When we are struggling with emotional pain or a breakdown in our mental health, it’s easy to wonder, “Where is God in all of my pain?”
Tommy Tighe may not have an answer to that question, but he’s pulling people together to ask it together — and that, in itself, is a place to start healing.
Tommy is a licensed marriage and family therapist who hosts a popular podcast, Saint Dymphna’s Playbook, that offers advice, encouragement, and prayers for those who are wandering, wondering, or suffering in their mental health journeys. An avid podcast listener, I downloaded a number of Saint Dymphna’s Playbook episodes and marveled at the ways in which Tommy wove faith and the lives of the saints into conversation about mental health, healing, and community.
People often assume that faith and mental health are at odds with one another — as if trust in God and depression, for example, are incompatible. The podcast dispels that notion — each episode addresses a different mental health issue, incorporates prayer, introduces listeners to a Catholic saint who struggled with his/her own mental or emotional health, and responds to the plethora of listener questions that Tommy receives on his Twitter page.
I had the chance to take my questions to Tommy directly, and our conversation reminded me that we do not walk alone.
With your podcast, you are able to directly address two topics together: faith and mental health. What do you hope listeners walk away with after listening to episodes of the podcast?
A few things. First, we tend to think that if we are a good enough Christian or have enough faith in God, then life will be good for us. I don’t know why we believe that, because if we spend time reflecting on the Gospels or the life of Mary and the saints, we see that the people who were closest to Christ suffered greatly. We tend to white-wash the stories of the Gospel, so we miss what was actually happening. Think of Mary, whose story is often made to be very rosy. Yet, she watched her son be tortured and killed! She suffered like crazy. We shouldn’t disregard that.
Also, I think that we tend to over-spiritualize our mental health and ask why God is doing this to me, why God is testing me in this way. Instead, we need to accept that, just as we suffer from physical illness and seek medical treatment, we may suffer from mental illness, which requires proper medical treatment.
Finally, something that has become a favorite part of each episode is responding to listeners’ questions. It’s so humbling when people share their deep experiences with me and seek guidance. And, it's the same questions from so many different people, coming again and again. That’s encouraging to me because if we can get people to open up and share what they’re going through with loved ones whom they trust, then people will be able to help themselves and one another. The goal is to help people create community where they are — community that isn’t afraid of acknowledging suffering; that sees beyond what seems like a perfect life and can say, “That person is probably struggling with some of the same things that I am struggling with.” So, I hope that listeners’ questions remind people that others feel the way they do, even when they feel so alone.
You named your podcast after St. Dymphna, the patron saint of those suffering from mental illness and their caretakers. I hate to admit it, but I had never heard of her before! Tell us about the name of the podcast and the significance of the saints’ witness in your work.
I have found that, for so many of us when we are struggling with severe or chronic mental illness, we can feel pushed aside by God. So, it’s powerful for me to turn to the saints and remember that they suffered immensely, just like us.
For example, Edith Stein was a convert, deeply faithful, wrote extensively on feminism and philosophy, and bravely went to her death during World War II. What you don’t often hear is that she contemplated suicide and used to wish that cars would hit her as she crossed the street so she wouldn’t have to live another day with depression. To realize that she suffered in that way and became this tremendous saint is incredible. Dorothy Day is another wonderful example. We hear that she gave up everything to follow Jesus and then think about how I could never do that, but we don’t often hear of her struggle to control her anger, that she had an abortion, and that she attempted suicide.
Honestly, it’s hard to find a saint who hasn’t had emotional struggles, bouts of depression, or mental health issues. We tend to put saints in boxes and make their lives out to be pure and perfect, but then their lives become unattainable and unrelatable. The struggles of the saints are almost more powerful to me than their miracles or holy works because I feel deeply connected to them and I am reminded that God did not abandon them in their sufferings — and won’t abandon me in mine.
And, St. Dymphna was the first saint I featured on the podcast! I always had her holy card in my office, but have learned more about her recently. After her mom died, she fled from Ireland to escape her dad and opened up a hospital in Geel, Belgium for those suffering from mental illness. Her dad found her and eventually murdered her, but Geel remains one of the most forward-thinking places in the world when it comes to mental health. So, it’s crazy that she lived in the 600s, but her legacy endures and offers encouragement for our culture that still attaches so much stigma to mental illness.
You grew up as a cradle Catholic in a faith-filled household. What role has your faith played in your journey to where you are today?
My family is very devoted to the faith — my mom has two sisters who became Catholic nuns and my dad spent time in seminary. They taught RCIA out of our living room, so the faith was just constant in our household growing up. I maybe drifted away in college, but I still went to Mass because going to Mass felt like home. After my wife and I had our first son, we realized that this couldn’t just be a surface-level thing for us because, now, we had a little one who would be watching us and would recognize a lack of authenticity. He would notice if Mass was something we did just to check it off on Sundays. So, we decided to take a look at beliefs we had that were at odds with the teachings of the Church, and we were blown away by the truth of the Church. We really dove more deeply into our faith and haven’t looked back since.
For me, I never felt the tension of bringing together my faith and the reality of mental illness. Unfortunately, there’s a popularized idea out there that therapy or psychology are antithetical to the faith in certain ways, but I have found that people are longing for someone to listen to them… to be with them even when things are scary… to stay when so many have abandoned them. My faith teaches me that every person has inherent dignity — no matter what — and this animates what I do. We’re trained to think that our dignity and worth come from what we’re doing or how we’re doing, but that’s misguided! Faith offers us an opportunity to think about it differently.
People are often surprised that they can talk about faith in therapy, but it’s a huge component of our emotional well-being, so it’s important to be able to talk about it.
In this time of a global pandemic and social unrest, our mental and emotional health has suffered. Collectively, we are more isolated, anxious, and stressed. What advice do you have for Grotto readers who are struggling mentally or emotionally?
Yes, this has been a trying time. For many of us, our healthy coping skills — like spending time with friends and family or getting away for the day — haven’t been readily available to us during this pandemic. Still, it is crucial to tend to our mental well-being and not sweep it under the rug, especially for those of us in our 20s and 30s. This is the time in our lives that things often surface and we are most tempted to ignore them. The pandemic, of course, has exacerbated that.
We have to be willing to reach out for help and to listen to people we trust who suggest that we might not be doing so well. Reaching out for help is such a strength because our faith is not about us getting to heaven on our own and “doing it all.” When we reach out for help or are honest with a friend about how we’re not okay, we actually are following in Christ’s footsteps.
We are in this together and we’re called to be saved together. We do not walk alone.
if you feel like you’re in a place where you can’t even bring yourself to pray, don’t worry
I’ll be praying for you
and so will saint dymphna pic.twitter.com/kFQTpaxPNM
— tommy (@theghissilent) November 23, 2020
You can find St. Dymphna’s Playbook anywhere you look for podcasts, or join the legions of followers tuned into Tommy’s Twitter handle.