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I haven’t slept well for the past couple weeks. I’ve been up most nights, finally able to sleep in short bursts when I’m truly exhausted. It’s frustrating and lonely and I’m jealous of Kathryn as she snores peacefully next to me.

I spent most of Christmas Eve night awake, and trying to reflect on what this past year, and all its struggle, has meant to me – what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, how my relationship with Kathryn has deepened. Amnesia has wiped most of the year’s memories and I was feeling sad this Christmas morning, wishing this year had been different.

And then I remembered that I wake up each day next to the woman of my dreams, who chooses to stand beside me in all of our joyous and painful moments together. I get to be here, in the home I am building with my love and snuggled with our two mischievous and loving fur babies, not isolated and alone in a hospital room.

And I get to spend the next two days with my family that loves and supports me through all the highs and lows. I get to see my two incredible nieces who are both growing far faster than I want them too. I get to hug and thank my grandma who supports me whether I shave my head, or marry a girl or spend most of the year in the psych hospital, even if most of her generation wouldn’t. I get another year to appreciate my parents, and the traditions they have built for us, especially that above all, love is what matters and hope is what we celebrate at Christmas. 

And although I don’t understand it, today I remember that Immanuel came, God with us in all things, and I try to allow that peace to settle into my soul.

Kathryn and I have committed to reading an Advent reflection each night before bed.  We both long for spiritual connection and a sense of meaning.  We long to be connected to the earth, to our fellow creatures and humans, and to the vast universe.  We both grew up with religion as a central principle on which to base behaviour.  And we both now question that foundation and long to understand and to really know Truth.

The Advent reflections we are reading are a collection of writings by Henri Nouwen, a man I’ve grown to respect for his insight into the spiritual richness of life in community with individuals marginalized by society (particularly through his experience with L’Arche).

In tonight’s reflection, Nouwen writes, “Jesus is the source of all peace… There is peace to be found in our own weakness, in those places of our hearts where we feel most broken… Right where we are most vulnerable, the peace that is not of this world is mysteriously hidden.”

This is certainly not the first time this concept has been presented to me.  And without examining my internal thoughts and feelings, I would likely agree that this statement holds an element of truth.  But tonight as Kathryn read the words aloud, my heart broke and anger rose within me.  Where is this peace?  The last couple of days have been particularly difficult and follow a long pattern of struggle that doesn’t seem to be responding to any of my efforts to move towards recovery.

So I am left questioning the validity of this “Jesus is peace” mantra.  I am left wondering what basis I have for believing in Scripture, for basing my life on the assumption that there is truth to be found in placing my hope in Jesus.  Are we being taught to believe in a fairy tale?  Are we being lulled into a faith that simply makes it easier to cope with existence, but has no basis in reality?  If God is peace, and that peace is found in my brokenness, then where is God in my struggle for mental wellness?

Like Nouwen, perhaps some spiritual truth could be approached by reflecting on my experiences living in community with individuals with severe intellectual and physical disabilities.  I think back to walking along Cape Breton roads with a man living with a severe form of autism.  I remember pausing under a tree with him as he listened carefully to the rustling of leaves.  I remember the stillness in holding an elderly woman’s hand, the serenity she experienced in a simple gesture.  I remember finding hope in our weekly chapel routine, the lighting of candles, the words of the songs, and especially, hearing the individual prayers of each community member. One of my friends who is non-verbal takes the time every week to make the sign for each person and thing for which he is thankful.

Despite the pain this week has contained, there have been small amounts of life-giving hope, of simple joy for which I truly am grateful.  Watching ducks dive under water in the stream near our hiking trail, feeling joy as countless chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers trusted me enough to land on my hand for seed, feeling wonder as we contemplate the intricate beauty of the natural world around us.  Both Gus and Elliot, our two cats, have come to me for daily snuggles and affection, and have shown appreciation for the nurturing life we’ve provided them.  Every time I walk through my kitchen, I see a picture of each of my nieces on our fridge and I am grateful for the love that wells up within me.  I am thankful for the privilege of reading and the opportunities I have to explore literature.  My grandmother’s piano, given to me by my parents, provides an emotional release like no other.  And I wouldn’t be where I am today without the love and support given by my family and friends, so many of whom inspire me to live well.  Perhaps in these moments, I experience a drop of the peace that Nouwen describes.

And above all of this, I am blessed in my relationship with Kathryn.  For her, I feel a gratitude I can’t express.  If God is the source of peace, hope, love and joy, then she is the embodiment that brings these gifts to my soul.  Everyday she shows me the light of Christ and in my darkest moments, she empowers me to shelter and nourish the flicker of hope that burns within me.

“Is it just that I’m weak?” I asked her as tears rolled down my cheeks.

Could you imagine if we treated physical illness the same way we treat mental illness?  When my brother’s lungs started failing him, he was put on the organ transplant list and his doctors did everything they could to help him prepare for such a serious surgery.  I’m not trying to say what I’m going through has the same severity, but I wonder what treatment, therapy or medication is available that could help change the symptoms I experience, to correct the way my brain is failing me?

There are moments when my mental illness truly feels life-threatening.  I don’t think it’s fair to assume I should just suck it up, try harder, or learn to live with it.  When the symptoms I experience cause pain in my own life and the lives of those closest to me, it must be addressed.

So what are my options?  My impulse is to do something destructive to both escape the pain and alert others that there is a problem.  But I’ve been down that road before and I know the regret that follows.

I could go to my family doctor, my therapist, my psychiatrist or even the hospital and try to explain my symptoms, in the hope that someone would understand the severity of my pain and know how to help.  But this too has produced little results in the past.  The common response seems to be a brush off.

So what do I do when my symptoms start worsening?  Is this all in my head?  Are they worsening because of something I am doing wrong?  Could I just snap out of it?  Learn to behave differently?  It feels next to impossible to overcome some of the impulsive and destructive behaviours.  I know what I am doing isn’t good for my health but I don’t know how to choose anything different.

How I wish there was some medication or treatment that would enable me to think more clearly, to act with more intention, to live in line with the values and goals I set for myself.  How I wish someone could explain to me what is happening in my brain and how it differs from most other people’s.  I’ve been given various diagnoses in the past but I wonder if any of them are truly accurate.

I tell her all of this and she offers me her shoulder and her embrace.  And although I know she doesn’t have the answers, I couldn’t be more grateful that she is journeying with me through it.

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