It was the first days in the Psych ward. Sitting in the room with Dr. O, my first experience with a psychiatrist, all the overstatements I had ever heard about people like him raged in my head so one of my first sentences spoke the defiance of letting him mess with my head. I put on a limit based on experience. “You can challenge anything you want about my religious beliefs because I know that what I understand there is not truth because it has not made me free. But if you challenge my belief in God, I will leave here first because that is the only reason I am living.” I guess I came by my family reputation as a “sassy brat” for good reason.
Dr. O calmly responded, “People need God because they need to know they can be forgiven.” Something in my released the fear and I could begin to hear and heal. What was said in those sessions about others in my life will for the most part remain in those conversations between the psych and me. I do know he asked me to honestly say to those in my life what was happening with me while I was in the safety of the ward.
My husband’s response was already known to me. My mother’s response was, “How selfish of you. Don’t you know that would kill me?” The response of church people was distance and platitudes with, interestingly, the question if I would be getting out soon enough to organize the Sunday School picnic for the beginning of June. Cards and flowers felt like knife points tearing at my skin. If they all thought so much of me, why was I here. The guilt and self-hatred mounted with each visit rife with Bible verses but no room to listen.
One pastor and his wife did visit me sharing that she had been hiding a bipolar disorder for years. It was almost with shame they talked to me. My response was not kind as my loneliness cried out, “Why did you hide it? If I had known maybe I wouldn’t have felt to alone.” I then had to admit I understood. Except for in that secret visit, it was never shared again. Our religion had no room for broken people. As I had often been told, “How can we talk to people about a victorious Lord if we didn’t have the image of victory?” Don’t let others see the scars.
Those who shared that ward with me were the comforts doing most to heal my heart. Since I was more often alone, since it was a journey of over an hour to get from my town to the town where the hospital was, I would often sit on my bed in free time strumming my guitar and singing the songs I had written that spoke from the place in me that understood this pain. One song always drew visitors, first patients, and then patients bringing their families asking me to sing it again to help their families understand the hope that was present even in the dark.
Valley of Shadow
Paths cross sideways and roads run up
Trials crash loud in your ears
The thunder’s rolling. The lightening slashes
The sky while the clouds loose their tears.
Time becomes your enemy.
The moments pass by with their guns.
Yesterday was a fortress wall;
Today – the brotherhood runs.
Laughter echoes in endless canyons;
You run to shut out the sound.
Crying anger to still the voices
You stumble and crash to the ground.
Footsteps sound in a quiet world
Trembling you wait for a frown;
Then someone reaches his arms to you
And helps you up off the ground.
Only one set of footprints
Marking the path from here to the end.
He not only walks close beside you;
He carries you round the next bend.
Though I walk through the valley
Of shadow I will not fear
For thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff
Give me comfort and cheer.
One day, my visitor was the new woman that had only come in the night before. There had been talk in the ward about her. It was a sad case, she had been doing so well for so long on her meds for her bipoloar disorder. She had successfully held an aide job for some unmentioned length of time and now, she was in such a high state of mania that she was in a locked room and only allowed on the floor with an orderly or two with her because of the violence of her reactions. Her room was trashed, said those who had seen it.
Somehow, though, that day, she had come to my room alone. “I puh-laay guiiitaar,” she slurred through the high doses of stabilizing drugs she was on just to keep her lucid in those first trying days.
“Would you like to play mine?” I offered, taking the strap from around my neck and holding it out to her.
With trembling hands she reached out for it and settling on the side of the bed strummed a few cords, and though stumbling, she picked light melodies from the strings. She knew how to play. There was no doubt. After only moments, she gave the guitar back. “I haaave t-to go baaack.” she pushed through her fogginess.
“If you want,” I offered. “You can use my guitar when I am not here.”
There was a light and a sloping smile on her face as she turned and shuffled back down the hall. I could hear the orderlies lecturing her about leaving without them as I turned back to the songs in front of me.
I heard the orderlies talking out of turn that night. Somehow she had said something about my guitar and they were talking about how crazy such an offer was since everything she had in her room was trashed. Even her bed was ripped. For some reason I wasn’t afraid. I don’t know what it was. Maybe something I saw in her eyes.
The next day when I returned from the therapy space, my guitar was not in its case. At first I was afraid it had been stolen until I remembered the words I had said. The first sinking reaction in my stomach soon gave way to my remembrance of my own need to trust what was good in me. I had to believe that it would be okay. I somehow knew where it was.
I couldn’t read more than Psalm 77 at that time so just read it reminding myself that there was one walking through this storm with me even though I could not see or sense God’s presence. I had to just trust right then that this guitar which held the lifeline of music for me would be okay. Even if it did get smashed against a wall, I had to trust that that would be okay to. I had to believe beyond all rationality that the words I said, the invitation to share, had been right.
I heard the shuffling in the hall before I saw her. She entered my room with my guitar held out in front of her. “I brought it back,” she said then turned and walked away.
Today, I will go out to my living room and practice for the music lesson I will be returning to on Monday. I will reach over and pick up that same guitar that she was able to care for when everything else around her was torn to pieces. As I play it, I will remember her, sending up a prayer that she has been able to find wholeness in her life again.