Posted in anxiety, college years, depression, freedom, perfectionism, performance addiction, relationships

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.

Besides school and my faith, my freshman year at Bethel became the place where 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.

 

 

Posted in anxiety, Christian life, depression, people pleasing, perfectionism, performance addiction, Shy Bladder Syndrome, social anxiety disorder, suicidal thinking, teenage 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…