What Really Happened in the Convent

So, I’ve been diving into “shadow work” for the last few months and realized that even when you think you’ve moved through a thing, there are layers still left. One of those things for me is my time in the convent and what I went through inside. Until now I don’t feel I’ve ever truly given voice to the actual injustice and full picture of neglect and dysfunction. While I’ve written blogs, made videos and even wrote a 3 page public letter to my order back in 2015 – I rarely published the gritty, raw details out of trying to be somewhat respectful I guess, that “nice girl” archetype still alive and well.

It’s also hard, when asked, “Why did you leave the convent?” to compile an elevator-pitch answer, so I usually tell a shortened, digestible version.

But a fellow former nun reminded me of the importance to not minimize what happened, mostly for myself.

So I’m channeling my inner warrior and witch to make a full report here. 

Additionally, I’ve realized that in holding back, I have not been fully seen, witnessed and validated in the way I need to be. 

Part of my shadow I’ve been working with recently has been my charge around being considered “lazy” because I don’t want to work full time really ever again. I haven’t worked FT since 2019. But I feel like if the world knew what I went through in a very short, intense few years – my desire to never work full time again would be validated? Part of shadow work is owning your shadow and kind of outing yourself, so this is an attempt at outing my lazy girl shadow and I think it’s only a piece of it – there’s also a piece of lazy girl that knows that the pace of nature is where we all should be aiming for. That 40+ hour work weeks are ridiculous for any human. That we are meant to be walking in the forest, making real food, enjoying our loved ones and cultivating gifts. Not sitting at computers or putting in hours to get the money to survive. But alas, we live in 2023 and for most of us, it’s the constant push/pull between surviving and getting the time to do things we enjoy with the people we love in between. 

Anyway, this blog serves as a call out to the order (again), but also as me validating my younger self, who needed someone to fight for her back then because no one else did. 

St. Paul’s Convent, circa 2009

Here’s my best attempt at a list of the shit show years:

  • At age 26, was made Mother Superior of the convent in East Harlem, NY, being the youngest of that community both in age and in religious life, not even having final vows yet. It was a gigantic bilingual parish.
  • Within a year, I was sent a sister who had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She was late 30s, finally professed, from Argentina & had been causing unrest in the houses of formation in DC where she had been living, and was sent to me because, “Lumen, you are so calm, we’re sure you can handle her.” I was told to read the book “Walking on Eggshells” to prepare for her living with us. I was only calm because by this point, I was a living disassociation. 
  • I was not allowed to tell the other sisters in the community about this sister’s diagnosis, so they essentially had to suffer the anger, outburts and unrest she caused without understanding why no one was doing anything about it. 
  • I would have daily, long listening sessions with this sister daily – sometimes up to 2 hours at a time – while she cried and was in her emotional world of self-hate. So the other sisters lost out on time I was available for them because this sister sucked up all my energy. 
  • We took her to a psychiatrist – yes, she was on various psychotic meds. He suggested residential DBT for her because of the severity. I even asked him to write this in a letter so I could bring it to my superiors as proof of the insanity. I did and it was denied due to finances. They also would not send her home, so she was to stay in my community, take her meds and have talk therapy 1x week, which did absolutely nothing. This went on for 2 years unchecked as I slowly lost my mind. 
  • This sister regularly had BPD outbursts at me and the rest of our community, seemingly for nothing or small things like how a sister folded the towels wrong. 
  • There were dozens of times when she’d lock herself in the bathroom for hours or bang her head against the wall repeatedly to hurt herself – all kinds of crazy shit. 
  • Aside from the book, I was not given any type of preparation or support around supporting her. They told me – “Just don’t take anything she says or does personally – it’s her illness.” 
  • Not to mention this sister was a raging hypochondriac. She arrived with food allergies, had her gall bladder removed under my care, we probably saw dozens of specialists in NY over the course of her 2 years with me in Harlem. 
  • Not to mention, she’d call me while I was working in the parish CCD office (covering for another sister who left for a year & no support was given – more on that later) and whine because she was in pain about something, taking me away from work or more likely, just trying to get my attention as is often the case with a person with BPD and their main support person, who was me. 

  • It’s all a blur, but sometime in that 1st year, another sister from my community needed to return to Argentina to support her mother. This was an undefined length of time. This sister was our DRE, or head of the Religious Ed of the Parish, which was a HUGE full time job. We had over 400 children and over 50 teachers in a bilingual program (Spanish on Saturday, English on Sunday.) Guess who was expected to cover her position while she was on this insane open-ended leave? Yes, me. I asked for support as I was literally already losing my mind. My superiors knew how challenging it was to have BPD sister in my community, and now they thought I could take on being the DRE full time? They gave me 1 sister who helped me part time, which was a true blessing bc I love that soul, but not enough as she ALSO was sick (shocker) and many times needed to call out (she finally left and is now healed and thriving in the world. Also, not a shocker.) I had to cover this full time position for the entire catechetical year, along with managing BPD sister & the community of sisters who she was wearing on, along with oh yes, I was also the Provincial Liturgist and in charge of the music planning for many of our province wide events, like vows and feasts (hundreds of people.) 
Choir practice, 2010

Plus just being the Superior of a community – it comes with it’s own responsibilities that covers all the sisters under your care, Superior meetings & leadership roles, etc. No need to get into it all b/c those parts were the easiest, but it’s not like I wasn’t doing anything already. I also had my own classes to teach in the parish, youth retreats to organize & prepare, etc. Our parish was thriving – there was a lot to do!

But, like Anyone? Was anyone listening? 

Oh it’s not over. 

  • Eventually, my oblivious superiors wanted me to travel to Argentina with BPD sister to see some kind of doctor there. We were to stay at her aunt’s house in Buenos Aires for a few days, while the doctor did some tests and she took some medicines, or something. I don’t even remember what it was for, but it was not BPD related, it was physical health related. So we traveled down there, did the things. It was not easy and we had fights over the trip. 

I don’t remember how it happened, but at the 11th hour, she wanted me to travel with her to visit her family in another region of Argentina (her neglectful, dysfunctional family?) This is the love/hate of a BPD & care giver relationships. One day they hate you, the next day, they are super attached. (It’s no wonder I have a fear of humans, lol)

And I was like hell no. They are literally why you are how you are – I didn’t say that, but it’s true. 

I begged my superior to let me fly back to NY alone, which she did. So I flew from Buenos Aires to JFK and when I arrived back, I begged my Spiritual Director (priest) to do something – something needed to go. Either she goes, or I am sent elsewhere. I could not do it anymore. Finally, thanks to his pleading (eye roll, it only took a male priest to make a change,) she was removed from Harlem and sent to the Provincial House (4 short blocks away.) 

  • A few months later, after asking for a rest, I was sent to Avondale PA, to be the DRE there. If that doesn’t sound like a rest to you, you are right. Avondale was another massive parish and the DRE was a HUGE full time position. So, I would not only be holding that role, but unlike Harlem, I’d have to learn their ways of doing things, learn all the new teachers and families, etc. Each Parish is it’s own world & rules. 

Yea cool – thanks for the rest. What the actual fuck. 

I left religious life only 2 months after being placed there. 

One month after being placed there, it all started to crumble. I started crying daily, not wanting to eat, I couldn’t smile. I had no energy or affect. I was deeply sad inside. 

I had hit the other end of whatever burnout is. I was grieving a piece of myself that had died in this container of religious life. 

Ironically, being named Lumen, I felt like my inner light had been snuffed out.

The only peace I felt was in imagining leaving and the hope – despite all the fears of re-entering the world at age 30, shaved head, and an 8 year resume gap – that I could figure something out, and it would be better than this.

And that journey has been my last 12 years out here. It has not been easy, it’s still not easy for a fairy-like being like me to manage her way in this capitalistic society, but I have seen & unseen allies who help me make my way. 

  • I got the ok from my SD to ask to leave, so I asked my superior and she thought I was having a break down. Looking back, I was. She wanted to send me to the Monastery for a few weeks or to California “to rest.” I tried to explain this was not coming from nowhere. A 2 week rest at the monastery would not fix this. My ask to leave finally went to the Provincial Superior and I had to keep following up with her to make sure my request was heard and when could I go home? It was 1 month of this when I finally got a date that I could leave on 9/19. 


Neglect & Abuse

It is not beyond me that I’ve been working behind the scenes at an exceptional DBT Therapy practice for 3 years now, with up close and personal understanding of both the modality and the typical client types that best meet the criteria for DBT. I can confidently say that the fact that this order refused to get her DBT treatment (even in-patient) was neglectful. She was full blown BDP out in the wild, causing damage to herself and those in her community.

The order has a stupid rule that they pride themselves in “taking care of their own” – but in this case and so many others, that reads in real life as neglect or not sufficient care. Back in my day, they also would rarely send a sick sister back home, under the guise of the same rule, and this sister in particular would have refused vehemently anyway and gone totally mad at the proposal I am sure. 

So, here we have a young woman actually diagnosed with BPD, actually recommended in writing for residential DBT by her psychiatrist, and the order she belongs to refusing to get her the treatment she requires to return to stable mental health. Consequences being that:

  •  she suffers daily the insane roller coaster that is BPD, 
  • and all the sisters she ever lives with suffer her rage outbursts & emotional volatility and manipulation regularly, most of them not even being read-in on why
  • And any superior she may have, like myself, has to be in charge and care for someone who is chronically mentally & emotionally ill, without having any particular background or professional support in this type of role, while also trying to care for the rest of her community of sisters, a parish community, and handling her superior responsibilities in the province, whatever they may include.

NOT TO MENTION, no one cared for me. 

They tossed her to me, and I got a book to read in preparation.

I didn’t get a therapist, I didn’t get an extra sister to help when a post was abandoned. 

I didn’t get any kind of regular support, in supporting her.

I did the phone calling when shit hit the fan.

All I got to do was phone-a-superior when things got out of control, but nothing was ever actually done to take care of MY mental and emotional health. 

Shout out to Mom and Dad here!

It is a good fucking thing that I grew up in a stable AF home with secure attachments.

It’s a good fucking thing that I had a healthy upbringing and was grounded AF, with wise discernment, deep intuitive abilities, and the ability to manage my emotional world enough to not just run away one day when shit hit the fan in that house. 

It’s a good thing I’ve always been an accelerated learner, able to piece shit together faster than most. It helped me survive this madness.

I understand why they charged her to me, AND SUPPORT YOUR LEADERS!

Like, what are you doing, SSVM?!

It’s like having your starting 5 on a basketball team, who play the most minutes of everyone and support the team the most, but none of them get to see the chiropractor, or use the sauna, or eat nourishing meals. 

You tell me how this isn’t ALL at once neglect and abuse.

And don’t get me started on how we are taught to be “generous with God” and “God will give us the grace for anything assigned to us.” That is just brainwash bullshit to get you to shut up and be a nice, quiet girl/nun, and makes you feel guilty & go to confession when you have negative thoughts about the things assigned to you when they are literally sucking the God-given life out of you. 

Rather twisted, yes? 

Welcome to the Convent, Unveiled.

(I’m copywriting that.)

Did we all sign up for a life of service, obedience and ‘dying to self’ as Christ on the Cross? Yes, we did actually. 

But did we know that it would be so dysfunctional and damaging to our own mental, emotional and physical health? No. We should have read the small print. 

In my opinion, when applying the WWJD, which is to me the bare basics of christianity – the order would have fundraised or moved funds (THEY HAVE THE FUNDS!) to get her treatment, for her blessed sake, as well as for the other sisters who she may one day live with, as well as for any future superior she may have. 

Wrap Up

I write a lot of positive things about my time in religious life. And it’s true – I still would not change the choice I made to enter. It is a rare life path that I feel grateful to have walked for so many reasons. And yet, it was deeply flawed and damaging to many of us. My story is actually, sadly, one of the “lighter” stories. Nobody was demeaning to my face, nobody treated me like shit, nobody sent me home without any cash. I was driven home by 2 nuns, probably because I had been a beloved Superior of the province for 4 years. Probably also because I was an American white girl, who knows. But others stories are not mine to tell and they are bad, y’all. Mine would fall into the chronic, long game trauma that can be caused, and there are less of us, but we are out here. I got news earlier this year that a sister I had lived with just left, she had been inside for a good 20 years. That’s scary to me. I pray she is OK. We’ve reached out, but she doesn’t want support right now. Many others were not in as long as us – their stories are shorter and more intense. Both are valid and damaging. 

That doesn’t mean we have not healed, many of us have done loads of healing work. But I would say the hard part is that our convent stories are hard to be seen and witnessed because they are secret. 

No one REALLY knows how demanding the life is that we led, unless you were inside. 

No one REALLY knows the extent of the brainwashing that happens. 

I say it’s a cult all the time and I don’t water that down. It’s straight up cult life. But because it’s under the guise of a facade that much of the world honors – nuns, doing charity work, helping the poorest of the poor, spouses of Christ – it’s tricky to tease apart the virtuous from the damaging. They coexist. 

But we are here. 

Out in this world, carrying our stories, secrets, and wounds as best we can. Trying our best to alchemize them into magic and service yet again in this world, often a little soul-weary and scarred from what we’ve gone through….this time trying without being burned, without being taken advantage of…a little more wiser, a little more hesitant to give ourselves over to a thing completely. 

We are still here and we each have a story to tell. 

This is a huge part of the reason why I don’t want to work full time ever. 

Being a nun was a 24/7 gig with zero boundaries.

That shit is wild. 

And after that, I proceeded to burnt out another 3 times in the next 8 years in other jobs before I quit the 9-5 for good.

While the FT world is not to blame, it just is not for me anymore.

I just want to lay on the grass, watch the breeze through the trees and play with cats for the rest of my days. 

And dance of course!