Praying for One’s Life
By day in a pillar of cloud…
In the 1990’s I had my first appointment with a psychiatrist. I had severe anxiety that was so bad I felt frozen in place. My insides were always jumping, all revved up with nowhere to go. It felt like an internal earthquake jostling with knots of steel. I was trapped in a net of panic. It is in that place that choosing a path is difficult; wanting to go in one direction but paralysed by fear and held back by feet of clay. We live in a culture that teaches us that we have the right to choose, to make our own decisions. Sometimes, the ability to choose is just not there. Mental illness clouds judgement. My psychiatrist did his best to hold on to me to give the talk therapy enough time to work but I was so anxious that I knew I would not be back, and he knew, too. As I was leaving for what would be the last time, he said to me, “You are taking a flight from freedom. Now is not the time to leave.” He was telling me that I was on the edge of a revelation that would free me from my anxiety, but I couldn’t face it. I ran; back to the familiar. I had no idea at the time, but I was replaying the behaviour of the Israelites from thousands of years, ago.
The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, out of slavery, can be read as a metaphor for the struggles and fears many of us face in our lives. The Israelites had crossed the Sea of Reeds and were safe in the desert. But it wasn’t long before the complaints began. They were frightened. Where would they get food, water or basic shelter? So they began to wax poetic about the past through discoloured glasses. It had not been so bad. At least there they had food and shelter and a bed in which to sleep. Nostalgia through the lens of fear can lead to a flight from the freedom that is waiting for you; a new life, with more choices. Instead we turn back to the comfort of the enslavement of the known and familiar, be it a reclusive life, an abusive relationship or a stifling job.
I was living with the same fear as the Israelites who could not face the future because of their fear of freedom. God soon realized that the Israelites, enslaved for so long, were afraid to move forward to freedom. God stood by His people. “By day in a pillar of cloud to show them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light….The pillar of cloud never left its place ahead of the people during the day, nor the pillar of fire during the night” (Exodus 13:21-22). God was a constant companion leading them, carrying them, providing all the necessities of life, and guiding them until they could stand on their own. Some journeys are too difficult to face alone.
When God later revealed His teachings to the people at Mount Sinai, the people were terrified, “Seeing the thunder pealing, the trumpet blasting and the mountain smoking” (Exodus 20:18-19). At the moment of the most important revelation, a revelation that would free them from the past and reveal to them a new way of living, they backed away. They were afraid. It was overwhelming. They couldn’t face it and they couldn’t deal with the entire revelation at one time. They turned to Moses to help them; to talk to them, to take away their fear to take them by the hand one step, sometimes baby steps, at a time.
In the year 2000, I went into hospital for minor surgery and ten days later came out twenty pounds lighter, attached to a colostomy bag. The purpose of that surgery had been to remove a cyst from one of my ovaries. It isn’t a big deal, relatively speaking. Never think of surgery, though, as minor. The doctor had unknowingly perforated my bowel and I did not see him again for four days. There was quite a soupy bacterial mess in my abdomen. When the surgeon, surgeon number two, opened me up, he had to resection part of my bowel. He cut it and removed the unhealthy section, clamped off one end and brought the other end out my left side and attached it to a bag.
Just as I was recovering from my emergency surgery, I was rushed back in for more. I had developed sepsis. I was being poisoned by my own body. At this point I was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I had never thought of myself as someone who gives up so easily. I don’t know if I had lost hope or that I was just exhausted from the marathon of the unexpected. I told my surgeon-this would be surgeon number three-that this surgery was it. No more. I have a very high pain threshold but I had long passed the high end of the scale. She told me, unequivocally, that I would go through as many surgeries as necessary to get me back to health. She proudly told me of a patient who had required thirteen surgeries. I wasn’t impressed. If two surgeries were overwhelming, thirteen were inconceivable. Not one of my finer moments.
But, I began to understand the true depths of depression, the kind that leads to thoughts of suicide. “My strength was trickling away, my bones were all disjointed, my heart was turning to wax, melting inside me” (Psalm 22:14). I was left with a sensation of emptiness, hopelessness, of being a burden and not just physically. I wanted out. Caring for someone with extreme depression is exhausting and who wants to be the one to exhaust the ones you love. It was my sense of helplessness which I found more devastating than any other emotion. No way out. No end to the pain. There is physical pain: the kind that starts at the toes and screams up the legs and throughout the whole body from inside out and steals your free-will, your ability to think clearly and choose life; pain that brings thoughts of death and quickly erases the memories that make life worth living; pain, the devil, the serpent in the Garden, tempting you to eat of the fruit of death. And there is mental pain; the total lack of control over life because some other force has taken over. Suicide is the ultimate act of control, the ultimate expression of the desire for order. In the mind of the one who wants to die, it is a well-thought out, justified act of selflessness. My loved ones will be fine. I won’t become a burden to them. Suicide comes to symbolize peace. It all seems so normal. Except the one considering suicide is suffering from an illness so overwhelming that her decision making is not functioning. I was at that moment, mentally ill.
My first psychiatrist had told me a metaphor that compared life to a tree. I was asked, what do you think about trees? I said that I loved them. I especially love trees in autumn. I was then asked if the tree had to do anything for me to admire the tree. No. So, if you can love a tree for being a tree, why can’t you love you for just being you? Good question. I suggested, though, that as much as I loved a tree, if I were a tree I would want to be home to a nest of birds or squirrels. I would want a purpose. I was not at the point where my intrinsic value as a human being, as a child of God, connected to Him by the Divine spark within, was going to be enough for me to keep going.
It was my religion that sustained me while I continued to receive help from the psycho-social sciences. One might ask why the love of and for my family, my widowed mother, my three children was not enough to keep me here. I have no answer. I am grateful, though, that I had one more therapy to turn to for help. I reached out to my Rabbi. He knew the importance to me of honouring God. He reminded me that as a child of God, I do not have the right to take my own life. I am obligated to “choose life for you and your children.” My Rabbi held on to me by giving me a reason to live and taking away any thought of taking my own life. He said that the most important thing that I could do was study God’s teachings. Just read a few sentences a day, perhaps a prayer. I had a purpose. Study. Stay alive.
These are the things of which a person enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal remains in the hereafter, namely; honouring father and mother, practice of kindness, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, dowering the bride, attending the dead to the grave…but study of Torah exceeds them all.
My connection to my religion, its teachings, and my caring Rabbi, Reven Tradburks, led me by the hand to choose life. There was comfort and relief in that message. I had my burden lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer in a state of anxiety choosing between life and death. It was for me, I think, the same feeling of relief that my Christian patients expressed to me when I had encouraged them to visualize laying their burdens down at the foot of the Cross.
I turned to my God to help me; to take away my fear. I read. I studied. I prayed to the God of my ancestors.
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure, You created it, fashioned it and breathed it into me. You constantly safeguard it for me and eventually You will take it from me to be restored only in the hereafter. Yet, as long as it is within me I will gratefully give thanks to You, O Lord, in Whose Hands are the souls of all the living.
So many, today, turn to self-help books and gurus who say they have the answers to our deepest, most profound fears and feelings. They are merely attempting to fill the vacuum left by the presumed absence of religion. Religion has words, rituals and traditions that help us deal with frightening thoughts and feelings. Religion gives us repentance, forgiveness, revelation, atonement, redemption, resurrection and rituals like the Eucharist, prayer and study as steadfast pillars of support while we fight our demons.
The sage, Rabbi Yochanan said to his friend Rabbi Elazar, who was seriously ill, “Give me your hand.” We cannot always heal ourselves. We all need a hand up, a pillar of light, at some time in our lives. Today, some ask, will it be science or religion? For me, I have two hands to reach out for support; one to hold on to science (my analysts), the other, my God (religion).
My mental illness still comes by to visit; sometimes it is just a one night stand, others it lingers a little longer. But, I am not afraid. I know it will pass. While I wait, I study.
Mental illness is only a detour in our journey toward becoming human, not a dead end.