In December of 2009, I drove to a church in the town where I live, in southern New Jersey. Earlier in the week, I had seen an ad in a local newspaper that read: Contemporary Community Church. Lately I had been spending way too much time alone, and this sounded like a place where it could be safe for me to be amongst people again.
On my first tentative pass at trying to find the church, I drove to a street of the same name as the one listed for the church and found only an old riverboat transformed into a restaurant and a few seaport trinket shops, none of which was open on an early Sunday morning. The street was also empty of any pedestrians who might have been able to give me directions.
I initially took this — with some degree of relief — as a tea-leaf sign that I should not go to this church in order to assuage my increasing, nearly desperate, sense of isolation and loneliness.
You see, four months earlier, my mother had passed away after living with Alzheimer’s for more than two years.
During that time, I had been her primary caregiver. For the last six months of her life, she had become non-ambulatory and incontinent. Home aides and hospice workers assisted me with her for an average of five hours on weekdays and four hours on weekends.
For the remainder of my time during the day, I was virtually a shut-in, alone with my deteriorating mother 19 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. When my mother passed away, the home aides and hospice workers, my only support network, literally disappeared, leaving me by myself to deal with my emotional and physical exhaustion, loss and grief.
Additionally, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was also in the throes of experiencing an acute traumatic stress disorder. The disorder was the result of caring for my critically ill mother largely on my own while also engaging in a fiercely contentious relationship with a sibling that started with our mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s and did not end until her death.
When I returned home from my unsuccessful mission to find the church, I felt a way that I can barely remember now. The best I can describe it, from recollection, is a full body and mind sensory experience of being pulled down and drawn into an overwhelming fear of what might come next.
(The executor of my mother’s estate, including her house, was the sibling I mentioned whom I had a contentious relationship with. She obtained a court order evicting me from my home just after the beginning of the New Year, less than a month away.)
While I was in this dreadful state, getting out of a chair in order to answer a phone or walk to a bathroom was a task. It was as though there was a conspiracy of invisible forces whose aim was to pin me in the chair where I was sitting and let me stew there in my thoughts doing nothing, forever.
It is as torturous a sensation to experience as I can only imagine being buried alive would be. More than a few times during this period, I wondered — realistically, not morbidly — if the end of this experience would be me joining my mother?
After a few months of dealing with feelings like this alone, I was determined to change how I was living, but only at the very beginning stages of being able to do so.
Trying to find the church, even though it turned out to be a futile attempt, was nevertheless the beginning of something new. Giving myself some credit, and a little break, allowed my attention to drift out of my mind and see the newspaper with the ad for the church on the floor next to my chair. There was a phone number and I quickly dialed it before I could talk myself out of it. I left a simple recorded message asking for directions.
I was not looking for a church, so it would not have been a disappointment if they had not called back. It was the words contemporary and community that drew me in. The important thing, for me, was that I had tried to do something that would get me out of the grip of whatever it was that I was in the grip of and out amongst people again.
Sometime during the following week, someone did return my call. The voice was that of a youngish-sounding woman who explained to me that the street the church is located on was divided in two by an avenue. If I would have returned to the avenue and drove half a block south, I would have found the other half of the street and the church. She did not say anything to promote the church, nor did she ask me any questions. She told me her name and to ask for her if I showed up on Sunday.
To say that her genuineness made it easier for me to get there the next Sunday would be a lie, but at least it did nothing to augment my chronic wavering and feelings of despair.
I have tried a couple of times already to describe what it is like when one is under the spell of despair or dealing with the after-effects of acute stress. Here is another attempt: two and two no longer add up to four. When you are faced with a simple proposition, such as ‘if you are spending too much time alone, then you should get out and meet people’, it simply does not add up or compute. You will either get stuck around three, or flare out exponentially with too many zeros to count (4,000,000,000,000…).
Although I literally went through a gazillion reasons why not to go to church, or anywhere, the following Sunday, somehow I made it. It was a week or two before Christmas — a day that I was dreading and intentionally avoiding being aware of. It turned out that it was this Sunday that the church was holding its Christmas celebration. Young restive children, under the guidance of earnest adults, reenacted, yet again, the nativity scene.
It could not have been homier than if Norman Rockwell had painted it. Or more different in that respect from the dark life of the mind I was engaged in. Without my consent, or intention, I confronted my biggest fear of the moment — Christmas, and all the emotions, memories and nostalgia it inevitably brings up. I managed to laugh with the children, smile at the adults, sing along with familiar carols, and not feel so alienated.
Unless you have been in the throes of despair, or have suffered a deep emotional bruise, I do not think you can fully appreciate how significant little things like this can be. Or perhaps you can. Either way, it is how I ended up going to church, which, as you will see, plays a vitally important role in me withstanding the ominous circumstances I would soon be facing.