Disappearing in the Black Hole of Opus Dei

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by Former Numerary, United States

How I Became Opie-bait

Raised in an upper-middle class Caucasian Roman Catholic neighborhood/grade school/high school in an American suburb, you would think I had nothing to worry about. By and large this was true: I had well-prepared meals, four siblings, a stay-at-home mom, no material wants to speak of; I had safety, chauffeuring (by mom), sports, scouts, scholastics, and the security of a family where I never heard the word divorce except as applied to other families far removed from us. In short, I was raised in the affluence of the American dream—a gravy bowl of opportunity.

There was a catch however. I was born at a time before my dad had gotten himself established in his professional career, so they lived yet in financial hardship; more of concern for us kids, they had not yet had a chance to get the hang of parenting, often substituting “bullying” as the closest approximation they could manage. Their both being professionals and mom having laid aside her career to be the traditional wife/mom, there were high standards to be met, which for me, in combination with my “stubborn temperament” resulted in my becoming an overachiever. Anything my two older brothers could do, I felt I should be able to do as well—walk, talk, run, ride bike, read, etc. Overwhelmed with their own roles in life, my parents lashed out at us five kids physically and verbally when we didn’t measure up to their standards. They could only have been relieved to see my overachieving trait transmute later into my taking on a “good boy” role. They didn’t seem to notice that in the process my sense of self was all but crushed, that while on the outside I looked like a good kid with good grades who never got in trouble and stayed active with peers and activities, on the inside I was constantly insecure. The dating years came along and I didn’t have a clue how to BE a part of a relationship. When my older brother died suddenly, my parents became even less emotionally available to guide me, as they worked through their grief. With my needing to make some sort of decision regarding college/career training, I became increasingly anxious.

Enter Opus Dei—with all the answers, full of certainty, ready and willing to tell me what to do and when to do it. For me, it was a new “parent” to please, something I had become good at doing over the previous 17 years. And, to boot, I would be as good as sainted the moment I signed up for the Faustian deal: turn over discernment of “God’s will” for me to my Opus Dei directors (rather than discerning it for myself), and they could guarantee that I would be in Heaven when I died—this was an After-Life-time Guarantee that I couldn’t pass up!

How I Fared After 6 Years As a Numerary

Before: I was insecure, but tried things anyway; anxious, but able to look forward to things and found lots of laughter/silliness in encounters with friends. While I tended to push myself too hard, at least it was in a direction I wanted to go and so I excelled at whatever I did. I had a limited sense of autonomy (i.e., needing to make sure my mom was happy with me), but found areas of competence which brought praise and admiration from others, which I enjoyed.

Early Opie days: sense of calm—I was on a ship going somewhere. I was important. What I was doing was heroic, difficult but meaningful and therefore worth it. I was a “chosen one” to do God’s work; how exciting that I was already one of those saints like I’d read about of centuries ago! I was so sure of myself that I felt at times indestructible, unassailable; I was way above all those other pathetic, naïve fools in the world, which soon came to include my parents and siblings—all going to Hell, I was absolutely convinced, because they were not in Opus Dei! But that was their problem, a result of their non-Opus choices.

Towards the End of my Opie days: The director’s Director of the Region had “suggested” I switch majors in college so I’d have more time for their “apostolates” in the future. I did, with a resulting plummet of grades, failing/dropping classes for the first time ever. Prior to changing majors, I was on the Dean’s Honor List (=3.2 gpa or better) 3 out of 4 semesters, while afterwards I only made it once out of 5 semesters. My eccentricities became more pronounced: what had been perfectionism leading me to excel above peers became scrupulosity, where every tingling of resentment of my trapped predicament in Opus Dei was damning, every thought was as bad as if I’d carried it out in deed, and every sexual stirring switched my soul from “heaven-bound certified” to “going to hell!” until I could switch it back by making a “Confession”. Desire to please authority figures turned into trying to trip a fellow student on the stairs in order to “meet him” and thereby invite him to an Opus Dei event. Being able to have friends just for the sake of enjoying each other’s company gave way to “friendship” in service of converting someone to be a numerary—that is, I was trying to manipulate my “friends” to be what I thought they should be rather than enjoy them for who they were. And worst of all, that ol’ elusive “ego” (=narcissism: sense of entitlement and superiority to others) became exaggerated in the oddest way: I somehow held on to a sense of superiority over non-Opies, while at the same time feeling deep shame for my resentment of Opus Dei’s control over me, feeling as if I therefore had no right to exist, let alone speak or follow my own personal ideas and dreams.

Immediately After Quitting: I was guilt-ridden, ashamed of myself at every turn for no apparent reason. I felt I had no reason to exist and became clinically depressed (though functional). While it seemed ridiculous to my intellect, emotionally I was sure I was damned irredeemably. Another ex-numerary told me after a pick-up basketball game that he could tell I’d been in Opus Dei by the way I was playing ball (detached, insecure, over-solicitous, ingratiating) and that the guilt started calming down for him after about 3 years (gulp! I thought). Anger became more prominent, mostly directed at my parents (I had moved home temporarily upon quitting); it was their fault that I had not been prepared to face such a foe as the Opies and was now having such a miserable experience of life, full of self-hatred, emotional disconnection/isolation from others. Psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers—they were all instruments of the Devil, I believed, because they were teaching the “cult of selfishness”; if I were to consult them, I would be led down the path to self-centeredness—basically, to hell.

The Last 20 Years Since Quitting: While I immediately quit whipping myself weekly and “spiking” myself with the cilice for two hours per day (those were the only two things the Opies wanted back when I left), the self-flagellation continued in an emotional sense, having been deeply reinforced through my six years as a numerary. My father somehow convinced me to see a Psychologist at a nearby Catholic university’s counseling center; a year of weekly cognitive/behavioral psychotherapy with this doctor saw me switching back into my pre-Opie chosen career. Next, when a non-Opie parish priest told me he couldn’t help me anymore (after 4 meetings) because of my severe scrupulosity, he referred me to a psychiatrist for treatment. Next, 2½ years of weekly psychotherapy (Rogerian style) helped me get through graduate school. Then 5½ years of 1-2 times per week psychoanalytic psychotherapy helped me get through post-graduate school and enter my career successfully. A half dozen nine-day silent Vipassana meditation retreats helped me learn to become more centered in my life; and the psychological work continues now after 4 years in 3-4 times per week psychoanalysis. Relations with siblings have improved considerably over the years, helped along by their kids who broke right into my crusted lonely heart. Relations with my parents have softened considerably as well, though I still fault them for harsh elements in their child rearing practices. In general, I can more readily see my role in conflicts that surface in relationships, which then helps me find a way past these back to closeness.

The Difference Between the Approach of Opus Dei and Psychology

Opus Dei says, “If you want to be a happy person (i.e., a Saint), so your ego is no longer running the show and can be erased, turn over the direction of your will to us.”

Psychology says, “If you want to be a happy person (i.e., to no longer make yourself miserable), so your neurotic ways are no longer running the show and can melt away, let your will be guided by your Inner Wisdom, which speaks to you through your thoughts/fantasies, emotions, and bodily sensations.”

It took me a long time to figure out that very significant difference. My experience in Opus Dei magnified my being hard on myself and accelerated the shrinking of my sense of self (self-confidence, self-esteem, individuality), all of which had begun through my childhood experiences. For myself, the main benefit I see from my years as an Opie is by way of contrast: were it not for having experienced the darkness perhaps I would not now be as able to appreciate the light. This is the value I put on the years I spent being a holier-than-thou, increasingly ridiculous soul-less “numerary” caricature of a “saint” under the tutelage of Opus Dei. For me, putting someone else in the driver’s seat of my soul is a profound error and something I now try to avoid with all my strength. Presumably there are those whose lives have been genuinely enriched by their experience with Opus Dei, and to them a nod of the head from me—best wishes and (to quote John Galt from Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand): "Get the hell out of my way!"