When I first started this blog back in the summer of 2007 I was about to fall into one of the darkest times of my life. As I look back at the first several posts, I can see I was still fighting it, still trying to find cheerfulness around me and write about it, even though inside I felt a growing desolation and despair. I had created a category that I called “Wrestling the Tigers” to describe my struggle with migraines, something that I had been dealing with since I was a kid. But a deep depression was settling in as well, and I soon started writing about that under the tigers category. The migraines were to worsen, the depression become debilitating, things in the community get progressively harder, my job as a minister to international students fall apart, and my felt-relationship with God disappear. But in 2007 and 2008 I was still fighting it. I was still trying to find a way to figure out work, to talk through things at the community, to medicate the migraines and the depression, and to re-find the connection I’d had with God.
By the end of 2008 things were falling apart. I moved from one house in the community to another, to try to relieve the strain of one of the difficult relationships, but that triggered more stress and difficulties. I had a scary reaction to a migraine medication and had to miss a work retreat, and when I was scolded and threatened with being put on probation because of it, I finally realized that I was not going to be able to make the job work, and I quit. I tried to rally and choose another career — applied to nursing schools and took a statistics class as a prerequisite. But after a few weeks of struggling to take the two trains to my class every week I realized that going back to school wasn’t feasible. I took a full time nanny job but had to quit after three weeks because I felt so sick. In 2009 I finally gave into the depression and migraines, and collapsed into bed. I stayed there for ten months, getting up only once or twice a day to go downstairs for coffee or food. I hardly left the house or had social interactions beyond a few strained words with my housemates and community-mates. It was next to impossible to chat about normal things when I was in so much pain, both physical and mental, and people soon grew tired of hearing me talk about how bad I was feeling. I don’t blame them. I was sick and tired of talking about it, too. It was easier to be alone.
The worst part about that time, though, was feeling like I’d lost all the ways of connecting with God that used to be so precious to me. Reading the Bible had been as much a part of my day as my morning coffee, but now the words were empty of the power and beauty they used to hold. But it was worse than that: I would read the empty words and remember how much they used to mean, and feel that loss so intensely that I couldn’t bear it. It was too hard. Sometimes I read them anyway, and just cried. Prayer was hard, too. I used to find such solace in prayer, pouring out my heart to my best friend and giving my life to him daily. But now I just felt emptiness. All I could feel was the depression and the constant pain of the migraines.
Then, one day on a whim, I bought a little crucifix online. I was raised in the Protestant tradition and remember being told that Catholic theology was wrong because they kept Jesus on the cross, whereas Protestant crosses were empty, representing the resurrection. When the package came, and I took out the little plastic Jesus it seemed so strange — a little Jesus doll when what I wanted was the real man, present in my heart, mind, and spirit, as he used to be. But one day, when the pain was at its worst, I placed my fingers on the nails in his hands, studied his face and his body, and wept with understanding: Jesus was in pain, too. He was suffering, too. I might not understand why it was happening to me, or why he wouldn’t answer my prayers to take it away, but now I knew that He was in it with me. For the days and months to come I lay in bed, clutching the crucifix to me and crying. Here’s what I wrote one night:
This did not go at all as planned, if I ever had a plan. It had something to do with impressing everybody, but doing it without appearing to, effortlessly, the way I tell jokes,without smiling, looking away afterwards, leaving people to laugh or not, too cool to acknowledge my own cleverness.
But I was broken out of my intellect, my intention, my talent by the brokenness of my body, and though I wanted to relate to Christ in his witty repartee, his compassion, his healing, I now relate most to his twisted form on the cross, eyes shut in pain, not yet dead, not yet resurrected, not yet ascended. My Lord, the suffering, naked, four inch plastic form on the eight inch wooden cross.
I am not making a theology out of this. Far be it from me. I am telling you what I do not know, not what I know. I am in pain all the time. I am dizzy, nauseous, exhausted, and this is before the side effects from the medications kick in.
Jesus’ features are not twisted in agony. If you didn’t know better you might almost think he looked peaceful. But I think that I recognize the movement inward that a long-suffering spirit makes. It is close to meditation. You have less to do with the world, with what is going on around you. Physical and emotional sensation take over and then, somehow, you sink below that, to a place deeper than that.
The contemplatives teach that at our very center the Spirit is constantly praying; that our act of prayer consists of joining in awareness with that ongoing prayer. This is the only kind of prayer I can hope for, now.
I place a finger on each nail and press the wooden cross to my heart, the broken body of Christ against my own.
The dark time lasted for six years, all told. Those two years, from the end of 2007 to the end of 2009 were the worst of it; after that I found a better (for me) migraine doctor and better meds, was able to start working a little bit and exercising, and learned what I needed to do to support my mental health. I still have migraines — almost every day, in fact — but they’re not as bad, and I know how to manage them. The depression has gotten slowly but continually better — these days it only visits occasionally, and I know what to do: Slow down, breath, meditate, do yoga and centering prayer. The spiritual stuff took the longest, though. I’ve written about that elsewhere, and I’m writing more. But for today I wanted to share this post about what the crucifix meant to me in that dark time, in case it might be helpful for someone who is in the darkness now. I don’t know why your prayers for healing have not been answered, or if the answer is, “no” or “not yet.” But I know the God that loves you is with you, and knows how you feel. He suffers with you, as he suffered with me back them. You are not alone.