I feel the loss of God under the left side of my sternum. It’s like a bad breakup, a hundred ordinary things reopen my grief every day. The smell of eucalyptus, like the salve my mom would rub on my chest when I was tiny and sick before reading aloud books about wild-hearted girls who found God across the world. The figs and walnuts that drop to the sidewalks as summer ends in Portland, because I used to walk through my neighborhood talking to God about everything and nothing. Sometimes when I wake up from a late afternoon nap, I see hymns like dust particles in a slant of sunlight. I wasn’t a Christian because it was logical. I was a Christian because I was in love.
Then I got sick. Depression hit the light switch, nothing new to you, nothing new to me. But this time, for the first time, I asked for help.
Maybe I lost God in a doctor’s office. With my sweet friend Anna sitting on a plastic folding chair next to me, I told a doctor things I’d barely confided even to her as he stared at his screen and typed notes about me like: “grooming, hygiene appropriate to the situation” and “slowed psychomotor activity; eyes downcast; gait normal.” Reading the notes later, I wondered how a depressed person should walk. He diagnosed me with depression, prescribed me Lexapro, and shook my hand goodbye.
A few pills into that first bottle, my head was suddenly violently clear. My calling hit me like a bolt of lighting. I was going to be a circus performer.
Portland being Portland, I had plenty of circus gyms to choose from. I spent all my time and money beating my body against aerial silks, lyra hoops, and trapeze. My dreams were full of spinning circus tops and applause, and my thoughts spun faster and faster and faster until the friction caught me on fire. My skin was burning, it was about to bubble and peel and I’d rake it off with my fingernails.
It turns out that if you give antidepressants to a person with bipolar, they go manic.
Sitting across from another typing doctor, I realized I’d felt that all-consuming intensity many times before. Mania, not God, had led me to abandon academic ship and enroll into a non-accredited christian college in the middle of Idaho, where I studied latin and dusty old tomes with only a handful of other students, and where I took a little too long to realize I’d landed in the middle of a cult. Mania, not God, had turned in my two week notices and bought me a one way ticket to NYC where I volunteered some for Cru but mostly just walked and walked and walked until the only shoes I’d brought wore down to the sole. Mania, not God, rode the bus with me to the International Hostel at Seaside where I stayed who knows how long wearing clothes from the lost & found and eating stale bags of chips other travelers had left behind. It made the trees talk, the sky weep prophecies, the streets shake with visions. Mania. Not God.
Driving home from that doctor’s appointment, bipolar written in red on my forehead, I wondered that if my brain had invented all that, what else could it have made up?
I didn’t immediately dismiss my relationship with God. I still had other people’s stories of their spiritual experiences. The task before me was to separate the real God from the electric illness crackling through my synapses.
So I prayed. “God, I can’t distinguish your voice from mine right now, but I want to hear you. Please speak to me in a way that I can understand.” I stopped leaning into our conversations, letting my brain autofill his responses. I repented of my imagination. I expected the real God to show up. I trusted He would. I had faith that He would.
In the songs I wrote over the year or so of unmaking my faith, the same lines came up over and over again:
Don’t you want me?
Why haven’t you come for me?
There was nothing for me to do but wait.
(continued in part two)