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Faith, prayer, and bipolar: To the stars and back

by
29 January 2021

Prayers filtered through bipolar disorder give an insight into life’s beauty and pain, says Alia Joy

istock

I READ somewhere that black holes are one of the heaviest objects in the universe: their gravity is so dense that even light gets trapped. I don’t claim to understand the science of cosmic things, but I know about the weight of darkness, of empty space, of its pull and gravity.

I’m a woman with a medical file that stretches like the belly of an accordion, filled with tests, procedures, and diagnoses — but I’m incurable.

At best, I can only hope to be managed with an antipsychotic, an anti-depressant, and a medley of other meds and healthy life practices.

Still, I know the meteoric rise of mania when my limbs are lusty and incandescent. I see patterns connecting my words like constellations. I am celestial. I chatter to God incessantly.

And, on nights when my pillow can’t hold my head, too full of moonlight ruminations, I bake a cobbler, read beautiful writing with a sturdy wool throw on my lap and my dog curled at my side.

I’ll thank God for Nina Simone’s music as “Feeling Good” pounds in my earbuds. Eventually, I’ll tangle my legs in the sheets, searching for silence and sleep.

But, at the height of my bipolar disorder, my prayers become starbursts: they explode from me, illuminating my universe. My mind is too bright for sleep; so I rise and stand barefoot in my kitchen, letting my heart fill with adoration:

Thank you, Jesus, for non-toxic cleaners that smell like honeysuckle (especially when insomnia keeps me up for days and I scrub the cracks in the kitchen floor with a toothbrush at three in the morning), and for the way Finn wags himself sideways like a furry little drunk when I come home; and peach cobbler, and the cool spot my wandering legs find in my sheets, and Brian Doyle’s writing, although we lost him too soon so I won’t say thanks for that because death is a catastrophe, but still, thanks for the words he left behind, they’ve helped.

And hoping words are the best kind. And knitting, although I don’t knit but still I’m thankful to live in a world where it’s an option, because I’ve wanted to learn. And yarn animals! I can think of three — alpaca, sheep, and what was the other one? I forget. Goat? Can you shear a goat? Goat yarn?

I don’t know, but thank you, God, for having the forethought of a shepherd and for your creation of woolly animals. You get what it feels like to be naked and exposed, and you weave together all that covers and binds us.

Your kingdom is limitless because yarn can also be made from bamboo, silk, hemp, cotton . . . and then there are factories making synthetic yarn out of chemicals, and science and isn’t that a miracle, too? That elements from the periodic table are mixed in a vat, and out comes a sweater?

I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but just that we come up with this stuff, that people actually make use of math with exponentials and Xs and Ys, all Good Will Hunting style and science beyond Bunsen burners and baking-soda volcanoes.

Unless the science-y math part harms the environment, or unfairly treats workers who’re making yarn or sweaters, or alpacas. Then never mind about that part. And since I’ve no use for fancy math or science, I once again thank you for the language of hope I dabble in. Amen.

 

IN the morning, my prayers become actions. I drive myself 26.6 miles to the craft store. My arms stretch like angel wings as I run my fingers across the bins of yarn with dye lot numbers, where blue is peacock, canard, and kingfisher.

I gather a sea of skeins in Aegean and lapis against my breast, like a mother would her child, and carry the lot to the register.

“What are you knitting?” the clerk asks me as she rings up my mountain of yarn.

“A sweater, I think. I haven’t gotten that far. I’m going to teach myself.” I reply with the bravado of a woman who will drive the 26.6 miles home and immediately download a pattern as complicated as the swirling cosmos, certain that YouTube tutorials and days of dropping stitches and picking them back up with obsessive devotion will create something to withstand the cold.

But the mania won’t last long enough to knit a blue sweater.

Back at home, it doesn’t take long before needles stick out of the pile of yarn like flagpoles on a hill waiting for me to run up the white flag, surrendering my scattered prayers of thanks.

Where once I was celestial in my mania, floating, weightless, I re-enter the atmosphere on a collision course. I am no stranger to the shattering devastation of this heavenly body returning to earth, crammed back into flesh that scars, imprisoned by a mind tight-fisted around sorrow.

I am embodied in brokenness, hellish in my depression. I know the body that cannot rise against the gravity of despair, let alone hands able to knit one, purl two.

My vacant tongue lashes at the corners of my mouth as if ridding it of cobwebs. If lips could atrophy from disuse, mine would wither. The atmosphere feels too thick and suffocating for sound to reach the heavens. Only muffled cries and grunts of pain escape my mouth.

When my soul circles this black hole, a gratefulness for cobbler and cool sheets sounds ludicrous. Am I a weak, foolish woman who does little more than pay attention to silly things?

But when I think of a God who “chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to shame the strong”, maybe a world with kingfisher-blue alpaca yarn is more than enough to remember Jesus’s loving tenderness.

God’s mercy tethers me to hope in the foolishness of a kingdom where childlike wonder, the ramblings of my manic mind, and my depressed groanings are liturgy. Is this what it means to pray without ceasing?

A mind attentive to God’s grace. A God near enough to hear my prayers.

I swish my legs across my sheets in search of the cool spot and I remember Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory. And this prayer is enough for a weak, foolish woman like me. Amen.

 

This is an edited extract from A Rhythm of Prayer: A collection of meditations for renewal edited by Sarah Bessey and published on 9 February by SPCK at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-0-28108-515-6.

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