Tag Archives: college

what to do when old memories resurface

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.

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.

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My corner of the NWC dorm. That big squared blanket is now primarily Chris’.

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.

I wrote a book!

So, I wrote a little book called “To the Brokenhearted: Being a Christian with Depression,” and it will be coming to Kindle very soon. I’m using their direct publishing service, and I’m super excited for everyone to check it out. It’s about my experiences with depression and anxiety, specifically as a Christian, and the lessons I’ve learned on how to deal with symptoms, people who deny mental illness, and so on. I have an author page on Facebook set up: https://www.facebook.com/eshubertyauthor

“Like” me and stay tuned!

God of the Tar Pits

*trigger warning: self-harm, suicide*

Part 1 of 2

I always felt sorry for prehistoric animals that died in tar pits and whose fossils scientists have since discovered. The lucky ones would die by being attacked by opportunistic predators; the unlucky ones would have to wait. They would either starve or suffocate in the thick muck, their deaths drawn out and agonizing. In my experience, this is what depression has felt like, and as a Christian with depression, the tar pit is especially draining.  Other Christians wander around you and dish out advice like, “You’re letting the devil have his way,” “You must be doing something wrong and it’s weighing you down,” or “Just pray that God will take you away from this.”

Christianity has been slow when it comes to recognizing mental illness. In the recent past, the most commonly-held belief (especially in Evangelical circles) was that having depression, anxiety, or any of the wide range of mental ailments was a spiritual weakness. Historically, this is a shift from much earlier thoughts about mental illness. Many saints who exhibited classic symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses were actually held up as examples of holiness. St. Margaret of Cortona was a cutter, Therese of Lisieux starved herself and most likely died because of it, and St. Augustine went through intense periods of depression. As time went on and the Catholic Church no longer became the sole representation of Christianity, intentionally inflicting suffering upon the body and mind through starvation, cutting, or other means no longer became popular. This isn’t to say that the Catholic Church still encourages this kind of suffering; it too has gone through many evolutions, but it does tend to admire suffering as a way to get closer to Christ a lot more than other denominations. Those denominations emphasize joy, and not being joyful is often linked to due to a lack of faith or even selfishness. There are still many Christians (who have influence) who hold to this and scold sufferers of anxiety and depression, saying, “It’s a commandment to never worry, and by being anxious or depressed, you are sinning.”

It’s gotten a little better out there; countless churches and spiritual counselors recognize the progress of science and the fact that mental illness is not a character weakness, but the result of numerous factors like genetics, brain chemistry, and situational events. Still, do an Internet search on “Christians and depression” and you see articles with titles like, “How can Christians be depressed?” “Should Christians take medication for depression?” and, “Is it a sin to be depressed?” Even when depression is recognized for what it is, the solutions include things like, “Pray more,” and, “Read the Bible.” When famous pastor and author Rick Warren’s son committed suicide, it sparked a heated debate in the Christian community about how a Christian could succumb to suicide and if Rick Warren’s son was in heaven or not. John Piper, a major figure in Baptist and Evangelical circles, reluctantly admits that medication is useful for mental illness, but should only be used temporarily because working with peoples’ minds is “tricky.” His comments mirror a talk I had with a former partner, who was uneasy when I first went on antidepressants because he didn’t “trust” doctors. He suggested I try to take a more natural route. As someone who experiences systematic and constant suicidal thoughts and behaviors without medication, these conversations are terrifying.

Though I suspect I have had clinical depression since I was ten years old, it never truly affected my life until I was older. In high school, the depression took control. I spent weeks lying on the couch instead of attending school. When I wasn’t watching TV, I was sedating myself with melatonin capsules, a natural supplement that is supposed to be regulate sleep schedules, but affected me like a powerful sleep drug. My high school was a private, Christian school that made much of its sense of community, but when I was at my lowest, it never reached me. No one emailed me or picked up the phone. In a class of 9 people, we were all close, at least in proximity. Perhaps they believed I needed space and privacy, but if they knew anything about mental illness, they would have known complete isolation is not the answer. Isolation reaffirms dangerous thoughts like, “Would anyone notice if I died?” and, “No one cares about me.” I started seeing a counselor at a Christian therapy clinic, but she seemed to believe that me just talking about my problems was enough to solve them. She failed to realize that I wasn’t confused about my feelings; I needed solutions on how to manage them. The counselor rarely spoke and after nearly a year of talking to myself, I just never made another appointment.

For my first year of college, I went to Northwestern College (now the University of Northwestern), a Christian college known for having famed evangelist Billy Graham serve as its president for a number of years. It wasn’t my first choice, but because my senior year in high school had gone so poorly, I hoped to heal in a somewhat familiar environment and then make a decision about staying on or transferring. I also hoped I would find friends who would give me the company I had lacked my last year of high school, but after months of trying to forge connections, I was perpetually lonely and struggling with getting to class every day. My self-harm and suicidal thoughts peaked while I observed others quickly form friend groups and enjoy the daily required chapel. I ate most of my meals alone and accepted the $100 fine for skipping too many chapels. When I started self-harming again and thinking of specific ways to kill myself, I followed the proper procedure and informed my RA, who referred me to the resident hall director, who in turn told me to go to the free therapist on campus. She was much better than my first counselor because she actually offered advice, but it was hard to follow because I didn’t have friends to help me with my increasingly debilitating social anxiety. While in high school I had only suffered from numbing depression, college brought on muscle-shaking anxiety as well.

Because anxiety is so different than depression, it’s odd how often they are paired. While with depression, I stopped caring about anything and everyone, anxiety made me too care way too much. I believed everyone was watching my every move and judging me. I spent hours planning out how I would conduct myself during the day, what I would say, how I would dress, and if something happened that wasn’t in my plan, I freaked out. Even when I was just lying in bed, I worried that I would forget how to breathe. I once heard that anxiety is actually an evolutionary trait leftover from when humans were in constant danger. That innate fear told them to run when something chased them and to be on the alert for predators at all times. However, as life changed, that need for fear dissipated. Anxiety is when the brain confuses harmless situations for dangerous ones, and sends a flood of adrenaline through the sufferer telling them, “You’re going to die! Run or hide!” Instead of running from animals, I ran from making phone calls, saying hello to people I recognized, or sitting next to strangers in chapel.

The anxiety got so bad that during prayer sessions with my dorm floor, when I became especially emotionally-vulnerable, I would have panic attacks that everyone (including me) mistook for demonic possession. The girls would hold me down and pray aloud until I calmed down. These exorcisms were usually followed by lectures on how to avoid succumbing to demonic attacks, which made me feel guilty. Satisfied with their participation in my healing, most of the students would go back to their rooms, leaving me exhausted and scared. No one mentioned the word “depression” or “anxiety” or asked if the medication I was on had side effects. No one seemed to have any sort of knowledge about what a full-blown panic attack looked like, let alone how to treat one. As the school year continued, I started having waking nightmares where I saw demons on the ceiling and sitting on my chest. At the time, I didn’t know that I was experiencing sleep paralysis, a phenomenon where the sufferer becomes unable to move and hallucinates figures (often demonic ones) in the room. This condition has been recognized for centuries and billions of people have experienced it at some point in their lives. Some (like me) experience it regularly and are unable to move for long stretches of time, often hours, while hallucinating or even hearing voices. When I brought it up to my floor, the RA told my roommates and I that our room had a history of spiritual warfare and to try praying Scripture over the beds before we slept. It didn’t help.

My freshman year was long and hard, and as the year ended and I went through with my plans to transfer colleges, I promised myself that I would try to stay close to the few people I had managed to connect to. After they ignored my texts and broke our plans, I gave up. The person I had felt closest to, my RA who shared my love of English, unfriended me on Facebook, severing my only connection to her. I remembered lying on the floor of her dorm room, weeping, and feel a twinge of regret that I became so vulnerable to a person who didn’t deserve my trust. I felt betrayed. These people were fellow Christians; our relationships were supposed to mean something. Had they just pretended to be nice to me because they felt bad about my desire to put my head in an oven? I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have had an easier time making friends if I didn’t have depression. Once again, I felt that mental illness had held me back in a big way. I was letting it win and people could smell it on me. I was like a wounded animal caught in a pit; something to be pitied, but also avoided.

Finger on the Trigger

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I recently read one of many articles addressing the issue of trigger warnings in academia. A group of students at a university brought it up and the media was quick to jump on it. A “trigger” is described as an extremely negative response – such as PTSD flashbacks or urges to self harm – to pictures, text, video, and/or audio. Warnings serve to alert a person that what they are about to encounter might have content that could trigger them.

The comments on the article were astoundingly ignorant and insensitive. One person objected to using trigger warnings, justifying their stance by saying, “Life is a trigger.” Others expressed contempt for those who need trigger warnings, describing them as weak or overly-sensitive or having a victim complex. One commenter said people who wanted trigger warnings were incapable of using the Internet (and informing themselves about the content of a textbook), had not heard about cognitive behavioral therapy, and were just bored. A common thread I noticed was that people believed trigger warnings were in place before content that was “offensive.” That’s not what a trigger warning is about. Being offended is not the same as being triggered. At all.

I have been triggered. I immediately began having a panic attack and had to leave where I was and curled up into the back of a car, unable to stop shaking and crying. That episode subsided, but the next day, when I was back at my dorm, I locked myself in my room for two days. I was unable to do anything besides lie on the floor and fight the flashbacks. People had to bring me food. Being triggered disrupted my entire life, at at the end of the school year, had a negative effect on my final exams.

It’s bizarre that people believe that those who want trigger warnings are sensitive or even naive. More than once I’ve heard people say that life is hard, suck it up, you can’t be protected forever. It’s not like these students are unaware of life’s suffering. They have literally already been through trauma, including rape, abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm. They are the opposite of naive. They would just like a head’s up so they don’t have to relive these painful memories without warning. A professor at a college in New York says that most decent professors essentially already warn students, in his syllabus, he includes a brief note that makes it clear that some of the material in the class may be difficult for certain students, so if they need to excuse themselves, they are free to do so. They are responsible for the material missed. In a film class on violence I took my third year, we watched some intense clips. My professor always told us that what we were about to watch might be too much. For one film in particular, she emphasized just how brutal and disturbing it was, so I simply did not attend the screening at all. For the essay we were assigned on that film, I simply read a brief summary online and went from there. Students are masters of this, which is often called “bull-shitting.” It’s why cliff notes exist.

A criticism of having trigger warnings in academia is just how far this will go. People love the slippery slope argument, and in the article’s comment section, people were spinning wild presumptions about the kinds of content that would be labeled. “If a book has a troubled relationship between a father and son, will that be labeled too?” If that relationship includes sexual or other physical abuse, then yes. There are well-known triggers that encompass a wide range of content (sexual abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, emotional abuse), so that’s a good place to start, and it isn’t asking too much. Movies have MPAA ratings that specifically outline why it has that rating; this is not a new concept. It’s strange that people are so opposed to implementing warnings, it’s incredibly easy, something that any decent professor is already familiar with, and saves students from being surprised and sent into a full-blown anxiety attack or from self-harm.

I use trigger warnings. At least two of my posts have included a warning at the top. I do this because I care about those who have been through trauma, and because I don’t want anyone’s experience of my writing to be overwhelmed by negative memories. Any distraction from a core message (in movies, books, etc) is problematic, and a distraction that disturbs and triggers someone can completely override any positive effect the movie/book might have had. Sure, you could tell that person to just get over it and enjoy everything else, but you would be revealing your ignorance. This person would love to “get over it,” but it isn’t that easy and they weren’t necessarily prepared to be dealing with their trauma in this way at this time. A classroom isn’t really the ideal place to be hashing out your past.

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Sources:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/inside_higher_ed/2014/05/hostos_community_college_professor_angus_johnston_explains_why_trigger_warnings.html

http://www.my-borderline-personality-disorder.com/2012/11/what-does-TW-mean-on-twitter.html

 

Community

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I’ve always had trouble finding a “group.” In middle school and high school, I lamented not having people I could just call up and go hang out with. Even in a tiny school, cliques form, and I somehow ended up on the outside of the “popular” one right at the beginning of my high school career. By the end, things were better and my graduating class was very close, but as time passed, it was clear that closeness was because of survival. If I had had a choice, certain actions would have been a deal breaker for me, but that was not a good idea when you had to see them every single day. I definitely still have friends from high school, but not a “group.”

My last real community was church. I haven’t realized until recently how much that meant to be. Being involved in youth group gave me a place where I felt needed and that I needed. Then it was over, and then it was gone. Lots of people left the church altogether, the youth group got smaller, the leadership got shaken up and went in a direction where I didn’t fit anymore. It had happened kind of gradually, so I didn’t realize I was losing something so important to me. That’s a big reason why I haven’t found another church and why I’m so reluctant to even start trying.

I wanted college to be my community. I did make friends, some really close ones, and I don’t want it to sound like I’m minimizing their importance to me, but my experience has been so difficult that I can’t say that I feel like I belong at Macalester. I went to an English Department event and it just hit me. I didn’t know very many people and they certainly didn’t know me. I was supposed to graduate last year. When I finally do leave, it will have been six years since I started college at Northwestern. I’ve said it before, about how I need to let that go, the past is the past, yadda yadda. I’m not going to get a bunch of awards or have my name up on a plaque like my dad, or be a teacher’s assistant. Knowing something doesn’t make it any easier. It just makes it a lot more frustrating when you can’t get over it.

 

Macalester Easter

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Easter was very different for me this year. My parents were in Illinois getting their new place ready, brother was in Boston, and it was the first Easter for Chris and I as married people. I’ve also been feeling spiritually adrift, so it was hard to feel any real joy when reading the dozens of Easter posts on Facebook. I was conflicted about my lack of feeling all day as we waited to go to Macalester to have an Easter service and dinner with Macalester people.

Mac Christian Fellowship is run by a lot of my closest Macalester friends, who are some of the best people I know. They are passionate, independent, ambitious, and compassionate. The service was designed and carried out entirely by students. Wholly of their own accord, students came to reflect on the death and resurrection of Christ, and share a meal that was open to anyone in the Mac community, Christian or not.

Macalester has been labeled as one of the most liberal and aggressively “unreligious” campuses in the country for decades. It was described as “godless” in an article about the school. When I transferred from a conservative evangelical school to Mac, I had people chuckle about the great difference between the schools as well as express an admiration for my bravery to stand right in the middle of the battlefield. The funny thing is none of the Christians I know at Mac consider the college the enemy. Instead of pushing back against the school’s values, Christian students are constantly finding ways to work with the community and use the tools the school provides to fulfill the Christian mission. Because they often feel like the minority, Christian students never engage in the kind of aggressive ideological or theological division that is so common in churches, and it’s not like every Macalester student is politically liberal either. There are differences within the community, but fighting one another about it simply isn’t important when the world at large so desperately needs love. God has a way of making His presence most obvious in a place that is “godless.” 

There were Scripture readings, singing, and testimonials at the service. People shared about how difficult it can be to transition from Good Friday – the darkest day in Christian history – to an Easter mindset – the most joyous day. Life weighs us down and injustice wrecks havoc seemingly unchecked, a thing Mac students are so painfully and keenly aware of. The theme I took away from the service was hope. The death of Christ represented, as my best friend Erin put it, “not only the lack of hope, but the betrayal of hope,” and Easter represents the rebirth and fulfillment of a new hope, a hope no one saw coming, through the resurrection of Jesus. Towards the end of the service, we were invited to call out something that we saw as hopeless, and to all respond to it by saying, “There is hope indeed.”

Disease.

There is hope indeed.

Depression.

There is hope indeed.

Pollution.

There is hope indeed.

Violence.

There is hope indeed.

Ukraine.

There is hope indeed.

 

 

A Big Happy Family: The Rules and Rituals of Relationships at a Conservative Christian College

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Let’s go back to my freshman year of college at a conservative Christian institution.

That feeling of “not being good enough” haunted me, though it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t as if I devalued myself, that I thought I was worthless. I knew I was a good catch, but I just wasn’t the fish anyone wanted. Whenever a boy talked to me, threw a smile in my direction, I fell in love. I wrote lists of what I wanted in a guy, which included traits like “quirky,” “honest,” and “confident.” My fixation on a relationship filled me with guilt and my journal was interspersed with lists of valuable traits in a guy and hard-edged promises to focus on God and holiness. I was torn between a desire to be loved and a desire to be autonomous. My school taught me to find my satisfaction in Christ but also continuously shoveled teachings about marriage and gender roles at me, making it impossible to not be aware of how single I was.

I cast myself as some kind of long-suffering heroine in a tragedy. The different one. The one who waits and waits but no one comes. Some people pass by, fascinated, but they never stay. They care for a time, I know they do, but my problems don’t have an expiration date and people get tired. I get that. It hurt to think that people just stick around for as long as they do because they feel sorry for me. It’s pity. That’s the worst. It’s like a zoo exhibit for The Sad Girl. Please do not feed. You visit for a while, feel bad for the poor creature all locked up, but it’s getting late and it’s awkward to just stand around.

Paranoia believes that every kind word or encouragement is a forced gesture. Any sweetness became overbearing. I became angry with people who spouted their buzzwords and vague assertions about hope and pain. It was impossible to connect with someone who didn’t seem to have their feet planted. I just ended up kind of swatting at them, trying to get a grip, trying to cling to their stability. Maybe I scared them away. I wasn’t sure what to expect of people. This was a Christian college. We’re a big happy family, right? Not total strangers. That’s what they told us when we lined up in chapel and were told to sing with our hearts and clap with our hands. All in one room, me with hundreds of other kids, but I still felt like a bruised fruit in a perfect bowl.

On my floor, there was a group of students who were into a more radical form of Christianity, and being more familiar with that, I adjusted my spirituality to fit in more. I believed there was power in what we did, no appeal to God ever goes to waste, but nothing I did seemed to alleviate the depression or loneliness. I realized that I felt more fulfilled during a simple conversation with a person who seemed genuinely interested in me than with an hour-long prayer session. Eventually, I became exhausted with the hysterical spirituality I found myself involved with, but I still hung on the fringes, reluctant to sever the only connections I had.

Being at a conservative religious school has made me disillusioned with Christian establishments. There were so many rules. We had to go to chapel five days a week; they scanned our ID cards and kept a record, so if we missed more than our allotted number of skips, we got fined. I didn’t even have people to complain to; everyone seemed to think it’s a reasonable thing to ask of students. Some girls said, “If you enjoy going to chapel and it makes your day a bit more Jesus-filled, what does it matter if it’s a requirement?” Except I didn’t enjoy it and it didn’t make my day more Jesus-filled. It was a bunch of announcements mostly, sometimes a special speaker, one who always seemed to talk about marriage.  One chapel in particular annoyed me so much that I live-blogged it to my brother. The speaker talked about how waiting for the right person was important and to enjoy being single, and then ended with a story about how when he accepted that about his life, he met his future wife two weeks later. How very convenient. At another smaller chapel I attended to try and avoid a fine, a young married couple took questions about how to live a Godly life as a single person. A young married couple. They were, I don’t know if I mentioned this, married. Everyone who talked about how to be single was married.

For a class, part of our homework was to keep a journal with a Bible verse each day. I couldn’t even be real about it, I had to turn it in as part of my grade, so it wasn’t even a real journal. It just made my skin crawl, turning worship and the Bible – the two main tenets of the Christian faith – into things that were scanned, measured, and graded. I felt like I was the only one who was really angry about all of this, like really, red-faced angry. It made me feel even more isolated and vulnerable to feeling like I was somehow “better” than other people because I was so aware of the injustices and hypocrisy bearing down on a rabble of young minds.

Was this narcissism? Believing in all of this? Even though being in pain sucked, it separated me from other people. It made me unique. I sat alone and wrote depressing poems, shaking my head at the nuzzling couples and giggling cliques. Oh, you foolish children. How could you understand the depth of life’s agony? And even if you do, you have a symphony of love around you to keep you from drowning. Unlike me. Poor, sad me. Trying to pull myself out of self-pity usually made it all worse. I was self-centered and angry for being self-centered. You. Stop. Stop being depressed and so full of yourself.

Adrenaline Rush

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In therapy, we’ve started to focus on anxiety. I’m much more concerned about that right now than I am about depression; depression is something I’ve learned to deal with and to a certain degree, can’t be “cured,” but anxiety is relatively new, and I believe that can be trained out of me.

I don’t remember my life without depression, but I remember it without anxiety, and I want that life back.

We talked about activities that I can practice, the ones that are on the lower end of my anxiety. Leaving the apartment to do laundry, going to the store alone, talking to clerks, and driving are all things I can practice pretty easily, and have made a lot of progress in. I went to my psychiatrist yesterday, and when I saw her last month, I wasn’t even able to go downstairs to the laundry room because of the anxiety. Since then, I’ve done laundry four times, gone to the store twice, and driven myself to every counseling appointment. The changes in medication has definitely played a part in that; when I sleep better and stay asleep for longer periods of time, the rest of the day automatically goes better and I’m able to concentrate my energy on achieving my goals.

There are certain activities that I can’t really “practice,” and those are on the highest end of my anxiety spectrum. Job interviews, saying something potentially embarrassing, and going back to school are all petrifying. When I think about school, it’s not school itself that I’m anxious about. I’m afraid of repeating what has happened before and what can only be described as a crash and burn. I’d start out the semester ok and then over time, get more and more anxious about things, miss more classes, and panic about everything. As I went through college, the periods of time where I could push past my fears got shorter and shorter until I collapsed on Chris’ floor just before midterms of my junior year and stopped going to school. I’m afraid that will happen again.

I’m afraid that when I walk through the school buildings, sit in class, and just navigate life as a Macalester student, the memory of my anxiety will be too vivid to ignore. Simply by being in a situation where in the past I’ve felt a lot of anxiety will be enough to send me spiraling. My brain will go into protection mode and a shot of adrenaline will disrupt the normality of finishing 20 credits.

What has basically happened to my brain is that my adrenaline is overly sensitive. While most people only experience that level of intensity when there’s an actual crisis (running from danger, gaining super strength when a car falls on a child, etc), I will begin feeling a sense of danger when I’m just doing everyday things, like asking for help in a store or meeting with an academic adviser. The physical symptoms of adrenaline kick in and I interpret that as meaning something is actually wrong, and my thinking follows. Why can’t I stop shaking? Why is my mouth so dry? If I talk, it sounds like I’m going to cry, and that will make me seem weak and weird. I can’t be around people right now, they’re making it worse. Now I can’t breathe. The fears going through my mind only make the adrenaline rush worse and that can cause anxiety attacks. The physical and mental panic build on each other until I can’t tell the difference between them.

Since my anxiety is so physically based (shaking, difficulty breathing, dizziness, feeling out of control of my body), the solution is also physical. What I basically have to do is calm my physical state before my mind can interpret the situation as one involving actual danger. In my head, I know that sitting in a class is not scary, but when my body is responding to the situation with shakiness and cold sweats, it’s hard to convince my mind that everything is peaches ‘n cream. When an adrenaline rush happens at an inappropriate time, I need to make some physical adjustments to ease the adrenaline back to a normal level. Deep breathing is key. When breathing gets out of control, everything just falls to pieces. Focusing on maintaining deep, even breaths calms down panicky feelings and concentrates the mind on something other than the non-existing peril. My therapist also suggested carrying water wherever I go, since getting a very dry mouth and not being able to swallow are very common symptoms for me. Drinking water helps so many things. The dizziness might even be caused by partial dehydration or low blood sugar, which I also tend to have, so having water and keeping a good blood sugar level are possible solutions. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.

I may not be able to go practice going to school by actually going to school, but thinking about it is all it takes for a lot of my anxiety to kick in. I can use that to practice breathing and other techniques to calm myself down. Simulating anxiety-causing situations and then learning to control the feelings that arise is definitely a new goal on my list.

Take A Look At What I’m Reading: “Evolving in Monkey Town”

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Rachel Held Evans is my spiritual soul mate. I first heard of her when “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” was released and she was on the morning talk shows trying to explain to confused journalists how and why she spent a full 12 months living every biblical instruction for women as literally as possible. Some called her a fundamental nut. Others said she was making a mockery of the Bible. It’s pretty rare for a person to be accused of being two polar opposites. It was clear that she was courting controversy and I love that.

My mom gave me Rachel’s first book “Evolving in Monkey Town after she read “Womanhood” upon my recommendation. “Monkey Town” is resonating with me on a frighteningly deep level. Rachel went to William Jenning Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes trial. As befits a college named after the man who tried to defend creationism in the Scopes courtroom and fought secularism his whole life, Bryan College taught Rachel a “biblical worldview.” Everything – from economics to literature – can be learned with a Biblical base and she was taught to question every non-Christian belief before she even personally encountered them. She is essentially describing my high school. She even mentions my textbooks and talks about performing skits mocking the New Age movement. It is EERIE. Most significant to me however, is that she describes a crisis of faith that I have begun to experience in the past few years. Why does a “Biblical worldview” bear such strange parallel to a “Republican worldview?” When having a conversation with an actual human person, does saying “So you are saying there is absolute right and wrong? Where do you think that comes from?” when they bring up the injustice of a rape/murder case ever not stop a conversation dead in its tracks? When looking at the world in terms of black and white absolutes, where does that leave mercy, grace, or compassion of any kind?

One section in this book especially struck me. After watching the execution of a Muslim woman, Rachel finds herself wrestling with the question of salvation. Zarmina was accused of murdering her abusive husband and despite the lack of evidence, was shot in the head by the Taliban. According to everything Rachel (and I) have been taught, this woman should be burning in hell right now. After a lifetime of punishment by a cruel world, she now faces the wrath of God.

“That’s not fair. How was she supposed to know any different? All her life she was taught that Islam is the one true religion, just like we were taught all our lives that Christianity is the only true religion? God didn’t really give her a chance.”

“Isn’t that why missionaries are so important,” Sarah (Rachel’s roommate) asked.

“Yes, but missionaries can’t get to everyone in time. There are millions of people, past and present, who have had no exposure to Christianity at all. Are we supposed to believe that five seconds after Jesus rose from the dead, everyone on earth was responsible for that information? How is a guy living in, I don’t know, Outer Mongolia in 15 AD supposed to figure out that Jesus died on the cross for his sins, was buried, and rose again on the first day. It’s impossible.”

It is impossible. I’ve asked this question and people always point to that line that Paul wrote that says that people are without excuse because of how beautiful the world is, or something like that. But that isn’t really talking about Jesus, specifically. It’s more about the existence of a God who created the universe. Well, other religions are kind of all about that. There isn’t a culture that is founded on atheism. So then are we saying that it isn’t the right God, so it doesn’t count? Native Americans who worshiped a Great Spirit while Paul preached in Greece are all just doomed because they weren’t born in the right place? Or the right time?

I think about another incident with Paul, where he saw a monument made “To A God Unknown.” He looks at his audience and says, “This is the same God I worship. You’ve been worshiping Him all along, you just didn’t know His name.”

Jesus never said we were supposed to have all the answers. That isn’t how Christians are supposed to be defined. Let them know us by our love. In my experience, the people who always have an answer, who feel the need to “fight the culture,” and “spread the truth,” are some of the least loving people around.