"Once, ritual lament would have been chanted; women would have been paid to beat their breasts and howl for you all night, when all is silent. Where can we find such customs now? So many have long since disappeared or been disowned.
That’s what you had to come for: to retrieve the lament that we omitted."
Each year, during Holy Week, I ask friends to share a "mourning story" from their own life as a way to see Christ in the midst of suffering. Each story reflects on one phrase of Jesus' dying words. Today's story is a collection of words from my courageous friend Rachel, articulately describing the messy complexities of physical and psychological suffering. Perhaps most courageously of all, she invites us -- her friends and family -- to pass the peace of a forsaken Christ as fresh healings over the recurring wounding of her body and soul. May we all know ourselves and each other in the same way.
I have Bipolar Disorder. This is not news. I always think it’s news. I always think it’s going to be so scandalous to announce. I think that telling anyone I am sick will be disappointing, will discredit any ounce of wisdom and wellness I may ever have, undo any bit of the good I’ve done. As if this is a disease tamed by diligence and strong moral character. It does not matter how perfectly I eat, how long I sleep, how meticulously I curate my media consumption, sometimes, I just get sick. Really sick.
Right now I am really sick.
Sick enough to sit with psychiatrists for hours. Sick enough to choose anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers.
Sick enough to say I can’t do my job without a tremendous amount of help.
Sick enough to say it out loud.
Depression is an old friend. I have built my life around its coming and going. I am rarely surprised by its arrival and I have systems in place for when it stays too long or pushes too hard. Depression slows me down, gnaws at my hope for any good to happen in life ever again.
Mania drops like an anvil from the sky. It has no schedule, no rhythm. It sings it’s siren song and dashes me upon it’s rocks. It empties my bank account and fills up my notebooks. It swerves the minivan and sets tarantulas on my writing desk. It steals my sleep and my friends.
Mania has crushed me more than once, but even so, I wave the red flag in front of the hypomanic bull, begging it to chase me so that I will finally write fearlessly, satisfy all the extroverted requirements of my world effortlessly, give generously, impress everyone, and clean out all the closets.
It feels easy to write about my back injury and all the ways it disappoints and inconveniences me. It feels acceptable to be on the prayer list at church every Sunday since the fire shot down my leg, to let them read my name out loud and ask for my healing. The scar on my back and the leg that drags give me permission to ask for help. My MRIs and hospital bands and stacks and stacks of medical bills make the pain real and accessible to the world. Physical pain is universal. Everyone has a spine, has accidents that break bones, pull tendons, misalign ribs, crush intervertebral discs. There is no shame in breaking your back.
When I was a little girl, I would get up in the middle of the night and rearrange my furniture. I would take out all the drawers, lay on my back on the floor, and push the dresser across the carpet with my legs. Then the bed. I would shove the mattress off and scoot one side, then the other, until I had the whole thing on the other side of the room. It was deeply satisfying to have control over such big things, and to have a quiet way to exhaust my energy when the whole house was asleep.
When I had heaved and pushed and reordered all I could, I would lay in the dark, staring out into the dark room in it’s new orientation and imagine I was not myself, but some other girl in a far away land. It didn’t occur to me until very recently that those sleepless nights of heavy lifting, rearranging were likely an early version of mania.
In the years I have spent unmedicated in adulthood, nutrition has been my chief protector against depression, but exercise has rescued me from mania. Powerlifting is the equivalent of a seven year old moving dressers and double beds. In my most stable years, I was training 4-5 times a week, without fail. My schedule was incredibly consistent and there were a number of times when I would double up my workouts, add extra weight, or throw in some hill sprints to burn off a mixed state. Endorphins and hormones worked their magic on my brain chemistry. It was a potent and effective medication. And I loved it.
When I injured my back at the end of November (not while lifting), my surgeon assured me that I would be back in the game in just a few months. I found a new surgeon and at our second visit he looked me in the eye and said, “You will never be able to powerlift again. No more squats, no more deadlifts. Ever. You will have to find something else, something gentle.”
Now I have three herniated discs, a failed back surgery, chronic pain, three kids under six that I planned to homeschool, two with major health issues, a husband weighing a significant career change, weekly migraines, and a completely untreated, severe mental illness. Add the chicken pox, stomach viruses, and unending rain and darkness of the previous weeks and you can see why being told I would NEVER be able to do one of the few things that made me a functional human being ever again might be more than I could take.
It’s really no wonder that weeks later I was out of my mind, faced with an ultimatum — the mental hospital or six pills every morning, one at noon, three at bedtime.
I chose the pills, though I have regretted it many times over the last two weeks.
When I was twelve, I laid in bed for a month, my head pinned down by the beak of a massive black raven. I stayed in the dark and refused to speak. Eventually my mother lured me out with a cherry Slurpee to get an MRI to make sure my brain wasn’t riddled with tumors. On the way there, as I sipped the frozen, bright red sugar, we talked about what it would be like if my famous curls all fell out. Would I wear a wig? Would I choose to be bald? We talked as if it would be so tragic, but I was secretly hopeful. I wanted to have something visible, something everyone else could see, something that would force my father to love me and my mother leave me alone, quit shoving me out of my room. Maybe cancer would feel better than this?
I threw up in the MRI and everyone panicked. When they found out it was not blood, but Slurpee, the tone changed. They were annoyed, but polite.
I did not have any tumors, just “chronic tension headaches and depression”. I kept my hair.
I quit meds eight years ago. I did not go cold turkey, run wild and squeal, “Nanny nanny boo boo! Psych meds are a joke!” No, I titrated down with the help of a psychiatrist, a tiny baby in my belly, and a year of stability under my mental health belt.
I spent the years that followed perfecting a formula to replace the lithium I had faithfully swallowed everyday the decade before. Like all great discoveries, I found ketosis by accident. In an attempt to change my weight, I changed my brain. Ketosis worked better than lithium ever had and it lifted the haze I had been swatting at my whole life. Then came exercise, at first just a way to push the babies round and round to sleep, then a way to run straight up hills, then a way to pick my weight up off the ground until I found myself unreasonably calm. And with both came deep, solid sleep, the kind that wakes you up in the morning all by itself, full.
This formula worked so well, I bottled it. I was my own pharmacist, measuring precise doses each day.
So it should be no surprise that when my formula fell apart, when my spine crumbled and I lost exercise, when stress knocked me out of ketosis and head first into cupcakes, when post-surgical narcotics had a paradoxical effect and stole whole weeks of sleep, that my brain would come tumbling down.
The good news is that nothing catastrophic happened outside of my head. I was able to stay out of the hospital with the help of quick doctors, a good husband, lots of babysitters, friends, and an excellent therapist. I didn’t drain the bank account or fly off the roof. My kids got the truly fun parts of mania: fantastic tea parties, Build- A – Bear, the Lego store, and all the Muppet movies (except that creepy Treasure Island one. Yikes!) and several amazing babysitters who will stay with us for a season.
And in the end, we are all okay.
This is the brilliance of fighting mental illness out loud, with a crowd. Mine is not a secret battle. This is not a secret blog. I have help beyond fountain pens. My kids have help beyond Sesame Street. My husband has help beyond Bluebell Homemade Vanilla. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, visible and invisible and they are quick to swoop in, despite my comfort level, to intercede. I am not alone, out in the field.
My precise formula may have failed, but this one holds firm. And while these new medicines I’ve swallowed work their chemical magic (and yes, they are working!) I grow increasingly thankful that I have this skilled team fighting for me while I go back to just dealing with a bad back. Just a bad back. Which doesn’t seem as hard a pill to swallow.
Between all of my wildly inappropriate responses to completely appropriate behaviors, questions, lighting, flavors, sensations, looks, tones, and temperatures, I am trying to be nice. More than nice. I am trying to love.
Loving while disembodied by all the pills I’ve swallowed, while shaking and forgetting every third word, is hard. But I am trying. I am thanking my husband for ordinary tasks. I am hugging my children any moment the thought doesn’t undo me. I am using excessive emojis when texting my mother. I am accepting forgiveness as it is offered. I am accepting gluten free carrot cupcakes as they are served.
And while I do not think the pills are working, the cupcakes seem to be doing the trick.
The smile is real and the love is real and the fire is real. This sickness is just like the flu, a stubborn virus I am prone to, that knocks me out more than the average person and instead of snot I get whisper screaming in Target. When I talk about how hard it is to love, I do not mean to be in it, I mean to do the touching and the sounds and all the sensory bits of being flesh and blood. When my brain goes haywire, that is the part that is hard. Those people in our family photo, they are not hard, just look at them.
So when you see me at church tomorrow, when I pass the peace, when I meet your smile as I limp back from communion, hauling my crew up the side aisle, know that all my love is right there, for real, or I would’ve spent my Sunday morning at The Steeping Room with the cupcakes.
Rachel Brown is married to the man she fell in love with in junior high. Together they've made three other people, Beatrice, Leona, and Harriet. They live with those people in a house near downtown Austin, Texas.
Rachel's blog is a story about manic depression, obesity, motherhood, God, marriage, and fountain pens. You cand find it here: mosesface (www.mosesface.com)
The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Exodus 33:11
Jesus gave us a litany of last words as a Sufferer; we refer to them as the Seven Last Words of christ. The deathbed words of the Suffering Servant provide a framework for the stories o lament we share here this Holy Week.
I count it a high privilege to know -- at least in small part -- the mourning stories of the dear ones who will share here for seven days. Their lives walk the path between celebration, yes, but also suffering -- illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, death of loved ones, death of dearly-held dreams. Their stories have helped form me in my understanding of suffering and I believe they could also encourage you too.