I think I’m writing this for two groups of people. The first group is only compromised of myself. I think I need to be reminded of how I’ve changed, how far I’ve come. The other group is those people I’ll never get a chance to sit down and share life stories with, either because we’ll never meet or the time will never be quite right.
I’ve struggled with what to title this. Neither “My Spiritual Journey” or “My Wonky Brain Journey” felt completely right, because for me my spirituality and mental health have a complicated relationship. One has never existed without being affected by the other and I’m not sure they ever will. Yet, “My Spiritual/Mental Health Journey” didn’t seem to cover it all either. So I settled on “Getting There.” Where is there? I’m not sure yet as funny as it sounds, but it feels like as I grow older I’m getting a tiny bit closer. And is my habit whenever driving or getting to the point during a confrontation, I am by no means taking the most efficient route.
I’m going to break this story up into several parts because, number one, it’s not over yet, and number two, unless I am in one of my rare hyper-focused moods, I tend to get restless in a task pretty quickly, both as a writer and as a reader. There’s a fairly decent chance the publishing of each of these parts will have a decent chunk of time in between them. I go through spurts of inspiration and it’s like pulling teeth if I try to make myself write when I’m not feeling it.
This particular entry ends during my junior year of high school.
I’ve been paranoid since birth. I was one high strung child with an overly active imagination to fuel my phobias. A car drove by twice while I was playing outside? KIDNAPPERS. Our house made the same sound it did in the middle of the night as it did every night? ROBBERS. One of my parents is 1 minute later than normal coming home? MURDERED.That sort of thing.
God bless the parents who had so much patience with me.
It wasn’t until about junior high that anxiety and depression (aka wonky brain) showed up in a real way, and my freshman year of high school they became loyal companions.
At that time in my life, I was attending Sunday school and two different youth groups (it was a small town; there wasn’t a lot to do). In American Christian culture, like with anything really, we seem to go through phases of “hot” topics. I remember the teachings at that time mainly being about having the perfect argument to defend your faith so you could win over converts by being a smug little asshole.
I’ve always wanted to be good. So I worked hard to be what I was taught was good. I spent time preparing and reciting the arguments I would need to decimate any debate opponent who dared to question my beliefs. Unfortunately/fortunately, I’m pretty shy and timid by nature so I was never put in a situation where I actually had to debate. But, believe me, I was certainly angry and self-righteous on the inside. It wasn’t a lot of fun to be on the defense so often. The list of things I was trained t to be offended in a holy rage over was practically endless. I don’t like to think about being that way. It makes me feel ashamed. But it helps me understand people in that world better and how to talk with them instead of at them. In that sense, it wasn’t a waste. I do wonder though about people I might have hurt, even if I meant well, during that time. I’m sincerely very sorry if that was you. Thanks for bothering to read this even though I didn’t treat you like a person.
I began getting socially anxious around that time. I was always quiet and shy, but it started to turn into a more controlling fear. It’s hard to explain social anxiety to someone who isn’t social anxious. To sum it up, though, I basically assume that people who meet me won’t like me and that if it’s a group of people they’ll all talk about how they don’t like me behind me back. I count myself out before I’ve given them a chance to count me in. And once I’ve decided I’m too something or not enough of something for whoever the person or whatever the group is, I get really shy and awkward and distance myself because I don’t want to bother them or get rejected. 0.003 seconds of eye contact takes all the confidence I can muster up. I try to make myself invisible, while feeling overly seen. Then I feel awkward for being so awkward which makes me act even more awkward. And then I play those moments over and over in my head for years in embarrassment. I look back later and think, dang, they probably would have liked me if I had opened up and likely they stopped talking to me because they thought I didn’t like them. I vow not do that again and then I do it again. I’m talking in present tense because it’s not something I’ve overcome yet.
My religious world was my comfort zone whereas the world of upperclassmen and new social situations and boys were the social anxiety zone. I knew the right answers to almost every question in Sunday school or youth group. I enjoyed the limited philosophical elements. The people were (and still are) very nice to me. It was familiar. I belonged. I was in control.
The depression was where things got really unhealthy. Keep in mind, I had absolutely no understanding of mental health at this time and did not until college. Terms like depression and anxiety were not in my vocabulary, but I can see them clearly now when I look back. I was tired all the time. Basketball, the game I had loved since 4th grade, wasn’t fun for me anymore. My friends were getting into things I was unnecessarily judgmental about or too socially nervous to try. So I spent more and more time alone, and had less and less motivation to do anything.
In youth group, we’d started to also talk more about “quiet time.” For those of you not exposed to this aspect of Christianity, it’s spending time alone with God and/or studying the Bible. And from a mixture of warped teachings (or my warped interpretations of good teachings), I thought this quiet time thing was the ultimate solution to any negative feeling. If I was feeling sad or distant or fearful, it was because I didn’t spend enough time with God or reading God’s Word. Therefore, I was reaping the consequences. Those feels of depression and anxiety I didn’t have words to describe yet were all my fault. Quiet time was the code I had to punch in to feel peace.
Only I very rarely felt peaceful. I mostly felt bad. Worried or guilty or ashamed or exhausted or sad. Which I attributed to doing something wrong spiritually. Which made me feel guilty and lonely. I could never win.
It got tremendously worse my sophomore year of high school.
The summer right before my sophomore yet, my youth group went on a float trip. It was six or seven of us girls and a handful of chaperones. While we were floating down the river, one of the canoes flipped and the pastor’s daughter, a girl I had grown up with, was trapped under by the current. She drowned.
I don’t want to hash out of the details out of respect for her family. I only bring it up because it was an event that really affected me. While people were trying to do CPR and figure out how to call 911 on cellphones that didn’t have service, I was on my knees on the rocks praying. Sort of praying. I had the song “How Great Thou Art” stuck in my head. We’d sung a rock version of it at my summer camp the week prior. Before that, I hadn’t heard that song since I was young, so I couldn’t even remember all the words. But it was in my head. (That song since then has meant a lot to me and been a way God has communicated with me. One example: when I arrived at the funeral for this girl and walked into the church, “How Great Thou Art” was playing. I think it was Jesus reminded me he was there too.)
For constantly being in a state of panicky worst-case-scenario mental preparation 99% of the time, I was strangely very calm during the accident. In the aftermath, after the EMT’s got there to tell us there was nothing they could do and in the weeks following, a couple of the other girls marveled at how composed I was.
I wasn’t composed inside though. I didn’t cry the whole time it was happening or on the way home. I didn’t cry when my dad picked me up from the church parking lot and held me so hard I thought he was going to break my bones. I didn’t cry as I unloaded my things into my room and hugged my mom who also almost broke my bones. I tried, but I didn’t cry. I’ve never been one to cry in front of other people. My body refuses. I think that’s why people assume I have it all together.
But the second I closed the door to the bathroom to take a shower, I broke down sobbing harder than I knew I was capable. My whole body was shaking. The day had been chaotic. No one knowing what to do. Girls screaming. The CPR not working.. Strong, adult leaders wailing from sadness and fear. I didn’t know what post traumatic stress was at the time. I understand now it did haunt for a while. The fear of chaos, especially. After it happened, I was in a never-ending state of mentally preparing for an emergency that could happen at any second. I couldn’t relax or enjoy a moment.
I tried to escape the memory and my feelings. I would create these complicated characters and stories, I could pick up at any time I wanted to be somewhere else. In class (sorry, teachers), shut away in my room after school napping until dinner, at dinner, and as I was falling asleep. I did this all the time. When I reflect on what my imagination created, I see parallels. I see, through the help of my counselor in college, that it was my brain’s way of processing. But at the time, I felt so ashamed I couldn’t be as strong as everyone apparently thought I was. I thought I was supposed to be praying or bible verse reciting it all away or something.
I was exhausted all the time. I didn’t play basketball that year for the first time, so I was pretty much only ever at school or in my room at home. My mom would ask if I was okay. You would have thought she killed my puppy with the vehement way I reacted. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone. I wanted someone to notice I wasn’t okay but at the same time that was the last thing I wanted. I think if you’ve struggled with your mental health before, especially as an introvert, you feel me on that.
I would try to brush the little rocks off my knees that weren’t there, because I still felt them from when I was kneeling to pray on the float trip. I would try to physically shake the screams of the girls out of my ears, because I still heard them. I wished I was dead. I would fantasize about getting in a car crash and dying on impact, because I felt so terrible all time.
And yet I thought it was all my fault. I sincerely belief if I would just spend more time with God, if I would have more faith, if I would simply surrender it to God, if I would pray to God instead of escaping into my stories, if I would actually read the Bible every morning…all the negative feelings would go away and I would live on a spiritual high. But, no, stupid me, I couldn’t manage to do those basic tasks. So I was getting what I deserved. God was disgusted with me. I felt that God was wondering why I couldn’t just get it together already.
I would cry and beg for forgiveness, so ashamed of how I was. I would obsessively outline some master plan that only needed my own self-discipline (which if I really loved God wouldn’t be hard to have) to carry out. I was always convinced this master plan would get me back on God’s good side and back to spiritual health. But I could never follow through with that plan. Which made me feel even more shame and made my brain even wonkier. It was this miserable cycle. Over the course of the year, I slowly transitioned from wish I was dead, to wishing I could kill myself, and then to almost killing myself. Wanting to kill myself mostly happened when my thoughts were racing because I was upset. It wasn’t something I calculated or planned.
Every little perceived short-coming felt like the end of the world. I’m not an angry person, but the rage I felt toward myself was out of control. I loathed myself deeply and blamed myself for every tiny thing. I couldn’t even look at myself. That’s what happens when you isolate yourself. You believe all sorts of ugly things, because there’s no one there to call you out.
One particular day, about a year after the float trip, I sat in my room pulling on my hair, crying because I was infuriated with myself. Some sort of short-coming had been pointed out to me. It felt like the last string, the end of the world. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a bottle of pills and couldn’t look away. I kept thinking if I killed myself, it would be over. I wouldn’t have to feel all these things anymore. I thought it was the only way.
I was about to reach for the pills when my mom knocked on my door and wanted help folding laundry. It wasn’t a common thing, for her to ask for help with laundry. I don’t think she asked because she suspected anything. I think it was a not coincidental coincidence. Once I got up and calmed down, I didn’t want to swallow all those pills anymore. But I did feel very scared that I had gone that far and scared I might go even further in the future.
Did I reach out for help? Nope. I wish I would have. It would have saved me a lot of trouble down the road. But I didn’t. And I was very, very good at hiding all of this before anyone questions my parents. Like I said, my parents would ask if I was okay and let me know they were there, but I would insist I was fine. I’m not very outwardly expressive. I never talked about my feelings back then with anyone. I hardly wrote them. They just got in bigger and bigger knots, trapped in head.
I knew the perfect smile and sparkle in my eye to put on if I thought someone was suspecting there was something wrong. I didn’t even have to really try. It came naturally. I spent a lot of time alone, which could have been a red flag. But I think a lot of teenagers do, and as a child I tended to spend time alone anyway. It wasn’t out of character. For a little bit after I started going to counseling in college and processing all this, I did blame my parents some. But the truth is they were doing the best they could. And I don’t blame them at all now. In fact, if my parents hadn’t loved me the fierce way they do, I would have killed myself for sure. Love gives you strength and my parents gave me strength in that way.
Over the course of this same year, I read two books by Donald Miller: Blue Like Jazz and Searching For God Knows What. He talked about God in a way I had never been exposed to. The author wrote about God like God was someone I could know, like God was someone who would actually like me. He wrote about interacting with God as a mysterious and mystical thing. His God seemed kind and forgiving. His Jesus had a big, soft heart for the weak and oppressed and harsh words for the “religious” guys who made other people’s lives harder and never showed mercy. His Jesus had open arms. His Jesus cared about the down-trodden, the outcasts, the poor and so did the author’s friends who followed Jesus. Their lives seemed meaningful.
This was a contrast to the cold hyper-critical God who loved me out of obligation, the God with whom I was constantly trying to use the quiet time + be perfect formula to experience (to no avail). The Jesus I was worshiping was only concerned about beating people down in anger about evolution and gay/lesbian relationships and no prayer in school and abortion and sex before marriage. He didn’t have room for anything else. He didn’t seem to have room for real people, for me. He arms were full. The God I had pledged allegiance to claimed unconditional love but it sure felt conditional if I had to be perfect to feel him.
I wanted the Jesus the author talked about. I started to read the gospels toward the end of the year as well. This was when my depression and suicidal thoughts were at their worst. But I guess it’s true, that saying about how it’s darkest before the sun comes up. As I started to actually read the life and words of Jesus myself, I began to question much of what was taught and what was praised in my Christian bubbles as well as my perception of God. I started to come to the realization I didn’t know the real Jesus.
This was terrifying to me. I was the kid in youth group that other people looked up to, who impressed leaders with her answers to “deep” spiritual questions. I proudly repeated the phrase, “Christianity is a relationship not a religion.” And I thought I knew exactly what it meant. I think the problem was the relationship I had was with an abusive character I had pieced together over the years but who didn’t really exist.
One warm summer night, looking up at the stars, my best friend and I had been discussing our criticisms of the Christian culture and our confusion about it all (I’d like to think I’ve mostly outgrown my judgmental attitude toward the church at this point…at least I’m getting there.). I remember saying, “I guess I’m going to have to figure it out for myself.” I didn’t mean it in a prideful way. In that moment, I didn’t know who to trust. I had had myself fooled all this time, thinking I knew God when I didn’t. How many other people had done the same? Who really knew Jesus? Who could I possible lean on? I couldn’t risk being misled. I knew I had to experience God myself. I just wanted the truth.
Jesus says that if you seek you will find. I very much believe this and say it all the time. The truth cannot stay hidden for long. It’s the only thing that lasts. I think that’s why I remember this night as clearly as I do. It’s the first time I was seeking because I wanted the truth, not just going along with what I was taught out of fear. I felt scared but alive.
About a month later, I was at some sort of Christian youth gathering in my hometown. There were breakout sessions in different rooms. Most were mediocre, but one of the breakout sessions I went to led by some college guy I had never met. I don’t really remember what he was saying about Jesus but I could never forget the way he was talking about him. Like Jesus was a friend. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Jesus said at one point that a flock of sheep will recognize their shepherd’s voice. It was in this moment, my soul started to wake up. It heard some curly-haired college dude talking about its shepherd. In my life, growth happens in short, small, mainly insignificant moments that all add up to be significant after a while. So nothing dramatic happened in the breakout; I only noticed my soul stirring from its sleep.
That night in my room, I was reading Searching for God Knows What. It was this chapter about what Jesus must have been like. If you look at my original copy of this book, I’m not even kidding, there are multiple entire pages high lighted. I was eating that book up. My soul was recognizing something. As I was reading it, I suddenly felt someone in my room and that recently awoken soul knew it was Jesus. I didn’t really know what to do.
I sat on my bed and I could sense Jesus standing in front of me. It’s okay if you’re skeptical. It really is. If I hadn’t experienced it I would have plenty of good explanations to write it off with. I understand. The purpose of this isn’t to convince anyone of anything. The purpose is to tell my story.
So he’s standing in front of me. I can’t see him and I can’t hear him say anything, but I know what he’s saying. In my soul, I hear it. He says, Do you want to follow me? I say, “Well, of course I want to follow you. But all I’m going to do is let you down. All I do is mess up over and over. Even when I’m saying sorry for something, I know I’m going to do it again. I’m just going to let you down.” And Jesus, with gentleness and a little sass, says, Child, these things take time. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to overcome every obstacle or conquer every sin in your life. It doesn’t work that way. It happens on my time, when I say so. And you will mess up, I promise. But I also promise I will never leave you. I love you.I just want you. Do you want to follow me?
What could I say but yes?
It’s after that moment that I finally knew what it meant to be full of the Holy Spirit. I was having dance parties with Jesus in my room. The Spirit was speaking gracious, powerful truth to me with a kindness and love I’d never imagined. If my heart were a garden and shame were weeds, then my garden had nothing but weeds. But this mysterious Jesus that spoke to my soul was slowly but surely helping me pull those weeds and plant beautiful new things. It was mysterious to say the least and I was full of wonder.
For example, one night, sitting in my closet (where I often met God) with my knees pulled up to my chest and my face buried, I admitted in a barely audible whisper, “I’m ashamed to be Alissa. I’m ashamed to be me.” And God said on repeat a thousand times over until the wound stopped bleeding, Raise your head because I love you. Raise your head because I love you. Raise. Your. Head. Because. I. Love. You. I’m not sure how, but like on many other occasions when I let God in it was exactly what I needed.
It was mystical and I remember marveling all the time about how I wasn’t alone anymore. Someone was finally in that dark space with me and helping me wash the windows to let a little light in. Someone saw me. Jesus saw me and he loved me. He liked me. He was funny and spoke my language. He wasn’t controlling or mean like the God I had tried to make happy. He was filling me with hope and mercy for myself and for others. I didn’t know what to do with the love.
Things were changing.
To be continued (probably).