I am a priest and I live with depression.
I am a priest and there are days when it takes every spare ounce of energy I have to not drive over the guardrail on the bridge.
I am a priest and I have been institutionalized.
I am a priest and I once tried to kill myself.
I am a priest and I have told no one these things are true.
I’m not supposed to talk about it. My ordination process involved two serious psychological evaluations and I lied my ass off on both of them, describing limited periods of depression in high school and then later, during my parents’ divorce, instead of describing the depression and agoraphobia with which I live. The ordination process was so traumatizing and so horrible, and it had been made clear to me so many times that being honest was punishable by getting kicked out of the process. Getting kicked out wasn’t an option: my heart had been claimed by God and I knew that I was called to facilitate the Eucharist or die. So I lied.
But lying means that I am now professionally employed in a system that doesn’t recognize my health needs. I am now professionally employed in a system in which my health needs in fact make me suspect.
I wanted to write a post about how I was not at all equipped to deal with different kinds of ability needs that parish ministry requires. I wanted to write a post about how my seminary was not an accessible space: there were physical barriers to participating in the full life of the seminary, if you were dealing with strollers, wheelchairs, walkers – anything at all that meant you were not 100% capable of managing giant endless stairs on your own two legs. I will write that post someday. But this is personal for me, and what kept being written was my story, and the intersection of my brain and the ordination process.
Here are things I’m not supposed to talk about:
1. My baptism matters not because I have a lot of flowery things to say about it being a sacrament that Jesus instituted but because at my baptism I promised God that I would not take (nor ever again try to take) what God gave me: my own precious life. This promise has literally saved me. That promise to God means that there are several bathroom floors that my friends, lovers and family members did NOT find me on, dead and clutching two bottles of aspirin I swallowed. Sometimes the promise of salvation is actually that: a promise of being saved. In my case, from suicide.
2. The ordination process was actively retraumatizing. I am a sexual assault and abuse survivor, and the process involved things like the diocese requiring I submit copies of my Pap smears. It involved a slick, rich Upper East Side psychiatrist eyeing me up and down and asking me if I had any tattoos he couldn’t see, in addition to the visible ones he stared at and grilled me about. It involved living without health insurance while doing my field placement, which landed me at a Planned Parenthood in central Washington where I was asked a horrible series of detailed questions about how my trans partner and I fuck – questions completely unrelated to the concern I came in with. All of this served to solidify, to calcify, to entrench the trauma of being abused, to entrench the sense that my body is not, in fact, my own – that my body belongs to other people. And all the rhetoric around being a minister supports this – that I must give until it hurts, that I must prioritize every single person’s needs before my own or else I am a BAD CHRISTIAN, that I must follow Jesus to the point of crucufixion or I am a BAD PRIEST. This is, of course, compounded by the fact that I am told these things anyway, as a lady in the world, and ladypriest means those expectations increase exponentially. (It also means I’m supposed to spend my downtime baking birthday cakes for the staff, supposedly, but that’s a whole other fucking issue for a whole other post.)
3. I don’t know if I’m sick. Mental illness. Am I “ill”? I have this friend who lives in my brain. I have this friend who lives in my brain with whom I am very comfortable. It’s only just now dawning on me for real that not everyone (including my partner) lives with a friend in their brain who often encourages them to eat into oblivion, drink to oblivion, puke to oblivion, cut to oblivion, and/or throw themselves off high buildings. Not everyone has this friend who tells them to stay in bed all day, who tells them that their body is too horrible and horrifying to leave the house, that kids will throw things and scream. But I don’t know if I am “ill”. This is just the way my brain is. This is just the way I am. I have to talk with this friend a lot, and yes, that’s tiring. But in the meantime, I do manage to get a huge amount of work and life done.
We do not live in an ideal world. This means that my brain is something that would disqualify me for ministry. It would be a tipping point, added to my liberal use of swear words, too much lipstick, the lack of a dick not made of silicone, and not being 50 years old. Right now, people who know me in real life are reading this, and thinking to themselves that they no longer have to take me as seriously as they used to – my criticisms of the church and of the world used to get me labelled “bitch” (even by sensitive progressive dudes who tend to contain this particular word to the resounding silence of their own minds). This news about me adds a layer, ratcheting me up to “crazy bitch”, in which case they no longer have to listen to anything at all that I say. Do you see why I tell no one?
If we did live in an ideal world, I would be able to stay home on the days my friend wants to eat my brain and consume the rest of me. I would be able to say “I am sorry, but it is taking everything I have to not dismantle my razors and take them to my legs. Could I just come in for the two pastoral calls I have and then go home and take a 8 mile walk? Because an 8 mile walk will fix it.”
But I can’t. So many, many days go by where I push all the feelings down, down, down and then have no idea how to answer people when they ask me how I am.
It doesn’t help that rich white Christianity is mad crushed out on the power of positive thinking. Church makes us HAPPY GODDAMMIT. We are HAPPY HERE. I once told our faith community nurse how much difficulty I have sleeping, that I get incredibly anxious, and she said, “Wow, really? Because you have Jesus in your life.”
My Friend The Illness is invisible. If you see me at the supermarket, you can’t see my friend. If you see me preside at the Eucharist, you can’t see my friend.
For a while this winter I was doing a 6 a.m. liturgy at my church. It was sparsely attended, in part because many in the group quit when they learned I, a dyke, would be touching their Communion and giving it to them. I am someone who does not, who cannot, sleep, unless I have a regular sleep schedule, regular exercise, and sleeping pills. So I would go to bed early on Wednesday night, not sleep, not sleep, not sleep, nap for two hours, do the liturgy and Bible study, and go home again, and try to eat and drink myself into some sort of sleep before having to be back at church again in the afternoon. Then I would not go to the gym, sleep only a little the next night, go to work, eat to stay awake, and then end up on a hell cycle of not sleeping (which leading to not exercising, which leads to binging, which…you get the picture) where I would only get myself back onto some kind of reasonable livable brain place by the following Tuesday. Then it would start all over again. I started wanting to kill myself after 2 weeks of this. It was bad. My partner had to stay home from work one day just to make sure I wouldn’t self-harm. My boss, the rector, didn’t care. Or, rather, he told me he would take care of it, that I no longer had to say this Mass. Until he realized that then he would have to do it, at which point he brought me into his office and he scolded me for not having a doctor and essentially that I needed to go get myself medicated: this wasn’t his problem. It was my problem for not zoning myself the fuck out to make myself more productive. Thanks, boss. When I finally told the people themselves that the Mass was hurting me, I had some incredibly kind people pray with me, understand, lay hands. I had others who told me I had no work ethic, that the world used to be full of people who knew how to work, and it’s too bad young people today have no idea what it means to work.
I am a very, very, very good priest for those who also live with these friends in their brains.
I am a very, very, very good priest anyway. I am simply a very, very, very good priest who doesn’t respond well to antidepressants. (I do respond incredibly well to anti-anxiety drugs, which doctors won’t give me because I have multiple piercings and they think I am going to sell to my friends. At least that’s my theory. I have tried to tell doctors that anti-anxiety meds work really well for me – and yes, I know this because I have borrowed them from friends because doctors will not give them to me – and I get every evasive answer in the book).
I am a very, very, very good priest who has some specific needs. I need exercise. I need sleep (at least 8 hours per night). I need yoga. I need time alone. These are the bare minimum criteria for me to be someone who does not kill herself. These are the bare minimum for me to not eat pounds of pasta and ice cream and throw them up again night after night. This is it. I wish with all my heart I could simply say this to a new congregation, simply say this in an interview. “I will work my heart out for you. I will be there when your daughter dies of cancer, I will say a funeral Mass for your dog, I will preach with my whole being, I will encourage you to grow into the fullness of your whole self, I will advocate for your human rights, I will march in the streets and scream in protest when I see your life being violated, I will feed you with the bread of life. In essence, I will be your priest. Please know that in order to do this, you must leave me alone for small amounts of time. You must not give me dirty looks for leaving church during a 13-hour working day to attend a 1 hour yoga class. You must treat me with the kindness I will show you. You must let me advocate for myself.“