‘I couldn’t fix myself’

In December 2019, Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln announced that he was going on a medical leave of absence.

Oct 08, 2021

Bishop James Conley

In December 2019, Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln announced that he was going on a medical leave of absence.

Citing diagnoses of depression and anxiety, as well as chronic insomnia and debilitating tinnitus (a constant ringing of the ears), the bishop said in a public statement that he would be receiving psychological as well as medical treatment.

It had taken him months to get to a point where he realised that he needed help.

“It really goes back to the summer of 2018, long before I finally got to the point where I asked for some time off,” said Bishop Conley.

“There were the difficulties in the Church with regard to the misconduct of priests … (including) here in my diocese,” he said. That summer was also when the McCarrick scandal broke, and when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report came out.

Besides abuse scandals, Bishop Conley also had to close some diocesan schools that had been “running in the red for a number of years. And that’s always a difficult decision to make. It was the right decision, but it was a hard decision.” There was also a priest of the diocese, younger than Conley, who died around that time.

“There were a number of other things that kind of mounted,” Bishop Conley said. “I think that started it.”

As the problems mounted, Bishop Conley felt personally responsible for them all, as a bishop and as someone who cared about the people in his diocese.

“I (felt I) was responsible for all of this and that I had to try to fix it myself instead of surrendering to God,” he said.

But the physical and mental symptoms started compounding. He couldn’t sleep. He started losing interest in things he had once enjoyed. A constant ringing began in his ears. He felt overwhelmed.

“I used to tell people that great prayer that St John XXIII supposedly would say at night during the Second Vatican Council: ‘Lord, it’s your Church. I’m going to bed.’ And I wasn’t able to take my own advice,” he said. “I just was getting ground down.”

Bishop Conley said that while he never was tempted to use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol, he was worried about what would happen if he continued to feel so anxious and overwhelmed.

In the spring of 2019, Bishop Conley went to the Mayo Clinic and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. He said he tried to rest, worry less, and go to counselling while maintaining his duties as a bishop, but it wasn’t working.

“I was trying to fix myself and as time went on, I realised that I couldn’t fix myself while I was still on the job, so to speak.” Bishop Conley sought the counsel of some of his friends, including Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City; Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico; Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix; and Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha.

With the help of these friends, Conley presented his case before the US Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, during a private meeting at the November 2019 assembly of the US bishops’ conference.

“And the nuncio said, ‘Well, I think you need some time off to get some professional help.’”

Until then, he had not even considered that a leave of absence was possible for a bishop.

“I was called by God to be a successor of the Apostles, we don’t have any record of the Apostles taking time off,” Conley said. “So, I just didn’t think that a bishop could do that. And that somehow, that would be a sign of weakness or failure, or not being able to fulfil (my) duties. In reality, though, we are body and soul. Grace builds upon nature. And so, we need to take care of our physical and mental wellbeing in order to be good at whatever we’re doing.”

Bishop Conley said Archbishop Pierre was very supportive, and told him to obtain a doctor’s note that could be sent along with the request to Pope Francis, since bishops are under obedience to the Holy Father.

By December 2019, Bishop Conley’s leave had been approved. On December 13, he announced the leave to his diocese. In the announcement, he said he had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and that he was taking a mental health leave.

“I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to be truthful about why I was leaving. If I’m going to leave, that’s a big deal. And I didn’t want to keep that a secret and leave it to people to speculate what (the reason for leaving) was,” he said. Bishop Conley said he was overwhelmed by the positive and supportive response.

“I received a lot of letters and cards and notes, not only from people who I knew and who were writing to support me, but from people I didn’t even know, who themselves had struggled with some mental health issue that (a relative) or some friend of theirs had had,” he said.

“And they were so grateful to me for being so open about it and transparent. They thanked me for talking about it, because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness,” he said. “And that was helpful for me, comforting for me to know that I wasn’t the only one, and that I wasn’t alone in this.”

Shortly after the announcement, Bishop Conley left to stay in Phoenix, where he was able to receive treatment from a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and medical doctors, as well as spiritual direction.

Three months later, the rest of the world went on a sort of leave of absence as well, as the coronavirus pandemic caused national and global shutdowns. It made his recovery more difficult, he said.

“That didn’t help … the isolation, when I was down in Phoenix,” he said. He had a few good friends, particularly a young family, who were very helpful, he added. The couple were both former students of his at the University of Dallas, and they now have five kids, and would frequently invite him to their house.

“But it was just a strain, then, to see how the whole pandemic played out,” Bishop Conley said.

It was important that he had Catholic counsellors and doctors to work with throughout his treatment, so that they were all on the same page about how his faith was a part of his recovery. During recovery, he learned to reframe his thinking and to trust God more fully, as well as trust his staff and collaborators more. He re-learned the importance of sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and recreation as part of a wellbalanced life.

“Because we’re body and soul, we need balance and we need a certain order in our life to help us stay healthy,” he said.

There can sometimes be a stigma against mental illness and treatment among some Christian circles, where the illness is seen as a sign of spiritual weakness that can be cured with more prayer.

But Bishop Conley said seeking help – including psychological, spiritual, and mental recovery – is an act of surrender to the will of God.

“One Scripture passage that jumps out is John 15, ‘Apart from the Lord, you can do nothing.’ And that’s what I think can lead to mental illnesses, that you think it’s all up to you, that you have to solve all the problems in your life or in the world,” Bishop Conley said.

He said he has been so open with his experience because he wants to encourage others “to not hesitate to get help when you need it. Don’t be embarrassed, or don’t feel like you’re weak or something, if you try to get help,” he said. He added that he would encourage anyone struggling, particularly due to the isolation of the ongoing pandemic, to reach out and get help.

“Don’t hesitate to seek help. And especially if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Being disconnected really is a source of pain. We’re meant to be in community and so I would say that if people are feeling disconnected in any way that they reach out and get help.”

“You’re not alone,” he added. “There are people out there that can help.”

Since he returned to his office on Nov 13, 2020, the bishop has continued to pursue self-care practices and make changes in his life to maintain his mental health. -- CNA

--This article has been adapted from the original news which first appeared in CNA on Nov 16, 2020

Total Comments:1

EEdy W.
Bishop Conley is a good bishop. Many good holy priests, who are really working to save souls are burned out or close to. They also run the risk of being cancelled by modernists not just outside the Church but also inside the Church. Please pray for good holy priests for their protection.