My mom thinks she can pinpoint my first hysterical reaction to the concept of death. I was four, and had trotted up to the front of the church for the children’s sermon, that beloved part of the service when children get to be particularly adorable. At the time, our family attended a very old, forbidding church with a dearth of children, and children’s sermons were often just me, my brother, and the red-faced, alcoholic pastor. On this occasion he was explaining death and resurrection in his own inimitable way: “When you have a seed from a dead plant, you have to bury it in the ground so it can live again. And when people die, you have to bury them in the ground so God can bring them back to life.” I ran back to my parents, sobbing inconsolably.
I remember a later incident as the beginning of my fear of death. I was ten. We had just returned from a trip and, jet-lagged, I was the only one awake in the house at four in the morning. Nothing set it off. I just began to think, “I’m going to die.” Not imminently, but someday. And there was absolutely no getting out of it. I felt like I was falling, faster and faster, with nothing to stop me, and I was aware of an overwhelming, crushing sense of nothingness.
I prayed. Harder than I ever had before. “Please God make it stop, please God make it stop,” over and over again. It did not stop. But I kept praying, with the fervor of the desperate. Looking back now, I can see that it was my first panic attack.
Depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, anorexia: a lot for a twelve-year-old girl to be saddled with, but God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle, right? (This is possibly one of the most horrendous things you can tell a person dealing with these issues.) It’s shifted over the years, risen and ebbed, but mental instability has been a constant in my life. Add a little self-harm, possible borderline personality disorder, and you’ve summed up my psychiatric files for the last twenty years or so. And tangled up in all of it is God.
Christian history is teeming with mad girls, and girls who could at least pass as mad. Catherine of Siena pursued a punishing regime of fasting, and once drank someone’s cancerous pus in the interest of overcoming her revulsion. Simone Weil also fasted excessively, which possibly contributed to her death. Elizabeth Barton and Joan of Arc had their visions. There was a Saint Fina who reportedly remained devoted to God even though she was so impoverished and ill that her body began to meld with her wooden pallet. Often frail from fasting, faithful to the point of death, none of these women made it to 35.
My own troubles came from a combination of factors: genetic predisposition for mental illness, strict ballet classes, a horror of anything sexual, and the aforementioned fear of death — which my confused child’s mind thought I could trick my way out of by remaining a child in a child’s body. When I was 11, my mom ordered a package from Kotex that was meant to help your more-than-usually-skittish adolescent girl get used to the idea of getting her period. I proceeded to wail myself hoarse for a good three hours, saying over and over that I wouldn’t do it; it wasn’t going to happen to me. Around that time I would lay in bed fantasizing about cutting off my breasts with a kitchen knife.
I was raised Lutheran. My great-grandfather, my uncle, my godfather — all ministers. Church was routine, as bland as the vanilla ring cookies we ate off our fingers in Vacation Bible School after making ships out of apples, toothpicks, Kraft singles, and enough mini marshmallows to sink the Pequod. Sure, I believed in God; I was a good girl who did what my parents told me to. I liked pretending I was the Virgin Mary, with a sheet over my head and a naked baby doll I had to sing to sleep. I had a picture Bible that I loved, which looked like it was drawn by the cartoonist who did Mary Worth or Rex Morgan, MD. I was particularly drawn to its portrayal of Jezebel, who I thought was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
Lutheranism is the grimmest of the Protestant sects. All the unimpressed people in “Babette’s Feast”? Lutheran. My favorite hymn growing up was called “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” In keeping with that Lutheran upbringing, I have always been an Old Testament girl. Things are clear-cut in the Old Testament. You fuck up, you get punished, boom. Absalom was vain and his hair was too nice; those luscious locks snagged him in a tree and then it was darts through the heart. David wanted Bathsheba so he arranged for the battle death of her husband; result: dead baby.
On the other hand, if Old Testament God likes you, he gives you the stuff on your wish list. Gideon isn’t sure he wants to do what God wants him to do, so he asks for some miracles involving a piece of wool. And he promptly gets them. Thanks, God, case closed!
At the same time, though, I long for a sweet-tempered New Testament God. You know how in a Disney movie a bigger character will pat the head of someone small and they will sort of bounce happily? I want a God like that. A distinct image would always come into my head when I said my childhood prayers: It was nighttime, and I was crouched in the street looking up the hill to my house. And the house was lit up and warm. That’s what God felt like to me. Or what I wanted him to feel like.
I have asked for miracles. I have begged for them on my knees, or curled in a fetal position. I have apologized and bargained, I have threatened and I have punished myself before God had a chance to get his hands on me.
Sometimes all I want is just the smallest sign, the smallest bit of comfort, the tiniest proof that God is there, somewhere, and doesn’t hate me. I think what I am looking for is the combination of words that unlocks my mental illness, that makes it go away or at least makes it manageable. Maybe this is why I continue to believe: Because I feel God in my head, and that means God knows how it feels.
My mind is like a wound you have to pack with gauze. If I cram it full of nonsense, nothing scary can get in. Sometimes pictures flash through my mind as I am falling asleep, but they go too fast for me to see, a slideshow wildly out of control. But I can’t let it stop. Every day I am replaying one line of a song ad nauseum, or I am running through the first disc of RENT because I know all the words and it will keep me busy. If I’m watching a movie, I am also knitting or looking at gruesome medical pictures on Figure 1. I have daydreams full of plane crashes and fires and stabbings wherein I am injured but still manage to save several people and look attractive while doing it and all the people who do not realize they love me finally realize they do and profess their love for me in the emergency room.
And I pray. I pray constantly, almost unconsciously. It’s not a structured prayer — I try to do that at night, and I usually fall asleep in the middle, right after I ask for forgiveness for the same things I always ask forgiveness for. But an awful lot of my thoughts are just me talking at God. Imagine Morrissey singing “Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want” at someone, and starting again at the beginning once he reaches the end.
I’ve always had the belief that all of this is my fault, everything that I’ve experienced while at the mercy of my own brain. I believe in a sort of Old Testament karma, only as it applies to me. If something bad happens to me, I will scour the past to find the cause of the effect. I haven’t been as kind as I should. I’ve been selfish and greedy and mean. I do not have enough faith. If I did, I could throw away the pills. I could recycle the forms I send to the insurance company for reimbursement of 60% of my therapist bill. I could forget where I keep the razor blade. Why won’t God fix me? Why should he fix me? I have never done anything to deserve it.
I know that the Hallmark Channel version of Christianity isn’t how life works; that being good doesn’t mean good things will happen to you; that suffering will not be alleviated just because you followed the rules. I know that in the grand scheme of things, the ineptitude of my neurotransmitters doesn’t entitle me to bragging rights in the misery hall of fame. I have a roof over my head, enough food to eat, and enough money to occasionally binge on a Zara sale. But God, it feels pretty low to weep in front of a kindly old Christian therapist, trying to get the point across that you don’t think you can take it anymore; that this feels like dying and all you want is to be permanently asleep and — then he draws you a chart to show you why things aren’t going to get better unless you really let go of your problems and let God have them.
In “Darkness Visible,” William Styron wrote of his own experience with depression: “It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.” On a good day I agree with him. But often I wish I had no hope, because for years people have been telling me it’s going to get better and it never has. While I wonder how someone can really look me in the eye and tell me that, there is still that small mad twinkle of hope that I cannot fucking kill, as hard as I have tried. I could struggle along without hope somehow if I knew this was the way things were always going to be, but could I still believe in a God who would let me limp along like that, half-believing that I will be okay?
I often seek refuge in signs and symbols. I blew off all the seeds on the dandelion after detailing very explicit instructions about my wish! I asked for a definite sign I’m making the right choice and someone smiled at me and I am going to run with that! I had a happy dream! Horoscopes are meaningless and yet mine said something good was going to happen and I can’t wait! This could be why I am drawn to the trappings of Catholicism. Candles make me feel better. I’ve never tried a novena because I don’t want to be disappointed when it doesn’t work, but I like the sentiment. The only saint I ever pray to is Saint Anthony, and only because my (also non-Catholic) mom swears by it when you’re looking for something you’ve lost.
If there is one thing Christians like, it’s having a favorite Bible verse that you can trot out and say how much it means to you — how it got you through this hard time and always makes you feel so safe. I have an immense capacity in my brain for my favorite quotes, but Bible verses rarely stick. I do like any verse that says if you ask for something, you will get it because God loves you. I like to read these verses and look reproachfully at the ceiling, as if to say Well? I thought you were supposed to love me. Let’s see a little proof. I’ll wait. But I do have a fondness for John 14:18: “No, I will not abandon you or leave you as orphans in the storm — I will come to you.” (It’s entirely possible I’m only fond of it because in Brideshead Revisited Charles says to Julia, “Where can we hide in fair weather, we orphans of the storm?” right after they have sex on the ocean liner.)
I wonder, often, whether mental illness and the way I handle it has made my faith stronger or weaker. I vacillate on the answer from day to day. Henri Nouwen, the only priest I ever want to quote, and who also suffered from depression, once wrote: “Our efforts to disconnect ourselves from our own suffering end up disconnecting our suffering from God’s suffering for us. The way out of our loss and hurt is in and through.” That is the absolute antithesis of what I want to do. But maybe hiding my troubles from myself, from others, from God, is not the way forward.
As terrible as it might feel to bring it all to the surface, be present with the awfulness instead of pushing it away, maybe Nouwen is right. Maybe I have to hold it and stare at it and own it, and maybe that’s what will bring me that long sought measure of peace, with myself and with the God I believe in. Or, as Anne Sexton summed it up in “Rowing”:
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.
Bio: Molly Pohlig works in academic publishing and knits too much. She is also tweeting her way through Proust.