Stranger to Myself

“It may happen when you first wake up, or while flying on an airplane or driving in your car. Suddenly, inexplicably, something changes. Common objects and familiar situations seem strange, foreign. Like you’ve just arrived on the planet, but don’t know from where. It may pass quickly, or it may linger. You close your eyes and turn inward, but the very thoughts running through your head seem different. The act of thinking itself, the stream of invisible words running through the hollow chamber of your mind, seems strange and unreal. It’s as if you have no self, no ego, no remnant of that inner strength which quietly and automatically enabled you to deal with the world around you, and the world inside you. It may settle over time, into a feeling of “nothingness”, as if you were without emotions, dead.”

When I first read these words in my college dorm room during the early weeks of 2005, I felt a fresh relief was over me. I was not crazy. Similar to my awakening with my strange social anxiety disorder, I felt comfort knowing that my condition had a name and there were others suffering like me.

But that did not make it much easier to deal with. While I was convinced this new condition was nothing like depression, the state I was in fueled a new or continuing depression. According to this same article, depersonalization disorder or “DP” can be a coping mechanism and often occurs in life threatening situations. As someone who is also a Highly Sensitive Person, I had gone through so many life changes in the last several months that my body and mind were simply maxed out. I couldn’t deal with life because of the stress the changes caused so I literally “zoned out” and became like “an automaton or as if [I was] living in a dream or a movie.” 

So as I stated in my last post, I moved back home with my parents at age twenty. It was a toss up in my mind whether it was the right decision or not. But my therapist-the head of the counseling department at Bethel-and my parents basically decided for me. I had to withdraw from all my college courses and ended up losing a lot of money which was super discouraging. I also had to quit working at the group home job I loved without giving them any warning, which created extreme guilt in me. All of these changes only intensified my depression, feelings of shame, worthlessness and self-hate. But somehow I kept hanging on and trusting God.

I got in to see a bunch of professionals both in the Twin Cities and in the city where my parents lived in Wisconsin. I went up on the anti-depressant I was on and began a mood stabilizer, which the doctor said would help with pain and ease up the depersonalized, out-of-body feelings. But I had a lot of concerns about being on all this medication and worried constantly about it.

Not being at school stripped me of worth in a lot of ways. I had prided myself in my academics, in my job taking care of disabled adults, in my work as a youth group leader, and in just being independent of my parents. Now I was back under their care and continually berated myself for it, calling myself “weak,” “immature” and a “baby.”

My parents could never be what I wanted them to be, though the rational part of my brain knew they were doing the best they could to help me. My dad would annoy me with his positive attitude and encouragement, as though I could just snap my fingers and be healed. My mom was either too smothering or completely ignoring. I would one minute resent my parents’ very presence. The next minute I would think, “What kind of parents are they?” by leaving me home alone each day. “Don’t they realize I could easily hurt or kill myself with all sorts of tools laying around?”

For a few weeks, I kept busy by finishing up some classwork for my half-semester classes. I also went to Christian counseling once a week, but didn’t feel I was making any progress. I would also spend time lots of time reading and journaling. I tried to stay in touch with some friends back at school. Sometimes I was encouraged; other times I felt overwhelmingly misunderstood and would fall back into feelings of loneliness and self-pity. I felt a lot of envy for my siblings and some of my friends who seemed healthy, happy, and even thriving.

I continued to have headaches or migraines almost daily, unexplained nausea, and panic attacks that would come out of nowhere. My body would literally shut down every day around 7 p.m. I’d be laying on the couch, watching a movie and suddenly be unable to breath deeply. It felt like someone was suffocating me. The only thing I could do was lay in bed; but I wouldn’t be able to rest.

On top of (and as a result of) this, my depression worsened. One morning, in the beginning of April, I woke up and thought, “I have no reason to get out of bed. All I will be doing today is sitting around, spending time alone. My friends won’t even call me back and even if they do, I am finding it harder and harder to explain why I get so down. The same with my family. They want to hear me say all is well, so why not give them what they want? Besides, if I were them, I would be dead annoyed with myself for not pulling it together by now.”

That’s when I started planning my suicide, which would be to drive the van in the garage, windows down, car running, garage door down. I would have to do it soon-before Dad got home for lunch. He would be the one to find me. Would I be dead? I thought about how my suicide would affect people. Since my friends often forget I exist anyway, it won’t be so bad for them. Then there’s my family; extended, yeah, it will be a shock but somehow in the run of a year or so, they’ll get over it. Then immediate; yeah, they will suffer, but how much do I really add to their life anyway?

I came to the conclusion that, yes, this was the best solution. Better dead than having to live a double life, where on the one hand I’m a strong Christian with a deep faith, a compassionate and committed leader; on the other hand, a suicidal wreck, someone who spends her days trying to teach others NOT to believe the lies she herself believes.

Then the biggie: what would God think? I had already thought about this a lot over the years, but that day I thought about it the most. I figured since murderers could receive forgiveness, so could people who kill themselves. Surely God wouldn’t banish to hell, someone who’s been a committed Christian her whole life and one day just snaps, would He? I was sure I’d receive judgment, but once in heaven, it wouldn’t matter, right? I couldn’t imagine a place I’d rather be, and I decided I would do anything to get there.

For the first time in my life, I had the sudden realization that I held life and death in my hands. It wouldn’t take much. It wouldn’t even be painful. I’d finally be free of all my sickness and pain.

I laid their for probably two hours, wrestling with God in my head. I never did attempt suicide that day. It is unclear how much the medications I was on were triggering these thoughts. Before this extreme suicidal episode, my mood stabilizer-Neurontin-had been tweaked. In later months and years, I would notice similar episodes after certain med changes.

At the time, however, I was clueless. I just kept surviving every day. Despite still having suicidal thoughts multiple times a day, I would look to God. I wrote in my journal obsessively; it was my source of survival. I didn’t often feel close to God. I cried out to Him often, “Where are you, God?” But glimpses of His truth would sometimes reach me: through His Word, Christian books, and unexpected cards or phone calls of encouragement from friends. I also learned to have gratitude in the little things: my dog, music, nature and being with loved ones.

That spring, my schedule picked up and I made several trips to and from the Cities. I was planning on going on a mission trip with my church that summer to Mexico (as a youth leader/translator). So I had several events related to the trip to attend. Additionally, I attended my brother’s graduation in Minneapolis with my dad.

Finally, I nannied for my three young cousins two different times at their home in Illinois. This was probably the most empowering time of my entire time away from college. It was interesting to see how much better I did with the kids the second time (in May) as compared to the first time (in April). Each time was only for a couple days, but still very challenging for me. By the end of the second nannying experience, I felt a renewed sense of purpose in caring for children and in helping my family. I felt freer because I wasn’t so obsessed with thoughts of myself. I also experienced something I hadn’t in a while: joy and fun. I bonded more with the children, ages 3, 5 and 7, and created some unforgettable memories with them. I got a lot closer to God during that time, too, and praised him for allowing me to have this experience.

By the end of the spring, I was getting anxious to get back to my life in the Twin Cities. I still was not completely-or even remotely-better. I was having the same symptoms that had landed me at home with my parents. The most troubling symptom was how unreal everything felt. This created incredible sadness in me because I couldn’t experience joyful experiences, such as my brother’s marriage, the way I hoped to. But I kept trusting in God and staying near the love of my friends and family. I came to believe that I could still receive love even when people couldn’t understand me.

Even though my illness raged on, I was dealing with it better, so I moved back to the Cities at the beginning of June. My sense of purpose returned as I started up all my activities again. Gradually, the out-of-body feelings started lessening over the course of that summer. The bizarre physical symptoms also eased up. I still had no idea what my body was doing and why it just “chose” to do what it wanted all the time. But I praised God for my healing with the hope that He’d continue to be there with me as I resumed college that fall.

 

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Beauty, perfectionism and Christian dating

“I am not worth anything until I am dating or, by a certain age, married.”

I was always told I was “pretty” and “cute.” My mom was good at doing that. She would make me cute sweaters, bows and even clothing that matched with my dolls’.  As a child I always felt so happy wearing all those beautiful things.

My mom would also do my hair very “pretty.”As I got older, she taught me how to “do” my hair (and later makeup) correctly. I later realized being able to do one’s hair without help was a sort of a coming-of-age event for the girls in my family.

Most things I learned about girls and women I learned from my family. My mom, her sisters and my grandma, always presented themselves well. Always beautiful, hair styled, makeup on, impeccable outfits and matching accessories. The message I received from the women in my life is that a woman was expected to do everything possible to make herself beautiful (externally) to the world.

I began comparing myself to my family members especially as a teen. I wanted to be dating but we were not allowed to date until age sixteen. I knew most women in my family married very young (by age 20) so I had to make sure I got a “good start.”

Puberty struck me late in life; as a perfectionist, I constantly felt less than. I was obsessed with being on the “in crowd.” While my girlfriends talked about boys and periods at the junior high lunch table, I sat there pretending like I could relate. I had a lot of contempt for my slow-developing body; I longed to be taller and less flat-chested. I was also self conscious of wearing glasses. One of my brothers and I would often talk about our relationship woes. We both probably struggled with self-esteem and the need to look perfect for the opposite sex. One day, my brother made a matter-of-fact comment, that once I got contacts, the guys would “be all over me.” Through comments like these and the influence of my friends, I began lying to myself about the way I needed to look and the experiences with guys I needed to have.

Finally, everything started falling into place by my tenth grade year when I reached full puberty. At 16, I was finally “of eligible age” to date. I finally got a little bit more self-esteem; some days I even felt as “cute” and “beautiful” as when I was a child. Soon, I  did receive attention from guys, but they were not “quality” guys; my term for the guys that typically liked me was “messed up.” I would go back and forth between feeling flattered by their comments and disgusted. Then I would always question, what is wrong with me that no decent or popular guy would like me. I would find myself in a war when it came to relationships with guys. If a guy liked me I would initially act interested to comfort my wounded inner self, but later I would come to my senses and realize I didn’t want to spend time with these particular guys. I ended up having quite a bit of guilt for “crushing” guys, though my family and friends told me to forget about it.

During the later part of my junior year, I fell in love hard. I was head over heals for a guy in my youth group at church. I initially had no interest in him until he began giving me quite a bit of flirtatious attention. During a period of about six months, his actions toward me fueled my passion for and fascination with him. It’s so interesting because my feelings of that time come back so quickly. They were so intense yet I now realize they were all about me. I really had no love and care for the guy. I only cared about how I was perceived. My self-esteem finally sky-rocketed because I felt I was finally “worth something.” Any day now, this guy would ask me out and everything in my little life would be perfect. The world would finally love me. This never happened. The guy barely even talked to me much less asked me out and later denied even liking me. Even though my interest in him had died down, I was still crushed and found myself believing I was not good enough for good, popular guys.

These thoughts continued throughout high school and hit their peak my freshman year at Bethel University (formerly Bethel College), a Christian liberal arts school where the common ditty was “ring by spring.” The theory is that, since most Christians are virgins, they just have to get married young; a marriage proposal would come by the spring of the girl’s senior year of college. There was a lot of pressure to find “the One,” that perfect Bethel boy, especially for someone like me whose only dream in life since the age of eight was to be married. Not only married, but preferably by age 21 and to have all my children before age 30 like my mom. (I used to pretend to pop babies out of my stomach with my dolls growing up! I just couldn’t wait for the real thing!)

I continued to believe the lie I believed my whole life: “If I only work hard enough to look beautiful, people—especially guys—will notice me. If can just be perfect, I will be worthy of love.”  I would often daydream about certain guys I met who I considered perfect. Sometimes I had proof that they found me attractive but wondered why they never asked me out. The conclusion I came to was always the same: “I am not good enough.”

I continued to swing from feeling like the most sexy thing ever to feeling like the scum of the earth, not even worthy to be an ant under a guy’s shoe. The summer after my freshman year, I was working full time and living with my parents at my Wisconsin home. One day, I had to bring my younger brother Tim his lunch at his work—a car dealership. I knew that Tim worked with all men and, for that reason (though I didn’t admit it to myself), I made sure I looked extra attractive. Sure enough, when I pulled around to the back of the dealership where Tim worked I noticed his co-workers staring at me. My desires to be noticed were met and I felt really good about myself. A few weeks later my brother revealed to me the conversation that came about after I left that day. His coworkers told him I was hot and asked him if I had a boyfriend. Tim said no and they responded: “Why not?! Is she gay?” Tim, of course, was disgusted with them and stood up for me, but I couldn’t help feeling overwhelming grief and self-pity at that moment. There is something wrong with me, I continued to lie to myself.

My dating experiences in college and afterward became predictable. My obsessions with perfection clouded my judgement and my own sense of identity. The judgments I put on myself were extended to the guys I dated. I was often petrified that we weren’t “good enough” together. I was terrified of how others would perceive us as a couple. I often made decisions based on what everyone else thought. I never really figured out my own identity or, if I thought I knew what I wanted, I would constantly doubt myself. If my family and friends liked a guy, I would feel pressure to like him too. I would constantly berate myself for not feeling love for the guy I was dating, when in everyone else’s mind, he was “perfect.” This came with the territory of people-pleasing and performance addiction.

I had such a profound hatred for myself during those times. I intellectually understood I was beautiful “inside and out” as everyone always told me and that I was dating material. I believed I was worthless, like I, the “bad” girl, was hurting and scarring this “good” guy for life. I was a failure in my mind. I couldn’t live up to all those women in my family who had great men and had married young. I would scream and cry out to God, “Please help me like him the way he likes me, Lord!” My low self-esteem spurred on my depression which in turn negatively affected every relationship I had.

One minute, I would come to the conclusion that he was the wrong guy for me and I had nothing to do with it. The next minute I would think, it’s all me. I am too unlovable and I’m ruining his life. Either way, I would break up with him and look for the next “perfect” guy, a dream relationship that existed in my mind. I was searching for love and truly believed I couldn’t be happy until I found it.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that it was probably best to heal before I dated, that I was able to separate my worth from my dating status. That I discovered this truth: I didn’t need to search for love because I no doubt already had it. Instead, I was searching for the ability in myself to accept this love. My profound inability to accept love from myself, others and God is what kept propelling my depression onward.