Prayer does not change the world for me, but it can change me for the world. So, instead of seeing prayer as an unfortunate relic from a religious past, atheists can practice it as a ritual in which one pauses to gain proper perspective, humility, and gratitude. Only good can result from that. -William Irwin, IAI News
I’m sitting in the Pacific Ocean, looking out at where the sea meets the sky. I’ve forced myself to get outside and exercise, even though despondency suffocates me. I inhale the therapeutic sea water as the sun warms me. But a lump sits in my throat like wet cement. I grind my teeth, the corners of my mouth turned down and my jaw throbbing.
“I cannot stand being alive,” I say to myself. “I can’t take it anymore. I’ve tried every medication, every type of therapy. I recognize that I have so much to be thankful for, but this misery still will not leave my soul.”
I’m too numb to cry. I paddle for and ride wave after wave but still my chest is hollow and I cannot stop obsessing over how I want to die. It’s the only thing that will give me relief.
I stay in the ocean for over an hour, still thinking about killing myself. Neither the endorphins nor the thrill of surfing have changed how I feel.
As I’ve decided to take my last wave in for the day, the phrase, “We are with you, Kelley” enters my mind as if someone were right next to me, speaking.
It’s not just a phrase, it’s a feeling. It’s a sense of tranquility, much like the feeling you get when you spend time with a good friend whom you haven’t seen in a long time.
But I brush it off as some demented part of my depression unhinging my mind in yet one more way.
And yet, as I’m walking back home, it penetrates my senses again: “We are with you, Kelley.”
It’s more real this time. I’m filled with it. I cannot discard it as part of my mind unraveling or some type of wishful thinking.
As I’m showering, a sense of peace that I haven’t felt in months overtakes me. I cannot explain it, except for the speculation that it’s most likely my post-surf endorphins finally kicking in.
I’m driving to a doctor’s appointment the next afternoon. Despite yesterday’s moment of comfort in the shower, doom and numbness still grip me. I hit my turn signal to enter the medical building’s parking lot, and the voice — the sensation — envelopes me again, “We are with you, Kelley.”
I’m not afraid of needles, nor do I mind getting blood drawn. What’s painful is the relentless depression that’s plagued me since I woke this morning. But as the needle takes blood from my vein, I’m overcome by the sentiment that I’m a child again and my mom is holding my hand.
And suddenly I am certain that this feeling is my parents telling that they are with me. Not physically, obviously, but their spirits are with me, even though they are dead. It is undeniable.
I grew up going to church, but because I’ve been cursed with a tortured mind, I eventually believed God had abandoned me. Still, like many who grew up with religion, I pray. I often feel ridiculous for asking anything of a god who’d deserted me, and for invoking a god whom I’d given up on, also.
Yet throughout this terrible time, I have prayed for relief. For my burdens to lessen, if even slightly.
My parents both died this year. I didn’t think their deaths would break me. I presumed that yes, I’d be sad. But also, I assumed when Mom and Dad died it’d be a relief.
They had been jailed in a memory care facility for four years. My dad deteriorated into a half-dead man in a wheelchair who had to be fed, toileted, and rotated in his bed. My mom could talk, but mostly what she said was nonsensical. I could see her own alarm at and loss of control of her brain as she witnessed her once sharp wit and intellect dissipate due to Parkinson’s-related dementia.
But when they died — in November 2019 and February 2020, I was not relieved. I was ruined.
I’ve been ruined the entirety of 2020. I’ve changed medications mutiple times. I’ve received numerous ketamine infusions. I’ve undergone TMS. I’ve done both group and one-on-one DBT. I engage in weekly psychotherapy. I exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, use alcohol in moderation. I have a meaningful, satisfying job. I have good friends and a loving husband who supports me through all of this.
And yet, I have been suicidally depressed for the majority of the long days of 2020.
Nothing could save me. Or so I thought.
I hesitate to write this right now, but I think prayer is what saved me.
Somehow, prayer brought my parents closer to me. Maybe they’re in heaven, maybe they’ve been reincarnated, maybe they live in a parallel universe. Or maybe, due to my praying through this time, I simply believe so strongly in their presence that it’s helping me stay alive.
At the moment when I believed I could not live any longer, I heard, no I experienced five words: “We are with you, Kelley.”
Since this happened, I still get depressed. But when I am at my lowest, their presence blankets my soul: “We are with you, Kelley.”
My dad always told me, “It’s darkest before dawn.”
I don’t know how else to explain this phenomenon than the fact that somehow, prayer — maybe not in the traditional sense — but this invocation — worked this time. Whether it means I’m losing my mind, that I missed my parents so badly that my consciousness brought them into existence, or that prayer actually worked and they are truly speaking to me, I don’t know.
What I do know right now is that I still think about suicide. I am often still extremely depressed. But what calms me most is the power of those five words. Of the serenity I experience — enough serenity to get through each day without killing myself.
Mick Jagger sang, “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometime/You get what you need.”
Simplistic lyrics, yes. But in terms of a momentous concept such as prayer, I’ve found his lyrics to be true.
An end to my depression was what I wanted. And that’s what I prayed for. That didn’t happen, but I do believe I got what I needed.
Religion and prayer may be manufactured by humankind, as atheists believe. Or many, like myself, aren’t sure if there’s a God or the form he or she takes. But what comes from prayer — piece of mind, comforting words from one’s dead loved one, a figurative life raft when you’re sinking —can sometimes give you what you need.