The film crew finished arranging the cameras on my husband who was sitting on a barstool in the middle of our front room. I watched as their filtered lights cast a halo around his head. I had already finished my interview with the director earlier that day. We were part of a documentary about people like me who suffered from a terrible syndrome caused by prescribed tranquilizers. You see, five years before that film crew came to our house, I had been prescribed a sleeping pill for insomnia. It came on suddenly after nursing my two-month-old baby girl in the hospital for several weeks while she battled meningitis. After bringing her home, we found ourselves rushing my three-year-old son to the ER next. Later that night, once my toddler and husband were safely tucked into their beds, I finally gave myself permission to go to sleep. But my body rebelled against me. I needed all the energy required to care for both a toddler and a newborn, and that meant a good night’s sleep. Eventually, I made an appointment to see the doctor who told me it would be safe to take a sleeping pill while nursing my baby, as it didn’t get into the breast milk. But I could tell that my daughter who, even when she had meningitis was vibrant and alert, had become unnaturally sleepy and disengaged after I started taking the tranquilizer. I didn’t want to risk any harm to her and so, after five or six days of glorious sleep, I quit cold turkey.
That’s when our lives changed forever. Once a model of fitness and health, now I couldn’t even walk around the block because I was in so much pain. I began to lose weight rapidly and I couldn’t focus my eyes on the TV or even read a book. I didn’t know it at the time, but my short exposure to the sleeping pill had severely injured my brain and body. My husband and I went to every kind of doctor and had every test imaginable done. We spent four months looking for answers that never came. Finally, I reluctantly accepted a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. I was prescribed an antidepressant and, yes, another tranquilizer, only it was much more potent than the sleeping pill I had taken. And guess what? I felt better! I had no idea my syndrome had been created by my sleeping pill, much less that I would temporarily stabilize at higher doses of the same kind of drug. I figured I’d had some sort of mental breakdown from all the stress and that the medications were treating my nervous disorder. I spent the next three and a half years unwittingly injuring my body even more until my husband and I decided to have another baby. We knew I had to get off the medication if we wanted to get pregnant, so I started what I thought was a slow taper, cutting back by an eighth of a pill each week.
And that’s when I was consumed by my ocean of pain.
Everything I had experienced when I cold turkeyed three and a half years earlier was now multiplied by infinity. My brain and body were on fire. It hurt to take a shower, talk on the phone, lie on the floor. I couldn’t eat, sleep or even distract myself by watching TV. And the mental pain, oh the mental pain…I would have gladly endured any physical symptoms to escape my mental agony! I literally couldn’t feel any of those feelings we associate with the Holy Ghost. Love, peace and joy were replaced by terror, fear, and rage. My mind became its own personal torture chamber. If God was love, then where was he? Maybe he had never been more than a feeling created by a combination of the right chemicals. Maybe he was never real to begin with. I felt abandoned, left to rot all alone in what can only be described as the depths of hell.
But after doing some research my husband discovered I wasn’t alone. In fact, there were tens of thousands of other people like me from all over the world in support forums on the internet, all of them experiencing the same symptoms, all from the same medications. These people educated me about my syndrome and showed me how to do a proper taper. They told me I would get better, that it was possible to heal but it would take much longer than expected. And it was through this support network that I learned about windows and waves.
Windows are the sunlight breaking through the storm clouds to illuminate the surface of a turbulent sea. Bringing hope and perspective through brief glimpses of healing, my central nervous system would stop misfiring for an hour or two during a window and I experienced some slight relief from my symptoms. The waves were when I found myself buried so deep under dark roiling waters of agony that I thought I would never make it out alive. But I always did. Just like my online friends assured me they would, the waves eventually abated and I would surface from the depths of hell to tread more shallow waters, even if they were still in the middle of a lake of fire and brimstone.
Throughout my painfully slow taper off the medication, I eventually became one of the many online voices reassuring others they could and would heal. I used YouTube to share my story and educate others. This was especially difficult for me, not only because of my cognitive and physical limitations but also due to my rapidly changing appearance. Over the course of 15 months, I experienced a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. My hair started falling out. Painful boils erupted all over my face and body that were so monstrously large, I actually feared going out in public, thinking I might frighten little children. Muscle wasted away and my once fit thirty-something figure melted into the body of an octogenarian. Previously I had been an accomplished musician, but now just sitting at the piano to sing and play a hymn was beyond my ability. I couldn’t even feel affection for the people I wanted to, like my children and my husband. All the things I thought made me valuable as a human being, that made me, Me, simply vanished.
Who could love someone like that? I certainly didn’t. I cried and pleaded with God for healing and a profound spiritual awakening from my perpetual darkness. But how could I have an experience like those I’d had before when I couldn’t perform any of the actions I knew led to them like deep scripture study, temple attendance, and fasting? It was in bearing my testimony to others that God had revealed himself to me when I was younger, his spirit consuming my body like white fire, and later when the light of that fire burned deep within my bosom. But where was that light now?
The question burned a hole in my heart as I closed my sensitive eyes to the bright lights that embraced my husband who was describing his wife’s ongoing struggle to recover from this devastating syndrome. He told the director he could tell I had begun to improve in little ways after completing a grueling year and a half taper off the medication. He said it made him hopeful. She asked him how he held onto the hope that I would get better when I was at my worst. His answer completely knocked the wind out of me: “I didn’t. I didn’t know if she would ever get better.” “How could he say that!?” I shouted in my mind. In spite of all the testimonials of survivors in online support groups, despite all the words of hope I had shared with others on social media, how could he have so little faith in my healing? My mood grew dark.
My husband continued, “I made plans and financial arrangements to take care of Jocelyn in case she was like this the rest of her life…” A flash of brilliant illumination suddenly washed over me as I realized, my husband was planning on caring for me the way I was, not just for the rest of my life, but possibly for the rest of his. “Why would he do that?!” I silently exclaimed. I mean, I knew I was miserable to be around. I didn’t even want to be around myself. Why would he choose a life sentence with me? Then the answer distilled on my soul as the dews from heaven. Because he loves me. Even though I wasn’t pretty or smart or funny, even though I couldn’t sing and dance or read our children a bedtime story anymore, he loved me anyway. He loved me when I couldn’t love him back, boils and all. For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to earn love in some way. Even with God, something in me always believed I had to earn his love through things like obedience and service. Because of this, and because of my husband’s failure to be perfect in our marriage, I had always held a part of myself back from my spouse. I never really trusted his love. But here he was, my imperfectly wonderful husband, loving me simply because I was me. Because I existed. Through his eyes, I saw God’s light and knew love once again.
That was the day my ocean of pain quietly, almost imperceptibly transformed into an ocean of joy. The waters were no less terrifying and tumultuous, but this time I jumped in feet first with all my heart and found a new baptism of fire and water. Little by little I learned to accept my scars as symbols of the battles I had bravely fought and won. Relationships scarred by years of misunderstanding and pain now, through what seemed like no effort of my own, miraculously healed and expanded in ways I never knew were possible.
And so have I.
Like you, I’ve endured many hardships in my life, the kinds of things that break people. Before my drug-induced injury, I was like a vase, lovely, but only able to hold so much water. Not that I didn’t have spiritual depth. Whenever life chipped away at my clay I relied on God’s strength and he would reform me. Glued together by sturdier stuff, I thought I had changed. But I was still a vase. Then I was pulverized, crushed to dust, and swept out to sea by the wind and waves until there was nothing left of me to recognize. Crying out to God in the midst of tempestuous waters, I begged him to help me escape my ocean of pain, until one day I realized,
I am the ocean.
Like Adam, God had formed me from the dust into something so vast and so deep I could hold great oceans of both pain and joy, love and sorrow. It was Alma, who proclaimed, “Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.” I know what that means. It means I will have moments that feel overwhelming. It means I may have times when I think back on the experiences that have led to the expansion of my soul and feel a profound sense of sadness. It means I can feel all that and still know perfection and gratitude as I peacefully accept both the heights and depths of my ocean of eternal progression. In other words, I feel joy.
I don’t know where you’re at on your journey. Some vases are deeper than others and some break more easily. But whenever you feel broken or like you’re drowning in deep waters, when you feel like you will never be the same again, remember, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17 “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” Isn’t it wonderful to know that however infinite your pain maybe you are promised an equal measure of greatness and glory? The Creator of worlds without end will form you from the dust into something so vast and so great that one day, like your Heavenly Parents, you will fill the expanse of eternity. So when the waves seem like they are too much, when you feel like they might finally overpower you, remember, tell yourself, “I am the ocean.”
 Alma 36:21
This essay is adapted from Joceyln Padersen’s book Seeds of Hope: A Journey Through Medication and Madness Toward Meaning!