As I began my teen years, my perfectionism got worse. I started realizing that others had opinions of me, especially my parents. Around age eight or nine, I became aware that my parents were disappointed in me. Because of my perfectionism and rigid thoughts, I would get irritated easily if things did not go as planned or if I was interrupted while doing something important to me.
I remember one time, we were required to pose for a family photo. I had been working on something in my room or was anxious about something. I had no desire to be in that family photo and could feel the irritation as a thousands needles poking me, eating away at my skin. The anger took over like a powerful waterfall or steam engine that could not be stopped. The only way I knew how to tolerate this distress was by crying. So I cried and moped during that whole photo shoot. My parents, as expected, were flustered and annoyed with my tears. This made me even angrier because, I, myself, couldn’t explain why I was mad. I just wanted someone to help me, to understand me. Their impatience with me only perpetuated the thought I grew to believe: “I am flawed. I can never be good enough for my parents.”
(About ten years later I discovered I was a Highly Sensitive Child and was blessedly able to reshape some of these confusing memories and also have more grace for my parents and others who were trying the best they knew how to help me. Again, a story for another post.)
Besides my anxiety and uncontrollable crying spells, I experienced a lot of minor health problems. I would often get migraine headaches and inexplicable stomach cramps. Sometimes I enjoyed the attention I got from my mom when I was sick and had to come home from school. But I also feared I was soon becoming an annoying burden to her. I say this with nothing but compassion for my mom who was an amazing mom and has her own story to tell. I am just revealing the fact that, as a teen, I became preoccupied with earning the love of those who I most longed to please, especially my mom. As I got skilled at reading my mom’s moods, I knew when it was best to hide my physical problems because I found that my problems often pushed her (and others) away. As I grew into adolescence, headaches and stomachaches were a part of daily life and I knew there was no use bringing them up to my mom. After all, she was a migraine sufferer herself and her unspoken mentality was, “Just deal with it. That’s life.”
Sometimes, my physical problems could not be ignored. Several times in junior high, I developed stomach cramps so severe I couldn’t walk. I liked the attention I got from my mom those first few times, the self-sacrificial love she showed me by taking off of work, pushing me in a wheelchair at the hospital and pleading with the doctors for answers. I also felt her fear and anxiety; I knew that that meant she truly loved me. But it was only a matter of time before Mom would get tired of caring for me and I would become a burden again. But I never blamed her. I saw myself through her eyes: someone with problems, someone flawed, someone she was tired of helping.
The underlying thought that I was flawed continued to brew below the surface, a slowly simmering pot, all through my later elementary, junior high and eventually high school years. High school created a deadly concoction of disabling stress and jumbling hormones. When added to the simmering pot of disordered brain chemicals, an inevitable depression resulted.
Depression crept into my life slowly. “Becoming an adult” was a definite turning point in my life, creating a nightmare that soon grew out of my control. I don’t remember a distinct age I was no longer a child. I do remember the shift, though, and it had to do with my brain. I’m sure it was a combination of my rigid, perfectionistic home environment, my melancholy personality, and the normal hormonal and identity shifts of adolescence, who knows. All I know is, by the time I was about 13, I had a new awakening. I was suddenly aware of the world. I knew people were thinking about me, wondering about me. I knew there were societal expectations, school expectations, church expectations and family expectations. It’s not like I didn’t know before. I always knew how to behave growing up. But for some reason, behaving a certain way didn’t faze me as a child. I had anxiety. I worried a lot. But I also experienced lots of happiness, lots of freedom.
But as a teen, behaving appropriately suddenly seemed to be a life or death situation. I became plagued with doing the right thing…or else. I was addicted to trying to be perfect. I saw no other goal in life, except to meet the incessant demands I placed on myself. While I had constant stress and chaos in my life, I did not immediately succumb to depression as a result. My journals during most of high school relay my whirlwind schedule, but also my upbeat spirit and enthusiasm for each activity I was involved in. My giddiness for the smallest things in life, such as playing with my little cousins, snuggling with my yorkie or eating a favorite meal all reveal a stable, content teenager who was still so much an innocent child. I would fondly mention Homecoming week, how, on 80s day, I received so much attention from guys because of my frizzed out hair and wacky getup. I would insinuate my pride and confidence in belonging to groups, Fellowship of Christian Athletes (even though I wasn’t an athlete), choir, orchestra, teen court and youth group. I loved the feeling I would get after completing a stressful music competition or recital or busy night working at Culver’s. I hoarded activities and busyness as a teen; and each activity was positive and life-giving. From any outsider’s perspective, I was a smart, healthy, positive active teen. I was so busy in all my “things,” I was never tempted to go to parties like so many of my classmates. I simply had no time. The busier I was, I think, the less time I had to become aware of the thoughts in my head.
I documented my frenetic, meaningful life with ink and pen. As a compulsive journaler, I talked about excitements, fears and hopes, but mainly I would write about my day. During the school year, my entries would read like a Christmas newsletter, updating my audience of my schedule, family troubles or joys, any sicknesses I or loved ones had endured, and tidbits of everyday life, such as what my yorkie Preston was up to at that moment or who my mom was talking to on the phone. In the summers, since I had more time, I felt compelled to depict specific activities in painstaking detail. I was especially dutiful on family trips or mission trips. I tried to never skip a day, and if I did, it was necessary that, in my next entry, I catch up on every little thing that happened. For the longest time, I felt held back in my journals, like I was writing for someone. I knew this because I would often flippantly mention an event that had caused intense emotional suffering. I did not let on the extent of this suffering in my journal. I tried to keep my “journal” happy, as if the journal was another person in life I was trying to please.
When I journaled, I did not even realize I was glossing over reality. I could not admit to myself the pain and confusion I was enduring underneath all that busyness. One reality that was not apparent in my journals at the time was the interesting relationship I had with my father. I had always felt inferior to my dad. He seemed to always know what was best for me; I had no reason to doubt him because, in my mind, he was faultless. I knew in my heart that I was a constant disappointment to my dad because of my failure to maintain an upbeat, energetic and positive persona.
One day, just a few weeks into my tenth grade year, my dad and I had a troubling conversation. He was driving me to my job at Culver’s. I was caught in a situation that I seemed to always be in with Dad. It seemed the more I tried to do what my dad wanted, the more I would become the person he and I both hated: a whiny, blubbering, pessimistic child. It was a familiar, exasperating situation. I don’t remember the exact thing I did or said in that moment to set Dad off, but he got really mad. He expressed that my negativity was the result of me being too stressed out and decided to “help” me by taking something off my plate. He chose my job at Culver’s. He practically yelled at me, “You must find a way to get off of work for a whole month!” It was as if someone stabbed me in the heart. My anxiety went haywire as thousands of thoughts ripped through my head. I felt like I had again let my dad down; I felt my dad was being unfair. What were my managers going to say? How was I going to manage financially as a fifteen-year-old without a job? Most of all, Dad’s decision was proof that I could not flawlessly handle all the activities I was involved in; this produced in me a profound sense of shame that was an all too familiar feeling.
As relayed in my journal, my Dad turned out to be right. I enjoyed the extra time to myself. He even rewarded me by giving me a $5 weekly allowance. After a month, I was back to working at Culver’s. After that, I worked even harder to do what my dad wanted me to do: remain positive and cheery on a moment-to-moment basis. I continued along the bumpy roller coaster of performance and people-pleasing. I lived for my activities and accomplishments.
Even more, probably, I lived for my feelings. I was addicted to the good feelings that came with belonging. Youth group was where my identity was found, where most of my closest friends were. I attended every Sunday School class, volunteer event, retreat, Sunday evening gathering and mission trip. As an upperclassmen, I was a peer mentor and also helped lead the youth band. Youth group made me happy. I genuinely loved my youth leaders and they gave me encouragement and attention I wasn’t used to receiving. Sunday night youth group was also the one time in the week I would get to see my friends. My church was not in my town, so most of my friends did not attend my school.
Besides youth group, I was very involved at church. I didn’t particularly like the pastor’s sermons or the worship, but I liked being known at church. I adored children and was an active volunteer in the nursery, AWANA and Vacation Bible School. Volunteering with kids at church gave me life. It directed me toward the path of teaching I would later take. As a musician, I often played piano or violin during the offering time. Although it was nerve wracking, I enjoyed playing. Even more, I enjoyed the compliments I would get from church members. When I was a junior, I became part of the church worship team, which was led by the pastor’s son. While I did not like the worship director’s style and aggravated by the lack of musicianship of the team members, I liked being part of something important. I truly loved music and especially playing and singing worship songs. It was fun to share a natural talent I already possessed.
But I did often struggle with intense thoughts as a worship leader. As a perfectionist, I would berate myself for the times I did something imperfectly. Then the next minute, I would praise myself for being a better musician that the person standing next to me on the team. All of this made me feel guilty and hate myself for being so self-absorbed. I often wondered what God thought of me. I knew my youth group leaders would never find out, but I knew I could not escape God’s critical eye. His view of me changed every minute, it seemed. If I volunteered or played worship without thinking of myself, then I was worthy of His love and attention. After all, I was being humble, right? God loves a humble heart. But, if I had even a fleeting self-seeking thought, I knew He was disappointed in me. I tried so hard to be humble. The problem was I started associating being humble with being miserable. I figured if I was happy when I was serving Him, that must be self-seeking.
Luckily, when it came to non-church areas of my life, I didn’t have to worry as much about God and what he thought of me…