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…