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.
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?
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.