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.