tips for when someone you love has wonky brain

Having someone you love battle with depression and/or anxiety (aka wonky brain around this blog) can be heart wrenching and heavy, especially if it’s a particularly bad or long season of it. I imagine it can feel extra overwhelming if you’ve never dealt with wonky brain or if you’ve never dealt with it to the extent the person you love is.

But let’s start by getting this out of the way: It’s probably not your fault their brain is wonky and it’s not your fault if it’s not getting better. I say probably because if we’re being technical, if you’re being abusive or a generally yucky person to them…then it might be your fault. You might want to reconsider your understanding of love and might think about finding ways to get your insides better so you can treat people you love better.

So, it’s not your fault. But there are things you can do to make that person you love feel loved and potentially assist them in functioning until they can go back to doing that by themselves. And I’m going to share a few of them with you. I would like to add though that while I do have a bachelor of social work, I am not a mental health professional. The tips I’m going to share with you are based on my own times of wonkiness and what helped me, what I needed. Everyone is different. You know the person you love, you likely have way more insight into them than I do (trust yourself). But maybe sharing what has been/is good from people in my life when I’ve been/am wonky, will give you a tiny bit of foundation to work with.

Help me with the basics.

Wonky brain can be paralyzing. The simplest tasks like making dinner, washing the dishes, getting ready for the day or for bed can seem too intimidating to bear. It doesn’t make sense, but when my brain gets wonky, it’s comparable to using a grandparent’s computer. It’s agonizingly slow and keeps freezing, even when you’re only trying to click the start menu. In times like these, as patronizing as it might seem for you to do, I really need you to drag me to grocery store to buy food I will realistically eat/make in this wonky spell. Help me pick out some healthy food and also some freezer meals that I can zap in the microwave (something is better than nothing) when my brain is freezing. Drag me to fill up my car with gas. Help me do my laundry, take out my trash, do my dishes. When I’m depressed,  all these things begin to pile up, which makes doing them seem even more daunting and makes me feel so rotten. Do them with me. Help me get that inspiring fresh start. It can be empowering. This applies to lots of “basic” things that don’t feel so basic to a wonky brain. I remember feeling really sluggish and bad, and my mom made adult me eat a bowl of cereal and go to bed. It’s what I needed. The fact you would care enough to help me with these not so glamorous things means so much to me and makes me feel cared for. Don’t underestimate the simplest acts of love.

Ask what me what I need.

You are an expert on your loved one, but they are even more of an expert. If mental health has never been a struggle of yours, you might assume that person needs you to give an inspiring speech or give them a kick in the rear, when all they really need is a hug or kind text message or to go on a walk. I remember going through a pretty bad existential crisis (I seem to always be in one, in one way or another) that had made my anxiety, and therefore my depression, sky rocket. One my best friends, after I had tried to articulate my thoughts, asked me, “What can I do?” She couldn’t really relate to what I was going through, with my wonky brain or with my crisis. But she loved me and genuinely wanted to know what she could do. So she asked! It made me dig deep and think about what I needed and it gave her insight into a tangible way she could help. It was good for both of us. I still remember that moment clearly. I felt very loved. And love cannot be underestimated.

Don’t come with an agenda.

We can tell. No matter how well meaning you are, it can hurt deeply if it feels like you have come with an agenda. If your loved one (and you) is a person of faith, they might be carrying some serious doubts about God’s existence, goodness, or love for them. If you’re coming with the agenda of convincing them God is real, God is good, having faith in God, you’re probably just making things worse. They probably already feel bad or conflicted about having those thoughts, and it ends up coming across like you care more about their belief in that moment than you do about them. Without meaning to, it can add this expectation that unless they agree with you, you’ll give up on them. It’s natural to wrestle with these things when your brain is wonky. If you’re a person of faith, than I assume you believe God is good and God is truth. If God is truth, God can be scrutinized and survive. If God is just, God will reward the person who seeks truth. If God is steadfast love, your loved one is safe in their doubt, in their resentment. Let them lay all the anger and criticism before God. Maybe your loved one will really benefit from the scripture or sermons you share. Like I said, you know your loved one more than I do.

I remember the greatest human assets in my worst season of wonky brain were those who listened to my ramblings and didn’t look at me differently. They didn’t come with an agenda to make sure I stayed the “ideal” person of faith in my trials, convincing me of a light my eyes were too broken to see. They simply sat with me in the dark and let me share the warmth of their light. My parents did a lot of listening over the phone back then. I recall fiddling with my sleeve and saying out loud for the first time to one of my friends (now husband) that I wasn’t sure God was real and that if God was real, I wasn’t sure how good that God could be. He didn’t look at me different. He just looked at me with kindness, with love. It shook me, thawed me, in a good way. Don’t underestimate love.

Brainstorm actions with me.

Having a wonky brain can make a person feel helpless. I can be pretty mean to myself when I’m wonky. I feel like I can’t do anything right, sometimes anything at all. As I said earlier, the simplest of things can seem daunting. Help me brainstorm ways to make these things or the things I’m afraid of/depressed about, seem a little bit easier to tackle. For example, if I’m lonely, help me brainstorm places I can meet people. If I’m afraid to talk to people in class or at work, help me set a goal to look one person in the eye. If I need to see a counselor, help me set a goal to call or email 3 centers to try to make an appointment. And when I say a goal, I mean assist your loved one in making a comically low goal to meet within a set amount of time. I say comically low because to you, making a call to a counselor might be easy as pie, but to your loved one, it might be the most courageous thing they have done in quite some time. And taking a microscopic step and then celebrating it is often the fuel needed to take a little bit bigger of a step. It can also make a day or week seem like it has more purpose. They are the captain of their ship. They get to navigate, but you can help give them some ideas of where to go and how to get there. Your presence at the wheel is valuable. Don’t underestimate love.

Tell me things you like about my brain.

When I’m wonky, I get mad at my brain. I hate my brain. I wish my brain were different, I feel like it’s broken. One time my husband told me, “I like your brain. It makes me laugh.” He wasn’t trying to be profound. He was just being matter of fact. But that stuck with me. It was like glue that seeped down into some of the cracks and held part of me together.  Tell your loved one what you love about the very brain that’s giving them so much trouble. Maybe you like the music or words their brains writes. Maybe you like the art or food it creates. Maybe you like the stories or jokes it tells. Or the deep conversations it lets you have with that person. I don’t think it’s possible for you to tell them too many things you love about their brain. You don’t have to persuade them to love their brain right thing, but do remind them that their wonky brain is also a loved brain, even if it’s not by them. Don’t underestimate love.

{Side note: I didn’t intend for this whole “don’t underestimate love” thing to be a theme, but I guess it naturally is, isn’t it? So what are you waiting for? Go love that wonky-brained soul you care so deeply about!}

 

Inspirational Women – International Women’s Day

I know many incredible and inspiring women. For starters, I was raised by one. And my parents’ mothers are another two. The family I was born into and the family I married into is home to them. I’ve gone to school or church with them, worked for and with them, and had them as clients. It would take me days to write about every inspiring woman I know! So for International Women’s Day, I’d like to tell you about three, though I have chosen to withhold names.

***

X is a single mother. Every morning, she walks her rambunctious daughter to daycare, about half a mile. From there she walks further to the bus stop where she waits for her less than glamorous ride to work. She works a fast-paced job that’s hard on her body, especially her back. After hours of that, she then she gets on the bus, walks to the daycare, and walks home, with her daughter chatting her ears off. Every day she does this, rain or snow, 100 degrees or 5 degrees. She entertains her daughter, listens to Frozen song renditions unless she can hardly take it, cooks their dinner, goes crazy trying to put that spunky kid of hers to bed, and wakes up to do it all again the next day. She loves, protects, and works for her daughter with a ferocity I hope to achieve when I have kids of my own. Without getting too much into her personal life, I can at least tell you she has seen the unthinkable, she has survived tragedy, and she still somehow seems to be thrown curve ball after curve ball. She is weathered, so, so weathered; but at her core she is as strong as steel and she perseveres.

She is role model for women everywhere. I am proud to know her by name.

Y is a fearless leader. Whether she comes by it naturally or not, life has forged her to be. Her husband developed memory problems that make it hard for him to work. So she works seven days a week, holding two jobs just to provide the basics for her big family. No exaggeration, this woman probably spends at least 12 hours every week getting to and from her jobs on the bus. Just like X, she works jobs that are hard on the body. They aren’t fun. But her little ones need food on the table and clothes on their back. She does it for their present and for their future. Because of her husband’s memory issues, it’s actually almost like she has an extra child. Y is crazy outgoing. She is one of those people who isn’t afraid to try something new. She is hungry to learn and show off what’s she learned, not taking the time to worry if she might not get it perfectly right. I want to be like that. She tries to better herself to create a better life for her family. And don’t even dare consider going to her house and not eating her homemade food. She won’t have it–or you trying to leave without taking all the leftovers with you.

She is a role model to women everywhere. I am honored to learn from her.

Z is theatrical and hilarious. It’s hard to imagine having a conversation with her, even on the most serious topics, without being made to laugh at some point. She is sweet and sincere, and she’s raised her four children, who she insists on calling her “babies” despite the fact the two oldest ones are in high school, to be just as sweet and sincere. Each one of them has their mother’s kind sparkle in their eyes.  She pours her affection onto her them. Z may struggle to tell her babies no when they beg for pizza for dinner again, but she diligently teaches them right from wrong, to be respectful, and to make sure they stay away from peers whose parents haven’t taught them these things. Her husband, her babies’ father, was murdered. She was helpless to stop it, and she doesn’t have any other family nearby. So she raises and feeds her babies alone, carrying a heartbreak, a heartache, I can’t bare to think about for very long. That broken heart of hers is gold though. She could be freezing to death and she would give you the coat off her back. She wouldn’t even think twice. I need that kind of heart.

She is a role model to women everywhere. I am humbled to be touched by her kindness.

***

Besides sharing the commonality of being three of the most inspiring women I know, all of them also all happen to be Muslim and all happen to be refugees. Despite how this might make them very different from you, I think you will find the same spirit in these women as you do in the very women you find inspiring in your own life.

Happy International Women’s Day! May we always celebrate the women who teach us right from wrong, show us how to work and love hard, and make us, our lives, and the world better, stronger, braver.

Momma, this post is for you. It is you I recognize in every inspiring woman I meet.

Are they sad?

“The people in the churches – what are they thinking about it? Are they sad? Do they know?”

My friend and co-worker, Yusuf, posed these questions this afternoon when I and another friend and co-worker, Nicole, met Yusuf to help him with a project for his English class he attends in the evening.

“Well…” Nicole and I paused, a little unsure of how to go about explaining the complexities of politics and the American church and wanting to avoid saying anything that might make our faith looked bad to our Somali Muslim friend.

We attempted to explain how most people in churches know, but that it’s a little all over the board. Some Christians are sad and angry. “They feel that way because of what Jesus says about loving your neighbor as yourself,” we told him. That part was easy. But how do we explain to our dear friend that some Christian’s don’t give a rat’s ass about him at all? Some would turn their noses up at him because he is black. Some would tense up when they heard his accent. Some would turn him away because he is Muslim. It doesn’t matter that he would give him the shirt off his back. They’re afraid. And people fall everywhere in between these two extremes.

We told him that some people have never met anyone different than themselves and that makes them very scared, and that fear can make them lash out in hate.

He then told us he was reading comments on Facebook articles last night. “Oh no, it is not good,” he told us. My heart sank. It’s hard for privileged, white American me to read ugly comments sections on posts, but what must my sweet friend Yusuf feel?

Yusuf quickly moved on to making a silly joke about his project, forever our office’s class clown, despite the solemnity of his and his community’s current situation, so it was too late, but what I wanted to say was, “Yusuf, Jesus wouldn’t have been afraid of you.

***

****

***

[Christians, as you speak and write and share… please be aware that all kinds of ears are listening and all kind of eyes are reading.
The whole world is watching you.]

Trying to Understand

I work very hard and consciously to try to understand and empathize with people, especially people I disagree with. It’s partially because my parents raised me to think critically and challenge my own opinions. It’s also because I hang my hat in more than one world. Particularly relevant to my emotions today: I was raised in a homogeneous, politically conservative Christian environment and now work at a refugee resettlement agency which resettles families from multiple continents, Christians, Muslims, and nonreligious alike.

In order to maintain good relationships and keep conversations peaceful, I do a lot of listening, a lot of trying to put myself in the other person’s shoes to get insight onto why they hold the opinions or fears they do, a lot of devil’s advocacy with myself, a lot of awkward laughing, a lot of reassuring myself they probably didn’t mean that joke, a lot of clenching my jaw through patronizing rants from people who don’t bother fact-checking anything.

And honestly sometimes it is very difficult and exhausting-emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually-to continue to stretch and bend to try to understand people who themselves do not-who refuse-to try to understand.  But yet I plow through and listen and process and I labor to understand and respect them.

Then on days like today it feels like I’ve been stripping and stripping away nasty layers only to find there is no better explanation, no additional insight that lets me excuse their cold behavior or cruel words. I just find hate. I just find evil lies. I just find the laziness of the mind and heart that makes those hate and lies grow like weeds.

And as I desperately search for another angle and try on another pair of disgusting shoes, I replay the times they made me laugh, the good memories we have made together, the qualities that made me care about them in the first place, wishing I had that kind of heart that turns cold in times like these. But I don’t. I have the heart that slowly cracks then falls violently  and painfully apart, again and again and again and again.

It’s rare that this happens, but today I am tired of trying to understand.

I am tired of being rudely brushed off when I politely try to correct misconceptions about the very job I do 40 hours a week and the people I work with Monday through Friday from people who can’t even correctly define what a refugee is, much less explain the refugee process. I am tired of getting over snarky comments about the woman in the hijab, when I know the woman in the hijab. I have seen her nurse her baby. She has cried in my office. She has made me try her baklava. I am tired of having people who have never met a Muslim condescendingly and incorrectly summarize Islam to me from an article they read on a xenophobic website, when I am the one who has been learning about it directly from Muslims themselves for over a year. I have been asking the questions. I have been listening to the answers. I am tired of  reaching for reasons to excuse the inability to state a stance without unnecessarily directing nastiness toward people I love deeply, people whose character would put you to shame.

Don’t you see it?

You are being terribly ugly. It is not your perceived enemies. It is you. You are being ugly and there really is nothing more to it.

getting there pt 1

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. YouI’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).

 

 

two paragraphs of me saying what i REALLY wanted to say in the middle of a bunch of paragraphs of me talking AROUND what i really wanted to say

When I think or I type these types of things I usually sandwich them between “I know this isn’t true, but…” and all the examples or points that contradict what I’m feeling.

But I’m not going to do that today. It’s incredibly hard not to, but for some reason it seems important this time. I think part of it is because I spent a majority of my life scared to questionmy religion and my faith. Not scared. Terrified. Although I’m always in at least a slight existential crisis, I had this very rough time my sophomore and junior year of college. My wonky brain (for my new friends, that’s what I call the dance my anxiety and depression do together) was the worst it’s ever been, only rivaled by my sophomore year of high school. The wonky brain drove my existential crisis and my existential crisis drove my wonky brain. It’s hard to decide, even now, which was the original trouble-maker. I’m an open book about that time in my life if you want to know more because you think it might be helpful (or you’re just nosy, it’s fine), but it’s not really the point right now, so I’ll move on.

I brought it up because back then I would stay up into the wee hours of the night, sometimes even until it started get light outside. Admittedly, a factor in that was the fact I was living alone and have had a phobia of someone breaking in since I was child, but a lot of the reason I couldn’t relax was because I was starting to have real, big, looming, ever-growing doubts about Christianity, about God. And I was too scared to fall asleep without having that perfect faith I thought I was supposed to have, because I honestly was petrified I would be banished to Hell if I died in the middle of the night. It seems preposterous now, silly and kind of sad.

I realize now how unhealthy that was, but the fear was very real to me back then. Did my anxiety make it worse, of course? But did the culture of wrath-based, guilt-driven teachings with unconditional love as an afterthought help? No. Am I exaggerating a little about the teaching? Probably. Am I overlooking the positives of the culture I was a part of? Oh, definitely. But, again, that’s not what this is about. I just need you to imagine a young woman rocking back and forth in her bed at 3AM, trying to physically shake all the bad thoughts out of her head, asking God to please forgive her for being so ungrateful and foolish and unfaithful. That is fucked up. And is why I don’t want play down what I’m feeling now.

Because I wonder if I had ever interacted with someone genuinely struggling with their faith, if they had been open about it, if they hadn’t been too ashamed or too afraid of being judged or written off, maybe I would have been a little more merciful on myself back then. Maybe I would have considered that God’s full of mercy too and not chomping at the bit so badly that he would jump at the opportunity to condemn me for wanting some answers. I realize as I wrote this that maybe I’m coming off a little accusatory, but I truly don’t mean to point fingers at or even be referring to anyone or any group in particular. (It’s possible there were open people speaking up at that time, but I missed it.) What I mean is I want to be for someone else what I could have used back then, that’s all.

And if it means that someone might let themselves off the hook so they can breathe and sleep and stop beating themselves up all the time and no longer hold it all in and stop feeling that insatiable loneliness, then I will lay it all out there, even if I get judged or misunderstood. It is worth it to me. I believe truth-seeking is sacred and truth-seekers will find truth (after usually excruciating and long journeys).

So now that I’ve finished that introduction–which I’m pretty sure will actually be three times as long as what I even sat down to confess, here we go:

Sometimes, this week being one of the worst, I read or I think about the Bible, where God or a psalmist or someone brags about how God cares about the poor, how he defends the weak, how he frees the oppressed, how he hears the widow, and takes in the orphan…and I think what a joke. 

It was a lot easier to agree to all that before I worked with refugees. Before I worked with women who have survived militia groups coming and raping every woman in the village and men who had lost limbs and children who had witnessed unthinkable violence and fathers who had lost daughters and single mothers who are falling apart trying to support their son with the what few shitty cards they’ve been dealt and… something in me feels just a little inconsolable. And angry, though mostly sad and kind of tired. Some days I feel like all I’m holding are loose ends.

That’s all I really wanted to say. Those two measly paragraphs. Without the “I know it isn’t true, but…” and devil’s advocacy surrounding them. But of course I felt like they needed a 54 page dissertation as the prologue. I’m not used to letting my questions be what they are, for everyone to see before I know how the answers play out so I can immediately comfort anyone worried about me. It makes me squirm and it makes other people squirm and it’s not fun for anyone. But in my gut I knew I needed to do it, even if only for myself (though, like I said, hopefully someone else finds it at least a little #relatable).

And, you know, I’m fairly certain if I keep looking for answers in all this, I will find them. But if I don’t keep looking, if I try to convince myself all is well when so much doesn’t make sense, I know I will shrivel up and die inside. I guess that’s what I’ve picked up on in trying to follow Jesus in these last few years, even if it’s sometimes at distance with a hint of skepticism in my eyes. You have to be honest and raw, even if it hurts and it’s embarrassing and people are annoyed. And if I can’t be sincere with myself and with God, then what’s the point?

So, my friends, keep seeking. And please don’t be shy. Let me know if you’ve been in a similar boat and where it ended up landing. I believe you have wisdom to share with me, no matter what your beliefs are. Or reach out if you’re still in that boat. You’re not alone.

Alissa

if you looked

I think if you got close enough and really, truly looked…

You would see a mom and dad tucking their little ones into bed and giving them a goodnight kiss after an hour and half of trying to get them to wind down.

You would see little legs running to mommy and daddy’s room after a bad dream.

You would see a father sitting at the table after everyone else has gone to sleep, calculating his budget over and over and over again,  praying those long shifts will be enough to keep his family warm and fed.

You would see a momma waving to her daughter as she gets on the bus for her first day of school, hoping she will make a friend and that no one will be mean to her.

You would see a rambunctious little tyke laughing, running, splashing–and eventually swimming–in puddles after rain and you would see a tired mother sighing as she dreads pulling him out of his sopping wet clothing and giving him another bath.

You would see a father holding his crying child who just wants to see his mom again.

You would see a mother dreaming of the things her children will achieve with opportunities she didn’t have.

You would see a little boy eyeing the candy jar, too shy to ask for a piece even after his dad’s encouragement, and you would see the delight in his eyes when you give him a piece any way.

You would see parents proudly introduce you to their tiny newborn.

You would see a mom, who is not playing games anymore,  raise her eyebrows at the sibling instigating the squabble and see the sibling mumble a half-hearted apology.

You would see a wife telling her husband she misses him and loves him, her voice cracking because she’s exhausted trying to do this all by herself.

You would see a mother proudly prompting her son to tell you what she’s learning at school.

You would see a father reuniting with his children, who have somehow gotten so big, for the first time in years.

You would see a father shaking over the death of his first born.

You would see a mother rocking back and forth on the floor, in absolute emotional agony, imagining what could have happened, what could be happening, to the children who were taken from her.

You would see these things. If you looked.

And I am certain of this: You would not see a refugee. You would see yourself.