We were sitting across from one another in the monastery dining hall, eating our lunch in silence per the rule. We hadn’t met yet.
“Would you like to come to my party?,” she blurted out. Loudly.
“I’ll think about it,” I whispered back, a bit embarrassed.
Two days earlier we had been sitting in a room full of other strangers also there to retreat. I was there to begin writing a book, but upon suggestion chose to sit in on one of the weekend sessions. A funny thing, really, because it was one of a series of workshops on the topic of “Boundaries.”
There we were, each of us familiar only with the sound of our own voices which we had been instructed not to use too often while there. We were here to escape the noise of the world outside the walls of this place. To open our ears to what God might be saying to us in the stillness.
“I take lithium for bipolar disorder,” she turned around to say to the couple behind her, strangers like the rest of us. She said it loudly enough for all of us to hear. ”The last time I was here I had lithium poisoning,” she exclaimed with almost mischievous glee, like someone who having been afflicted with something for so long can actually see the humor in it.
Some of us exchanged nervous glances. Others laughed awkwardly. I was thinking, “It’s a good thing she’s here– at a retreat on boundaries.”
Earlier, during the question and answer time, she had issued another exclamation: “Have you noticed how the windows of the church are blue, but it looks yellow inside?”
It is amazing how community can form even in silence, though, when the silence is worshipful and orients around God in our midst. At first, I was afraid of her, maybe of how her experience with bipolar illness touched the circle of my own struggles at times with depression- but by the end of my weekend at the monastery, I was grateful for her. Grateful for her transparency in the same way that I was grateful for the boundaries that separated us. That cordoned her off as a unique child of God, with an experience that witnessed to the pain and glory of Christ in our brokenness.
In a few minutes she had told me her life story. How at the age of 19, while in film school at New York University, she had had her first “manic” episode: she chased a truck barefoot through the streets of Manhattan and ended up in bed with one too many men. How after that there were the drugs- she had tried all kinds. She had even given herself away to some loser guy for a bit of cocaine. Which had landed her in a halfway house, where she had a nervous breakdown. She had been clean for nine months but then relapsed. Because of the same loser boyfriend. For years she had fought the diagnosis of “bipolar disorder.” But now, at the age of 36, she had written an autobiography about how through these experiences she had “overcome.” And now she was writing a second book. On pigeon tongue. (Apparently her second degree was in linguistics.) Hmm, I thought, wondering how much of this was grounded in any reality.
But I listened. And as I listened, her eyes latched on to me with an almost furious intensity: they were the eyes of someone struggling to find some sort of authentic connection from a place far away. I wanted to help her even as I wanted to turn away.
On the last day we were in the church for noon prayers with the monks. She strode un-self-consciously over to Father Michael. “Look at my new tattoo!,” she exclaimed with childlike enthusiasm, baring the right side of her arm with pride to the priest. He patted her shoulder. “Emmy (a pseudonym), you are a very courageous girl,” he said, gently.
Some of us couldn’t help but smile. And be grateful. Grateful for this person made in God’s image. Grateful for her courage and her joy in the midst of a life that had dealt her cards that we would have all liked to give back for her sake.
For Emmy and for all those like her who this Thanksgiving struggle with mental illness or any kind of affliction, I give thanks- and ask God to bless them.