Zelophehad’s Daughters

Unraveling

Posted by Lynnette

I have long been wary of Ether 12:27, with its assertion that “if men [and women] come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.” My response has generally been along the lines of, actually, I’m all too aware of my many weaknesses. So thanks, but no thanks—if this is what God is up to, I’m better off keeping my distance.

But in the past year, I have had occasion to re-think this interpretation. Last year, on a Monday morning at the end of July, I went to therapy in a somewhat dazed state. The day before, I’d flown back across the country after attending my friend Seraphine’s wedding. The plane had mechanical trouble, ended up diverting to Chicago, and as a result got into LAX too late to connect with any flights up to the Bay Area. I ended up spending the night in LA, and only slept for two hours, if that. But skipping therapy wasn’t an option. My therapist was already concerned about my emotional state, and I’d only been allowed to go to the wedding on the condition that I promise not to hurt myself, and that I come talk to her as soon as I got back.

Given this, I can’t say that I was completely surprised when she told me she was doing a 5150. (In California, this refers to an involuntary hospitalization which is carried out when you are deemed to be a danger to either yourself or others.) But it seemed a bit surreal. I’d never been hospitalized before, not even for a physical ailment. And there I was, in the mundane setting of a therapist’s office, waiting for the paramedics to take me away. They strapped me on a gurney, put me in an ambulance, and took me to a psych ward.

It had been a difficult summer. I graduated that spring with a PhD, and the excitement of that accomplishment slowly wore off as I had to confront the reality of a brutal academic job market, and serious uncertainty about what I was going to do next. Stress is a major trigger for depression for me, and I found myself slipping further and further into a black hole, unable to see any possible way out. I had been in grad school for years and years, and the loss of that identity left me shaky. The constant self-criticism for not being able to get my act together only intensified the despair I was feeling. I knew that at times in the past life had felt worth living, but I was having a harder and harder connecting with that experience. I was ready to quit. I was seeing two therapists, and both were increasingly concerned. The 5150 was the culmination of this relentless trajectory downward.

Because there were no beds available elsewhere, they initially put me in the geriatrics unit. Without my cell phone or internet access, I had no means of communicating with the outside world, and the other patients were so low-functioning that it was difficult to talk much to them. I felt desperately alone. I spent most of the day exhausted but unable to sleep, crying and crying. They’d taken away most of my possessions, but I finally got a pen and a paper, and it helped a little to be able to write, to attempt to put language to what was happening. But it didn’t stop the torrents of emotion, the frustration, the anger. How could this help, I wondered. How could this possibly help.

Fortunately, the first day was the worst. The next day they transferred me to a unit for mood and eating disorders, both of which have been challenges in my life, and it was good to meet other people who were facing similar struggles. On the whole, the staff were kind and caring, and as the days went on, I slowly adapted to life on the ward. We had only one computer, but it was a huge relief to have even limited internet access, and to be able check in with my family and a number of friends. One of the staff kindly retrieved my cell phone long enough to let me copy off the numbers so that I could use the phones on the unit to call people. And somewhat to my surprise, I had visitors nearly every night. My siblings, scattered in other states and unable to visit, sent me a variety of packages. I was deeply touched and somewhat amazed by the amount of support.

When I had imagined mental hospitals in the past, I think I had had some idea of a convalescence that involved lying in bed and reading a lot. But the reality was that they kept us quite busy, with a variety of groups: drama therapy, assertiveness training, art therapy, process groups, relapse prevention. Some of them seemed ridiculous to me, but others were actually quite helpful. I acquired more and more books from my visitors, but I was so tired at the end of the day that I didn’t have the focus to read them. The emotional work was intense.

I have some good memories of that hospital, especially involving the people I met there–hanging out in the evenings when we had some free time, listening to each other cry, and at times laughing hysterically because what else can you do? But there were also things that were just hard. I’d been in for over a week before I got walk privileges, and when I finally got to leave the building, it was amazing to see the outside world, to remember that it was still there. I frequently argued with the psychiatrist treating me, whom I felt jumped to conclusions and labeled me without really knowing me. I found myself hysterically crying more than once. I missed simple things, like privacy (we got checked on every 15 to 30 minutes, including during the night), hot showers (they were lukewarm at best), unrestricted internet access, and the simple privilege of going where I wanted, when I wanted. Still, when I finally got out after two and a half weeks, it was more than a little disorienting.

And that wasn’t the end of the story. Since then I’ve been 5150’d on two other occasions, once at the end of last September, and once more recently, about a month ago. They were in different places—once back on the geriatrics ward, but this time for days; and once in a different hospital, much more corporate-feeling and bleaker than the first. Both experiences were utterly miserable, with few redeeming factors. They did accomplish their primary purpose, to keep me safe: safe from myself, from my own demons. But in both cases, I got out as quickly as I could.

One of the most frustrating aspects of where I was last summer was that, as people constantly pointed out, I had so much going for me. I’d achieved a lot—I’d finished a PhD. I clearly had supportive family and friends. But there was a black hole of despair that I simply couldn’t shake. In the end, it took a meds change to take the edge off of that darkness. But meds are hard to take, and not just because of potential side effects. Despite everything, I have a hard time believing that I need them. I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder over a decade ago, and I don’t know that I’ve ever really come to terms with that. Often I think I’m a fraud. No matter how many professionals confirm the diagnosis, I find it difficult to accept.

And in the past year, I have repeatedly come back to questions of identity, and my sense of self. What does it mean about me that I have have been hospitalized three times in the space of a year? It has made it much harder to cling to the illusion that I am self-sufficient, that I don’t need help from anyone. Perhaps the most jarring realization has in fact been that a lot of people care what happens to me, and that I cannot pretend that I am disconnected from the human race, and my choices do not affect the people around me. But also that people will be there if I give them a chance, to a much greater extent than I had imagined. In my last, most awful, trip to the hospital, visiting hours were what kept me sane.

And I have thought a lot about grace. Theologians sometimes talk about grace in terms of brokenness, in terms of unraveling. That term captures what the past year has been like for me. And so I come back to Ether 12:27: “I give unto [people] weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all [those] that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” Encounters with radical limitation, with the ways in which I am broken, have not been easy, but there is also something liberating about being able to drop the pretense that I am okay, that I can do this on my own. And I wonder if this scripture is less of an attack, or a grim warning—as I have tended to see it—but rather something similar to the way in which my friends affectionately remind me that yes, I do have bipolar disorder, that it is a chronic condition that is not going to magically disappear, and that I really do have to take my meds. It makes me think of a God who does not leave us alone in our weakness, or condemn us for it, but is willing to meet us there in order to help and heal. I am reminded that grace is not only about breaking us down, but also remaking us—as Isaiah puts it, “bind[ing] up the broken-hearted and proclaim[ing] liberty to the captives.” (Isaiah 61:1)

Admittedly, all of this can be cold comfort at 3:00 AM when I do not think the darkness will abate. I still feel at loose ends. I am only beginning to recover from my latest bout of depression. I long for certainty about where I am going, and I hate being in limbo. I am slowly trying to put back together the pieces of my identity, of my life, but all too often any pattern eludes me. I am not always sure what keeps me going. It is not faith, exactly, and I am not sure I would describe it as hope. It is more like a sense there just might something to be said for giving life a chance. It is a faint memory of something different. It is Mary Oliver reminding me, in her poem “Wild Geese”: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely / the world offers itself to your imagination.” It is a resistance, no matter how small, to despair.

49 Responses to “Unraveling”

  1. 1.

    I wished for death often
    but now that I am at its door
    I have changed my mind about the world.
    It should go on; it is beautiful,
    even as a dream, filled with water and seed,
    plants and animals, others like myself,
    ships and buildings and messages
    filling the air—a beauty,
    if ever I have seen one.
    In the next world, should I remember
    this one, I will praise it
    above everything.

    David Ignatow

  2. 2.

    I’m so sorry to hear of your hard year. Thanks for sharing your experiences so eloquently and beautifully.
    It’s strange – I went through my own mini-crisis last year after turning in my dissertation. Therapy helped a lot, but it was an unsettling experience to feel so out of control. I guess I have difficulties owning my own imperfection…

    Anyway, all the best, and sending warm thoughts your way.

  3. 3.

    Wow, Lynnette. Thanks for posting this — it’s really incredible.

    Several parts really resonated:

    “I had so much going for me. . . . But there was a black hole of despair that I simply couldn’t shake.”

    Wow. It’s a devastatingly clear picture.

    And the line

    “Encounters with radical limitation, with the ways in which I am broken, have not been easy, but there is also something liberating about being able to drop the pretense that I am okay, that I can do this on my own.”

    is one of the most profound things I’ve read in ages.

    Thanks for this post. It’s really incredible.

    (Also — you went to the hospital three times in a year and came out with a set of amazing insights? Wow. I am in awe of your ability to put this all together and emerge from the experience with something beautiful. It reminds me of the line from the Shawshank Redemption, about crawling through a mile of shit to come out clean and free on the other side.)

  4. 4.

    Thank you so much for this post. Your description of mental illness is deeply familiar, tender and poignant.
    I had 4 weeks in hospital with my 14 month old 1st child, after finally being diagnosed with post partum depression. There are things I learned about myself in that setting I may never have learned any other way. The skills I learned have been honed over the subsequent 13/14 years.
    Honestly If my insurance status had allowed for it, I’d have had hospitalizations at other stages, to do medication change overs and focused therapy, but it wasn’t an option, so I’ve struggled through without that support.
    I both love and loathe that scripture reference. I’d love my weaknesses to be made strong, but the price of revealing them, even to myself at times, is very high. I feel sometimes that taking my weaknesses to God, telling my Heavenly Parents my pain just puts me at risk of deeper pain, but I am striving to give my pain to them, and be strengthened by their support, letting them carry me. My keep trying muscle is definitely stronger…
    Thank you again for sharing

  5. 5.

    This is so honest and raw. You must have mulled this over again and again before deciding to post it. Thank you. So much of what you express here is achingly familiar – especially the part about feeling like a fraud. Being bipolar is tricky and disorienting. I take comfort knowing you have found some peace in gaining self-awareness, and, perhaps, a hope for hope? From the ashes rises the fledgling Phoenix…

  6. 6.

    Lynette, although I enjoy the doctrinal and theological discussions of the bloggernacle, it is posts such as this which we keep me around: they open a window into a world I often know all too little about and demand that I change. Thank you.

  7. 7.

    Ditto what Aaron R. said, Lynette. Thanks for this brave post. May grace and healing be yours.

  8. 8.

    This is one of the most beautiful and valuable things for me that I’ve read on the internet. Thank you for sharing your story.

    ” It makes me think of a God who does not leave us alone in our weakness, or condemn us for it, but is willing to meet us there in order to help and heal. I am reminded that grace is not only about breaking us down, but also remaking us—as Isaiah puts it, “bind[ing] up the broken-hearted and proclaim[ing] liberty to the captives.” (Isaiah 61:1)”
    I can so relate…

  9. 9.

    thank you.

  10. 10.

    Wow. Thanks for this brutally honest, beautiful, and brave post, Lynette.

  11. 11.

    Yes, what Aaron R. said. Depression and its many cousins is much more prevalent among us than we might suspect, even for those who understand how prevalent it is. Posts like these can sometimes actually save lives, in a number of different ways. Your pain and your courage in speaking out about it both make me weep.

  12. 12.

    Very touching. I just want to let you know how much I love you Lynnette! Keep fighting the good fight! You’re in my prayers.

  13. 13.

    Very brave of you to post this. Thanks for sharing. It should be mandatory reading for every church leader who might deal with a person who suffers from depression.

  14. 14.

    Thank you for giving eloquent voice to what so many of us experience to varying degrees at different points in our lives. Too often the unimaginably terrible pain is only exacerbated by the inability, for whatever reason, to express it fully. Expressions such as yours helps to bridge the gap to comprehension.

  15. 15.

    I’m so sorry for your annus horribilis. I’m glad you felt you could share this with us. My own daughter suffers from depression, and I really admire how open she is about it, which I think is a healthy thing. This isn’t 1950 anymore, and there is no shame in suffering from these kinds of problems. I love you and wish nothing but the best for you.

  16. 16.

    All best, Lynette. And thanks for your openness.

  17. 17.

    Oh, Lynnette. I don’t know what to say, but I am so so glad that the 5150 did it’s job and kept you with us.

    I recently was speaking with a close friend that was diagnosed with Bipolar I in 2003. Her hospitalization at that time was horrible, and it was only now, nearly 10 years later, that she finally is able to articulate it. Listening to that experience was heart-rending and yet another reminder of how much further we have to go in our mental health care.

    I’m so glad your first experience was positive and I can only imagine the other two.

    “Often I think I’m a fraud. No matter how many professionals confirm the diagnosis, I find it difficult to accept.” I’m so glad I’m not the only one that struggles with this. Every time I have a depressive episode (MDD) it surprises me. I know when I am slipping, yet I never expect it to go so low, despite having been there before.

    Thank you, Lynnette. And take those meds! :)

  18. 18.

    Lynette, thank you so much for sharing your difficult and personal experiences with mental illness with us. It’s incredibly brave of you, and I love your description at the end of why you hang out:

    “It is more like a sense there just might something to be said for giving life a chance. It is a faint memory of something different. It is Mary Oliver reminding me, in her poem “Wild Geese”: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely / the world offers itself to your imagination.” It is a resistance, no matter how small, to despair.”

    I just love it…the world offering itself to us to be used and thought about in a million different ways…that’s a beautiful picture of how mortal life is if we all but embrace it.

  19. 19.

    Lynette, this post is beautiful. Quite the liberation, dropping the pretense that you are okay and can do this on your own. That lie may take a hell of a lot of work to refute, but it’s worth the effort. Thank you for sharing.

  20. 20.

    Such a heart-wrenching story. I will be marinating on this for a long while, I think. Thank you for your bravery.

  21. 21.

    I have seen this from the other side. My wife had to be hospitalized several times, including two Christmases in a row. One facility she went to did such a good job of helping her recover that I almost wished that she could go in more often, just for a tune-up. I have found those hospitals both sad and hopeful places–sad that life’s circumstances got her there, and hopeful because she got visibly stronger while she was there.

    I am glad that it helped you, and that you gained such remarkable insight.

  22. 22.

    I love you, Lynnette. Your strength makes me hopeful, despite myself.

  23. 23.

    Thank you for sharing this difficult experience. Best wishes.

  24. 24.

    I needed this. Thank you.

  25. 25.

    Love yer guts, Lynnette. Truly. The world is a better place because you are in it.

  26. 26.

    thank you for speaking up about this, Lynette. I am convinced that more people than we could know experience similar things. And not hearing each others’ stories reinforces the feeling of fraudulence and isolation. I’ve been there before, on the edge of that black pit of despair, feeling like an utter fraud and like no one would even notice if I was gone. I was wrong. On both counts. But in the moment, I was sure I was right. Fortunately I had a good doctor and a strong network of friends and family who helped me through it. But it helps to know that there are others who have found their way through that darkness, too, even if haltingly and with great struggle.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Please know that you are loved and admired and needed. I’m so glad you have found your way through this last year. I hope that you continue to find your way forward.

  27. 27.

    I know we don’t know each other very well, but I do live near you and want to offer any company you might need. Even though we’ve only seen each other a few times, I’m glad I know you.

  28. 28.

    I’ve been a bit overwhelmed trying to figure out what to say. I did some second-guessing about posting something like this, especially given that I’m still very much in the middle of trying to process it, and it’s still all rather raw. So your kind words and support really mean a lot to me.

    Another thing that occurred to me about Ether 12:27, which has has haunted me since I had to memorize it as a teenager, is how easy it is to assume that revealing one’s weaknesses is simply opening the door to criticism. But my experience is that often we love each other for our vulnerabilities as much as our strengths. And seeing that play out in my relationships with other humans gives me a somewhat different perspective on my relationship to God–and as I said in the post, a different sense of what this verse might mean.

    In any case, thank you, all of you.

  29. 29.

    I liked how you were able to reprise ” a lot of people care what happens to me” to God.

    As it says in some literature I read a while back, “it is weakness, not strength, that binds us together” (more fully “the secret is weakness. It is weakness, not strength, that binds us to each other and to God”).

    Wish you the very best.

  30. 30.

    Thanks for this post. It can be easy to make vast generalizations about other people’s experiences; it’s more complicated when it happens to you or someone you love. It’s no longer so easy to make assumptions.

    Best of luck to you Lynnette on your journey to re-examine these expectations of yourself, and in figuring out what you need to move forward. Many people (including me) may have ideas but in the end what matters is what works for you.

  31. 31.

    The lesson that I am not self-sufficient has been a hard one for me too, especially since I want to be fully functioning, which is sometimes not the case. Thank-you for the beautiful reminder that self-sufficiency is not necessarily the ideal, and that our vulnerabilities and insufficiency open the door to the grace of (and connections with) others and God.

  32. 32.

    Lynette,

    You have a beautiful heart, and, fortunately for us, the ability to powerfully articulate what’s in that heart. I sincerely thank you for making yourself so vulnerable by sharing this post. Your words simultaneously inspire and haunt me.

    For me, a significant part of my healing process has been opening up and telling others (including God) what I really feel and think. I’m tired of pretending that I’m stronger than I am. It’s been liberating to say to the universe, this is me, take me or leave me, I really don’t care, I am who I am. I just am.

  33. 33.

    We love you Lynette! And your honesty and openness is inspiring.

  34. 34.

    It doesn’t seem right that someone so wonderful as you should go through something so terrible. I don’t even know you but you’ve made my life better through your always insightful writing. Looking forward to reading your insights for years to come.

  35. 35.

    Lynnette,
    Thank you for sharing this story and how you are currently dealing with your struggles with mental health and to see yourself the way the rest of us see you.
    This is timley for me because mother has been living with us for the last year and her depression is so bad that I wonder sometimes if she’s going to be alive when I come home. I think she wishes she could just get cancer and die. It’s not something that we talk about as a family or as a society, particuarly Mormon society. Still, sometimes I admit to seeing her depression as a weakness. I feel terrible about it, but I’m just not equipped to help her in the ways she needs help. So, to read your struggles with mental health gives me a new perspective on my mother. I see you as a brilliant, compassionate, thoughtful, salt of the earth person.

    Essentially, I feel more compassion for my mother because of reading your story. I also feel more resolve to reach out to her more often with my love and support.

    Thank you again for sharing. You always have my love and support.

  36. 36.

    Thank you for sharing this. I love and admire you so much, and I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through this.

  37. 37.

    I ended up linking to this post in mine at http://www.wheatandtares.org/2012/08/17/it-is-weakness-not-strength-that-binds-us-together-and-to-god/ — thank you.

  38. 38.

    Thanks again, everyone. Both for all the kind words, and for sharing some of your own experiences and insights. As I said in the post, it’s really an amazing thing to have so many caring people in my life. Thank you.

  39. 39.

    Lynette – I liked what you said about loving people as much for their weaknesses as their strengths. That’s true. When I think of people in my life of whom I know nothing of their problems, those are people with whom there is no intimacy.

    I will probably never meet you in real life, but I’ve really enjoyed your writing here for the past few years, and I appreciate what you’ve shared. The world is better with you in it.

  40. 40.

    Lynette, thank you isn’t adequate, but . . .

    My mother is schizophrenic, and none of us knew about it until a few years ago when her meds stopped working and everything fell apart for her. There is so much truth and beauty in this post for anyone – but it is especially poignant for those who struggle similarly and for those who love them.

    If I may share one personal experience:

    One week on a regular church assignment, I was asked last minute to speak in Sacrament Meeting (when the Branch President found out the speaker woke up sick that morning). The topic was faith, and the first two speakers gave heartfelt talks about how much better life is when faith is exercised.

    As I sat there listening and preparing my own talk, I was struck HARD by the clear feeling that there was at least one person in the congregation who was being hurt by that message – so I opened my talk by saying how much I appreciated the messages shared by the other speakers but that I felt impressed to share an experience I had once in giving a blessing to someone who, I learned later, suffered from depression. I won’t share those details here, but the point I shared in my talk is that there are people who hear the message, “Faith brings great blessings,” and, “Faith can overcome all and make everything better” and feel incredible guilt that it doesn’t happen that way in their lives – and that issues like depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. only exacerbate that reaction.

    I told the audience that if there was anyone in the congregation who was feeling that way at that time that I was going to talk about the companion counter-point to faith: grace. I then spent the remaining time talking about the 2nd Article of Faith and “the grace that so *fully* he proffers us”. After the meeting, a woman stopped me and told me she almost hadn’t gone to church that day – and that she almost had walked out during the other talks. She then told me that my talk had been a direct answer to a direct prayer that morning.

    It was one of the spiritual highlights of my life.

    This post brought that experience back to my mind, and I want to thank you for that.

    God bless you, and, as one of my favorite sayings goes, “May there be a road.”

  41. 41.

    Lynnette,
    Thanks for this post. I had a similar experience when I graduated with my BA and lost my sense of identity along with all of my favorite activities and most cherished communities–and faced the harsh reality of the job market. It’s a terribly difficult transition to make.

    While I’ve never been hospitalized, I’ve also struggled with mental illness for a number of years–anxiety since a child and depression since at least middle school. It’s been the most profoundly humbling thing I’ve ever experienced. To feel like my value came in being academically competent and emotionally steady and then to see that all unravel. It was the most humiliating and also the most important experience I’ve ever had. I also learned about grace–after years of going to primary and Sunday School, I actually understood what the atonement really meant.

    I still struggle, although 3 years of cognitive behavioral therapy and exercising radical self-acceptance has helped significantly. I had to get to the point where I no longer had expectations for myself. Where I believed that I had value independent from anything I accomplished.

    The good news is that, like you, I’ve been able to share the experience with others, and I think it’s been helpful. Just this past year, I’ve had more and more friends seek me out as a confidant, in large part because I’ve been very open about my own struggles. Being open about mental illness in a culture (Mormon, yes, but even more so, American) where there is such pressure to be competent and self-sufficient is a gift to those who are suffering in silence. Thank you for offering your gift. Reading your beautifully-articulated account gives me courage.

    Also: If you haven’t read it before, I highly recommend Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind.” She’s an academic who has had a lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder. It’s a little intimidating because she’s so accomplished (i.e. there’s a risk of feeling like you don’t measure up), but it’s also helpful to see that someone with bipolar can make it in academia. And that her greatest regret is not that she’s dependent on her medication, but that she didn’t accept that fact a lot sooner.

    Best,

    Katherine

  42. 42.

    Lynette,

    Thank you. Know that there are many, many others who struggle with similar issues. Depression is a nasty, cycling trap that takes forces of every kind to combat. Hospital experiences are hard to describe, but I have been down that route myself. If you ever need or want a nice LDS stranger to talk with, feel free to email me.

    –With much admiration and appreciation

  43. 43.

    Lynette, thank you for sharing your weakness and strength, the very real struggle of our souls in this world of shadow and light. Life seems a series of such struggles, forgetting who we are, then remembering, despising ourselves as bad, then recognizing ourselves as good, the psyche mid body and spirit pulled both ways, toward death and life. I find comfort in knowing that life is choice, the chance to choose, love within hate, light within darkness. I fail too often, but Life is the will to keep trying.

    Ether 12: 26-27 is my favorite passage of scripture in the Book of Mormon, since I first read it in 7th grade, which is why your blog post caught my attention, and led me to the gift of your reflections. Verse 27 is made more profound by verse 26, as well as by 24 and 25, which lament our human limitations, and disabling fears of criticism and rejection–which god dismisses as foolishness, compared to divine grace, available to the weak. These passages have given me the comfort to keep trying.

  44. 44.

    [...] summer, I posted about some of the mental health-related challenges that I’d been facing in the previous year. [...]

  45. 45.

    I just read this. I love you. And I still love the peasant blouse you wore at Rocky Mountain Retreat last year. You are a beautiful woman. Inside and out. God bless you.

  46. 46.

    Eve, thank you for sharing that poem. It describes the experience of my second suicide attempt as I waited for death.

  47. 47.

    I didn’t comment on this a year ago, but I bookmarked it and have come back to look at it. I have had somewhat similar experiences, and I admire you for sharing yours.

  48. 48.

    [...] Michelle Glauser: Unraveling [...]

  49. 49.

    Also wanted to share my support.

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