A Year of Lockdown: SSRIs and Grace

The beauty and suffering of King David, his failure and his glory, have been on my mind a lot these days. I remember hearing the story of the fateful night when he spotted Bathsheba, bathing on her roof. I remember the suppressed scandal of the words, my mind (no older than ten) filling in the lurid details between. But despite my own fascination with the woman bathing where she could be seen by a royal passerby, my childhood pastor Fr. Simon pointed us towards Uriah the Hittite. He was killed at David’s command, the story said. One sin leads to another sin, Fr. Simon said. Even a small lie can grow, he warned us. 

Two decades later, I realize that too was a lie. Or an untruth, at the very least. Countless times this past year people have asked me, “How are you?” And I’ve responded, “I’m fine,” so often I’ve lost count. And the little lie has never grown.

I cannot tell you why I’m so fascinated with King David. Perhaps it was the disgrace of his lust. Perhaps it was the way he danced before the Lord. Perhaps it was the soft music he played to Saul and turned into psalms.

What I can say with certainty was that it was only a few years ago when I learned that Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon. I had thought their child died; and their firstborn did, the child conceived in sin. Yet Solomon too was born of them. Yes, David’s sin grew. But what did it grow into? The seed first sown in lust eventually bore wise fruit. And that was the miracle that I marveled at. God writes straight with crooked lines, I have been told. But what if the line isn’t crooked? What if the line is tired, and depressed, and weighed down by the horror of the world? What can God write with that line?

I first met my therapist in October 2019. A few short months of sharing space before we were forced to only share disembodied voices over the phone. I have grown used to my classes full of little boxes on a screen; I have not grown used to virtual therapy. A discipline grounded in relationship, founded by people convinced that just by talking we can somehow build our lives. And I felt that I was building my life up, little by little, session by session. But then (you know how this ends) it all came tumbling down.

One year ago, the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 was officially a pandemic. Do I need to remind you of the details?

***

One year ago, I tried to talk about my feelings with my therapist, and everything interior felt opaque and trite. Yes, my privilege insulated me from the worst of viral exposure and financial distress. Yes, it is a miracle that very few elderly Jesuits died of the virus before vaccinations became available. No, knowing those facts did not stave off my depression. No, it was not the spirit of God that whispered in my ear every morning, “Others have it so much worse than  you. You don’t deserve to be depressed.”

The Israelites followed Moses, wandering in the desert for forty years. And so Jesus followed the Spirit, forty days in the desert to reflect his forebears. We often define deserts in terms of what they are not – no water, no food, no life (at least for us who are fully human and fully nothing else). But if the Spirit brought Jesus into the desert, perhaps the journey was meant to teach him something? 

Perhaps there was an abundance there in the wilderness that Jesus needed to find. Perhaps the emptiness itself was a lesson. Perhaps trying to turn suffering into a lesson means placing a ribbon on the terrifying experience of a throat so dehydrated that it cannot even swallow.

Forty days used to sound like a long time. Forty years, unfortunately, feels much more thinkable than it used to. When I was a child, I told myself I would never complain to God. But forty years? After only one year, as I stare at the ceiling of my room, I sometimes dread the day ahead of me. Sometimes yes, the image of Jesus in the desert brings some consolation. But consolation can feel a small thing against black men being killed in the street, black women being killed in their beds. Too many people have spent four hundred years in the desert.

Jesus knew of the suffering in the world, I told myself. Jesus never took any medication, I told myself. Part of me has always detested taking medicine–a sign of weakness. Failure. Imperfection. I consume the body and blood of a resurrected god; what power could a pill have that God does not? Fortunately for me, the persuasive power of therapist and mother finally convinced me to see my doctor. She prescribed a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, or SSRI: a small orange pill every morning to help balance the chemicals in my brain.

I wonder if David would have taken the medication. Nathan the prophet told him that the child born of his sin would die. David himself would be spared, but God’s wrath was not abated by the young king’s pleas and fasting. And on the seventh day God did not rest, and the child died without a name. 

David stopped pleading and fasting. When his servants asked about the change in behavior, he only responded, “Now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” It is the curious alchemy of the human heart that mixes unthinkable grief and unresolved anger and turns it into poetry. But the psalmist’s words could not bring back a dead infant. No song can make sense of one death, let alone five hundred thousand or even six million.

I do not know what it means to lose a child. But I do know what it means to be angry with God.

***

It is said that when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they broke out of their hiding and preached to all the peoples of Jerusalem. It is said that some, as they heard words mystically transformed into their mother tongues, simply scoffed and sneered. It is said they misunderstood, for they blamed new wine for divine groanings. Though maybe they understood just fine. Because I too have felt myself be filled with new wine, and did not know whether to call it grace or chemicals. But it did not matter much, because new wine needs new wineskins, and my old skin simply burst. Blame my depression, blame the virus, blame systemic oppression, blame the same four walls I live in every day. Whether we call it wine or blood, I can’t seem to keep hold of the little bit of God I receive.

What is the divine calculation that allows us to suffer so much? What twisted sense of justice kills a week-old child for a father’s lust? I do not know if there are any answers to these questions. I know I’m not the first to ask them.

Solomon gained the wisdom that his father never seemed to have. Where David danced in front of the Ark, Solomon built a new house, a temple for his God. Solomon, unlike his father, was raised to be a king. But like his father, he fell into a lust that led him to sin. Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines seemed enough to bring Solomon away from God; or maybe he left God first because there seem to be no good answers when we need them.

Perhaps David wanted his son to feel special, unlike his own absent father with more-favored sons. Perhaps David held Solomon on his lap, singing the songs he once sang to sheep. Perhaps Bathsheba, wrapped in her own sorrow, planted the seed of empathy in her son’s heart.

***

God is in all things, we Jesuits like to say to anyone who will listen. But, I think, we rarely listen to what these words mean. We say “all things, “ but we just mean all lovers, all sunsets, all tender hands. Because if we really meant it (if I really meant it), then we would see God in every pollution-soaked lake, in every dead infant, in every speck of dust in that forgotten corner of the house.

If God gives grace, and God is in all things, then grace can be found in all things. The equation is simple, at least. Yet difficult to solve. There always seems to be an unknown variable, too complex to be captured by the too-few numbers we know. Our theology says that God doesn’t want us to suffer in ignorance, and so the divine love broke into the world and was born to a young woman in a backwater village. Jesus showed us grace in fishing boats, in laughter over meals, in spit mixed in the dirt to make mud. If grace is in a mat lowered through the ceiling, then grace can be found anywhere.

Through this wasteland of a year, I’ve found grace in a doctor’s prescription note. I’ve found grace in that medication that keeps my broken skin together, just a little bit, and I can feel God still clinging to me. I still have bad days, just not as bad as before. I still swear at God in prayer, but I feel like someone is listening. If that isn’t grace, then what is?

When the Israelites grew hungry, God gave them manna and quail. When the Israelites grew thirsty, God gave them water from a rock. When the disciples cowered in fear, God gave them courage. But when David pleaded for the life of his son, God took the child. No angel stopped the raised knife, no ram replaced the beloved son.

Perhaps grace isn’t about having an answer to an unanswerable question. Perhaps grace isn’t a mystical gift-box, but friends and family and laughter and tears and anger and yes even a small orange pill. Perhaps one truth will amend countless little lies. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

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