Finding Peace: An Interview

By Patricia Obletz

Sister Ann Catherine Veierstahler, RN, didn’t know what peace was until she was 57. That’s when she received the right medical help, which taught her how to manage her bipolar disorder. In the early 1950s, when she was seven, her mother took her to a psychologist. He labeled her intense battles with her younger siblings as jealousy, and her disruptive behavior at school as attention-getting ploys. In the 50s, no one thought children were subject to mental illnesses.

Sr. Ann Catherine grew up in Milwaukee with parents who married in their early 30s; she was the oldest of eight children born in succession. They were poor, though her father worked two jobs in the inner city. After an accident with a street car in Chicago, her mother suffered a brain injury and began experiencing outbreaks of violence. One sibling had a severe developmental disability and was sent to an institution in southeast Wisconsin. Today, medication, structured activities and special education enables children with these disabilities to stay at home.

Sr. Ann Catherine, now 64, has spent most of her life helping others through paid and volunteer work. As a volunteer for the Red Cross, she has traveled the globe to nurse refugees in camps. As a volunteer helping to raise mental health awareness, she works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She edits their newsletter and added “Sharing the Hope, Sharing the Healing,” a column of stories by ordinary people, rich and poor, who have recovered from a mental illness, growing hope in those still struggling. Because hope leads to healing, she also created to share more successful recovery stories. She helped Faith in Recovery support groups to consolidate and, in 2005, when it became a nonprofit agency, she was elected president of its board of directors.

Last October, Sister Ann Catherine and I talked about her work. She said, “No child should have to wait 50 years to find peace through effective mental health care. Mental illnesses can affect judgment, ability and relationships at every age they go down through generations; they can begin with poverty and other abuses.

“Our brain is the most complicated organ in our body. So why is anyone surprised that one in four people have a mental illness? Mental illnesses are illnesses. Parents have no reason to be ashamed if their child has one.

“When parents are influenced by stigma and don’t take their children to a mental health expert, they don’t seem to understand that their children will get labeled as a trouble-maker, as I was. Untreated mental illnesses affect judgment and relationships and often lead to low academic achievement and dysfunctional behavior. The fact is that mental illnesses need medical treatment, just like diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis.

Grade Schools Need Mental Health Specialists

“I understand that parents, who struggle just to feed, clothe, shelter and educate their kids, don’t have the time, energy or financial resources to get mental health evaluations for their children. That’s why grade schools need mental health specialists. Early intervention is far less costly.

“As Oprah Winfrey says, no parent is perfect. But if parents realize there is no shame attached to mental illnesses, and they can admit that things aren’t perfect and seek treatment, they will save themselves, their family and society from unnecessary emotional and financial expense. My hope is that the whole family will be evaluated and learn how to help the child who has a mental illness.

“If government gives mental health treatment the same importance it gives to physical health problems, everybody wins. Meanwhile, we can give information, we can walk with others, but we can’t save them. Healing begins with acknowledgment, education and the right medical and emotional treatment. I encourage others to seek treatment in medicine and strength in their spirituality.”

“I’m a nun and I have a mental illness. Doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, neighbors anyone could have one. Until I was 57, I didn’t realize that being angry, argumentative or feeling hopeless were symptoms of an illness. I was 16 the first time I wanted to commit suicide.

“I always had too much energy, which got me into a lot of trouble. But that energy was useful. In addition to helping my mother and siblings, I paid for my tuition at St. Joan Antida by cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors. At 16, I worked as a nursing assistant at St. Mary’s Hospital. The sisters were very good to me despite my cycling between being creative and compassionate, and being demanding, obnoxious and constantly at war with others. They were my role models.

“At 19, I joined the Order of St. Joan Antida and trained as a nurse at Alverno College before taking my vows of obedience and poverty. Upon graduation, I held various paid positions at the old St. Joan Antida Nursing home, continuing my volunteer work evenings and weekends.

“Following a Red Cross mission in a refugee camp in Cambodia in 1980, I and a friend, who’d been my counterpart in Laos, noticed that the refugees were treated better than destitute people in Milwaukee. Many of those coming to St. Benedict’s food pantry had very high blood pressure and severely infected sores. Because they didn’t trust hospitals, we started a clinic for them, the first one in Milwaukee, with a little money for supplies from St. Anthony’s Hospital (today a prison). We’d stand quietly with inconspicuous blood pressure cuffs at the entrance to St. Ben’s meal program. We kept our supplies in a closet. Today, that closet has grown into a multi-million dollar clinic, but long before then, the Order called me back in to direct its nursing home.

“I was in denial that I had a problem, despite the fact I cried a lot, was angry a lot, which the sisters pointed out to me. They sent me to a psychiatrist, who misdiagnosed me and put me on the wrong medication. When I didn’t improve, I believed that I didn’t have a mental illness. Why is it that, when blood pressure medicine doesn’t work, it’s replaced with a different one, but when mental illnesses don’t improve with a medication, it isn’t replaced?

“Twelve years later, when I needed surgery for stomach cancer, my doctor took me off the medication that never helped me. I was 50 then and refused chemotherapy and radiation, and shunned mental health treatment, hoping that faith alone would be enough.

“Three years later, I participated in an ecumenical Spirit, Body, Mind’ group led by a psychiatrist. Designed to help care-givers cope with stress, this experience encouraged me to face stigma and seek professional help for my bipolar disorder.

“Medication transformed my life. As did contemplation, community and service.

“Contemplation, is about connecting with whatever or whomever we believe, with who we are, where we are and what we’re doing that moment. My mind stops spinning out of control when I can feel my feet walking, the air against me. New medicine enabled me to sit still when I pray, allowing me to gaze at my surroundings, feel myself breathe, not think of past or current problems, say the word peace over and over.

We’re all one and we need each other.

“Community, faith-based, or school or work related, can be deeply spiritual and encourage peace. Community is vital because we’re all one and we need one another.

“Service also can be deeply spiritual. No matter how incapacitated you are, you can still be kind to others, listen to others. Helping others with a volunteer or paid service is giving service, which is rewarding in and of itself. Service makes us feel good about ourselves and this is peace.

“Pope John Paul always said that we think heaven is out there, whereas heaven is within. Try taking some quiet time for yourself and contemplate your being and surroundings. Focus on something other than your daily life, problems, hopes, and see what happens. At Faith in Recovery meetings, we ask members,’What are you doing to help yourself?’”

Faith in Recovery, Inc.
4415 W. Forest Home Road
Milwaukee, WI 53219

Faith in Recovery embraces the vision and belief that spirituality plays an important role in recovering from mental illnesses. To date, FIR has 20 support groups available free to help individuals and families living with emotional and mental challenges and facing the stigma these illnesses continue to generate. For more information, go o or call 414–329–9100.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on September 29, 2011

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