getting there pt 2

Enough time has passed that anyone who had read part one of this had probably forgotten I wrote a part one to begin with.

You can catch up here if you don’t mind typos I’m still too lazy to go back and change (honestly, if you do mind typos, this site is not the one for you): https://missalissaann.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/getting-there-pt-1/

I don’t feel like summarizing it, so can you just go back and skim it or something?

Now that you’re back I’ll fast forward to the winter months of the spring semester of my sophomore year of college, which was 2013.

Freshman year had been fun. I had pushed outside of my comfort zone and met a lot of new people including some of the amazing friends I still have today. I didn’t do anything crazy or immature, which sometimes I regret every now and then. But I still had a lot of fun. I had spurts of what I see now as wonky brain periods. It was nothing too paralyzing; I still felt Jesus’ presence strongly. At that point, I had come to understand there was points in my life where I felt kind of sad for no reason and that eventually it went away.

I was living in an apartment with my childhood best friend, involved in a tiny campus church which was home to my hilarious, weird friends who played nonsensical pranks on each other, and part of a small group my husband and his friend had started which was home to my sweet, normal friends.

I had a spark inside me for understanding and living the gospel. I was fascinated and energetic about it. It was further kept lit by a new best friend I met freshman year. We had long talks about what we were learning and how we were growing while we killed the planet driving loops around town or kept busy walking around campus exasperated by slow walkers. Both my community group through my campus church and my small group provided excellent discussions that challenged me and fed me intellectually and spiritually. I actually hadn’t planned on going to church when I got to campus. Like I said in Part 1, I’m pretty much over my snobby, critical attitude toward church now—though I still do have spiritual authority issues I’m trying to work through—but at the time it was the last place I wanted to be. Some reasons, I think, were valid. I had some wounds that needed to be healed, needed some room to think for myself. Other reasons were, as much as past me would hate for present me to admit, just me being a judgmental asshole. But Jesus brought these two groups to me. I met the pastor of my church at a training for my summer-after-high-school job, and a boy who word-vomited his life story to me minutes after meeting me invited me to his small group (I later married that boy). The point is I didn’t quite get away from Christian culture, though it was different than the one I’d grown up in.

I was taking an introduction to social work class at the time. I think I was already toying with the idea of switching my major (it was plant sciences at the time). In this class, we learned about different areas of social work (I had had no idea there were so many). We were talking about social workers in the mental health field. As the speaker, who was a counselor, talked about their experience and expertise, God told me, I think you should go see a counselor. Back when I had been doing so bad in high school, I had thought about how it might be helpful to go to a counselor and talk about the float trip trauma, but didn’t want my parents to badger me about what was wrong if I brought it up (I was so dramatic about keeping every nook and cranny of my emotions private—heaven forbid my parents try to talk to me!). But when God brought it up during that class, my immediate response was, “No, but thank you!” I assumed it was to talk about the float trip, which I felt I was pretty much over. Looking back, I think I also wanted to forget I had ever felt so terrible. I didn’t want to dig up things that were doing just fine buried and under control.

It’s funny, but God is usually right about things. Maybe something in that class had stirred up the past, bolted into the storage room of my mind, dug through the restricted areas and found long abandoned feelings of hopelessness and fear, and returned to the forefront to spill them all over everything. I fought it as long as I could, but eventually the wonky brain made itself at home.

It’s hard to explain what it was like, maybe because I’m lazy and maybe because I’m afraid in my search for the words, I’ll unleash some sort of curse which strikes me those messy feelings once more. It’s also difficult to put it all in chronological order. These feelings and thoughts were less linear than they were scribbles all over a page. This time and the months following, even after I did meet with a counselor (I’ll elaborate more soon), were filled with a lot this:

The heaviness of depression, sleeping too much, not having the energy to do anything. The feelings of worthlessness and guilt. They were piercing. I easily can recall the first time I realized they were back. I had accidently eating a meal I thought was mine, but was my roommates. Upon her asking and me realizing my mistake, I felt engulfed in embarrassment, shame, and rage at myself.  I could tell she was annoyed but, really, by no means ready to hold a grudge about it. It was an accident; it was a freaking salad. Yet I walked to my room, collapsing in tears, beating myself up to no end about it. How could you do something so dumb? Stupid bitch. Wonky brain warps your thoughts like that. I also remember being scared and surprised, because I didn’t think I was capable of that twisted vision, looking at or treating myself that way anymore. I thought Jesus had solved all that.

I had trouble getting to sleep and then slept for too long, always needing a nap no matter how long I’d slept the night before. It was hard to find motivation to work on school, to do things with friends. I tried reaching out the God, but there was nothing from the other end.  That was the worst part. This spiritual force that had been my companion, my healer, my confidant the past couple of years had vanished. I can’t really recall every feeling that alone. I felt alone, of course, before I knew Jesus, but to have that presence removed felt somehow worse. On one hand, I returned to my old conclusions that silence from God was due to something I wasn’t doing enough of or a belief I didn’t have quite correct. This was mostly at night. I would be tormented to the wee hours of the morning, terrified of falling asleep without all my doctrinal t’s crossed and i’s dotted. My church upbringing and natural personality was inclined toward hell and brimstone, of remaining theologically sound (as well as perfectly pious). I was paranoid about falling asleep with some sort of misunderstanding about the truth or some sort of wrong attitude about God which would result in me being thrown into hell (pretty fucked up, right?).

In other ways, I felt the burning pain of betrayal. Where was God, anyway? He had told me I wouldn’t be alone anymore, that we were family, that I could trust him. [By the way, I do cringe at how God is always he­—let’s not go down that rabbit trail today—but it’s such a habit for me to talk in this gendered way that for me to try to edit and reword it in this post would feel awkward to me. But it is on my radar, just so you know]. Funny way to treat someone you love, to abandon them when they need you the most. I was angry and throbbing from the pain.

I did make an appointment with a counselor eventually. My first stop was the student health center at my university since it was free. They got me in relatively quickly.  I only had to wait a week or so. Only that week felt like a year. It was excruciating. I was so nervous about going, not being sure what to expect, not knowing what I would say, wondering if I’d be able to actually open up emotionally, fearing if I did open up it would be like unleashing a flood of emotions I couldn’t regain control of, worrying I was either being dramatic or that there was something terribly wrong with me, and terrified it wouldn’t help meaning I would trapped in this state forever.

It was not helpful. It was just an assessment, which I didn’t realize is pretty typical for a first appointment. It was not some deep discussion and the counselor seemed to be mentally diagnosing me with something related to hearing voices as I talked about God (can I really blame her?). When the appointment was over and I was told I wouldn’t be able to get in for another couple of months (it was close to spring midterms when everyone’s mental issues flares up), I was completely thrown off and decided not to schedule another one. If this week waiting had been a nightmare, how could I stand to wait another few months?

When I got into my car, I started sobbing. I began to drive one of my familiar routes on the country highways outside of town. When my thoughts began to race and my body entered high alert anxiety mode, as it had routinely began to do,  it was the only thing I knew of to calm me down in the slightest (Sorry, mother earth—I’ve found better coping mechanism now). I was wearing a ring my mom had given me a few years prior that said, “Fear not, for I am always with you. -Jesus” What a fucking joke, I thought. I had sought and sought God in every way I knew how, studiously and in stillness, crying out in complete desperation. Yet I had time and time again received no words, none of that spiritual comfort I had been spoiled with. I decided when I got far enough out of town, I was going to stop and throw the stupid ring as far as I could.

Not to be anti-climactic, but I didn’t end up throwing the ring, maybe for a spiritual just-in-case reason or maybe because my mom gave it to me and I’m sentimental like that. But I did stop wearing it and seeking God’s relief quite as often though far from completely.

My brain got wonkier and wonkier. My thoughts were chaotic, dark, and tangled. I felt helpless.

It go so bad that I *gasp* opened up to my parents (who, by the way, are the sweetest, least judgmental, biggest-open-armed people I know, if that tells you anything about my refusal to talk about my emotions) because I need to ask if our insurance covered counseling. They were supportive and my uncle recommended someone he had gone to college with. I was pretty skeptical about trying her out. While I had not enjoyed the student health center’s professional looking at me like I was crazy when I talked about talking with God, the last thing I could stomach was some feel-good, cheesy Christian counselor judging me or, worse, throwing bible verses at me as a treatment.

I scheduled it anyway. What did I have to lose? I was nervous, of course, just like the time before. She was awesome. She made me feel as much as ease as was possible for me at the time. She was a Christian, but never pressured me religiously. She was very professional and I miss her (she retired). She was older than my parents but probably not  enough to be my grandmother. I thought this might mean she would be a little out of touch, but she wasn’t. She was the best counselor I’ve had. She did a good job of listening to understand then asking more questions to understand further and then collaborating with me to brainstorm what to do, contributing her expertise as needed. I never felt like she was waiting for me to get done talking so she could give me all the solutions. I felt so exposed sitting on her couch at first, someone giving me their full attention. She was paid to do this; I didn’t have to worry about talking about myself too much or scaring her with my darker thoughts. I couldn’t avoid talking about myself by asking a bunch of questions about her. I felt safe, and that was very important to me.

Some appointments later, she asked me if I had considered taking medication. My immediate response, just like that original suggestion to see a counselor, was, Nope! The idea of medicine interfering my brain scared me—just think of all the things that could go wrong.

It was helpful to go to counseling, but it wasn’t enough. My anxiety was at an all time high. Not just about faith, but about everything. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I have a big fear of people breaking into my home. My roommate stayed with her boyfriend a lot at the time, so I essentially lived by myself. I could never relax at night. It’s like my body automatically entered flight or fight mode when it got dark. Every little sound made me jump, and the lack of sleep didn’t help my wonky brain. It was miserable. Then I would sleep all day, which maybe me feel like a lazy piece of shit. I had no time management skills or any understanding of how to motivate myself or how to find hacks for my short attention span. So I wasn’t doing great at school. There was some sort of mental block to do anything productive, like go to the grocery store or exercise, which of course was good for me.

It was also around this time the idea snuck up on me slowly (but then soon consumed me) that either God wasn’t real or God wasn’t as good as I had previously thought. How else could he have left me? How else could all the evil in the world go on and on? It was scary to admit this was how I felt, but it was true. Eventually I got to the point where I realized there was no finding truth without being truthful about how I felt.

And I did want the truth about life, about God, the peace that comes with the confidence of a well-research decision, but it seemed impossible to find. It was draining to keep thinking about it and sifting it through the overload of information and possibility.  I was overwhelmed but couldn’t let it go for even a minute, couldn’t settle down, couldn’t catch my breath. I was wearing myself thin. I didn’t want to keep adhering to a false belief but didn’t want to give up on something that was true. What could I do? My brain was a computer with too many tabs open, my soul was shaky, aching arms weighed down by an unreasonable amount of grocery bags that just needed to be unloaded in one trip, my heart was an old, broken down car trying to drive cross country, and my body, well, I don’t have a good analogy for it but it was simultaneously unable to relax and was also too exhausted to function properly.

I don’t know that most people would have guessed much was wrong. When around my funny friends, I had a lot of fun, I was quirky, mischievous, and thoughtful, but the second things were quiet or I was alone, I was back to this hell I couldn’t escape.

In the fall, it got so bad I decided I was going to kill myself. It was different than in high school, when my suicidal came and went only when I was too worked up to think clearly and left when I could. This time around, it came to me slowly, this conclusion there was no other way to make the excruciating chaos in my brain end. Not to glorify, but I remember it vividly, sitting in the tub after a shower and calmly resigning that I had tried what I could, that some people get dysfunctional brains and there’s not much you can do about it. It was like I did some sort of eerie assessment which decided I had exhausted all options and it was better to not live than to live like this. I wanted to plan it out, thought,  so it looked like an accident, that way my parents and friends wouldn’t blame themselves and wonder what they could have done. [By the way, if you feel this way, please know you are not alone, that things can getter, that there will be help soon if there isn’t now, that the national suicide hotline is open 24/7—you can call at 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741]

Obviously, I didn’t end up killing myself. As I was in the planning stage, a friend spoke at small group, and while I don’t even remember what he said, it impacted me in a way that swayed me not to end anything just yet. [There were also several other long-term crucial factors and important moments created by my parents, brother, friends, and spiritual leaders but those deserve their own post] I didn’t automatically feel a ton better; I just made the choice to not kill myself, at least for the time being. I decided to stop wishing God would mystically take care of and just do it myself—another shower time revelation. I wasn’t sure how, but I tried to detach from myself, pretend Alissa was someone else and I was her caretaker. That mindset helped some and it led to my decision in February of 2014 to try an anti-depressant, Zoloft.

It was by far one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was stuck in a dark, musty, scary basement with broken legs and arms, counseling and the preventative and coping strategies I learned from my counselor (and God and blogs) were stairs we built as a way out of the basement, and those pills were the casts that helped those bones heal so I could actually utilize the stairs. I don’t regret taking them, I’m not embarrassed that I took them, and, while I do think they can be overprescribed and used instead of working through issues in some cases, I wholeheartedly believe the notion that it is spiritually wrong to use them is complete bull shit. My decision not to kill myself would have fizzled and I probably wouldn’t be here.

There were some side effects in the first few months of taking Zoloft, like night sweats, becoming more forgetful, and losing my appetite to the point I had force myself. Even after those beginning months, my appetite didn’t go all the way back to normal.

The side effects were worth it to me. I started to sleep normally, started to be able to focus on other things, felt like I was coming back to life. The brain power that had previous been being syphoned into fueling my never ending anxiety could be used to creatively problem-solve through those anxieties and other wonky brain symptoms. Since I wasn’t exhausted emotionally and mentally all the time, my depression started to disappear. It wasn’t a pill I took to feel happy; it doesn’t work that way. It was a pill that turned the faucet of my anxiety off so I could learn how to fix the water pipes on my own without being submerged in the waters of wonky brain at the same time.

It was during some of the darkest months before Zoloft that I began writing at the encouragement of my counselor. I created this blog , but didn’t share it with anyone I knew other than my counselor (if you ever read this, I can’t thank you enough for everything). I liked the idea of someone out there reading my thoughts, as long as it wasn’t someone I’d ever have to face. Sometime after I started getting better I shared the link on Facebook, because I had written some not mental health post that I felt was important share, whatever it was. I can tell when people go back and creep on the posts from when I was doing really bad and never thought I’d share the blog. I can’t see who read them which make it’s almost weirder. Sometimes I think about deleting those posts, but really they are part of who I was and therefore part of who I am today. Feel free to creep. I’ve had a handful of people admit they went back and read them all. Flattering and embarrassing (but mostly flattering)! It’s shifted now, my writing. Now that I’m not usually in crisis mode, I like to write about ways I learned to manage my wonky brain.

I only took Zoloft for about 8 months before I felt balanced enough to try going off it, which I think was also a good decision to me—though some people need to take medication forever, and that’s valid and brave too. I realize counseling and medicine is not a financial option for a lot of people, which is a shame. It’s also part of why it’s so important to me I write about my wonky brain and how I manage it.

Wonky brain made me feel alone, ashamed, and helpless. On top of counseling, online article and forums where people wrote about practical things they did to manage their mental health is something I’m grateful I had access to. They made me feel less alone, less ashamed, and less helpless. I had felt more in charge and capable of running my life instead of having it run me. I want to play that kind of role for someone else now I’ve made progress.

By the way, God had showed back up here and there before Zoloft, in fact I felt his encouragement to try it, and before the suicidal weeks, but it wasn’t the same. Mostly I was bitter about him leaving me alone when I was in need. It took me a really long time to process what I think and feel about that, to not be emotionally distant, and to let down my spiritual guard. Truth is something I’m forever shuffling towards. But that’s a blog for another day. I’ve already sat in Panera and then Dunkin’ Donuts for long enough I’m starting to feel weird about it.

There you have it, folks: part two of me getting there. Wherever, there is.

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

bygones be bygones

When I was a girl
You sat high on my shelf
You were pretty, weren’t you?
Though I was too small to take you down
But I told all my friends about how
Shiny you were.
But when I got older
And tall enough to reach you
You went missing
So I grew colder.

But then.

I saw the sun peaking through the clouds.
I heard you coming up the stairs.
I felt the beating as my heart thawed.
I tried to whisper, “Are you really there?”
But I didn’t make a sound.

Oh, but what does it matter anyhow?

C’mon, let’s let bygones by gones
And I won’t ask why you were gone
Because my soul, how it leapt
At the slightest glimpse
Besides, if every road I take’s
Going to lead me to you anyway
Then I’ll stay, I’ll stay, I’ll stay
My Lord
And I won’t ask you where you went anymore.

Not that it matters, but just so you know
Every once in a while
I’d find myself picking up the phone to dial
You only to to realized I’d forgotten the number
So I’d try to drive by
Just to see if you were home
But lose my way in neighborhoods
Familiar perhaps only by the power of suggestion
Losing steam, fearing I wouldn’t
Have the will to make it home
Wondering, will somebody let me inside?

It’s behind us now, of course, so

C’mon, let’s let bygones by gones
And I won’t ask why you were gone
Because my soul, how it leapt
At the slightest glimpse
Besides, if every road I take’s
Going to lead me to you anyway
Then I’ll stay, I’ll stay, I’ll stay
My Lord
And I won’t ask you where you went anymore.

Though I will say

The rust, it ate away at me
Though it was not kind enough to do so completely
The sculpture on your front lawn
Is nothing like it use to be
Do you see it?
Do you mind?
Don’t you mind that I dragged myself
Through every street with shoes, not waterproof
Trudging through the puddles
Because I had nothing left to lose
Wanting someone to tell me
How it could have rained so long
Without a flood to overcome
Me and sweep me away?

The sun’s out now, so it’s fine
It’s just I begged for your eyes
To even flicker in my direction
But there was nothing
So can you explain now that you’re here
How to make this equation make sense again?

I want to let bygones be bygones
I want stop singing those sad songs
I want all sweet and no bitter
All faith and no quiver
All bloom and no wither
But my soul persists, Why weren’t you with her?

 

 

Strategies for the Wonky Brain – Part. 2

A while back I wrote about some of the strategies I used when my wonky brain is acting up. If you’re curious about what I mean when I say “wonky brain” or are interested in additional strategies organized in no way whatsoever, check out the post: https://missalissaann.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/strategies-for-the-wonky-brain-part-1/comment-page-1/

So without further adieu…

Procrastination

Okay, normally procrastination isn’t always seen in the best light, but it’s something I am sometimes able to use to my own advantage. There are times when  a worry  is playing on loop in my mind. It honestly feels like if I think about it just one more time, I will feel relief and it won’t demand my attention anymore. That never happens. And while there’s that fleeting sense of resolution, the unrest is back again almost immediately.

It’s next to impossible to convince myself that a worry is not worth thinking about. I’ve tried time and time again to remember that everything will be okay, that things work themselves out, that it’s not that big of a deal, that life will go on, etc., etc., etc. But the thing about anxiety is even if you know something isn’t a huge deal, your body doesn’t cooperate with that knowledge. So, I procrastinate worrying. This is especially helpful when I’m with other people, like hanging out with friends or at work. I tell myself, “You’re right. This isn’t good. When we get home, we can worry about it as much as we want. We can come unglued. We can come unraveled. Later.” And then when I get home, sometimes I’m already over it. Or, I just allow myself to freak out and try to address the issue. This strategy helps me miss out less on the present memories I am making.

I have also read on a website for parents who have kids with anxiety (sometimes the best tips for approaching mental health are actually those recommended for children, at least in my experience), that you can designate a certain amount of time for worrying, like 20 minutes, but then you have to do something else. I’ll probably try this at some point as well. I think there is something freeing about simply allowing yourself to worry for a minute instead of trying to worry, not worry, and carry the shame of worrying all at the same time.

Inbox

I find imagery to be very helpful in handling such things as abstract as anxiety and depression. This imagery came to me just yesterday when I was trying to describe to my husband who doesn’t struggle with wonky brain an anxiety that was nagging at my brain. I couldn’t pinpoint why it was stuck and holding on. But… I decided to describe it this way: it’s like when a someone sends you an email with something to do and they “flag” it as IMPORTANT or whatever that red flag means. And so you’re like, Ah gottacheckthisrightnowanddoitimmediately. But then you read it and are like !%$&*#@$&#@$ this is not urgent at all! You just want me to feel like it is! 

My brain does that, but with concerns. So a thought that isn’t urgent and isn’t important is stuck in my metaphorical inbox (my brain if you’re having hard time following along). And I’m like @#$@# you brain, this is not urgent. But no matter how many times I click delete, the email will not disappear.

Once I had this analogy, I decided that if I couldn’t delete the email (thought), I could at least mark it as read. And I told that email, I will obey you in the morning, but right now I am going to go to sleep. Because you are not that urgent. Somehow it worked. Nothing else I had been trying had released the thought, but this imagery did. I look forward to using it more in the future and seeing how powerful it can be.

Self-Affirmation

I have seen self-affirmation examples and tips on good old Pinterest, and learned a little about it from one of my social work professors who was talking about self-care. It seemed kind of silly to me at first and not useful. But I have recently begun to use self-affirmation a lot. The key to it, for me, is creating my own self-affirmation. Other people’s words don’t mean a lot to me, but when I have to reflect on what my fear or sadness is actually about and come up with truth and encouragement to address it, I’m finding it turns out to actually work.

Here are some examples of the ones I created and use:

The number of hours I sleep will not dictate the kind of day I have tomorrow. I will let go of calculations and panic. I will not obsess. My body will get the rest that it needs. My body is resilient.

Sleep and brain-wonkiness for me are correlated. When I’m not sleeping enough, my brain melts like a toddler who skipped nap-time and can’t function. But sleep is also an area where my anxiety manifests itself. I get super worried about not getting X number of hours of sleep then I’m not relaxed so then I have trouble falling or staying asleep so I wake up groggy then I’m worried about how it will affect my day. And that whole time, I’m miserable! It’s a cycle and it snowballs so my anxiety about getting anxiety from not getting enough sleep is actually making my more wonky.  But in the past couple of weeks, I have seen a change in my peace level as I repeat and accept the above words.

I am capable of determining which task is more urgent and prioritizing it by sticking with it until it is finished instead of moving on to the next task.

I can start an important task without being distracted by the nagging to slave over a master to-do list that I will never be able to perfect. I trust myself to make a good decision every moment.

I have problems focusing sometimes, because I get overwhelmed at everything I could be doing. It can cause stress and self-blame when I feel I haven’t been as productive as I want to have been. Side strategy: I keep a notepad beside where I’m working to write down thoughts that pop up. When they pop up and I don’t write them down, they buzz around my head, because I’m scared of forgetting them. Super distracting!

I trust myself to think clearly, to problem-solve rationally, to build relationships genuinely. And to put thoughts back where they belong when I don’t need them anymore. 

Another one I use mainly for work, especially when I’m apprehensive about being inadequate or productive enough the next day.

I am happy to be in the here and now. No thought is strained by the future. Each thought is neatly resting in the present. I am submerged in peace. I am full of joy. I am wholly content.

This one is helpful when my brain won’t shut off to focus on the task I’m doing, because it’s evaluating if there’s something better I could be doing.

I can let this problem go for now, because my whole life does not depend on it. I will deal with it tomorrow when it is delivered to my door step once more.

Sleep

Sometimes the best thing I can do is go to sleep. It sounds kind of hippy-ish, but often times it’s a matter of simply listening to your body. Ask your body, “What do you need?” I think it’s something I’m getting better at with time, but I sometimes I feel it tell me sleep. And it’s as simple as that. My brain just needs to cool off, be free of stimuli, and reset.

Gratitude

I can just feel you rolling your eyes already! It’s okay, I would do the same. I’m not saying that if you just count your blessing, your anxiety will go away, you ungrateful piece of trash. Listing off the things I’m thankful for is a strategy that I’ve only found a few weeks ago that only works on one very specific type of wonky brain that is fairly new to me. I started feeling like my brain was overheating. Since I’m apparently all about that tech-analogy life (Little Brother, aren’t you proud??): It was like when you are “gaming” as the nerds (friendly shade) say–or in my case playing Sim 4 for so long I start to lost touch with reality–but you don’t leave your laptop vents uncovered (let’s say you’ve made a cozy nest in a bunch of blankets). Your computer starts to overheat. It can’t handle the most basic task. It lags and/or freezes. In the words of college students, it “literally cannot.” That’s how my brain was acting! It wasn’t going a mile a minute obsessing over something. It was barely moving like a stupid good-for-nothing computer that can’t handle the Sims (and not ventilation).

But somehow I stumbled into the discovering that listing the things that I am grateful for cools it down. It sounds stupid cheesy, I know. But it worked for me on more than one occasion when my brain felt like it was overheating. Who knows!

Exercise

I’m not going to pretend that I can run more than 1/6 of a mile without experiencing the need to slow to jog (Okay, slow from a jog to a very sloth-like walk) or that I do yoga every day. However, when I haven’t been active, my brain is like, “Oh! Stored up energy! I’ll take that and use it…TO YOUR DEMISE!!! MWAHAHAAHAHA!!!” It uses all that energy to worry and obsess over things. Running isn’t something that helps a lot if I’m already feeling down and depressed or paralyzed with anxiety, but when I feel the edge like it might happen, I am sometimes pleasantly surprised to find that just going for a run/jog/leisurely walk helps. I think there is also something about MOVING that is makes an unsatisfied brain feel like progress is being made.

I do yoga too, more for when my body feels sort of out of sync with my brain.Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube is the only one I’ve been able to get to. I highly recommend her.

Music

There is a wonkiness my brain experiences where it feels like one gear of the machine (That’s a thing, right? Gears and machines?) is slightly off, so the machine is clunking and being annoying as hell. Listening to certain songs sometimes does the trick. This is another mysterious one to me, but if it works, it works. Some favorites of my brain, for whatever reason, are: the “Magpie and the Dandelion”album by the Avett Brothers, “Good-bye Blues” album by the Hush Sound, and pretty much anything by mewithoutYou. It’s not so much the words as it is the beat or rhythm (fill in the blanks, music people) and having my brain pick out a particular instrument to focus on the entire time is comforting as well.

You Are Safe and You are Loved

Maybe this would count as self-affirmation, but it’s a strategy that I have had for longer than I was all that aware of self-affirmation. God taught this one to me. I use it for lots of wonky brain situations, but specifically when I feel physically very worked up and/or afraid. I repeat, “I am safe and I am loved.” While I do that, I picture different people I know who love me. And sometimes I even say their names out loud as I picture their faces: Evan loves me. My mom loves me. My dad loves me. Or, when fear is the big thing I’m dealing with (like before I was married and would wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares, terrified of people breaking in and unable to relax my jumpy body), I picture all the different times I have felt very loved by someone. I replay those memories, and somehow it gives me strength.

***

Do you have any strategies to add?

PS-As I said in the last strategies post, I love you and I am joyfully a completely open book when it comes to wonky brain. If you have questions because your brain gets wonky sometimes or someone you care about’s brain gets wonky, reach out to me. You can ask anything! Not that any two people are the same and not that I am some sort of special person with answers to life, but…feeling alone is yucky.

 

 

 

 

 

how you have changed me

when i knock on your mother’s door and i hear you inside yelling my name in excitement, waiting for us to play the game over and over and over where you shake my hand, i say, “oh, hello! how are you?” and you giggle endlessly because the words are nonsense to you

when you beamed as you showed me the beat-up, used car you’d saved up for by putting in long, 12 hour night shifts at the factory and pinching pennies anywhere and everywhere 

when your 3 older kids teased your youngest one, the way siblings do, because getting her vaccination shots made her cry

when i broke fast with your family and you served a mysterious white drink you all clearly loved but made me want to vomit and i drank almost all of it anyway just to be polite

when you sang and danced to songs you didn’t know at 6 in the morning after a night shift, just because you loved the music

when you decided my fair-haired self needed some enhanced eyebrows,  drew them on thick with a black eyebrow pencil, and admired your work as your children laughed shamelessly at me

when  you told me your dream was to be a doctor who helps poor people as we filled out a job application for a hotel housekeeper position we weren’t sure you’d get

when your face lit up as you talked about your spouse and children joining you in America some day, maybe

when the rain poured down and me, my roommates, and you, my sweet, goofy, little neighbors, danced in the rain like we were in a movie

when your voice shook as you told me how you never sleep because you work all night and your little ones keep you up all day

when we laughed later about how earlier we had bonded over hating snow on the way to your job interview but then when the interviewer asked you if you liked snow, you got nervous and said you loved it

when i hear you tell new volunteers you have 3 kids, but i know you have more, that they’re lost somewhere in Africa, that you don’t know what country, that you don’t know if they’re alive or how to find them

when we played outside at the yearly celebration and we named our team “Sleepy, evil, cranky cats with mustaches” (but “Fart” for short)

when i took your family of 10 to a charity to get clothes for winter, how the staff made you put some of what little you picked out back and i wondered if you were embarrassed, how it all fit in 2 trash bags, how my own clothes on my body felt worthless, meaningless, like rags

when your leg had been blown off in a bomb and all you had was a mediocre prosthetic leg that hurt to use, but you walked 2 and 1/2 miles to english class every day anyway because you want to build a good life for your family

when i see you and say “Amakuru?” and every time you shake my hands, laughing and exclaiming, “Ni meza!!” like I’ve made your entire day, when you look at me with those kind, grandmotherly eyes and they make me miss my own grandma

when i attempted to paint a unicorn and ornate butterfly on your face with face paint, because i had no way to communicate in a shared language that the picture you pointed to was far beyond my skill set, and when I saw you smile for the first time because you finally understood something i said as I pointed to my dad and mom and said, “‘abi, ‘ami”

when i asked how your wife was and how your newborn son was, your first child, both back at the refugee camp, when you told me casually and softly as you smiled how he’d passed away, but i saw the pain in your eyes, thinking it was so unfair that you never even got to meet him, knowing you wouldn’t get to hold your wife for months, maybe years, and then when i went home and cried and cried

when we taught you how to use “your mother” as an insult, and you told us our mothers smell-ed as you left the room

when we took a break from soccer to sit on the curb and use sticks to etch our languages’ alphabets in the dirt, testing each other on our learning progress

when i held your hand and chattered to you during the entire outdoor kid’s club one saturday and you stayed completely silent leading me to believe you didn’t understand anything i was saying, only to come prancing in next week speaking perfect english

when you addressed me as “mister” with that mischievous gleam in your eye knowing full well that mister was only for men

when i went to pick you up for an office meeting and you asked if i had time to meet your newborn baby, only 4 days old, when i melted seeing how small she was compared to the bed and her tall, gentle father, the love in your eyes, that beauty from the ashes

through all of these moments and more

you have made me more whole

how can i explain?

 

 

Strategies for the Wonky Brain – Part. 1

“Worrier” is a label that has fit me for as long as I can remember. As a child most of that worry involved an obsessive fear of people breaking in our house at night or me/my family getting bit by a dog (or when I was really little, of wolves who know how to use doorknobs coming in to eat me–THANKS DAD. Although to be fair I did ask for scary stories before bed…) However, it wasn’t until junior high that my mental health became an issue interfering with my life. And it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I started to even have a concept of mental health and how to maintain mine well.

So in the time between junior high and my 2nd year of college, I struggled immensely (and secretly) with anxiety and depression. It was crippling sometimes. The closest thing I had to understanding these state of beings were the vague ideas shaped by my interactions with Christian circles and my Bible. I therefore was under the impression that if I would just “let go and let God” or just “trust Jesus” or just read my Bible more or just pray with more faith, I would be at peace. Just. Just. Just. As I tried these things and failed over and over again, I began to fill to the brim with shame. I was ashamed of how I felt. I was ashamed of my thoughts. I was ashamed to be me. And I thought God felt that way too. I thought God was like, “Why can’t you just get it together?”

I get kind of sad whenever I think back on it. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself all the things I’ve learned now and have my break-throughs just a tad sooner. I could have avoided being miserable for such a large portion of that time, spewing hateful things about myself to myself, and coming eerily close to suicide on a couple of occasions. But I can’t. However, I can share these things with you. Maybe this is a foreign topic to you, anxiety and depression. But maybe it hits close to home, and maybe somehow the strategies I’m learning to use to live a little more peacefully will prove to be useful to you as well.

To start off, I want to stop calling it anxiety and depression. It’s easy to write those words off, because everyone kind of has a different image in their minds of what that looks like. It can be a reflex to be like, “Oh, that could never be me!” or “Overdiagnosed!!!” without true reflection, at least in my own experience. Also, for me, like for a lot of people, anxiety and depression are not neat categories of my mental states, but rather realities that are complicated, are intertwined, and often share symptoms. So I like to refer to it as “wonky brain,” and it can mean a lot of things, like…

I feel paralyzed with everything I could or should be doing so I can’t get out of bed no matter how many times I brace myself to move. My body feels so sluggish I could sleep for hours or just sit there staring off into space. Everything feels impossible, even the simplest of tasks. My thoughts are racing a mile per second like if my brain were drawing my thoughts, it would be scribbling messy circles at lightning speed, the kind of scribbling you do that makes the paper tear. My chest is tight and I can’t get a full breath of air. I can’t complete a thought, like every thought I try to carry out is a softball pitch that only makes it halfway from the mound to the batter. Like the little person who lives in my head and is in charge of operations unplugged herself from the wall and is just sitting in the corner banging her own head against the wall. I’m overwhelmed for no reason. I’m overwhelmed for a thousand and one reasons, 95% of which didn’t bother me yesterday and probably won’t bother me tomorrow. Like I’m buried so deep inside myself that it actually takes all my energy just to say words that are barely audible, and if someone asks me to repeat myself I cry. I can’t relax, because my body is on edge for no reason. The world is moving too slowly all around me. The world is moving too quickly all around me. Like a worry is stuck to my hand and I’m trying to get it off because it’s stupid, I know it’s stupid and I shouldn’t be obsessed, but I just can’t let it go even when I unclench my fingers, it’s stuck on me like glue.

You get the idea. Or maybe you don’t, but let’s move on.

Below are just a few strategies I’ve gathered on my way. It’s not all of them. I have more for a part two. Maybe a part 3 (I’m learning new ways all the time.)? Quite frankly, my attention span is a little less than desirable and I probably would have already stopped reading and started skimming for the words in bold by now. Or clicked away, because too many words, uugghh.

Anyway, most of the strategies I use for the more terrorized by anxiety side of my wonky brain. Some I’ve learned straight from the Holy Spirit Itself, others from my counselor, and some from strangers on the internet who wrote about what works for them. I won’t go into a lot of detail about where I learned them, because, quite frankly, you probably don’t care!

The Alphabet Game

I find this to be more helpful when I’m feel generally uneasy or I feel like my thoughts are starting to race. I pick a category, like “characteristics of God” or “people I met this year” or “cities” and then I have to come up with something that fits in the category for every letter of the alphabet. When my counselor told me about this, I thought it sounded super cheesy, but it works for me sometimes, especially on nights whenever it’s hard for me to relax to go to sleep.

Anxiety as a Person

I personify anxiety to be a more frazzled, caricatured version of myself, and visualize my mind as a house. I imagine Anxiety knocking on the door and me answering. I tell her that she can come in, but first we have to breathe 10 deep breaths together and/or I make her agree to the rule that we can only talk about one fear or anxiety at a time. I let her come in and sit down. I ask her what is bothering her and what she needs. To go to bed? To eat? To have her fears validated? Tea time with Jesus? To talk it out? To take another action? Then we brainstorm together. So yeah, I’m kind of talking to an imaginary person in my brain, but whatever. There really is something about separating myself from my anxiety that gives me a sense of control and confidence that I need to overcome my wonky brain.

Breathing

I visualize a star. I picture inhaling as going up one side of a point and exhaling as going down the other side of the point. Then I go all the way around the star. It’s helpful to me because it gives me something to concentrate on for a brief period of time, while also tricking my body into relaxing some. I’ve noticed when I make myself do this before letting myself freak out, I end up feeling calmer.

Eat 

Wonky brain can make it hard for me to feel hungry or to feel motivated to make/get something good to eat, but whenever I don’t eat right, and especially whenever I don’t eat at regular intervals even if it’s fast food, my mental health suffers. Like being hangry but more intense and internal.So when I eat regularly and when I eat well, I do better. It’s not like eating a certain way will cure wonky brain forever, but it can be used as somewhat of a preventative measure.

Compartmentalize 

Whenever anxious wonky brain hits, sometimes I am fixated on and obsessed with one fear. But a lot of times, it is more of a state of being, and fears of all sort come at me from every direction. It feels very chaotic, like a nightmare where a million bats surround you, freaking out and flying in your face. So, I sort through the fears. I visual having different boxes in front of me with labels like work, spiritual, friends, relationship, family, night-time, etc. and then I place each anxiety into its proper category. After that I put all the boxes in a closet in that house I mentioned earlier. I shut the door, and I tell myself, “You can take out one box and pick one fear from that box. Only one, no exceptions. Then you have to put the box away and lock the closet the door. Whenever we’re done addressing the fear you picked, we can get another, but not before then.” It can help to work with one thing at a time, in a line, rather than trying to juggle them all at once.

Counseling

I don’t see a counselor anymore, but I did for about a year and a half. And as life changes and new stressers are introduced, I will probably go see one again at some point. You can get duds with counselors of course. But I happened to hit the jackpot. It really helped to talk about what I was experiencing internally out loud. I’m not someone who likes to be the center of attention; I like to be the listener. So rambling about my wonky brain with a friend or family member wasn’t helpful. I felt uncomfortable and I was also worried about making my loved ones scared or worried about me when I told them about the dark and unhealthy thoughts I was having. And I tend to be the person people lean on, and so at the time when I started seeing a counselor, I felt like I couldn’t be their rock and fall apart.   I also am very intimidated at the idea of talking about my feelings because I’m not super great at articulating them. Being with my counselor was a safe spot where I didn’t feel like I had to have exactly what I wanted to say perfect before I spoke. And I didn’t have to feel guilty about talking too much, about scaring anyone, or about being misunderstood. It really helped me untangle a lot of wonky thoughts that had been accumulating for years, like the way you comb through tangled hair.

 Journaling

I don’t do this a lot, but when I’m not sure how I feel or when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I write. Sometimes I write letters to someone who’s hurt me or to myself. Other times I just write about what’s happening and how I feel. Or I sometimes even write poetry. I never think it’s going to work, but once I get the ball rolling, I find I more quickly get to the core of the issue, uncover what I’m truly feeling, and begin to be able to start finding a solution. Also, by writing my thoughts down, it makes my brain less cluttered and weighed down.

Medicine

When my counselor first asked me if I would consider taking medicine for my wonky brain, I was like, “Um, no.” Too scary! Chemicals that mess with your brain????? Don’t even get me started with all the horror stories on the internet. Then God suggested it. I said, “No, thank you! Useful suggestions only!” But, about 8 months later after (it was a few months after I had resolved that the only way to escape the wonky brain was to kill myself and had begun planning the details of my suicide–which, obviously by God’s grace I didn’t, thank you to several humans unknowingly saying just the right things at just the right time) I decided to give medicine a shot.

Like with the counselor, I got lucky with the first medication I tried (Zoloft). It wasn’t immediate and there were some side effects, but it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. It really helped restore a balance in my brain. It was kind of like I lived in a dark, stupid basement and wanted out, but my legs were broken. So no matter how hard I tried to get up the stairs, I was stuck. And Zoloft was the doctor who came and put me in a cast so I could start to heal and regain the ability to walk up the stairs. But instead of being in a basement, I had a  messy, wonky, unbalanced brain, and Zoloft came and balanced  the chemicals out, so I could start to implement the strategies I was learning to manage my mental health more effectively. After 8 months, I did stop taking it, and that was also a really good decision for me. However, some people take medication their whole lives. And that’s okay! It’s not shameful. You should be proud you are giving your brain what it needs! Good job! My brain just needed it for a short period of time, that’s all.

 

 

***

Jesus could have handed me a restored, peaceful, and balanced brain. But instead, he took me on a difficult, messy journey. And I mean that it was messy. Being suicidal. Wanting to harm myself. Being angry at God. Being skeptical God existed. Thinking even if God existed that God wasn’t good. Feeling defeated and tired by wonky brain. It was lonely and painful. And these are things I even still wrestle with on some days. I’m not ashamed of that. If there’s one message Jesus has been trying to drill into my thick skull, it’s that there is no shame to be felt rightly. It’s forbidden, so stop it! (Easier said than done, amirite?).

What is your wonky brain like? What are some strategies you use?

PS- I am an open book about this stuff. If you have questions about my wonky brain,my spiritual walk, those dark times of wanting to hurt/kill myself,  or anything, just ask, okay? I won’t think you’re weird and intrusive. I would love to share with you, if that would help you. Really. A negative is a little less negative when you get to use it for good, even if it’s just once.

Love you!