When God Whispered
by Beth Swain
“I know you’re frightened about being hospitalized, but remember that God cares about you. Here is a Bible verse that has helped me cope with dark times. . . .”
I crunched my friend’s kind note into a tight ball and threw it to the floor. Sunken on the couch, I screamed inside. “No more, God! I won’t play the good person who cherishes sweet words claiming God’s loving hand guides my life. Only a fool would believe that now.”
If God cared, why hadn’t He answered my cries for help? For months I’d prayed for the depression to end, but God seemed silent. Now, unable to cope with the mounting despondency, I was admitted in a psychiatric ward with locked doors and surveillance cameras.
I began counseling to combat my problem after four days of hospitalization. Exhausted by this process, I longed for my friend’s note — especially the Bible verse. But only two words of the verse came to me: calamity and hope. Though my mind — foggy from depression — struggled to think, I skimmed page after page of my Bible for those two words.
Two hours passed without success. Jackie, my roommate, laughed and flopped down on her hospital bed. “Finally, you’re acting like the rest of us: crazy!”
Slowly, I glanced up and grinned. “You think so?”
“Two hours searching for a couple of holy book words means you’re either crazy or addicted, lady. Either way, you’ve come to the right place.” I’d never met a cocaine addict until Jackie became my roommate.
A nurse’s knock interrupted my search. She insisted I take sleep medication. Soon the side effects of nausea and dizziness began. I took deep breaths as the room spun, but it would take more than that to quiet my troubled soul. Tears of frustration soaked my pillow. Even if I could have continued to search, my foggy mind made it impossible to find the verse.
Then I remembered my afternoon sessions with Palma, a petite, gray-haired woman. As a spiritual counselor, she’d heard my questions about God and helped me sort out my feelings. Tomorrow she could help me. Finally, I dozed off as an ambulance siren outside announced a new guest.
Breaking the silence
Palma was part of a team from a Christian therapy program housed in the hospital psychiatric ward. My primary counselor, Dr. Carol Clifton, worked closely with Palma to support me.
I resisted communication with Dr. Clifton, though I wanted her help. When we met, I stared at the floor and rarely spoke. Uncooperative and hostile, I felt like a teenager in a thirty-three-year old body. I’d been a polite, cooperative person who had done whatever people expected of me. All my cooperating with doctors and counselors had gotten me nowhere, except the hospital. Now I tried the only other route I knew: angry silence.
“You’re spending a lot of money to sit here in silence,” Dr. Clifton nudged.
I squirmed. I feared she would either blow my comments out of proportion or minimize them.
“Tell me about a typical day after school when you were six years old,” she asked.
“I usually stayed with my grandmother,” I reluctantly replied.
“Describe how you entered her house.”
“I peered in cautiously, checking her face to see if it was safe,” I explained.
“How could you tell if it was safe?”
“Sometimes she was staring — motionless, tense, with anger in her eyes. It wasn’t safe then.” I remained matter-of-fact.
“Is it safe today?” she asked.
Certain she was setting me up to talk about the bad things that happened there, I carefully replied, “Yes, it is safe.”
“Then what happens?”
“I enter and sit on the couch next to her rocker.”
“Then what?” Dr. Clifton asked.
“I watch her face to make sure it doesn’t change. I watch it all afternoon.”
“Does it change today?” she asked. If I said no, she’d think I was paranoid. I was no wimp; Grandma didn’t scare me.
“Yes, it changes,” I said.
“Tell me about it,” she quietly asked.
Grandma was like a zombie. She walked stiffly into the kitchen and turned on the water at the sink. Then she did other things, which Dr. Clifton asked me about. I avoided the frightening memories and gave safe answers like “Sometimes she takes a drink of water.”
“What does she do today?” I believed she was trying to make me tell about The Big Thing: the drowning attempts.
“She just sits back down,” I said.
“Then what do you do?”
I thought for a moment. “When she dozes off and I’m sure she is out, I quietly sneak away.”
A paralyzing fear froze me. It was just a memory, yet so real. I couldn’t possibly be afraid of Grandma. How many times growing up did someone in my family say, “Remember the time Grandma tried to drown Beth?” We all burst into laughter.
Grandma frequently washed my hair. She would fill the sink with water and dunk me repeatedly. In a trance-like state, she was unaware that she held me under water too long. Each time I thought I would drown. Struggling was useless; her massive strength held me captive. Eventually, she would shift positions or leave the sink.
My parents cared for Grandma without knowing that she suffered from schizophrenia. I coped with her mental illness by pretending I wasn’t afraid. I laughed about it and buried my feelings. Unaware of the relationship between those buried feelings and my depression, I resisted admitting how I felt. As Dr. Clifton pressed me to face those memories, I grew less fearful and depressed.
In my afternoon sessions, Palma patiently waited through my hostile silence as I sat arms crossed and eyes glaring “Stay out.” She put her arm around my trembling body as I questioned, “Where did God go?”
Not surprisingly, I thought of Palma when I couldn’t find the Bible verse.
Hearing from God
After a night’s rest, I began my fifth day hospitalized, eager to see Palma.
“How are you doing, Beth?” she gently asked as she peeked into my room. I breathed in her soothing voice and peaceful face.
“There’s this verse I can’t find . . . something about calamity and hope,” I began.
Her smiling eyes told me she already knew. From her Bible, she slid out a small piece of paper with four verse references handwritten on it. “Last night during my meditation God told me you needed these verses. Look up the first one,” she said as she handed me the paper.
There it was — Jeremiah 29:11, God’s whisper to me:
“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, NASB).
Right there in my hospital room God whispered an intimate, one-of-a-kind declaration — not through a burning bush as with Moses or a Red Sea parting as with the Israelites. He handed me that verse through Palma’s slender, aging hand, and it poured hope into my depleted body. His gently whispered message assured me that He hadn’t deserted me.
But could I have a future? Would anyone see me as a credible person again? Oblivious of God’s plan to bring good out of this dark time, I persisted in questioning.
As my hospitalization continued, I found myself in a crash course: Life 101. My stereotype of mental patients faded; I began to see patients as people — people like me. I listened to their life stories: abuse, addictions, mistakes made, and mental illnesses battled. Their struggles began to make sense.
Counselors guided me toward emotional healing. Beyond their support, I had God’s whisper in Jeremiah 29:11. Those words and God’s unique way of showing them to me continually reminded me that He cared. For four more years after my hospitalization ended, I continued sorting out the many physical and emotional challenges that made my depression so severe. I also continued to wonder how God could bring good out of this difficult time.
I wondered until I began teaching at a local community college in a program to help unemployed people. Some students can’t find work after their companies close down. Some are addicts clinging to their sobriety, battered women living in shelters, and single mothers who never finished high school. Depression is a way of life for most of them.
Some only look at the floor. Others glare at me with their arms crossed on their chests. Many are welfare recipients who are mandated to attend my class or lose their welfare support. They believe I have no clue about their lives, about addictions and depression and abuse. They don’t know yet that I’ve taken Life 101.
Inside I smile, understanding now that Life 101 prepared me for this. God had plans not only for me, but also for these students. Walls come down as they learn my story. My past struggle is a bridge between my world and theirs. It earns me the right to listen to their pain.
When I told a young woman just out of prison about my hospital time, she said in disbelief, “You mean you were in lockup, too?”
Another student said, “I thought I could never amount to anything. Seeing what you have done makes me know I can overcome my difficulties, too.”
Although I was unaware, God was weaving my future even as I asked Palma, “Where is God?” He knew I would find purpose as I support other people going through tough times. My past is no longer a liability but an asset in helping others. Even if I don’t share my story, I communicate an empathy that would not exist without my experience.
God did have my welfare in mind. He put me in the hands of counselors and doctors who kept me from calamity and set my eyes on a future of helping others. It’s a plan only He could have worked out, filled with hope.