I recently gave my testimony to my church group Immerse, composed of people in their 20s and 30s. Thought I would share it with you. It is nothing near my whole story of course-just a snapshot.
Hi my name is Brittany and I am here tonight to share something on my heart not because I want to, but because I believe it’s what I’m supposed to do. Trust me, I have been hoping that somehow tonight’s Immerse would be rained out, a hurricane would strike, Jesus would return, anything, so that I would not have to stand in front of you all and bare my soul, but no. Whether it sounds cliché or not, I am here for a reason and so are you.
Tonight I want to talk about challenges by relating to you an extremely raw and vulnerable journey I have been on. In all of our lives, we are at a place that presents challenges, whether it be graduation from high school or college and facing the reality of being a “grown up,” whether it be a new job, a change in relationship status, a sudden or chronic illness, the loss of a loved one, whatever it is… Some of us may have what Paul calls in 2 Corinthians 12:7, a “thorn” in our flesh, a problem, whether it be an illness, habit or sin that plagues us. We think we are doomed and begin thinking of ourselves in term of this “thorn.”
It is about my own “thorn in my flesh” I would like to talk tonight. This thorn has been my decade-long struggle with depression and anxiety. On February 27, 2005, I was sitting in a parking lot waiting for my parents to drive me away, away from the hell I was experiencing at college, waiting in agony, in desperation, in a state of surreallness and dizziness. I wrote: “I have never felt more disempowered / More lowly, more pitiful / The more I am around people / The more I lose joy / Because I feel like a failure / I had so much joy before / When I felt I had it all together / When the things I did made me believe I was worthy / Mo matter how genuine the love of others / I can never accept it because/ It makes me feel more and more ashamed / Lord I want you and you only / I want to shut the world out. “ I was at the beginning on a new journey; I had no idea what hell would await me but I could tell it was starting. I was a junior at Bethel at the time. I had experienced depression on and off since adolescence; I was accustomed to it, the sadness; the endless tears; the shakiness; the constant ruminations about self, world, faith, God, death; the many medications and therapy sessions; the physical illnesses that both caused and were caused by the depressions; even the suicidal thoughts that came and went sometimes for weeks or months at a time.
Early in 2005, I thought I was having a reprieve from depression because I hadn’t thought about killing myself in a few weeks. I began having more trust in God and peace about my future. But then I began having strange symptoms in which I felt “I was withering away into nothingness.” It was a hazy, disoriented feeling in which I became an observer of the world and myself. It worsened to the point that I literally felt no control over what I did or said. When I talked it was like a stranger’s voice talking. This made participating in class discussions and even having conversations with friends a nightmare. I always seemed fine on the outside, but sometimes when someone got close to me I would become unable to breathe and my heart would start to race. It felt like other people were literally sucking the life out of me. Not only that but I began feeling a lot of tightness in my chest starting around 6 or 7 pm every day. It felt like my body was shutting down; I could do nothing but lay down, but when I tried to rest, my mind raced and I would lay there as if there were a hundred bricks on me.
I researched my condition and later confirmed with a doctor I was suffering from depersonalization disorder, which is often a coping mechanism for people who do not adjust to change well, perhaps a symptom of depression. Looking back several years later, I realize I’d had a crazy couple months. I was still adjusting to my life back in the U.S. after a semester in Guatemala. I was dealing with the fact that both of my older brothers were in serious relationships. My one brother Greg suddenly got engaged to in November to Sarah-a girl younger than me who I barely knew. This news sent me into a tailspin. I felt my brother was being lost to me while also jealous and full of self-pity and self-hatred because of state of singleness. My oldest brother Nate, with whom I was extremely close, was dating my best friend Bethany and I was very enmeshed with their relationship. December came, and besides normal holiday and winter blues and dealing with my new bizarre physical symptoms, I was reeling with pain and sorrow of the tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia (I had a history of experiencing worsening depression when disasters such as this occurred). Then in January, at the start of an extremely stressful interim (in which I took one class but was expected to do about 8 hours of homework a day), Nate broke up with Bethany. I did not deal with this well, especially since I lived with Bethany. It was one of the most painful times of my life. Whether it was this new disorder, or just a different type of depression, I later realized my body did not know what to do with all the changes and stress around me.
I began my second semester at Bethel with a full load of classes, including an internship in a third-grade classroom. I was also working part time taking care of adults with disabilities in a group home. In all of my activities I hoped everyone saw me as a professional, competent, secure and happy person. Inside it was a hellish war; in fact, it became a daily battle to survive, to not take my life. I was constantly reasoning with God, pleading with him to take me out of my misery, my physical pain, paralyzing anxiety and despair. There were very few days that went by that I did not create a plan in my mind of how to take my own life. I was so desperate for relief – I had always thought about hurting myself but I had never gone through with it. So one evening, I cut myself with a razor. I’d heard that cutting had helped with relief of pain and my distorted mind told me, “What’s there to lose?” The next day, I was at my elementary school internship in the faculty bathroom. I felt so dissociated I didn’t even know who I was. I wanted nothing to do with the broken and confused girl I was the night before but I in no way could become the competent and worthy adult I wanted to be in that moment. I was washing my hands in the bathroom and wished I could just wash away every painful thing I had ever done to myself. I felt like I was and always would be my own worst enemy. In thirty seconds, I would have to face twenty-five children and try to teach them how to not be like me. I could not do this. I hated who I was. How would I ever change?
Just a few days later, I told my psychologist at Bethel about the cutting incident and that day he along with my parents basically made the decision for me: I would take a leave of absence from school. In a matter of hours, my whole world once again shifted. Little did I know I would continue to struggle with the confusing physical symptoms of disorientedness and feeling outside of my body, body heaviness, headaches, and paralyzing anxiety and depression for another several months. Not to mention the hard toll the many medications I was prescribed took on my body and mind over the course of many months and years.
While 2005 was one of the hardest years of my life, I can tell you today that I rarely have that harrowing feeling of being stuck inside my body and being unable to control what I do or say. I rarely feel unable to breathe when people are in my presence nor the tightness in my body beginning at 6 pm each evening. Hallelujah! The dissociative symptoms began to wear off during the summer of 2005 and as I prepared for my reentry to Bethel. Unfortunately, severe and unpredictable mood swings would continue to interfere with my daily life for many years. While I have gone through a tremendous amount of healing-thank you God!- I still struggle with depression, anxiety, panic and mood swings today. I still struggle daily with thoughts straight from the Devil: lies about who I am, that perfection is the key to happiness, that my worth is dependent on my marital status or the kind of job I have or how I look; about who God is, that he is distant and uncaring, that he is not the real God, that he is weak, that everything I ever believed about God and Christ is in my head, that I made it here because of my own will power; and many many more.
I wanted to share with you some of the things that I learned since those dark days and what I continue to learn as I live with my struggles daily. I have learned what it means to live, to live fully on this earth. For so many years, I supported a habit, a bad habit perhaps borne of the lopsided chemicals in my brain but, I believe, due even more to demonic influences. The habit became automatic. Whenever I encountered a trial, large or small, a sudden voice in the recesses of my mind: “You could always kill yourself.” The thought that I had a way out was liberating to me. The thought came more pronounced and invading the darker and deeper my depressions. On the most troubling, painful, shame-filled nights of my soul I would war in my mind the idea of taking my own life. I would always involve God in this. I would cry out, “Lord, please take me home to heaven!” When I was wracked with so much physical pain and emotional deadness, I felt like I could offer the world nothing. I lamented, using my Christian upbringing as a rationalization for my thoughts. Many of the hymns I grew up singing had to do with looking forward to heaven and leaving this earth. One of my favorite contemporary Christian songs included this lyric: “This world has nothing for me.” When listening to this song and others with similar words, I thought, “See, it can’t be wrong to feel what I feel.” But then I would get so low and, knowing God would not strike me dead, I realized I had to act for myself. There were so many times I was close to ending my life. But I never attempted it. I woke up one morning in April 2005 and my day lay before me like a barren wasteland. Dead, empty, meaningless. I was so hollow, I began thinking again of escaping life by my own hand. I started creating a detailed plan. My main reasons for not killing myself were, first of all, I knew it would be unbearable for my friends and family, and, second of all, what would God say when I got to heaven? That day, I thought, I was no longer the person my friends and family loved and could never be that person again. I also reasoned that although God would be mad he would still let me in to heaven. Maybe I would feel some disappointment for letting God down, but once in heaven, it wouldn’t matter. So, there I lay with my own life in my hands. But I just laid there, practically immobilized. Looking back on that day, I knew there must have been an angel holding me down on that bed.
Over the course of many years, I am learning that unlike the “Christian” messages I have received (and perhaps distorted in my mind) it is okay to enjoy life on earth while also anticipating heaven. Thanks to our Amazing Savior and Healer, nowadays I rarely think of taking my own life! (I am still in awe because this used to be a daily occurrence!) Instead of longing for Jesus to come back on a daily basis, I have come to realize all of the beautiful things that this world has to offer. Through some of the teachings of this church, I have realized that the kingdom of God is not out of reach but it is with us right now. I have begun to see myself as a beautiful extension of Christ and my life as a gift. Again it has taken many many years of growth, of continued trial and failure in my life and of help from professionals and others God has put in my path.
This leads to my next realization in my journey with depression: Jesus wants me to experience joy. Probably one of the strangest yet most profound lies I have believed my whole life is this: “I deserve to be miserable.” I don’t know where this came from except I grew up most of my life thinking I was the “sick one” (I got sick a lot) or the “whiny” and “negative” and “crabby” one out of all my siblings. Throughout my life, mostly due to my melancholy personality, I have always struggled to “be happy.” I would get messages from my dad, cheery messages like “Let’s be looking for the good and positive things in life!” (in which cases I would want to hit him) or sardonic ones from my brothers, “Did you know it takes seven times more muscles to frown as it does to smile?” Even now when I am experiencing joy and yet I know there are people suffering, especially if I’m somewhat close to them, I tell myself, “No, you can’t be happy when so-and-so is suffering” as if I’m going to betray them. I have come to realize that my friends wouldn’t want me to be miserable; they wouldn’t want to wish their pain on me. I’ve also realized God is the God of joy. And Zephaniah 3:17 says, “The Lord your God…will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” I try to picture God dancing and singing when he thinks about me…it’s so hard to do, but I have really begun to believe it! I strive to be like God, dancing with joy over the things he has given me.
Thirdly, don’t think there is one solution to your problem. I have this habit of getting into all-or-nothing thinking a lot. There is one thing out there that will “cure” me, instead of realizing that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Surprise, surprise these “good things” can actually come from the secular world. While I greatly benefitted from Christian books and music, reading Scripture, prayer, journaling and encouragement from Christian friends and family, I also underwent a year-and-a-half long group therapy program similar to AA that is based on Buddhist ideas and it really changed my life. And I won’t neglect to praise God for all that he taught me through that program. I have also been down the traditional medicine and therapy path, but have also experimented with alternative medicine. I have received relief from both worlds, but, sadly, I have discovered that neither is perfect
You may have days where there is nothing you can think of except escaping life on earth. This leads me to my next lesson I learn daily: gratitude. No matter how hellish you feel, there are always things to thank God for. Think of things you take for granted like being able to move your arms and legs; your ability to smell, feel, hear, taste and see; your ability to breathe; your overall health. Think of all the people in your life who love you and who you love so much it hurts.
Break life down into particles. Look for the smallest things that bring you joy: a bird singing, the sun shining, how your pet feels when you pet him or her, the taste of your favorite food, the warmth of a deep hot bath when you’re freezing, the smell of rain…Use your five senses at all times. “Count your blessings” may be an old saying, but it is really a life-giving activity. Whenever you’re struggling, make a list of all the things in your life that make you happy (a “gratitude list”). Another idea is to create a “survival kit” –a box with things that will fill your soul with peace and give you strength and hope: pictures of loved ones, favorite books, powerful Scriptures, etc. Turn to your gratitude list and survival kit on the really low days. And never forget that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). Thank him for those gifts every day.
To continue, use the Words of God –Scripture-as your very breath. A lot of the times I couldn’t get any words out onto paper or into my mind so I would turn to Scripture, especially the Psalms. Despite my utter pain, I found solace in Psalms because they are so guttural and real. I felt myself constantly crying out with the Psalmist, “Oh Lord, how long will you look on? Rescue my life from the ravages, my precious life from these lions…” I would write down the Psalms and memorize them. Or I would write my own rendition of a Psalm. On February 24, 2005, even though I was living a hellish existence, I wrote this poem in my journal based on Psalm 42, “Flowing down filling me up / Heavenly waters above / Falling lightly / Then heavier and heavier / So cool refreshing cooling / The depths of Your love in the water / Calls out to the depths of my soul / They meet and caress/ Filling me with hope and peace / Deep fills deep / My soul is satisfied.”
This leads me to writing. Writing in my journal whether in the form of a poem, a prayer, or random ramblings was what kept me sane. I always had an outlet-I knew I could say whatever I wanted in there and no one would have to know unless I told them. The best thing about my journaling times was the closeness I would feel to God. Sometimes I would start off my journal with all sorts of lies about myself and the world and God…but I would just write and write and write. True, sometimes I ended up even more confused and hurt than when I started. But more often than not, I would end with a profound truth and realization of who I was or who God was. In going back and reading my journals, I realize in awe and amazement that what was coming out of my pen was not of me…it was the words of the Holy Spirit Himself. I have actually gone back to receive comfort by my own words a lot of times! God was truly at work in my life and my writing is one very vivid way I was able to see it.
Another important lesson I am learning is acceptance. You need to accept that you don’t and may never understand. I still don’t understand why I got so “messed up” when I grew up in a mostly stable household with loving Christian parents. It does not help to analyze it too much nor to compare your experience with another’s (“so-and-so was abused as a child and she went through this dramatic healing, and here I am” or “so-and-so’s faith is so much stronger”). There are so many things about the world, such as wars and natural disasters, that continue to confound me and could easily make me depressed like they did in the past. As simple as it sounds, I am learning to “pray, not worry.” I need to trust that the God I know and love is in control and I am not.
I have to learn to accept that things are the way they are and most of the time I cannot change that. A few years ago, I accepted that I would probably struggle with depression the rest of my life. Let’s look at the verse I brought up before, 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10: “…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This is so powerful! It is so refreshing to know that Paul, the author, also pleaded with God to take something away (in my case it was about a thousand-not three-times!) but he came to accept his “thorn” because he realized God could use him in his weakness. Not only that, but Christ’s power is made perfect in our weakness. While I am still learning what this means, I know one of the reasons is I can reach people because of my experiences with severe depression and anxiety. If I did not go through that or if I didn’t continually struggle today, I would not be here sharing this.
Finally, in closing, an essential element of healing for me has been to connect with others. Every person here tonight is battling a “thorn” in his or her flesh. We are all so similar. Your “thorn” may be sin itself or it may be a struggle that has the capacity to produce sinful behavior. Like me, you may continue to tell yourself as you sin away, “I can’t help it-that’s how I am.” Please do not believe this lie! We are all prone to certain sins because of our personalities and experiences. I have accepted that it is natural for me to jump to negative conclusions about every person or situation. And I hate that about me. But because of my relationship with Christ, I have seen growth in myself. One of the reasons is that the Lord has helped me reach out to others. In talking today, I feel that I will be leaving even more chains behind because I have let some unpleasant things about me come to the light. Sharing our sins with one another breaks down barriers and unites us with each other and with God. 1 John 1: 5-7 says, “If we claim to have fellowship with God yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Satan wants us to keep our sins a secret so we are bound by them; all the while he is lying to us, telling us we will never change.
So the main thing I urge you to do in closing is to tell someone today about your struggle. Yes, it will be hard. You may wonder what people will think of you or even if your friends or family members will disown you. So many times I have thought that; then I was pleasantly surprised that my loved one reacted in a loving, caring way. Often you will find that others have the same struggle as you do-how refreshing it is to not feel so alone! You will be surprised at the freedom that will come in sharing your burden, so I urge you to come into the light! I am willing to talk with you afterward about your depression or any other issue. Otherwise we have pamphlets available with some services in the area where you can receive support. Thanks, you guys, for letting me share with you tonight. I know there is a reason why each one of you is here tonight.