Nine months on…. I could have had a baby in nine months!
Instead, in those nine months I’ve been on a journey, of death and life, of rebirth and recovery. It wasn’t a journey that I had planned; but it’s also not one that I would want to have missed. It isn’t easy, there has been intense grief and guilt, frustration, exhaustion and fatigue. And yet, in the darkness and pain, there is also light and life.
Nine months ago, I started on my own personal romp through the DSM manual of mental health diagnoses, initially collecting diagnoses of low mood, depression and anxiety. I took an innocent looking white tablet to help, prescribed by my doctor. Little did any of us know what would happen next… it turns out that I’m one of the small percentage of people who react to anti-depressants with a sudden mood-switch into mania – although it took 10 days before the doctors were able to recognise the switch.
In the mania there was such an intense sense of connection, of the connectivity of all things, of the deep connectedness of each of us to all of life. There was also an intensity of the present moment… all I could do was exist in each moment. It’s a little like the first time you see the baby on an ultrasound, the miracle of life, growing inside you… the awesomeness of everything.
All my usual quirks went into overdrive in the mania, as I became an extreme, intense version of my usual self. I pinged between having the working memory of a goldfish – not being able to hold a thought long enough to get to the end of a sentence; to hyperfocus – writing 40k words overnight.
Suddenly Thomas Merton’s True Self/ False Self took on new meaning for me, as I could no longer rely on my intelligence, my capability. Any competence or confidence that I would usually put on is lost to me. In the quiet of night, stripped of all my defences, there is such a sense of God, of light and life, of peace… and all I can do is be, is be who I am. I can’t even rely on Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’… I can’t trust my thinking, even that, I have to let go.
And then, with help from my colleagues and my bishops and my fabulous, patient husband, I go to the hospital. As I’m left at the hospital, I wonder if I’ve said goodbye to all those that I love. It turns out my sampling of mental health conditions is set to continue, as the doctors try to help, I discover the ‘joys’ of psychosis – another tick on the mental health bingo chart. As I encounter hallucinations and delusions, I can no longer even be certain whether I am alive or dead. Is this what is meant by dark night of the soul? This is a new liminal space for me, as I wrestle with angels.
And yet, there is also such peace, such liberation in those moments too. All the trappings of life, of status, of ability… they’re meaningless in those moments of life and death. All I can do is be present, be open to the moment, to choose life.
At one time, all I ‘had’ was a grain of sand, found on my bed. And yet in that grain of sand was everything I needed to know, all the assurance of life and love, of knowledge and connection, the encouragement to choose life, even in that moment. That grain of sand existed, it was tangible, I could see it and touch it, the grain of sand made by God, known by God, counted by God. That tiny grain of sand, gave me such hope. I tried to hold onto it, my ‘possession’, my connection to the wider world… but even that grain of sand I gave away, a gift, to someone else that needed hope… my hope that this grain of sand would give them the hope of life too.
As I look back… those were the ‘easy’ times. There is such intensity about that time, such connection, all I could do is be in that moment, be present to myself, be open to those around me. It is the light that I found in that darkness, the whisper to choose life, the realisation that the grain of sand held all I needed to know.
And then comes the much longer journey of recovery… I’m still on that journey. There have been more diagnoses, bipolar, ADHD, autism, sensory processing…. Have I collected enough labels yet? There have been more medications, more side effects. I’ve had to go back to basics, relearning breathing, eating, sleeping.
I’ve had to live with brain fug, with fatigue, with not knowing one day to the next what energy I may have, and whether I’ll be able to put words into sentences. And that journey continues.
As I gain in strength, in confidence, I can feel the temptation to try and shrug off what has happened, to try and get back to ‘normal’, to put back on my old self. (I’m not sure that I ever was ‘normal’… whatever that may be! As someone recently told me, by me being at the more extreme end of many spectrums, it allows others to be nearer the ‘normal’ centre!)
This past nine months also feels that it has been a time of rebirth for me, of connecting with myself, of connecting with others. I’ve had the luxury of being stripped of all that I knew, all I could rely on.
As I prepared for ordination a few years ago, others talked of the profound change they felt in themselves at ordination. I didn’t feel this at the time. However, as I have come back to priestly ministry this year, I have felt a deep shift has taken place within me.
As I have lead services and presided at the Eucharist this year, on several different occasions people have described that I have been glowing. From within, I feel such a privilege to be able to stand at the altar and share the eucharist. The mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the paradox of brokenness and such love, the gift offered to all.
I feel humbled, in my own way, to have experienced my own sense of death this year and life through death. As Jesus said, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
And so, nine months on, there’s no baby to show for it… but I’m still here, learning to live again, to love again… to love others and to love myself; profoundly grateful to all the many people that have supported me, loved me and encouraged me over the last nine months; particularly thankful for my family, who have lived through this with me and continued to love me even when I’ve been very hard to love; praying that you will continue to encourage and support me over the next days and months of recovery and life.