It was just one sentence and all of sudden my eyes were full of tears. I couldn’t swallow them away. No matter how much I tried. I sat in a terribly bright room, surrounded by thousands. I couldn’t get away quick enough. By the time I made it to the ladies room the tears turned quickly to body wrenching sobs. Anne Lamott, both humorously and insightfully, made this connection between God and the restrooms, saying, “Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.” And yes, I did find God in the bathroom. Along with snot dripping down my nose and cries so deep they were noiseless.
My reaction was surprising, yet not surprising. Last Friday, the church I work for held a conference on mental health. It was an amazing event and I felt honored to help. Throughout the day I had conversation after conversation on mental health, mental health in the church, and how mental illness has affected my family. I loved that this conversation was happening and the changes that may be possible by bringing the stigma of mental health issues into the light. So, why was my response both surprising and unsurprising? Well, I’d spent a whole day talking about mental illness and hadn’t ended up in tears prior to the evening. It wasn’t surprising in that it is a sensitive topic for me. Mental illness has been a very real part of my family’s life. It has also touched me more personally as I have walked through a season of depression and anxiety. (Last fall my brother and I shared about our experience as part of Story Corps. Click here to listen to the recording).
As I sat in the last session of the evening, a family came on stage to share their experience of living life with a family member who struggles with mental illness. As they finished, one of the daughters shared how the hardest part for her was how the love the family would show to her brother could not be received by him. As she said those words, my stomach dropped and I was suddenly engulfed in a memory.
Just 7 years ago, my brother was in a deep depression. There had been multiple suicide attempts and multiple trips to the mental hospital. I often felt frustrated and devastated as I, along with my parents, tried to keep him safe. We became the enemy, as we stood in the way of his goal: taking his life. We were motivated by love. We just wanted to save his life. He couldn’t receive that as love in the moment. The depression created this deep barrier, which felt impossible to surpass. As the girl on stage shared, I remembered that feeling. It was a deep one and there was much pain attached to it. Even though this all took place 7 years ago, I was suddenly back in that memory. And the pain I had stored up was all I could hear, see, or feel.
As humans, we are good at storing. Whether it be treasures, food for next season, or memories we’re not ready to let go of yet (evidenced by all the storage units full of crap). However, I think we are experts at storing pain. I am continually amazed at how much pain my body can contain. Where does it all hide? I’m convinced that our bodies are not too different from Mary Poppin’s magical carpet bag, deceptively large and voluminous, hiding all sorts of unexpected goodies (surprise, you found unresolved grief). The pain we don’t feel in the moment, and that can be both good and bad, doesn’t just disappear. No, it is stored away. Till it suddenly appears. Never when you want it to appear.
Seven years ago I was faced with trauma that I couldn’t escape. I had no choice but to go into the pain. While I have never been great at sharing vulnerably, I found myself choosing to do so in order to survive. My body got to a point where it refused to take in any more pain, almost as if I’d hit the brim of the bucket. So, I’ve come to a point now, where I can share my experiences from that season freely. While I often feel sad when doing so, it also doesn’t feel as scary. These are trails that I have spent much time traversing over. They are familiar paths and somehow, that makes the pain not as intimidating.
Yet, there are still aspects of that season that are unresolved. These are places of undiluted pain. The type of areas that don’t quite make sense, but just hurt. In having that memory surface on Friday, I did not fully understand why that memory was so painful. However, I did know that it was a pain beyond comprehension. It just was.
I’ve been returning to my experience Friday night over the last couple of days. As I thought to the emotions I felt as I ran out of the worship center, I noticed that loneliness was not one of the feelings I experienced. Surprisingly. As I sobbed in the bathroom, I didn’t feel alone. I remembered Anne Lamott’s quote and reflected on this truth. God met me that night. He met me in the place of my greatest need – the bathroom. I don’t know how or why he did so, but it’s another one of those things that feels beyond comprehension.
Just like the pain.