The Sacrament of Hope When We Despair

11/20/2016 12:30 pm ET

Five years ago, I was sitting across from my outpatient psychiatrist, then an impassive, impersonal diagnostic dictator, now some nameless, faceless, medical bureaucrat. My files, a thick stack, waited between us on his desk, a monolithic, supposedly definitive summary of my case history: escalating bipolar disorder, anorexic, alcoholic, self-injuring chronic patient, hospitalized more than twenty times, with long stints in inpatient programs meant to save me from myself.

His finger tapped the keyboard and his eyes scanned the computer screen. “There’s nothing more I can do for you. You’re a hopeless case,” he said.

This was not the first time I’d been told this. My frustrated therapist of ten years had frequently pronounced, “You are the most hopeless patient I have ever worked with.” Hopeless not as in he believed that I was hopeless and would eventually die by suicide (unethical then to take my cash), but that I myself believed that I was hopeless and would in fact die by suicide. He said this in kindness and concern and with intimate knowledge. Truly, I believed this: I’d attempted suicide several times over the years, sometimes half-heartedly (jumping into a frozen lake while drunk in the middle of campus, cutting my arms deeper and deeper, daring the passive slip of the razor) and sometimes with full intent (seventeen shots of vodka in 15 minutes and waking in the ICU with a blood alcohol level of .39, overdosing on my meds and waking up in the ICU in four-point restraints, and the slow, deliberate death by starvation). Always, I returned to the world with regret not gratitude.

Hopelessness, counter to common understanding, is not passive inertia, but agitated despair. You work toward your own annihilation, though it is not based in nihilism, but rather in the persistent agony of wanting to hope again but daring not. The novelist George Eliot once wrote, “What we call our despair is often only the eagerness of unfed hope.” How to live between expectation and decimation, over and over? Despair convinces us not to dare anymore but to yield to bleak desperation. Easier, really, to cut myself and my ties with the world.

And so, I set out to wreck myself. Why hope when I had an unremitting, unrelenting mental illness, careening between mania and depression? Hopelessness cut into my arms again and again, scars upon scars: This is your end they said to me each day as I stood in the shower looking at the crosshatchings, as I hid them under long sleeves, concealing my hopelessness and suicidal determination like you might a secret, wildly passionate love affair. My pain, my pain, my pain, my despair, my despair, my despair. Mine mine mine. Not yours to see.

But that afternoon, sitting across from that psychiatrist who was so sure that I was so surely going to kill myself (maybe not that very day or that week or that year), so sure that I was no longer worth believing in, no longer worth imagining a future for, I pushed back my sleeves, and for the first time, looked with self-compassion at the scars on my arms and at the new cuts, red, angry weals, and understood that all of it—the starvation, the drinking, the cutting, the suicide attempting—was only my failed effort to deny hope’s tenuous hold on me, and it’s wobbly promise: Maybe, but only maybe. Can you live with that?

Despair as the eagerness of unfed hope. Threaded through my bruised and battered and frayed heart was the hope that maybe maybe maybe wanting, desiring, moving, acting, speaking, writing, loving again was worth the battering. That despair did not mean I had to die, but in fact, the reverse: I had to keep living, hoping for moments of joy and purpose which, while ephemeral, offered ecstatic flight. Emily Dickinson instructs, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” We are fragile but capable of aeronautical miracles. Hope is tied to Edmund Burke’s understanding of a moral imagination: we must embrace the duties and ethical obligations of endurance because we are sacramentally connected to each other. Hopelessness severs connection, forces us into retreat: I have no hope for the world or have no hope for us or have no hope for myself and therefore I can retreat, take my leave. To believe that I must stay alive and endure and continue to hope and act, yes, here is the crux, to act on these hopes again and again, despite dashed hopes, is to strengthen my holy connection to you by which I am obliged to secure my future to yours and yours to mine.

Hope restores us to each other. Hope asks us to live in truth with each other. Hope asks us to entangle our lives, over and over, in joy and in pain, in promise and in disappointment, with each other. Hope is no superficial undertaking, but demands absolute allegiance even in apocalyptic times-- now, when so many of us feel hopeless, despairing of this unjust and intolerant regime marching across a country founded in the hope of who we can be together: a just, tolerant, and democratic We the People. Hope demands allegiance even when the psychiatrist who has defined your future, sits so smug in his surety that he well knows your end. This is when we must gather up the threads in our hearts regardless of any final, though always premature, diagnoses.

Because that psychiatrist didn’t know shit about me and my heart.

I looked down at my arms and then back at him. “Fuck you,” I said, and walked out.

I never cut into myself again, never hid my scars again, never believed that I should die again (well, not for any sustained length of bleak time). My sleeves, pushed back now, say: Look at me world. This record of scars, of my despair, is not my end but my beginning, reminding me to risk flight, reminding me of my social contract, my sacramental connection to you in this world. If I risk flight, you might, too. Gravity is a force that draws two objects together. My body and the earth. Me to you. Some birds fall into flight, leaping from branches and cliffs, to what must seem sure death, and yet: wings and feathers. As Burke wrote, the moral imagination, necessary for enduring the chaos of despair, is “what the heart owns and understanding ratifies.” We cannot be parsimonious, miserly in our hope, but must risk lavish flight together.

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