Of Foreign Lands and Sacred Space

Pilgrimage through mental illness to restoration

by Barbara Scott

As an English major and student of language and literature, when I think of pilgrimage, the first thing that comes to mind is The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late fourteenth century. The collection of tales is told from the viewpoint of a group of pilgrims on their way from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Pilgrimage—a journey undertaken to a visit a shrine or sacred place—would have been a familiar concept to Chaucer’s audience, most likely members of the royal court. Chaucer cleverly frames his work as a contest
of stories told by a group of characters of diverse social backgrounds who reveal they are more interested in worldly matters than spiritual ones.

It has taken me a lifetime to comprehend that not only is pilgrimage an ancient tradition of the church, but also it describes my life journey through mental illness to restoration. Now that I walk in health, I realize I have been on a pilgrimage my entire life. I give thanks that God made divine connections for me with church communities, wise pastors, and caring mental health professionals. Along the way, I learned to accept who I am. I finally acknowledged I needed not only the understanding and wisdom of others but also medication. My pilgrimage through the darkness of “foreign lands” taught me many wonderful things that I might never have learned had my life been free of trouble. On the journey to a sacred space with God, my prayer life deepened. Most important, I learned by reading and studying and teaching Scripture that God loves me without measure. God is forgiving, merciful, and generous with grace. God cried when I cried.

Darkness Nipping at the Edges

Most people never would have predicted that a trailer-park kid like me even had the intelligence to finish high school, let alone college and graduate work. Unfortunately, stereotypes still play a role in a child’s education. Yet my first and fondest memories are of reading and escaping into worlds so different than mine. My parents were uneducated—both having to quit school at an early age to help their families survive the Great Depression—but they knew a good education was the key to success. We moved constantly, hooking up our trailer and traveling to greener pastures where my father could find work. By the time I graduated from a high school in a small town in Missouri, I had attended 17 different schools. Four of those were high schools.

What does any of this have to do with my pilgrimage through mental illness? My drive to succeed, my low self-esteem, my bouts of deep depression, my anxiety, my need to please and to always have the right answers were not only caused by my genetic code for an eventual diagnosis of bipolar-D, major depressive disorder, and severe anxiety, but by my environment as well. Sadly, it wasn’t until a year before he died at the age of 84 that my father was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and finally received the treatment he needed.

Dad worked hard as a mechanic to feed four children, and my mom squirreled away a quarter here and there to make certain we always had food on the table. Sure, my father had unexpected bouts of rage, and we were disciplined with a belt, but at other times he was warm, loving, kind, funny, and affectionate. He always had big plans and dreams. I realize now that his ability to stay up for three days in a row to work on cars in an auto shop was a symptom of his mental illness. My mother never said a word when his temper raged. Instead, she remained quiet—stoic. My father never once abused her physically, but we all walked on eggshells. Still, I loved my dad. A psychiatrist once asked me how I could possibly have loved such a man.

I was afraid to confide in anyone at church, because I didn’t want them to know I was imperfect and probably not fit to teach.

It wasn’t until the year I turned nine that I realized we were different. That October, no one from my class came to my birthday party in the trailer park where our neighbors were circus performers wintering in Dallas. Instead, they went to a boy’s party whose parents took them to a theme park. From my vantage point now, I understand the social dynamic, but then I felt rejected, disappointed, and profoundly sad. We never attended church as a family, but we prayed at mealtimes. But I found comfort in church. Every Sunday morning, I walked with my older brother and sister to a little chapel nearby. In that little church, I learned to love God with all my heart.

I look back now and see how the Lord was always drawing me on my journey through a life that was filled with career success undergirded with the hidden pain of depression and anxiety. I became a workaholic. God’s voice remained elusive so I worked harder to know God. At first I studied New Age philosophies and other world religions. But in my mid-30s, my husband and I turned back to the church where we had found comfort as children. I devoured the Bible, read commentaries, attended home study groups, and immersed myself in the liturgy of the church.

As much as I loved God, though, and as much as I prayed and studied, I still battled mental illness. I was not yet ready to label it as such, but the darkness nipped at the edges of my mind all the time. I was afraid to confide in anyone at church, because I didn’t want them to know I was imperfect and probably not fit to teach. No one knew how much I suffered except my husband. In public, I wore a mask that projected the personality of a kind, considerate, smart, and confident woman. People respected my opinion and sought me out for advice at church and at work. But I identified with King David’s struggles and lived in the Psalms. This verse, in particular, gave me great hope: “He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure” (Psalm 40:2).

Finding and Losing the Path

In every life, there are milestones that mark the journey to healing. One year I attended a two-day silent retreat and followed a path through a wooded area, meditating on God’s purpose for my life. Soon the path all but disappeared. I stumbled over tree roots and pushed through low-hanging branches. I detoured around large rocks and boulders. The woods became denser and darker. Many other seekers had walked this path, though, so I was determined to complete the challenge. Becoming lost, I stopped and surveyed my surroundings. Eventually, I climbed higher and found the path again.

Occasional sunlight peeked through the branches now. With renewed energy, I followed the narrow, crooked path that wound through and over more obstacles as the terrain gradually steepened. Finally, I emerged onto the sunlit path that now widened and beckoned toward the top of the hill. It was the middle of the summer, and I longed for the cool shade of the dense woods. But I couldn’t—wouldn’t—turn back. I had come too far. Soon my legs burned from the steep hike. Just when I almost lost hope of finding my way back to the retreat center, the ground leveled out into a meadow of grasses and wildflowers, inviting me to stay and rest. I could see the retreat center now. I had conquered the path and found my way home.

I believed then—and now—that the path is a metaphor for my life. Once I continued to search for a sacred place with God, I found the path again, and even though the climb was difficult, I eventually found my way with God’s help.

Years passed before I finally admitted I suffered from a medical condition—a chemical imbalance in my brain. Falling into another dark hole and unable to climb out, I cried out to God. I thought about how easy it would be to end the pain by ending my life. It was at that point when I heard God whisper in my mind, “Would you withhold insulin from a diabetic?”
I thought, “Of course not, Lord.”

God whispered, “Then why do you deny yourself the medication that can help you?”

Even though my primary care physician prescribed antidepressants, it would take many more years to receive an accurate diagnosis and the medication I needed to restore my mental health. I credit the love of my husband, my strong faith in God, and my church community for leading me into that sunlit meadow where I found my sacred place with God. Why did it take so long? I don’t know. I only know that like St. Paul, I have found contentment no matter my circumstances.

As the words of Amazing Grace say, “I once was blind but now I see.” When I battled depression, anxiety, and the roller-coaster ride of being bipolar, all I wanted was for the pain to stop. Now I see that my life has been a pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow of death. God walked beside me the whole time and led me into the sunshine at last.

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