God Never Leaves: What Mental Illness Taught Me About My Faith

God Never Leaves: What Mental Illness Taught Me About My Faith November 13, 2019

by guest writer Hope Contentious

Call me crazy, and it will be true. Call me Talitha Coum and you will repeat what God told me.

Bipolar Disorder. Type One. That’s what I was diagnosed with months before my 18th birthday. That’s the disease that landed me in the hospital off and on for most of a year. The one that brought me to my knees with depression, the one that shot me to the moon with mania. That’s the one God used to say, “Hope, I love you.”

This is the story of how God used a disease to give me faith. 

From an early age, people raised religiously are taught to pray away sickness. But religion is no insulation against mental illness. I’m passionately Catholic (and academically ambivalent). And yet all the prayer, devotion, holy water and sacraments of my childhood did not prevent the surfacing of a nasty illness in my late teens. Many other people can echo this: Religious people get sick like everyone else. 

But it’s different when it happens to you. When the sacraments, when the rosaries, when the folded hands and furrowed brows can’t keep the sadness away. It’s different then. It’s different because it feels personal. You ask, “God, why me?”

And he says nothing. You cannot hear him. So you lose faith. It feels natural to give up on God if he’s given up on you.

But I am here to say he hasn’t given up. I know because it happened to me. It took a long time and it wasn’t easy, but I woke up from despair. The sky cleared and God was there. Pascal’s wager had been worth it–and I wasn’t even dead! Not for real at least. I had died in mind and heart but still I breathed. Even better–now I wanted to breathe.

Let me take you back to the first moment it began:

“I want…”

Two words and an ellipsis. Set above blank lines on a paper handout in a group therapy room of a mental hospital in November six years ago, those words slayed me. And suddenly I couldn’t breathe.

For months I had whittled down and suffocated any of my own desires. I wasn’t worth the air I breathed, much less food, clothes, or education. Those months found me empty, hollow, and with a plan to end my life.

“Better off dead.” I pasted those words on my heart like a name tag. That day, God started the long work of scraping them off.

I got really, really mad at him. I had a marginal belief that the God of my childhood might be real. It’s hard to justify religion when you plan on dying soon anyway. I considered myself filth, a scourge on the earth. Worthless. But that day, as I rocked myself back and forth, struggling to breathe as those two printed words spiraled me deep into a manicured kind of self-loathing, I made a deal with God.

“Okay God, if you are there,” I said. “I will do one thing for you. Just one. I won’t kill myself. I’m shit, God, a piece of shit and I deserve Hell. But I won’t do it. I give you the sorry excuse for garbage I am. Do whatever with my life, I won’t be taking it.”

And I wiped my face and stormed out of the room. My peers at the hospital pretended they didn’t see how red my eyes were.

Now, the second moment:

I’m (once again) rocking myself in a psychiatric ward’s Quiet Room. It’s dark outside and in. A soccer-ball patterned stress ball becomes a gaping mouth in front of me. It grows bigger, as if to eat me. I cry.

I won’t dwell here. But this is moment number two. Sheltering wings.

Now, third:

I sit on the edge of my mattress. I’m still in the psychiatric unit. I’m so numb my skin would welcome a cut. No matter how hard I want to, I cannot get up from the edge of that mattress.

Now, last:

Eight months after moment one and six months after moments two and three, I’m in confession with a Catholic priest. I’ve told him my whole life story. I really didn’t need to, and it took a lot of time, but I relayed all the sufferings and pain of the last year.

“Thank God that happened to you,” he says. “He let you get so close to Him, Hope.”

I get mad. Real mad. Never once did I feel close to God. Never once did I know Him. Never once–

Oh.

I see it now, like a curtain lifting.

Moment one:

God and a guardian angel rejoice that their little one has said no to Death.

Moment two:

I may cry and crumble under the weight of a panic attack, but a guardian angel with great white wings spread over me shelters me from further attack.

Moment three:

I sit on that bed. I cannot move. But next to me, in white like all the kid’s Bible pictures, is Jesus. And he waits. “Talitha coum,” he says. Little girl, I say to you, arise.

I did rise. It took months and it took therapy, medicine, support, and a whole lot of patience, but I rose from that depression and I found a new life calling: to help those like me. To help the sick. And so I rose. And continued to climb. I went to college. I graduated. I started got a job I love and my own apartment. It’s not all rose petals. But, in it’s own way, it is beautiful and grace-filled.

If I could only tell the world one thing in my life, it would be this:

God is with us. 

He is with us when we are crippled and when we are learning to walk again. He is with us even when we can’t see him. He is there. He is right there. But blind eyes cannot see unless healed.
Sometimes God cures the sick. But more often, he carries us. That is its own kind of healing. And it is beautiful.

Call me crazy and it will be true. But I believe this is something you needed to hear. Talitha coum.

Hope Contentious is the pen name of a writer who wishes to remain anonymous

image credit: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sad-Mental-Illness.jpg


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