saint sarah: nightfall
This weekend we observed All Saints Day, and it got me thinking about what it means, and what it takes, to be a modern saint. It's a journey I've been on for the past few years, and this week I thought I'd do some honest writing about what it's been like for me. As you may know, after I finished breast cancer treatments on the east coast in 2008, I moved to Portland, Oregon.
For the first few years, I loved Portland. I liked my job, I had a great group of friends, and I loved the church I attended.
And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the light in me started to fade.
I blamed it on a million things.
One of my good friends had moved to California. Maybe that was it.
I started dating one of my good guy friends, and after a few weeks I knew that I was in love with him and he knew that he was not in love with me, and we broke up.
My grandpa died.
The Invisible Girls moved to Seattle.
And then, I thought, maybe it was dark inside my head because of the weather. Portland is gray more than half the year with a nearly constant drizzle of rain that became like Chinese water torture to me.
I tried to make changes to see if I could get myself to feel better, like rolling around in bed at night, thinking that if you can just get a little more comfortable, you can finally fall asleep.
It was 2013. My book was about to launch and I was feeling overwhelmed, so I rented out my 3-bedroom townhouse and moved into a small bedroom in the home of a couple from my church.
I changed jobs.
I joined the gym.
I went to a therapist.
I took anti-depressants.
I began withdrawing. I stopped calling people back. On Sundays, I snuck up to the sanctuary's balcony. I sat on the floor in the back of the balcony and often left without talking to a single person.
I spent almost all my free time sitting in dark, second-run movie theaters where $5 got me a ticket, a Diet Coke and a 2-hour escape from reality.
I began to think that maybe I was suffering from severe Seasonal Affective Disorder. Maybe all I was missing was sunshine. So I applied for jobs in southern California.
A year after my book launched, I moved to Santa Barbara and got a job working 2 shifts a week as a physician assistant at an urgent care clinic near UCSB's campus. I rented a small studio apartment above a garage, next to the home of a kind, energetic woman who worked as an elementary school librarian.
Once or twice a month, I traveled for speaking engagements. I talked to people about the love of God I experienced through my cancer journey, which became the love I was able to express to the Somali girls I met on a train in Portland.
The love I had known and believed in was now the love I couldn't find.
In spite of all the changes I made, in spite of moving 1,000 miles closer to sunshine, in spite of switching jobs, in spite of everything, it was still dark inside my head. I had no joy. I had no hope. The negative emotions I experienced were far stronger and more frequent than the positive ones.
For a while, I called it the Dark Night of the Soul, to borrow an ancient phrase from Saint John of the Cross. Then, it kept lasting, so it became the Dark Fortnight of the Soul, then the Dark Year of the Soul. It was on its way to becoming the Dark Decade of the Soul, and I was on my way from depression, through despondence, into absolute defeat.
I read about other saints beside Saint John who had experienced this phenomenon. Mother Teresa especially stood out. She said she went nearly 20 years without a positive encounter with God. Twenty years.
God, if you put me through that, I'm not going to make it, I said.
Going to a therapist and taking antidepressants hadn't helped, so I started seeing a spiritual director. She was a lovely Catholic woman in her early 60's who was tall and thin with gorgeous features and perfect hair. She had a gentle smile and perfect diction. I adored her.
After several sessions, she told me that she thought God was telling her that all my angst was coming from the fact that I was unmarried, and she suggested we spend our time together praying for a husband for me, and preparing me for marriage.
I signed up for Match.com and went on at least 15 of the worst first dates of my life.
I went to a little Episcopal church that I grew to love, but because of my schedule, I could only attend services once or twice a month, and it wasn't enough. I was starving, and crumbs now and again couldn't satiate, let alone sustain, me.
In the middle of the Darkness, I ran into my landlady in the driveway when I was leaving for church one Sunday morning.
"I've decided something!" she exclaimed. I had no idea what she was talking about.
She explained that she had a daughter about my age, and her name was Sarah, too. When my landlady was talking to her friends about one of us, she kept having to distinguish between Sarah, her daughter and Sarah, her renter.
"So I came up with a name for you. I've decided to call you Saint Sarah," she announced, clearly pleased with herself.
I knew it was meant as a compliment, a commendation for the work I'd done with the Somali girls, and the fact that I was giving the book money towards a college fund for the girls. And yet, when she called me Saint Sarah, something in me cringed.
Weren't saints tortured, lonely outcasts who put themselves through all kinds of ascetic practices and (still) went decades without feeling close to God?
In that case, maybe Saint Sarah was closer to the truth than my landlady knew.
I was a lonely, tortured, single, celibate outcast who, in spite of all the California sunshine, couldn't shake the darkness from her head.