So, I set fires of starlight
To burn up against the despair
I was caught in the tangles of midnight’s
Long, unanswered prayer:
‘Are you there?’
Matthew Perryman Jones/”O Theo”
In the past, self-reflection was my thing. I spent most of life facing inward. While it meant I was lonely a lot, I knew myself really well. I always knew where I stood with God, how I felt about Him. That’s changed.
Self-reflection gets exhausting. After years and years, I’ve sort of given up. Being self-aware and monitoring my feelings used to be necessary for survival, but now that I’m in a good place with my mental health, it isn’t a necessity. I prefer to fill my mind’s space with work, writing, art, movies, TV…anything but thinking about God and where I stand. Why? I think I’m scared of what I’ll learn. After giving up on our small group, I kind of gave up on believing I’ll belong somewhere spiritually. For the group, I forced myself to fit in as much as I could, but it felt incredibly fake. Talking about the Bible or praying was phony. Questions like, “What motivates you to read the Bible?” felt stupid when an honest answer for me would be, “Nothing does. So I don’t.” The idea of going to church still makes me want to run away screaming.
So, why am I googling spiritual directors? Why am I looking for songs on Good Friday that stir something – anything – inside me? Something feels off. I can’t say that I feel “a God-shaped hole,” because, again, that has a fake taste. It’s too cliche. I feel like a picture that’s off-center, or a floor with a slight slope in the middle. It’s Good Friday, and it isn’t like I feel guilty, or that I “should” feel something. It’s more like when you touch a hot stove and don’t feel anything, you know something is wrong. It isn’t guilt that takes you to the doctor, it’s necessity.
I just have a lot of questions, and I need someone to help me answer them.
I have a collector’s personality. In my younger years, I collected Sunday comics, Newsweeks, and keys. These days, I collect enamel stick pins. I also like collecting experiences, and my favorite one is chai teas, specifically chai tea lattes. That means I want to go to every place that serves chai, and analyze them. Here’s my list so far:
Dutch Bros – Terrible. It’s sugar and water. In the summer, though, after a long walk, an iced sugar water is pretty refreshing on the way home.
Starbucks – Also pretty bad. Very one-note.
Ike Box – One of my favorites. I had their spicy chai iced (which apparently was a sort of unusual order) and it was truly spicy. Lots of black pepper.
Java Crew – My favorite so far. It’s not too sweet, not too spicy. I can actually taste different flavors.
Tea Chai Te – I had the seasonal Gingerbread one, and that was really good. I was with Chris and a new friend at the time, so I didn’t pay super close attention to it. I have to go back and try again to get a more focused opinion.
Human Bean – The hot chai is pretty much just sugar and milk. The chai smoothie, however, is delicious, because I’m expecting lots of sugar.
Grab ‘n Go – One of those teeny drive-thrus in Aberdeen, Washington. They had a spiced chai and a vanilla chai. I got the spiced one, but it wasn’t very spicy. It had a bit too much milk in it, I think, which diluted the flavors.
Having this “collection” of chai encourages me to go out and try new places. It also forces me to be in the moment and really focus on what I’m drinking. I can get anxious about really random things or overwhelmed when I’m out in the world, but having an “assignment” really helps me zero in a few key things – the flavors of the drink, its coldness or heat, what I feel when I’m drinking it. It has a centering effect.
I also buy chai powders to make my own tea at home. I have tried Oregon Chai (meh) and Pacific Chai. I like the Spiced Pacific Chai better than the other two flavors. It recommends 2 tablespoons, but I think that’s way too much. I do about 1 1/5 with water. Just got the David Rio Tiger Spice Chai, aaaaaand it’s amazing. Just made it with water and hazelnut milk. Hot. SO GOOD.
So, I left my small group. Yes, the one I started. It wasn’t because of the people – I love the people, and I’m not just saying that. I plan on staying friends with them, and doing fun stuff like hikes and night markets. When it came to the discussion part, though, there was a big disconnect.
They all go to church. One is even a pastor, for God’s sake. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s probably good to be close to people who are secure in their faith and place in the Christian community, but I’m the only one who isn’t. Like, not even close. I went to a Christmas Eve service, and I had to leave and sit in the lobby. Everything about it just made me want to run. The setup of the stage reminded me of my old church, and that brought on waves of sadness at how that community imploded and betrayed me. When the pastor started talking and using phrases like, “Forgiveness isn’t something you can buy on Amazon Prime,” I wanted to roll my eyes all the way back in my head. I got really hot, and walked around outside. It was raining, and the chill felt refreshing. I am not ready to go back to church. I have absolutely no desire to be ready.
I’m not optimistic about finding people who share my experiences. A lot of people who have had traumatic spiritual experiences just end up cutting all of it out their lives. I’m weirdly in-between, where I’ve cut out church and the conservative bent of Evangelicalism, but I do want friends who love Jesus. I’m desperate for people who will hear about I used to read the Bible because I believed if I didn’t, demons would overpower me, and really understand, because they’ve walked that walk. People who have had serious doubts about God’s goodness because at times it seems that mental illness has stolen every dream. Maybe I’m asking for too much.
For our first small group session, we did an active listening exercise where we described a moment where we felt most alive. Mine was about a morning in Jamaica, the summer of 2011, where I and a few friends got up early to swim. The sun wasn’t scorching yet, and the water was just cool enough to be refreshing. I floated on my back, eyes closed. The last few years had been extremely rough. My soul felt like a raw piece of meat that had been beat with a mallet. It felt like my body and mind were set against me, determined to kill me.
Some people feel most alive when their adrenaline levels are high, but I’m the opposite. For me, high adrenaline levels mean I’m afraid, that I’m in danger. There’s a theory about anxiety that it was biologically important back in the days when life was really dangerous, when we lived without much shelter and death by wild animal was common. That anxiety kept us alive and told us to run when we encountered danger. Now, however, most of us don’t need that much anxiety. I certainly don’t – I’m not in a bad area, I’m pretty much white-passing, and I’m not being hunted by animals. That adrenaline/anxiety sparked up at every little thing, and told my body that sitting in class was a life-or-death situation. I didn’t feel “alive” in those moments, because I wanted the feeling to stop. I wanted to shut it off. I wanted to be dead, because at least then I could have peace and quiet.
Floating in the ocean, my ears beneath the waves so the only sound was my own breathing, felt like being alive. I felt whole, my mind and body not fighting. It was sort of weird, too, because I also felt disembodied at the same time. That felt like freedom, like I had found a way to escape the chaos of the physical, and just be. Recapturing that is not easy. The closest I get is when I can’t sleep at night, and I lie down in Baxter’s room. It’s the coolest room. The sleeping bag is slippery, and feels a little like water. The only sound is faint rustling. After a half hour or so, I feel calm again, pieced back together, and I can go back to bed and fall asleep.
What this taught me is that my soul is connected to the ocean. Whenever we go to the coast, I know that I could live by it forever. When I’ve visited deserts, like New Mexico, I feel off-kilter, like something is missing. The ocean has its rhythms, like a pair of lungs, and follows the moon. It’s steady, but also not predictable. It’s totally, completely alive.
At night, thoughts just trickle down like raindrops into my brain. I really can’t control the onslaught, and I never know what form they’ll take from night to night. Last night, my thoughts turned to my year at Northwestern. It seems like an eternity ago, and I realized that I couldn’t remember a lot of peoples’ names. It was a relief, though, because most of them were people I didn’t actually know. They just knew the few people I did know, extending far out into the college life I never shared. I forget sometimes what a hard year it was. I’m honestly shocked that I made it through alive. At my worst, I had imagined crawling into the oven in the little kitchenette in the dorm room I shared with two other girls, and at my best, I successfully went to class, to the on-campus therapy, and check-ins with my hall director who needed to make sure I wasn’t going to kill myself. Even at my best, I was just surviving.
The thoughts of that year just kept streaming in last night, filling me up, like I was an inflating balloon. Chris snored peacefully beside me, and Yoshi had gone downstairs, so I couldn’t occupy myself with petting him. Instead, I went into Baxter’s room and lay on the sleeping bag I always kept in there for just such occasions. He wasn’t interested in playing with me, so I put him back in his house and lay on my back, listening to him rustle in his bedding and toilet paper tubes. With each breath, I tried to imagine thoughts leaving my body like air, as if I was decompressing from a deep dive. I wanted to become completely flat, even with the floor, and not swollen up with strange emotions.
Memories kept flying in, like the first week of living on campus where the college hosted an ’80’s costume party, and I sat watching three girls from my hall put their long hair in side ponytails, with off-shoulder sweaters and neon eyeliner, and the only ’80’s look I could possibly pull off was Joan Jett, because I owned a lot of black clothes and my hair was short like hers.
Not too much of a stretch, right?
It’s so weird what comes up in the dark, with no distractions except the sound of a hedgehog drinking water. I kept picturing the little lounge area of my floor, Red Hall, even though I rarely spent time there. Then there was the “prank” some of the older girls played on the freshman when we first moved in, that there would be a table set up where any boys who came to visit would have to sign in. When they revealed that they were joking, it wasn’t really that funny, because we did still have to always keep the doors open if we had a gentleman caller, and they could only visit one day during the week. I truly can’t remember if it was part of the prank that we had to also hang little paper dolls on the door if there was a guy there, or if that was real. I knew that none of that would apply to me, prank or no, so it was a weird way to start the year.
That was also the year that I got really into charismatic Christianity. After one especially intense devotional session with one of the girls sharing her story of being abused, I started getting worked up during the prayer session, and when someone tried to put their hands on me to pray, I flipped out. I ended up being held down on the floor, growling. When I finally calmed down, I was exhausted, but didn’t want to go back to my dorm to my roommate who never came to the hall Bible studies, and who did not understand either my depression or hyper-spirituality. She might have been in a cult. The other roommate, who was more receptive and open, was out with her friends. I don’t remember if I talked with my RA about what had triggered the spiritual attack (panic attack, as I now know it was), but I don’t remember feeling safe or reassured afterwards. When I think about that time and my relationship with the girls in the Hall, I’m left with a big question mark. It feels like I bled all over the floor all year and everyone kind of avoided it. Occasionally, someone would ask how I was, listen intently, and I would feel better.
During the year, I felt like I had some allies in my battle, so when I decided to transfer, I wanted to end the year well. I hung out one-on-one with the girl whose testimony had triggered my attack, and tried to connect with her using the only spiritual language I really knew: charismatic crazy talk. I thought she would understand, but by the end of our conversation, I could tell she thought I was insane. I never saw or talked to her again. The older girl who I had met with during the year was nowhere to be found when I moved out, and when I texted her during the summer about getting coffee, she was always busy. My RA unfriended me on Facebook until I refriended her, and she accepted. We never spoke of why she deleted me. Unless I’ve forgotten about that, too.
I’ve blogged about these experiences before, and I’m not bitter or mad about them. It was so long ago, and so much has changed since then, I kind of feel like telling myself, “What the hell, get over it.” And most of the time, I am over it. Last night was the first time I’ve really thought about any specific memories in a long time, and I’m not sure why they just appeared again. Maybe because I’m starting this small group and on the threshold of new relationships with Christians again, and some old fears are trying to get back in, like bloated ticks eager to feed on my blood again. Vivid image, I know, but that’s what it feels like. So I lay on the floor in the hedgehog’s room, breathing in and out, until I no longer felt like my chest was going to stretch apart and my brain was too tired to absorb the raindrops of thoughts. I checked on Baxter one more time, who jumped angrily when I touched him, and went back to the bedroom. Chris was no longer snoring.
We went to Hawaii for my grandma’s 90th birthday, which meant lots of plane rides and 3-hour time difference. It also meant plying myself with lots of pills in order to stay as functional as possible. What are some ways that I managed this?
Tip #1: Stick with number of hours between pills, and not actual time
I usually take my first pill between 10:30 – 11:30 am, but during travel, the time changes. Instead of focusing on the actual time of day, I just paid attention to how many hours had passed between pills. At night, it resets, so I started taking my pill about an hour after I woke up, around 10 am Hawaii time.
Tip #2: Dramamine is amazing
I was worried about feeling sick on the airplane and all the car rides, so I took the less-drowsy formula about two hours before getting on a plane or in a car. It completely reduced any nausea I might have felt. A few nights, I would start to feel nauseated randomly – probably because my body was adjusting to a different pill schedule – and Dramamine would help with that, too.
Tip #3: Always carry food and water
I never went anywhere without my water bottle. Staying hydrated is key to not feeling ill in heat, whether or not there’s medication involved. I always tried to carry food with me, like a protein bar, because my second pill of the day would fall around 2pm, which was after we had eaten lunch and before dinner. Depending on what we were doing, going to get food wasn’t an option, so I had to have something with me.
Tip #4: Don’t forget how many pills you’ve taken
This is a weird problem I have sometimes, where I will forget if I just took a pill or not. It’s become so automatic, when the alarm goes off, I act on reflex. Sometimes I eat before, and sometimes I eat after, so that doesn’t help me remember. One day, I forgot if I had taken the pill, and not wanting to risk the withdrawal from a missed dose, I took the pill. I’m pretty sure I ended up double-dosing myself, which resulted in a headache. Thankfully, taking two pills wasn’t nearly as bad as three (which would make me instantly sick), and I was able to walk it off and drink lots of water to feel better.
All in all, having to take three pills a day didn’t interfere with the vacation too much, and I was able to relax and enjoy everything that went on. There was only one major miscommunication with the family about it all, which reminded me that other people need to be privy to my schedule. That isn’t a problem I’ve encountered before, because usually I have an identical schedule and only take my last pill of the day with others around, and it’s usually just Chris and we’re at home.
I had a short conversation with a friend the other day about giving God credit for stuff, and using that as an explanation for His existence. I’ve heard that argument a lot, where a person is able to forgive someone after years of resentment, and says it wouldn’t be possible without God. They overcome some challenge and point to heaven.
My friend is skeptical, saying that it could just be that someone matures and grows, and that they could just as easily give themselves credit for that change. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because a huge reason why I believe in God is because when something seems impossible, it still happens. I really can’t give myself credit for certain things that I’ve come through. For me, “progress” and “maturity” are not linear. One week I’m doing really well and being productive, and the next, I’m afraid to go to the grocery store again. Old habits die hard, and the brain has a real hold on certain habits. There’s only so much it can change, and in certain situations, it reverts backwards. It’s like emotional time travel.
Basically, in my experience, growth doesn’t really build up, at least in the darkest moments. When it’s 2:30 in the afternoon and I’m waking up from a nap, a stress dream brought on by an onslaught of recent deaths still burning in my mind, I might as well be 16 again. There isn’t anything in my body to help me, it’s low in protein, low in vitamin D, and there aren’t any reserves.
That place has always been where I feel God the strongest. My own brain and body aren’t a distraction because they’re so drained and shriveled up, like raisins. And this isn’t a dig on my abilities or self-esteem; if will power was enough, I would be a lawyer/best-selling author. I have will power in spades, but when your body is chemically-designed to fight you every step of the way, it just isn’t enough. I wouldn’t trade in that weakness, though, that fragility. Like I said, it’s where I see God the most. When the darkness gets dark enough, it becomes light.
So, that’s how I know God exists. It’s more convincing to me than any amount of apologetics or intelligent design arguments or whatever else someone can dredge up. Proof is carved in my bones and melted into my blood. It’s tied into the messy neurons of my brain. His strength – not mine – what keeps my lungs inhaling and exhaling when even the most primal animal instinct of survival is fading.
Psalm 139: 12 Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
I’ve been getting a lot of stress thoughts at night. These are the unpredictable, persistent thoughts that pepper my brain when I can’t fall asleep quickly enough, which is every night. Yoshi is coming home soon, so that’s been preoccupying me. I’ll start thinking things like, “What if he hates it here and the neighbors complain?” and then, “What if he dies? What if he gets so excited that he has a heart attack?” Then I’ll worry about Baxter, and go lie in his room so I can hear him rustling around, which proves he’s alive. My pills have been acting up and being weird, so if I don’t take the last one with enough food, it makes me sick. That’s a new development, and it’s not fun. They just can’t cooperate, can they?
Penny & Sparrow is my favorite band right now. Chris thinks they’re too “chill,” and that they make him want to fall asleep. He says that like it’s a bad thing. My music tastes have changed so much. I tried listening to Skillet recently, one of my favorites from high school, and I was not impressed. Too loud. I’m old.
It’s been in the 90’s weather-wise. I don’t I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. When I work out, I point the fan directly at myself, and it makes a big difference. Otherwise, I think I would literally die. It would not be safe.
I wish I could work on my novel more. I have a notebook where I scribble a few lines or pages as often as I can, and I need to type that up. One of my characters changed a lot from my first draft. She went from being really sweet and sensitive to kind of a tough cookie. It was not at all on purpose. I guess that’s just what she’s meant to be.
I recently read an open letter a husband had written to his wife, who had depression. It felt like he was describing my life, and the fears that I know Chris has. He talked about how inexperienced he had been being with someone with serious depression, how paralyzed and helpless he felt, and frustrated that he couldn’t fix anything. He also wrote how his wife told him that the main reason she didn’t go through with suicide was because she knew how much it would hurt him.
I’ve definitely been there.
Our relationship has never been easy. Chris has had to see me have multiple breakdowns, including at least two where I lost the ability to speak or move. I literally traced words on his arm when he asked if he should take me to the hospital. I had a self-harm relapse. And that was just in the first year of knowing each other.
Like the woman in that letter, I’m in a good place now. I haven’t had suicidal thoughts in a long time. Still, mental illness is always there, its shadow always peeking into our life. There will be days when it comes closer. Loving Chris motivates me to do more to keep it at bay, to anticipate it better. But the thing that gives me the most confidence is that I know I’m not fighting alone.