It’s my first time at the Hope and Healing support group for people living with mental illness. I’m not even sure I should be here. It’s like those dreams where you’re walking down Main Street and suddenly realize your don’t have any clothes on.
Without warning, I’m enveloped by a hug so warm and strong that for a few seconds, my toes don’t touch the floor. “Better now?” Lucy asks. I’m surprised to hear myself say, “Yes.”
Lucy sits beside me during the meeting, holding a teddy bear. “His name is Mr. Bear”, she says. “I take him with me everywhere I go. I think he likes you.”
People are talking about emotions, and boundaries and getting by for one more day. I’m relieved that, as a newcomer, it’s all right if I just listen. Hiding symptoms, pretending I’m OK, has become second nature, a way to go on breathing.
As weeks go by, Lucy and I and Mr. Bear meet for coffee, and walks in the park. I learn that Lucy’s family history is riddled with contemporary clichés. Dysfunctional family. Co-dependence. PTSD. Addiction. Mental illness. Emotional abuse.
To call Lucy a survivor wouldn’t do her justice. Lucy is both child-like and profound. She breathes life into lifeless labels that criticize and condemn.
“My mother played the piano when she was drunk. I learned to love her music.”
“The kids called me fatso and dumbbell at school. God told me not to listen.”
“My dad was a lot like me. Mom called him an idiot. I sat with him when he cried.”
I’m also impressed by Lucy’s rock solid, uncomplicated faith in God. I listen politely to her spiritual wisdom. I haven’t been inside a church or said a prayer in years.
“Don’t be scared,” she tells me on a bad days. “God’s with you even if you think he’s just a silly story somebody wrote down in a book.”
“God can’t get a word in if you don’t stop talking and listen.”
“Don’t tell me you have no good qualities. God doesn’t make junk!”
One thing Lucy says about God has a smidgen of appeal. “Remember he knows how to carry a cross.”
One evening over coffee, with Lucy’s warm hand resting lightly on mine, the door opens to the tight place next to my heart where my symptoms have been buried alive since I was thirteen years old and realized something was wrong.
I tell Lucy everything. The strange spells that come without warning. Blurred vision. Shapeless shadows spinning in dizzy-making circles in front of my eyes. Sounds echoing like voices in the House of Horrors at the Red River Exhibition. The depression that feels like walking through quicksand. The fear and the shame. How I envy other people, the Sane Ones, and wonder why mental illness happened to me.
Lucy sits in silence through it all. Her presence grounds me, keeps me safe, until I finally run out of words. We sit a while without speaking, sipping our tea. Lucy’s response, when it comes, is brief: “God might tell you some good things about yourself if you didn’t keep running away.”
Lucy’s right. I did have dreams, once upon a time. They died when the symptoms hit. It’s so long ago, I barely remember what they were.
“You’re going to feel better now that all the secrets are out,” Lucy promises. The next morning I’m up and dressed by seven, even though I feel like sleeping until noon. Not a stellar accomplishment. But it’s a start.
A few months later, Lucy hits a rough patch. Her neighbor calls to say she’s running down the back lane in her pajamas, crying. I find her sitting on the grass at the little park across the street from where she lives. She looks at me with tears running down her face. “The voices came back”, she says. “They called me crazy and said I should jump in the river and die. They kept saying it and saying it. Jump! Jump! Jump! I was trying to run away.”
This time, I’m the one holding her. I say, “Lucy, the voices are a bunch of liars. You’re beautiful and special and gifted. The world’s a better place because you’re in it. My world’s better because of you. You hug me until my toes don’t touch the ground and help me see what’s in front of my nose, even when it sucks. You’re not crazy! You’re the sanest person I know.”
Then I promise Lucy what she always promises me when I’m the one who’s down. “Pitch black doesn’t last forever and I’m with you until the lights come on again.”
“Lucy’s off work for a couple of weeks, adjusting to changes in her medication. Then she returns to her job as a janitor in a nursing home. On her first day back at work, I’m there at quitting time to give her a ride home. I find her in the day room with a Bible open on the table in front of her.
The smile is electric, her eyes alive with excitement. “Come here, Valerie, and see what I found! Right here in Genesis! I only read the Jesus parts before. Tonight I started on page one. And look what it says! God made the light first, then he made people. You know what that means, Valerie? You, me, everybody, we’re all made of light!” Lucy wraps her arms around me and hugs me till my toes don’t touch the floor, and I’m laughing with tears in my eyes because the glorious image is perfect. Lucy made of light!
The years pass faster than they should. I rediscover dreams I lost when mental illness took me down. I’m able to go back to school and get a degree, and have a job that includes walking alongside people struggling with mental illness.
Sometimes I speak to students and church groups about mental illness. I’m not hiding any more. People will understand. Or not. We all see through different eyes.
Lucy has travelled light years beyond the grim prognosis she received when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She’s my rock. My loveable, unflappable, unstoppable friend.
Pitch black comes suddenly on a crisp autumn afternoon. The voice on the phone is apologetic. The message unbearable. It’s a doctor in emergency at St. Boniface Hospital. “I’m calling about your friend, Lucy Williams. I’m very sorry to have to tell you she passed away this afternoon.”
Time stops. My mind goes blank. I don’t know how long I sit at my desk, afraid to move because whatever I do next will be the beginning of going on without Lucy. When thought returns, I realize there are people to notify from Hope and Healing who care as deeply about Lucy as I do.
No, I can’t phone anyone. Not yet. Doctors are human. They make mistakes. Maybe it’s a different Lucy. Maybe my Lucy is still out shopping for shoes. That’s what she said she had to do today. She has a hard time finding shoes that fit her meager budget.
Co-workers come back from coffee break. I don’t remember what I said, or even if I cried. Someone asks if there’s anything they can do. My answer is pure Lucy. “Ask everyone to pray.”
The church is packed for Lucy’s memorial service. People are laughing and crying and hugging each other. Lucy would appreciate that. During the eulogy, Lucy’s minister says Lucy was the best armchair theologian he ever knew.
After the service, Lucy’s family asks if I’d like to have something to remember her by. I ask for Mr. Bear, the teddy she had with her the night she reached out to me at the Hope and Healing meeting. He’s propped on my desk as I write. His stoic button eyes tell me he misses Lucy too.
I find some peace in trusting that, for Lucy, pitch black disappeared forever the day she knocked and God opened the door and hugged her till her toes didn’t touch the ground.
She’d have one of those big electric smiles on her face if she knew that one of the things she said about God that had only a smidgen of appeal the first time I heard it, strikes like lightning today. “Remember he knows how to carry a cross.”
Linda West is the 2014 winner of the non-fiction writing contest sponsored by the Winnipeg Free Press and the Writers’ Collective of Manitoba. Shared here by permission of the author. Thanks to Irma Janzen for calling the story to our attention.