08 August 2004

Highly recommended: a trip to hell and back

I was thinking earlier this week about how my attitude toward life has changed since the two-year period during which my Bipolar Disorder symptoms were in full big-band swing. That included two winters (1998-1999 and 1999-2000) of severe clinical depression. During those winters, I spent months on end without a moment's happiness, confidence, clarity of mind or desire for human contact. My life has been blessed from childhood until the present, and I certainly can't claim to know true suffering, but within the range of my own experience, this was definitely the bottom. This was the bottom dropped out and dumped me into what lies below. Within the range of my own experience, this was hell.

Then, in March of 2000, my shrink got the drug cocktail right. I wasn't depressed any more. Haven't been since--not in the clinical sense. I visited hell, and then I came back. It went away. It was reversed. I got my "get out of jail free" card, and I blew that popsicle stand. And ever since, I've never (well, hardly ever) lost a strong sense that life is a gift, a blessing, something to be lived to the fullest and something for which no amount of thankfulness would begin to scratch the surface.

Now, I recognize that all of this has a lot to do with brain chemistry, which in my case is still being managed with a combination of lithium and something called risperdal, an antipsychotic. (No, I was at no point actually psychotic.) Also, as I've alluded to previously, as dark as it got during those two deep, gray winters, I never completely lost hope. There was no point when I really believed that it would never get better, and for that I'm immensely thankful as well--it's the reason I'm still alive. But on the whole, I have to count the whole experience as an astonishing blessing. A trip to hell and back may be the second-best thing that's ever happened to me. (Marrying Tina, who's the other reason I'm still alive, is the best.)

But the key is the "and back" part. Like the guy that got turned into the newt in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "I got better." Most people who do time in hell--in various hells of varying depths--never get to come back. When a loved one dies or is otherwise irrevocably separated from you, you don't come back. Not completely. Most people who live in conditions of affliction, extreme poverty, or terror don't get the sort of miraculous reversal that I was blessed with. So I'm not trying to argue that suffering is a good thing--far from it. But paradoxically, suffering, then suffering negated, was a blessing for me.

I know many people who can't believe that suffering could ever be God's will. God may (and does) turn suffering to good, but she never intends that it happen in the first place. As for me, I just don't know. When I look at my life, I don't know if it was God's will that I go through my depressions. Maybe there was no other way to wake me up. When I look at the life of Jesus Christ, I don't know whether it was God's will that he suffer and die on the cross. I certainly don't believe in a vindictive God who desires blood sacrifice, but it seems to me that the Christian story might require that the Passion was a necessity, not just an unfortunate accident that God turned to the great work that is the Resurrected Christ and the life he gives to his followers.

Hmm. I guess the message is that whatever the theological reality behind it (and, as usual, I'm more-or-less content to leave that a mystery), I'm living proof that the experience of suffering can become a blessing. If that has any chance of bringing a modicum of comfort to other folks in the midst of their own private hell, then please spread the word.

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