People | Mental Health

Tics of the Saints: On Conversion Disorder, Mental Illness, and Searching for a Voice

On the gendered aspect of conversion disorder, how it might have historically manifest in nuns and mystics, and the strange comfort of being diagnosed.


real, happening,wrong,

I couldn’t hold still if I thought about holding still. But if I concentrated with all my might on other sensations—the warm press of the covers over my body, the soft, sweet presence of my cat beside me—I was able to break the cycle, push the urge to move far enough from the forefront of my mind to bring relief.

I was so relieved, so grateful. And also afraid. If the twitching is almost always entirely psychological, does that mean my other symptoms—the pain attributed to fibromyalgia, my migraines, the recurring nausea and vomiting that two gastroenterologists couldn’t explain—are as well?


In Italy in the 1300s, Catherine of Siena suffered rashes, fever, and pain when her parents tried to force her into marriage instead of allowing her to take holy orders as she wished.

Mystic Teresa of Avila was plagued by severe pain for most of her life, which she said was the result of a seraph’s piercing her heart with an ineffable spear: “The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

hold still for God’s sake—