by Shirley O’Shea
When I woke up, I noticed first the winter light, filtering through partially drawn curtains. Sunlight in the weeks after Christmas and on through Epiphany and Lent, because of its fragile quality, can illuminate the world more exquisitely and provoke a more poignant sense of the holy than the summer sunshine. But this light had too much grayness in it, and it fell on snow and silent, empty grounds that were impossible to illuminate.
For years it had seemed to me that God prefers to inhabit obscure, poorly lit places. So I should have found God here, yet God was maintaining His prerogative to be silent and hidden as much as ever. So at that moment of waking, I would have preferred the garish sun and green landscapes of Ordinary Time.
One couldn’t expect sunlight to flood this or any room in a small city at the edge of the Adirondacks, where I lived for three weeks in January 2015. I lay in my bed for a moment, and then a spasm of agony overtook me in the form of a truth I was in no condition to contemplate.
“Someday I’ll die and never see my son again.”
I started to keen. I got up from my bed, howling and weeping with premature grief for my boy, age seven, and, unable to stand, leaned against the small wooden dresser a few inches away.
“Help me!” I cried. “Someone please help me!”
A nurse arrived. “Shirley, get back in bed,” the nurse said. “You need to sleep after ECT.” The nurse was tall, with a stature like a tree, solid and rooted. She had long dark brown hair and pale skin, and every day it seemed she wore wine-colored lipstick and black tights.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I sobbed. “Please, I don’t want any more treatments. Six is enough. I want to go home.”
“It’s the Propofol,” the nurse said matter-of-factly. “It makes you very sad.” Propofol is the short-acting anesthesia given to patients receiving electroconvulsive therapy for depression.
“And you’re very homesick,” the nurse continued. “But you need to finish the course of treatment, so that you can be present for your son.”
I could not argue with that. I had to have faith that finishing this hospitalization, grueling and strange as it was, would help me to break free of the psychological oppression which had been worsening precipitously since late 2012. Then I could help my son with his own anxiety. I needed to be a healthy mother, and ECT was my last resort – all the psychiatric medications I’d tried had not broken through my carapace of major depression. I was certain that I needed to get better, or I would die, whether this was God’s will or not.
When I was seventeen, I woke up on a humid summer morning after a disturbing dream. I felt guilty about the dream, and I could not shake the guilt. It curled itself up into a tight ball and settled in my chest, pressing up against my heart. It grew there. I told my mother and she assured me I had nothing to feel guilty or sad about.
I read my KJV Bible every day and for the first time, that summer, I started underlining passages and writing “Praise the Lord!” and “Thank you for saving me, Jesus!” in the margins. Pastor John of the Bible church my family had attended sporadically since I was ten said an underlined Bible was a well-read Bible.
Years earlier, Pastor John had presented our family with a chalk drawing of our family rendered in black silhouette as Christ returned in blazing sunset. His eyes were large and solidly black; it looked as though he wore sunglasses as shields from the glare of his own glory. It was a chiaroscuro of American folk Christianity. Before going into the kitchen, I stood before it in desperate contemplation, as if it were an icon.
“Shirley!” my father said from his seat at the head of the table. “Come in here and stop looking at that picture of the Lord!”
When I continued to tell my mother I felt like a very bad person she and my father arranged for our pastor and his wife to visit me. They brought ice cream and advised that I be taken to a Christian psychologist, but my parents did not take me to see any professionals. I wrote a suicide note for the sense of relief it gave, and took to my bed. My bedroom became a scene of clutter and disorganization, which vexed my parents deeply.
That summer, my mother’s father died of liver cirrhosis and in October of that year, my father’s sister died of advanced alcoholism. My mother did not want to talk about these losses, especially the latter.
When school resumed, I struggled to do my work. It was my senior year, and all I wanted was to leave my hometown and attend an elite college. I was accepted into Rutgers University, but I felt nothing. Schoolmates teased me for my hyper-religiosity and solitude. The guilt feelings began to abate, but I felt a loneliness and sadness that I could not understand or explain. I loved literature, but could not finish any of the works we were assigned, until the last one – Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. After a night of unsettling dreams, Gregor Samsa woke to find he was a cockroach. I read the novel cover to cover, as well as Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener, often referred to in essays about The Metamorphosis. I understood Bartleby’s renunciation, “I prefer not to,” and was approaching readiness to make my own, whatever form it took.
My emotional health stabilized upon graduation from high school. During college, I discovered the Episcopal Church; my entry into the church began when I studied the poetry of George Herbert as a college freshman. I made friends who came from evangelical backgrounds who were seeking intellectual and emotional freedom and authenticity, and this boosted my well-being considerably. But as those friendships grew less intense over time, isolation and a return to overwork took their toll on my nervous system, and I required hospitalization for major depression while I was a college student, and again when I was employed as a paralegal in a large New Jersey law firm.
The one person who stood with me in these crises, and in the times of relative wellness between them, was my priest, a former hippie and self-proclaimed Broad-churchman who had worked in a psychiatric hospital prior to training for the priesthood. His gentleness and friendship helped me to understand that Jesus Christ was my Friend, and church was a safe place in which to heal. My sins were almost beside the point. What mattered was taking seriously the First and Second Commandments.
There are so many things I wish I had the space here to tell. Now I reside in a different diocese, and support for those with psychiatric diagnoses is not as easy to find. And the specter of a displeased and withholding God has returned. After you read these words, please pray for those in the church with psychiatric illness. And please be Jesus our Friend to us.
Shirley O’Shea lives in upstate New York. She is married to Geoff, a psychology professor, and they have one wonderful son, Jeremy. Shirley is a freelance writer, parish interim director of communications and operator for a “Warm Line,” a call-in service for persons in need of emotional support and referral services, which is provided by a human services agency.