And They Said Laugh With Me

Uproarious laughter
but not the kind that comes
when the punch line drops
more like when the punch drops
drops, falls, lands
right in that pit of a full stomach

Laughter, louder than the rush
of trains and musicians
ringing in my distant ear.
For the longest time I thought
I thought they were laughing with me

We’d pound the streets
looking for that next good time
Minutes feel like seconds as we move
from one smoke-filled bar to the next

The laughing never stopped
Oh, what a grand time it was
But then the laughter changed
as the shot washed down my
desperate unhappiness
I couldn’t laugh anymore

It took all of me not to order another
another round to appease these laughs
of not foes but not friends
but, alas, my wallet ran drier than my glass

So the laughs surrounded
overwhelmed my good time.
I tried to laugh with them
but then the punch landed.

The obscene mixture of PBR,
tequila and insecurity
settled with a gentle shock
enough to sober my ego
as the laughs turned to accusations.

The same accusations that
only hours before
had been silenced
by the same deafening mania of laughter
which had faked as friend.
For in the amnesia of memory
the laughter always appears.

The laughter beckons me to let go
like a siren
the deceitful laughter numbs me
until the splinters pierce skin
and all that’s left is my misery
my only true friend.

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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

A Field of Endless Possibility

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Chicagoans are nothing, if not hopeful.  We spend every day of at least five months out of the year (and that’s being generous) hoping that the sun hasn’t crawled into an eternal cave never to be seen again.  We hope that our snot can last the five minute walk to the bus stop without completely freezing our nasal passages solid (yes, this is a true story).  We hope that the icy-slush-puddle that we are forced to navigate through is only an inch deep and not the rabbit hole that brought Alice to Wonderland.  We hope that our car, which is buried in four feet of snow, has steadfast determination to start on command and get us to work in the morning.  But above all we hope we survive this year’s winter to make it to spring and summer.

We live in a city where most of the year we are miserable so that a few months of the year are paradise.  And we are proud of it.  Put a long-time Chicagoan in Southern California during a “rain storm” as all the bleach blonde, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing hippies run around  in terror with their hoodies, Ugg boots and scarves.  Come to Chicago, the Chicagoan would think. You wouldn’t last a day, even a day in March. But why is it that most of us voluntary choose this torture when so many great cities have vacation-like climates all year round?

I was thinking about this hope phenomenon walking home from work today on this year’s first 80 degree day.  (And, as usual, I was thinking too much and too deeply about it, because I have a tendency to do that). But I kept going back to the idea that this hope is a similar hope that we all have or wish to have about our own lives.  Most of the time, life is full of suffering, pain, disappointment, loss.  Most of the time our life is spent in the winter.  Clinging to warmth and safety but hoping that another day, a warmer day, a brighter day will come.

Depression reminds me a lot of a Chicago winter.  You feel like you are trapped, constantly inside.  The cold and unwelcoming outside makes even getting out of bed a struggle.  You don’t care to look at anyone in the eye or even give a friendly head nod in their direction when walking down the street because even a momentary glance will halt your eventual escape out of the bitter cold.  Winter is about survival.  A survival in hopes that a spring will one day appear.

And right as we all begin to lose hope, spring arrives (as much as Chicago can muster a spring) and reminds us all that the winter is only a season.  Winter is only a season.  Depression is only a season.  While we always seem to hold in the back of our heads the reminder that one day spring will turn into summer, which will turn into fall, which will turn into winter once again, we know that spring has come.  Chicago comes to life.  Those of us that struggle with depression know that a good day, week or month is something to be celebrated and enjoyed but we are always haunted by the day we wake up and the cold has engulfed us once more.  But we revel in those warm days, weeks and months, just like Chicagoans spend entire weeks outside when the temperature is a mere 40 degrees. For we know that even spring is a season.

As I walked home from work mulling over these thoughts, I came across an open field, which had once housed the many public housing projects that were scattered on the near west side of the city.  Now this field is home to knee-high grass, weeds and gleeful dogs playing endless games of fetch with their owners.  I walk past this field nearly every day but for some reason as I walked past, feeling the warmth of the sun on my conspicuously pale skin, it gave me pause.

Scattered in between the neglected blades of grass were hundreds of dandelions swaying gently in the soft spring wind.  This is why we hope.  For dandelions.  When the fuzzy white tops of these flower-like weeds float or are blown away, leaving the stem naked and vulnerable the plants look like they no longer have meaning, no longer have life.  But what I have always found mesmerizing about these weeds is that with each white seed that disappears in the wind, another dandelion is planted wherever it lands. In seeming death, new life is created.  Before me lay resilience. Before me lay a field of endless possibility.

I paused to take a picture of this beautiful image and continued on my way.  But before I reached the entrance of my apartment, I thought: this is why we hope.  This is why we Chicagoans are crazy about our city, despite our weather. This is why we can survive chronic depression even though we know it will always be our unwanted friend.  We hope for new life, for renewal, for a fresh start even in the face of cold, death, and isolation. We hope in winter that we will just survive the cold, bleak conditions so that we can thrive in spring. For, even in spring, when winter feels imminent once again and even though the warm wind can strip us naked, vulnerable, alone, we can have hope in knowing that, with that strong gust of wind, resilience is built and possibilities are endless. Image

“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.