September 2015

Sabbath making

One in four of us will experience a mental illness at some stage in our lives. In the following poem, Good Samaritan Sister Marie Casamento reflects on “the turbulence that cuts the client off from making Sabbath and traps them in their agitated minds”.

BY Marie Casamento SGS

Browsing in a library some years ago, I came across a book with the title, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks. I was captivated by what I read. Here was a man, a neurologist, born into the Jewish faith, who had a passion for brain-damaged and mentally ill patients who were considered difficult to deal with.

Then, in 1990, the film Awakenings, based on the book of the same name, also by Sacks, was released. It detailed, in story form, a group of patients existing in a catatonic, comatose state – their lives limited, having contracted encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s.

The patients were unresponsive to the world around them, trapped in their rigid bodies. Sacks experimented with the recently discovered L-Dopa drug (1960) and slowly life returned to these almost comatose patients. But it was the loving, accepting attention Sacks gave to this group of people, coupled with the pharmacological intervention of L-Dopa, which brought about this remarkable outcome.

Research indicates strongly that therapy is not the strongest answer to a return to health for the mentally ill, nor is drug therapy of itself the answer. Rather, a combination of the two – therapy and drug therapy – brings the strongest results.

When I read about the death of Professor Oliver Sacks and revisited pictures of this beautiful and highly intelligent man, whose commitment in life was to free patients trapped in their own bodies, I felt both deep gratitude and profound sadness.

Dying, Oliver wrote in his memoir, On the Move, about the importance of Sabbath. His cousin, a practicing orthodox Jew, noted that Sabbath is not about improving society, but of improving our quality of life. As he prepared for his death, Oliver poignantly wrote: “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week and perhaps the seventh day of life as well, when I can feel that my work is done and I may in good conscience, rest”.

Sabbath ritual includes drawing the light to self, praying together with the community of believers, sharing stories and food with family, and the reception of a blessing.

Inspired, saddened and grateful to Oliver Sacks, I penned this poem as I take the client’s chair to reflect on the turbulence that cuts the client off from making Sabbath and traps them in their agitated minds.

Sabbath making

In the trapped confines of self-flagellation,
my mind buffeted this way and that
in my attempt to defend the indefensible,
cushion the bruises of past wounds
sustained by compulsive ruminations;
wounds inflicted by myself on myself.
As I challenge the belief in my own self-worth;
as I give credence to the dogmatic and opinionated
self-proclaimed gurus,
who are eager to proclaim that they
and only they know what is good for me,
there is no Sabbath for me.
Indeed, from my paranoid stance I cannot rest or take Sabbath.

In the trapped confines of abandonment,
my mind buffeted this way and that
in my attempts to self-soothe, self-medicate,
distract myself from the tormenting nightmare
that I utterly believe in – that is,
“No-one would want to be with me,
associate with me, tolerate my presence.
How could they? I can’t even sit beside myself.”
And so I take a second, third, fourth or a fifth drink
and disappear into the oblivion,
to escape from the distorted belief
that the issue here is, “I am an abomination”.
“If they only knew what I know they would reject me.”
There is no Sabbath for me.
How could I possibly expect a blessing from the other?

In the trapped confines of denial,
my mind buffeted this way and that
in my attempts to distract myself,
from the memories that haunt my every waking hour.
Memories of barricades, bombs, military orders;
the annihilation of a people,
here one day and scattered, slaughtered the next.
I wake from my sleep at night,
nightmares urging me to scream and cry out.
I see them often, those gentle people in that faraway place;
I see small children playing in the rubble of what was their home.
Attempts to distract myself have led me to pubs, gambling dens and brothels.
There is no Sabbath for me.
How can I possibly ever hope to enter a Sanctuary,
long enough for the ravages of memories to ease and allow reflection?

In the trapped confines of conflicted relationships,
my mind buffeted this way and that
in my attempts to use my cognitive powers to prove my point,
justify my actions, counteract the perceived put-down of the other and walk away the victor.
Day in, day out it goes on; this pattern I find myself continually in.
I have no sense of letting it go through to the keeper.
The other has indeed pushed my button and I am hooked.
I have no sense of taking time out, to de-escalate the issues that conflict.
All I want is to be right,
to have my pound of flesh,
to not in any way be seen to get it wrong.
There is no Sabbath for me.
How can I possibly ever dare sit at table with the other, transparent and comfortable with the
person I was meant to be,
and thus enable the other to be with me?
How can I break and share bread in communion with another?

In the trapped confines of dis-association,
I toss, stepping in and out of the present moment,
only again to return to that room in that place
where I felt the sting of the cane cutting over and over into my flesh.
And I am only seven years old,
oblivious to what it was that unleashed such rage, in my teacher, my father, my mentor.
My escape is to hide, to disappear, to be so good that I would become invisible.
No voice, no opinion, no decisions of my own,
trapped within my own body.
There is no Sabbath for me;
no warmth within the safety of a family,
no time to enter a leisurely moment.

Out of the fog, of depression, he appears…
Out of the enveloping mist, of plaguing anxieties, she appears…
On the horizon of the present moment,
this strange indefinable presence
who takes the empty chair before me,
sitting in the stillness, waiting for me to enter.
Eyes and ears alert to the very breathing, pulsing of my soul,
making Sabbath in the Sanctuary of that still reflective space.
Eyes watching, but not watching;
eyes mirroring me, mirroring unconditional regard.
Slowly the catatonic state that held me bound loosens.
“In the midst of winter,” I exclaim, with Camus, “I found there was, within me, an invincible
because in that moment, I recognise that the chair
I first sat on, had previously been warmed.
In that moment, I knew my attentive companion had also sat in my chair.
Sabbath had been made in this place. I was free,
harmony was here.
I cupped my hand and drew the beams of the Sabbath candle to myself.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer”.

World Mental Health Day, a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy, is held annually on October 10. If you or someone you know needs support or more information about mental health issues, contact BeyondBlue, Black Dog Institute or Lifeline.

Marie Casamento

Good Samaritan Sister Marie Casamento has ministered as a teacher, principal and art psychotherapist. Today, as in the past, she endeavours to live the maxim “to attend with a listening heart”. As a resident of Wivenhoe Village, near Camden in NSW, her aim is to be neighbour to all she meets. She enjoys drawing, writing and observing nature.

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