Ode to my head

Last night I had a dream in which I could take my head off my body. I could open it up at its “seams” and fix various things.

At one point I wanted to turn it over to see what it looked like where it was normally fastened onto my neck. I felt my head’s weight in my hands. It felt about as heavy as I would expect: ten pounds or so. I felt its thickness and its warmth. It seemed solid and alive. It had dirty blonde hair, as I do.

I turned it over and saw that it was sewn up under my chin and back to where my spinal column would be, so that no blood would spill out.

Then I realized that I’d better put my head back on or I wouldn’t get blood to it and I’d lose consciousness. I suddenly wondered how I hadn’t blacked out already. I saw on my head that my eyes were closed as though I was sleeping—peacefully—and at the time I didn’t question what eyes I was using to see that the eyes on my head were closed.

I started to feel lightheaded in the dream. I didn’t know how I would get my head unsewed or affixed to my neck again so that blood flow would resume. I placed my head back on my neck, and at that point my entire body felt like the one I was dreaming with.

Soon after, it seemed, I awoke.

Now, as I write, I am tempted to exhort myself, “You really should get your head examined.”

But I already did that.

Last night.

In my dream.

photo: ElissaSCA; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Daddy’s not angry

Suicide has visited our family several times. Specifically, I’ve known four people who have decided in their depression to murder themselves. Three of these were family members; one was my father. All were men.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder 16 years ago, I can’t say that the thought never crossed my mind during times when I suffered from near insufferable depression. (If that adjective seems hyperbolic, then you haven’t been there or don’t know someone who has.) In fact, the last time I experienced any real depression—and it was the worst one I’d experienced—it was September 2008. Watch this:

I had completed a work project and, frankly, did a poor job. Well, a superior called me out on it (he was right, of course), and I slumped into a two-week-long depression. Instead of explain here, Dear Reader, why this depression was so inextricably linked to my need to please people and win their approval, suffice it to say that I slumped quickly into a self-doubting and self-hating morass.

I had rarely taken sick days due to my bipolar since 1995, but during that time, I did take a few days. My bed was my refuge. Yet, it was no relief. The down comforter was no comfort at all; I drew it around my shoulders like a life preserver, and yet it served more as an anvil. In my erratic dreams and half-sleep, my sense of inadequacy hounded me like a yellow-jacket would a sugary soft drink. In the worst moments, which I no longer emotionally feel but rather whose content I recall, I even doubted I was loved by the God who sacrificed his very self for me. If you think that’s not painful, try thinking about someone you implicitly trust, someone you’d die for, someone who you want to be with if stranded on a desert island with one other person…and then imagine that in an instant, that person wants to annihilate you. You mean nothing to them.

What’s the point? you ask yourself.

Well, there is none. So you start to toy with the idea… and then the plan.

I never planned, but I did entertain that guest who doesn’t wipe his feet on the doormat nor say thank-you after being served.

To explain the outcome of that two weeks and the tool I’ve used ever since, I won’t preach but, rather, will testify—you know, like in those small, hot, Baptist churches where the fat lady with big breasts gets up in front of the congregation (whom she calls, ‘Church,’ like when someone during announcements says, ‘Good morning, Church. I want to tell you about dinner following the service today…’). She might be wearing a white hat. She fans herself with a service bulletin, which uselessly pushes stultifying air toward her shiny, sweaty cleavage. She looks past her children and the spot where her husband used to sit, her sisters and nephews and nieces, her neighbors (even the ones she got into an argument with yesterday), and she looks past even the town prostitute and town drunk, who sit one row apart toward the back left. She looks past them all and then up, toward a slat vent in the a-frame building, as if her eyes could carry her to Him. As if that 180-pound body would float up through the belfry were it not tied down by her orthopedic shoes and gravity. She speaks.

At the end, she says, ‘I am sinner. That I know. And yet I know my precious Jesus died for me. I know that my Lord is not angry with me. He has always been saying, “Come home, my daughter. Come home.” And he says that to you.’ Her eyes get wide, and her gaze drops to Church.

She looks at the prostitute. And then the drunk. And then she looks at her sisters, and her children, and aunts and uncles and neighbors. Because, while they all know that what she says is true, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. And then she closes her eyes, lifts her head again and considers her own words. Because it doesn’t hurt her, either.

‘Daddy’s not angry. You can come home.’

video/poetry: Scroobius Pip

He was forgotten, but remembered us

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 041009aguandalinifacilities, 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.

 

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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.

 

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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

Bootless cries

I cried out to God this morning and was surprised to hear not a thunderous response, nor a stern rebuke, nor a gentle cooing, but rather a velvet hush.  No, “hush” is too soothing, and “velvet” is too luxuriant.  It was more like a Mona-Lisa-smile of a sound.  No judgment, one way or the other.  Ambivalent.  Not uncertain but, rather, indiscernible.  Known by the other, hidden from the viewer.  Or perhaps it was like the sound of a kindly older relative, tapping her finger on the armrest of an oak rocking chair.  Not clearly directed at her audience, perhaps in response to some other thought, or memory, or hope, she happens to be considering at that same moment.  Not negligent in the strict sense.  Just otherwise engaged.

 

This made me quite angry.

 

I kept praying, waiting for something…anything.  I was in pain and I thought I had come to my Father in heaven and would get…comfort? ease?  lightness of spirit?  peace?  Yes, peace.  Peace is what I see promised all over Scripture.  And I also read about how if we come near to God, he will come near to us.  And how Jesus stands at the door knocking and if we answer he will come in and dine with us.  Sit down at the table and feast, convivially, joyfully.

 

But here I experienced none of that.

 

Rather, I completed my time, pried away from where I sat by the clock and not sated by any consummation, feeling like the writer of the 88th psalm, in which the closing line reads “…and darkness is my closest friend.”  This is actually one of my favorite psalms if not my favorite, since it aptly describes these times best, when after all my pleading and crying and begging, I face only…that ambivalent stare, that finger-tapping, from heaven.  It also reminds me that I’m not completely crazy.  Someone else – yes, even if it’s only one other human in history, who happened to have pen and paper – experienced what I am experiencing.

 

Shakespeare once lamented that he would “trouble deaf heaven with [his] bootless cries.”  I don’t claim heaven – or God – is deaf.  No, but on days like today it becomes even more painful to know that God hears – God hears, knows, sees everything; of that I have no doubt – and does not answer me clearly.  How dare he.  He owes me something.  Anything.  He owes me, his child, an answer.  Or so this mad rage reasons in my mind.

 

Usually the tears themselves are cleansing.

 

But this morning, they were just the precursor to the tapping, the stare.  I wept and wept for a few minutes, feeling like my tears themselves would melt his heart, that certainly now I would have some answer that eluded me moments before.  After all, didn’t my own sons get results when they turned on the waterworks and asked for dessert?…another two minutes at video games?…to stay up five minutes longer before lights out?  (And the truth is, to my shame, they too often do get results this way.)

 

I wanted a word…anything.  A simple word.

 

And there, in the tapping, I didn’t get a word but rather a reminder.  The writer of Psalm 88 acknowledges at the beginning that the Lord is the “God who saves” him.

 

The psalmist gave me the vine that was draped over the edge of the cliff I felt I was hanging from.  There was no doubt in there being a cliff, or that I was hanging, or that if I let go, I would fall.  But the vine was rooted in something I could trust.  The vine would hold, whether I believed it would or not.  So long as I held on to it, it would hold me up.

 

This God, who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in it…this God who was silent before me, by his own choosing, expressed his Being-ness to me.  His certainty.  His absolute reality.

 

This was the great “I AM” who held me up.  Here was the greatest of all realities, who created all the realities I trusted implicitly around me – air, carpet, coffee and pajamas – and who was pointing to his presence as enough for me.  And by no means was it a ponderous wave of knowledge that came over me.  It was more like a stubborn fact.

 

In that moment and the moments following, even to the moment now as I write, he did not give me a word but rather gave me himself to rely on.  The faith he was calling me to have as I wiped useless tears from my cheeks was to believe in him as enough, his reality as true, his completeness and his goodness and his ultimate control, as sufficient to carry me through.  No word about me or for me, no gentle breeze blowing in my ear with a reminder about some verse or doctrine, no vague sense of peace and well-being.  Only a pointer to himself.  A picture of One who is.  One who is, regardless of my belief or doubt in his Is-ness.

 

There is much more to say about him – what he gave up because of his love for me and others – but that’s not what’s in question here.  His love is not in question, his love is not on trial.

 

I was looking for an answer, a response, a sign, a signal, a knowing look, a comforting…feeling.  What I received was:  I AM.

 

It was enough for today.

 

 

photo:  Myles Smith; Clickr Clickr

“One small step for man…”

She always said, “Don’t walk out five minutes before the miracle happens.”  Harriett (not her real name) was morbidly obese, probably around 300, 350, and she drove a yellow Pinto station wagon she’d bought for $200 from a friend in her AA meeting group.  Her husband, after they had divorced, had been executed for a capital crime.  But Harriett loved Jesus and had built her life around him, convinced that even though she lived in public housing and her washer kept overflowing and her car listed along State Route 1632 in Morrow, Georgia, she was bound for glory and nothing could get her down.

 

Don’t walk out…

 

She had told me this sitting in Riverwoods, a private hospital behind what is now Southern Regional Medical Center and which caters to those about to walk out early.  I had lapsed quickly into a manic state, March 1995, not ten days after being released from that same hospital, after the minivan that she and I were passengers in, and driven by an AA friend, backed into a metal stanchion in a McDonald’s parking lot.  For some reason, that jarring, though it did little damage to the car’s fender, pushed me over the edge.  So much so that five minutes later I thought I saw my parents’ deceased cat, Pippin, sitting on a car hood in front of a house.  It was an altogether different breed as it turned out, which I learned only after stepping out of the minivan door to inspect it more closely while saying, with a straight face, “One small step for man…”, and believing I was entering a new universe that had different air quality and chemical composition.

 

Harriett and I sat in an examination room at Riverwoods and she spoke to me about God.  She told me what it was like to have God’s arms wrapped around you.  To hear his voice.  To know his love.  I looked at her, wrapped in excess flesh, and saw a splendid soul peering back.  While I’m sure she had a cross word for her enemies – for none of us are without sin, I’m to understand – I for one never heard her say anything harsh about anyone.

 

I often hear this remark of hers – “Don’t walk out…” – reverberating in my mind during hard times like late last week, when I had the first bout of depression since this new doc increased one of my medications, allowing me six weeks of depression-free living, a first since moving back to the city in December of last year.  Before mid-July, every two weeks or so I’d feel like my mind was walking out, even if my body and soul were staying put.

 

Harriett laughed well, and when she did, she revealed corroding teeth, all of them present, but yellowed, usually caked in food particles.  Her gums extended down, it seemed, so you saw more pink than enamel.  Or maybe it was that her lips curled back more than most people’s.

 

 

 

photo:  fdecomite