Denver Newsroom, Jul 29, 2021 / 10:54 am (CNA).
Maura Preszler grew up in an abusive household, despite the family’s outward Catholic appearance. They went to Mass on Sundays, prayed the rosary together and celebrated the saints’ feast days, but her home was filled with domestic violence behind closed doors. She learned how to keep secrets, she said, and to internalize her feelings, which resulted in a debilitating eating disorder and depression in early adolescence.
Preszler shares the challenges she faced, as well as her journey to recovery in her forthcoming book Choosing to See Beauty, available for pre-order from CatholicPsych Press. The book is scheduled to ship by Aug. 15.
In 8th grade, Preszler overheard a couple high school girls when they were gossiping about the weight of one of her field hockey teammates. This was the moment she began to associate beauty with a certain weight, she said. Preszler stopped eating and started running more, fueled by the attention she received for losing weight on her already small figure.
Her eating disorder required medical intervention after her body weight dropped to a dangerously low number. With her pulse severely impacted, she was not able to do the activities she enjoyed, like dancing or running, until she put the weight back on.
“Even after I returned to my normal weight, I had these burning questions like ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I made for?’ ‘Does God love me?’ ‘Why is this happening to me?’” Preszler said. “I had this yearning to be known and seen.”
After finishing high school, she attended Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, where she was a Division I runner. Preszler began dating a man who later revealed that he had a sexual addiction and ended their relationship. She found herself starting to spiral again, with many of the same questions unanswered.
“It was devastating for me and I felt so rejected,” she said. “But it was what I needed to be cracked open.”
Pursued by a determined FOCUS missionary, Preszler joined a Varsity Catholic Bible study, and, later, learned about FOCUS’ mission trips. She applied to go to Kolkata for six weeks between her junior and senior year.
“It was the most life-changing experience,” said Preszler, who worked at Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Dying. “It was our mission to show them God’s love.”
While in India, Preszler prayed a Holy Hour before the Eucharist every day. Each night, the FOCUS missionaries led a prayer or reflection, one of which on God’s love was especially meaningful for Preszler.
“God showed up in such a radical way,” said Preszler. “It all came to a head, all these walls I had built up fell down, and I thought, ‘This is what I’m actually searching for.’ I felt at home and at peace.”
The trip launched an intense journey of recovery for Preszler, who committed to a daily Holy Hour upon returning to the U.S. She also went through a full psychological evaluation and was diagnosed with chronic depression, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, and a borderline personality disorder.
“On one hand, I was so frustrated that I had these labels on me, but on the other hand, it was so freeing to know that this is why I can’t concentrate, this is why I have horrible nightmares,” she said. “Part of me was really reluctant to get help, but the other part of me was determined to not turn out like my parents.”
Preszler sought out a Catholic psychologist and moved to Nashville to begin two years of intense therapy, including medication and frequent counseling sessions.
“It was the hardest, but most beautiful thing,” she said. “It dug up so much from the past, but he [the psychologist] was just the person I needed. The therapy was so healing, so hard, so good.”
The therapist suggested Preszler channel her suffering into something to help other people. She started a blog, Made in His Image, which became a nonprofit organization to help women overcome trauma, abuse, eating disorders, and violence.
Choosing to See Beauty is the next step in her journey, Preszler said.
“This has helped me live in gratitude for what I’ve been given,” she said. “If I hadn’t had the experience with counseling and therapy, I don’t think I would be married. I wouldn’t be able to be in a stable relationship. I wouldn’t be able to be a mom.”
One of Preszler’s goals, she said, is to break the stigma and shame of therapy and mental health.
“A lot of people think you have to pray more or you have to do more,” Preszler said. “No, you don’t have to ‘do more.’ You have to let yourself be healed. A result of the way I grew up was that my brain wasn’t functioning normally and I needed help to fix that.”
The only way to heal, Preszler said, was to work through the difficulties and acquire the tools to break the cycle of abuse, noting that abuse repeats generation after generation without intervention.
“We have to step towards the pain,” she said. “The only way is through. If we look at the Cross, if we look at Jesus, the only way to Easter is to die on the Cross. The only way to the Resurrection is Good Friday, and we need to find that Good Friday in our life. Jesus is going to bring so much beauty out of it.”