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Twenty years is a long time, and yet as I think back to the night when I was admitted to the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, it’s as vivid to me now as if it were yesterday.
In the weeks and month that followed, I kept a journal. Some pages detailed my drowning days, others when there seemed to be a glimmer of daylight on the horizon. I never intended to share that scribbled journey, as it was deeply personal. I believed, too, that I was the only passenger. I didn’t know of any other Christian leader who battled dark, abysmal days weighted down by severe clinical depression. But a wonderful counselor, Dr. Frank Gripka, continued to tell me I was not the only one. He said someone had to stand up and tell the truth out loud, so I thought, Why not me? I had nothing left to lose.
Many of those whom I thought were friends had walked away. Mental illness had the curb appeal of the AIDS epidemic in the days before we understood that you couldn’t catch it just by hugging someone who was infected. For a Christian who wrestled a disease of the mind, it was assumed that something in your behavior or a pervasive lack of faith had brought it on. We tend to walk away from what we don’t understand.
So I wrote the book Honestly, praying that it would help even one other person who felt terminally hopeless. In 1997, I tentatively began to speak about this taboo subject from the stage, and every time I spoke the truth out loud, I would find my tribe hiding in the crowd, longing to tell their stories to one other person who understood. A lot of things have changed in the years that followed. There have been many others who have begun to speak out and demystify this illness, but the stigma remains, especially in the church. I still receive letters and texts from those who have made Honestly a textbook of hope, but there are always questions.
“Do you still take medication?”
“How does this affect your family?”
“Are you healed now?”
So, here we are, continuing on the journey of how God took me from a place of wanting to die to the way He continues day by day to love me back to life.
I found it hard rereading the original book. It sent me into a bit of a tailspin to remember the worst days. It made me angry, too, meeting the “me” in those pages. I was angry because I apologized for being sick. I was angry because I believed some of the garbage I was told about those who struggle with mental illness. But as I sat down to write this book, an update and continuation of my journey, the anger faded. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I did the best I could in the darkest days of my life; that was true for many of those around me as well.
Let me take you back to where the descent began. It was dark and it was deep, but the truth that I thought would kill me actually saved my life. That’s my prayer for you.
“So, what is the worst thing that could happen to you, Sheila?” the doctor asked.
“I am afraid I will be swept away. I know there are a couple of people who would gladly destroy my life.”
“Sheila, who is your trust in?” he asked me. “Do you feel as if the Lord has left you?” That question was a turning point in my journey, because my answer was a resounding no! I had written a poem in my journal the previous evening:
I never knew you lived so close to the floor,
but every time I am bowed down,
crushed by this weight of grief,
I feel your hand on my head,
your breath on my cheek,
your tears on my neck.
You never tell me to pull myself together,
to stem the flow of many years.
You simply stay by my side
for as long as it takes,
so close to the floor.
Until this crisis I had never known what an awesome companion the Lord longs to be. I had spent so many years trying to make him proud of me, determined to never fail, that I missed the most amazing gift of all: to be able, as the British poet Stuart Henderson so eloquently wrote, “to bury my face in the mane of the Lion of Judah.”
I watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis again recently. There is so much to hear in children’s stories. The part that is most memorable to me happens when the children are preparing to meet Aslan the lion for the very first time. They are afraid to come face-to-face with such a powerful animal, and their guides acknowledge the appropriateness of that reaction. Susan says,
“Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mrs. Beaver. “…‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”
Running to hide our faces in God is not like seeking the comfort and familiarity of a childhood blanket that allows us to tune out the realities of our lives. God is a mighty lion, whose roar is heard in every corner of the world. Still, when you are in trouble, you can hide your face from him or run to him and let him hide you in his mane. There you will find strength to live your life.
Excerpt from Honestly
© 2010 by Sheila Walsh