Tag Archives: God

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.

Screenshot 2017-06-14 at 1.36.12 PM
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.

Advertisements

rainy day prayer

I write my prayers; I have trouble articulating them otherwise. I don’t share them. This one, though, I wanted to share. It summarizes what I’ve been feeling spiritually for quite a few years now.

———

I’m at the point where I don’t know if I would recognize Your voice if I heard it. No, that’s not true. Your voice is this quiet, in this room, as cars go by in the rain like steady white noise, like waves. What does the voice say?

Peace, peace.

I can feel myself become calm. My heartbeat slows.

I guess I’m just not sure if that’s “good enough.” Most of my conversations about You now are like seeping wounds, barely just scabbing over. I feel like all I have to tell people is how the church let me down, how Christians let me down, how the different denominations (Lutheran, Episcopal, Evangelical, charismatic) let me down. I don’t really have a silver lining. Is that because something is wrong with me?

I guess the one good thing from all that I can tell someone everything You are not. You’re not loneliness in a crowd of girls at a Christian retreat, or an angry argument over Facebook, or the agonizing fear of demons in every corner. You’re not silence from friends after a church collapsed. You’re not shame. Rage. Hate.

But…what are You, then? Am I starting from scratch? I feel like my insides are scraped clean, ready to be filled with…what?

Easter season is about rebirth, right? I guess that’s what I ready for.

In Weakness

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.

2 Corinthians 12:9-11

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Our Most Recent Church Small Group Endeavor

untitledIt had started snowing by the time we got to the house. It had rained all day, and there were weather warnings for the night and next day. Since Chris and I are both Midwestern, and most importantly, the car was Midwestern, we weren’t super worried. At least, not about that.

We were trying a new small group for the first time. It was connected to Chris’ church, and there were going to be food and games. I was relieved, because it meant I didn’t have to share anything too personal and deep, which it something I have a tendency to do when someone asks me. The last small group we had gone to, I had essentially relayed my whole story with depression, which fascinated the small group leader, like he had never met someone with depression before. He was perfectly nice and appropriate and everything, but I felt really on the spot.

So, I could easily avoid the life history if I wanted to. I started to get really nervous when we went to the door. I could hear children’s voices. When we rang the doorbell, a gaggle of kids opened it. Neither Chris or I really knew what to say. “Hi, we’re here for the small group” didn’t seem quite right, given our audience. The kids screamed, “People are here!” and then proceeded to close the door.

“Just go in,” I told Chris.

“They’re holding the door shut,” he replied.

Oh no.

After an agonizing minute or so, an adult human woman opened it. She had a baby tied to her chest and was extremely pregnant. She had an odd look (at least, I thought it was odd), like she was expecting us to try and sell her something.

“Is this the church small group?” Chris asked.

“Yeah! Come on in!”

We all introduced ourselves and went to the kitchen, where more introductions occurred. I quickly deduced that they were all dads, and it was their brood who had tried to shut us outside. For her sake, I was glad they weren’t all the kids of the woman who opened the door, but that meant that Chris and I were currently the only adults in the room who were not parents. Well, us, and the young guy whose zipper fly was down. I spent the next ten minutes or so trying to make my body as small as possible so kids would stop crashing into me, and sending a telepathic message to Chris to signal to Zipper Fly to zip up. I was not successful in either.

A few more people came, and with them, children. I became more and more uncomfortable. When it was time to eat, everyone stood staring at the food for what felt like an eternity, not wanting to go first.

“This is very Midwestern,” I murmured to Chris.

When we finally ate, Chris and I went first, because we were “the guests.” It was subtle, but then I realized that we were the only ones considered guests. That felt weird. I asked if we were all going to eat at the table in the room next door.

“Sit wherever! Make yourself at home!” the man of the house said.

Okey dokey.

Chris and I went to sit at the table and waited for the others to join us. No one came. I could see them, standing in the kitchen and eating. If I was someone else, I would have gotten up and went back into the kitchen, but I was not confident in my ability to hold a plate and eat. The kitchen was small, and with all the adults and assorted children running around, it was pretty much assured that I would drop my food everywhere.

Eventually, someone did come out. We had a painfully awkward conversation about where we were from, stuff to do in Oregon, and believe it or not, pressure cookers. I became absurdly enthusiastic sharing my knowledge, as if I was a salesperson for the Instant Pot. Another person came out and stood by the table. More painful conversation. All the while, two kids played with their fishing game at the table with us, lightly arguing about who had caught what fish. Eventually, both adults left because their kids needed food/help with the bathroom. I did not expect them to return.

At this point, I had checked out. We had not even reached the “game” portion of the evening, and I was dreading it. But I wasn’t going to say anything. Chris already knew how picky I was about people, so I wasn’t going to be the jerk and make him leave. To my surprise, he said he was going to make an excuse about work, so we could leave. We took our plates to the kitchen and Chris made his announcement. It triggered a few questions about what his career, and I realized that in our two conversations, they had always asked Chris what he did, but never me, even when the opportunity was right in front of them. We had only started talking about pressure cookers because Chris had brought up my freelance writing on my own and my newest project. I chose to not see it as sexism in action, but rather an indication of just how bad people are at talking to each other. The man of the house said we should come back another time.

“Definitely!” Chris said.

We got in the car and I declared that I needed hot chocolate. As I sang along to the radio, I noticed Chris had not spoken. He didn’t speak the entire drive, and even forgot where we were going, so we went to a different Dutch Bros than usual. When we got home and changed into our comfy clothes, I asked him if everything was okay.

“I’m just disappointed,” he said.

He didn’t talk much the rest of the night. I realized that the reason I didn’t feel anything about the bust of an evening was that I didn’t really expect anything. I knew what it was like to feel incredibly uncomfortable (and unwelcome) somewhere. I’ve been to my share of youth groups and churches, and had anxiety long enough to know what it feels like when an entire house seems to want to expel you from its walls. Chris isn’t that way. He’s endlessly gracious about people and optimistic about every situation he goes into. I sometimes think I would like for Chris to have a rough time somewhere so he can relate to me more, but seeing him so disappointed and quiet…it kind of broke my heart. I wanted him to be chatty and goofy with the dog. I wanted him to be himself again.

I think we should start our own small group. No kids. Read interesting books. Go do volunteer work. Be intentional about building a spiritual community that questions and builds up. I would sign up.

5 Things Church-Goers Should Know About Former Church-Goers

1. We don’t want to be invited to church

The reason we aren’t going to church is not because someone just hasn’t asked us yet. We’ve already been there, we know what it’s like. I have this thing where I go to small groups (I’ve been to, like, two) and see if the people are actually invested in people, or just getting people to the church. The first group was structured around the sermons, so right off the bat, it’s clearly intended for people who already go. For one of their outreach things, they went to a grocery store and handed out gift cards, but also included a church business card. It was a PR move, not a service project. It wasn’t about building relationships or meeting a real need (I’m sure people appreciated it, who knows what their stories are, but if the church really wanted to make the most impact, they would not have chosen a grocery store in one of the wealthier areas of town), it was about drumming up attendance. So, long story short, don’t invite us to church. Invite us into your lives. There’s a difference.

2. We didn’t necessarily stop becoming believers when we stopped going to church

When someone stops going to church, there’s an assumption that they’ve lost their faith. However, that is not necessarily the case. A person’s faith can actually become stronger when they leave church, because they’ve realized their convictions are not hinged upon going to a building every week, and that staying in a place where they don’t belong is harming their faith. I’ve never stopped loving Jesus.

3. Church PTSD is a real thing

Yes, someone’s experiences at church can be so bad, they start to manifest PTSD symptoms. People have been physically assaulted at church by church leaders, they have listened to damning sermons, they have been betrayed and abandoned by trusted mentors, and so on. That is trauma, and trauma has consequences. Going to church feels dangerous. It’s not like I can should just shop around or that I haven’t found the “right one,” it’s that the whole concept of church, the rituals, the decor, the music, the language, reminds of me all the bad things that have happened. Anxiety kicks in. Panic. My body is literally telling me to run.

4. We still want a community

It’s really hard to find a shared-faith community that is not a church. Right now, I’d say it is impossible. While the concept of “church” literally makes me want to throw up, I still want to find the people who love Jesus, but are having a real hard time justifying it. I still want that spiritual “mentor” of sorts, who I feel knows more than me, but still asks the big questions and doesn’t act like they have all their shit together.

5. We want to talk about why we left church

I guess I should really just say “I” want to talk about it. I’m sure there are lots of people who don’t want to talk about it. I just know that it’s kind of a weird moment when people have asked what church I go to, and I say that I don’t go, but Chris does, and they don’t ask why. Sometimes I offer a slew of reasons unprovoked, but they don’t dig deeper. They probably don’t want to be nosy, but at the same time, if you’re a church-goer, you should really be interested in why people are leaving the church in droves. The worst that could happen is the former church-goer saying, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

 

Image source: http://www.sbts.edu/blogs/2016/05/06/should-i-leave-my-church-8-critical-questions/

being shamed

Today was hard, in a way that’s kind of hard to explain. Someone decided they needed to unfriend me, but that wasn’t enough. He needed to message me and shame me, blame me, for the unfriending. I’m not close to this person. At all. In fact, he’s contacted me before about my beliefs, saying that because I call out certain politicians/pastors/public figures, I’m not a good Christian. Apparently, I stand for nothing, because I don’t stand on things the way he would like.

Even though my life is unchanged by this person unfriending me, it rattled me. It especially disturbs me when people in ministry do things like this, and it serves to harden me even further against “church people” and the church in general. This leads me ask several questions:

If he had known that “churchy” phrases and certain language serve as triggers when they’re used as weapons, that they can make me feel sick to my stomach all day and derail my thoughts, would he have chosen to write differently?

If he had known that these kind of encounters are actually very disturbing to me and I’ve written extensively about how these sort of out-of-the-blue accusations about the state of my faith, would he have started out his message with, “I know this won’t phase you at all”?

If he had spent any time at all getting to know me as a complete person, and that I don’t actually spend all my time “mocking” Christianity (which I actually never do, just institutions and people I believe misrepresent it), would he have decided I haven’t actually “strayed from the straight and narrow,” but that it’s all just part of being young, having questions, and working through challenges?

I don’t know the answer. All I know is that he was completely inappropriate, hurtful, and intent on shaming me. If he hadn’t intended that, he would have just unfriended me and said nothing. Unless you know me, know my struggles, and have made any attempt at all to connect with me, you don’t get to tell me what I’m doing wrong and make statements implying that I’m spreading darkness. That need to shame, to accuse, is not from God. It’s not coming from a place of love, because God’s love does not seek to bring on guilt.

This person said that he “felt sorry for me.” I feel sorry for anyone else who has to experience this kind of treatment from someone who claims to be in position of spiritual authority, because apparently if I don’t agree or comply, I’m not worth bothering with in his eyes. Apparently, I can’t even be tolerated.

I won’t miss that kind of treatment. I want a life full of love and understanding, even in the midst of disagreements. I will keep fighting for that, and I know I’m not alone. God does not shame me, so I feel no shame. I’m free from that.

 

faith is just letting go of the horses

Screenshot 2016-02-03 at 6.35.08 PM.pngSo much of my life has been about control. When I was young, strong emotions scared me. They were like wild horses that had been leashed to a cart that I was riding in. If I wasn’t able to rein the horses in, they would take off, hurdling me towards some other unknown doom.

Trusting God and control do not well together. Jesus wants to take the reins, but I’m white-knuckling it, telling him, “No way, man. You’re going to take me someplace weird, someplace I don’t know, without signs. And these horses. You don’t know them like I do.”

Depression is a wild one. You would think he would be an old mule, slow, but Depression doesn’t work that way. This guy wants to take us all off a cliff. He is bent on destruction and he’s very hard of hearing, so no matter how often I tell him that it’s okay or how loudly, he never quite believes me.

Anger comes next. I’m not even sure she’s a horse. She might be part dragon; that would explain the smoke. She snaps at the other horses and wants to trample everyone in our path, even the people I love. She wasn’t always this hard to control, but as I get older, she’s getting worse.

The third horse is Anxiety. He’s very skittish and gets sick to his stomach a lot. He will slow down whenever we’re heading into a new place, and he’s terrified of strangers.

And then there’s Fear, Anxiety’s mother. Fear is the oldest, and her eyesight isn’t very good anymore, so she’s very paranoid. She looks a lot like Anxiety, but don’t be mistaken, she’s much different. She’s a leader. She’s not as unsure as Anxiety. Fear can pull this thing in any direction she wants.

—————–

There’s been one thing in my life I have had the most troubling thinking about letting go: Yoshi, my dog. It’s been a very real possibility three times in my life. The first was when we were trying to crate-train him, and he barked all night. The second was when we moved to an apartment and he hated it so much that he developed severe separation anxiety, and would bark all day, bothering the neighbors. The third was very recently, when Chris was waiting to hear about a job that would take us out of state, and not necessarily into a position where we could take Yoshi back from Chris’ parents.

Thinking about giving Yoshi to a shelter literally made me feel ill. I couldn’t sleep at night. Whenever someone brought it up, I dug my heels in. I didn’t even want to consider it. It was too much to bear.

Then the new job became a real possibility, and I had to face it, because I knew if it came through, but we wouldn’t be able to keep Yoshi, I would have to let him go. Chris really wanted the job, and I couldn’t tell him, “Wait for something else, one that lets us keep Yoshi.” Chris loves Yoshi, too, but in the end, we both knew it was ultimately my decision.

I would lie awake at night, my emotions running through my veins like fire ants, like wild horses. This was when I prayed, though it really just seemed like a form of a panic attack. I would focus on the one thing, on my desire to keep Yoshi, and lay it before God.

Lay your burdens before God. 

I’ve heard that phrase my whole life, but I’ve never really known what it meant, exactly. I do know, or at least, I know what it means for me. It meant letting myself feel the stress, the fear, the anxiety, the anger, with the intention to expose it all to God. He sees everything, but there are times when we hide ourselves, like Adam and Eve did in the garden. We don’t want him to see. This time, though, I wanted Him to see it all, in its shredded, blistering wreck. I went over and over my one prayer again and again, from all angles. My wish broke down piece by piece, from, “I want to keep Yoshi” to “I want to not feel sick when I think about letting go of Yoshi,” and finally to, “I want to be able to go of Yoshi.”

And there were still more layers, because I knew that I had faced this twice before, and both times, I had gotten to keep Yoshi. I didn’t want this to be a test, where I faked letting go with the expectation that God would “come through” at the last second. So I prayed for that, too, because pretending to let go and letting go are completely different things.

I don’t know how long it took, or when it even happened. That’s the most important part of the story, though, because it proves that it wasn’t anything that I did. I made a choice, yes, to even try to let go, but I can’t explain the actual thing. Three things happened:

  1. Chris got the job.
  2. It was better than we could have imagined.
  3. We are able to keep Yoshi.

——————-

The horses are calm. I look at Jesus, shocked, and see how he handles the reins. His hands are rough from years of taming these creatures, strong, and supremely more experienced than mine. Where I frighten them, He soothes them. Where I am lax, He is firm, and where I am brutal, He is gentle. We are far from the cliff, from the places where their hooves catch on stones, and where there is no grass or fresh water. Something else is different, too. He has brought His own horse, a breed I don’t recognize, and a color I’ve only seen in that moment between sleep and awake. It is leashed to the front of the cart, leading the others so confidently, it’s like they’ve become one body. When I ask what His horse’s name is, it all makes sense.

“Love.”

 

 

#neverforget

Today, I was met with a story about how yesterday, a Sikh man in Chicago was brutally beaten and called “Bin Laden.” It sickens me that this type of violence has always been hand-in-hand with September 11th, that after the attacks fourteen years ago, attacks on anyone who “looked Middle Eastern” skyrocketed, and American citizens of Middle-Eastern descent were essentially kidnapped by their own government and viewed with suspicion. I also read a blog post on Patheos that sums up exactly how I feel:

But on this day, as a Christian, there are some other things I want us to never forget about 9/11 and the retaliatory War on Terror that happened in response.

On 9/11, 2,977 innocent Americans were killed by terrorists.

In the 14-year war on terror, 5,280 American soldiers were killed because of our country’s response to the 9/11 attacks.

Conservatively, reports estimate the War on Terror claimed 1.3 million lives in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Our war killed 5 percent of the Iraqi population, people who had zero ties to what actually happened on 9/11.

Our war killed at least 465 people for every person who died on 9/11. Some estimate we killed 670 or more per person.

Our war displaced 3 million Iraqi people.

Our war created 2.5 million Afghan refugees.

Read David Henson’s full post on http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/things-to-neverforget-on-911/

—-

Will we continue to blindly flaunt our patriotism and say “Never forget,” but so easily forget what we’ve done? Are 2,977 lives worth more just because they were American? Haven’t we had our fill of revenge?

With Unexpected Speed

I did not expect to be dealing with all this so soon.

I had recently passed my two-year anniversary and was looking out the car window at the blur of fields and barns. Occasionally we would pass clumps of trees, but they would fly by so fast, it was like they had never been there at all. When I tried to focus on a small detail like a single branch or house in the distance, it would immediately bleed into the oddly-linear hues of gray, green, yellow, brown, and blue. My mind was wandering. It had only been two years since I signed a piece of paper, said goodbye to my dog as he left for his new home with my in-laws, and woke up a married woman. In a lot of ways, it seemed like yesterday. However, it also seemed like forever ago. In those two years, me and my husband have dealt with mental breakdowns, horrendous medication withdrawals, a crisis of faith (ongoing), employment turmoil, sexual identity questions, loneliness, relationship doubts, and looming financial challenges. I was not naive when I got married. I knew all this and more was part of the deal; I just didn’t expect it all to happen so soon and so quickly.

Isn’t marriage supposed to have a honeymoon period? You know, that brief time when everything is rose-colored and you’re just happy to wake up next to your person every morning? I’m not saying I’m unhappy to be waking up with my person, but there was never a time when that happiness wasn’t mixed with anxiety and questions chewing on my brain like termites.

Is my unemployment a burden to this clear-eyed, optimistic, occasionally goofball-ish man I’ve yoked myself to?

Will the pharmacy screw up my medication again and disrupt my entire week with crippling muscle pain, headaches, and frantic doubts about everything? Are those bone-shaking doubts just symptoms of an unstable mind, or legitimate concerns I should be listening to?

Should I have gotten married when I did? Am I too young and immature? 

Will I ever be in a place to have kids? Do I even want kids? What happens to us if I don’t want kids? 

Even before we got married, we were faced with having to give up our dog Yoshi and the distinct possibility he would never be adopted. Thankfully, Chris’ parents took him back to Indiana with them, but that raises its own issues, like feeling the self-inflicted internal pressure to make enough money to get a place where we can take him back.

Do other married people have these problems? I’m sure they do. And I’m positive that couples have faced worse unemployment, worse debt, worse mental illness, and so on. I want to always be aware of the privilege I have, but I’m selfish and self-pitying. I see other couples with Instagram-perfect lives and go between feeling glad I’m not a fraud, and then furious that we’re not them. I see other couples having or planning babies, and I’m flabbergasted that they aren’t freaking the f*** out every minute of every day. I envy identity/orientation confidence. I envy white-picket fences and Tuesday date nights and dishwashers. But mostly, I fear.

I fear I will never be happy at the same church as my husband.
I fear 9-5 jobs and “work shoes” and imperfect bosses.
I fear eternal debt.
I fear little pink capsules and inefficient pharmacies.
I fear loneliness because I don’t dare get close to other women.

I fear God and His timing, which is so unlike our own, that to Him nothing is “unexpected, “too soon,” or “too late.” 

God of the Tar Pits (Part 2)

While seeing depression as a result of spiritual frailty or sin has become outdated, there’s still some odd Christian teachings about it. Depression is viewed as a season and something that – with time and prayer – can be overcome. All my life people have told me to be patient, that they were praying for me, and that I would one day know the freedom and joy that only Jesus can bring. The longer the depression stayed, the less people talked about it. They got tired of telling me they were praying, and I got tired of hearing about it. Believing that depression is a sign of spiritual weakness is not popular, but if you suffer from prolonged depression, people start to wonder.

Depression “success” stories are remarkably popular. Christians devour personal tales of fellow believers suffering from crippling anxiety and depression who have been transformed by God and grace, whose marriages have been saved, who have found peace, who have overcome brain chemistry and been “freed” from medication. They were lifted from the tar pits by Jesus and as one of those Christians who have depression, I was encouraged to pray for similar redemption. At a conference, a friend told a story about a young man who went to be prayed for and was healed from depression in that moment.

“How did he know?” I asked, confused.

“He just…knew,” she replied.

“That sounds like bull crap.”

“Do you not believe that God can do miracles?” she probed.

I didn’t know how to explain to her that that wasn’t the issue. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe God could heal me from depression, it was just that I knew if it happened, it wouldn’t be with just the snap of a finger. I had never seen God work that way. He didn’t seem to really be into that whole instant gratification thing. When I had that conversation, I was at the point in my life where I didn’t even want to be healed from depression. I was beginning to learn that it was just something I would have to live with, like a scar. Sometimes it would act up and interfere with my life, while other times I could almost forget it was there. I didn’t want to overcome; I wanted to persevere.

When I recognized that depression was going to a permanent fixture, I stopped struggling. The discovery came in stages, but was punctuated by the end of my second year of college, where things were going so well that I stopped taking my medication. From the outside, my life looked perfect. I had gotten into my dream school, was doing well, and making friends. I was also part of a faith community that emphasized spiritual warfare, and I believed that I had successfully conquered all my demons. Then a childhood memory rushed brutally to the surface and my brain broke. I locked myself in my room for three days straight and didn’t move. People had to bring me food so I wouldn’t starve. It was finals’ week and all my hard work seemed wasted. It seemed like I had won against depression, but it came back with a vengeance, like it had never left, or like it had been gathering strength. When summer came, I went back to my psychiatrist and was put on the highest dose of a new medication. For the first time, I accepted it gladly.

Antidepressants are notoriously tricky. The most prescribed class of medication for people like me with major depressive disorder and anxiety are SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). These were created based on the belief that depression and a host of other mental illnesses like anxiety is caused by a lack of serotonin – a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness- in the brain. The reason they are controversial is because of the nearly limitless side effects that have been reported, like loss of sexual interest, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, and insomnia. They are also labeled with a “black box,” which means a side effect of taking the medication might increase suicidal thoughts and tendencies. When I first started taking medication in high school, I was required to see a psychiatrist once every two weeks and tell her if I was experiencing this side effect. I can’t say if these sorts of thoughts increased because of medication, but many of them did little to reduce my depression while also gracing me with flu-like symptoms, severe exhaustion, and muscle pains. On particular medication I took over a summer made me sick every morning for two weeks.

Constantly adjusting medications that didn’t seem to help much, but succeeded in making me ill was frustrating, but when I had that breakdown sophomore year, I knew I needed medication. No amount of prayer alone could fix brain chemistry. I was arguably in the best place I had ever been spiritually, I knew I wasn’t possessed, but still my head reeled and I couldn’t will my body to move. That experience taught me that I can’t pretend my depression is gone just because I feel okay. I have to anticipate it, plan for it, accommodate it. That’s what medication is for. Finding one with minimal side effects was worth it and when things are going well, I may be tempted to stop taking it, but when the other shoe falls, medication is there to balance out any craziness the body throws at me.

Once I realized that depression was going to be a part of my life in varying degrees, my expectations changed. Instead of trying to match everyone’s achievements, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t like “everyone else.” Certain things will never be easy, like making a phone call, getting to class every day, or hanging out in a large group. There are things I will never do, like travel alone, go completely off medication, or hold down a high-pressure job. It’s a good week if I get out of bed every day. And that’s okay. That is just who I am.

There are also things I know that other people don’t because of the depression. I understand hopelessness. When people ask why anyone would commit suicide, I have the answer. I don’t have a neat, happy success story, but I have a story that says, “Depression never goes away, but it doesn’t have to control or define you.” I can see where traditional mental health services failed people, especially religious ones, because it has failed me. What I learned most from depression is that it’s the place where I met God. He wasn’t in a counselor’s office, where I was given lists of mood-boosting activities, or in a required chapel where I felt completely alone while surrounded by other Christians. He wasn’t in books or sermons.  He was- and still is – in the tar pit.

It would be understandable if I had abandoned my faith at some point during my struggles, but something kept drawing me back. Some of it was fear, yes, fear of venturing off into the unknown, but most of it was because I could see the marked difference between how my fellow Christians saw mental illness, and how God seemed to see it. The Bible is so full of references to persistent, bone-crushing sorrow that it can be overwhelming and triggering to read. People are constantly weeping, renting their clothes, pouring ashes on their heads, and lying on the ground, unmoving, for days. Jesus himself prayed with such agony before His death, that his sweat had blood in it. He is described as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” The one verse that has stuck with me most is from Psalm 34: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” I used to be frustrated with this. I understood the first part, but what about the second? Where was the “saving me” bit? When I accepted my depression as something that was just with me, my definition of “salvation” changed. It didn’t involve being pulled up from the tar in a bright beam of light and suddenly “knowing” I was “cured.” It didn’t involve some big success where I suddenly become someone I’m not. It’s the little things, like being loved. It’s having insurance for medication. It’s graduating from college, no matter how long it took. It’s finding people who understand. God had been saving me every day, bit by bit, keeping my head above the tar.

I should make it clear that not all of life is being in the tar pit. Good medication and healthy choices help keep me grounded and productive. It’s just that no matter how good things are going, that tar pit is never too far away. There’s no real rhyme or reason to why I fall in. Sometimes it makes sense, like the death of a family member. Other times it’s random, like the wind changed directions. I used to be terrified of that movement when I felt the tar rising up my legs, pulling me down. I would struggle and berate myself.

“How could you be so stupid?”

“Why did you let your hopes get up?”

“You know you can’t push yourself too far; why did you try?”

The voices are quiet now. The tar pit doesn’t frighten me as much. I just keep breathing and let it happen. Eventually, the tar thins out and I’m free from it for a while, with renewed focus and gratitude. Life goes on, and I have two choices: look back with regret, or keep moving forward with hope. I choose hope.