Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Fair Weather Faith

since I've been out of school, my mom has been accepting of my no longer attending church, but I know she still wants me to remain a Christian. Suddenly, I am seeing everything in Christian culture from the outside, and it makes one realize just how alienating it must be to listen to if one isn't inclined to give their life to God.

when I attended church my first weeks home from school, i felt so empty and isolated listening to the admonitions of the pastor to have joy in Christ. the music was all one loud call to have hope, to look happy. how was i supposed to do any of these things when i felt abandoned by God, broken and battered? my hopes and dreams shattered. and the whole time i was beaten up, i had been trying so desperately to serve God. i had put faith in him time and again after being disappointed. i had begged for help, for mercy. instead, i was only more broken. when i shared my hurt with others, they only gave me empty assurances that it would get better, that God had a plan, that when God closes one door he opens another, that they would pray for me, that God was in control and i just needed to have faith in him.

well, i kept trying new doors and every damn door was shut in my face. God has just shut all the doors so i'm backed into a grimy corner with nowhere to go. i just lie here stuck on the floor. i never gave up hope before, but now there's no escaping this stuck-ness. it's even worse in some ways than when i was in terrible darkness.

people say they accept whatever you want to pursue or who you want to be, but, in reality, we all have an opinion. demi lovato once said that when she was unraveling suffering from mental illness and substance abuse while doing her music full time, people kept putting band-aids on her and propping her back up. i feel a bit like that. instead of getting to the real heart of my problems, people just want you to look happy again, so they apply temporary fixes. and people don't want me to pursue risky ventures: music, entrepreneurship, etc. or turn my back on the religion i grew up with. so they constantly nudge you away from that. but what if those things helped me find a new, better path for my life?

and thats why people try to pacify you with empty platitudes. they dont want to hear the nitty gritty of your suffering because it makes them uncomfortable to see you suffering. but band-aids don't fix bullet holes, as taylor swift kindly reminds us every hour on pop radio.

i guess this is a time of stepping back from everything i took for granted in life and reexamining it's place. but i don't have answers for what i need or believe. and it's overwhelming to have everything you built your life and identity on put in front of the firing squad. but i can't help it. its like my soul is rejecting it like a transplanted organ i had put in years ago.

i never thought this would happen to me. i don't know where to go. i don't have the answers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Give your heart a break" or "Your mom goes to college" pt.II or "Babe, Don't you know that you're toxic??"

Even though a large part of me really did not want to go back to school, it was still hard to walk away because of the emotional bond I'd formed with the place and people since it had been my home for three years. I still have moments of grief when I'm reminded of some event I'm missing or the fact that friends' lives are moving along without me. I'm not even sure if I'll ever be able to wrap my head around the fact that I'm not there. It's surreal. It feels like I'm still on summer break most of the time.

But although I haven't told many people this, I knew I needed to leave that place because, for me, it was toxic. Even when I wasn't in a really bad place in terms of my mental health, I was not in a good situation emotionally, and I considered transferring more than once even before this year.

It really breaks my heart to think about how disappointed I was by my college experience. High school wasn't so great for me...being a shy, socially anxious girl, I had few friends and just felt generally uncomfortable being surrounded by people and threatened with group work. I was too anxious to get involved with after-school programs either. My general anxiety problems combined with my school's immense pressure on taking high-level coursework left me a mess.

I chose to go to a small Christian school because I thought it would be my chance to be with people who liked to have fun without getting drunk and learn too. I had these dreams about how happy I would be. The school seemed like such a good fit and I was so excited about going. I saw it as my chance to come out of my shell and I dreamed of being an amiable tour guide who would pass lots of friends on my tours who would wave hello and give some cool shout out and I would have a cute boyfriend and graduate at the top of my class. The classes seemed so fascinating when I pored over the catalog and I thought I knew just what I wanted to do for work. There were so many clubs listed and I would circle all the ones I was interested in...

When my family left after moving me in, I called my mom after standing on the sidewalk for five minutes in the same place they had left me and sobbed into the phone that I needed them to come back and take me home. I couldn't believe when other girls on my hall said they hadn't called home once the whole of orientation week. I called home pretty much every day the rest of my three years there.

I introduced myself to one girl after another but soon despaired of ever actually forming any friendships. We had seemed to be all on even ground when we came in. But you are never on a level playing field. Certain girls just clicked or even had the benefit of already knowing people. They dated guys on our brother hall. They got to start on the path of future fraternity sweethearts. I felt like every time I met a person I clicked with, they disappeared and I never saw them again. Or if I did, they had moved on to make other friends.

After one semester, everyone seemed to be set as far as friends, so forming new relationships after that point was even more difficult. I bravely set out on my journey to find a group to be involved in - I love having a community to contribute to - so I could make friends. But this was to be the bane of my existence my three years there. I tried for and was rejected from the following:
     
     - Chapel worship team (I actually didn't even get an audition...)
     - A women's Bible study and mentoring group (I was waitlisted. Guess Ill have to wait on that spiritual growth...)
     - A women's honorary service society (because you have to reach a certain caliber of goodness to be qualified to do nice things for others)
     - Homecoming weekend coffeehouse (Twice. But then I figured out that this was because all the slots were given to attractive males. I guess that's why the all-female audition panel looked so bored while I played.)
     - A group that put on concerts (Because you need a small, select group of people for that. And this was after they walked you into a dark room and made you sit in front of an overhead projector while disembodied voices asked questions to gauge your professional experience like, "Who would win: Batman or Superman?")
    - Librarian job (In spite of the fact that I spent probably 5+ hours in the place every day of my freshman year...And I have the soul of a librarian.)
    - My long-dreamt-of Tour Guide job (Because shy people are obvi incompetent. Whatever. I didn't want to memorize your canned, basic white college speech anyways.)
    - Probably some other stuff
    - Happiness (just being melodramatic now.)

So I ended up in an emotional state of loneliness and disappointment, feeling like an outsider (still), rejected and unable to break into the cool crowd. I felt angry because I knew I had talent and a heart to serve but people were making you go through ridiculous audition/application/interview processes so they could power/ego-trip and then pick their friends.

Living in such a situation, as you might imagine, made things even worse when I had a severe bout of depression in the Spring of my sophomore year. I was a wreck physically and mentally due stress and panic attacks that kept me awake for hours every night. I fell into a pretty bad state of depression and struggled with suicidal thoughts. I felt so worthless and insignificant, disappointed and frustrated.

Junior year, I was finally able to join a group and loved having a social outlet where I was, amazingly, able to break out of my shell quite a bit and make many friends. But over Christmas break, I fell into another Major Depressive episode, probably my worst yet, and things broke back down into their original miserable state of being. My moods were very erratic, such that I questioned if I had Borderline Personality, and small slights hit me hard. I had struggled all my time at school with feeling unsupported by friends, unaccepted by cliques, unpopular, barred from serving as I dreamed, too far from family...all this came to a head in that semester.

I needed unconditional love and support but found people were busy, flaky, unsure of how to deal with an emotional basket case, or even judgmental. New friends meant fun outings and inside jokes, but also let downs, being an outsider of closer relationships, and occasional insensitive comments (mostly from males. Insert eye roll. Then go into a corner and cry.) Not to mention the tumultuous rise and fall of an inaccessible romantic interest who chose another girl. These things all tore me to pieces. I, sadly, started tearing myself to pieces with it, feeling it was what I deserved.

In the midst of my bold attempts to finally break free of my shackles of shyness, I was imprisoned by other old foes: depression, rejection, loneliness. I had these beautiful moments of freedom: dancing on my roommate's bed to a freshman dance going on outside the room in the dorm courtyard. Dancing my little heart out before finding out the man I thought I finally had a chance with was going to make it official with an apathetic hipster. Doing improvised lunchtime sit-down stand-up comedy for friends at mealtimes....

But the flip side was eating alone 2/3 of the time. Not having the energy to go without taking two naps a day. The cold stare and offhand comments of my overachieving roommate. The nights crying curled in a ball on the bathroom floor. The sweater inseams covered in dried snot from phone calls home in the vacuum closet. The showers spent lying on the tile, letting the torrents wash over me. The smattering of red scratches on my upper thighs. The social events ruined by a look or eye roll or short remark.

I had to walk away.
It's easy to see myself as the problem child: Too emotional. Unbalanced. Not committed enough. Lazy. Taking things too personal. But I also see myself as sensitive, generous, compassionate, concerned. And brave. This week I am proud of myself for walking away from a toxic place. I have attributed my relief from the worst of my depression to being home, but today I am giving myself some credit for the recovery: I removed myself from a harmful place even though I knew people would judge, abandon me, not understand, etc. I always rag on myself for being so dependent on others, but I made a choice to protect myself instead of just following what everyone else expected.

Bam.

Give yourself credit for something.

Your mom goes to college

As I've mentioned before, I'm in a bit of an awkward place right now because I withdrew from college after attending for three years. Living in a place where the majority of the population has at least a bachelor's degree, this can be kind of, well, frowned upon. I feel like there is an invisible clock over my head ticking down the time I have before I go back to school.

I guess the problem comes in where I don't really want to go back to school. I know to society that makes me look lazy, but I decided to withdraw because I thought it was better to take a step back and examine what I really wanted in life before finishing. And I wanted to wait until I was really ready to put my all into my schoolwork so I'm not just wasting my time and my parents' money. It doesn't seem wise to go to school just because you feel like you have to if you are going to just scrape by.

So I guess I've been trying to accept the place where I am. I may not be doing anything valid in others' eyes, but I am trying to build skills on my own that I had always neglected because I was trying to "focus" on school: art, communication in relationships, self-reflection, self-expression. Letting myself come up with crazy ideas for future ambitions. Life is a process and even great minds need a period of development. Problem is, we're always pushing ourselves to accomplish things NOW, get famous young, finish in three years instead of four, etc.

Meanwhile, I think about many of my friends who are in school still and how few of them really have their heart in what they're doing. They're all hard working people and they are managing good grades, but I never met anyone who really had a passion for learning and doing school while I was at college. Everyone acted like they'd rather be anywhere else doing anything else. Dorm room door whiteboards boasted countdowns to upcoming breaks. Why keep trying to shove a square tube through a circular hole? And spending $25,000+ to do it? Most of us don't even know what it is we want to do for work.

Being home, I've realized how interested I am in entrepreneurship. I always kept as far away from business classes as possible because I never considered myself skilled in that area, but taking time to dream and scheme has made me reconsider the use of business classes should I go back to school.

Beyond the practical use of time off, I'm proud of myself for making a decision that was best for me and my health. I know that's not the first thing that comes to mind when people make a judgment on someone dropping out of school, but it was a major factor in my decision. And it isn't easy to decide to buck tradition and put your own wellbeing first. But I'm glad I did, and I hope I continue to wisely consider my life path instead of succumbing to the pressure to scramble to follow a certain expected life trajectory.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Not Enough

Since I've withdrawn from college after this spring semester, I've mostly occupied my time with trying my hand at different art and craft projects. I've redecorate my room, painted furniture, scrapbooked half a decade of my life, brushed off my sewing machine from high school, build bookshelves, you name it. I've always enjoyed a good project and I've been proud of how all my projects have turned out, but I can't seem to escape this gnawing need to do more, to have some goal I am working towards, some accomplishment I can contribute to the world.

This is a driving need I have felt most of my life. It's good to an extent in that it pushes me to work hard and to correct mistakes, but it also is somewhat torturous. I can't seem to enjoy the things I've made because I'm constantly thinking about what I need to do next that's better. I feel unsatisfied with myself. I am never good enough. And I even feel afraid to do things I love, like write, because I feel such an immense pressure for it to be perfect.

I was thinking a lot this weekend about my experience in religion over the years, and as my dissatisfaction with my work as an artist has culminated this evening, I realized that this drive towards perfection played a significant part in my religious experience as well.

As I helped with a church event this weekend, I reflected a lot on how alienated I feel from God. This is a place I never really thought I would be in. Starting in sixth grade, I became very passionate about being a Christian and having a relationship with God. I read an memorized my Bible and became very involved in my church, leading Bible studies and teaching younger youth about the faith. I went to a Christian college, hoping to have my faith further nurtured. Always I was propelled by a drive to be a more virtuous person, to grow closer to God, to do what I knew was best. I felt an immense pressure from within to pray enough, read my Bible enough, identify shortcomings in my life, identify a lesson I could learn in each sermon, find a way to use my gifts to serve God...

Sound familiar? For years I have felt so frustrated with my inability to be disciplined enough to have a focused devotional time each day. I can't seem to follow a schedule I set for myself. Every semester of college, I committed at the beginning to this time spend time each day reading my Bible and then panicked and felt so ashamed of myself when I didn't follow through. Same with my commitments to be better about procrastinating on writing papers or keeping up with textbook reading.

I don't have much of a point for this post, but I guess I wanted to process this realization because I think it may be a crucial one. And maybe it's a first step to accept that I can write something that has no point to it. I've always tried to figure out a purpose for things that happen or try to justify the way I spend my time or money, but I know it will be more freeing just to let go and enjoy the process of each thing. Otherwise I'll always be holding back from doing things. Maybe it's time to take a breath and tell myself it's okay to just be. Not everything has to have a purpose. Some things can just be for enjoyment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

To Be Honest

No, I'm not okay.

No, I'm not doing any better.

No, things aren't getting better.

No, I don't have a plan for next year.

No, I haven't applied to any more jobs.

No, I haven't heard back about the application.

No, I'm not sure if I'm ready to go back.

No, I don't know if the new medication is helping or not.

No, I haven't played my guitar much lately.

No, I don't think I'll make it to church today.

No, I didn't clean up my room yet.

No, I didn't call the doctor.

No, I didn't go to the appointment.

No, I don't want to get out of bed.

You think I'm a failure?

Yeah, me too sometimes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

"God Won't Bless a Mess"

I remember once in high school when I was cat-sitting for a neighbor who is a devout Evangelical Christian. I always marveled at how clean her house was. It was meticulously decorated and organized. Anyone who has lived with me can assure that cleanliness is not my strong suit.

Going downstairs to do the dreaded duty of cleaning the litter box, I noticed an unmissable sign on the overhang of the basement stairs that read:

               REMEMBER: GOD WON'T BLESS A MESS

Shoot, I thought. I guess that means we're all in a boatload of trouble then. I haven't met one person who has their life together. Even quaint Bed and Breakfasts in Cape Cod have random crap shoved in a bathroom closet.

Recently, a friend shared an article criticizing Evangelical Christians for their obsession with exhibiting their imperfection rather than focusing on holiness and sanctification. I'm sure they had a good point, but I couldn't really make it through the article because after spending my middle, high school, and college years obsessed with self-improvement, I am now a USDA-certified Hot Mess. I know it and I sometimes hate myself for it.

Beyond my own (long) shortcomings, I have been made acutely aware in the past year of the shortcomings of other Christians, convincing me that they are WHO-certified Radioactive Oil Spills. My sister was backstabbed on a Julius Caesar-esque level by a woman who writes a lovely, flower-embellished Christian Mommy Blog. My heart has been broken by stories of and encounters with people destroyed by prejudice, judgment, and abandonment by Christians and the Church. I, myself, have felt very abandoned by God, Christian friends, and the Church. I find little help for tough times and can't rally myself back to the faith I once had.

What I've also realized in the past couple years though is that Jesus came for a world that is a Hot Mess and people who are really messed up. He spent time with the riff-raff. I don't even think I would want to hang out with many of the people he did. And many of these people are the very same that we look down on, condemn, push away, ignore, and accuse: the social outcasts, morally corrupt, crazy, disabled, annoying, poor, and crazy.

It breaks my heart to hear about many Christians shutting out family and friends in an effort to send a message of disapproval. God is the one who has the task of judging. He has given us the task of being His presence on earth and loving.

I also found this article's message concerning because I have found that people being honest about their struggles is the most helpful for teaching and encouraging others. I also think it is one of the best tools for reaching out to those who do not have a relationship with God. Even as someone who has grown up in the Church, I find it alienating how people put forth such a perfect facade. There is little guidance for dealing with hardship and failure because so much emphasis is placed on optimism and vague platitudes. In general, it is more comforting to hear another person's story than "I know how you feel. You will be okay."

I hope the Church can be more honest because I think that's what the world needs. People are tired of constructed images of perfection that they can't measure up to. Everyone is tired of putting on a mask of happiness and hipness. People need to know they are not alone: the Body of Christ should stand with them through thick and thin, just as Christ does.

--------

Your song pairing for this literary meal

Just a Phase

All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes, dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days.
                           - Joni Mitchell "Last Time I Saw Richard"

 I've known for most of my life that I am not quite right upstairs. I first started being consumed with anxiety in first grade. The tyranny of my Type A teacher triggered the anxious tendencies I had inherited from my mom and I turned into a nervous wreck who would cry all the way to school and beg to stay home. The anxiety would manifest itself again throughout my school life. In fourth and fifth grade I became obsessed with the fear of getting detention, which was regularly threatened to us to "prepare us for middle school". When I was doled out this prison sentence in fourth grade after forgetting to do my math homework, I must have had to choke back tears, feeling thoroughly chastised. In fifth grade, my mom eventually told my teacher about my terror because I remember her pulling me aside one day and explaining I had nothing to worry about...I was a model student and she would never give me detention.

I remember crying while packing my bag for the first day of school every summer for the next several years of secondary school. I wept every night the first week of my junior year of high school because of the complete overwhelm I felt at the thought of taking three Advanced Placement classes (but it is an official decree of suburban high schools that if you don't take as many AP's as humanly possible, you won't get into college and so will work at McD's and die a premature death.) You can imagine the terror that was the first weeks of college and, well, the whole of college, for me. Five minutes after saying good-bye to my family, I called my mom and begged her to come back an take me home.

Here I am now after a year and a half of official treatment...concoctions of pills, heart-bearing sessions with stony-faced psychiatrists an counselors (conversations that cost a small fortune, may I add)...an unemployed, virtually housebound college drop-out who can't get a job or fit into any of her favorite clothes and is sometimes gripped with inexplicable terror of leaving the house.

Who sits dreading tomorrow because I have to 1) possibly interact with the maids coming in to clean the house, and 2) go to an appointment with my counselor. And dreads the day after because I'm supposed to 1) sit around the house anticipating going to the doctor; 2) go to the doctor with heart beating and stomach twisting; 3) talk to the scary receptionists who hate life and even more, hate YOU; 4) sit in a large napkin and talk to a stranger about all my shortcomings as a human being and than be mercilessly tickled and prodded and made to feel as uncomfortable AS POSSIBLE.

To make things brief: anxiety is crippling. It sucks the life out of you. And it takes you unawares. A month ago I was driving myself to community college four days a week and ordering bagels from Panera like nobody's business. I was still a hot mess, but I was semi-functional. Then something snapped inside of me and I found myself lying on my bed in the fetal position, whimpering like a little rescue puppy that I just couldn't go to class. I couldn't. I could barely get out of bed.

I know a lot of people won't get it. I sound pitiful and lazy and cowardly, no doubt, to many. I look that way to myself a lot, too. I have spent over a decade pushing myself to overcome this monster of fear inside of me, bullying myself for backing out when things got too overwhelming. This year, I finally just fell to pieces. And I seem to be stuck that way. My efforts to pull myself into some kind of passable working human being seem to just lead me to explode again. It's embarrassing. It's frustrating. It's a process of constantly going back to Square One...or Square Negative One.

I thought healing would be a lot easier than this. I thought this failure to meet basic human standards for living would just be a phase. I thought I'd have an epiphany or a turning point or a saving grace...It seems to happen to other people that I read about. When I went on medication a year ago, I never guessed I'd be one of those pitiful people you read about who has tried umpteen meds and is still a sad 45 year-old overweight TV addict on Unemployment. But I can't keep track of the opportunities that have fell through and the medications that haven't worked. And, damn it...I'm still waiting on a breakthrough.

This is my journey. It isn't too nitty gritty and dark, thankfully, but it isn't the blue skies I like to portray it to be. I want to honestly share my struggles in life because it has meant so much to me to hear other people do so and because I want people going through similar things to know they're not alone. I guess this may be hard to read because it's not exactly uplifting or optimistic, but if you will bear with me, I hope this can give you some insight into what life is like for those who struggle with mental illness.

The song I quoted at the beginning resonates with me a lot because it has this dark, desperate undertone of trying to convince oneself that you're on the mend and better times are just around the bend. I feel stuck hiding behind bottles in a dark cafe, dreaming up schemes to break free of the dark cocoon suffocating me -- a cocoon I was supposed to shed as my fellow pupae have done. But maybe healing, like so many things in life, is a long-term process full of setbacks and pitfalls and shortcomings.

For some people, mental illness is not just a phase, but a lifelong battle.

-----------------
 
 Hear Joni Mitchell's "Last Time I Saw Richard"