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She tells me to picture a screen door that leads out to a garden where two children and a dog are playing. A young boy, is squirting his dog and his little sister with a water gun.  The summer sun is hot and the little girl is more interested in picking cherry tomatoes to fill her tummy, leaving her brother to tease the dog.

She tells me to picture a garden where veggies and flowers grow intermingled, and a sandbox where the kids digs for buried treasure that their mom has hidden the night before. These are timeless days. These are the days we cherish, the days we know will be gone in a flash.

She tells me to picture school days and packed lunches, birthday parties and family events. She tells me I can’t even begin to imagine all the things we will learn from these children when they come into our lives. She tells me to hold on to hope.

Hope is a scarce commodity here in the hospital. The nurses would like to dish it out like candy, but real hope doesn’t come cheap. I’ve lost my way during this hospitalization, lost my ability to hope. And the only thing that keeps me holding on is knowing I could never hurt Kathryn by leaving her.

When suicide dances and sings its Siren call, I am mezmerized – taken in like a lost child and given something to hold on to. But suicide is only false hope, is only defeat. My life is meant for more, the life Kathryn and I share is meant for more. There’s still love in this heart and peace in this soul.

So I must continue my treatments, follow my doctor’s advice, take the medication as it’s prescribed. And hold on to hope. Hope that it won’t be long before Kathryn and I are looking out the backdoor and watching our kids play, teaching them gratitude and what it means to live with hope deep within them.

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“So you’re the Spiritual Care Guy, right? The one with the answers?” “Yeah…” he says with a grin. He knows by now that conversations with me aren’t often easy. “So where is God in all of this?” I ask. His grin disappears, and as tears fill my eyes, he responds, “My honest answer? I don’t know.”

We meet about once per week to talk about life here in the hospital. This is our hardest conversation yet. I have to fight to keep from ugly crying. “I overdosed a few days ago,” I tell him, though he probably already knows. I had a chance to spend a few days relaxing at a cottage – swimming, playing games, enjoying good food – and I threw it away. One minute the pills were in the bottle, the next minute they were in my stomach. It only took about twenty minutes for the sedating effects to kick in. The next thirty-six hours are a blurry haze.

“Do you remember our conversation from last week?” the Spiritual Care Guy asks. I draw a blank. He reminds me how we talked about self-sabotage and the impulse to self-destruct. I laugh at this twisted predictor of the events that occurred mere days ago. But the laughter doesn’t last. With tears running down my cheeks, I beg him for an answer to my need. I need to understand why I am so hell-bent on self-destruction, why 99% of the time I can be focused on healing and growth, fostering peace and resiliency; and the other 1% of the time, I throw it all aside.

His tactic tends to be asking questions rather than answering them and he asks me, “what gives you hope?” I stay quiet, waiting for an answer to surface. The only one that comes is love. Wild love. Untamed, organic, unabashed, illogical love. Love for my niece (and the one on the way!), my parents, my brothers and their wives, my dear friends and of course, Kathryn. Love for her, above all else.

And yet she is the one most hurt when I am emotionally dysregulated. “I WISH I HAD NEVER MET YOU!” I screamed this at her, turning my anger outward. I was angry that she wasn’t with me, that she wasn’t meeting my current need. Mostly, I was angry that she was at the cottage and I was stuck at the hospital. How is this love? How is this the way I choose to treat the woman I say I’d give my life for? In what reality do I think these words are okay?

The answer is that they are not ever okay. She deserves the best of what I have to offer. And now my instinct is to turn this anger inward, berate myself for the way I behave. “She deserves better,” I say. “She’d be better off without me.” I try to assess what I bring to the relationship and all I come up with is pain. But this too is an unhealthy road and does not lead to me loving her well.

I tell Spiritual Care Guy all of this, and he tells me about addiction and how those who are addicts must admit they have lost control in order to begin regaining it. It’s this way with mental illness too, really any type of illness. I must admit the areas of my life that I have lost to mental illness in order to begin rebuilding them. And I must acknowledge my strengths, the places in my life where my illness has not beaten me.

It’s a great mystery – love. The love Kathryn has for me. My parents’ unending support. The love of Immanuel. Love is where God is in all of this. I will never understand these gifts, but I can choose to cherish them and in each new moment, offer love in return.

My friend G, whom I’ve written about on this blog before, moved this week.  His long stay here at the hospital is finally over and he is in a living environment better suited to his needs.  It was hard to see him go.  For me, he was one of the few constants around here.  I always knew there was a spot for me at his table and a smile for me when we passed in the halls.  He was an easy man to love, with his stories of his farmer days and his passion for music.

There are very few patients left that were here when I was admitted so many months ago.  Even amongst the staff there have been a number of changes and last week I had to say goodbye to one of my favourite nurses.  With each of these goodbyes I feel like I’m being left behind.

Dr. Seuss, in “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” describes The Waiting Place, where everyone’s just waiting.  The problem isn’t the fact that one must spend some time waiting – a life of instant gratification is neither healthy nor desirable.  The problem with The Waiting Place is recognizing the difference between patiently waiting and being stuck.

I’ve come to recognize a falsehood that I have accepted as truth.  I have been expecting to one day feel well and know that I am no longer sick.  When the doctor asks me how my treatments are going and if I’ve seen improvement, I really struggle to come up with an answer.  I can see areas of my life where my mood, mental stability, energy level and concentration have been good, and I can see other areas where these aspects of my life are still very unbalanced.

I am not either sick or well.  It’s more complex than that.  In all sorts of ways I’m in between healthy and ill.  This is true for all of us.  In some areas of life we can be fully in control and acting in line with our personal values and goals, and in other areas feel like we are totally failing.

Perhaps a healthier perspective would be not seeing wellness as a final goal that must be reached, but instead a choice that can be made in each moment.  Yes, there are aspects of my mental health that are beyond my control, and for that reason I need the assistance of my doctors and nurses.  But the areas of life that I can control – like making my bed in the morning, brushing my teeth everyday, going outside for at least part of each day – these are all ways I can choose to move from The Waiting Place to a Healing Place.

A dear friend sent me a book in the mail.  It’s a simple book, with only a few short sentences written by Annie Dillard called “Give it All, Give it Now: One of the Few Things I Know About Writing.”  The words are spread across beautifully illustrated pages, with just a simple phrase per page, causing the reader to tread slowly, thoughtfully considering their weight. The content is well summarized in the title – do not save your best for another day, spend it all. Use your best ideas now and new ones will come for other days.  Approach a blank page with abandon and from that place ideas will flow.

Kathryn and I had a rough day yesterday.  Despite my treatments and seeing some days of improvement, my mind is still very unwell at times and can lead me down dark and twisted roads.  When the medication I had been given didn’t seem to ease my suffering, I began to say goodbye to Kathryn, in a contorted effort to ease her pain if I died that day.  The good thing that came from my distorted thinking was that Kathryn was able to alert my nurse to my intentions and he intervened to keep me safe.

It’s hard to talk about these parts of my mental illness, the parts that hurt Kathryn and my family the most.  It’s hard to admit that I’ve drained friendships (especially while I was in university) with my near constant cycling of depression and hypomania.  And I’ve scared people more times than I want to admit.

I have a handful of scrap papers torn from an old notebook that I’m holding onto for a future day.  I plan on doing something with the words or images on each of them at some point.  One image is of a labyrinth that I’d like to try painting onto canvas.  Another page contains a list of tattoo ideas.  Still another has a list of blog topics I hope to eventually write about.  A list of all the things I am hoping for this fall: the birth of my niece, a trip to New Brunswick, the wedding of two friends, starting hockey season.

And tucked in with these pages is a letter to Kathryn.  A letter written in the past tense.  “You were the light of my life.”  “I’m sorry the darkness consumed me.”  A letter intended to ease her pain if I killed myself.  I wrote it with the intention of acting on the urge to commit suicide yesterday, and I am glad the nurse intervened and I was given the support I needed to get through that urge, but for some reason I feel like I can’t let go of the letter.  It should be crumpled and tossed aside, a discarded scrap of distorted thinking.

Here’s why it’s so hard to throw the letter away. (We’re in the dark down here, so I hope you’re okay with me talking honestly about this.) I hold on to suicide because it gives me hope.  Hope that the pain I feel won’t last, that somehow in death I’ll find peace.  That no matter what, there’s an escape hatch, a way out if the going gets too rough.  A give up button.

This is broken hope, yes.  It clings and claws at my heart rather than filling and nourishing me.  This is not hope as light, or hope as Life.  By buying into this broken hope, by hitting the give up button, I am losing everything I’m trying to save.  Suicide threatens to rip me away from the very reason I crave hope – Kathryn, my family and my future.

I showed Kathryn the letter tonight.  I told her how it was hard for me to let go of it.  I told her how I still want her to know all the things that are in the letter, if I do die one day.  And in telling her what I would want her to know if I were to die, I realized how to take this broken hope and heal it!  I realized I could live the letter out – rewritten, transformed from a suicide note to a love letter.  Take it from the past tense into the present.  Kathryn, you are the great love of my life! Kathryn, you are my Light in the darkness!  I want to shout these words from the rooftop (though the nurses would likely think I need my meds adjusted).

So this is my new letter.  Instead of marking the end of something, this letter will mark the beginning of each new moment in my life.  The best I have, given all for today.

Kathryn,

You are truly the great love of my life!  You are my Light in times of darkness.  I couldn’t imagine travelling through this world without you by my side.  You teach me so much about patience, compassion, giving and strength.  I find myself in you.

Here’s to the many great adventures that lay ahead of us, to the family we will create together, and to all the ways we help each other grow to be more whole.

Your love always,

Ashley

Oh God, where are you when we need you most?

In our most vulnerable moments?

Without you, death seems inviting – a chance for rest and peace when none can be found in life.

The physical components of our brains fire and misfire and create chains we cannot break.

Habits and addictions weaken our resolve to choose life.

We are lulled into believing that death will bring freedom, that in death there can be peace.

Are you with us when we are broken?

Have you heard crying in the night?

Some say suicide rips a person from God, that there is no hope in that type of death.

But how can you turn your back on someone who is sick and suffering?

If depression is an illness, than surely you are the cure.

You draw all life to yourself.

You breathe and life lifts and fills and heals.

We are drawn to you in our brokenness.

We crave your healing touch.

How can suicide seem like sweet sleep, like the necessary release from this world into yours?

Why do I torment my loved ones and myself with repeated attempts at ending my own life?

What will it take for my brain to be whole?

What will it take for my spirit to be still?

What will it take for my life to be full?

It is the eve of a new chapter in my mental health journey. Tomorrow I will receive my first ECT treatment. My emotions about this range from calm to chaos, and hit each level in between. I fear the procedure, the idea that my brain must be damaged (in a very minuscule way) in order to heal. The basic theory behind ECT, as I understand it, is that the seizure induced by the electricity kicks the brain into healing/protective mode. This enables the brain to heal the damage caused by deep, chronic depression, and build new neuro-pathways that promote health.  It seems dark and archaic, but I am told it has benefitted many people.

I sat down with the spiritual care guy last week to talk about how I’m handling being in the hospital, relatively isolated from friends and family, compared to my normal life. I talked about how I was feeling, how the emotions of those around me are impacting me, how much time I have on my hands and how little of it is spent thinking about my spiritual life.

Whenever I start thinking about God during a low point like this, I immediately feel a sense of shame which boils into anger. The shame comes because dark thoughts about suicide often cloud my mind and I want to keep these hidden away from others (people or God or whomever). I’m ashamed that I’m not grateful enough for the life I have, that all the blessings in my life don’t equal up to me always wanting to be alive. It is hard to accept that the root of these thoughts are in interactions between neurotransmitters in my brain, symptoms of an illness, and not a character flaw.

The anger comes because in these places it’s very easy for me to see all the ways God is absent in our lives. It comes as I see brokenness in my life and those around me, compounded with justice issues I feel concerned about here in Hamilton and around the globe. I see what many Christians would call “The Fall” of humankind, and I scream out “This is NOT RIGHT!!!” The anger responds to the shame by saying, “yeah, well what have you done about it? What have you done to make this earth better?” The anger may be directed at God, or may turn inward, only fuelling the confusion and despair within me.

As we talked over these issues, one thought came to mind. I must find a way to lament, both my own brokenness, and the pain and despair I see in other patients here. An old David Crowder song comes to mind, “Oh God, where are you now? Oh God, hold me somehow.” I sit at the piano, a safe place for me to be emotional, and let the darkness rise. My anger dissipates to grief, and I play out the fear and the sadness in the notes and chords until all that’s left is quiet stillness.

I was guided to the following quote by Miriam Greenspan in her work Healing Through the Dark Emotions.

Despair’s alchemy is a kind of transformation. There is a descent to a state of death in life. We look and feel dead, but something is happening under the skin—if we let it. The mask of the old self’s dying—a harbinger of resurrection. When we’re in the throes of despair, a metamorphic process is at work. The call to spiritual death and rebirth in despair can be easily mistaken for a call to suicide. This is when we’re likely to reach for a pill—to ease the pain or to do ourselves in. Imagine if the snake thought it was dying when it sloughed off its skin. Imagine if the caterpillar was relieved of its cocoon before it had completed its metamorphic process. The transformation would be aborted. The dark, enclosed place of the cocoon is necessary for metamorphosis to complete itself.

How I hope for these words to be truth. Please, God, let this all have been for something more than just wasted months lying in the hospital. Let new life spring from this dark soil. I carry an acorn with me as a reminder that my despair is not only temporary, but transformative. The darkness will break and light will bring growth. The acorn reminds me to plant seeds deep within my being, seeds that will grow into hope and wisdom and kindness. Seeds that will begin to fill the emptiness I’ve felt inside.

And as ECT begins, I remain nervous but trusting. The spiritual transformation that Greenspan describes is mirrored in the procedure of ECT. I must descend into the unknown and be broken in order to heal. I will have the acorn with me to remind me that I must go into the dark, into the ground, to find Life.

“You need to have an operation?” he said alarmed.

“No, it’s just a treatment.”

“A what?”

“A treatment – you know how doctors have their different ways of helping people,” I tried to explain simply. “They just put a little electricity right here,” I said as I pointed to my temples.

“They what?!!” came his reply.

“It’s okay, it’s like getting a little shock from another person, or a doorknob – even less than that.”

“Oh, okay.”

We were sitting in the courtyard: my friend G, myself, and a young volunteer who comes every Friday. We’ve developed a bit of a routine.  The three of us paint together for awhile, and then head outside with apple slices and cups of water. It’s a good way to spend a Friday afternoon here. I’ve been getting to know the volunteer over the last few weeks and today she was asking about my treatment. When I told her about Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and said it’s considered a low-risk procedure, G got the impression it was surgery.

ECT, I’m told, is a safe and often effective method of treating Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. My psychiatrist has recommended me for the treatment because my brain appears to be resistant to antidepressant medications. It seems like a scary step but I’ve also been sick for a long time, and if he believes it will help me get well, then I guess I have to give it a try.

I’m not going to lie, my stomach turns and my head spins when I think of ECT. Like you, I’ve been conditioned to fear electrocution and seizures in any form. True, this is a very very mild amount of electricity and the seizure it induces will be well supervised by medical experts. But like any new experience, I approach it with trepidation.

Part of the emotion I am experiencing as I prepare to begin ECT is doubt. I’ve tried so many treatments, all of which promised excellent results. I don’t want to go into this believing it will change everything and then be disappointed. The doctors and nurses all seem to have such hope that ECT will help me. How can they know for sure? They don’t. And yet they have hope.

My history professor, Gregg Finley, once said “to advance is to face adversity with hope.” In this next part of my mental health journey, I will have to put my trust in my medical team and take each step with hope rooted deep within.

When I asked G if he thought I should be nervous, he said “oh… probably.” But when I asked if he thought I’d still be okay, he responded in his knowing way, with just a little grin, and the words, “oh… sure.” I’ll hang on to that, that’s hope enough for me.

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