One day at a time… for ten years

Ten years ago today, I was taken to the hospital and admitted to the locked unit of the mental ward.  Actually, I was picked up from my house at about 11pm on the 8th of February, but by the time the admission paperwork was done, it was after midnight.  This was my second inpatient admission of 1998 already, and it would not be the last.  On New Year’s Day, I took myself to the ER… where they stuck me alone in an OB room (!!!) until the traveling psych nurse could come do her consult so that they could transfer me.  And things were pretty awful on that day, but I didn’t know how much worse they could get.

On Sunday, February 8, I had a plan.  The next morning, I was supposed to drive to northern Virginia to meet with customers.  A couple other coworkers were going, but we would be driving separately.  And there I would be – alone in a hotel room, accompanied by people who respected my privacy and who would leave me to do whatever I wanted to do.  And so that night, I put the children to bed, got into the cold and angry bed next to my then-husband, and wept, silent and motionless.  After a time, I heard his breathing turn deep and even and regular, and I wanted to jump and scream… but mostly to not have to hide my tears from the one person who should want to comfort me but instead mocked me for my weakness.  Finally, I crept down the stairs, turned on the computer, and composed a farewell email to the person who had been most supportive of me for several months, the rector of my parish.  He called the house not ten minutes later, and told me to be ready to go to the hospital again, no ifs ands or buts.

I was already familiar with the hospital.  I knew how to act and what to say to get out of the locked unit and into the freer, nicer open unit.  We still weren’t supposed to leave the unit, but at least we could have our own clothes – rather than hospital gowns and booties – and things like metal tableware with our meals instead of plastic.   And we could have guests there, too… not that anyone wants to visit someone in the mental hospital.  It frightens people, you know, makes them uncomfortable.  You have to come to terms with your own humanity, your own fragility, and face the fact that it could just as easily be you behind that door in a hospital gown and booties.  I was an inpatient for five days, and was released on Friday (the 13th, no less) to partial hospitalization.  Partial hospitalization means that you come to the hospital each day to participate in group work and to meet with your doctor and the staff members, but then you get to go home to sleep in your own bed.  I reported Saturday morning for a half-day of partial, and we made Valentine’s cupcakes and did some neat work in group.  I still have the pink construction-paper heart on my refrigerator, with all the nice things my fellow patients said about me.

That afternoon, I went back home.  My ex had gotten cards and chocolates for the children for Valentine’s Day, and I’d found time to pick up a couple cards for him, too.   But there was nothing for me.  He does not know how deeply this hurt.  I was his wife – just coming out of the mental hospital with severe depression, feeling completely unloved and unlovable – and he didn’t even manage to write a note or make a card on the computer for me.  Nothing.  Once again, I cried myself to sleep.

Several more things happened in the next couple of days to reinforce the message that I believed to be completely true.  I was fundamentally unlovable.  There was no hope for me in this world.  I was useless, worthless, a burden on those I loved.  And because I could never be anything but a drain, a burden, a leech, it was clear that I had the responsibility to remove myself as a problem for them.  This did not exactly make me happy.  I railed against God – why would God create someone and give them a life of complete and utter joylessness and hopelessness?  But on Monday night, when I reached my decision, I felt liberated.  Strengthened.  Finally, I was emerging from the fog and the muck, and I was going to do something about this once and for all.

So on Tuesday, February 17, 1998, rather than reporting to the hospital, I tried to take my own life.  I won’t go into the details, save that it was in the kitchen of my parish church.  While in the middle of my chosen (and very girly) method, I called the rector, and he left his half-finished breakfast to come to the church.  Once there, he called 911 and stayed with me until the EMTs loaded me into the ambulance.  At the ER, my stomach was pumped, and I was mostly left alone until the nurse came for the psych consult, to order me transferred back to the mental ward where I was supposed to be all day.

For years, I had a strange sort of celebration on February 17.  I called it Life Day, because it was the day God worked through the people around me to give me my life back after I’d tried to take it.  I would honor this by acts of gratitude, by sending donations to mental health advocacy organizations, or by just spending time with other people who may not have been to the exact address I’d visited on my journey, but who had been to the neighbourhood.

Through this period of my life, and again a couple years later when I fought a depression that went just as deep, I learned far more about how to die than any person should know.  There have been many times that I have wished I could unlearn these things, could erase them from my thoughts and my memory — especially in February, which is always the hardest month for me.  And in spite of all the wonderful things going on in my life right now, I feel helpless when the darkness descends.

I have learned so much about how to make my way through the darkness, through the fog and the muck and the weeds… and yet, I cannot stop the darkness from coming.  All I can do is try to tend to my tiny little flame, to keep it from blowing out.  It turns out that this is what Lent is going to be about for me this year.  It sounds so strange to think, I’m giving up dying for Lent this year, but that’s what I’m doing.  I am going to try – as much as I am able – to embrace things that have life, that give life, and to avoid things that drain life.  Last weekend, while I was taking a long walk at a beautiful park, a thought came to me: seek beauty, and it will find you.  And I realized that one corollary of this would be: seek God, and God will find you.  And then, oh hell, seek anything, and it will find you!  So as much as I would like to curl up into a fetal ball under my covers until March, that is not what I will seek.  Light.  Life.  Truth.  Love.  Friendship.  Gratitude.  Peace.

And for you, my friend, I wish the same.  Seek beauty, and let beauty find you.  Seek light; seek life; seek truth; seek love.  Seek God, dear one, and God will find you.

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9 thoughts on “One day at a time… for ten years

  1. Seek beauty and it will find you. Wow. That is very profound. And true. You know, it never ceases to amaze me how much I learn from people who have suffered from a mental illness and entered recovery. Thank you for posting this. It has given me a lot to think about.
    Paulie11 from the snakepit

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  2. I hope your church family will be a source of light for during you this dark month. You have certainly blessed us enormously, just by being.

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  3. Welcome, Paulie, and thank you for leaving a comment. There is something about the experience of bringing life to its most absolute bare essentials that brings some very powerful and fertile insights. I’ve been pretty fortunate in my journey through the illness. After 27 months of seeking the right medication combo (bipolar II), I stayed on it for about 5 years… and I’ve since been med-free for about two and a half. And while there are times that are easier and times that are more difficult, I know so much more about myself and my choices and being intentional about taking care of myself. But yes, a lot of this came from taking life down to its bones, down to its barest essentials. Not that I recommend this to anyone, or would wish it on my worst enemy. But I wouldn’t trade the learnings from it for the world.

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  4. Thank you, Elizabeth! You know, the thing about the church family is that it is a wonder source of light… except when it isn’t. (Kind of like work: yes, my job is wonderful and fun… except when it isn’t.) I’ll be kind of in and out this month and next, between trips to Canada and moving and all of that. But the eucharist is so important to me.

    And hee – I recommend to anyone who has just gotten out of the hospital for depression, that they just forego the Ash Wednesday service the next night. Just a word of advice from someone who’s BTDT – this is not the time you need to be reminded that you are dust, because you already know this. 🙂

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  5. Thank you for sharing this. I have BTDT and have a certificate to prove that I’m sane. LOL And, I figured out one day that I should get rid of my guns; so I gave away all the ammunition – called the police and they came and took it. Later during another episode, I gave away the guns. I still think about it when the going gets tough and I’m down. I’m not sure I believe that I am loveable at those times. But, you’re right – one day at a time, one hour, we continue to live. And, I hope that perhaps this Lent, I, too, can give up dying. Thanks.

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  6. Warriormare, I hear you about Ash Wednesday…this was my first Ash Wednesday as a priest. We took ashes to two nursing homes, and offered them to the day school kids as well, so I imposed ashes five times that day. For the day school kids (ages 2 to kindergarten), for those who wanted ashes, we said, “Remember that God made you out of dust, and God loves you very much.”

    I find that as I continue to grow into my priesthood, and grow to deeply love the people in my congregation, and learn more and more about them, I found it VERY hard to say “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return…” It was very holy, and an incomparable experience, BUT I often really wanted to say the day school lines instead, as I touched these people I really loved on their foreheads.

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  7. Ah, Elizabeth – what a blessing! I’ll bet you were quite tired by the end of the day, too. Ash Wednesday always confuses me. I’d learned years ago how incredibly powerful and intimate it is to make eye contact while receiving the bread and wine at the eucharist. But the ashes… I know we’re “supposed” to be humble and penitential, so I always bow my head somewhat (not too far, so you don’t have to reach). Now I’m wishing I’d looked up, as I do at communion each week. Of course, I was on Bob’s side, but I hope I remember this next year.

    (And yes, I’m hedwyg – the name thing is a peculiarity of wordpress. The reason for choosing this particular handle is on my about page. Peace!)

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  8. H. – I really, really needed to read this this week.

    I was fundamentally unlovable. There was no hope for me in this world. I was useless, worthless, a burden on those I loved. And because I could never be anything but a drain, a burden, a leech, it was clear that I had the responsibility to remove myself as a problem for them.

    My god, how I can really identify with that paragraph – how often I’ve felt that way.

    I’m heaping blessings on you, and letting you know how very glad I am that God shined light into your darkness, and that you are still here to spread your beautiful light among us.

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