The news that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most religionists is not news to those of us who have taken the journey from belief to disbelief. The focus on religious knowledge between believers and non-believers underscores the very emotional struggle many experience when looking for meaning in their lives, reasons to continue believing, evidence of truth, and (at the point when they realize they’re all alone) assurance that they aren’t alone.
I was born into and raised with Catholicism. I reached adulthood with more questions than answers, but I earnestly sought to find them. It never occurred to me how long the journey would be, who would abandon me on the way, or where I would end up. I looked hard and prayed often. I didn’t find anything to help me, and, in a bizarre twist I wasn’t expecting, I was instead shunned and distanced for what I was doing by those who could have, dare I say should have, been willing to help me most: priests, nuns, other Catholics including friends and family members. The community I’d come to know, love, and depend on wasn’t there for me. I wandered off without anyone’s objection. I studied other religions and in the course of doing so learned even more about my own religion.
My quest to build on and secure my relationship with God competed with my quest to overcome clinical depression. I didn’t have energy to do both, but I did both anyway. I couldn’t pray while battling the side effects of medication or the depression itself, although I did genuinely try. I could barely get myself out of bed to go to the bathroom, so doing dishes, mowing the lawn, or going to mass were out of the question. But I still prayed. I prayed for my husband and children because they, too, had been abandoned. Had I been afflicted with cancer or in a car wreck, someone would have checked on me. Had I died, there would have been people coming ’round with food. Depression and religious ambiguity are not on the list of things for which people will check on you. The thing I suffered with most was understood by only one other person, and she took me to the hospital. The other thing I suffered with was understood by no one.
There is no wandering around the world in a hospital, but there was definitely time to pray and let God do His thing—whatever that was going to be. I shared space with people whose plights were so much worse than my own I couldn’t believe there was a god who would allow (inflict?) such pain. Among them were those with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, dissociative disorder, and a 20-year-old whose five-year old child was the product of her father having raped her. The first therapist assigned to me in the hospital sought my advice about her own experiences and depression. I reported her and had to start all over with another therapist. Fortunately there was also a night staff of intelligent, dry-witted psychiatric nurses and another depressed patient with whom I would become good friends if only within those walls.
It was in the hospital that I was brutally confronted with what my depression was doing to my husband. My kids were young. Visiting me in the hospital was an adventure to them in much the same way they remember our homelessness as lots of good times spent with mom driving around in the car. My husband didn’t understand what I was going through or how I’d gotten there, but he followed me nonetheless even as it scared him and threatened to weaken him as a man, a husband, and a father. He didn’t bring flowers. He brought tapes he’d made of my favorite music. To this day I don’t think he understands just how much he means to me and, even as I’ve done a great deal for him since, I don’t think he knows just how much more I’d be willing to do for him.
I would eventually be medicated and released, get only a little better, go back again and set to wander the religious interstate, as it were, one last time. I hoped and prayed all the way to the edge of my existence. When I got there, I was overwhelmed with how alone I was. No crickets. No whistling wind. No echo. No light, but also no darkness or depth. Was God here? I couldn’t tell. I was so ready for something, anything, but there was nothing.