Page 8, 14th November 2008

14th November 2008
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Page 8, 14th November 2008 — 'I feel like a completely new person'
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People: Leah Betts

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'I feel like a completely new person'

'witnessed a baby being baptised recently at my local church. I was overwhelmed by the mysterious beauty of it, not to mention the communal joy of the congregation. The baptism filled me with utter wonder and gratitude that this will one day be me.

I am a 28-year-old woman on the road to becoming a Catholic. Six months ago I was blessed with finding my faith in God and specifically within the Catholic Church. I was, and still am, continually dumbfounded by the positive changes it has brought. A wonderful feminine strength that I have never had before allows me to be happy and inspired every day; to question and discover something new is like a dream.

For several years I had been continually striving for happiness, and failing miserably. I was going through all the right motions — university, relationships, career — yet everything failed me.

I discovered while growing up that just being "nice would not lead to happiness. I had always been shy, but when I was bullied at school as a teenager I shut down completely. My friends talked about trying drugs one day. I was scared and told my mum. I had seen a television programme about Leah Betts, a teenager who had died in 1995 from ecstasy, and I was afraid of where my friends were heading. My mother told the schools, and they warned the other parents in confidence. But this confidence was broken by one of the other parents. I walked into school the next day, an all-girl's school, to be faced with "anti-bitch" badges. No one would talk to me. What made matters worse was that the teachers seemed oblivious to the situation. I think I hardly said a Word throughout each day. I became painfully shy, embarrassed to even walk down the street. The situation never improved and I eventually left. I have never since felt comfortable within a group of girls.

I was lacking in confidence and always anxious and wandered straight into the world completely unawares and unprotected. As I look back it is clear to me that there were some things I brought on myself and some that were put on me by others. The common factor was that I didn't know how to deal with it.

In my twenties I tried to make a terrible mistake of a relationship work. Allowing myself to be verbally and emotionally abused by a man for over five years. I had somehow convinced myself that love was supposed to be unconditional, so I could help this person and heal him of his own "baggage". It is no surprise that my life seemed to stop still for those five years and I never thought I would escape. I really felt that true love was not to be found in this world and, like many girls today, I would have to settle for second best. This no doubt stemmed from the terrible insecurity that had developed in my teenage years. I had financial security and a home with this man, but in the end I lost everything and more, and I soon realised that none of those things meant anything and it was certainly no price to pay compared to winning back my soul and selfrespect.

I also felt enormous pressure from today's society and the sometimes overtly feminist culture to be an "independent modem woman" with a career. I tried for many years to be a successful actor. I played a lead character in a wellknown children's television show and I went on to a leading British musical theatre tour. With every job there was hope, but after the job ended I was still left with the void. Why could I not be a woman on my own terms and be happy? What was missing?

The truth was I had no idea what happiness really was. Happiness turned into a lucky break or a pay rise or even just a fun evening out with the girls. I became led by life, rather than by myself. I kick myself even now and wonder how exactly this "normal" life ended up sucking me in, as it must so many girls of my generation.

Through the revelation of discovering my faith, I am shocked at how much I had been dragging myself through the mud into a bottomless pit of unhappiness, not fulfilling my true potential as a human being and as a woman.

It is only now that I realise how my potential happiness was conditioned by whatever happened in my life.1 had often heard people say that you should be happy within yourself whatever your situation is. How difficult that is to believe when you really do feel like your life is going nowhere. How can you be positive if there is nothing currently positive in your life? It seemed that the people who said those things were the annoying happy people who seemed to have everything anyway. I would be happy too, I would think, if my life was as successful as yours. The only trouble was I knew that I could have everything too if I would only allow myself to be happy. Something within my soul was telling me how to fix everything but I refused to listen to that voice within.

recognise now that my experience was quite typical of the average young woman in today's society. I wonder why, or even when it was, that we stopped questioning this society and allowed ourselves to accept it as the norm. We like to think that we are individual and special but how do we retain this belief if our decisions are always based on the safety of the crowd? After all, if the majority is doing that or allowing such and such to happen then it's okay, right? Wrong. Very wrong.

I would always have claimed prior to my conversion that I believed in a higher power and deity. What this was I wasn't exactly sure. I was certain, as anyone can be, about life after death and held a nondescript belief in God. What I never realised was that I was lacking faith. I don't think I even knew the difference. I didn't go to church, and my attitude seemed to fall into the common misconception of "well, I'm a nice person and these things happen for a reason and everything will work out in the end".

I cannot describe how or when exactly I was given the gift of faith. I had around the same time met my fiancé, who I have no doubt is also my soulmate. The gift of true love seemed to go hand in hand with the gift of faith. Even now, as together we discuss my worksheets for baptism (he is my sponsor) I know in some way I could not have seen true love without faith, even though the love had apparently come first. There was indeed no real decision-making process in taking on the journey to becoming a Catholic; I just knew it was right and would make me very happy. In my first meeting with our local priest, a wonderful Jesuit, he described it as "coming home" and that was exactly it for me. I changed within 48 hours, as if someone had lifted up an invisible curtain and showed me the real world which had previously been concealed from me. I had been searching and searching and not even realising I was completely blind. I changed, so much so that people did not recognise me. Yet I had not really changed at all. I was just allowing myself to become the real me.

In"re-tuning" myself I have had to be brutally honest, It is not easy, having come -through a very difficult time, to be faced with the fact that I might not have been a very nice person. When we first met. my fiancé told me as much. It didn't bode well for the start of a relationship. But he was, as I know now, being incredibly brave and kind to me, knowing that I had to get rid of all the negativity I had accumulated in order to be able to love myself. When I accepted who I really was, with my faults and fail

ings, I admitted I could not do it on my own, that I needed help. That is when I was given help and faith.

A recent homily at my parish reminded me of my initial journey. Our wonderful priest talked about loving your neighbour as yourself. How could you even begin to love anybody else if you couldn't give yourself the necessary care in the first instance? As simple as it sounds, actively reminding myself of the Commandments, those simple principles of how to treat yourself and others, without excuse, suddenly made me realise how far I had wandered from my essential consciousness of right and wrong. All of us have this instinct for the truth of right and wrong within us. It is easy to see the big sins, but it is the little things that creep in and infect us.

Since the beginning I have been welcomed into the Catholic Church with open arms by complete strangers, no question and no judgment. Only last week my mentors, while leading me in teachings about Our Lady, gave me my first rosary which had been bought and blessed in Medjugorje.

In comparison, it has shocked and saddened me that a member of my own family is neither able to be happy for me or supportive of my new gift of life without their own negative conditions. I was not expecting dissent from someone so close to me.

I have had to learn to take responsibility for my life as a whole and this has been essential in understanding how to forgive others and healing wounds. Accepting that my life is my responsibility I now have the courage to take charge of it more. I know that I can't control whether negative situations enter my life, but I can learn how to deal with them better and take charge of how they affect me. I am only weak if I allow myself to be so. I have learned a new kind of selfrespect.

I have a wonderful fiancé who wants me to fulfil my potential. He asked me recently what my dreams were.1 was a Little perturbed when 1 realised that I hadn't thought about them for a long time — I didn't really know. I have a whole list of dreams now. In fact, the list is endless. I have discovered that I have a love for writing and I am planning to go back to university to further my education. I also look forward. if God grants it to one day becoming a mother. The hope of creating a family through love, knowing that I have a strong support system behind me, gives me peace and encouragement to take on these challenges positively.

I am going through a major change and it is a life process, a continual journey, but I am certain this time I have taken the right path and somehow I know that this gift of unshakable faith will stand me in good stead. I feel like a completely new person, inspired at last to live my life to the fu11.1 think I fmally know how to do it. It is quite scary at times, I am walking blind, yet I know I am following the light;




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