5 Saints Who Struggled with Addiction and Mental Illness
When it comes to mental illness and helping those who struggle with it, the Church has not always done the best job. If one of the Church’s primary responsibilities is caring for souls, then knowing how to care for troubled parishioners should be of high importance.
There’s another reason for this conviction. One of the blessings of writing about recovery and behavioral health is that I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many people who have overcome debilitating addiction and mental health issues. When asked what was critical to their recovery, almost all of them have attributed their success to God—or, in the words of the 12 Steps, a “Higher Power.” I’ve come to believe that the God we worship is knee-deep in the business of recovery and that recovery is at the heart of God’s mission of redemption.
Thus, Churches that engage in God’s mission should be recovery-minded communities, caring about the people in their midst who are troubled by addiction and mental illness. One way to nurture this through the appreciation for the saints who have had their own struggles in this department. By way of example, here are five saints from church history who struggled with addiction or a mental disorder:
The Venerable Matt Talbot—Alcoholism
Outside of Ireland, his name is unfamiliar. Yet, in the Catholic Church, Matt Talbot is at least unofficially referred to as the patron saint of alcoholics, having reportedly received the title of “Venerable” from Pope Paul VI. Born in the nineteenth century into a struggling, working-class Dublin family, Talbot, the second of 12 children, started drinking almost as early as he started working (early adolescence). At the height of his addiction, he pawned his clothes and shoes for alcohol, and even stole a violin to sell for liquor money.
After a conversion experience in 1884, however, Talbot made a lifetime pledge to abstain from alcohol. For the next 41 years, he faithfully abandoned alcohol and devoted himself to a daily lifestyle of work in solidarity with the poor, prayer, penance, and keeping Mass.
John Bunyan—Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
The seventeenth-century writer and preacher is best known for his famous work, Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan also reportedly suffered from “unwanted intrusive thoughts of a blasphemous nature” and the fear “that instead of words of praise, he might betray God and utter terrible and blasphemous accusations against Him”— indications that Bunyan may have struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). (“Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion, and harm” are among the obsessions that define OCD, according to an overview from the National Institute of Mental Health.) Bunyan gave voice to these thoughts in his 1666 autobiographical work, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
Notably, a similar rationale has been applied to the father of the Reformation Martin Luther. Some have said that Luther’s anxious preoccupation with sin and its forgiveness manifests some of the same obsessive-compulsive tendencies that beset Bunyan.
St. Mark Ji Tianxiang—Opiate Addiction
St. Mark Ji Tianxiang was a respected Christian leader and doctor in 19th century China when he became addicted to opiates after taking them to treat a stomach ailment. He reportedly went to confession often, divulging his struggles to a priest who eventually told him not to come back for confession, denying him communion. For the next 30 years, St. Mark kept coming back to church, anyway—reportedly even praying that he would die a martyr.
In the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, he got what he prayed for. After being rounded up and imprisoned with dozens of other Christians (including his son, six grandchildren, and two daughters-in-law), he begged his captors to execute him last so that none of his family would have to die alone; he stood beside all nine of his family members as they were beheaded. On this basis, the man who for most of his life was denied the sacraments because of an opiate addiction is today a canonized saint in the Catholic Church.
Martin Luther King, Jr.—Manic Depression
This great civil rights leader, who was instrumental in ending racial segregation and fighting for racial justice and equality, may have struggled with manic-depressive disorder (also known as bipolar disorder). In a 2015 Medscape article, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, Department of Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, described some of the classic manic-depressive symptoms that Dr. King suffered from. In 1967 a psychiatrist friend even recommend that King get specialized psychiatric treatment due to these symptoms.
Before, [King] had been optimistic; now he was fatalistic … Before, he had been high energy, needing only 4-5 hours of sleep nightly and yet able to handle massive amounts of air travel and speechifying; now, though he kept up the same busy schedule, he was exhausted most of the time. Increasingly, he turned to alcohol for support, with multiple glasses of hard liquor having become a nightly norm. He had increased his cigarette smoking. He was engaged in even more sexually impulsive activity than previously.
Awareness of Dr. King’s struggles with clinical depression, in Dr. Ghaemi’s view, “is not meant to diminish him or his achievements, but to better appreciate how great he was, and to see that his depression could be viewed as a source of his greatness as well as of his despair.”
St. Therese of Lisieux—OCD/Bipolar Disorder/Asperger’s Syndrome/Schizophrenia?
The nineteenth-century Carmelite nun who died at the age of 24, leaving a manuscript describing her “little way” of spirituality, suffered from extreme fears, anxieties, and emotional distress, including at least one breakdown and other self-harming behaviors. (These were chronicled in a December 2017 article in the Independent.) Consequently, St. Therese has been submitted to a dazzling array of posthumous mental health labels, from OCD to bipolar disorder to Asperger’s Syndrome, and even schizophrenia.
Of the five saints featured here, St. Therese probably best encapsulates some of the problems, limitations, and potential hubris of assigning mental health diagnoses to those who have gone before us. The danger in labeling anyone (past or present) with a mental illness—or with any illness or disability, for that matter—is the temptation to view an individual’s distinctive contributions exclusively through the lens of an illness. What can get lost in the mix are the personal qualities that made them a sacred individual.
Yet, this danger should not obscure the value of examining past lives for what they might teach us about addiction and mental illness in the church. On the contrary, maybe one of the most powerful antidotes to the stigmatization of people with mental illness is the reminder that some of the greatest, most influential saints who ever lived shared some of the same mental health struggles that today reportedly afflict one in four Americans. That greater awareness alone can be a pathway to recovery.
More articles like this one about recovery and mental illness can be found at Beach House Center for Recovery, where Kristina Robb-Dover writes full-time.