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May 01, 2024 251 Joy Byrne
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I thought Death was the Answer, but…

If I hadn’t gone through that darkness, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

My parents really wanted to have a family, but my mom wasn’t able to get pregnant until she was 40. I was their miracle baby, born on her birthday, exactly one year after she completed a special Novena in petition for a child. I was gifted with a baby brother one year later.

My family was nominally Catholic; we would go to Sunday Mass and receive the Sacraments, but there was nothing more. When I was about 11 or 12, my parents turned away from the Church and my faith life took an incredibly long pause.

Writhing Agony

Teenage years were packed with pressure, a lot of which I put on myself. I’d compare myself to other girls; I wasn’t happy with my appearance. I was highly self-conscious and anxious. Though I excelled academically, I had a difficult time in school because I was very ambitious. I wanted to get ahead—show people that I could be successful and intelligent. We didn’t have much money as a family, so I figured that studying well and getting a good job was going to solve it all.

Instead, I got sadder and sadder. I would go for sports and celebrations, but I would wake up the next day and feel all empty. I had a few good friends, but they too had their own struggles. I remember trying to support them and ending up questioning the why of all the suffering around me. I was lost, and this sadness made me close-up and curl into myself.

When I was about 15, I fell into the habit of self-harm; as I later realized, at that age, I didn’t have the maturity or the ability to speak about what I was feeling. As pressure intensified, I gave in to suicidal thoughts, multiple times. During one hospitalization incident, one of the doctors saw me in such agony and said: “Do you believe in God? Do you believe in something after death?” I thought it was the strangest question to ask, but that night, I remembered reflecting on it. That’s when I cried out to God for help: “God, if you exist, please help me. I want to live—I’d like to spend my life doing good, but I’m not even capable of loving myself. Whatever I do, everything ends in burnout if I don’t have a meaning for all of it.”

A Hand of Help

I started to talk to Mother Mary, hoping that maybe she could understand and help me. Shortly after, my mother’s friend invited me to go on a pilgrimage to Međugorje. I didn’t really want to, but I accepted the invitation, more for curiosity to see a new country and nice weather.

Surrounded by people who were praying the Rosary, fasting, walking up mountains, and going to Mass, I felt out of place but at the same time, I was also slightly intrigued. It was the time of the Catholic Youth Festival, and there were around 60,000 young people there, attending Mass and Adoration, praying the Rosary every day; not because they were forced to, but joyfully, from pure desire. I wondered if these people had perfect families which made it really easy for them to believe, clap, dance, and all of that. Truth be told, I craved that joy!

While we were on the pilgrimage, we listened to the testimonies of girls and boys in a Cenacolo Community nearby, and that really changed things for me. In 1983, an Italian nun founded the Cenacolo Community to help young people whose lives had taken a wrong turn. Now, the organization can be found in many countries worldwide.

I listened to the story of a girl from Scotland who had drug problems; she had also attempted to take her own life. I thought to myself: “If she can live that happily, if she can come out of all that pain and suffering and genuinely believe in God, maybe there’s something in that for me as well.”

Another great grace that I received when I was in Međugorje was that I went for confession for the first time in many years. I did not know what to expect but going to confession and finally saying out loud to God all of the things that had hurt me, all that I had done to hurt others and myself, was an enormous weight off my shoulders. I just felt peace, and I felt clean enough to make a fresh start. I came back touched and started University in Ireland, but sans adequate support, I ended up in the hospital again.

Finding Way

Realizing that I needed help, I went back to Italy and became a part of a Cenacolo Community. It wasn’t easy. Everything was new—the language, prayer, different personalities, cultures—but there was a truth in it. Nobody was trying to convince me of anything; everyone was living their life in prayer, work, and true friendship, and it was healing them. They were living peace and joy, and it wasn’t made up but real. I was with them all day, every day—I saw it. I wanted that!

What really helped me those days was Adoration. I don’t know how many times I just cried in front of the Blessed Sacrament. A therapist wasn’t speaking back to me, no one was trying to give me any medication, it just felt like I was being cleansed. Even in the community, there was nothing particularly special, except for God.

Another thing that really helped me get out of my depression was that I started looking to serve others. As long as I kept looking at my own self, my own wounds and problems, I was just digging myself into a bigger hole. The community life forced me to come out of myself, look to others, and try to give them hope, the hope that I was finding in Christ. It helped me so much when other young people would come to the community, young girls who had problems similar to mine or sometimes even worse. I looked after them, tried to be an older sister, and sometimes even a mother.

I started to think about what my mother would have experienced with me when I was hurting myself or when I was unhappy. There’s often a certain sense of helplessness, but with faith, even when you can’t help someone with your words, you can do so on your knees. I’ve seen the change in so many girls and in my own life from prayer. It’s not something mystical or something I could explain theologically, but faithfulness to the Rosary, Prayer, and Sacraments has changed my life and so many other lives, and it has given us a new will to live.

Passing it on

I returned to Ireland to pursue a career in nursing; in fact, more than a career, I felt deeply that it’s how I wanted to spend my life. I’m now living with young people, some of whom are like me when I was their age—struggling with self-harm, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or impurity. I feel that it’s important to tell them what God did in my life, so sometimes during lunch, I tell them that I wouldn’t really be able to do this job, see all the suffering and pain if I didn’t believe that there was something more to life than just death after illness. People often tell me: “Oh, your name is Joy, it suits you so much; you’re so happy and smiley.” I laugh inside: “If you only knew where that came from!”

My joy is one that arose from suffering; that’s why it’s a true joy. It lasts even when there’s pain. And I want the young people to have the same joy because it’s not just mine, but it’s a joy that comes from God, so everyone can also experience it. I just want to be able to share this infinite joy of God so that others can know that you can go through pain, misery, and difficulties and still come out of it, grateful and joyful to our Father.

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Joy Byrne

Joy Byrne lives in Dublin, Ireland, and is currently pursuing a degree in nursing. Article is based on the interview given by Joy on the Shalom World program “Jesus My Savior.” To watch the episode, visit: shalomworld.org/episode/do-you-believe-in-god-joy-byrne

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