In 1975, when I was a fifth-grader at St. William Elementary, a Catholic school in Cincinnati, Ohio, the devil began visiting me — or at least so I thought.
During these episodes, my brain felt as if it were vibrating and then turning to concrete from the inside out. I wouldn’t lose consciousness, but I would zone out, unable to speak. My reality was twisted in ways both nonsensical and scary. Most everything I saw either changed physically or registered as something else in my mind. For instance, a teacher would turn into an alligator, a pencil into a sword, a tree into a dinosaur.
After each episode, I was left with a creepy feeling and a monstrous headache that caused me to be distracted and unsettled for hours. Still, as freaked out as I was, I didn’t tell anyone what was happening to me. Not my parents, not any of my teachers, not my friends, not my brothers or sister nor my parish’s priests. In part, it was because I had trouble finding the words to describe what was happening. And, at first, I wondered if it was really happening at all or if maybe it was just my imagination run amok.
A few months after my first episode, I experienced a “visitation” inside St. William Church, where my school attended Mass weekly, and it was then that I began to suspect ― and worry ― that what was happening to me was actually the devil’s work. In my impressionable and naïve 12-year-old mind, it made perfect sense: What — or who — else could penetrate the thick limestone walls and spiritual force field of God’s own house and have its way with me? The more I thought about it and considered the things I’d been taught in school about the devil, the more it made sense.
What’s more, my hallucinations began about a year after “The Exorcist” was released in theaters. While I was too young to see the movie, I had heard all about it, and I mistakenly understood it to be a highly accurate documentary. Though my head wasn’t spinning and I wasn’t spewing green bile, the things I was experiencing were unbelievably vivid and defied logic. I had every reason to believe that I might soon start exhibiting the same disgusting and frightening behavior as the girl in “The Exorcist.”
I was terrified but also convinced more than ever that I had to keep my affliction a secret. I feared that if anyone found out I was possessed they would either think I was crazy and send me to an asylum or, if they actually believed me, I would have to face possibly being seen as evil myself.
While I hid my possession, I refused to accept it. I fought back. Hard.
I embarked on a three-pronged plan to strengthen my body, my mind and especially my spirit. To improve physically, I turned to long-distance running. I ran every single day for years. My dedication paid off. As an eighth-grader, I won the citywide Catholic track-and-field championships in the mile run and, as a high school freshman, I ran a marathon in 3 hours and 15 minutes. I hoped God was pleased.
I feared that if anyone found out I was possessed they would either think I was crazy and send me to an asylum or, if they actually believed me, I would have to face possibly being seen as evil myself.
To enhance my mind, I worked harder in school than I certainly would have otherwise, earning mostly A’s thanks, in part, to completing every extra-credit opportunity placed before me.
Of course, what needed the most improvement was my spirit. I prayed multiple times throughout the day and volunteered to serve as an altar boy at every Mass I could manage. This included the dreaded 6:30 a.m. weekday Masses, but I hoped to prove to Jesus that I believed in him and wanted his grace.
My super-secret weapon for my super-secret condition was self-exorcisms, which I would perform in my bedroom or, when the rest of my family was out of the house, in our dining room. I would place our family Bible on the table and then light a votive candle (which, ironically, I had stolen from church). With a rosary dangling around my neck, I would make the sign of the cross, splash myself with holy water I got at school and recite prayers. I would then hold a small piece of sandwich bread over the candle’s flame. In my young mind, this process turned the ordinary bread into devil-blasting communion. I’d swallow it, say a few more prayers and then quickly hide all the accouterments of my self-exorcisms before my family returned.
I was desperate to be freed from my condition, and I was living a double life in hopes of being rescued from the devil. Still, my efforts to live a good, pure life were not always successful. Like most boys my age, I had impure thoughts about girls on a near-constant basis. I sometimes stole money from my mom’s purse to buy candy. In high school, I started drinking beer — a lot of it — on the weekends.
This is why I believed my purification efforts weren’t successful. From fifth grade through most of 10th grade, the devil’s visits increased in frequency. Though everything I was doing didn’t seem to be helping, I worried stopping would only invite Satan to come on even stronger. And one day he did. Big time.
While attending a high school leadership seminar in Columbus, Ohio, 100 miles from home, the devil came to visit again. This time, however, when the episode was over, I woke up in the back of an ambulance. I began to cry. I was scared and assumed I was headed to that asylum that haunted my thoughts. I was, of course, taken to the hospital, where I was given several tests, including an electroencephalogram (EEG) and a brain scan. I remember thinking that those sophisticated machines couldn’t detect the real problem. Beelzebub was way too smart for that.
I was at least right on that account. The technology did not reveal possession. What it did find, however, was that I’d had a grand mal seizure, my first. I was diagnosed with epilepsy that I was told was perhaps caused by some trauma my brain suffered during birth. It turned out the devil wasn’t taking control of my mind ― my mind was flipping out on its own. There wasn’t anything the least bit spiritual or metaphysical about it.
I was relieved I wasn’t possessed and I finally had a name for what was causing my episodes, but I was more than a little skeptical. For one, while my smaller hallucinatory episodes stopped (these petit mal seizures had been seen as childhood daydreaming, not epilepsy), for several years afterward I continued to have grand mal seizures, despite being medicated. I wondered if this might all be part of Satan’s plan, a neurological smokescreen of sorts. Beyond that, I had just spent about six years engaged in an epic battle of good versus evil. Admitting that I had royally duped myself for all of that time was a hard thing to do.
As crazy as my belief in demonic possession may seem, I believe even now that it was in many ways a rational, if not obvious, conclusion to come to under the circumstances. In my Catholic bubble, God and Satan were very much of this world. To appreciate how a kid could come to such a conclusion ― and then go to great lengths to both keep it a secret and self-exorcise his demons ― one must consider the Catholic worldview. As theologian Andrew Greely has written, Catholics believe, in essence, that objects, events and people can reveal God’s grace ― or the lack thereof.
We saw the world as a stage where God and Satan battled at both the macro and micro levels. All that was good came from God and his angels and saints. All that was bad came from Satan and demons.
If we lost something, we prayed to St. Anthony, who would then guide us toward the wallet, keys or whatever else we misplaced. A nun at my elementary school gave every student in her class a recycled Welch’s grape juice bottle filled with holy water. We used the water to bless ourselves before tests at school and when saying our evening prayers at home.
The people of my working-class neighborhood even put down money in an attempt to curry favor and influence with the Almighty and ward off the devil. In fact, I had an after-school job essentially selling special favors from God. For $5 you could come to St. William’s rectory, the priests’ residence, and purchase a Mass to be said in someone’s name. This would bestow a blessing upon him or her ― maybe to help them get a new job, recover more quickly from surgery or aid in the conception of a child. Smaller requests, say for good weather at the ballgame, could be made by lighting a votive candle in church for 25 cents.
And once, in what remains one of my most quintessential Catholic moments, a feather floated down from the church rafters during a family wedding. At the reception, all the buzz was about that feather ― how it must have somehow dislodged from the wing of an angel who came to bestow God’s blessings upon the new couple. It’s a lovely, nearly poetic sentiment, even for this atheist. The thought that it was probably a pigeon feather didn’t seem to occur, or matter, to anyone.
Ultimately, we saw the world as a stage where God and Satan battled at both the macro and micro levels. All that was good came from God and his angels and saints. All that was bad came from Satan and demons.
Am I angry at the church for its enchanted world and what it led me to believe? Not really. The church, my family and the larger community guided me toward goodness and light rather than evil and darkness. I’m thankful for that. But my experience fighting Satan ultimately led me away from the church and religion in general and completely changed how I see the world and, in many ways, my life. How could an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God allow me to suffer as I did? Beyond even that, how could such a benevolent being allow evil to exist in the first place? (Those who claim that our free will ― and the bad choices it permits ― is to blame somehow seem to miss all the suffering in the world that is no one’s fault.)
My experiences also gave me an immense appreciation for science and its ability to explain the world. We humans once believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. That belief made a lot of sense then. After all, why wouldn’t the planet called home by those made in God’s image not be at the center of everything? But much can make sense on the surface but still not be true at the core.
My battle with Satan had a certain logic to it given the larger narratives of my faith. But as I dug down deeper to, in essence, make my religious narratives more than stories to me, I came up empty. That doesn’t mean I no longer respect those who choose to believe. Nor does it mean that I don’t miss certain aspects of my religion, such as the rituals and the communal events.
I have four daughters, including 10-year-old twins who attend Catholic school (after completing their preschool years at a Jewish school). They don’t participate in the sacraments, such as First Communion and Reconciliation, but I have no issues with them being exposed to Catholicism’s basic tenets. They’ll have plenty of time to figure out what faith means for them. But I do watch them carefully for any signs of them zoning out. Should I spot any such thing, I won’t take them to church, I’ll take them to a doctor — and I’ll fight the urge to light a candle along the way.
Steve Kissing is the author of the recently released graphic memoir Running From the Devil.