It was my third time, I could now “officially” refer to myself as a “frequent flyer.” I knew the intake nurse, could name a number of the security guards, and knew the full names of every nurse working the psychiatric wing at Baptist hospital. More upsetting, was that not enough time had passed between now and my last visit. These same nurses knew me. Oddly, they welcomed me back to the unit with all pomp and circumstance of “your ride home from the airport after a short vacation.” There was nothing wrong with my legs, but I was wheeled into the unit. I’d already surrendered my dignity somewhere in the Emergency Room. Stripped and searched for contraband or anything that could remotely be fashioned into a weapon was confiscated. For my trouble, I received a threadbare hospital gown and a pair of those no-slip grip socks one size too small. A nurse confirmed that I was a priority, what with me wanting to off myself. Ironic, I was a priority and yet spent a day and half behind “Curtain 3” with what I suppose was a volunteer security guard to make sure I didn’t harm myself. There I go rambling on, back to the psych wing and my most recent visit. “So, what is this like your third visit with us?” asked the unit secretary, a noticeably plump middle-aged woman of color. Visit? One of the most disturbing sounds that I have ever heard is the buzz and clank of the locks on the only doors in to and out of the unit. While you’re not a prisoner, you sure as hell aren’t a visitor. Visitors can leave. Visitors decide when and what they eat. Visitors see their family. The buzz and clank sent a shock up my body. I began to sweat from anxiety. My heart was racing. My mind desperately trying to guess how long I might be in for this time. The aforementioned plump unit secretary was droning on reading me the psychiatric ward equivalent to the Miranda Rights. I was searched, again, like I could mule something in wearing a hospital gown. I was shown to my room, I’m praying it is a single occupancy. Misery may love company, but even in my state I didn’t want to share that misery with an equally depressed roommate. In my last stay I bunked with Tom who had a penchant for smoking weed and asking far too many probing questions. Plus, Tom snored. I was given a room, no roommate. Yes! No sooner than I’d sighed with relief when the head nurse walks in explaining how he would have no qualms sedating and restraining me were I to cause him any trouble. “Would you like to see the ‘Quiet Room?’” he asked. “No, y’all showed me that padded cell the last time I was here.” I said. He “urged” me not to refer to it as a “cell” as it could upset other residents. Stripped of my clothing, left in a cold sterile room, I felt the first surge of pain and panic from withdrawal. “Great!” I thought, “Bring on the sweats and shakes!” No more benzos, no more codeine. It was then dusk and my cold sterile room looked all the more empty. I cried. My heart raced. I sweated through my clothes, I mean soaked. I twitched uncontrollably. I screamed myself hoarse. Alone. Cut-off from my family and friends. No more distractions, just my depression. I prayed in those wordless groans Paul mentioned to the Romans. I cried out to Mother Mary, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for this sinner, now and at what feels like the hour of his death.” I prayed to Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents…anybody, “Just rouse God! Make that bastard do something damn it!” I searched the room for a means to kill myself. Nothing! Damn! And so I sweated, I shook. I cried. I groaned. I prayed as one who had lost hope. There in that cold sterile room wrapped in a sheet shivering, I quit. I gave up. I considered that if there is even a God to hear my prayers that that God wasn’t keen on answering. By then it was my fourth year living with severe clinical depression. I thought, “If there was even a God to answer me, how could that God be all loving and all powerful and not act to free me from this disease?” Further, I considering those who had experienced far worse than I. Such thoughts didn’t help. “Or is it you’re all-loving, but not all-powerful? You love me, but are as helpless as I am to get rid of the Noonday Demon.” This too offered no comfort. Each night for 6 weeks, through withdrawal, through sweats, through shakes, through aches, through pains, through group therapy, through electroshock, through new drug therapies I still found myself each night wrapped in a sheet shivering in my cold sterile, thankfully-single-occupancy room sitting cross-legged yelling obscenities and blasphemies at a heaven I was certain was as empty as my cold sterile single-occupancy room.
My stay at Baptist was not quite 40 days, but it was most definitely in the desert. I tried, still am, to find some meaning, some purpose, some reason for suffering. (Some reason beyond biology and pharmacology. It feels like trying to discern order and reason when looking at the shadows the sun casts through a forest canopy on the ground below.) This is the point in the story where this preacher should begin to share how God broke in and changed it all. This is the point where I should share how “I surrendered all.” I should share some Come-to-Jesus moment, complete with the requisite altar call. Well, this preacher, if I can even claim that title, is not given to flights of fiction. This preacher detests dishonest diatribes. Its been a year and though I don’t shake, I don’t sweat, I don’t ache, I’m not in pain and I’m no longer sitting cross-legged on a hospital bed in my thankfully-single-occupancy cold sterile room; I’m still very much in the desert. I still hurl obscenities and blasphemies at the heavens. And if there is to be a come-to-Jesus-moment, a closing-hymn-surrender-all-altar call moment, I can’t see it listed in the metaphoric single-fold bulletin in my mind. So, I’m in the desert where I’m becoming increasingly at-home.
Lent, 40 days, and metaphoric deserts…my hope is that I might find others in these barren places. My hope is that I can learn about another’s desert. My hope is that someone comes along to shatter what I know to be a self-imposed illusion that I’m all alone. I wait hoping to be proven wrong about the God that I hurl so many insults, obscenities, and blasphemies at. In my hurling, I often consider the very nature of God. God as a mother who “gathers her chicks under her wings,…” (Matthew 23:37) Though I struggle with the notion of all-powerful, I have no doubts about God’s capacity to love. How is that even possible?
When Summer and I adopted Sophie, we had nothing in the way of experience caring for a baby. Summer had done her share of babysitting and I had a sister three-years-my-younger. In short, we weren’t prepared when it came to caring for a three-month-old while sequestered in a Hanoi hotel room, not knowing a word of Vietnamese, and the kid had what we later discovered to be Scarlet Fever. She, literally, bleated like a goat because of this fever. She sweated. She shook. We dosed out her medicine. We fed her when she’d eat. We held her gently even when her little arms and legs struggled for all they were worth. I have never held on to someone with such great care and matched strength. Neither Summer of I were letting go of this baby. She could scream her little head right off her little body…we weren’t throwing in the towel. There was never a thought in either of our heads to give up. It didn’t matter what that child did, we loved her and that love was greater than anything she could do. When I first held my Sophie, my first words to her were “I will always love you” and “I will always want you.” Fast-Forward eight years and I say those words to her each day. Every…day. You could fast-forward to my last day on this earth and even if it were my last breath, I’d use it to tell that girl “I will always love you” and “I will always want you.”
So, it’s Lent, day 2 of 40 by my count. Over these 40 days, I want to learn about others’ experiences of the desert. Let us together reason about such experiences while sharing our expectations. Let us both shout at God and comfort each other as we hope for a response. Let us all find comfort that no matter the depths of the desert or the perceived distance of God…no matter what we say…no matter what we do…no matter our struggle…we are met by one who loves us and will be around when sand turns to fertile sod. If God is capable of even the love I have for my daughter, that God will still be around with open arms ready to embrace any one of us who have become at home in the desert.
Lord, open unto me… Open unto me — light for my darkness. Open unto me — courage for my fear. Open unto me — hope for my despair. Open unto me — peace for my turmoil. Open unto me — joy for my sorrow. Open unto me — strength for my weakness. Open unto me — wisdom for my confession. Open unto me — forgiveness for my sins. Open unto me — love for my hates. Open unto me — thy Self for my self. Lord, Lord, open unto me! Amen. (“Lord, Open Unto Me,” Howard Thurman)
– The Rev. Chris Henson, 2015