As rubber duckies go, the one in the above photograph is not very impressive. It’s undersized and, when floating in the bath tub, it has a pronounced list to the left. I’m not even sure of its provenance. I assume it belonged to one of our children, maybe passed down from one to the other, but nobody remembers anymore.
I do know that it was a prop at a critical moment in my life. In the midst of a mental health crisis, I was walking in circles, moving clockwise from our living room, to the dining room, and then on to the kitchen – over and over again. Convinced that I had ruined my life, lost in shame and beset by suicidal ideation, all I could do was walk rapidly while cursing myself. One thing though, I did have a companion. Somewhere in the midst of that terrible time, I had picked up our undersized rubber ducky and was carrying it, clenched tightly, on my circular journey. It’s a witness to all that happened that day.
I don’t know why I picked up the rubber ducky. I also don’t know why I paused in my circling to call my wife, an act that may well have saved my life. I do know that I held the rubber ducky tight as she drove me to the hospital ER, and that I only surrendered it to her for safe keeping when I was in my room on the psych unit.
All of this happened in the spring of 2005 and was followed by another visit to the psych unit a few months later. Since then, I’ve only been a hospital patient one time, briefly when I slipped on the ice and banged my head, a common hazard during a Minnesota winter. This happened in the parking lot of a church where I was serving as an interim pastor, one of six churches I have served in some capacity since my hospitalization.
Meanwhile, the rubber ducky has stayed home, safe on a shelf in the bathroom, where I see it every morning. Is this a good thing for me? Do I really want a daily reminder of such an awful time in my life? Isn’t having it there unhealthy somehow? Yes, it is a reminder of a terrible time. No, I don’t think having it there is unhealthy. In reminding me of that day, now more than fourteen years ago, it also reminds me never to take recovery for granted.
Based on my own experience, I am a passionate believer that recovery from mental illness is possible. I don’t mean that it’s possible to make things again like they once were, like it never happened. Why would one want that anyway? I know for me the crisis on that day was preceded by months of deepening depression, a time of unhappiness for myself and the people closest to me. I don’t want to recover any of that.
By recovery I mean the return of what is best in life: joy, vitality, and purpose. It requires that one unlearn old lessons about how to live, and learn new, more effective ways of coping with reality. At the heart of it is hope that such fundamental change is really possible.
As I have sought to understand all of this in terms of my faith, I keep returning to 2 Corinthians 5:17 “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!” (NRSV) This passage locates the hope for fundamental change in the heart of the gospel. In other words, it tells us that recovery is possible.
I know this to be true, and I have a witness, the rubber ducky who was with me at the worst is still with me now when my life is so much better. It has seen my recovery happen, knows how precious it is, and, as I wrote above, reminds me every day not to take it for granted.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness. He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies and Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps.