Journey Towards Healing

The following was preached at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church Sunday, February 17, 2019

I have been on a journey I didn’t expect and wasn’t ready for – I’m not sure anyone could be ready for it.  Today, I want to tell you where I’ve been the past few weeks and what I’ve been learning and experiencing. I’m willing and ready to speak to you more one on one and in small groups as you wish, but I find it helpful to fill you all in, at the same time, in this way.

Beginning on Wednesday, January 9th, I started to struggle with insomnia. I’m not a stranger to insomnia — my mind often races late at night when I’m trying to fall asleep. In the past, though, I would call my insomnia mild. It was solved by some simple yoga stretches or a mild over the counter medication like Unisom.  The insomnia that began last month was unlike any I’ve experienced before, and it carried on for days. I slept 4 hours in 4 days. I lay in bed for hours listening to Elias breathe. Sometimes I would get up and read or watch a movie. I did yoga. I meditated. Nothing helped. I was absolutely exhausted and also terrified about why I wasn’t sleeping.  Strange thoughts ran through my mind What if I never sleep again? What’s happening to me?  Saturday night, January 12th, something abrupt shifted in my brain. I got an intense migraine headache and I started to hallucinate.  At no time did I ever fear for my safety or the safety of others, but given that I’ve never ever experienced anything like hallucinations before, it was terrifying.

Elias called my parents, and together they made the decision to call 911. I don’t remember much, but compassionate EMS workers loaded me into the ambulance and brought me to the hospital.

I spent 8 days in the hospital. Those 8 days were humbling and sad, but also so full of grace. The psychiatrist who treated me is someone whose compassion and care will forever be etched in my heart. As I began to be myself again and I explained what happened and the hallucinations and the terror, he nodded with empathy and simply said “Oh that’s terrifying, Traci, so very scary.” He promised me he would do everything in his power to get me well, and he made good on that promise.

Becoming well and healthy after what I experienced is not something that happens right away. Our executive presbyter, Sue Krummel gave me excellent advice. She said “You and your church need to treat this like a heart attack. A sudden illness from which you will not recover quickly.” She was absolutely right, and our church leadership heeded that wise advice. Through an outpatient program, art therapy, medication, meditation and hours of blessed sleep, I began to recover and feel like myself again. I now have a lot of tools in my toolkit for insomnia and I’m under close medical care to make sure I can catch symptoms of this happening again.  It was a terrifying time, but there were positive lessons to learn as well. Some holy moments happened in the midst of this trauma.

During my recovery I had to put everything aside: my tendency to work too hard, my miles long to do list, my love for being busy and active, even my work at church and caring for my family. Every single thing I cared about in life had to take a backseat. I had to focus every ounce of strength I had on becoming well.

Elias was my rock, and so were my parents.  The leaders of our church showed me great compassion and were willing to give me the time to recover.  I am blessed indeed to have that kind of steadfast, faithful support, and I thank everyone for being there for me when I needed help and understanding.

Mental health is still taboo in church and society. We don’t often talk about it openly and freely. It frightens us.  We don’t understand it. So when I was first telling the story of what happened to me, I chose to focus on the bodily aspect (the migraines) rather than to talk about the emotional and mental component. It feels very vulnerable to say openly what is happening to us on a mental or emotional level.  Even so, we cannot heal through euphemisms, we cannot be cured through avoidance.

I met a lot of people in the hospital. They were creative, empathetic, loving, brilliant and funny people, and they each had some sort of mental health diagnosis, from depression to anxiety to obsessive compulsive disorder, to schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder or something unspecified. Each person was struggling to find emotional and mental wellness. In the 8 days I was there I saw some of them become well enough to leave.   I met others who came in at the height of crisis. I have a newfound calling to pay attention to mental crises and to really listen to those who suffer from them. I have no doubt that a great many of our PADS guests suffer with mental illness on some level, and I wonder how my experience over the past few weeks might lead to a deeper understanding of them.

The passage I chose for us this morning from the book of Mark is, on first glance, about demons, but I think it’s actually about mental illness. Listen closely, again: when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.

A man who lived among the tombs… He couldn’t be restrained, even with a chain… No one had the strength to subdue him. He lived on the mountains, howling and bruising himself with stones. That sounds like a very, very good description of mental illness.  In the words of the Bible, he was afflicted with demons and he had an unclean Spirit. It certainly seemed so to them, when someone’s behavior is inexplicable and uncontrollable. Today, we call it diagnosis. Whether it is demons or diagnosis, it remains very scary. This story ends strangely to our modern ears.  The man says the demons that are afflicting him are called legion. Jesus casts them out and into a herd of pigs and in the form of those swine, the spirits drown. It’s such a strange story, but there is, for this man, healing. After he is healed he’s told to tell everyone about it.

In my case, the crisis I suffered was not resolved by a herd of swine. It was resolved by more than a few professionals, medication, and hours of rest and repose. The demons are gone.

I am so sorry for what you all had to go through during this time  – the concern, the absence of a pastor, the uncertainty, and no doubt many fearful rumors. I know that it has been difficult for you, too, and I thank you for your understanding and support and your coming together as a community.  To help anyone afflicted by mental illness, we need to refuse to accept the stigma it usually entails. We need to renew our determination to create safe places for recovery and healing, and to be the people who make that possible.

Friends, I know it may sound a little strange, but I stand before you today feeling so very, very grateful. I’m grateful to the doctors, nurses and healers who saw me through one of the darkest seasons of my life. I’m grateful to mentors and friends who were there to walk alongside me, and I’m grateful to the leadership of EPC for their deep, deep wisdom. Soon after I was released from the hospital, I met with the leaders of all of our boards and the chair of the HR team. To a person their response was the same: get well. Take care of yourself. Come back to us when you can. No judgment, no drama. Only love. As Presbyterians, we work together, lay leadership right alongside ministers. In just a few minutes we will ordain and install our new leadership, moving forward together in grace and hope.

This is an amazing community of faith. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: It’s an honor to be your pastor. Amen and amen.

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