The Paradox of Presence: How Christ Draws Near Me In Mental Illness

The Paradox of Presence

A guest blog by Sophia Swinford

Every day, G-d seems to fall further away from me. Or maybe I am the one falling. My mind reaches and grasps but the light turns to darkness beneath my palms. So I turn my hands over, palms up. The light tickles my fingertips, and I fight against the urge to close my fist around it. The light retreats, leaving only darkness as though I’m drowning in ink. I fight to keep my hands open. Fighting the paradox of presence.

My experience of depression, anxiety, and OCD began as a child. For many years, I suffered from what is clinically referred to as “poor insight” and “delusional belief”; this means that I was unaware that my symptoms were irrational. Though my OCD demanded irrational beliefs and behaviors, I was convinced that the urges I felt were not “compulsions” but rather “promptings of the Holy Spirit”. Anyone who suggested otherwise was considered a “temptation”. The scary thing about OCD is that it speaks the language of devotion. It speaks the language of the paradox of presence.

 On most days, it feels nearly impossible to form any image of G-d in my mind that does not turn frightening, evil, twisted. Sometimes, it is my compulsions masking themselves as virtues. Other times, it is simply my obsessions– intrusive thoughts– and I must remind myself that they do not hold some secret meaning for me to decode: they are merely a symptom. I am still stumbling my way through recovery. I am still figuring out how to seek out the sacraments without falling victim to my disorders. I am still figuring out how to pray. 

And yet somehow there is something deeper than conscious thought, deeper than words, deeper than emotions or feelings. There is something invisible and intangible and undetectable. Or rather, there is someone. There is Someone who awaits me, on the other side of illness and fallenness, Someone whom I cannot picture and cannot grasp. There is Someone for whom my suffering is no obstacle. 

In one my favorite songs, Audrey Assad sings, “The night is darker here/Out on the edge of reason/But Love burns bright and clear/Out where I cannot seize him.”

Her words strike me, partially because she has disclosed that she herself experiences OCD, but also because it explains the paradox of “knowing” G-d in mental illness. I cannot “seize” him, I cannot picture him, I cannot imagine him; my mind fails me. Yet, all is well. Even when I am exhausted and drained from OCD and depression, when “nothing sensible has yet appeared in this irrational season”, I learn to wait in the darkness, knowing that “Love burns bright and clear, out where I cannot seize him.”

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