I’ve taken almost a month off from writing blog posts. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m ready to be back in the game. But I have to find productive ways to pass my time or else things tend to fall apart pretty fast.
Where do I start?
This is one of those posts where I need to chew on my words very carefully before spitting them out. Otherwise a torrent will vomit up, and who knows what you’ll end up reading. There’s a time and place for vulnerability, and sometimes that’s with other people. But I must be deliberate and thoughtful with how my words craft that vulnerability.
Let’s start in the moment: I have been put on medical leave from work. Right now it’s until the end of January, but if things don’t improve I’ll have to apply for short-term disability support. Last Friday I felt like I could almost cut my time off short and return to work next week.
Today… today, not so much.
Over the past year, I’ve had pastors, synodical leaders, fellow parishioners and friends affirm that I need to pursue a calling in seminary to become a pastor. After having many-a-door shut in my face in terms of next life steps, I began to seriously consider the idea of becoming a pastor. It seemed the only door being left open.
The frightful thing was: seminary demanded an internship away from my home community, home church, home pastor, and family. What the seminary and synod weren’t aware of was past traumas linked directly with major upheavals, moves and new places. If there was one thing that was keeping me from embracing the calling, it was this. I was terrified and I hadn’t even applied yet. I kept trying to tell people: “I won’t be able to handle this!”
Not many really took me seriously on this point.
However, a pilot project in Alberta was starting up: an apprenticeship model whereby seminarians could remain in their home communities and apprentice under their own pastors and gained valuable life and ministry experience right where they were.
That I could foresee myself fitting into.
It dovetailed my MA in Urban Studies beautifully, being trained to be a social justice advocate right where I was.
So I applied to seminary.
But I did everything wrong. Not morally wrong, mind you, but the steps I needed to take to be approved by my Synod all seemed upside down and backwards. Suddenly, I was a full time student before I was supposed to be, but I didn’t know that until well into the semester. All these different parties had different roles to play in the approval and application process, and I did whatever each party told me to do.
It’s just that… whatever I did seemed to be out-of-sync with all the other steps.
I kept waiting to fall into my usual academic groove, keeping a good pace with school and work. But it never happened. In fact, the anxiety became worse. Did I feel called away from seminary?
But I didn’t find the rhythm I usually find when I’m balancing academics and career.
In my previous degree, all of my classes were semester-long. The seminary offers intensives: complete courses jammed into a 1-2 week time period. For the working person, these can be great ways to finish 3-credit courses on vacation time (or some such set-up). My first intensive was scheduled for the last week of November into the first 2 weeks of December.
The first two weeks of December are my busiest time of year:
Because of the major downturn in the Albertan economy, I expected that there would be more people needing Christmas hampers in 2015. I was not wrong. We planned for 90 hampers, but I ended up sharing 121. That’s not including regular weekly hampers. I don’t have exact numbers in front of me, but in the first two weeks of December I saw between 140-150 families.
That’s just nuts.
Oh wait… the intensive course: Contemporary Theologians.
The content was amazing. I discovered CS Song. And I loved his writings and teachings. But I was online all of the time, posting, responding, writing, reading — 80 academic hours in two weeks.
That was just more nuts.
And then the H-bomb that blew it all to pieces: my pastor informed me that he and his wife were more than likely moving to another parish before the winter was out.
I couldn’t really tell with my vision suddenly being fuzzy and all, but I’m pretty sure parts of my spleen ended up being splattered on the far end of my work office wall, and each of my legs had flown into separate corners.
Suddenly the world blew apart. And I couldn’t put it back together again.
All I could hear ringing in my ears were the warnings from my first week in seminary about how pastors can’t be friends with their parishioners; about how pastors should make clean breaks from old parishes as they enter new ones; about how pastors have to have clear-cut boundaries with people. We aren’t to be “friends” with people. We’re to be “pastors” — helpers, guides. But not friends.
It felt like I’d already broken every single cardinal rule in the pastoral boundary friendship book. Calvin and Lori were my “spiritual parents”. In a time when I was parting ways with evangelical doctrines and stands, I often felt the need to part ways with God. I was done. Enough. No more.
Enter: Calvin and Lori.
I didn’t know the pastoral rule book then. I simply took one last chance on God as shown through two weird, funny, loving, welcoming folks. That’s all. My circle of good friends was so tiny and, after some messy breaks with prior traditions, had grown even smaller still. At one point I believed I had only my parents, and my brother and sister-in-law. And while I was desperately thankful for them, I was burdened with the glaring need to expand that circle just a little. Suddenly… I had friends. Good friends. More than that, people who appeared to want to be friends with me! And they became precious.
Anyone who knows me knows that I live as a perpetual question mark. I am forever asking questions. I peppered Calvin with questions about theology, doctrine, liturgical practices, and pastoral people stuff. He began to help me interpret confusing social situations by gently deconstructing them with me, and helping me see intentions behind actions bit by bit. For a socially awkward person, this is a HUGE gift.
Instead of giving me quaint Christian platitudes, he patiently listened to each question one-by-one and wrestled for the answers with me (if there were answers to find; often I received an “I don’t know!).
Lori, I knew, was a kindred spirit simply because of her kindness, her inclusion of LGBTQ people, and her uncanny ability to relate all reverent things to Monty Python or The Simpsons. As a too-serious person, it was a breath of fresh air to have someone who gently prodded me to laugh just a bit more. To come out of my shell. To feel safe and to feel welcome.
I began getting to know other misfit members of the little worship team at Lord of Glory Lutheran Church — people of all ages, diverse backgrounds and experiences, and all seeking somehow. This little group became — and remains — a lifeline for me. Only now the lifeline is thinning out a bit.
By the time Christmas holidays arrived, I was a-shambles. Calvin likened the mental illness to a weird flu; said that I shouldn’t be ashamed (as we drove to the closest mental health ward 1.5 hours away).
I had no flu. I may as well have contracted full on pneumonia.
I couldn’t control my crying, even when my mind and heart felt at rest; my sleep patterns were awful; there were severe pains in my abdomen when I ate; and I wondered if I was going to get kicked out of seminary.
Pastor material? Me?
Did I mention in the midst of all this wreckage, I forgot to write a final exam.
Christmas Eve I moved into my parents’ place for two and a half weeks. I learned to appreciate puzzles (not usually my thing); I drank copious amounts of mint-lavender tea; I watched hours of BBC dramas like Sherlock and Larkrise to Candleford; I cried on my mom’s shoulder again and again and again.
“I’m here again, Mom [‘here’ as in mentally ill again]. I didn’t want to be and I don’t know how I’ll get through, but here I am…”
How did I get back here?
Mental illness… how did it creep up on me like that?
When I finally was able to see a therapist after the holidays were over, she suggested sweetly that I get a guinea pig.
I’ll stop there because the entire process seemed to focus less on grief and loss, and rather me learning to put sticky notes with happy messages to myself around the house. I’m not going back.
But the psychiatrist I initially saw is 1.5 hours away; I’m on medical leave, meaning I’ll have a little income soon (hopefully) to help cover rent and food, but no room for extra gas money to access out-of-town resources; local therapy isn’t helping; and other private counsellors cost a fair bit.
Even today, as I try to transition from my parents’ snug, safe sanctuary to my dark little basement suite, the panic grew to a deafening scream. I was claustrophobic; I couldn’t breathe; I was losing friends; I was unable to control my breath or my tears; I had no sight of the next 30 seconds, much less the future.
One thing I do know is this: I have to grieve.
The one-time therapist told me not to be sad because another pastor would come.
People precious to me are leaving. Full stop. No more words.
And no, I can’t just go for a visit any old time I please (pastoral boundaries which I do understand; although it doesn’t make it any less hard to accept). In a way, it does feel like a death. New things can come from death, in the moment the death needs to be grieved for what it is.
No talking heads.
No rule books.
“Lean into the sadness…” said an author-friend of mine. “Lean into the pain.”
Part of the terror for people who suffer with chronic mental illness is the reality that: “This is going to happen again and again…
… and again”.
Why would I leap at the chance for new friends when losing old friends turns life into a battering ram to the gut? This isn’t like when mom and dad bring home a new puppy after the old one dies, and the kids just need something to love. This is far more complicated and far more deserving of honour than that.
I have hope that healing will come. But that healing is coming a price. And I will find myself in this place once more. Maybe I’ll be stronger; maybe not. Mental illness has a peculiar way of gnawing away at life, and faculties I once thought I had to rely on are suddenly vanished — eaten up.
So here I am. Unraveling.
And the Unraveling isn’t done.
I suspect it won’t be done for a while yet. Definitely not until after my friends leave, and this transition season (I am so fragile when it comes to transitions; I simply can’t manage) enters a stage where the changes are permanent and clearer to deal with.
There’s nothing for it but to wait.
(A guinea pig?? REALLY????)