Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Dark Night of the Soul

"Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord."
~Psalm 130:1 NRSV

Ash Wednesday 2017

 When St. John of the Cross spoke of the dark night of the soul, I wonder if he had any idea of just how true the concept would ring for believers of future generations. A Christian's spiritual desolation full of melancholia, doubt, and a feeling of separation from God. It is a soul-rending time, a dark time, and a moment where one's faith is put to the ultimate test. I know this because I've experienced it and have so the past few months.

In all honesty, I had never planned to talk about this. I'm a very private person and as an aspirant in the Episcopal Church (meaning, someone who plans to be a deacon or in my case- a priest); the idea of putting a voice to it seemed like a risk that could cost me in the taking. When I started getting the inkling that I should do so, I thought I had lost my mind. However, the more I resisted, the more the hints grew stronger and constant until I'm sitting here with a cup of tea to fortify my nerves and my fingers on the keyboard. If I really want to be honest: I'm terrified.

I would like to apologize in advance for the rawness that will show up in this post. I'll be talking about some hard things and while my language may be a bit harsher, I won't be completely offensive in my word choice.

I'm not going to lie: 2017 has been a very bad year for me. It has been a never-ending, relentless shit storm that has delivered one punishing blow after the other. In fact, during my last week of the semester, my Trauma professor referenced such occasions by what the French refer to as coup sur coup or blow-by-blow. On the second day of the new year, I was in a minor car accident that had me in severe pain for several days. I suppose I should have taken that as an omen, but I have never been very superstitious.

Between that and a lost battle with the Winter Queen, I ended missing the first week of classes which could be disastrous as I was taking all upper-division courses. And it did indeed have consequences. I was terribly behind in my work plus with the additional pain, my concentration was virtually nil. Eventually, things got so bad that I had to entertain the notion of a medical withdrawal or even just dropping out. I started missing a ton of class and when I could go to class or work, I often had to leave early or step out because my body was in too much pain. It got to the point where even a couple of professors wondered if they were being negligent and unethical in letting me try to continue. Unfortunately, I didn't have a choice but to continue because if I don't graduate in May 2018, I will be without financial aid and have no way of paying 40k+ for another year. Translation: I'll be several thousand in debt with no degrees. I had to take Incompletes in all of my classes, withdraw from one which put a second 'W' on my transcript and had to request at least one extension on all of my Incompletes thus far.

This was compounded by the fact that I was getting even sicker and under constant stress from my classes and a series of untreated trauma that chose the worst time to raise its ugly head. Combining all of that, plus some issues in my private life and I was brought first to my knees and then to my face.

One thing I've been praised for many times has been my ability to pick myself off the floor, dust off my knees and continue down my path. A portrait of strength and courage, I suppose. I have survived the continual loss of my health- three devastating diagnoses, constant pain, and my continual reliance on mobility aids. I have endured humiliation, the occasional depression, and personal failures. All of these things I survived by taking the Stoic approach to taking things on the chin and moving forward. But this time was different, it was so different. I had been thrown prostrate to the ground and no longer had the strength to get on my feet again. I began to withdraw from people and sequestering myself. I stopped interacting beyond what was necessary for classes and work. My sleep patterns became worse and my appetite was gone. Some of those cheery Facebook posts? Yeah, that was to keep people from being concerned and to leave me alone. I fell into deep despair and it finally came to a head in April.

On the night of April 8th around 10 o'clock, I was a wreck. I paced around my apartment in tears. I was unable to think straight, in high amounts of pain, and I couldn't endure another minute. At the moment, I knew what I wanted more than anything was for the suffering to end and to me, there was only one avenue for it and it involved my death. I didn't know at the time but there are two stages of suicide: Ideation (the imagining or planning) and Crisis (the attempt or successful death). I can't remember everything I was thinking that night- only that my head was foggy and that I felt a relative calm as I reached for my planned method. 5 tablets of Vicodin, 5 tablets of Flexiril, 3 tablets of Amitriptyline, and 3 tablets of Valium. Essentially, enough medication, at least in my mind, to put me to sleep and with any luck stop my heart. Now, I am aware that planned overdoses are far from foolproof and could lead to worse consequences including a slow and painful death. As I held the pills in my hand, I looked out my window and considered how I wanted to do it. Because of my isolating myself for several weeks, I knew it could be days before my absence would be noticed and probably not before the smell hit. I considered taking the pills in my apartment and walking the short distance to the river so no one from NCU would find my body. And then for some reason, I can't explain, I had the sensation like I had been jerked out of sleep. My mind instantly cleared and I stared at my pill filled hand in horror. I threw them onto my desk and sobbed uncontrollably as I realized fully what I had nearly done. I sent a message to a trusted mentor to let her know that I was in crisis and would be turning myself into the hospital. Because my energy was instantly drained, I decided to rest and go in the morning if I still felt it necessary. Throughout the night I could hear a voice in my head repeating the same words over and over; "ugly...pathetic...weak...unloved...forgotten... abandoned...forsaken...damned." The next morning, instead of going to my church's Palm Sunday Mass, I checked myself into the suicide ward at the E.R. where they nearly institutionalized me but chose not to because they were worried it would make things worse. I went home and rested.

While, I took steps to put safety precautions in place (handed over my medications to a trusted friend, created a safety plan and such), I had to deal with the aftermath of my choice. Growing up, I was taught that suicide is a stupid, selfish, chicken-shit long-term solution to a usually short-term problem. Not to mention, that it is an unforgivable sin in eyes of God.  I felt deep shame for my weakness along with anger and self-loathing. This intensified a couple of days after my hospitalization when I opened the local newspaper and read a heart-rending article. That very same night, there had been another woman in my situation who was 18-a full ten years my junior who was attending her Freshman year at the University of Oregon with her sister. Both of us had stood at the edge of the abyss. I woke up and she didn't. I felt sick when I read about her suicide and seeing how young she was. This was a girl whose life had barely started, she had her life ahead of her and who knows what potential she could have had. A few weeks ago, I was discussing this with a friend and he asked me how it had made me feel. In all honesty, I felt guilty because I survived and she didn't. I also felt anger towards God because I can't understand why He pulled me back instead of her.

Maundy Thursday 2017
After everything that happened, I reached out to my rector at St. Mary's and told him everything. After briefly discussing the theology surrounding suicide and my being spiritually dead, he asked to meet with me after Holy Week but encouraged me to participate in the events of the week including the meditation of the Stations of the Cross that took place later that day and taking an hour prayer shift at the Vigil at the Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday. I took the 1-2 A.M. shift and sat on the floor in front of the first pew in the chapel. One thing that stood out to me was that to my left was the sanctuary which was pitch black. It was so dark that I couldn't see the main altar. But directly in front of me was the chapel altar bright in white and candlelight. I had a slight epiphany that while spiritually I was as dark as the sanctuary the hope was I would eventually find myself back in the light. I went home and had my own personal practice for Good Friday, Holy Saturday and went to Easter Mass on Sunday. While I had a good day with a friend after Mass, I felt dismayed by the fact that while I threw myself into Holy Week like I've always done, perhaps even with a bit more fervor, I felt spiritually hollow and numb.

I went to my first meeting with my rector, we discussed Holy Week and my feelings on the matter. He helped me see two important things: a) by trying to be selfless and not burden people with my problems, I was actually being selfish and b) I was afraid of being angry at God. I felt convicted on both counts because he was right. I chose to harm myself by isolating myself and suppressing some very raw feelings I had for my Creator. I did feel angry and dare say I have for quite some time because for the past few years especially, I have experienced setback after setback, crisis after crisis, and all of this with little or no let up. I might as well have stood by an open door saying "Next disaster, this way please."

But I chose to swallow my anger because it felt self-important and selfish because there are people out there that have it worse than I ever will. That anger finally came out about four weeks ago. One of the things I struggled with the most was the fact that I had all of these chronic illnesses but couldn't get access to proper medications, therapies, and treatments. I finally changed Primary Care Physicians and got a list of Pain Specialists that were listed by my insurance. I made call after call only to find out that only one accepted my insurance and he had filled his quota. I begged to be put on a waiting list at the very least only to find out that he was actually planning to remove himself from the list and let go his OHP patients. This meant that because of the nature of my insurance, I had no hope of getting any sort of treatment for my illnesses when a couple of them have the potential of being fatal. I felt my phone slip out of my hand and softly land on my desk. The book I held in other my hand wasn't so lucky. In a burst of rage I threw that book across the room so hard it made a loud noise as it bounced off the wall and hit the floor. I spun to the wall behind and slammed my hand against it bruising my hand before I sank to my knees. Then I started to scream at God. While I didn't follow the advice Job's wife gave him, I screamed and shook my fist nonetheless. I told him I was tired of living, tired of suffering with no reprieve and no mercy and enduring under His indifference. I told Him if all He was going to do is torture me that He should just kill me and be done with it. I then sobbed uncontrollably for the better part of three hours.

Fr. Bingham lit a votive candle for me.
A few months ago, a good friend told me that he found that emotional pain is infinitely far worse than physical pain. This incredibly difficult and dark season of my life has proven just that. It has been said that it's when we've been broken that we're closer to God and it just didn't feel so for me. If anything it gave me a glimpse of Jesus hanging on the cross and feeling the absence of God which made him cry out in Hebrew "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 NRSV)". It made me feel like I was in Hell, after all that is the literal definition of Hell- the separation between God and His creation. I feel like there is a thick wall of glass between Him and myself. I try to break through but only hurt myself further. I have spent countless hours on my knees in supplication for forgiveness, mercy, and relief... only to feel bereavement. There have been times in my life especially this year where I have wondered if I have been damned-both in this life and the next. I have and do feel like I've been forsaken and it's not an easy feeling to dislodge.

This summer, I've really tried to focus on allowing myself the option of having these feelings. It got to the point where I could no longer pray, read scripture, and going to church to take the Eucharist was hard because between my feelings and my being suicidal I felt wholly unclean. My rector lent me a prayer book and some prayer beads which I use every day. I've been reading the Psalms, Lamentations, and Job to remind myself that it is actually okay to be angry and to ask why. While, I've been mostly focusing on finishing those previously mentioned Incompletes, I've also been trying to take time for self-care by doing things I used to enjoy and trying to not spend as much time in isolation. Still working on both but I really do make an effort.

I'm very sorry for such a dark post. As I've said, I have no idea why I'm putting all of this out there for public scrutiny. Perhaps as Anne Lammot said; the lesson of Easter is that "even if you bury the truth it will always come up again". I have buried the truth in the past and donned a mask but the time has come for the mask to fall and the truth to come up. I wish I could say this has a happy ending that I'm feeling much better and that my walk with God is even closer. Alas, I'm still in the thick of it. I still struggle to get through one more day and sometimes even one more minute. While I'm not feeling particularly suicidal and haven't for quite some time, I'm still in darkness. I'm still heavily depressed and occasionally I still shake my little fist at God. Despite the pain and anguish, I still hold onto my faith. I haven't lost my faith but it has been through the ringer for sure. I try to find a few happy moments every day, little ways that I'm blessed on that day which has helped. I believe in time that I will find relief from my anguish and that I'll find myself back in the pure light, but until then all I can do is try to endure my suffering and wait. It truly has been a long and dark night.



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