we cling to, or that grow onto us, so much so that we feel lost without them, yet oppressed by them. We call them addictions when it becomes clear they are harming a person’s life, physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. They enslave rather than free the person and, eventually, may be the cause of death.

Patterns sometimes arise in a person’s life, however, over which he or she may have little control. Certain substances can be so biologically powerful that only with some form of intervention and much willpower can they be broken. The only sure way to avoid such addictions is never to begin using the substance in the first place. So, NO to drugs.

To be caught up in a pattern of addiction is to live in what I would call “the chaos of me.” It breaks the order of a person’s relationship not only with the world, and those in the world, but also with the person himself. Everything revolves around the presence of the substance, and the ordinary necessities of life — food, clothing, shelter and work, recreation and health, ultimately, even life itself — are dissipated and lost to the person living in a chaotic and unpredictable universe with little or no freedom or control.

The experience of mental illness is not different from that of the person addicted to a substance, only it is not so easily identified or treated. Its origins, causes or even definition may escape the best efforts of family, friends, community and health care professionals to alleviate. Most poignantly, it isolates the sufferer who feels lost, lonely, misunderstood, fearful and abandoned — even hated, by those who really want to extend love and care. 
Whatever the malady may be and whatever label may be assigned to it, if for no other reason than to find some pattern in the chaos that can be addressed with therapy that has been applied successfully to similar patterns, every experience of mental illness is unique. No two experiences of mental health or illness are identical any more than persons are.

Our Christian love for all persons, regardless of their status, impels us to love and accept our brothers and sisters who suffer from addictions and mental illness, which are often related. Sometimes certain emotional traumas can manifest themselves as mental illness, as survivors of various forms of sexual and emotional abuse can testify. Such traumas — and by that I mean severely shocking, disruptive and psychologically damaging experiences in one’s life, particularly in childhood — can be “triggered” or re-awakened by what to those not so afflicted might be ordinary everyday occurrences.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome — or, popularly, PTSD — is a more familiar form of such conditions. For those who have experienced military combat or other violent or explosive situations, an engine backfiring or the screech of brakes might recall gunfire or missiles. More commonly, however, the trigger is verbal or situational, an unforeseeable combination of environmental factors — scents, sounds, places, people — can reawaken past encounters and generate nightmares in broad daylight. 

We can never know for sure what a person next to us might be suffering inside. What might lead us to judge rashly a sudden display of rage, a verbal outburst, a bizarre reaction or even a slight or a glare, may well be a sign of a soul suffering from some form of addiction or mental distress. 

Jesus often encountered persons in the course of his day who manifested symptoms of various behavioral disorders, be they substance-induced, psychogenic or from demonic influences. Today, we would hardly be any less likely to encounter such persons each day, nor more likely to divine their provenance any better than his contemporaries. Naturally, if any such person is one whom we might find it in our heart to accompany along a path of healing, we would seek out whatever therapeutic resources we can find. We always keep in mind, however, that the person is not a disease or an illness, but a child of God.

I have found that addressing a person by name has a way of bringing focus in the apparent chaos. Recall how Jesus, mentioning the name “Mary” immediately calmed the fear and anxiety of Mary Magdalene that early Easter morning. Depending on the particular emotional disorder, it may be that the person attributes the pain in their life to others or to outside forces, but he or she may just as well be likely to blame themselves, the chaos in their mind.

Whatever assurances one might offer, there is none more powerful than that of prayerful listening. Holistic healing seeks to bring together spiritual, medical and partnering encounters that are respectful of the whole person, not just the biological reality. It is not always easy these days to find therapists and counselors who will even acknowledge the spiritual component of the humanity in the person they seek to assist.

All of us, in a way, are doomed to become disoriented if we live in the “chaos of me.” As I have suggested earlier, the most vexing and painful element of experience of mental illness and certain forms of addiction, is the terrifying isolation and alienation of wandering in the chaos of one’s own world.Many people — including those who are quite young — who would not normally present as mentally ill, suffer gravely from anxiety, depression and feelings of worthlessness. A recent study from the Pew Research Center reveals that some 80 percent of millennials feel their lives have no meaning!

Living in one’s own world, where “I” am the only one who defines my identity, my desires and passions are the center of my universe, and the need to completely control my life, everyone and everything in it, leads in itself to a form of pathological dysphoria that, lost in the chaos of me, separates me from family and friends, church and community.

Our faith begins with the premise that it is God who has created me, willed and loved me into existence, put order into my biological, psychological and spiritual life, “invented” me as a person — that is to say, a being-in-relationship like the very divine essence — in the image and likeness of God. Called as a child of God, I find my fundamental worth and identity. Blessing others in our lives, especially those most suffering from the alienation of addictions and mental illness, is the way to begin any path toward the healing of minds and spirits — the whole person whom God loves. God’s love in us and through us brings peace to the chaos of me.