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God Was There in That Psych Ward

June 14, 2013

Have you ever walked past one of those wild-eyed, haphazardly dressed people shouting about God and salvation on the street corner, and hurried on, hoping that he or she wouldn’t notice you?  I know I have.  But here is another thing I know: what it feels like to be one of those wild-eyed, haphazardly dressed people shouting about God and salvation on the street corner.  Because, like it or not, I’ve been there myself.

A few months after my 25th birthday, I went crazy.  Not crazy, as in, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, or, I can’t handle the pressure of school/work anymore.  Oh no.  Not crazy in the figurative sense of the word.  I went legitimately crazy.  As in, I was placed in handcuffs and sent off in an ambulance to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital, where I spent a good month of my life coloring in coloring books, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate hard enough to read a book about the Dalai Lama, and pacing the halls, trying not to go even crazier. 

But, I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Please, if you will for a moment, enter the head of the 25-year-old me.  I was living in New York City at the time, almost finished with my master’s degree, and happily dating a very nice man who was in the Navy and who was at that time deployed overseas.  I had good friends living in the city and saw them often.  I had (and still do have) a loving family.  I had zero history of mental illness in my family.  I had no idea what was coming.

One day in the spring, the weather was beautiful, and so I decided to take a long walk.  As I strolled along, I looked at the leaves in the trees, the petals that had fallen across the sidewalk, and the grey stone of the buildings.  I felt happy.  I walked up to a homeless man who had a lovely smile, and I gave him five dollars.  He and I began to talk on the crowded street in front of an outdoor market.  As he spoke to me, about God, about homelessness, about the beauty of life, the world suddenly seemed endowed with meaning.  Every word from his lips took shape in my brain as though it had been created by God, as a message for me.  I spoke to the man for over an hour.  His name, as I remember it, was Leaf.

As I walked away from him, my heart seemed to soar.  Further down the street, a large grey cathedral rose up in front of me, and at that moment, I decided that it was God’s will that I convert to Christianity.  (Just as a little bit more background, I am Jewish, and I always have been.)

For the rest of the day, my spirits soared higher and higher.  I walked the streets of New York City, spreading my feelings of well-being to others.  When a man offered to sell me an umbrella for $10 (it was not raining), I gave him $20 and a huge, loving smile.

Another man came to ask me for money, and I went with him into McDonald’s so that he could order something.  He nearly cried from gratitude, and he told me that he didn’t know what would become of him, and he was scared.  I looked into his eyes and said, with all the conviction of a woman of faith, “It’s going to be OK.  You’re going to be OK.  I know you will.”  He smiled slowly, and I swear that I saw his eyes fill with hope.   

When I walked down my block, the crazy homeless lady who hung around there asked me for money.  I escorted her into the Subway restaurant and let her order a sandwich, complete with toppings.  When the uncomfortable workers behind the counter asked me if everything was OK as they put tomatoes on her sandwich, I told them, “Yes, don’t worry.  Everything is completely fine.”  The conviction in my voice seemed to settle them.  In exchange for the sandwich, the homeless lady told me that I had “a sexy chin,” and she gave me a shiny gold handbag. 

That night, things began to devolve.  I paced the floor of my apartment, praying in a feverish way, getting down on my knees, not sleeping.  At one point, I decided that reality no longer existed, and so I flung a huge wad of cottage cheese onto the ceiling, walked out into the street without my shoes on, and deliberated about whether cutting myself with a kitchen knife would even hurt me at all.

Fortunately, in the morning, my brain cleared briefly, and I was able to call my family and my good friend Katie who lived in the city.  My parents monitored me from afar while Katie invited me to spend the night at her apartment in case things got worse again.

And get worse they did.  As I sat in Katie’s apartment, my brain raced bizarrely.  And then, all of a sudden, everything became clear.  (Or, from Katie’s point of view, the time to call the ambulance had arrived.)

Nothing had or has ever felt as clear as that moment did.  In that moment, I finally understood it all.  I was, in fact, God.  That was all there was to it.  And my next task was to convince Katie of the same.  I remember shouting as loudly as possible so that she would believe me.  After I convinced Katie, my next task was to convince the police who were putting me into handcuffs as I screamed words of hope and peace at them in the lobby of Katie’s apartment building.  After the police came the paramedics in the ambulance.  Then, the people in the hospital waiting room.  Then, my fellow psych patients.  And then my doctor.  The list of the convinced goes on. 

My memory of that time is punctuated with moments of clarity, but many of them are hard to make sense of.  I think I had a one-on-one police guard in the hospital.  Apparently I was awake for about 72 hours.  Both of my parents came to visit.  Also, I was convinced that I was black.  (I am white.) 

Let me assure you that the psych hospital was not fun.  Nor was the depression that followed the mania, as every good bipolar patient can attest to.  Nor were the following two years of my life when I tried to pick up the pieces and figure out what it meant for me to have bipolar disorder.  (In spite of my psychotic break, which isn’t always a part of bipolar disorder, this was my diagnosis.) 

I did not think about God for at least two years.  My doctor had wisely noticed that thinking too much about God was a sign that indicated I was headed for a psychotic break. When my brain was functioning normally, God was not a topic that I normally dwelt upon.

But as I gradually recovered, took my meds dutifully, went to therapy every week, went back to school and to work, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something of God had been there with me when my mind fell apart.

In spite of my delusions of grandeur, I had had a vision of infinite love and well-being. I had seen with my own eyes that everyone (everyone!) would be safe and cared for. All of this I had seen and experienced as I lay, not sleeping, in my hospital bed. I cannot explain it, but after seeing it, I will always believe it.

Of course, it can be easily explained away. After all, my brain was chemically imbalanced. I was in a psych ward, for God’s sake. But I know God was there in that psych ward. Call me crazy, but I know it.

  1. Jane permalink

    I know it, too!

  2. I believe you darlin.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. My First Search For God | The Jittery Goat

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