A Love Letter to My Illness

Heben “Heaven” Nigatu, November 2012

My Dear Adversarial Friend,

After years of hostile companionship, I’ve finally discovered the courage and resilience to write you this letter.  Since such courage may only be fleeting because of your current absence in my life, I had to finally force myself to pen this note of honesty and pain to you, my friend.

I remember we first met in high school.  My plump, pimple-covered exterior gave you the all-too-easy road into my close circle of critical inner-friends.  Our conversations enriched your attraction to me and mine to you.  For the hurtful, pain-filled words I would utter silently to myself for years were finally heard and repeated back to me.  You will never be good enough. No one will love you. There must be something deeply wrong with you. You, my depression, my anxiety, always understood.  You knew me.

We continued our mutual relationship all throughout high school, although I never knew your name or why you chose me as a friend.  I did not want to ask those questions because at least you were with me, listened to me, and didn’t seem to ever leave me.  We continued like this for a couple more years.  You echoing these lines of self-hatred and perfectionism back to my isolated mind. For we only grew closer the more I saw myself as worthless, out of control and unwanted.  Yet I started to realize the stronger our friendship grew, the lonelier I found myself.  But I told myself, you were all I needed: my depression, my anxiety.

You followed me to college.  I heaved a large sigh of relief as I stepped into my freshman dorm and you were already waiting for me.  A friend, a familiar face.  We stayed together.  Making new friends had never been easy for me, except for with you.  So I enjoyed staying in my room that first year and so did you.  You started whispering to me new thoughts and fears. You don’t belong here.  You will never succeed in softball or class. You are different.  I believed you, but something inside me hoped to one day prove you wrong.  This moment was the beginning of the end.

I did not know that striving, endlessly to prove you wrong would mean bringing my own body, mind, soul to its very breaking point.  But I wasn’t able to stop because in those moments of silence, pause, peace you awaited me.  My college life was filled with a constant battle between trying to control you, my depression, my anxiety, and allowing you to control me.  Softball, something that once brought me pride and confidence, became the one way you could destroy any ounce of self-worth I had left.  You are alone. You must be perfect. You must numb your feelings. You must be someone you are not. You were always there to remind me of the worst parts of me.

But I started realizing you were not the friend I thought you were.  Your listening was no longer innocent but a way to gain more ammunition against me.  Your repetitions always seemed to leave out the hope in which I most desperately believed.  I began seeking ways to numb or silence you because your whispers had become deafening.

I finally needed to know your name, which led me to therapy.  She called you “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Depressive Episodes.” So clinical, so sterile.  You no longer seemed like a friend.  You were simply a disorder, an episode?  But how could your companionship be simplified to only that over all these years?

I finally began to learn more about you.  To learn more about myself.  To understand you as separate from me.  This was difficult for me to believe because, without me realizing it, we had become so intertwined.  I did not know how to distinguish you from me.  I often still don’t.  Medication helps, sure, but I always know that with any unexpected life event or sudden change you will be there, extending a friendly embrace. Through therapy, I have learned that you aren’t me.  I have learned that I can not blame myself for your presence in my life.  I have learned that you can be managed but I have also learned that you will always be my companion throughout this life.

I still call you my friend because of these many years we’ve shared together.  You worked so hard for me, so hard against me and I will never be outside of your constant influence.  Even though we are no longer close, for I know your name, your face, and your patterns, you will always be a part of me, a familiar and dangerous part.

Thank you for showing me the depth of pain and isolation for only in those depths did I learn the love of community.  Thank you for tearing me down because only through that experience was I able to rely and trust others to help me move forward.  Thank you for developing in me a sensitivity for emotion, for struggle, for hurt for only through that have I been able to connect with others.  Thank you for never leaving me because only through your presence have I learned the importance of resilience.  Thank you for knowing me because only through that am I able to see you in others around me and teach them your name.

I hope for a future day that I can pass by you on the street without pausing to entertain your whispers, without being drawn to your enticingly attractive lies, without recognizing your familiar taunts, but I know that we will probably meet again, my friend.  I have changed, though, since our last encounter so maybe you won’t recognize me.

With Hesitant and Undetermined Love,

Your Distant Friend

Such as a Spring Songbird

Such as a spring songbird bellowing its notes from above
but hiding its form in the tops of the maple tree.
A long winter has burst forth into a fervent spring
providing a dense protection for a spring songbird.

Such as a spring songbird desperately hoping to be heard
but fearing to be seen, to be noticed, to be known.
In just a flit such beauty escapes the searching eyes from below
giving the solitary spring songbird a moment’s refuge.

Such as a spring songbird repeating its uniquely perfect call
but forgetting to first notice the beings around it.
Its hopeful voice breathes depth into the newly warmed air
meeting a passerby’s ear with sweet, seductive melodies.

Such as a spring songbird beckoning every gaze upward
but lacking the courage to leave its security, its place.
From above it peers down full of doubt, full of wonder
thinking only that not anyone cares to hear its soulful song.

What I Learned about Love from a One-year-old

ImageChildren can teach you many things about life.  Just from watching my young nephews I have learned: snot is always a good and ever-present snack option, milk cures all woes, Daniel Tiger is a boy’s best friend, nap is a very, very bad word and every trip to the park is an exciting new adventure. All extremely important lessons, if one is to take care of toddlers.

At Georgetown, I took a Childhood Development psychology class where we spent a week on every step or progression in a child’s brain and social development from infancy to adolescence.  While we did not learn about the snot thing or that nap is the worst curse word, many of the concepts we did cover are very evident when observing my nephews.

One of these is the idea that young toddlers, when they see sun rays coming through a window, grasp to touch or hold the sunshine.  What a beautiful idea that shows a hope or longing for the beauty of this world.  Yet after a certain age children develop the knowledge that sunshine is not necessarily tangible.  They feel the welcoming warmth of the sun on their skin but they can’t actually grab or hold onto that sun.  No matter how hard they try to grab those enticing rays, the sun will always elude them. But before their brain’s develop and they learn more about the sun, toddlers will continue to try, reach, and strain for the rays despite constant failure.

Part of this instinct comes from a stage of development known as egocentricism.  If you have ever been around a two year old for longer than ten minutes, then you know what I am referring to.  I like to affectionately refer to it as the “me-monster.”  Actually, many adults seem to have regressed to this stage as well.   But anyway for a young child their wants and needs are the center of their world and they lack the ability to put those needs aside for the sake of a more rational end.  When a toddler sees the sun’s rays coming through his living room window, I wonder if his “me-monster” brain automatically thinks, “that’s pretty and I want to have it.”

Therefore, while at the root of this developmental phenomenon there is an innate human longing for beauty and for warmth, the toddler seems to constantly be striving to own or hold onto such beauty in a possessive and egocentric way.  Okay, okay, I will admit that maybe toddlers are just reaching out and there’s no deeper meaning behind it.  I mean, hell, we probably don’t know a quarter of the crazy shit that goes on in those kids heads (which is probably for the best), but stay with me for a minute longer.

As I watched my youngest nephew leaning against the pane of glass as the sunshine poured in, I wondered if we ever really grow out of that innate reaction or desire to own beauty.  Maybe that’s why all of us are so bad at this whole “love” thing.  We see something or someone that brings us warmth, beauty and comfort.  We can usually pause and recognize such beauty and even marvel in it, but only for a fleeting second, because then our first reaction seems to always be “I want that.”

The reaction is innate, evolutionary, and important to survival, but it’s also the very reaction that we have to curb in order to experience true, genuine unconditional love from another human being.  Like the sun rays, which toddlers try so very hard to capture in their small outstretched hands, when we feel that tingle of human attraction or friendship we often try our hardest to cling to it, hold onto it, possess it for fear that if we don’t we will lose it.  I wonder if the toddler, as he watches the sun rise and set each day, fears that one day the beauty will disappear from his grasp, making his effort to hold onto those rays even more fervent and anxiety-laden.

Love, in its purest form, asks us to forfeit that part of us that is so fearful to lose the other that we try to own the other, to make the other ours, or even better to make it no different than us.  Love asks us to enjoy the one we love, to relish in him, to gaze longingly for him, but to always hold loosely and gently to him.  Love asks us to live a life interdependent on the other, like we are to the sun, without confusing the other with our selves.  Once our grip starts to tighten around our love’s beauty or being, love is no longer present.  Love is replaced by envy, jealousy, and greed.  Like I said, maybe that’s why we struggle so much with this whole “love” thing because we are confusing selfless, life-giving, beautiful love with fear-driven greed.

Beauty and love is always around us.  I see it in my handsome nephews and beautiful nieces.  I see it in the steady rain outside that nourishes the parched land.  I see it in my family’s struggle to love each other and remain together.  I experience it in the taste of strong coffee and exquisite chocolate.  I experience it in the warmth of the sun.  We will remain disappointed and discontented with this beauty if we treat it like the toddlers do with the inviting rays of the sun.

Beauty requires a response, but not one of fear or anxiety.  Beauty requires a gratefulness that is only born from a deep and genuine love.  So if my nephew could actually understand anything I just said, I would tell him to never stop reaching out for the beauty of the sun for a meaningful life must contain a desire for such beauty.  But I would remind him that, instead of grasping with desperation, he should pause in silent reverence and appreciation.  That is where love is found, in those silent moments when we are in awe of something other than ourselves.

My Therapist Dumped Me

I’m proud of my 1 for 1 record in the dating world.  I found a good partner and kept him, which means I’ve never been dumped.  That is, until now.  Last week, my therapist dumped me.  Talk about a bad break up.

I have been going to therapy for over a year now.  A year!  That’s a long time.  I thought we meant something to each other! We laughed together, she has watched me cry, and she knows about all my thoughts and feelings.  We were pretty perfect.  Or at least I thought so… Last session, after a twenty minute update on how happy I have been the last month and how I’ve felt more in control of my life, she said the dreaded word… “termination.”

What? NO? But.. but.. my life’s not that perfect.  I have more.  I need more help. I can’t…

Why do they call it termination, anyway? It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to leap out from behind her bookshelf and escort me out of the office in order to make sure I never come back ever again.  Termination.  It’s so morbid. Permanent. No one’s dying here, but in that moment as that word slipped out of her mouth, my world of control fell apart.  My anxiety is under control.  I haven’t had a panic attack in a few months and I rarely have the constant obsessive thoughts that use to keep me up till the early morning hours each night.  But termination?  I can’t be ready.

I looked at her with my best fake smile and said “Sure, of course I’m ready for that.  I’m in such a great place and I’m confident that I am ready to.. ehh, terminate?”  But in my head my mind was coming up with every worse case scenario that could possibly result from this decision.  What if I stop coming and then I have a major life crisis?  Or what if the only reason I have been doing better is because of this safety net that she has provided me?  Or even worse what if I’m actually crazy and she is just using this whole “termination” excuse to get rid of me? I snapped back out of that fear whirlwind to make sure that my smile continued to stay glued to my apprehensive face as she replied, all too cheerfully if I may add, “Great!  Next week will be our last session.”

NEXT WEEK!  Way to really ease me out of this. I only have a week to think of all the possible issues that could possibly arise in the next 20 or 30 years.  I’m sure there are hundreds of traumatic childhood experiences, repressed memories, and defense mechanisms to work through, right?  I kept circling back to the thought that “I thought we really had something special here and you just want to throw it all away in a WEEK!”  Bitch.  Oh, sorry.  “Yes, yes I’m sooooo ready to move on. I can totally take care of myself,” I replied.

I stepped slowly out of the office that day not knowing how to feel.  I guess that’s how it feels when you are dumped.  As I rode the elevator down three flights, I contemplated the many ways I could change her mind in next week’s session.  Maybe I could fake some family death or tragedy, maybe I could bring up another fight I had with a family member, or maybe I could just get really sick and postpone it one more week.  Yeah, that’s it.  But as I exited the building listening to my own anxious thoughts ruminate about the different self-inflicted possibilities of remaining in therapy.  I finally understood.

She didn’t break up with me.  I had broken up with her.  She had given me this choice since our first session and I had finally chosen it.  Freedom.  My life has always been about the approval and advice of others.  What does he want for my life?  Will she like me if I do this?  What can I do to make them think I’m worthy?  Constant.  No wonder I have anxiety.  Over the past few months (with the help of some medication) I have broken down (although not completely) those destructive cycles and released the anchors from my life.  Accepting that life is a shit show and moving through the shit instead of pretending that I can navigate around it has granted me a freedom beyond words.

So I stopped walking and busted out laughing.  I had finally broken up with the person that helped me find my own freedom.  She was the last person that I was fighting so desperately to seek approval from, but she knew that I didn’t need it anymore.  I still don’t think they should call it termination, but I do think it signals a kind of death.  My old self and ways of operating that I dumped on her and revealed to her die now with this relationship.  I no longer have to be that person.  I am free to live.

So, thanks, to the therapist that dumped me and thanks for letting me dump you.  Because it’s not you, it’s me.

Our World

“Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test…” Round and round I spun as those words bounced off the walls of our community pool.  While most know those words as one of the songs in the childhood movie, Beauty and the Beast, I knew them as “our” song.  My mom and I would climb into the pool during unbearable warm summers. Then she would grasp my hands with a strong, gentle grip and twirl us around and around and around.  Time stood still in those moments.  Nothing else existed but me, my mom and this magical song.  I’d make her sing it to me and spin me around over and over again until I’m sure we were both sick to our stomachs, but it didn’t matter because it was “our” time. ImageMy mom understood my childish world.  This world that only asked for simple joys and undivided attention for a single hour in order to be content.  She knew that world.  She cherished that world.  My mom helped me create that world for myself.  As these Beauty and the Beast sing-a-long days faded, she helped me remember that world.  While she wouldn’t twirl me around or sing to me, she had this magic that was able to remind me of those simple joys, take me back to my world, to our world.  We would go on ice cream or movie dates and get extra hot fudge and an extra large popcorn, because our world always has the BEST foods.  Through high school and into college, my mom could make my stress and anxiety disappear for an hour or so at a time by dragging me back to our world, no matter how reluctant I may have been, in order to have a good giggle session or do something completely silly.  Because in our world, we don’t take ourselves quite as seriously.  After college, she’d steal me away from my life and we’d sit at coffee shops for hours forgetting about the bustle of the city around us, like we were back in that pool and our conversation was our singing. We’d drink cup after cup of dark roast coffee with steamed half and half and eat chocolate donuts, because in our world there must be good coffee and donuts.  Always donuts. 

Now our lives are different.  We still have our world and our time, but we both must be reminded of it.  Life is not as simple as it was when a twirl and a hug cured all pain.  But my mom remains.  She grips my hand with a strong, gentle grip and leads us both back to our world where there is peace, escape and belonging.  The difference is now, I’ve learned the way to our world.  Now I can see when this world has gotten too scary and dark and lead my mom back to the simple joys of our world.  Together we find healing.  Together we still go round and round until all the noise softens and all that’s left is me and her.

I love you mommy!  Happy Mother’s Day!


Courageously Forward: Isaiah Turns Seven

I catch my breath as I brace for a loving, yet abrupt impact.  A bundle of energy, joy, and excitement hurdles through the air with startling determination.  Such determination is expected from a grown man in combat or a mother protecting her young children.  But as I look in front of me I only see a young boy sprinting, as gracefully as a seven year old can, towards my vulnerable frame.  Before I know it, he’s in my arms giving me the biggest strangle-of-a-hug I have experienced in my 23 years of life.  He hugs me every time like I am never going to see him again.  He hugs ever ounce of love out of his small body into my heart.  And I know that I have the most special nephew in the world. ImageIsaiah turned seven this week.  It’s hard for me to believe that I have been blessed with over three years of hugs from this little guy. And they have never run out.  For seven years, Isaiah has lived his life just like he gives his hugs.  He runs at whatever or whoever is in front of him throwing caution, and often safety, to the wind to show his love and his trust in himself and unending hope in this world that whatever happens he will be alright, he will survive, he will fly.  Isaiah does not worry about the “what-ifs,” the negative voices around him, or even his possible failure, because in his mind he is a super hero.  ImageAnd he is a superhero. He has survived.  He has made it through every challenge with resilience and strength.  Before the age of three, Isaiah had been in eight foster homes throughout Chicago.  But courageously forward, this boy overcame.  Isaiah’s adoption was finalized in court last summer and followed immediately by a trip to this boy’s favorite restaurant, Francesca’s, for some delicious calamari (yes, he has good taste).  It hasn’t been easy, though.  Many nights have been filled with tears, anger and frustration working through the complexities of Isaiah and his experience, but if anything is true about this little boy it is that he does not move forward slowly. His high energy, somewhat short attention span, and courageous attitude makes him always move forward in leaps, bounds, and karate kicks. 

ImageAnd as Isaiah moves forward, tackling any obstacles that try to get in his way, he thrives.  Whether it is being an amazing older brother to two rambunctious boys or reading chapter books for hours at a time, Isaiah just seems to live a superhero life every day.  My life will never be the same now because he has taught me hope.  Not that wistful wish in a sea of pessimism which is often equated with hope.  No, Isaiah teaches me that kind of “I’m gonna run as fast as I can, take risks, and love intensely because I know I can survive anything” hope. A super hero hope.  For with each Isaiah hug, you can be confident that he understands the importance of tangible hope.  A hope that changes everything.  A hope you have to brace yourself for. 

Happy Birthday, Isaiah!

Belated Lenten Reflection [Rewind]

While I’m a little late in the liturgical season for this post, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote last year during my time working at an after school program for middle school and high schoolers.  I wrote and read it for a Stations of the Cross event that my service program, Amate House, hosted last Lenten season.  I was assigned to write a reflection based on the station, Jesus is Judged by Pilate. 

The chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” The chief priests accused him of many things. Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accused you of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed…Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd released Barrabas…and handed Jesus over to be crucified. (Mark 15: 1-5, 15)

Failure. Dropout. Criminal. Gang member. By the time he was fifteen, he had been labeled every single one of these. I met this particular young man on my very first day at the Teen Center.   As I took deep breaths to calm the insatiable butterflies in my stomach, he came over to me, stuck his hand out in order for me to shake it, and introduced himself with a half smile.   After knowing this young man for only thirty short minutes, he had already managed to share with me many of his past struggles and his ambitious hopes for the future. Walking away from this encounter my first day, I realized that my work at the Teen Center would be much more than merely supervising an after school program.

Almost every week, it seemed like this kid came in to the Teen Center with a new crisis or life-altering event to share with me. Over the past eight months, he has faced more challenges than most people can even begin to imagine. Just in this past year, he lost his childhood friend to gang violence, was arrested for an extremely serious offense, and learned he would be a father at age nineteen only to find out a few weeks later that his girlfriend had had a miscarriage. And now him and his family have been homeless for over a month, the six of them living with different family members and friends in small one-bedroom apartments. But he perseveres. While looking at his story one can begin to see why his identity has been so tightly entangled with his mistakes: failure, dropout, gang member, criminal. Many people have given up on him and told him he is not worth it. But, even through all these challenges, I could never get the memory of that enthusiastic young man that I met my first day out of my head. I realized that while he may have come to me looking for answers and advice for the problems he faced, what he actually sought from me was an acceptance he had never experienced. He wanted to be able to admit to these mistakes without worrying that the person listening would condemn him, judge him or abandon him. He wanted to be seen for who he is: an incredibly joyful young man with a huge heart and unstoppable goofiness, who has a love for writing poetry, who would do anything to protect his three younger siblings, and who cared enough to make me feel comfortable on my first day of work. He was asking for freedom from these negative labels and low expectations that seemed to continuously define his life. Not until recently did I realize that I have some small power to help him find that freedom.

Pilate was also in a position of power. Power to change the outcome of the story. Power to save a life that was hanging in the balance. Power to stand against the accusations of the crowd. No, unfortunately, I do not have the power to dramatically change the outcome of any of my teens’ lives or make certain life altering decisions for them, but I do have the power to stand against the accusations and judgments they have heard from parents, teachers, and peers their whole lives. I have the unique power to choose to see these young men and women as more than charity cases and delinquents. To choose to speak out louder than the crowd, which shouts of their worthlessness and inevitable failure, and refuse, unlike Pilate, to be a passive observer to such violence. Because if I don’t, then these young men and women may also begin to see themselves as nothing more than criminals, dropouts, gang members, and failures instead of the reality, that they are leaders, artists, role models, and survivors.

The Destruction of Marriage Robots

My mom is one of those moms.  You know the kind of moms I’m talking about.  The ones that give the best everything-will-get-better hugs, make the best homemade apple pies, and always made sure to sneak that only slightly humiliating but secretly awesome note of pure love into your Care Bears lunch box every day in elementary school (and maybe sometimes high school…let’s not talk about it).  So as you can tell she was a pretty great mom.  Now, Mom, if you are reading this, don’t be too upset when you hear what I have to say next.  Like I said there are very few things about my mom that I could complain about, but one of those things happens to be her taste in wall decorations.

I know what you are thinking, ‘She gave you life and raised you and you are going to complain about her interior design skills?’  But it’s different than you think.  It’s not that my mom’s house wasn’t decorated, it was.  Everything coordinated perfectly. Well, as perfectly as it could be coordinated with an unfortunate splattering of forest green carpeting that us kids use to pretend to study our world geography on because of the vast amount of Diet Coke and who-knows-what-else stains all over it.  But I digress.  The wall hangings.  It was almost as if she was worried that we would be bored or forget that Jesus loved us, so in that way it was sweet and considerate, but in every other way it was just plain weird.  While we had the typical, ethereal Jesus praying hands picture (if you grew up in a practicing Christian household you probably know what I mean) and some sign hanging above the doorway meant to set some sort of blessing upon whoever entered our house, but we also had a couple that now seem less typical. Yes, I could write a whole other blog post (and probably will) about the five stanza poem that hung in our bathroom at the perfect level for each of us to read as we relieved ourselves about taking time to pray as we go through our day (see what they did there?), but my real issue is with a small framed poem stitched on off-white fabric that hung above my parents’ bed.

I remember crawling into their bed when I was maybe seven or eight and reading this poem over and over again with both confusion and intrigue.  The poem by Beth Stuckwisch went like this:

“Marriage takes three to be complete;
It’s not enough for two to meet.
They must be united in love
By love’s Creator, God above.
Then their love will be firm and strong;
Able to last when things go wrong,
Because they’ve felt God’s love and know
He’s always there, He’ll never go.
And they have both loved Him in kind
With all the heart and soul and mind
And in that love they’ve found the way
To love each other every day.
A marriage that follows God’s plan
Takes more than a woman and a man.
It needs a oneness that can be
Only from Christ-
Marriage takes three.”

Doesn’t sound too bad right? And, you know besides the heteronormativity and a slight hint to some sort of God-centered threesome, it really isn’t.  It has a good message. Love God, love your spouse, be complete.  But somehow this poem and some later events convinced me that I was NEVER going to get married.

Flash forward a few years to junior high: the confusing time when girls stop being convinced that every boy is infected with some disease affectionately known as “cooties” and start ‘dating.’  If you can even call junior high relationships that. Since this hormone crazed transition is a critical time for sex-ed training and abstinence talks, my church had to join the trend.  A weekend event called “True Love Waits,” which I’m sure most of you have heard of, was planned that culminated in each teenager being asked to sign a promise that they will wait to have sex until they are married.  I was less than excited.  Not because I didn’t want to willingly sign away my sexual desires for my own eternal security, but because of the sickening speech we were presented with before the signing.

Two perfect-looking, well-dressed individuals waltzed happily up to the stage with smiles smacked on their faces.  A man and a woman, a recently married couple from the church, stood in front of hundreds of confused and insecure teenagers to proclaim the everlasting joys and satisfaction that comes from waiting until marriage to have sex.  I could buy it, sure, sex was a sacred and intimate act, why not save it for the right person? but my question was what drugs are these two on to make them so annoyingly happy. Obviously no drugs were involved, but to my skeptical teenage mind there was something not right with the public display in front of me. It’s not that I didn’t think they were in love and genuinely believed everything they were presenting, I think they were. The problem for me was that when I looked at the beautiful smiling wife and heard her slip in a giggly “Oh, honey tell them the story of…” every few sentences of their speech, it made me want to hurl.

As a 12 year old and probably at an even younger age, I knew that I would never be that wife. Since I was not new to this whole church thing, I had heard many similar couples stand up and give many similar speeches so I was not surprised by what they said. But that day was the day when all these images of perfect god-centered couple I had swirling around in my head violently and swiftly collided with the words of that poem stuck on constant repeat whenever the topic of marriage came up. When the slight panic disappeared and the chaos of the collision settled, what I was left with was a resolute conclusion: I was never going to get married.

I told myself I was never going to get married, not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t think I would be able to. My only conception of what married life was like was this odd poem that hinted at some supernatural threesome and this parade of couples that told stories about the happiness they found from praying together, starting faith sharing groups, and getting up early on weekends just to read the next chapter of the Bible together. Hence, I was convinced that I would never get married.

Married life sounded terrible! Praying freaks me out, it’s not that I don’t do it or believe that it has some impact in this world, but praying out loud carries too much pressure. It’s like a speech, (I hate speeches) but to the creator of the universe, so, you know, no big deal! Are you kidding me? That sounds like a daily anxiety attack to me. And I didn’t even get up in the morning to read the Bible on my own, why would I want to do that while having to interact with another person before the hour when I transition from a complaining morning monster to the delightful woman you all know and love? Sometimes I’d rather just read T.S. Eliot or F. Scott Fitzgerald by myself in my bed at a decent hour and call it a day. So my 12 year old self declared marriage, or the church’s secret plan to make a complacent robot army, a horrible option.

Now I know I’m making light of these very important aspects of a Christian life, but I want to make clear that I’m not trying to say you can’t experience God in your marriage through these activities. What I want to suggest is that the script that the church often uses to talk about marriage, love and sex is limited to a drama of perfect happy couples that do only the above outlined Christiany things. While this limitation in the script is not necessarily harmful, for me, it was another reason I often felt, and sometimes still feel, isolated from the church. I thought marriage could only look this way, which meant encouraging people to find a good white, virgin Christian man of a middle class background, similar religious upbringing and parental guidance as you, marry him and settle down to have the same safe life your parents lead. That message was terrifying for me!

I want to suggest that the script be opened and edited. Sure, marriage does work out better when you find unity and agreement around a higher being or similar values, but this whole “marriage takes three” thing is just confusing. In order to fix the confusion, the church decided that the only way God is present in a relationship is if you mention his name directly in conversations, pray to him together in the same tone and order, read this one inspired book, or hang out with other people that think these same things you do. That’s not fixing anything it’s just making a smaller box for this God we keep talking about.

Now, I’m engaged so I proved myself wrong, I guess, I am getting married. But being engaged brought back these fears and worries in me that all of a sudden I was gonna have to force myself to do things that don’t make me feel any more connected to God simply so I could point to that poem and say ‘Yup, that’s me!’ No, after trying to change myself and my fiancé into these Christian robots that I had always seen on church stages and realizing that I was right–this stuff made me miserable–I have realized having a relationship centered on God is so much more.

God is in our relationship when we argue and do unthinkable things to each other but then choose to forgive each other every day. God is there when our hearts are so broken that we can’t even bear to smile at each other. God is there when we have a conversation about racial equality over a home cooked meal and bottle of wine. We pray through encouraging each other and uttering words of hope, that love is alive and well in this dark, crazy world. God is there when we come together in community with people that look, think, act and believe different things than us. I don’t think God is asking us to take part in some bizarre threesome with the trinity. God simply asks us to be open to new ideas, people and interpretations, to consider the other side of every story and to invite each other into our messed up lives in hopes of finding some love and meaning in it all.

So, no, I don’t really hate my mom’s wall hanging that much it’s actually an important concept, but man am I glad it doesn’t mean I have to be a perfect robot wife.

“Get Over It Already” and Other Harmful Christian Messages

As a painfully awkward and overly sensitive child, I was no stranger to irrational fears, worries and anxiety. In fact, I often carried with me a long list of the many social situations to avoid for they were all sure to be ways that I would die a slow painful death by humiliation. Don’t worry this list was entirely comprehensive including everything from slipping dramatically on a poorly placed banana peel to calling my second grade teacher “mom” in front an entire class lacking the psychological development of the empathic response [and yes both of which have happened to me]. Although in some ways it may be obvious, being this type of child was only made more difficult by my parent’s choice to attend one of the largest mega churches in Orange County. Therefore, I not only had to deal with negotiating a vast social obstacle course during the week at school, but my only time of refuge, the weekends, ended in a near panic attack inducing obligation to not only socialize for one’s own good but also by doing so show that somehow one was a ‘good’ Christian.

Like most quiet children, I learned to cope by clinging to the few friends that I knew at a church of thousands and sitting in the far back corner praying the whole time that I would somehow be ignored by the overly-aggressive ‘church welcoming crew.’ I’m sure if you have been in a church at least twice in your life you have encountered this posse. Well I had gained a myriad of techniques to avoid the social advances of this well-meaning, but terrifying group. I had found my own way of still enjoying my time at church without having to cross off anything on my ever-growing humiliation list. That is, I avoided this until around 6th grade.

Not only had puberty reared its ugly head escalating my awkwardness to dangerous proportions, but also my church decided that this was the right time for children to publicly declare their “relationship” with Christ. Seems a little fishy since most of us could barely form relationships with our peers, but you know the God of the universe…cakewalk. Anyway, being a good evangelical teenager, but mostly being one that wanted desperately to avoid standing out from the crowd obviously my only choice was to get baptized. [Yes, funny how the way to fit in during junior high was to attend church as much as possible. Trust me, this is why I will continue to have years of therapy.] But, sounds easy enough, right? Well, if wearing an oversized shirt and standing in a kiddie pool in front of all your friends and family while being dunked forcefully in not-so-warm water wasn’t enough social torture, try giving a speech beforehand.

Yes, you read that right. A speech.

Sorry, had to pause for a second to do my breathing exercises because just thinking of this moment gives me all-too-familiar panic symptoms. As if the baptism was not enough, my church required that every teenager that wanted to be baptized give a five-minute speech outlining their ‘testimony,’ which for those of you that are not familiar with Christian-ese means telling your life story of how you “got saved” essentially. Alright, this must be some cruel joke, I thought! Not only do I have to get dunked in water in front of everyone but I also have to pour out my whole life story for a crowd of a couple hundred junior high students.   Looking back on this decision, I must have been having an out of body experience because there is no way that I would have willingly agreed to something like this, but two weeks later I found myself anxiously awaiting my turn at the mic with my typed speech in one hand and my list of humiliation in the other, which now had the words testimony starred and circled in red ink at the top.

Looking back on this event, I’m always struck by this unusual phenomenon that I’ve experienced in churches long after this one moment in junior high. Something about hearing a ‘testimony’ of a person that has struggled, despaired, screwed up BUT, by the ‘grace of God,’ made it through the storm and now lives a cookie cutter, joyful life is intoxicating to many Christians. We ask people to stand in front of a crowd of people, mostly strangers with the exception of a cordial smile each Sunday, in hopes that their story will be a Hollywood-type of redemption narrative. A story that truly proves to any doubters in the crowd that no matter what type of despair you are muddled in now, only with a few prayers and some sort of eternal hope in God your life will be a fairy tale. And if it does not turn into this fairy tale ending, if you find yourself lost in despair without a way out, then that just means that you must trust God more and we would rather you wait until you get out of that despair to tell your story, for there is bound to be a happy ending in their somewhere.

I’m sorry if this is sounding rather cynical, because that is certainly not my intent. I also do not want to make light of the many rather miraculous testimonies of redemption and healing that I’ve heard over the years. But, returning to my junior high self preparing my testimony, I was convinced that I had to somehow wrap up my story in a nice bow in order to show that God was somehow present in my daily life, which honestly, in my actual experience, was pretty miserable. God forbid I would admit that in front of my church-going friends, though, in order to face the barrage of answers about finding the deeper meaning or the silver lining in my own struggles. No I didn’t want that, so I got through my testimony ending it with a rather trite statement that was probably something like “and now I can find joy in my relationship with Christ,” whatever that means. When on the inside I had to find a way to deal with my own years of depression, doubt, and self-hatred.

My struggle with depression did not end in junior high; in fact, it is still a constant presence in my adult life. Years of counseling and medication have helped, yes, but I am not naïve in thinking that I have seen the last of this familiar foe. I did not know how to talk about my depression when I was younger, because so much of my life at school, at church and with my friends was about putting on a happy face so that I could move past my troubles, because the only way to move on is to ignore any negativity right? I couldn’t give my real testimony when I was in junior high because it would have included my anger, despair and doubt in God without a perfect resolution or feel-good ending. Luckily I’m not in junior high anymore and my faith has changed and grown along with my understanding of myself.

Moving beyond depression is not the end goal for me anymore, because when I’m honest with myself I know that will probably not be possible for me. My purpose isn’t to find the light at the end of the tunnel, because in my experience I have found peace and connection with my understanding of God in the darkness of the tunnel, not the light. Hope and depression are not opposing forces. Hope for me looks like accepting my own darkness and living there with the realization that in despair redemption is a constant reality.   I believe, though, that redemption does not mean overcoming depression in order to be made new, but instead redemption means embracing my fragile state and reaching out to those stumbling along with me in the darkness. Depression is isolating, I mean, it’s not exactly something people like talking about in casual conversation. In my most depressed states, the last thing I want to do is build some sort of community. I want to yell at the world to get out of my face and be alone in my pain. And trust me that is definitely necessary sometimes; I’m not always the most loving person to be around those days.   But in those times when the people closest to me, often those that have also experienced these days of darkness, force me to be my most real and honest self with them—even if that just means giving me coffee and sitting in an understanding silence—I find hope and redemption through community. If I were to simply ‘move past’ my depression or pretend like it’s not a constant reality in my life, then I would miss this opportunity for raw human connection. That is God to me.

I write this as a plea to churches obsessed with proclaiming and exalting the next encouraging testimony. While showing people that there is a way out is often helpful and uplifting, you might be doing a disservice to many people in your congregation or even in your life that know deep down there is no end to their suffering. That does not mean hope is not present in their stories, but it means that they are seeking deeper, more meaningful answers than ‘well, at least you know that when you go to heaven there will be no more suffering’ or ‘have joy because you know God has a purpose for you.’   They are waiting to hear the church tell them that despair is a normal reaction to this screwed up world in which we live. They are waiting to be welcomed into community that doesn’t force them to have everything together prior to membership. They are waiting for someone to sit with them in their despair with no anticipation that they will move past it soon. They are waiting for the gospel message that even in darkness redemption is happening. They are waiting for the church to truly embrace the messiness of life, mental illness, and doubt without the hopes that sooner or later they will catch the good news fever and never have to bother with any of these temporal struggles again. They are waiting for the beauty and pain of their suffering to be honored without only seeing it as a means to an end or a temporary state to rise above. They are waiting for it to be okay for a confused, nervous, and awkward teenage girl to be able to give an honest testimony that is allowed to end in the unknown, but persistent hope of the gospel. For I know that: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and that being saved is so much more than a happy ending, but instead a hope that embraces a brokenheart without forcing it to heal in the same swift way in which it was broken.

YOLO or Why I Stopped Listening to Drake

I hate clichés. I hate them. But what I hate more than those simple statements that seem to slip off the tongue in hopes of sugar coating any rotten bite of reality you are about to have shoved in your mouth, is that sometimes they are true. Don’t you hate that? When I hate something I don’t want it to ever make sense or ever teach me anything. I want to be able to sit on my mountain of bliss judging and ridiculing those meaningless platitudes. Shit hits you square in the jaw, though, when you find yourself writing a blog post about one of the most overused, obnoxiously optimistic clichés in the book.   In fact, it is so obnoxious that Drake himself coined an acronym for it adding to its already effortless delivery. Yes, unfortunately, I am speaking of YOLO: you only live once. Oh god, I nearly had to run to the bathroom out of disgust at myself for merely typing those words. I apologize.

            See I would never be writing this post if I hadn’t had some experience with the annoying truth of those oversimplified four words.   No shit we only live once. Such an obvious statement riddled with the weight of humankind’s imminent mortality, but somehow meant to lighten the mood or guilt people into enjoying what little life they may have left. Carpe diem, if you will. Oh god, sorry, another cliché. Though, hearing YOLO rapped by Drake while interspersed with profanities, casual sex, and the glorious life of riches and fame seems to have created a different meaning for this overused phrase. Now twenty and thirty something’s often use it to encourage rash decisions in the heat of the moment, because, hell, you only live once right? Why not take that extra shot, kiss that stranger at the club, spend a little more of your savings? Somehow this cliché has been turned into a way for people to defend a culture that loves instant gratification (You want something? You can have it, all of it, now!) or it is used as a way to cool the inevitable sting of regret one may feel about past mistakes or choices. You only live once and, if nothing else, at least you’ll have a story to tell next weekend, right?  

            I got caught up in this life. Maybe it did not look like hooking up with random guys or spending extravagant amounts of money, but I was living without a moment of pause. I was living in the fast lane because if I stopped I was so unhappy. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I hate that cliché so much because whenever I heard it whether from Drake or from some sappy love story I desperately watched during a Netflix binge, I always knew deep down that it didn’t mean throwing caution to the wind and doing the next crazy thing that would make for an entertaining story. For with that mentality, all you have in the end is a disjointed pile of stories that gather a fleeting laugh here and there from friends, but nothing sturdy enough on which to build a meaningful life. Hearing the truth screaming beneath the cheesiness of that phrase always terrified me because I was twenty-three and hadn’t been genuinely content with life for more years than I could admit. I had to start living for the present instead of hoping that some happiness or contentedness would come tomorrow or next year or when I was working or when I was married or when I made enough money.   I had to recognize that I had choices in my life. That what I actually wanted mattered more than what people wanted for me, who people saw me becoming, or what external expectations I was trying to achieve. You only live once means that life is happening right here and now. Life does not start in some future plan you have of being successful or rich or in love. So as I began to let these realizations hit me one after another, I found myself bruised at rock bottom, having tumbled down the side of my own mountain of bliss sitting in the unbearable discomfort of the truth. I only live once and this means something. I actually have to start having a meaningful experience and stop being lulled into complacency by the enticing words of Drake: YOLO, bitches.