you are loved
original watercolor by Elizabeth Esther, copyright 2017

original watercolor by Elizabeth Esther, copyright 2017

I know you feel lonely. Unseen.

Today you walked alone, down to the river.

You squatted at the river’s edge and scooped up river-worn pebbles.

You held them in the palm of your hand

rolled them about

picked one out of the group and held it up to the sky.

Did it sparkle? Were there glints of gold-dust?

Did you make a wish?

Did you wonder why life is the way it is?

Then you let the pebbles slip away

Away through your fingers

falling

falling away lonesome

back into the anonymous riverbed.

I want to brush back the hair from your face

And tell you how beautiful you are

I want you to know I would never let you slip through my fingers

I have always held you in the palm of my hand

I know you’re lonely and I’m sorry

I’ve been lonely, too.

There was this one time? When all my friends left me.

It was hard.

I knew they loved me and cared about me

But sometimes friends get scared of how much love asks

and sometimes they’re not ready for all of it.

I was different, see.

I had to go through things because love needed me to

People think love is a feeling

and it is. But that’s not all love is.

Love is greater and bigger than a feeling.

It’s so wide it stretches across the entire sky

It’s so deep that even if you swam to the bottom of the ocean it would be still deeper, deeper still.

The love I have for you is like this

There’s nothing you could do to make me love you less

There’s nothing you can do to make me love you more

I love you to infinity and for always

I loved you even before there was an always

And even if always ever ends (it won’t), I’ll still love you.

Can you hear what I’m trying to tell you?

I’m telling you that you are loved unconditionally.

Which is a big word, I understand.

But all it means is that there is nothing that can ever or will ever change my love for you, you, my precious, only you.

EE
2.10.19

Elizabeth Esther Comments
When life gives you what you need but not what you want (reflections on 2018)
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My word for 2018 was “Joy.” I wanted more joy in my life and I got it. But wow, I wasn’t expecting how it would happen. I should have remembered that joy is often birthed into our lives through pain. What I’ve learned is that true joy is hard won. It requires courage and sacrifice.

This year I had to give up the home of my dreams, all of my dogs and two friendships that I thought I could never live without.

I watched my husband give up his stable job of twenty years for a business venture that, while not exactly risky, was definitely an unknown.

I also had to entrust myself to a new psychiatrist, a new neighborhood and life as a renter instead of a homeowner.

I emerged from all these changes feeling lighter, more peaceful and yes, more joyful.

At the beginning of this year when I thought about wanting more joy in my life, I didn’t realize how many things I’d been hanging onto that were actually inhibiting joy. I was hoarding things and animals and relationships to make myself feel more whole. I had to lose a lot of that this year in order to face the reality I’ve been avoiding for so long. And when I finally did let go, I was confronted with a reality that was difficult to face.

The utter loneliness of the human condition.

I finally let myself accept the terrible, terrifying truth: there is no person, no animal, no purpose, no THING that can ever satisfy the deepest longings of my soul. Not even Jesus.

Let me explain that. What I mean is: I grew up in a culture that sang songs about Jesus as the “lover of my soul” and “all that thrills my soul is Jesus.” My favorite saint is St. Thérèse of Lisieux who was rapturously in love with Jesus. I’ve been looking for this Jesus all my life. I’ve been craving this personal relationship with Jesus, this personal experience of Jesus that was supposed to transcend all else.

But now I begin to think this isn’t healthy for someone like me. I listen to other people talk about Jesus. How they’re “wild” about Him. How they’re “happy-clappy” Jesus people. Instead, I brushed up against atheism this year. I became terminally disillusioned with evangelicalism as a whole. And I watched as my love for the Catholic Church was dashed against the rocks of more and more and more sex abuse scandals.

Perhaps my problem all along has been seeking a relationship with Jesus that was never meant to be. I’ve been studying 18th c. literature and have come across the idea of “disinterestedness.” This does not mean uninterested. Rather, it is an aesthetic attitude, a way of perceiving things that is unbiased by personal interest.

And there’s the rub. So much of my spiritual journey has been corrupted by cloying self interest. I want so many things from my relationship with Jesus.

I think the defining flaw, here, is that I’ve always presumed Jesus was knowable. That Jesus wanted to have a relationship with me. But, honestly, the Jesus I saw in the Gospels this year really disturbed me. He scared me. He’s unpredictable. He’s harsh.

Take this story in Luke chapter 9. So this guy who wants to say goodbye to his family before running away after Jesus and Jesus is all: “Whoever puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

As my kids would say: RIP that guy.

Another guy is like: “I gotta bury my dad” and Jesus is all: “Let the dead bury the dead.”

For real, Jesus?

The point is, maybe I don’t know Jesus. And maybe that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Maybe I’ve been trying to have this relationship when, really, it’s not about me and my cozy little personal relationship with God. Maybe I need to practice some disinterestedness.

So, that’s my 2018. I lost things and I gained freedom. I got chopped down and grew back up.

I grew up better. Wiser. I’m now fully stabilized on meds. I got accepted to grad school and finished my first semester with straight A’s. My kids are growing up and away and my home is growing quieter and emptier. But in that emptiness, I’m finding something unexpected: fullness of joy.

Who knew joy would come bearing so many tears? I didn’t.

This year I got what I needed. But not what I wanted. And I’m finding a rugged peace in that. All is well.

Elizabeth Esther Comments
This is what happiness feels like.
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I keep waiting for the bottom to drop out from underneath me. I keep waiting for the darkness to return. I’m afraid to trust the beautiful. I’m afraid that if I pinch myself I might wake up and discover it was only a dream. This lovely. This holy. This happy—truly happy—life I’m living now.

Frozen shoulder aside, I never knew it was possible to be this happy. Grad school has rocketed me into a new, enchanted world. Books. Reading. Discussions. Writing. New friends! HEAVEN.

I am SO thankful mental illness didn’t win. I’m so HAPPY to be alive!

It’s hard for me to believe that just one year ago I was swamped in pain. Mental illness had taken over so much of my life. I was in bed for weeks, hardly able to move. It took so much work to crawl out of that dark hole. It seemed like the darkness would never end. I didn’t want to live anymore.

One afternoon I texted my parents goodbye. I told them how much I loved them and that I was sorry but I just couldn’t go on living like this. They came to me immediately. They got in their car and drove to me. They sat by my bed and my mother held my hand and I saw sadness and fear in her eyes. She told me not to give up. She told me things would get better.

My friends came to me. They showed up with meals. They texted me. They loved me through the bleakest, darkest few months of my life. They didn’t let me go. They checked on me over and over again. It was humbling and horrible. But they saved my life.

My husband took me to doctor after doctor until we found a psychiatrist who sat with me for hours and took a full, long history of my mental illness. It took some experimenting, but we finally found the right dosage of medication that worked for me.

It took several months, but the light started dawning in my mind. The darkness lifted. The depression eased. The bipolar symptoms lessened and faded.

In the midst of all this, I decided to apply to grad school. It was a shot in the dark. I didn’t think I’d get in. But I had a dream—a literal dream—where I saw myself thriving in grad school. In the dream I remembered the joy I felt in school. I remembered feeling transported by books and learning and discussion. When I woke the next morning, I knew I had to apply for school.

This past April I was accepted.

Classes began three weeks ago.

And I feel as if I’ve burst into a completely different world. Everything is sunshine. Everything is hope. I feel alive again. My mind is awakening. I feel truly and deeply happy. I love school so much. I love reading and writing and studying. I love meeting new people. I love thinking new thoughts and having new ideas.

I’d forgotten what happiness felt like.

I’d forgotten what fulfillment felt like.

I can’t believe I get to do this thing! Is this me? Is this really my life now? It is SUCH a gift!

For the first time in YEARS, I’m EXCITED about my life. I’m excited to see what’s next.

And I’m so very grateful for the people who didn’t give up on me even when I was at the very bottom. They believed—they KNEW—things could and would get better for me. Even when I couldn’t believe that myself.

Last year at this time I was spending most of my days in bed. I could barely move. And now, by some miracle of grace and medicine, I am loving and living my life.

This is what happiness feels like.

This is me not giving up.

And I’m writing this for you, too. Maybe right now you’re where I was a year ago. Maybe the darkness feels overwhelming to you. Maybe you think everyone would be better off without you here. I’m here to tell you: that’s your sad, sick brain lying to you. You are so needed! I know—god, how I know—how hard it is to hang on for one more day. To feel that there is nothing left in life worth living for. But I promise you. I PROMISE YOU. Life is worth living. And YOU deserve to live it. It can and WILL get better. Just don’t give up. Keep fighting. You never know what happiness tomorrow may bring. You are loved, loving and lovable.

The light is coming.

Elizabeth Esther Comments
Cute but weird: injuring yourself while sleeping, grandchildren and grad school

Hello, I am getting old.

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I somehow managed to injure my shoulder on Saturday night when I rolled over in bed. That's right, I injured my shoulder while sleeping. This is 41 years old.

I think the initial injury happened when we moved. I lifted too many boxes or something. I ignored the pain for a solid two months. As you do. The pain got worse. As it does. And then on Saturday night around 1am, I was awakened from a dead sleep by a piercing TWANG in my right shoulder. It was so painful I almost vomited.

And then I was like: OF COURSE this happens. Things were going too well. I had just begun loving my new neighborhood. I was getting excited about grad school. All the bills were (mostly) paid. Life was feeling good.

I needed a broken shoulder to remind me that LIFE IS PAIN, HIGHNESS. ANYONE WHO SAYS OTHERWISE IS SELLING SOMETHING. Thank you, Princess Bride.

That is still one of my favorite movies. Except: true confession. I can never watch The Pit of Despair scene because the torture machine always freaks me out. I can't bear watching people suffer--even in movies. 

My other favorite movie: The Notebook. My favorite scene: when they are standing in the dock on the pouring rain and Ryan Gosling is all: "I wrote you every day for 365 days. It wasn't over. It still isn't over!" And then they crash into each other's arms and have the most romantical kiss in all the land. And the next morning she is painting while naked (as you do).

I also love Diane Lane movies. I could watch that woman all day everyday. Her facial expressions alone. She's my favorite female actor. Paul Giamatti is my favorite male actor. I won't tell you how many times I've watched Sideways. I am currently watching Billions and I just love him so much. If I met Paul Giamatti in real life, I think I would be all tongue tied and blushing and total fan-girling.

Back to pain and suffering. 

So, I start physical therapy tomorrow and then have an MRI on Friday and in the meantime I'm popping ibuprofen like it's candy. My stomach lining is not happy. Up next: ulcers. 

Other sources of suffering: my children—the loves of my life—are growing up. Here's the thing about being a Mom: you give them everything and then, they just walk away. THEY WALK AWAY.

It's unfair. It's life.

One of my kids is already gone. Jewel is gone. She's out on her own and living her full life all on her own and it's good and wonderful but also, I can't handle it. In one year my next child will be an adult and possibly moving out, too. I cannot handle the children getting older. And yet, somehow I must handle it. I really miss them being babies. I miss the cuteness and the cuddles and I even miss them waking up at night calling out for me. 

I am complaining too much. Topic change.

I need grandchildren.

Topic change.

I'm going to grad school.

It starts in a few weeks. I am excited but also freaking out a little. Like: I will be the oldest person there. I take notes by hand. I use microfiche for research. I don't know what pedagogy means. I don't know what to wear. 

I remember when the kids were all little and the days felt so long. So very long. I remember thinking I would give ANYTHING for a good night's sleep. I couldn't imagine things ever being different. But last night, I slept for 11 hours and nobody woke me up. And this morning the twins made their own breakfast and are happily playing with their American Girl dolls. 

I think I'll go play with them.

A "Rule of Life" for Living with Bipolar

We're coming up on the one year anniversary of my Bipolar II diagnosis. It's been both a challenging and unexpectedly wonderful year. I've had to come to terms with the reality of my illness and learn new ways of living. At long last I know the name of the shadow that has haunted me for most of my adult life. I'm grateful for good doctors, health insurance and a supportive family—all of whom have helped me figure out a healthy way of living. Here are some of the things I've learned in the last year; a sort of "rule of life" for myself. It occurred to me that some of these things may be helpful for others so I decided to share it here with you.

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1. Follow the daily routine like your life/sanity depends on it (because it does).

  • take your medication every single day and do not tamper with dosages or go off the meds without consulting your doctor (just because you're feeling good doesn't mean you're cured)
  • 9 hours of nightly sleep plus one nap per day (sleep is EVERYTHING! without proper sleep, you will experience psychosis and debilitating anxiety)
  • always eat breakfast
  • do not look at your phone first thing in the morning, wait an hour
  • spend time in prayer, meditation and journaling each morning
  • sugar is not your friend
  • limit caffeine to one cup of coffee per day
  • don’t crowd the schedule, leave margins in case you need to take a break or rest
  • light exercise every day
  • go to the beach at least once every two weeks. The sound of the waves and the scent of sea air and the feeling of your feet in the sand stabilizes your brain
  • pace yourself: the slower you go the more likely you are to maintain energy through the day
  • no email, Twitter or the news after 4pm
  • remember that after 4pm your brain is very tired and starts looking for problems to worry about so avoid anything that will overstimulate you or make you upset.
  • it's ok to put on your jammies at 4:30pm and call it a day

2. Keep It Simple

  • Keep a quiet, tidy bedroom (the less things you have in your bedroom, the better). The bedroom is your sanctuary, you must keep it clean and minimalist. No pictures on walls. No clutter.
  • Follow a daily cleaning routine to keep things picked up; clutter and chaos makes your mental health suffer
  • Paint something everyday
  • Just because you want a puppy doesn’t mean you should get one
  • You probably don’t need to buy that thing you think you need to buy
  • Give away clothes that are too small for you and keep a simple wardrobe
  • No loud music. Ever.
  • No bright lights.
  • No hoarding. Minimize as much as possible.
  • The less you have to keep track of, the better for your brain

3. Just because you feel fantastic today doesn't mean you should commit to 15 new projects (or people)

  • This brand new insight you're having feels like it's epic and revolutionary, but that’s probably your mania speaking
  • You're not going to change the world today. Focus on small things. Be mindful of delusions of grandeur.
  • Not every single person you meet needs to be your best friend
  • Talking fast and intensely is a warning sign. Pay attention. Check in with yourself to spot other manic symptoms.
  • Don't spend money when you're manic. Wait until you're stable.
  • When attending social gatherings, limit your stay to three hours (2 hours is better)

4. Actively seek input from trusted sources

  • Listen to trusted voices around you—they are not "out to get you." They love you and want to help.

  • When you are manic or depressed, your perception of reality is skewed. You cannot see how you’re behaving. You need input from outside sources.

  • If Matt says that you are acting strangely, don’t get defensive. Ask for more information.

  • Don’t automatically assume people are mad at you

  • Restrain yourself from building conspiracy theories

  • Follow your psychiatrist's advice and orders

5. Avoid "stinking thinking" i.e. obsessions, paranoia, catastrophizing, trying to "figure everything out"

  • You're probably thinking too much. Please don't task your brain with impossible tasks.
  • Just because you can imagine every possible negative outcome doesn’t mean it’s probable

  • You don’t have to follow a thought just because it’s interesting

  • Stay away from online outrage and people who stoke it; avoid contentious comment threads

  • Notice when you become obsessive about a person, place or thing, ie. you don’t need to know EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW. Obsession triggers your bipolar symptoms.

  • Remember that the people you find deeply fascinating are most likely very bad for your mental health; seek normal, healthy people--avoid addictive personalities, drama queens and especially liars

  • Resist looking at every single issue from every single angle—long, intense conversations trigger your bipolar symptoms

  • Avoid binge watching TV shows. You will begin to feel like you're living inside the show/you will begin acting like one of the characters and your grip on reality will loosen.

  • Same goes for books. Don't let yourself get buried too deeply in a book. You will have trouble coming back to reality.

6. don't seek fame, seek faithfulness

  • You might think you want to be famous but you walked that road already in a small way and it almost killed you

  • Invest in real friendships with just a couple of people

  • Intensity is not intimacy

  • Learn to value faithfulness over the long term rather than grand gestures

  • Accept how people love you instead of always wishing they loved you in different ways

  • Let yourself be bored; life doesn’t need to be exciting everyday in order for it to be meaningful

  • Ordinary days and ordinary routines are the actual joy of life 

  • Keep a gratitude list

7. strong boundaries are essential in all your relationships

  • You can burn through relationships very quickly if you’re not careful

  • Not everyone feels as deeply and intensely as you do and that is ok, let other people be

  • Stop asking for “proofs” of love

  • Living with someone who has bipolar is not easy—show gratitude for the people who stick around especially after one of your meltdown episodes

  • You can smother your friends if you’re too needy; if people stop responding to your texts, don't harass them

  • Diversify your friend circle so that you can get what you need from multiple sources

  • Be mindful of your tendency to crave a deep, very best friend who is there for you 24/7—this is God’s job, not another person's

  • Let people come and go easily out of your life without clinging to them

  • Seasons change and people will need to move out of your life; this is not personal rejection

  • Be of service to others instead of a drain on them; look for ways to be helpful to others; service to others makes you feel better, small volunteer positions are very good for your mental health

8. Avoid unnecessary stress

  • Your stress tolerance is very low and stress affects you profoundly

  •  Stressful situations lead to excess sweating, stomach ache, tension headache which then tip very quickly into bipolar symptoms like hyperalertness, hypervigilance, auditory hallucinations, intrusive thoughts, rapid speech, extreme irritability, panic, paranoia

  • You may think you can “handle it” but you really can’t; it’s ok for you to acknowledge this about yourself. Knowing your limits does not make you less worthy of love or acceptance, it does not mean you aren’t “good enough”

  • Living within your limits is just a simple necessity of your life with bipolar disorder—you can’t do all the things neurotypical people can do and that is ok

9. marijuana is very, very bad for you

  • Don’t believe it when people tell you that marijuana doesn’t interact with your prescribed medications—IT DOES
  •  You are not in control of what marijuana does to your brain
  •  For you, marijuana leads to a psychotic break
  • Marijuana also interferes with the other medications you are on and makes them less effective

10. make peace with the fact that you will need to live differently than neurotypical people

  • You don't get to stay up late, drink frequently, eat a lot of sugar, go to parties or concerts 

  •  Long distance travel is probably out of the picture for you especially if it includes time zone changes

  •  Sleep is EVERYTHING for you, without proper sleep and rest you will spin out in mania or crash into depression or have psychotic episodes

  • You don't have to live anyone else's life. Honor the life you've been given. And you will thrive.

How do you make a house a home? One little corner at a time.
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There's a welcome simplicity to renting a home rather than owning it. I'd forgotten this. It's good to be reminded.

There are so many hidden costs in home ownership: keeping up the yard, pool service, pest removal, tree trimming, replacing water heaters, repainting, remodeling....it was all so expensive and time consuming. Then there were the property taxes, which in Southern California are exorbitant. 

But now we're renting again. And I'm starting to find the grace in it.

Last week—thanks in large part to the many kind and understanding comments I received after sharing about our move (thank you so much!)—I felt my spirits begin to lift a bit. I found myself trying to nestle in and make this new space feel like home.

I began by focusing on small corners of the house. 

There is a small, built-in shelf in a corner of the family room. For weeks it sat empty. One morning I woke up with a little creative energy and spent about an hour creating a vignette of books, succulents and cherished decor pieces. Now this one small corner of my house feels like home again.

We got rid of so much stuff before our move that there wasn't enough furniture to fill the new house, even though it's smaller. Our new living room stands largely empty except for a folding table with my painting supplies. And because we don't own any formal dining furniture, we let the twins turn the dining room into their playroom. 

So, I've become something of an accidental minimalist. There's a spartan homey-ness to this new way of living. It’s easier to keep things tidy, for example. Clutter doesn’t accrue on open surfaces because there's no clutter for accruing.

There is a key-shaped hook hanger for hanging our keys. Another hook hanger for purses and backpacks. We keep our shoes neatly sorted in a shoe rack inside the coat closet. There are two identical trash cans in the kitchen: one for trash, one for recyclables.

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There’s a tiny powder room we’ve come to call “The Hobbit Bathroom” because it’s tucked under the stairs and reminds us of a cozy, little hobbit hole. It only contains a toilet and pedestal sink. But last week I purchased a brick red, circular bath mat for the floor, a hand towel with a bright bohemian-style print and a ceramic soap dispenser with embossed florals. Sometimes it's just the little touches that start to make a house feel like a home.

I don't think it will truly feel like home until all my books are shelved, though. Our last home had an entire wall of built-in bookshelves. Plus I had two freestanding bookcases. Even then I had books in boxes. Yes, I have a lot of books. But in this new house there is nowhere to put my books. I've packed them all away in boxes and am not sure what I'm going to do with them. I've already donated loads of them and the ones I kept are like my friends. I can't get rid of my friends! I'm not sure what to do about this.

Whenever I'm feeling anxious about this new living situation, I find I can calm myself by straightening things up. There's something inherently soothing about putting things in their place, isn't there? When we first moved and everything was still in boxes and crates, life felt far more chaotic. Now that I've been able to put things away and sort things out, life is starting to settle a bit.

I've been thinking a lot about how home is tied to our identity. A place doesn't really feel like home until you've LIVED in it for awhile, right? Made memories. Shared celebrations.

I want to do more to make this new place feel like home but then I think: "What's the point? We're probably moving again soon." It all feels so temporary and fleeting, like there's nothing to hang onto. 

But isn't that all of life? All of it is fleeting and temporary. Everything changes. The key, I think, is to find joy even in the midst of uncertainty and change. I'm finding it slowly, one little corner at a time. 

 

 

 

Goodbye, dear home

Two months ago we sold our home of ten years and moved to a smaller rental house in a different city. Matt is going through a career change and we had to move for his new job. But it all happened so fast—the house sold in four days, the escrow was only two weeks long, everything had to go, go, go—and I've found myself sort of stumbling around in the wake of all this change trying to find my bearings.

My new painting corner in the rental house

My new painting corner in the rental house

We moved to Irvine, California which is, apparently, one of America’s safest cities. This is comforting but also, oddly surreal. I’ve never lived anywhere with such an astonishing level of orderliness.

Everything is precisely planned and in its place. All the hedges are trimmed, the grass mowed, the trees clipped, the sidewalks swept. The “village” where we live—which is to say, the tightly defined neighborhood enclave with its own entrances and boundaries—feels more like a resort than a neighborhood. There’s a large resort style community pool, park and playground. There are gently winding sidewalks laid out ten feet away from the curb. Perfectly spaced trees line the streets. The public schools are top-ranking. Everything is imminently walkable and livable. I've never lived in such pristine environs.

But there's also something disconcerting about living here. I don’t really see my neighbors. Most people park in their garages and enter their homes that way. The garage door goes up and the garage door goes down. There's no chance to say hello. In my old neighborhood, most people parked in their driveways or on the street in front of their homes. So many little conversations and neighborly chats happened on the way to and from our cars. It's funny how something so simple as parking in one's garage cuts off the opportunity for community building.

There's another significant difference here. Children don’t play outside. Older kids walk to and from school but there are no little kids playing ball in the street or hide and go seek in the front yards. Because I don't really see my neighbors, it took me several weeks before I realized that my immediate next door neighbor doesn’t even live there. It’s an empty house. So is the house across from me. From asking around, I’ve learned that this is fairly common in Irvine. I don’t know what to make of this. Do people just buy homes and then leave them empty, living elsewhere?

Living in such an orderly neighborhood comes with a lot of rules, I've learned.

If you want to paint your house, you have to get the color approved by the homeowner’s association. If you want to park your car outside the garage, you have to get a permit. If you want to swim in the pool, you have to sign in. If you want to sneeze, you need approval. 

There’s a security guy who goes around writing tickets for cars parked without permits. I suppose that’s the only thing you can ticket people for in the safest city in America.

My neighbors are quiet and keep to themselves. In the two months we've been here, nobody has introduced themselves. They’re not unfriendly, per se. I think they’re just private. But it does feel rather isolating. I'm accustomed to super friendly and chatty neighbors. I'm accustomed to knowing everyone and having neighborhood get togethers. Here in Irvine it's like we're all living on our own little islands. You don't know the person who lives ten feet away from you. There's no sense of community. I guess that's normal?

There’s a woman who lives several houses down from us and when she brings her dog out for a walk, she doesn't actually walk the dog. She carries him. And she does this while wearing heels. She walks out of her house in high heels, carries the dog for awhile, puts the dog down by a bush to do its business. Then she picks the dog back up and carries him home, clip-clopping past my house in her heels. There's nothing wrong with the dog as far as I can tell. When he's down on the ground he walks normally. It's not like he's lame. But for whatever reason, he gets carried around. I find this wonderfully amusing.

I have yet to unpack my books or hang pictures. I guess a small part of me is hoping we'll move back to my old neighborhood. Back to my "real" home. I know this is magical thinking. I just feel so displaced. Ten years is a long time to live in one place—at least, for me—and I put down roots. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. I felt attached to everything in my old neighborhood. The trees, the roses in my garden, the mourning doves that came every spring, the way the light came in through my front door in the late afternoons, my painting area, the twins' room, the wallpaper in my bedroom...

I've been thinking a lot about what makes a home. Is it the house itself? Is it the people? If you move your belongings from one place to another place, is the new place Home? Does owning your home make it more home than renting it?

The landlord wouldn't allow us to bring dogs to this rental home and we were in such a rush with the short escrow that we had to re-home them. I miss my dogs more than I can say. So much has changed in the last year and I wonder if I'll ever feel like I'm truly HOME again. Even our family dynamic is changing. Our oldest child has moved out permanently. The next kid moves out in a year. I feel a sense of loss over this. When I think of my family, somehow the image in my mind is stuck in the past. All the kids are little. Everyone is happily ensconced in our old home. The dogs are running around the back yard.

That season of my life is over and I'm having a hard time letting go.

All I can do is take it one day at a time. It's summer now and the kids are out of school. They wake up later. I let them sleep. I have my morning coffee alone in a quiet house. Today I’ll do some laundry and we’ll go to the community pool. I’m trying to sink into the rhythm of summer.

A few weeks ago I was driving near my old neighborhood and thought: "Should I drive past my old house?" But then I decided against it. I couldn't bear to see it. I miss it too much.

 

How to Wait

This past week I found myself incredibly impatient with waiting. There are a lot of changes happening my life right now and I wanted things to hurry up and get done. I just wanted it OVER.

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It takes courage to wait well.

Perhaps this is why the Psalmist writes of waiting on the Lord: “Be of good courage and He shall strengthen thine heart, wait, I say, on the Lord.” Psalm 27:14

The default state of my heart is restlessness and wandering. It is only when I staple my heart to the promises of God that I find rest. God’s promises are unfailing. I have to remind myself that God isn’t working on my time table. And even when it seems that God isn’t working at all (or that God has abandoned me), I have to remind myself that God’s ways are not my ways and I can’t go on only what I see but must trust that God knows what He is doing.

Waiting is about trusting.

Perhaps this is why waiting is so hard. It's a test of our faith.

Waiting in faith means trusting that God knows better than I do. So often it is my own tangled thinking that gets me in trouble. In fact, my very best thinking often lands me in the precarious position of clinging to things I’m supposed to let go of or grasping for things that are not meant for me. It’s far better for me to learn to “let go and let God” which is a phrase I learned in 12-step groups.

So, if waiting is about trusting which is an exercise of faith: how do we find equilibrium and contentment while waiting?

I find it by yielding to God. Usually this happens through prayer, service or practicing gratitude.

It’s nothing profound or complicated. It’s usually just a small moment of intentionally yielding my life, my plans, my ideas back to God. When I do so, I feel the release. It feels like the weight has been lifted off my shoulders. That’s when I realize I’d been carrying a burden I wasn’t meant to carry. I was thinking that it was all on my shoulders. But it’s not all up to me. This is the gift of grace: yielding back to God and letting Him handle the things I can’t do on my own.

Waiting is about taking it one day at a time.

Perhaps of all the lessons I learned in 12-step groups, the most important was to take it one day at a time. It sounds simple but the practice of living one day at a time is actually really difficult. My tendency is to live in the future or in the past. I want to control what happens next or I refuse to change with the times and just keep doing what I’ve always done (even when that doesn’t work anymore).

It's so tempting to "run ahead of God." I want to know the exact outcomes, I want to know HOW things will work out and WHEN. I would like advance warning and minute-by-minute updates. But that's not how life works. It's not how God works.

God works in His own time according to His own ways. God is not on my schedule. And that's OK. I can learn to wait (and learn to wait well) by accepting that waiting is big part of life. Everyone has to wait for things whether they like it or not. Instead of throwing an tantrum and trying to manipulate things to work out the way I want them to, I can rest with courage.

Waiting is about learning patience.

Sometimes this means I let my mind focus and rest on other things besides the thing I'm waiting for. In most cases there is little I can do to speed things up or make the waiting go faster. I usually don't have control over how long things take. Patience is a difficult virtue to learn precisely because I am so impatient! 

I am finding that God wants me to find delight in the waiting. This means I can find other things to do. One of the best ways to wait well is to use that time to serve others. When I'm focusing on what others need, I am less focused on what I don't have. When I am giving myself to others I find God giving Himself to me. And that is the best gift of all. It is the gift of grace. 

I find God in the waiting.

 

Side effects may include: atheism
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I quit taking two of my psychotropic medications and suddenly, I believe in God again. [ NOTE: I did this under my doctor's care and according to his orders. I didn't quit my meds just because I wanted to. Don't do that! ]

So, yeah. Apparently one of the side-effects of mood stabilizers is atheism. At least, for me. Somehow, these drugs seem to shut down the God-receptors in my brain. Here’s how it happened:

Last month I developed a rash from Lamictal. It gave me a good scare because my doctor had warned me that sometimes Lamictal can cause a FATAL rash (Google “Lamictal rash” for fun pictures).

Anyway, so there I was with two rashes. One on each leg. And I was like: OMG WHAT IF THIS BECOMES FATAL? So, I went to the doctor and they took me off the medication immediately. And then wonderful things happened:

1. I didn’t die,

2. the rashes went away

3. and I began to feel my life again.

Mood stabilizers numb me out. I mean, sure. I don’t have mood swings. I don’t have mania. But I also can’t feel ANYTHING. Everything is just blahhhhhh.

In the past three weeks I’ve felt my life coming back to me. It’s like my emotions are coming back to life. And here’s the best part: I have faith again. Remember how just last month I was deep in the throes of a spiritual crisis? I mean, I was doubting EVERYTHING about my faith right down to whether the Resurrection was real. Also of note: I was on TWO mood stabilizers.

What if my doubts were the result of medication? What if the mood stabilizers also numbed out my spirituality?

That freaks me out. But it’s also kind of a relief because for awhile there I thought I was becoming an atheist. I was reading memoirs about people losing their faith. II was reading research about how lack of dopamine in the brain affects the ability to believe in God. I was getting all depressed because I felt alone in the universe and very, very small. So insignificant. I wondered if God even cared about me anymore.

I don’t know what to make of all this. I didn’t realize that my faith in God was so dependent upon brain chemistry. Does my faith require a certain combination of neurotransmitters in order to exist? At the very least it seems to require a certain combination of neurotransmitters in order for me to FEEL like my faith exists.

Is my faith so weak that it falls apart when my brain isn’t producing the right chemical balance? Or is my faith’s sensitivity an indicator of its great strength? I can’t decide which it is.

Regardless, this experience has shown me in unequivocal terms that I am a deeply spiritual person and that I rely on my spirituality to help me get through life. I need prayer. I need words from Scripture. I need the Sacraments. These things nourish and sustain me. They ease my anxiety. These things provide true and real comfort to me.

But in order for me to feel my faith, I can’t be numbed out completely on psychotropic medication. It’s a delicate balance, finding the sweet spot where the medication is helping me but not causing intolerable side effects. Becoming an atheist is, for me, an intolerable side effect!

This whole thing has made me question whether faith is something within our control. I used to believe that faith was something I was in charge of; something I could manipulate simply by doing x,y and z. Praying, reading Scripture, doing Bible Studies, going to church...I simply assumed that if I did all of these things then I would have a vibrant faith.

Little did I know that my faith was more about whether or not I was on mood stabilizers.

This makes me wonder if faith is something God gives to people rather than something people get as a result of working at it. It seems to me that faith is more of a gift, something God gave me rather than anything I did or didn’t do in order to have it.

Of course, there are “best practices” for creating an environment where faith can grow. It helps to have a faith community. It helps to be married to a believing spouse. It helps to know how to pray and read Scripture. It helps to know how to meditate. But ultimately, I’m beginning to believe that faith isn’t something we work for, faith is a gift. It’s something given to us.

Honestly, this makes a lot more sense to me. It also gives me greater compassion for those who simply can’t believe. I used to think that unbelievers were choosing their lack of faith. I sort of looked down at them, assuming that if they just prayed more, hung out with other people of faith and engaged in faith practices, then they would have faith. But I don’t believe that anymore. I mean, I lost my faith not because I got disillusioned with the church or because I wasn’t praying or going to church. I lost my faith by taking a few pills every morning. And I got it back by not taking those pills. So, yeah. It wasn’t like I chose it. It just happened.

Once again this makes me ask the question about whether or not what I believe is real and true. But that question no longer bothers me. It’s real enough for me. That’s all that really matters. I have a mustard-seed faith and even if it can’t be proven scientifically, the truth is that it provides me with tangible benefits. It makes me a less anxious person. It makes me a more loving and compassionate person. It helps me live according to my values. It’s a faith that works even if it’s a faith I didn’t work for. It’s just there.

This past Easter was one of the happiest I could remember. I could FEEL my love for Jesus again. I felt such gratitude for His friendship; such gratitude for His love for me. And I was relieved to discover that Jesus hadn’t gone anywhere. My bout of atheism hadn’t changed anything for Him. He remained faithful. He remained loving. He continued to offer me the Eucharist. I find that so comforting. I find it so truly wonderful that God loves me with such unconditional love. And that that love is not dependent on whether I believe in it. That love just IS.

I am walking away from this experience having learned (once again) that God is so much bigger than I thought He was. And I am so so grateful for that. God is bigger than my imagination. God is bigger than big. Love is bigger than I imagined it. Love is not dependent on my ability to conceive it or categorize it or control it. It’s entirely OUT of my control and that is the most wonderful thing of all.

Side-effects of faith may include: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

 

A new story! A love story! Come read "Leaving California"!

I hope you liked reading my thriller last week. In case you haven't caught up yet, I finished that one and have now begun writing a new story called LEAVING CALIFORNIA. It's about a guy named Sam who returns home after ten years away. He's only home to attend his mother's funeral and doesn't plan on staying long. But then he sees Sarah. His childhood sweetheart. Will the bonds of the past convince him to come home or confirm why he needs to leave again—this time for good?

Elizabeth EstherComment
A Day in the Life of Bipolar Depression
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When I wake up in a depressive bipolar fog, I have to be very careful and gentle with myself. Last Monday, I woke up feeling horrible. Super fatigued (despite sleeping deeply all night) and depressed. Getting out of bed felt impossible. I got up anyway. Fed the dogs. Painted for a little while. Made the twins’ lunches. But that was all I could manage. I went back to bed and slept. Matt made breakfast and got the kids off to school.

Later that morning I got up again. Showered. Dressed. A little makeup.

I had a goal: make dinner. I didn’t want my family to have to eat take-out again. I wanted to make dinner. Even if it was the only thing I did all day, I just wanted to make dinner for my family. Small goals are sometimes all I can handle when I’m in a depressive bipolar fog.

I research a casserole to bake and take my time writing the ingredient list. Then I drive to the grocery store.

I’m always uncomfortable in a grocery store. The lights are so bright. The music piped in over the speakers is always too loud. There are so many options and so many aisles. There’s always the chance of running into someone I know and then I’ll have to force myself to smile and engage in small talk (which feels impossible when I’m in a bipolar fog). It’s overwhelming to me. This is why a list helps. It keeps me on track. I keep a pen in my purse at all times and I cross off my items as I go along.

I get a deep sense of satisfaction in working my way through the list, crossing off items. It makes me feel like I’m being productive, accomplishing something tangible. When I’m in a bipolar fog, it’s important for me to DO things even though I don’t feel like I can. Because when I DO things, I always feel better afterwards.

I get anxious in checkout lines. The person behind me watches me unload my groceries onto the conveyor belt. I feel like I’m going too slow. They want me to hurry up. Another twinge of anxiety ripples up my spine. And then, paying. Will my credit card go through? Will it approve the amount? I always hold my breath, even when I know there’s enough money in the account. One can never be sure.

I finish at the grocery store and make my way to the car. Parking lots are scary for me. I’m always on edge in parking lots. So many people don’t look behind them before backing out of their parking space. I’m always afraid I might get hit. What if someone hits an empty shopping cart? Why don’t people return their shopping carts instead of abandoning them next to other cars? But I made it to the car without incident. This, too, felt like a victory.

Back at home, unloading the groceries feels like another Herculean task. I have to make sure and keep the dogs inside while going in and out of the front door. Unloading the groceries takes time. I should have cleaned out the fridge before I went to the store. I make a mental note to do this next time. I’m running out of energy as I finish unloading the groceries. But I don’t stop. I need to do the meal prep otherwise it might not get done.

I chop an onion and two cloves of garlic. I brown the meat. Add tomato sauce and spices. James is home from school because he’s developed a bad cough. He sits at the table and eats some soup I bought at the store. I like having his company even though he doesn’t talk to me. He has his ear buds in and is watching YouTube. I don’t mind. I’m just glad he’s there. Sometimes being alone all day isn’t good for me. The thoughts in my mind get too loud. Being near another human being reminds me that the thoughts in my mind are just thoughts. They aren’t reality. I can ignore them. I sing a little song to myself.

I make a white sauce and add Parmesan cheese. I pour the cheesy sauce over the Ziti noodles. I transfer the noodles to a 13x9 baking dish. Pour the meat sauce on top and spread mozarella cheese and breadcrumbs over it. It’s ready to bake. I cover it with foil and pop it in the fridge. Now all I have to do before dinner is bake it.

By this time, I’m utterly spent. I feel as if I’ve run a marathon. I need to lie down again. I crawl under my covers and put a pillow over my head. I need to block out everything. I sleep again.

It’s time to prepare a snack for the twins arriving home from school. I heave myself out of bed and stumble downstairs feeling for all the world like someone hit me over the head with a 2x4. The negative, racing thoughts are back. I push them aside. Sometimes I repeat little made-up songs and ditties just to keep my brain busy, just to keep it from thinking all the thoughts. I am so tired. So very, very tired. I feel like I’m dragging a 200 lb. bowling ball around with me. I just want to go back to bed.

But it’s important for me to be present for my kids. I don’t want their primary memories of me to be mom in bed, mom tired, mom not present. I plaster a smile on my face as they walk in the door. They don’t need to know how hard I’m trying. I want home to be a place they love returning to every day.

I kiss and hug them. I sit them down at the table and serve snacks. Today it’s a cup of chili and crackers, a glass of milk. They like a good, hearty snack after school. They come home ravenous. I feed them and we talk about their day. They fill me in on everything that happened at school. Who got in trouble, who didn’t finish their homework, who they played with at recess, how they’re practicing for an upcoming school musical. Then they start their homework. I go back upstairs to my bedroom.

All I want to do is lie down again and put a pillow over my head. But I don’t. I force myself to sit up and crochet. The twins come in and out of the room to ask for help with their homework. This is why I don’t lie down: they might need me.

After their homework, they go outside to play. Now I can lie down again. I crash. This is my last chance to rest before final dinner prep. Soon it’s late afternoon and I call the twins inside. It’s time to get dinner ready. The twins set the table. I put the casserole in the oven. I think about making a salad but I’m too exhausted. The casserole will have to be enough tonight.

Matt arrives home. I am so thankful and happy to see him. Now I have some help. We eat dinner together as a family. The older boys tell us about their day. We talk politics. We talk about world events. My eyes are getting blurry and I feel like my mouth is full of cotton. I need to go to bed. I can’t do anymore today. I just can’t. Matt sees the look on my face and gently suggests I go back to bed. I drag myself upstairs. I feel like the world is ending. I have a combination of regret (because I’m missing some of the conversation downstairs), exhaustion, guilt and an overall sense that I’m not doing a good job. I hate having bipolar. It affects everything in my life. I start crying in bed.

After finishing the dishes, Matt comes upstairs and checks on me. “Don’t feel bad, little Moesh. You did a good job.” It’s hard to believe him but I tell my brain to shut up and just believe.

“Don’t try to do any thinking right now,” Matt says. “I think you need to watch a show or listen to one of your podcasts.”

I turn on Netflix and watch Parks & Rec until my eyes grow heavy. I’m asleep by 7:45pm. This is my day with bipolar.

 

How do we know God is real?

Well, two things are certain—/ the sun will rise and the sun will set. / Most everything else is up for grabs. —Charles Wright, “Crystal Declension”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we know that what we know is true. Ever since Katherine's death, I no longer see things the way I used to see them. I no longer feel things the way I used to feel them. I didn't expect this upheaval to affect my understanding of God. But it has.

How do I know that what I know is true?

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And I think I’ve found some semblance of an answer: I don’t.

I don’t know.

I have/had a faith that I believed was true but even then, I didn’t know that it was true.

People will tell you that they know their beliefs are true. But what they’re really saying is that they believe their beliefs are true.

They know what they believe and they believe what they know. But they can’t know whether those beliefs are universally true because it’s not provable either way. They have faith that those beliefs are true but that’s still different from actually knowing.

In their book, How God Changes Your Brain, neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman write that: “As far as we can tell, the human brain does not even worry if the things it sees are actually real. Instead, it only needs to know if it is useful for survival.” (page 6)

Turning this toward a belief in God, we believe God to be true because we exercise that belief. Whether or not God is real is not provable, anecdotal experience notwithstanding.

These scientists have also discovered that the more you meditate upon God and think about God, the more real God becomes to you.

New neural pathways are built and reinforced every time you exercise your brain to think about God and your beliefs about God. Which begs the question: is God just a manufactured product of our brains?

I was worried that I’ve believed in a serotonin induced God and not the real God—if there is such a thing/person. But over the last week or so I’ve come to think that it doesn’t matter whether my concept of God is true or not. It’s real enough and true enough that it’s changed my life for the better. I've had spiritual experiences where I felt God's presence and experienced it as unconditional love, a complete and total peace, a deep assurance that everything was going to be OK. Surely that was real? Even if my brain conjured it up as a means of survival—even then I trust it and believe it. I believe my experiences.

But still, I don’t know if God is real-real. God is real for me. But IS God real? I don't know.

I'm beginning to think that if there is a God, He/She is bigger than the Bible. The Bible cannot contain God, neither can any religion. God is bigger than big. God is bigger than my brain is capable of understanding.

I still believe there is some form of Ultimate Truth; but I don't think I can know it. I can see fragments of it. I can see glimpses of it. But I don’t know the whole picture.

According to neuroscientists, if I want to believe in God (which I do), then I need to keep going to church. I need to keep being around people who believe. I need to keep practicing prayer and Scripture reading and journaling. The more I do this, the more I believe.

So, today I went to Mass. We always go to Mass on Sundays. But today I went with the hope that I'd feel something again, that in the bread and wine, liturgy and prayers, in the repetition of ancient Tradition, I'd find my way back to belief.

And I found it. Just a glimpse. Just through the glass darkly. But God was there. And God was within me. And God was all around me.

It was just a glimpse. But it was enough. Lord, help my unbelief. Jesus, help me TO believe.

 

The Day After The End of the World (a short story by EE)

I submitted this story to three magazines and got three rejections. I still think it's one of my best pieces of writing. I thought my readers deserved to see it. So, here it is. Enjoy. xo, EE.

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She’d been putting it off for months. She still didn’t want to look.

Instead, she sat by the window for a long time—and hour at least—watching the late afternoon light shift and change, disappearing for a moment behind the scattered clouds and then slipping out again. Every time the sun reappeared, the gingko trees on the opposite side of the street startled awake, flaring yellows and ochres.

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Last year at this time she’d painted the trees. The light had mesmerized her then, too—albeit for different reasons. Last year she was looking at it with an artist’s eye. Today, as she held up that painting against the window and compared it to this year’s colors—she was looking for something else. There. There it was. Something was different. The leaning tree was leaning more and another tree was still fully dressed in greens. The gingko trees which, last year, had all turned in a synchrony of brilliance, now seemed to be turning at varying rates.

She’d lived in this apartment for ten years. For a decade she’d watched those trees turn in tandem. She considered for a moment whether climate change was to blame. Probably. But she hoped it was something else: a sign of impending doom. She felt a faint thrill of hope. She walked to the kitchen and checked the calendar hanging on her fridge. It had only been a week. It felt like a year.

She tried not to look at the angry “X” slashing across last week. But beneath it, she could still see the word “RAPTURE” written in confident all-caps. The End of the World was supposed to happen last Tuesday. The only thing that’d happened was a Past Due notice landing her mailbox. She was late on rent. Late on utilities. Late on everything. Of course she was; why pay bills when the world was ending? Why check that lump in her breast?

“You know,” her old neighbor, Mr. Baker, had said to her last week when he spotted her huffing down the hallway with a bag of trash. “If you look for signs that the world is ending, you’ll find them.”

She’d shot him a dirty look.

“It doesn’t mean the world is actually ending, though,” he called after her. “I thought you’d be glad to hear this!”

She didn’t reply, just continued down the hall to the trash chute. The fact that she still was taking out the trash when she was supposed to be in Heaven was extremely frustrating. Not to mention highly inconvenient now that she was jobless, broke and basically friendless. She tossed her trash down the chute, thinking it was just like how she’d tossed away her life savings to Brother Samuel.

But today she felt a little better, even if it was only because of the gingko trees and the matter of their belated turning. Once again she felt something almost akin to hope.

The gingko trees were definitely telling her something. Perhaps they were telling her that Brother Samuel had simply gotten the date wrong; that if he could just see her gingko trees, he’d realize his prediction was only a few days off, or maybe a few weeks. A couple of years. It was an understandable mistake given the billions of years of Earth history. Anyone could make a mistake like that. There was no need to run off and leave everyone hanging. She needed to tell him this. She needed to encourage him.

Instinctively she reached for her phone and pulled up her text messages before she remembered he was gone. Brother Samuel had simply disappeared. Like the sun behind a fog bank. Just poof! Gone. And with him, all her money.

Nobody seemed to know where he’d gone or when (if) he’d be back. His sad, little tribe of followers met last Thursday night at a coffee shop once it was clear the world wasn’t ending. The stock market, in fact, was up. Way up. The unemployment numbers were down. Way down.

Since their church building was locked and the only person with a key was Brother Samuel, they shuffled around the coffee shop like refugees, unsure whether to sit or stand.

“The radio says this might be the end of the Recession,” someone finally said, by way of breaking the ice.

“Is there a refund for the world not ending?” another guy half-joked and everyone half-laughed. It was a painful joke. They’d all been secretly hoping the same thing.

“My daughter who hasn’t talked to me in five years called,” said an old woman. “I let her go to to the answering machine. I couldn’t bear to hear her say, ‘I told you so.’”

“I need to go to the dentist,” someone else said. “I put it off because who needs a new crown when you’re about to get an entirely new body?”

She could relate. Months ago she’d put off seeing a doctor about the odd lump in her left breast. And now, a week after the world didn’t end, she finally forced herself look at her breasts in the mirror. Slowly, she unfastened her bra.

The lump was misshapen like a smashed golf ball and pulled her nipple sideways. She touched it gingerly. It was hard and unmoving. She turned away from the mirror quickly and buttoned up her shirt.

She allowed herself the smallest of gin martinis with a bright twist of lemon. As she took her first sip she felt a sting of guilt—Brother Samuel strictly forbade alcohol. The hell with it. He was gone, everything was ruined, why not have a drink?

She settled herself, feet up against the windowsill. She sipped her drink and watched the blanched light slowly die, the street lights blinking on pre-emptively when the sun dipped behind a tall building. The thought came to her that she wanted someone in her life who would call and say: “I told you so.” How nice to have someone who would do that—a daughter who had not called for five  years, sure, but a daughter who called eventually. A person who cared.

But she didn’t have anyone like that. All her friends—more like acquaintances, really—were just other people in Brother Samuel’s church and after the world didn’t end, none of them felt like talking to each other. None of Brother Samuel’s followers had become particularly close during those two years leading up to the big day. He was far too brilliant a light. They couldn’t look away from him.

They were a ragtag band of mostly college-aged misfits. Some still attended school. Others worked entry level jobs. She went to a community college part-time and worked in a small tourist shop near Disneyland selling souvenirs and postcards with Mickey Mouse saying Wish You Were Here! But she was fired for telling tourists The End of the World was nigh. There wasn’t much commonality between Brother Samuel’s followers except all of them seemed to crave a deeper meaning to life, a purpose bigger than themselves. Or, in her case, an excuse not to get that lump checked. That was eighteen months ago. A lifetime ago.

In hindsight she could see how annoying/alarming she must have sounded to her family and non-church friends; how she’d yammered on and on about the end of the world: sell all you have and give it to this dude named Brother Samuel. No, I promise this isn’t a cult.

It was dark when she stood up and went back to the kitchen to make another martini. She felt warm, weightless and filled with a kind of glowing radiance. She hummed a little as she poured the gin. This wasn’t so bad, the world not ending. Maybe she could find a way to enjoy life again—but then she remembered the lump. Might as well make light of that, too. She decided to name the lump Herbert. A friendly sort of name for an unfriendly sort of thing.

“To Herbert!” she said, raising her glass.

The dark apartment offered no response but the streetlights seemed to be winking at her through the fluttering leaves of the gingko trees across the street. She winked back. All in good cheer. One for all and all for whatever.

Maybe just one more drink. One for my baby and one for the road, she hummed as she fixed herself the martini. She threw it back, quickly. It burned her throat and made her eyes water but she didn’t care.

Let it burn. Let it light her up like the noonday sun.

 

Elizabeth Esther Comments
Holy Spirit or Manic Episode?

Some of my most meaningful religious experiences happened while I was manic. Or otherwise impaired. Perhaps I was PMSing. Perhaps I'd just given birth. Perhaps I hadn't eaten for a whole day. Perhaps I was deliriously depressed. Regardless, I can't remember one religious experience where I was wholly sane, not under stress, fully in control of my wits and emotionally sober (so to speak).

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Which begs the question: were my religious experiences the Holy Spirit or just misfiring neurotransmitters?  

In other words, were those experiences real?

I don’t know the answer to that question.

Most of the time I’m OK with not knowing whether my religious experiences were real. They were real enough that I experienced something beautiful and larger than myself, something comforting and life-affirming. They were real enough that I was able to have faith in God. My experience of the divine doesn’t become less real just because it may have been brought on by, say, an overdose of serotonin.

Still, there’s a part of me that really wants to know if what I experienced was real. Objectively real. Empirically real. Because if it wasn’t real, then I’m afraid it’s not true, that I’m simply believing in something conjured up by my feelings and mood.

This is why I’m suspicious of worship services that are geared toward evoking emotional responses. The more smoke-machines and emotionally-fraught music, the more wary I am. The more deeply emotional the experience, the more uncomfortable I am. Not because I don’t find it beautiful. But because I’m worried that a purely emotional response does not accurately reflect reality.

I can feel all kinds of emotions but that does not mean that what I’m feeling accurately reflects what is true.

This is why I’m wary of an experience-based faith. In our faith sub-culture, we place a lot of value on personal experience. We have a whole discipline of “personal testimony” where we bear witness to what God has done in our lives. We share these testimonies with others. And we'd never dare question these testimonies because doing so is almost like questioning God.

In a broader sense, Americans don’t question others’ experiences because that’s a form of “erasure.”

We don’t question our own experiences because we’ve been conditioned to view our own personal experiences as an ultimate form of truth.

“I experienced x, y and z, therefore my conclusions about it represent the truth.”

We even allow eye witness experience in a court of law although scientific experiments have shown just how unreliable eye witness accounts can be.

Personal experience isn’t the whole story. It's one part. I'm worried that to pedestal personal experience is to deny the fact of human limitation. There is so much we don’t know and can’t see. There is so much of the human experience and ultimate reality which we can never know simply because we are not omniscient. We are bound by time and space.

We can only base our beliefs upon fragments. T.S. Eliot once wrote: “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.”

Are these fragments of personal experience enough to shore us against the pounding surf of entropy? Are my personal experiences of God—whether they happened during moments of mania or  not—enough to give me an objective understanding of the Divine?

In the end, fragments are all I have. I suppose faith is the cobbling together of these fragments and believing that they somehow represent the whole, that they are capable of pointing us toward Ultimate Truth.

These fragments are all I have. I can only hope they are enough.

 

The freedom of self-forgetfulness

I started and quit another full-time job. After the two week training, I worked one full day and was like: oops. Apparently I need to try all the jobs before learning (again) that I can’t work full-time.

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Every time I try to work a full-time job, my brain wigs out. I get all intensely stressed, break out in hives and psoriasis, start thinking everyone is mad at me and then my vision goes blurry and I feel like fainting. It’s like my brain overheats or something.

I’m a great starter, though! I'm full of passion! excitement! and can-do-attitude!

But I'm an even better quitter. To that end, I’ve put together a handy little list of tips for quitting your job with panache, with flair, with wild abandon. Feel free to steal these tips and use them yourself. They're guaranteed to make you feel less alone in this cold, dark, lonely world.

  1. Apply for a job everyone says is not a good fit for you.
  2. Apply for it anyway because darnit, people can’t tell YOU what to do.
  3. Go in for your first day and hate it immediately.
  4. And intensely.
  5. But keep going because YOU WILL CONQUER.
  6. Break out in hives.
  7. Break out in psoriasis.
  8. Break down in tears.
  9. Have a random allergy attack and start sneezing all over customers.
  10. Go home, cry into your soup and realize: everyone was right, this job is not a good fit for you, text your boss you’re quitting, rub eczema ointment on your psoriasis and go to bed for three days.

Traditional jobs will never be a good fit for me because of my artistic personality. I’m happiest when I’m creating my art—whether in word, paint or fabric. And what this artist needs most is to embrace her art-making. I haven’t embraced that because I still have this idea that unless I’m selling my art, it’s worthless. This is untrue. Success as an artist is not determined by sales. I know this but I don’t live like this is true.

So much of my journey through mental illness is a journey of self-acceptance.

Understanding and accepting my limitations, learning to celebrate and embrace who I am (an artist!) and what I can and cannot do (work a full-time job!), accepting without shaming myself for not being able to do what others can do. 

Acceptance is really hard, you guys. I would like to be like all the other cool kids who can work jobs and not have total meltdowns in the middle of their shift. But then again, maybe I don't want to be anyone else. Maybe this whole mental illness thing is a big lesson in learning to love and accept myself, as myself.

There's a difference between self-acceptance and self-indulgence, don't you think?

Self-acceptance is a worshipful posture; it agrees with God about who we are and who we are not. Self-indulgence is a me-centered posture; it places ourselves in the center of our lives as God.

My default is to grovel in the dirt, full of self-loathing. But this, too, is a kind of self-indulgence. God doesn't see me as a vile worm, unworthy of His love. Self-acceptance is loving the sacred self God made in us which bears the image of His own Self. The beauty of our self is owed to the One whom it reflects: God. Just as the beautifully sculpted marble reflects the skill of the sculptor, so, too, our selves reflect His skill and limitless glory. We do not look at a statue and think: wow, this statue really did a great job sculpting itself! We look at a statue and think: whoa, what amazing artist created this sculpture?

The saints often talk about "self-forgetfulness" and I think that's an important lesson for me as I learn to live with my mental illness. The saints held everything loosely, including their own lives. The only thing to which they clung was God’s will. And even that they realized was not something which they could accomplish in and of themselves but only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Clinging without grasping. Holding fast without needy desperation. “If I perish, I perish.” Understanding and fully accepting that their lives were not about them but rather about God and the work He was doing.

I think there is a true freedom in this kind of self-forgetfulness. Please understand: I'm not talking about self-erasure or self-loathing. Self-forgetfulness is something else entirely. It is not self-erasure. It is not destroying the self God created for us, as us.

Self-forgetfulness is a grateful acknowledgment that we are not our own; we are bought with a price. It is fully accepting that we are created by our Creator for a specific purpose: to bring Him glory.

It is about the Kingdom He is building, it is about the community of fellow travelers all following the One. This is an eternal and everlasting purpose. It is not fleeting. It does not fade with time.

And when dealing with mental illness, I really need an eternal perspective. A reader named Dina recently helped frame this idea for me. She, too, has struggled with chronic illness and with all those "wasted days" spent in bed. She wrote on my FB page: "When I began to reframe God's purposes for me as ETERNAL, I realized my worth wasn't in the bigness of my life but in the accomplishing of what God has intended all along for me."

When I think about my mental illness this way—as the means through which God is working out His ETERNAL purpose in me—then I am better able to accept my limitations, I am better able to love and celebrate the way God made me, I am better able to love myself as myself.

Elizabeth Esther Comments
Life on Abilify: is it worth it?
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Untreated, bipolar disorder is a burr of restlessness constantly bothering my brain. I feel like something is wrong even if everything is actually ok. I’m always convinced something terrible is just about to happen. I’m up and down all the time. Manic one day, depressed the next. There are mean voices in my head telling me I’m a horrible person, telling me I should just kill myself. Sometimes the voice shouts at me. Sometimes I see things that aren’t there—shadows of people following me. These things are always on the periphery of my vision. I can never really get a good look at them.

But if someone asks me to explain what’s wrong in my life, what I’m worried about, what I’m restless about, I have a hard time pinpointing anything. By all accounts, everything is pretty much ok. Nothing is terribly wrong. My kids are healthy, I have a roof over my head and food on the table. I get to create art and stay home to raise my kids. I should be happy. I should feel normal.

But when my bipolar is untreated, my brain won’t give up until it’s found something—anything—to be suspicious about. My brain can collect evidence of wrongness even when there’s no wrongness to be found. At various times in my life I’ve become unwaveringly convinced that I didn’t have enough pets (I had five), that my husband was cheating on me (he wasn’t), that the FBI was spying on me (they weren’t——I think), that I desperately needed an RV (I hate camping). Let’s just put it this way: my untreated bipolar brain likes to lie to me. And many, many times in my life I’ve believed those lies.

Initially, Abilify was a life-saver. No more psychosis, no more suspicions that the FBI was spying on me, no more paranoia. No more dramatic mood swings. No more mean voices in my head.

Everything just leveled out and got really quiet. My brain changed from a storm-tossed ocean to a glassy smooth lake. Worn out and exhausted from the months of mania and depression, I was content to just rest in this newfound quiet. I didn’t even mind that I was putting on weight at an alarming rate. I just wanted to eat and rest.

But eventually, I began to notice that not only was I on a glassy smooth lake, but there was no wind in my sails, either. Everything—everything— was flat.

Sure, I wasn’t irritable anymore. The usual things that annoyed me—a barking dog, grumpy customers at work, traffic noise, jerks on the highway, the kids being too loud—just didn’t bug me. I didn’t get angry, either. One time I tried to hang onto my anger but it was slipped through my fingers like sand. I couldn’t stay angry. I couldn’t feel it. The same thing went for joy. I no longer feel joy. I don’t feel happy about anything. I don’t have that creative spark I’ve always had. I used to be super ambitious and driven to create. But my motivation and drive to create have simply dwindled away.

Even my facial expressions are flat. My husband says he has a hard time reading my emotions now because they don’t show as much on my face. Sometimes I’ll catch him chuckling when he looks at me and when I ask why he’ll say: “You have that blank, innocent look on your face again.”

But here’s the thing: there are no emotions to read. I feel very little of anything. I don’t feel happy but I don’t feel sad, either. Everything just feels sort of numb.

I can watch violent movies now and not be bothered. But at the same time, beautiful music no longer moves me. I can see a beautiful sunset and think: Meh, no big deal. Before, this would inspire me to write poetry. Now, I just yawn.

That’s another thing. I yawn all the time. I can sleep and sleep and sleep. I’m always sleepy. Not tired, just sleepy. I feel as if I’m never fully awake. I can drink a gallon of coffee and not feel perked up in the slightest. I can drink coffee at 8pm and it won’t keep me up.

My sex drive has totally disappeared. I feel asexual. Like I could go for the rest of my life without sex and not miss it too much.

The one thing I do feel is the absence. I miss things. I remember what it used to feel like to feel intimate, to feel alive, to experience the joys and sorrows of life. I feel the absence of those things.

Everything is flat except my appetite. In two months I’ve gained 23 pounds and I’m still gaining.

I’ve had to buy bigger pants. Sometimes it seems like eating is the only joy I have left in life. Nothing else makes me happy.

But I’m worried about going off Abilify because what if the emotions come back too strongly? I’m worried that even a lower dosage of Abilify will bring back the roller-coaster emotions again. What if the mean voices come back? What if I start seeing shadows again? This is all just so hard.

I’m going to see a new psychiatrist this week. I’m hoping he’ll be able to help me.




 

I'm always a nihilist at 2am.
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I’m always a nihilist at 2am. Then again, it’s 2am. Here's a handy little life-hack: don't try to solve all the world’s problems at 2am. Or when you're tired. Or when your chronic illness flares up.

I’m always a nihilist when my mental illness flares up. It's hard to stay cheery about life when all I can see is unending struggle.

Both of the following statements are true:

  1. God is good.
  2. Chronic illness sucks.

I have to remind myself that one truth does not cancel out the other.

When my illness is flaring, it’s easy to see everything that’s wrong with my life. I have no friends, my oven is broken, I’m overweight and I keep forgetting to pay my credit card bill. It’s at these moments when I need to just calm down and give myself a break.

I shouldn't task my brain with the impossible task of fixing everything all at once.

On my Facebook page, a reader named Sandra noted that those who suffer from chronic illnesses are more prone to a nihilistic outlook on life. This resonated with me. Nihilism suggests there is no ultimate meaning to life; that the rules, mores and morals governing our lives are arbitrary, the conventions of whatever dominant system is in power. The lack of meaning is what resonates with me.

When you're in constant pain or dealing with a never ending, chronic illness—it’s really hard to believe God has some grand purpose for your life.

Chronic mental illness has also forced me to re-examine the very premise of that idea. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I always heard that God had a grand purpose for my life, that God’s plans for my life could be found in the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”(Jeremiah 29:11)

But how does this verse apply when faced with the reality of constant, daily battle with chronic illness? When I look back through my life—and especially when I consult my gratitude journal—I can see the fingerprints of God throughout my days. I can see the blessings and the gifts bestowed upon me. But the grand purpose? Participating in the great work of God in my generation? No, I don't see that. Maybe it's not there. Or maybe God's definition of "plans to prosper" me are much smaller than I imagined. And maybe that's OK.

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I suppose learning to find the blessings in my life may mean learning to grapple with the constraints of my chronic illness. The poet does not give up hope when confronted by the constraints of a sonnet. Rather, perhaps, the rules and limitations of a sonnet provide a fine chisel to refine the poet’s choice of words. Could it be the same be said for me?

Could my life's purpose find its fulfillment under the refining chisel of mental illness?

Maybe what I don’t like is the fact that this requires discipline. Finding life's purpose and meaning doesn’t just happen by itself. I have to work at it. I have to struggle, even.

I have to remember that I was made for the struggle. Perhaps the struggle itself is the meaning I’ve been searching for because in the struggle I find strength I didn’t know I had, I find courage in the face of fear, I find love in the midst of pain. I wouldn’t have found these things if I didn’t have to struggle.

Perhaps the illness isn't a curse after all. Perhaps it is a gift.

 

 

"Blessed are the manic for they shall obtain mood stabilizers" #BipolarStories Part 3

Here's a handy guide for surviving a manic episode:

  1. Temporary tattoos. I repeat. TEMPORARY tattoos. You do not need to come out of a manic episode and discover you’ve had PEACE LOVE DONUTS permanently tattoo’d across your chest.
  2. Same goes for body piercing. You don’t need to discover, post-mania, that you’re now the proud owner of a septum ring. Faux nose rings are your friend.
  3. Hide the credit cards. Better yet, have your spouse/significant other/best friend keep them for you until the mania passes. I know you feel really strongly that you just MUST HAVE that $2,300 Vitamix blender. I know you truly and fully believe it will change your life forever and that you must have it NOW so you can start whipping up all those kale smoothies but wait. Borrow your friend’s Vitamix. And remember this: you don’t like kale.
  4. No, you don’t need a brand new RV. I know you really, really think you've become an outdoorsy person. But that's just the mania talking. How do I know this? Because you hate camping, that’s why. You’re an indoors kind of girl. You like fuzzy socks and indoor plumbing. You like books and crocheting by the (indoor) fire.
  5. I know! I know! You’re gonna become a real adventurer! You’re gonna sell everything and live out of a van like all those sexy hipsters on Instagram.
  6. But no, you’re not.
  7. Because you’re 40 now and maybe living out of a van was cool and hip and amazing when you were in your early twenties, but now you have children and animals and a mortgage.
  8. Also, you are a person who requires Netflix, a full-size bathtub and a toilet at 2am every night. Camping is not your dealy-o. Just say no to #vanlife.
  9. Get off of Craig’s List. You don’t need to come out of this episode to discover a beatup 1959 Shasta camper parked in your driveway. Because, no, you’re not gonna restore this camper from the moldly floorboards up. These things require experience. Experience which you do not have.
  10. I know you think your husband is ruining all your fun but believe me, you’ll thank him when this is over. (Thanks, Matt).

MEET MY THREE BEST FRIENDS

Meet my three best friends: Lofty, Booty and Billy. These are my nicknames for Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Abilify. Together, these friends of mine work hard to keep my brain from careening off a cliff. They are basically the guardrails of my mind. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes my mind is driving so fast that even the highest guardrail is no match. When I’m manic, almost nothing can stop me. My brain is like a car going downhill without brakes. It’s exciting and utterly terrifying. Mania would be awesome if it weren’t followed so hard by crushing, black-out depression.

Hence, the meds.

Wellbutrin keeps me from getting too depressed, Zoloft prevents me from getting too anxious and Abilify gives me the ability of maintaining a steady mood all day.

At this point in my life, I believe it's my moral obligation to take my meds. 

HELLO INSOMNIA, MY OLD FRIEND

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One of the side effects of my medication is that I have trouble sleeping. As someone who used to sleep deeply and well for most of her life, this is extremely irritating. Well, it was irritating until I began to learn how to use those quiet, insomniac hours for something good. Like writing. Which is what I’m doing right now at 3:01am.

    There was a time when I would have viewed insomnia as more than enough reason to quit my meds. Sleeplessness was not a sacrifice I wanted to make. Insomnia felt wasteful. It made me anxious about how tired I would feel the next day. I’m not saying I’ve gotten to the point where I enjoy being awake when everyone else is sleeping, but my perspective has shifted.

    For one thing, now that I view taking my medication as my personal moral responsibility to myself and those around me, quitting my medication is not an option. This means that insomnia is an unpleasant side effect but it is still better than being wildly manic or crushingly depressed. This is the price I pay. And for the sake of my family, I pay it gladly.

While nothing seems to help my insomnia, what has helped is viewing these wakeful hours from the ancient Christian perspective. Christians have a longstanding tradition of praying through the night. Monks and religious pray the liturgy of the hours and rising at 3 or 4am is not uncommon. Their schedules and timetables are determined by a summons to prayer.

I, too, am finding that these quiet, early morning hours can be redeemed through prayer. They do not have to be wasted. They can be shaped for the glory of God. Through prayer and meditation, I find a freeing self-forgetfulness.

To be clear, self-forgetfulness is not self-erasure. It is not destroying the self God created for me, as me.

It is the ancient Christian understanding that I am created for a purpose—to bring God glory with my life. It is a grateful acknowledgment that I am free from the entanglements of my feelings, my character flaws, even my mental illness. In Christ, I am a new creation. 

Self-forgetfulness is not self-loathing or self-hatred. Rather, it is loving the sacred self God made in me which bears the image of His own self. The beauty of my self is owed to the One whom it reflects: God. Just as the beautifully sculpted marble reflects the skill of the sculptor, so, too, our selves reflect His skill and limitless glory. We do not look at a statue and think: wow, this statue really did a great job sculpting itself! We look at a statue and think: whoa, what amazing artist created this sculpture?

The saints held everything loosely, including their own lives. The only thing to which they clung was God’s will. And even doing God’s will was not something they believed they could accomplish in and of themselves but only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Clinging without grasping. Holding fast without needy desperation. Saying with Queen Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” Understanding and fully accepting that their lives were not about them. But about God and the work God was doing through them.

When I look at these insomniac hours, I begin to feel comforted: that my suffering is not meaningless.

My suffering can be offered up for the benefit of others through prayer; my obedience to treatment and taking my medication provides the opportunity of these hours to cooperate with God’s work; and that, most poignantly, by using these hours to pray I can, perhaps, in some measure, relieve the pain my dearest friend Katherine felt on the night she took her life. These were the hours of her death. These have become the hours of my new life in Christ.

 

"Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted with Xanax" #BipolarStories Part 2
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Four days after my trip to the hospital, my psychiatrist asks me if there is a triggering event that led to the downward spiral of my mental health. Basically, it all started nine months ago: the day I found out my best friend died by suicide. It was a day that would catapult me into full-blown bipolar illness.

a life unfinished

Katherine died in the dark, early morning hours of Monday, January 16th, 2017. 

I’ve read that suicide is impulsive—that even the most carefully constructed suicide plans are made by terribly ill brains that think death is the only option, the only way to be free from pain. 

I think that’s what happened with Katherine. I don't think she realized how much we loved her and needed her. She had no idea how much she would hurt us by leaving. She was worn out and depressed and, as she wrote in her suicide note to me, she felt like she didn't belong in this world. So, she started drinking heavily and one night, after posting on Facebook that she was "just so tired," she lay down on her couch and ended her life. 

She left her condo in a state of dishevelment. Dirty socks on the floor. Dishes on the counter. Half unpacked boxes from a move two years prior still stacked in the guest room. A life unfinished. A life abandoned.

The night before Katherine died, I was coming down with a cold. It was Sunday, January 15th. I could feel that heavy, solid-as-cement feeling weighing down my head. I went to work that night, anyway. Slogged through. I got off around 8pm feeling sick and bone tired. As I drove home, Katherine came to mind. I hadn’t heard from her for a couple days. I knew she was struggling. I just didn't know how severe it had become.

I should call her, I thought as I pulled into my driveway. I should call her tonight.

But I didn’t. It's a decision that still haunts me.

All I wanted to do was go to bed. Around 9:30pm I pulled the covers over my head and fell into a deep, Nyquil-induced sleep.

At that very moment, 2,000 miles away in Tennessee, Katherine was preparing to end her life. It was 11:30pm, her time. In an hour and a half she would send me an email—her suicide note. But I wouldn’t see it because I was fast asleep by then. In fact, I wouldn’t see the email until two mornings later after receiving a phone call from Katherine’s father, informing me of her death.

I should have called her. I think she wanted me to call her. I’m fairly certain she was hoping I would see her email that night and call her because she left her phone on.

You left your phone on.

Why?

I've asked myself this a million times. You sent me a goodbye email.

But you left your phone on.

Oh my god.

Were you hoping—

that maybe—

Even though it was late—it wasn't too late?

That I was somehow still awake?

Were you hoping that I'd call you?

I would have.

 

are you ok?

I was sick in bed all day on Monday and I didn’t check my email. I didn’t log onto Facebook or Twitter. The next morning I felt well enough to get up and I checked my Facebook messages. A woman I didn’t know had messaged me saying she needed to talk to me about an urgent matter relating to Katherine.

When I saw that message, it was 6:03am on Tuesday, January 17th. My heart dropped. I began texting Katherine frantically. No response. I stared at the screen, willing those little gray flashing dots to appear….nothing. I called her. Her phone rang through. But she didn’t answer. I called again. And again. I left a desperate voicemail for her: “Katherine, call me. I need to know you’re OK.”

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I ran upstairs and pulled up Google maps on my desktop computer. I zoomed in on her address and then slowly zoomed out, looking for hospital markers. I called all the hospitals in her county. Nothing. I called all the hospitals in Nashville.

Nothing.

The worst possibility—the unimaginable possibility—was beginning to dawn in my mind. I pushed it back.

But it wouldn’t go away.

I ran downstairs to the kitchen where my husband, Matt, was preparing breakfast for our children before school.

“Matt, what do I do?” I asked my husband, lowering my voice so I wouldn’t worry the kids. “Do I just start calling the morgues? The coroner’s office?”

Matt shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe she decided she needed a break from everything. What’s to say she didn’t just book a flight and go down to Florida for a few days?”

I understood his reluctance to give in to the worst possibility. No one wants to believe the unbelievable.

“No,” I said. “She’s not spontaneous like that. She plans things like that."

“Then if she’s not impulsive, I doubt she killed her—”

“DON’T SAY IT!” I shrieked. “Don’t say it!”

“Mommy, are you ok?” asked Jorie, one of our twins.

I couldn’t speak. I just stared at her; the horrible possibility becoming a looming inevitability.

“Mommy’s friend might be in some trouble,” Matt explained, as he flipped an egg in the frying pan. He turned to me. “Go ahead and make the calls,” he said. “I’ll get the kids ready for school.”

I climbed the stairs again, my heart thumping wildly. Maybe she accidentally overdosed. I knew she’d been drinking heavily and taking antidepressants.

Once back in my room, I called the morgue in Nashville.

“I’m looking for my friend,” I said to the kind woman who answered the phone. “She’s not answering my calls. She’s not responding to texts. I’ve already called all the—” my voice broke— “hospitals.”

“Well, I can’t give you a positive identification over the phone,” the woman said gently. “But if you give me a description, I can tell you if we have someone here that matches it.”

“She’s 43. White. Her name is Katherine Ray.”
 

“OK...hold on a moment, please.”

She put me on hold and I sat there for what seemed like an hour but which was probably only a few minutes. I bit my nails. I tried to stop crying. Please, please let her not be there.

The line clicked back on. “We do have someone here that matches that description,” the woman said.

I screamed.

“I’m sorry, honey.”

“So, it’s her? It’s really her?”

“I’m sorry but I can’t specifically confirm that or give more information. I’ll have the family call you.”

I could hear the sadness in the woman’s voice. What a terrible job, I thought. To have to break the news of people’s deaths to frantic friends and family members. I felt sudden compassion for her.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much for helping me.”

“OK, honey. Just hang on and I’ll have her dad call you.”

A few minutes later my phone rang. It was Katherine’s father. He confirmed my worst fears. Katherine was gone.

After we'd spoken, I fell on my bed and wept like I'd never wept before. My beloved friend was gone. I didn't even know she'd had a gun.

Into the darkness

Normal brains move through grief in predictable stages. At least, this is what I've heard. There's denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But my brain isn't a normal brain. And my brain got stuck. I wasn't "moving on." I was moving deeper into darkness. First came the anxiety, crushing my chest like an elephant. Around 4pm every day, I felt a vise-like grip in the center of my chest. It was hard to breathe. My brain was working really hard to find answers. In the days and weeks after Katherine's death, I developed a morbid curiosity about every last detail of her death. I wanted to know what exactly happened. What were her last words? What did she drink before she died? What was her last meal? Why did she use a gun? I wanted a specific timeline of events. As if having this information would somehow satisfactorily explain why she took her life.

This is what I learned: there were no good answers. There were answers, sure. But none of them explained WHY. None of them gave me peace. All of them just sent me deeper into grief.

I began to stammer. My hands shook. I lost cognitive function. To deal with the anxiety, my psychiatrist upped my Zoloft dosage. This is when I became manic (except I didn't know it was mania). The mania lasted for several months. I barely remember most of it except that I was making poor decisions. One day I decided to lease a new car. Just because. There was nothing wrong with my old Suburban. I just woke up one morning and felt amazing and on top of the world and OH I NEED A CAR TODAY! YAY! LET'S GO LEASE ONE! My husband was not happy with me. I couldn't understand why. Why wasn't EVERYONE EXCITED LIKE I WAS? Another day, I decided to make a bizarre, workout video and post it all over my social media feeds. My kids were not amused. They were mortified. I deleted the video.

The mania ended with paranoia and believing the FBI was spying on me.

It would take some time, but eventually the right combination of medication would finally pull me out of the raving darkness and into the stable light of day.

to be continued....