Over the last three weeks, two colleagues have ended their lives. I will not speculate as to why. I can only speak from my own experience. What I pen here I write in hope that someone who is hurting finds a pathway to wholeness.
Several years ago, a psychiatrist looked at me and told me I was depressed. I honestly thought he was joking. My type-A-with-all-capital-letters-driven-self had no idea. I had a storybook life, great family, and fulfilling vocation. Life was good. But I hadn’t been sleeping, shadows of anxiety had started following me, and deep down something was wrong.
Four weeks later, with the help of a little pill, I began to breathe in a manner I had long forgotten possible. It’s amazing how we can forget what it feels like to breathe deeply into our own humanity, vulnerability, and frailness. Just after the diagnosis, I tried to rationalize my depression, figure it out, wondering why no one had ever asked me about me. And then, day by day, month by month, I accepted with the help of my therapist that depression had become my way of life, something that had creeped into my routine over time, slowly becoming a part of me. To discover health, I was going to have to peer into my soul. I was going to have to stop living to please others. I was going to have to simply be me.
The journey to being and honoring myself was painful. Substituting people-pleasing at the expense of authenticity and integrity erodes the soul and cultivates an endless cycle of self-degradation. As a priest, I had wrongly accepted that being the target of others, what we call projection, was just a part of the job. I had also long forgotten how to see my own role in that process and how my lack of clarity created the opportunity for victimization. Unlearning what I thought was normal, I had to go through all the stages of grief, letting go of how I had structured life and vocation to deal with pressure. Blame. Guilt. Shame. Anger. Sadness. Frustration. Every emotion found its way into the journey.
My own therapy was Jungian, largely because I needed to unpack a recurring nightmare since age six. The nightmare’s plot was always the same, bringing screams in the midst of the night and terrors unexplainable. My doctor gave me tools to open dialogue with my childhood nightmare, and after over a year of therapy, I accepted it for what it was: the only way a six-year-old knew to cope with the trauma of a single instance of childhood abuse at the hands of a non-family member. At church. Of all places.
I thought I was cured. Forever back on the golden path. I was wrong. Accepting that I was a survivor unlocked a deeper journey toward the unconscious and the process Jung called individuation. Individuation is the process of recognizing our unconscious selves, of allowing the person we were created to be flourish. As Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens states in Private Myths: “Individuation is the process, simple or complex as the case may be, by which every living organism becomes what it was destined to become from the beginning.”
Individuation is agonizing. To walk this path, we jump into all parts of us, known and unknown, said and unsaid. For me as a survivor, the six-year-old had done all he could. At that age, I did not understand what had happened or why. I knew that it was wrong, and in our shared world, shameful. The six-year-old had never told a soul because he was scared and did not know it was not his fault. My environment, as loving and caring as it was, held no keys to dealing with trauma and dealing with its on-going activity in my life. As a friend recently said, trauma has a way of filling our souls with the unholy. So, the six-year-old boy did all he could to forget, to turn the trauma over to the land of nightmares.
By adulthood, the trauma was so deep within that it invaded all corners of my daily life, but without reference to the event itself. In other words, it was present in every waking moment, yet I had no clue. I could even harness its power, being present with others who were traumatized, but honestly, I was not aware of its presence. It was like a pet demon, haunting every step, but unseen to anyone, and for me, only in nightmares.
Therapy taught me it was not my fault, one of the hardest lessons of my life. Journaling, sketching, and active imagination all in the Jungian tradition opened avenues to acceptance, soul healing bit-by-bit, and eventually, awareness of both my conscious and unconscious being. I slowly discovered that the trauma had forced me to categorize my coping, and because of that fact, I had not fully known it possible to be my own person, to delve into that process of becoming the child I was created to be. My own maturation had been interrupted. Recognizing there was nothing to forgive myself of from that childhood event became a pivot point, an awakening. It was only then that I began to seek my true self, the person God created me to be.
I wish I could say this process didn’t hurt me or anyone else. It did. It most certainly did. My family and friends endured a process that was messy and ugly at times. Jung himself wrote in The Secret to the Golden Flower: “The way is not without danger. Everything good is costly, and the development of the personality is one of the most costly of all things.”
In the end, or is it the beginning, I began to discover the person God created – to enter into dialogue with my humanity in the fulness of my created self, redeemed here and there through the grace of God, my ego fading ever so slightly each day so that my place among all things might be revealed. I have so much more work to do, not in the sense of checking things off a list or getting it done. No, the ego method failed me. Alone, ego always does. Rather, my enduring work is to mind the gaps, tend the chasms between body, mind, and spirit. My quest is to bridge the conscious and unconscious in hopes that every step of the remaining journey brings me closer and closer to the ground of all being, and ultimately, my soul resting in creation in, through, among, and beyond me.
As a Christian, and as a priest of The Episcopal Church, you’d think I had an idea of grace before the beginning of my sixth decade on earth. I didn’t; grace was just a word, something that went well with Jesus and God, like a good cabernet with a steak. But when I found myself waking up to the ground of my own being, seeing myself clearly among all creation, I was at once aware of grace in my consciousness. Paul Tillich said it better in his bold proclamation, “I am accepted.”
There is so much more to write, to discover, about who I am and this process. For now, I offer this glimpse to be less about me and more about our shared selves, all of us on the path seeking wholeness, rest in God, and falling in love again and again with the Christ who gave self for us. Now I see Jesus not as one who was selfless, but self-full. Fully begotten, Fully integrated. Fully revealed. In Jungian terms, Christ is the one whose individuation became manifest.
Once upon a time, I was defined as person who had it all together. But I was depressed and thought about ending it all. Unawake. Slumbering in the conscious world and so unaware of the unconscious gift in God. Now that I am waking to the world God so loved around me and finding my beloved place in it too, no longer haunted by nightmares and halls of mirrors, I see myself as a child of God. Blessed in my creation. Treasured in my soul.
The whole purpose of this story is to speak directly to those who have doubted their belovedness in God, their own nature as we were all created to be. To say boldly and with gratitude, therapy can work. That weakness and vulnerability can hold the keys to acceptance. That depression is real but need not be our end. And that sharing our true selves, our true nature, is indeed the greatest gift the Spirit gives each and every day.
If you see someone struggling, if you are struggling, dare to reach out. Life may depend upon that one simple act. You, in all your own frailty, might just bear light into darkness, life into death, resurrection into the crosses we all bear. We are all living testimonies that grace abounds. For you. For me. For all the people we were created to be.
The Rev’d Michael Sullivan
Michael is the author of two books and numerous articles. Windows into the Soul and Windows into the Light, both published by Morehouse, a division of Church Publishing, explore the place of art in spirituality. He has served on numerous boards, most recently Regent, University of the South (Sewanee), Board of Flat Rock Playhouse, the state theatre of NC, and the Board of Directors of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.