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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Withering Away into Nothingness

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 / No 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 in college at the time.

Since my early teen years, I became familiar with Depression. It was my new identity; a way I gave myself worth and my life meaning. I was accustomed to 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. My brain was so fogged over and still probably under the influence of major depressive disorder, but the way I saw it, I was getting better.

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 in November to a girl younger than me who I barely knew (they began seriously dating when I was abroad). 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 my state of singleness.

My oldest brother Nate, with whom I was extremely close, was dating my best friend 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 my friend. I did not deal with this well, especially since my friend was also my roommate. 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 College (now Bethel University) 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.

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.

 

A Year of Bliss (mostly)

The bliss I anticipated my freshmen year at Bethel University (formerly Bethel College) was even more intense than I had imagined. After my first campus visit in eleventh grade, I knew Bethel was the school for me. Maybe a lot of it had to do with being near my beloved older brother Nate, a senior at Bethel.

My brother was someone I greatly admired because of his fun-loving personality, go-with-the-flow attitude and loving acceptance of everyone, including his sister. Through phone calls and letters, he and I had gotten closer since he left for college three years earlier and his happiness was contagious. He would tell me about his crazy roommates, the “suite” where he lived, the classes he was taking and how he was growing in his relationship with God.

Most of all, he loved talking about the dining center where he worked. I imagined him chatting with his friends that walked through the food line, or playfully spraying his coworkers in the dish room. I felt like I knew some of the mentally handicapped men he worked with because Nate was so great at impersonating them. Soon, Nate began telling me how great it would be if I attended Bethel too. I felt so flattered that my big brother wanted me to go to school with him. His excitement was so intoxicating and his love for Bethel became my love. I started to dream about the day I would be free of the bondage of high school and could experience the kind of bliss my brother was experiencing.

Coming out of a severe depression, spurred on by a devastating social anxiety disorder, I began my first year away from my parents’ home at age eighteen.

My freshmen year of college was one of the happiest I can ever remember. There were probably many reasons for this, one being I finally felt “free.” Attending a conservative Christian liberal arts school like Bethel, that is really saying something. I could finally eat what I wanted, stay up as late as I wanted, and do what I considered “crazy” things with my friends, such as videotaping ourselves parading down the “runway” (one of the hallways on campus that had floor-to-ceiling windows on either side) with foil in our hair or dressing up in 50s clothing and playing croquet in the arena across the street from Nate’s “red house.” I didn’t have to worry as much about my parents and their judgments of me (whether real or perceived). I was simply having fun.

Relationships really soothed and straightened out the chemicals in my brain. I felt super connected the girls on my dorm floor, my RA and my RIOT leaders (sophomore girls who came and led a Bible study on our floor each week). For once I was surrounded by amazing Christian women and I craved their love and attention. I also had my brother. True to his word, Nate made Bethel an exquisite place for me. He and I hung out constantly;  I craved his love and acceptance too. He introduced me to his friends/housemates and soon they were my friends too. Together with our friends, we’d go to the jazz club in downtown St. Paul, have a movie night on Sem Hill, or a dance party at the “Red House.” We would also hang out just the two of us: walks around Lake Valentine, trips to the Tea Source and most often, study sessions at Caribou Coffee. My brother Greg also attended college at the University of Minnesota, so he and I would get together and have spiritual talks. Greg was always an encouragement to me; I always left our talks feeling strengthened and empowered in my faith. I finally felt I had a place to belong; a place to rest my head.

The spiritual aspect of Bethel really helped ease my depression too. I felt like a fish coming back to the water. I couldn’t believe how good it felt to have professors pray at the beginning of each class and for us before we took a test. I loved the care and concern my professors had for each of us. I attended almost every Chapel, began attending a local church (with Nate of course), met weekly with my dorm Bible study and went to Vespers every Sunday night; that year, I grew deeply in my faith. I even fell into a regular Bible-reading routine, reflecting in my journal constantly; all the while taking eighteen credits as a freshman!

Depression still lingered under the surface fueled by perfectionism. I was still addicted to performing well and went out of my way to get good grades. Unfortunately, I had an intense realization that college was not at all like high school. The classes were really hard. While I could always manipulate my way into getting an A in high school, it sometimes was simply not possible in college. I slowly started to accept that grades did not determine my worth.

I also lived by the demands in my head to perform well morally. I began to be known as “virgin eyes” and “virgin ears” by my floormates because I had been quite sheltered growing up compared to most of them. Not only this, but I felt it was my moral duty to share when I thought what they were doing was wrong, such as watching a certain show or swearing. I really felt like I couldn’t not say anything. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that I discovered more “sins” that had taken place right under my nose that year.

Despite feeling close with a few girls on my floor, I soon began to feel alienated and began to believe the lies that I was a “goody two shoes” and too sheltered, too much of a freak to be anyone’s friend. Luckily, my roommate at the time, still liked me and we decided to live together the following year.

Despite being one of the most joyful years of my life, my freshman year of college was when I solidly began to believe another lie. A lie that had slipped into my mind around the time of puberty. A lie that would again spur me into another slippery, dark and deep rut of depression.

 

 

Perfectionism’s ruthless grip

High school depression continued (see my last post for the first part)…

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. I worked really hard in school and was obsessed with getting A’s. I would do whatever it took, including going in for extra help, doing all the extra credit I could, and using my friends or brothers to perform well on an assignment. I went to the guidance office every few weeks to check my GPA. At the beginning of my senior year, I remember the high I felt for a moment when I looked at that little white piece of paper. “3.98, 6/437.” I couldn’t believe that I was sixth place in our entire class! At the same time, I knew if I wouldn’t have gotten those two A minuses in gym class the last two years, I could be even closer to the top.

That year I was in an advanced Biology class that was difficult. At the time, I was severely depressed (as the result of a devastating social anxiety disorder) and had a full load of classes, including a 7:00 a.m. Advanced Placement class. I couldn’t keep up in the Biology class and ended up with a B at semester. It was devastating for me. I knew I didn’t need the class and since it was my 8th hour class, that meant I could go home early each day, which sounded heavenly. I dropped the class, even though my teacher disapproved. I told him that B had ruined my GPA and he just laughed. I was not amused because I knew I was no longer in sixth place. Sure enough, when I checked my stats a few weeks later, I now had a “3.96” and was in ninth place. I was so disappointed.

My thoughts spiraled on and on. “If only I hadn’t taken that class…If only I had worked harder…Ninth place isn’t so bad, you’re still in the top 10 people of the whole school.”  I would negatively compare myself with my brother Greg who was Salutatorian of his class and positively compare myself to my brother Nate who was only in the top twenty percent of his class. Soon I found out who the eight other students were ahead of me in our class. I was not surprised by most of the names. The top two or three students I knew I could never compete with. They were in a different world of smarts. Then there were a few I knew I could have “beaten” if I’d only worked just a little harder. That aggravated me, but still I respected them because I knew, like me, they worked for their grades. But one name out of the eight surprised me. I couldn’t help feeling shock that this girl, a former friend of mine from youth group, was supposedly fourth in our class. In my mind she was a space cadet and a partier and could not be capable of such high grades.

I took lessons from the same private piano teacher as the valedictorian of our class. Instead of comparing myself in the usual way by putting myself down, I compared myself to her by putting her down. While I envied her smarts, I praised myself for gifts and talents that she didn’t possess (in my opinion), such as my singing voice and my physical appearance. This girl was also gifted in science and math, which I did not envy. Instead I praised myself for my giftedness in speaking a foreign language and in working with children.

My feelings about myself at that time were all or nothing. I felt either on the highest cloud of heaven or at the bottom-most rung of a ladder descended deep into the earth. And these thoughts would shift in minutes, based on who I was around or what environment I was in. I felt like a phenomenal musician at church but when I messed up at piano lessons under the watchful eye of my perfectionist teacher, down I plummeted. I was the star of my Spanish class, but felt like a total imbecile in pre-calculus class.

My mind was obsessed with performance. I did not know another way to look at life. The more I thought about performing perfectly, the more I would long for it. I would get a rush after each perfect paper, each A + on my report card, after each perfect score at a music competition. But usually the rush would last only a few moments. I would immediately begin thinking, “There must be some mistake” or “It’s no big deal. A lot of people got the same score.” And, inevitably, I did not always get a perfect score. In my mind, this meant I was imperfect, flawed, and worthless. These kinds of thoughts are what fueled my depression.

In quiet moments, while lying in bed at night, I would nurse a severe, aching emptiness in my gut. I would begin thinking, “Is this all life is about?” But then I would wake up the next morning and it would begin all over again. I was driven by what I did, how others perceived me. Like any addiction, I continued to strive for that high feeling. I never realized how powerful its grip was on my life.

I began to think a lot about escaping life.

The first time I became suicidal I was in tenth grade. My friend, Sue, was a girl who used to attend my junior high youth group. Since I was still new to the group the year she moved, I had only met her a handful of times. We became pen pals starting in eighth or ninth grade. Our letters were long; we’d discuss typical Christian teenage girl stuff: guys, feelings, church, family, school. Over time, I felt a deep connection with Sue. It felt like she really understood me, unlike the friends I had in “real life.” In one letter, Sue opened up to me about her history of depression. She wrote that, several years ago, before she recommitted herself to the Lord, she wanted to die. She had a Jars of Clay CD that skipped every so often it played a certain song. One day she decided that she would shove some scissors down her throat when the song played through without skipping. The song, of course, never played without skipping. Sue had an awakening that day and believed Jesus had literally saved her life. From then on, she became active in youth group (the youth group I later attended), was mentored by youth leaders and soon struggled less and less with depression and suicidal thoughts.

I was struck by Sue’s confession. I vividly imagined her planned suicide attempt. The more I thought about it the more I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wondered what her bedroom looked like. I wondered where the CD player was located. I wondered what the song was called. What kind of scissors were they? How was she holding them? I thought of my small sharp pair of purple-handed scissors that would probably do the trick. But didn’t she realize that was a painful way to die? Why did she decide on this method? Was anyone in her family home at the time? Did she plan who would find her? Or was she even serious about it? If the song would have played without the skip, would she have done it?

For a long time, I mulled the planned suicide attempt over and over. I knew it was wrong. I knew that my friend would not want me to be thinking this way. Of course, I knew her purpose in sharing this story was to testify how God got her out of that dark time. But, still, I found comfort in thinking that this girl and I were so similar. I, too, wanted to escape. However, I never imagined a way to do it. I was afraid of pain. I preferred to just go to bed at night and never wake up.

Despite the pain my thoughts caused me, I now recognize the strength I had during those years. Though I didn’t realize I had an addiction, I definitely knew I was not healthy. Somehow my deeper self continued to pull me toward life. The smallest things kept me going during those times, reminding me of why I was alive and soothing my aching, striving heart.

One friend who I could always count on was my beloved Yorkshire terrier Preston. During my senior year, I was often the first one home each afternoon. I looked forward to seeing Preston’s reaction to my arrival home and my high-pitched sing-song voice calling out to him lovingly. My heart would swell with joy hearing his small yip as he sat wriggling and writhing behind the child’s gate in the bathroom downstairs. As soon as I would free him from his prison, it was as if he hadn’t seen me in a year. He would dart out of the small bathroom like a startled mouse. Then he’d dance crazily around my feet, sometimes rolling over several times and finally ending up on his back, four paws in the air. I loved lying on the floor and watching my little dog’s mouth rush at my face to give me kisses.

I loved Preston because he played hard to get. He definitely liked his alone time, so I didn’t get to hold him or play with him for long. That’s why it was extra special when he would slink in my room during homework time. I’d be studiously working and he would crawl under my chair, curl up on my feet and sometimes jump up on the edge of my chair begging to be held. Preston’s warm body and soft kisses were a tangible reminder of a kind of love I could receive with no strings attached. In response to this love, I found I had so much love to give back. This simple realization often reoriented my thought patterns and placed me back on the path of life. Even if for just a few short moments.

Another life giver was writing, a habit I’d had my entire life. I had begun journaling in fifth grade and it started out as kind of a compulsory activity. While I did talk about excitements, fears and hopes, mainly I would write about my day, feeling 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. I wrote fewer words about feelings and more about general facts. For the longest time, I felt like I was writing for someone. I knew one of my parents or brothers could easily get ahold of my journal, so in a sense I had to guard what I said.

As the years went on, I slowly eased into more transparency with my writing. For a while I just wrote to my “journal;” soon I began writing to God. After all, He already knew everything anyway.

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My perfectionism followed me into my college years. In many ways, college was an extension of high school, a new backdrop for the same painting. I was the same little girl on a canvas, trying to make a name for myself, trying to reach all the expectations my professors had for me, so I could get the high I longed for—a kind word, a pat on the back, an A on my transcript…

Perfect Storm

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…

Happy Anxious Childhood

I was not a sad kid. If anything, I was jubilant, carefree, playful, loveable. A typical healthy child. I don’t know if my range of emotions or intensity of emotions were abnormal. They were just me. I could switch so easily from my intense top-of-the-world feelings to a lower-than-low one in a matter of a few seconds, it felt like. My earliest negative feeling was fear. My mom said, from a young age, I was always wanting to know things, information that didn’t really seem to matter. I would get stuck on these small, insignificant details. I would worry constantly.

I have a few but not too many memories of being taken over by worry. Maybe I blocked some of them out. As a little girl, my worry came as a monster. Fear would grip me in its talons and I didn’t know how to fight it. I didn’t think it was wrong because it was part of me. One early memory of this is one day in Kindergarten or first grade. It was the end of the school day, a beautiful sunny day. I was sitting on the school bus with my head against the glass window. The trees were splashing waving shadows on the concrete on the grass of the schoolyard below. Colors and sounds melded together as kids darted to their buses and teachers waved goodbye. My heart was soft and peaceful. The sun warmed my cheeks as I smiled. In front of me, an African American boy named Sonny was singing his favorite song which always lightened my heart.

As the bus engine suddenly came to life, I had a sudden realization: I did not see my brother Greg get on the bus. The kids outside were dwindling now; I knew it was time for the bus to leave for home. I frantically looked around outside and there out of the corner or my right eye, I saw my older brother. He was grinning radiantly up at a teacher near the entrance to the school. His brown wavy hair glistened in the sunlight. He waved his arms as he chatted enthusiastically with the teacher. His obliviousness to the urgent situation irritated me. “The bus is leaving!” I thought. “Hurry up!” I felt the familiar lurch of the bus pulling away from the curb and I started crying. “Oh no!” I must have said out loud. Sonny turned around and asked me what was wrong. “My brother! He didn’t get on the bus!” Sonny comforted me with his impossibly white smile and encouraging words. Putting his arms on the back of his seat, he leaned over and began singing his song to me. I will never forget the comfort of that song as my heart rate slowed and I began to laugh with Sonny.

Every so often the panic would come back, “My brother got left behind! I should have done something!” I don’t know if it was the fear of being alone on the bus (for some reason, I knew my other brother Nate would not be getting on the bus that day) or if I truly felt Greg was in danger. At any rate, I was terrified and got off the bus still shaken up. I remember running frantically up our front lawn, and crying to my mom about what happened. I will never forget her irritation, dismissiveness. “Honey, why are you so worried about it? Everything’s fine. The teacher called. I’ll just go pick him up.” That was one of the first times I remember feeling that I was somehow flawed for my worry. The worst thing was that I had no idea how to stop it or control it. Like a predator, it stalked and attacked me when I was least expecting it.

Another significant memory was one Christmas when I was about six. Every year, at Christmas, my Aunt Shari loved to write scripts of the Christmas story for us cousins to perform. That Christmas Eve, we gathered in our grandparents’ family room as she went through each of our parts with us. Her daughter Becca and I were was always the angels with our fluttering backpack wings and glittering tinsel crowns. Alisha, three, was Mary and her brother Ryan was Joseph. My older brothers were the wise men. Tim, and a couple other cousins were the shepherds, including Becca’s little brother, Robbie who was barely two years old.

I remember the excitement of performing the play like we always did, in front of Grammy and Papa’s fireplace in the living room. All our moms and dads, aunts and uncles, and grandparents would be there to smile and coo and join in on the singing led by Aunt Shari. As we were practicing, I heard Aunt Shari mention something “different” that we would be doing this year. Immediately my heart lurched because my sensitive self did not like to be caught off guard. I remember the words, “going to church” and immediately started to panic. We usually never attended church on Christmas Eve, and now we were going to have to do our play in front of Grammy and Papa’s entire church! From then on, all I heard were voices in my head. The paranoia was so bad I just wanted to quit the play all together. Why couldn’t we do it like we did every year? This went on for several hours, me being oblivious to the hustle and bustle of my family and our plans, because I was stuck in the prison of my panicked mind.

Soon we were bundling up and climbing into cars and vans for church. I remember following my family in the dark near the front of the auditorium. As we sat, down I wondered why Aunt Shari had not thought to bring all of our costumes, props and scripts. I nudged her with probing, quavering words: “When do we go up there and do our play?” She looked at my panic-stricken face and laughingly told me, “Oh honey, we’re not doing it here. After church, we’ll go back to the house and do it like we always do.” I don’t know if I’d ever heard sweeter words. The relief and comfort was like salve in every open sore of my mind. I still wonder how I misinterpreted her words earlier in the day. Again I felt taken captive by my overactive mind and racing, panicked thoughts.

Looking back, this is just one situation where the thought of change or doing something out of the ordinary resulted in terror for me, or at least moderate discomfort in the form of excessive worry. As a child, I knew how to comfort myself. Generally, my home was stable, comfortable, predictable. There was no shouting matches, dishes breaking, screaming. As children of loving Christian parents, my brothers and I were always taken care of. I never felt unsafe. But most of my memories involve me being alone, just the way I wanted it. Sometimes, when I was in my dream worlds with my dolls and stuffed animals, with my story writing, I felt I was the only one alive on earth. So, maybe there was more chaos; I just didn’t notice it? There had to have been fights, especially the years our family was planning for our third big move, when I began to feel something different happening with Mom. When my dad’s footsteps up the stairs became heavier and his face more forlorn. Maybe I just knew how to separate from pain.

Maybe during those years, as a third grader, was the time I really felt change. I wanted to rebel. The way I rebelled was by retreating. But the more I retreated inside my mind, the more I became a slave to it. I had always been meticulous about details, a perfectionist. From my parents, I guess, I learned the right way to do things. I folded my toilet paper, set the table correctly, and learned how to slide the tube of toothpaste from bottom to top against the counter to squeeze it out perfectly. Besides the rules my family had for me, I started creating rules for myself: my clothes had to folded a certain way, my dolls and animals could not be out of place before I left my bedroom, I had to hop right out of bed when my alarm went off.

I became even more ritualistic after a distinct incident when I was seven years old. I had been preparing to go to my friend’s house. I was anxious because my parents were entertaining a missionary couple and we were running late. I felt the familiar tightness in my chest and my runaway thoughts of, “What will my friend think? She’s going to be so mad.” I remember sitting on the toilet trying to urinate. All the tension in my body created a surge more powerful than myself; I could not urinate no matter how hard I tried. This realization created intense fear in me which, of course, perpetuated the inability to urinate.

From that day on, I had problems urinating when I was worried about something. As a young child, I dealt with this bizarre fear the only way I knew how. I listened to the thoughts in my head. My brain told me, “If you don’t get up early enough, your brothers are going to have to wait and they’ll get upset. Then you won’t be able to pee.” So I began getting up much earlier in the morning, to ease the anxiety produced by my thoughts. I would also meticulously watch the time at breakfast. I would excuse myself to the bathroom a half hour before the bus arrived to give myself plenty of time. I did not want to “get stuck” at school, unable to relieve myself. I will never forget how common it was for me to obey the thoughts. It felt like my life depended on it.

The bathroom situation developed into full blown paruresis, or Shy Bladder Syndrome, a little known but disabling social anxiety disorder. (I would discover this all about 15 years later.) Thankfully, as a grade schooler, my ritualistic behavior was contained to only this area of my life. (The devastation Shy Bladder Syndrome had on my life as a child, teen and young adult is a story on its own, so I will share it another time). In most other areas, I was free to be me and I didn’t have demanding voices in my head telling me how to act.

As I got older, though, my perfectionism got worse. I started realizing that others had opinions of me, especially my parents. Around age eight or nine, I became devastatingly aware that my parents were disappointed in me…