I don’t know all the reasons or causes for this recent protracted and, in some ways, most intense major depressive episode, but it is appropriate that it lift just before Good Friday.
It arrived—unwanted and largely unannounced, as always, like your slovenly relative who eats all the food in the refrigerator and then invoices you for the co-pay—in late January or early February. Granted, there were respites: blue-signed Rest Areas along the Interstate that came somewhat randomly, had limited parking and modest facilities, yet from which you know you had to drive away if you were to get to your destination, even if—as is the case with depression—you are not sure what exactly the destination is or when you’ll get there. This is exactly why children are so miserable on long car rides and why Honda and others put DVD players into their minivans. Being strapped into a booster seat for the length of Star Wars II gives definition to the void.
And yet, while I don’t know the reasons for the bout, I do know one benefit. It has given me a tiny shard of recognition, identification, of what Jesus went through on the cross. So, today, as Christians celebrate Good Friday, in anticipation of the very good news of Easter Sunday, and as I am coming out of this within the last 36 hours, I can say that I am joyful to be able to identify with our God, who suffered more severely and totally than I ever will or could imagine.
I once had an hallucination. It was February 1995 and three o’clock in the morning, and I was working with one other co-worker in a printing plant on the south side of Atlanta. I later learned that this hallucination was the first of two psychotic breaks (the other was the next month), which hours later landed me in Riverwoods Psychiatric Hospital for ten days. The average stay at Riverwoods was a week. I was alone in a near-darkened reception area, except for the glow of a red “EXIT” sign. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows reflected the crimson tint, yet through them I could see the black of the sky and charcoal grey of the streets. For the past several hours, I had been having apocalyptic thoughts, and for the past several weeks since I started working third shift I had not been sleeping well. Six months earlier, I had stopped drinking and was at two or more AA meetings per day. I was on what is called “a pink cloud.” This February night, I had a nagging sense that I was to get up from my workstation, go to the reception area, and call my pastor Mark to say, “Meet me and Joe [a mutual friend] tonight in paradise.” It was a nonsensical statement with respect to these two guys and, looking back, I’m sure Mark would have thought I was joking, if even he had answered the call. I left my co-worker to go to the only available phone, in the reception area, and started to dial. I paused as I dialed, like I was reconsidering what I was about to do, and then I found I could not get through to Mark.
That number is no longer in service, the recording informed me.
I tried again, with the same result. The break occurred at that instant.
I was convinced that I had been transported to hell and would never escape. The hallucination was auditory only and my mind was clear and unclouded, like feeling the Autumn coolness for the first time in the season. I said out loud, “Oh, no.” And I heard a voice in my ear say, “Oh, yes.” I assumed that was the devil.
For twenty seconds, maybe only fifteen, all I knew was this: I had been stripped of all of my dreams, all of my friends and loved ones, and I was forever destined to walk this now-horrifying and eternally dark earth. I imagined my co-worker in the next room had become a hideous monster who was soon to torture me. I looked outside again. The trees, still leafless in late winter, looked like sentries more than signposts of a coming spring.
There was a chasm—to use a word from the Bible but which never had full meaning to me before then—between where I stood and where all whom I loved, and God, were. No matter what I tried or pleaded, I could not bridge that gulf. The knowledge of this endlessness and hopelessness was utter, and complete. It was final. It was indisputable. I had no recourse. I felt like I was fully aware of a new existence more than I had been of my old existence before I picked up the phone. It was as if this new state was what my life had been on a trajectory toward; I had merely crossed the threshold.
A short while later, once removed from that hallucination, and still to this day, I do not wish that 20-second period on my worst enemy. I recall when it was more raw in my memory not wishing it even on history’s most abominable figures. I can only imagine what it must be like to experience it for five minutes, or three hours. (Who can speak of this consciousness being eternal?)
It was not the prospect or fear of dying that caused the terror of those moments; it was the sensation of being consciously dead and never living again. Fear had no purpose or usefulness. It had run its course.
On the first Good Friday, Jesus experienced some form of anguish which exceeds any pain I or anyone has encountered. When he was dying on the cross, his Father in Heaven turned his back on him, and Jesus’ cry was “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?!”
All we can gather is that Jesus experienced eternal separation from God the Father, conscious spiritual death, to be followed by physical death. This was Jesus, God’s own Son, who had done nothing to ever displease the Father. At least I had some rationale for going through a quasi-hell. I had contributed to why this world is broken, why there is indeed such a thing as sin.
Today I celebrate a perfect King who died for his defiant subjects. A Shepherd who died for his wayward sheep. An Author who entered his own novel in person and sacrificed his life, so that his flawed characters could live.
It doesn’t make sense.
But then, true love rarely does.
photo: A. Guandalini