My friend thinks I should write a book called "Twelve Days in the Loonie Bin". Pretty catchy title, isn't it?
You see, although they are politically incorrect, I feel I am allowed to use phrases like "loonie bin" and "nut-house" because I did indeed spend some time there. It's a vulnerable thing to share this information. As much as we are growing and changing as a society and body of believers, there is still stigma about mental illness. If I had been hospitalized for 12 days for my asthma or for knee surgery, there would be a lot less shame, many fewer misconceptions, and I certainly wouldn't be writing this! But I wanted to share a bit of my experience - if nothing else, to put a human face on one of the more weighty labels - "mentally ill", and to share some of my holy moments there.
I knew it was happening and I saw it coming. Major Depressive Disorder runs in my family. It kindly skipped my brothers and landed with the force of an ocean liner on me. I walked through a lot of my life feeling like I was wearing a lead x-ray apron. Heaviness. After a traumatizing event in the fall and the death of my beloved father-in-law two days later, I found myself sliding down. I knew it was happening, but - not wanting to be attention-demanding or high maintenance and aware that my husband and family were struggling enough with the recent death - I didn't mention it to anyone. Dark days and sleepless nights turned into plans of suicide and a tearful admission of this to a trusted friend, who accompanied me to emergency to be admitted to inpatient psychiatry where I spent the next twelve days.
What could possibly be holy about a psychiatric unit? - one might ask. Well, I kept a journal and wrote every day and as I read it now, months later, I am struck by the number of times I wrote "this is a holy moment". First, there was something truly refreshing to me about being among those who have hit the bottom. It is refreshing because the masks and self-imposed but fraudulent personas created and clung to in order to appear "okay" to the world are gone. Here are people who have come face-to-face with the reality of their pain and brokenness and yet the terror and horror and pain of their inner lives are not enough to slay them. Here is a desperate courage, an inspiring stubbornness not to give up.
In my experience, people who end up in psych wards are (despite how it may appear) clinging to LIFE, and so whether they realize it or not, are - through velcro-close hospital pyjamas, caged windows and med calls - fighting because something in them knows that life is worth it. I have never met anyone (myself included) who really wanted to die. I have only met people (myself included) who feared they could not live with the pain. But at least within those walls, Truth reigned - there was no pride, no ego, no hiding, only Truth. It is amazing what can happen in a broken community infused with Truth.
Second, the holiness of unconditional relationship and love sprouted its head even in the soil of my cynicism. From the bottom of my pit, I told my husband: "I don't care what you tell people about where I am, tell them the truth, I am sick of hiding." He did. And I did, too. And people came. Friends came, co-workers came, priests came. People I had previously considered only acquaintances swallowed their fear of the unknown and walked down the hall that echoes with muffled cries and manic laughter to my room to sit in silence or tears with me. One friend spent 4 hours in silence colouring with me. Those were holy moments. Holier than the glistening pew or the ornate altar, holier than the award-winning choir or the perfect 3-point sermon - holier than anything I have heard or read or sung.
Third, perhaps the most moving memory I have of those 12 days was the evening I was brought the Eucharist. Most Wednesdays I share in the Eucharist at the Synod Office. Two days after I was admitted, on a Wednesday, a priest came with what I called "leftovers" (and later was informed is technically called "reserve sacrament!). Another priest and two of my friends joined us. Not being allowed visitors in the rooms on the ward, we set up in the common area amidst rocking psychotics, paranoid schizophrenics and weepy depressives to share in the most basic and yet profound of traditions - the sharing of food. Sacrament. Body. Blood. Hope. Truth. It was a truly holy moment. I wrote later that I knew no better or appropriate place to share this sacrament. Broken for the broken.
Many people were shocked when they heard I struggle with depression, and that I spent time in inpatient psychiatry. I have spent a lot of energy over the course of my life being ashamed of it, hiding it, putting on a happy face so as not to make anyone uncomfortable and so people would like me - fearing they wouldn't if they knew I had this "mental illness". In fact, I think that trying to hide it actually contributed to it. But if I learned nothing else from my beautiful and brave fellow patients, it is that Truth is a gift - to myself and to those who care about me. I learned that there is freedom in saying "I am not always strong", that tears are beautiful, that I am not less wonderful or more high maintenance than anyone else. I am alive.
I may have a mental illness, but I am me, and I can experience holiness in the fullest of ways...
...even in the loonie bin.
Melanie Wallace is the Diocesan Archivist. Illustration by Mary Jane Muir