“Do you think that somehow God doesn’t already know? That you’ve pulled a fast one over on God? I don’t know a lot about you, but I know this: our God, who created you, who somehow manages to be three persons and also one at the same time, sees you, knows you, loves you, and highly regards you. As you are.”
— Pastor Ray (Name Changed)
Those may have been the most grace-filled words ever spoken to me. Could it be possible that exactly as I am, broken as I feel, I am made in the image of God? Could it be possible that God doesn’t just know about my brokenness, but knows my multifaceted experience, and still loves and highly regards me?
Or should I say, us? That, after all, more accurately reflects my experience and my internal dialogue. What I call “me” is really a collection of many pieces of myself who live within me. These ‘others’ have their own memories, experiences, belief systems, and ways of making meaning. They even have their own names. Sometimes, we all get along. More often, our conflicting worldviews and belief systems collide within us, challenging us to find an integrated way of living. The official name for this is Dissociative Identity Disorder. (You can read more about that here.)
In spite of the multiplicity of voices that make up my experience, this oft feared, misunderstood mental health challenge leaves me feeling alone. I’m learning to feel comfortable talking about the peripheral issues: depression, anxiety, being an incest survivor, etc. Still, I fear talking about this one. I am afraid to tell anyone about my diagnosis. I am afraid to tell people how challenging it is to live and to minister this way. I am afraid of what people will think and say. Will my bishop decide it’s too risky for me to serve a congregation? Will my congregation react with fear or horror or morbid curiosity? Will my friends think I’m crazy? If they really know me, will they stop loving me?
Fear and silence shroud my whole life. The cloistered secrecy that pervaded my childhood made my disorder possible (and necessary). As an adult, I push back against these walls. I stretch to characterize my life with confidence, honesty, and integrity. And yet, still I am afraid. Still I have a secret. The deepest, most painful secret possible: who I really am.
Carrying this secret exhausts me, which is why I sought out Pastor Ray that day. Tired of feeling afraid for my job, tired of feeling alone in the world, tired of feeling overwhelmed and suicidal, I sought out someone I believed might bring me good news. I told my secret. I explained what I believe: God didn’t mean for my life to be this way. God didn’t create me with the intention that I would have ‘others’ inside of me. I am this way because of what happened to me. Fundamentally, I believe that I am different in my soul than God originally intended. Then, I explained what I fear: God couldn’t possibly know about these ‘others’ and love me. Their very existence must mean that we’re meant to be alone. Ultimately, I fear that because I am not who God created me to be, I should not even be alive.
I sat quietly trembling in Pastor Ray’s office, waiting for his response. He didn’t recoil, didn’t appear horrified, didn’t ask questions. He just said that. “Do you think that somehow God doesn’t already know?…” Something broke loose inside of me. I began to breathe again. Streams of colored light began to play deep within my soul, as though someone had turned on the light behind a stained glass window.
This should not have been surprising. After all, I don’t believe in a God who created a world where evil ‘got in’ and can never be redeemed. I believe that our creation & garden stories bear witness to a God who does not cause sin and brokenness, or ignore it, or punish it. Rather, I believe these stories speak of a God who constantly invites us to take part in God’s redemptive work. God gently holds our brokenness with an invitation to work together to create unfathomable beauty. Just as a stained glass window transforms broken shards of glass into a single beautiful piece of art, so God works with us and our brokenness to create ever more complex, beautiful artwork. Brokenness doesn’t ruin the art, it is the art.
What really surprised me that day was that the light shone from within me. Somehow, God’s light was already present behind my broken soul. Somehow, in spite of my fear, I had never really been alone. Somehow, pulling together the painful gashes that separate pieces of my soul, God could still create beauty from my brokenness. Somehow, God could still bring me hope.
I know that many people live with mental illness. Many people live exhausted from keeping secrets in fear. Many people believe that something about them makes them fundamentally unlovable, unknowable, and disdainful to God. So often, I feel that I must be the only person (or at least, the only clergyperson) in the world who struggles in these ways. I also know that isn’t actually true, even when I feel most abandoned and alone. Every person’s life experience is unique, and anyone can feel completely alone even if they’re not. That is, even though they’re not. So I know, even when I feel most alone, I am not. I cling to the hope that even God lives as three-in-one. And God’s light shines, even when I can’t see it.
I still don’t have the courage to share my story openly. I still wonder what would happen if my bishop or my congregation learned about my diagnosis. I still think carefully about which friends might be safe to tell and how they might respond. I even still wonder, sometimes, if God’s promises hold true for me. At the same time, I ask God to nurture the brightness within me. I seek places where it can be seen. And I let it shine through my broken pieces with hope.
Feeling isolated and alone comes easy in life. Society still teaches us to keep secrets, especially about mental health challenges. Yet God’s grace shines brightest in community. God’s grace comes when we know we are seen and known and loved and highly regarded. God’s grace remains present at all times. But so often, it takes someone who sees and knows us to shine light into our deepest secrets. It takes someone else to bring grace to our most broken places. It takes someone else to open us to hope.
Hope gives me permission to live. It gives me permission to be vulnerable. It gives me permission to play. It gives me permission to be me, and it gives me permission to be ‘others’ — Janie or Daniel or little one or Sara or Ana or 12 or anyone who needs time to be. It gives me permission to shine. After all, it isn’t me the light graces — it’s us. And after all, it isn’t my light that is shining — it’s God’s. Even in me. Even in us.
Photo provided by the author.