I started writing this article in my head as I washed dishes this morning (December 3rd). My mind often wanders as it processes interactions from the day before as I do household tasks that I least enjoy – ironing is a particularly creative gold mine. Thoughts meandered on three distinct experiences from my past: the first as a fourteen year-old when I am convinced I had my first depressive episode; then at the age of twenty-four having just made a life-changing and difficult decision; and this past year of observing my life’s movie highlights.
As I washed pots, I was in physical agony wondering if I was really ready to share these deeply personal parts of my life that I have kept hidden from even my inner circle. I know that during these inner conversations and debates, people looking at me must think that I am losing my marbles, especially my husband who gave me that look as he walked up to the sink. I chuckled and pretended I was singing, but we both know I wasn’t. But the temporary distraction to my reverie freed me from spiralling and talking myself out of being brave. So, here goes.
As a teenager, I was a walking contradiction. On stage dancing I was larger than life, and most times I was able to leave all my troubles on the floor and let the dance take over. I became a different person. Once the performance was over, my confidence left me like a child being left at the firehouse. Switching between both personalities was exhausting. I withdrew from people and built emotional defenses that vacillated between explosive anger and quiet reticence. Over the years I distinctly remember that I just could not shake that dark ominous cloud that covered me unless I danced. Sounds familiar? Looking back, I can now recognize the symptoms as indicators of different levels of depression.
At fourteen, I was handling so many things that I had no skills to deal with: my body was changing as it was designed to, I started developing the physical characteristics of a woman, the rites of womanhood had begun, and I was holding onto a secret that would form the roots of many emotional, mental, and spiritual struggles. At fourteen I was still coming to grips–who am I kidding–I was freaking out over being sexually molested as an eleven year-old. Intertwined with that fact was the acceptance that a family member connected to the molester asked me not to tell anyone what the repugnant offender had done. This family member protected him and not me, and I could not reconcile that in my head or heart. I cut this family member off emotionally, but it was hard to do as I loved them. I simply lacked the skills to deal with people like that, even the ones who had so obviously and horrendously betrayed my trust. Since I no longer trusted this person, I kept them at bay with anger. I kept everyone whom I did not fully trust at bay with anger, very explosive anger.
As I grew, I used anger to fuel my fire to prove everyone who wronged me, who misunderstood me (but how could they when I kept my armour up), who underestimated me, wrong. My stepmother thought I would end up a teen mom with no prospects? I would show her! My father thought I was lazy and was not really trying when I ran track? I would show him! Anyone who thought or spoke the words ‘you can’t,’ I set out to prove them wrong. My teens and early twenties were like a blur. Anger seemed to be an effective fire to get me moving, but honestly, it led to me being emotionally burned out very quickly and quite often. But like every other problem I faced growing up, I simply learned how to absorb and cope with it. Dancing was a great coping mechanism until it was taken from me: through injury, or being prohibited as punishment. So I developed other coping skills like well-crafted sarcasm. I learned how to use my words better to stop people from encroaching on my invisible emotional boundaries by diplomatically insulting them. When that did not work, I became outright rude to them.
Anger was a great fuel, but it burned too quickly and at the end of the day I often cried myself to sleep. During my teen years I wore out many R&B cassette tapes in my Walkman player. In my twenties, I wore down CD’s. In my later years I was happy to have earphones and the myriad of music devices that stored hours of music. It was my saving grace when I just did not have the words to express the pain that was buried deep but threatened to explode through the walls I had built.
It was music that carried me through dealing with an unexpected pregnancy at 24. I had just ended my relationship with the father – the angry tone we left the conversation on scared me, and I was certain that neither wanted anything to do with the other, ever. But the pregnancy changed everything. I was scared and made a hasty decision to terminate the pregnancy before it was too late to do so. This was a decision that I thought was the best course for me at that time. Now looking back I wished I had someone to hold me and say, “This is not the end of the world for you; you can still make a life for you and your child.” Afterwards the pain I had been holding at bay flooded through me like an endless wave. Where I had previously struggled to cry when my pain was at epic levels, I now cried for everything that was upsetting. I would cry, but in the end just felt empty. I soon became numb to everything or I would explode with anger that just did not make sense. I had lapses of memory and just could not understand why. I can recognize the signs now, but back then I couldn’t; I was experiencing severe depression. But I ‘coped’ as best as I could.
Life carried on. I applied for university, scholarships, and a new job. All of them came through within a 6-month period. I was terrified to do so many things all at once, but I was encouraged to go for it, so I packed up and left for university in a three-week period. I was exhausted, but I ‘coped’ like I did before. Masters courses threw me in at the deep end, but I did my best and had a decent GPA at the end of the first term. I really got my stride in the second term, but summer, rest, and lack of busyness hit me like a brick. I spent the summer trying to recover from the fast pace of my life in the past 18 months, and I could not shake that dark cloud. After a seven-day physical theatre workshop, my emotional walls crumbled. I started crying after a post dance workshop massage and could not stop. I was convinced that I could not begin the final two terms of my masters. But the financial reality of having to wait a year to take them spurred me into action. I showed up for the first day of class and ‘coped’ the best I could. I made it through the term and my final dissertation better than ok, but not as well as if I had not been struggling emotionally.
Which is the point of this article; I have for more than three decades, coped and lived with tremendous emotional, mental and sometimes physical challenges, weight and pressure because I thought that was how life simply was. I was not going to quit, so I had no choice but to ‘cope’ right? No, life should not be about ‘just coping’ and that is not the life that Jesus has in mind for us.
First, He tells us that He loves us…”For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” John 3:16.
Then He tells us He has big things in store for us…”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV).
And He tells us that we don’t have to go it alone…”Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding,” Proverbs 3:5 (ESV).
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Matthew 6:25 (ESV).
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” Isaiah 41:10 (ESV).
All of these are great verses to remind us of God’s love for us, to praise Him in both happy and sad times, to lean on Him in our weak moments, and to let Him be our Father by giving Him our whole heart. But this takes practice, discipline, and being kind to ourselves when we falter. I falter every day by ‘acting strong,’ when inside I am terrified and unsure–my go-to defensive posture for more than 30 years. It kept me going through unspeakable tragedies and protected me around perilous people. But I gathered all of the pain and fear inside without sharing it for years. It all swirled around in my heart until it spiralled in my head…and never stopped. My mind raced with disparate thoughts, and I could not focus for more than a few minutes. It got so bad that death seemed like a better option than living.
Yes, I took steps to end my pain and my life. That day is burned into my memory and still brings me to tears. So is the conversation I had with my mom, two experiences I never wanted to repeat. My path of letting people share my burdens has been a twenty-year journey of working with medical professionals to put my painful past into grounded reality, doing the work to develop skills to handle those low moments, and letting God transform me. The toughest part of that journey has been, and still is, being honest when I need help. While I may have ‘survived’ for decades by acting strong, the seeds of love that God has nurtured in my heart has led me to want to truly ‘live.’ To live authentically means setting aside survival-based instincts, addressing each moment as a new experience, and asking for help when I just don’t know what to do.
I need help every day to control my thoughts and words as I drive in traffic, so I play praise music when my mouth has lost its way. I need help when my anxiety forces me to cancel plans made with friends because my imposter syndrome overwhelms my social confidence, so I attend anyway, but with a friend who ‘knows’ my challenge. I need help when I am screaming inside, but my well-developed projected confidence falsely leads people to think I can handle it on my own, so I cry with no shame and let the emotional steam vent. I need help learning how to trust after so much heartbreak, so I married a man who knows all of my pain, but loves me in spite of it all. Getting married this year and learning how to allow my husband to help me when my natural tendency is to ‘go it alone’ has been particularly challenging. Writing this article, being open and honest about such painfully private moments, was brutal. It took 28 days (and buckets of tears) to complete it. I was struggling for weeks to write the ending, and eventually had to ask for help.
So it is fitting that I am writing the last part today, 31st December, the last day of 2019. Being strong isn’t about doing it alone; it becomes an unnatural rhythm to our life that feels out of step once we begin to authentically approach life. Going it alone was never God’s plan for us. There are countless verses in the Bible reminding us to let Him be our strength in our weakness, to let Him be our refuge in times of danger, to take up our preciously-purchased birthright ,as children of God. But it takes time, dedication, many tears, actively forgiving ourselves, and getting up each and every time. Being strong is not enough to truly take our place as brothers and sisters in Christ. Being strong also means asking for help. “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him,” Psalm 28:7 ESV.