even in church we (attempt to) hide

When mental illness goes to church, what does that look like? Today’s sermon was about vulnerability, so this is us being vulnerable. My priest knows she is pastoring multiple personalities, but not everyone else knows we exist.

At home before the service:

Surely there is something that we can wear, Rose says as she dumps yet another outfit on the bed. We are so fat and ugly today we will never be able to get ready for church. We message our friend, and we tell her we are feeling fat and ugly today, and she tells us that neither of those things are true, but we think she’s just being nice.
Let’s wear one of the dresses with the coffins on it, or even the coffin shirt with the shredded leggings with fishnet inserts. Ruth says to Rose.
I want to look nice, not goth, says Rose.
Well, this ain’t working for the rest of us, says Ruth. We just want to get dressed and get it over with. Rose sighs and gives in. We put on a black, button-down, collared, dress with coffins on it. Most of us think it’s cool, Rose just wants to look cute.
We will never get to look nice ever again anyway, we are too fat.
Hey, at least we are dressed.
Ruth says.

We try on a head wrap, but that’s not working for us today and besides, it’s so hot. Perhaps we can make Rose happy by wearing a wig. It’s not that we want Rose to be miserable, it’s that we want to just be dressed so we can go. The dress fits and it’s comfortable. We try on the light brown wig with the blonde highlights. It has a side part and is shoulder length, and we hate it immediately, even though it’s one of our favorites. We put on the dark brown wig with the center part and the bangs, which, despite the fact that it has bangs, is actually our favorite. But it looks wrong, we all feel it.
Fuck it, Rose says, and throws it on the bed. Whatever. Let’s go.

***

At church, before the service:

We get to the church, and we go inside, bowing at the altar and then going to the other side of the room to take our seat. Some of our friends come to give us a hug or talk to us, and they don’t actually know which one of us they are talking to. It happens to be Carrie, who is hell bent on being here even though she’s socially awkward and feels it deeply. One of our people comes to talk to us, and after he walks away to talk to someone else, we are torn up.

Why did I say that? I’m awkward as hell. Maybe he won’t remember it? Of course, he will remember it, because you say a lot of stupid shit that nobody is interested in. I hear my father’s voice there, even though I’ve not spoken to him in many years now, and so does Carrie.

We wave at a friend, who is working with the recording equipment. He’s looking in our direction, but not necessarily at us. We have a huge, stupid, grin on our face to show him we are happy to see him. He’s a safe person for Carrie. Embarrassed for some reason, we shrink back into our seat. We try again a few minutes later with the same result. He’s obviously zoned out elsewhere, but we always think things are our fault.

Is he mad at me? I haven’t done anything he could be mad at me for, have I? If one of us did something to him, I can’t remember it. Fuck. I don’t want to hurt him. I really can’t remember anything. You idiot, it’s not about you, he just didn’t see you, it happens.

Oh shit, what if something bad happened to him and he’s upset? Gosh you’re selfish, you should have thought of that first, instead of yourself. Life isn’t all about you, you know. Dad always said we were selfish, and I guess he’s right. I wonder if he’s sad, if he is then maybe I can give him a hug at least. I wish I could be more useful when people are going through shit. I can absorb grief and that’s my silent gift to them, but I can’t do much to help. He probably just didn’t see you, fool.

***

During the service:

Our priest preaches about today’s gospel reading which has several characters, and she says it’s about vulnerability. We feel very vulnerable right now. So far, we are still mostly in hiding at church. Some people are aware of our existence, and sometimes we want everyone to be aware so that we can feel more at home and like we belong, but we are afraid that people will not want to be around us if they know.

***

I grab the altar rail and kneel slowly, my body stiff and sore. The priest is patiently waiting for me to be ready. I’m too slow and holding things up. Hurry up. The altar rail shifts some. Shit! I say aloud. I’m receiving a sacrament; I can’t swear at the altar. Oh God, forgive me. The priest chuckles, hands me the wafer, and puts her hand on top of mine for a minute, assuring me that it’s okay. I wait for the chalice to be in front of me, and I dip the wafer in the wine, trying to savor the moment because I’m grateful to receive the sacrament but I’ve fucked it up by being awkward yet again.

***

After the service:

There are some new people here today. I wave and shyly say hi. They say hi back. I don’t interrupt them, as everyone else is talking to them and besides, I wouldn’t know what to say. I want them to feel welcome, but it seems that everyone else has done that already because it’s part of the culture of who we are as a church. They don’t need me to talk to them, everyone else is smarter and won’t say something stupid like I did.

I go and get some coffee, hopefully that will help my awkwardness. Ok, nothing will help my awkwardness but whatever. I get into a good conversation with a great person. We converse very well for several minutes; on a subject we are both passionate about. Suddenly, the personality changes and I’m not Carrie anymore, I’m Margaret. Margaret argues with everyone and pushes their buttons to make sure they still love her. So, she gets into an argument even though we really care for this person, none of the rest of us wanted to argue, and we know we are being ridiculous. Margaret persists anyway, despite what the rest of us want.

We leave the building, and as we walk out, we say damn, and go to stomp off, because Margaret is an angry teenager, but a friend of ours asks what’s up. Margaret tells him, and we tell him what the argument is about, and he’s able to calm us down even though Margaret has been a bitch to him before also. Margaret wants to know she is loved, but Margaret doesn’t want people to know that anyone but the Mary-Clare people see on the outside is here. She couldn’t bear being rejected again.

We go and sit in the car because obviously we are unable to socialize well with others today. Carrie comes out and she wants to cry because all we ever do is be fucking awkward. Maybe we will do better next Sunday. The chances of that are probably pretty slim, but perhaps we can keep up with the pretending for another week. We can’t expose ourselves, it’s too risky. We feel like we fit in more here than we ever have, we can’t fuck that up by people seeing us. That means we will be full of anxiety again next week, switching out as needed to keep up. We want to be vulnerable and authentic just like the people in the gospel reading were, but we aren’t that brave.

Published by Mary-Clare St. Francis

Mary-Clare St. Francis is a writer who sounds as boring as hell but who is intimately acquainted with the horrific and the sacred. For a long time, darkness has been her friend, but she now walks in the light of Christ. As a committed Episcopalian, her main contribution to the church is her ability to make the priests facepalm or swear, depending on the day and context. Mary-Clare has a Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing and lives in Mississippi with her four children.

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