CONTENT WARNING: SUBSTANCE ABUSE
In psych, I had nothing to read and I couldn’t sleep.
I was the only one pacing the halls at two o’clock in the morning, having asked for my night meds at ten o’clock that evening. I wanted to bring in the next day faster, one day closer to release. I didn’t want to turn on the light to wake my snoring roommate, knowing like the night before that the Benadryl offered would not put me to sleep. To the nurse, I was a mindless patient with a body full of bugs itching their way through the skin of my sleepless insanity.
Even awake, the nightmares never stopped. I was living them, with houses burning and my mother screaming with a horror-movie mouth and little girls rotting as they ran.
The pieces of art on psych ward walls are haunting accessories. Oil paintings—for comfort? Or a reminder of why we were all there? I saw the blurring face of a woman looking out from the framed glass like she knew I was watching. Her visage a mirror of ours forgotten. I saw a jazz band with a saxophone man playing silence. Only I could hear it. I saw a bundle of weeping, dying flowers.
The Benadryl didn’t work and, night after night, I looked a quiet kind of frantic. An orderly watched my back and forth with annoyance and sympathy in his eyes. He was tasked with watching a one-to-one patient who turned and screamed in the dark of his sleep. When he finally spoke, he made a point to say he was not supposed to talk to me, as if I were a lucky one.
“Try praying. There’s a Bible I can get for you. It’s the only book we keep to give out. Let me get you one.”
He handed me the tattered Bible. I didn’t tell him that the last one I touched was in the hotel room in Vegas. I’d used the blank pages in the back to roll a joint since I had run out of papers, manically tearing out Genesis, Psalms, and Revelations. They were ready in my cauldron to burn when fire seemed like the best cure for insanity. But I went to the hospital before I could destroy them.
I hadn’t read the Bible since its teachings spilled from my grandmother’s mouth—and that was back when I was a child. But I felt like a child again: scared, lonely, small, and (like always) afraid of sleep. My childhood God rested in the rice-paper pages and I had forgotten all the words on purpose.
"SO I READ THE BIBLE AS IF I WERE READING AN OLD CHILDHOOD STORY BOOK. PACING. I READ IT TO FIND THE RIGHT WAY TO PRAY HARD ENOUGH TO GET OUT OF PSYCH HOLD, OUT OF INVOLUNTARY COMMITMENT, INTO RISING LITHIUM LEVELS."
But prayer was intriguing. All the believers said you could pray for the things you wanted and, if God thought you really needed them, a miracle would happen. You could read God’s stories and learn from his lessons about what it was that you were supposed to want. You could learn how to be a servant of God, how to walk his path and feel him inside, guiding you.
So I read the Bible as if I were reading an old childhood storybook. Pacing. I read it to find the right way to pray hard enough to get out of psych hold, out of involuntary commitment, into rising lithium levels. Hard enough to feel the winter sun again. Hard enough to get free. Hard enough to find a God I could trust. I thought I would hear his voice.
But each story read like fiction. From Mary’s immaculate conception to Jesus speaking to his Father after stepping down from the cross—epiphanies of men who heard the voice of God. Psalms were the only writings that made since. They were poems and I could hear my grandmother’s voice reading them out loud for me to memorize. I could feel her regret. I had forgotten all the words.
Nothing felt real. Nothing moved me the way I was told it would. No new presence whispered how to get out.
When I heard the unembodied God and the Goddess—neither male nor female (but somehow both)—I heard her in the room of the addicted.
My process group at outpatient treatment had been walking in field-trip fashion to a meeting near my house and, though I passed it everyday, I resisted going.
And one day, because I knew it was time, I went. I sat in the back. I heard the crack of the wood floors, the chairs scraping against one another, the chatter of men and women settling into the meeting’s beginning, a room packed full of sounds of the healing. I listened to the speaker. Her story was real, painful, and ultimately moving. A story like mine. Of institutions and mind-altering chemicals and bottoms and loss. I heard her willingness to change and resurrect through treatment and recovery.
When the meeting closed, we stood and held hands. At this meeting, before reciting the serenity prayer, everyone said their name and their addiction. Each person spoke out loud exactly who they were, one by one.
The names and addictions echoed in a chorus around the room, the sound of each truth bouncing off the sunlit windows and the polished wood and our heaving chests. The truth. The brutal, beautiful honesty filled the room and the voices became one.
“Ashley. Addict. Alcoholic.”
And a sea of voices followed. Suddenly I was crying, feeling the warmth of each hand holding mine. Feeling light enough to be lifted. I felt a presence—something without form sinking in and moving through me. And the tears were not tears of sadness. I felt something new inside me I could not describe. I felt like I’d been handed a gift, calm and grounding. I was seeing something I’d once thought was impossible to see.
It was a sudden trusted knowing that I was feeling the presence of the Goddess.
Ashley Young is a Black genderqueer feminist writer, teacher, tarot reader, and witch. They are working on their first novel, The Liberation of the Black Unicorn, and a collection of poetry on mental illness, addiction, and recovery.