Monday, September 5, 2016

Let's Talk About Faith Part 14: Mental Health II

Previously on Let's Talk About Faith:  Introduction / Pre-Church / Confirmation / Saved / Jump / Healing / Mission / Prayer / TheOnly / Work / Leadership / Bible Study / Mental Health I /

Listen to the audio version here

I was known as “the smiley new student with Cerebral Palsy” when I was nine years old.  Even though that year was terrible.  Even though I often felt awful about myself. It had become expected.  Adults always told me, “You have such a positive attitude,” with an air of awe and sadness.

On one hand, my life was the only one I had ever known, and I was living mine just as everyone else was living theirs.  (None of the other kids got complimented for a content disposition, though.)  At the same time, no one knew just how much my smile hid, as I coped with a barrage of ableism.  I beamed kindness constantly because it put others at ease.  A pleasant expression could engage people.  It also absolved them, as I had a habit of grinning reflexively when my feelings were hurt.

At age ten, I self-injured for the first time after a major surgery, and a second time when I was thirteen.  I didn’t understand why I was doing these things.  Only years later, as an adult did I realize that I used self-injury as a means of controlling the pain I felt - both physical and emotional.

During the summer of 2001 through to the winter of 2002, I struggled with what was commonly perceived as the “sin” of self-harming.  I rarely let myself consider just how much church itself played a role in fostering the feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, despair, and self-loathing that would eventually cause me to injure myself as an adult.

DOUBTING FAITH:

Six months after the healing conference, I took part in an outreach at a local park.   It was just the kind of thing I usually enjoyed.  But I started to feel the fingers of depression trying to pull me back down.  I began to doubt.

What if everything I’ve come to believe isn’t true, and nothing is really out there?

What if God isn’t real?  

These thoughts were crushing for me, particularly after being paraded around and berated for not having enough faith.  I had held onto the belief that, even if I did not possess the faith to be healed on earth, my healing would come in heaven.  Doubting God meant also doubting the existence of heaven.

It meant that I would be stuck in a body that was an affront to God.  Trapped within an eternally anguished mind.

I would never be whole.

I would never have peace.

I self-injured that night, and my anxiety was temporarily allayed by physical pain.  I also had tangible proof of my pain, so I could not smile it away.

I wore shirts that exposed my injuries to church, but no one noticed.  I had silently hoped they would, while dreading it at the same time.

Instead, I confessed what I had done by email.  For a week, I was too ashamed to look anybody in the eye and admit what I had done.  I confessed it as a sort of dual-sin, where the real secret was not that I had injured myself intentionally, but that I was doubting my faith.

I was not greeted with anything resembling understanding.  I was told by a fellow believer in no uncertain terms that I would go to hell if I didn’t believe in Jesus.  He also demanded to know where I thought Daniel - the friend I had recently lost to terminal illness - was if heaven didn't exist.  These reactions only served to increase my sadness and hopelessness tenfold.

After a week, I told Tara, and to my chagrin, she told Liam.  We had been hanging out late at his house with a group of friends, watching a movie.  I was still very much in the grips of depression, anxiety and shame.  When he gave us a ride home at around two in the morning, I realized what I was in for.  I realized he knew.

I didn’t feel relieved.  I felt ganged up on.  I resented Tara for telling him (even though, had the situation been reversed, I would have done the exact same thing).  Liam was deeply concerned, but, I thought, missed the point of absolutely everything:

“So, Tara told me what happened…” he ventured cautiously.  “Does this mean you want to die?”

“No,” I answered feeling more misunderstood than ever.  “It’s not like that.  It’s...like a distraction.  I got overwhelmed,” I confessed in a quiet monotone.  “It helped in a weird way, so that I wasn’t thinking about how bad I hurt emotionally.”

“You know, there’s a verse that talks about how our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. That we don’t belong to ourselves but to God.  It means that God doesn’t want you to do that to yourself.  He made you.  You are His good work, and by disrespecting your body, you’re disrespecting Him.”

“Well, I’m not even sure if God’s real, so…” I admitted, feeling empty.

Liam prayed for me, but I remained unmoved emotionally, and eventually he sang a worship song.  It was just the three of us in his truck, parked in our parents’ driveway at 3 AM.  The song didn’t cure me, but it did make me sure God was still around.  And I was able to go forward, resolving not to sin again.

Three months later, I wrote:

Dear God,
I’ve been wondering a lot about heaven.  What it’s like.  What we’ll do there.  Everything.  The Bible says in the last days, everything You made will be destroyed and a new heaven and a new earth will be made…  [It] says everyone will get a new body... I’ve always wondered if anyone will recognize me without CP?

My desperation to be healed stemmed not from self-hatred, but from a loathing that was taught in part within church walls.  In my heart, I knew Cerebral Palsy was an intrinsic part of me.  To separate me from it might make me socially acceptable, but it would also make me unrecognizable, even to myself.

It was for this reason, I often felt there was a battle raging inside me.  Did I forfeit this specific piece of my identity in the name of faith?  Was losing myself worth the price of a heavenly transformation I was not even sure I wanted?

Could I be me - with CP - and be loved anyway?

FAITH AND BAPTISM:

Eleven months later, I again found my life in turmoil.  Personal issues, losses, and not knowing how to deal with how I felt about my disability all added up, and I relapsed.

After the second time, I made a serious effort to attempt to understand why I was doing what I was doing.  For the first time, I looked into things I could do when I was feeling triggered.  Simply promising myself that I would not do it again was not working - it was obviously more complicated than that.  So, I made lists of alternative coping strategies and kept them close at hand.

I also made a decision that seems strange to me today, especially as a way to cope with the anxiety that led me to self-harm: I chose to get baptized.

Liam had been encouraging me to do this for awhile.  He said it was a way for me to start fresh.  A way to be delivered, once and for all, of my anxiety.

“We were baptized already, when we were two hours old,” I explained.  “Because weren’t expected to survive.”

“That wasn’t your choice, though.  That was your parents’ choice.  This would be different because it would be another way for you to recommit yourself to God.  To be cleansed of the past and all the things that hold you back.”

I thought about his offer, and a year to the day after I had hurt myself at age 20, I made the decision that I wanted to be baptized.  To do this, I had exactly one meeting with one of the pastors on The Edge’s rotating staff - Pastor Paul .  This was someone I had never spoken to before.  The meeting was quite somber, as he led me through Bible verses and explained the gravity of the choice I was making.  I never felt comfortable or confident enough to explain why I was doing what I was doing.  I thought that was best to remain between God and me.  By now another month had passed, and I was feeling more anxious with each passing day.

My new anxiety?

What if I drowned?

To me, this was not an unfounded fear.  At The Edge, they believed in fully submerging a person in a giant tank of water at the front of the church.  It was the approximate size and depth of a hot tub.  I have never been able to swim, and the idea of someone holding my head under water, even for a second, was terrifying.

The following day, I came to church, with my bathing suit on underneath my decidedly less fancy church clothes, and a set to change into after those I was wearing became soaked.

I gawked at the giant tank, wondering how on in the world I would even get in it.  There was no railing, just steps going incrementally higher.  The water was too deep for my crutches to even be useful (plus I didn’t want them rusting).

Pastor Mark was on duty that day.  I had only ever exchanged greetings with him - and this day was no different.  There was no discussion about consent or logistics.  When the time came for my baptism, he picked me up bodily and lifted me into the tank.

I was mortified.

I had no time to dwell over that, though, because after a few words were exchanged, I felt myself being guided backward and then my head being pushed down.  As I desperately held my breath, I heard Pastor Mark say, “We need to get it all the way in there!” while forcing my head down.

It, not you.  Even while receiving this sacred rite, I was dehumanized.

 I had a moment of panic thinking my worst fear was about to come true.

Needless to say, I survived.

I wrote an email to several close friends afterward.  It reads in part: I also want to take this opportunity to apologize to every single one of you.  Because I realize that not only did my decision to self-injure hurt all of you, but the decision in and of itself was an extremely selfish one to make.

All these months, I had longed for transformation.  I had repeatedly gotten the message that as I was, I was not enough.  In truth, that email in its entirety sounds nothing at all like me.  It sounds an awful lot like Liam, though.  He was charismatic and well-liked.  Liam was more than enough all by himself.  Without even knowing it, I had lost myself in the hope of being embraced.  I had traded myself for the hope of peace.

I experienced that peace for mere days, but self-loathing remained a loyal and unyielding companion.

FAITH AND THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP:

Days after my baptism, I returned to college.  I again felt isolated, having no community of any kind.  Still, I did not relapse until I came home for the holiday break in December.  By then, I had been depressed for six months, and my reason for harming myself changed.  It was not about self-medicating my anxiety - it was about self-punishment.

I felt I deserved to be mistreated because of my disability.  I was assaulted daily with ableist words and actions.  And my gut instinct when someone hurt me was to reaffirm that hurt by turning it on myself.

I actually carried the object I had used to self-injure with me for a whole day afterward.  I didn’t use it, but in some unhealthy way, it helped me feel secure.  Like I was armed.  Even though I was arming myself against me.

Days later, Sally called and invited me over to her house.  We ended up talking, and I told her what I had done.

Sally asked to see where I had injured myself, and she gave it a kiss.  She prayed for me, and cried for me while I sat on her couch, feeling numb.

“I know you’re really against this, but I do think you should talk to someone,” she said gently, holding my hand.

“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.  I can’t drive, so I have no way to get there.  I wouldn’t know where to go.  I have to go back to school soon.  I have no job.  I have no money.  And even if I had money, it would show up on something at my parents’ house, because I’m still on their insurance.  If they see anything about it, they’ll want to know why I got help...and I just can’t talk to them about this.  I’m such a disappointment already…”

“I’ll drive you.  I know where you can go.  I’ll pay for it,” Sally said honestly, tears shining in her eyes.

“No, I can’t ask you to do that…” I said.

“You’re not asking.  I’m offering.  Honestly, I can see you’re overwhelmed, and I’m telling you I can take care of everything.  I can even stay with you in the room while you talk to someone, if you want.  All you have to do is say yes.”

It took some more convincing, but Sally kept her word and found me an appointment two weeks later.  In the meantime, even though she was going to TheOnly conference several states away, she called me to check in.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m okay…  Honestly, I keep thinking that the time I was at your house was a dream.  It feels too good to be true.”

Sally laughed gently.  “Well, I’m pretty sure it’s not a dream.  I was there, too.”

“What if….” I ventured warily.  “What if it happens again?”

“Then, I’ll be there for you.  You won’t be alone.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

FAITH AND FOLLOW THROUGH:

A week into 2003, my appointment was looming.  My return to college was also mere days away, and I kept thinking something was going to happen to cause these plans to fall through.  To me, the possibility of help felt as fragile as a house of cards.  I did not want to put too much faith in it working out, but it was literally the only glimmer of hope I had.

That night, Sally showed up, and I left my parents’ house.  But from the moment I got into her car, my panic started to show itself.

“I don’t know if I can do this.  Maybe it was a bad idea.  I’ll probably be okay back at school, you know?  It’s not bad there.”

My mind was conjuring all kinds of scary images: a sterile, white room that smelled like coffee and antiseptic.  A clinical voice.  That voice telling me there was something really wrong with me.  That voice telling me they could help me, but only via some painful procedure.  That voice telling me I was beyond help.

Sally just listened.  Then she said, “You can do this, and I’m going to be right with you.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling short of breath.  “Yeah, but I still don’t know.”  The idea of sharing my personal struggles with someone whose job I thought it was to listen and judge them sounded beyond terrifying.

Sally took my hand in one of hers, and held it while she drove.  She talked to me some more and stayed very calm.  We listened to music and then we stopped at a Dairy Queen on the way, as we had extra time, and I didn’t even want to order anything, my anxiety was so rampant.  While I normally enjoyed the chocolate chip cookie dough or mocha chip Blizzard, that time I stuck with the standby I always ordered as a little girl: a small vanilla ice cream cone.

I barely tasted it.

The closer we got, the more panicked I felt.  I walked inside and waited with Sally in the waiting room.  I had brought recent pictures to share with her, and I remember we looked at these while the minutes ticked by.

When we finally were invited back into the office, I was beyond relieved to see that it looked not like a doctor’s office but like a living room, carpeted and comfortably furnished with couches and chairs.  The counselor (who was a Christian) reminded me of my grandmother.  These things made it exponentially easier for me.

While I sat across from the counselor, Sally sat unobtrusively in a chair by the wall.  In fact, she never spoke a word at all, but it was beyond comforting to have her there with me.  I filled out a piece of paper, checking boxes next to anxiety and depression, to indicate what I needed help with that evening.

Then, I talked with the counselor.  I opened up with her about my trauma and she listened.  She asked how I had dealt with what had happened, and I told her about the anxiety and depression.  How the depression in particular made me feel like nothing I did would ever be enough, and that coupled with the anxiety, it made me want to hurt myself.

“Not to, like, die or anything - just to cope,” I reassured her.

She nodded.  “That makes sense.”

“Oh.  It does?”

“Yes,” she said.

We spoke some more, and at the end of the session, she prepared to pray with me.  “I have some holy oil here that I can anoint you with if you’d like,” she offered, showing me the tiny jar.

“...You can if you want,” I told her, not wanting to offend this woman who had helped me so much just by listening.  Just by telling me my struggles made sense, instead of reaffirming the reactions I had already gotten inferring that injuring myself was outlandish, sinful or selfish.

“I think it’s best…” the counselor said quietly, “that I respect your hesitance.”

I blinked, surprised that she picked up on my apprehension and backed off, instead of plunging ahead, as those at The Edge were known to do.

Afterward, Sally was about to burst in the car on the way to drop me off:

“Wow.  I’m so proud of you.”

I squinted at her.  “Why?”

“Because you just talked to her.  You were calm.  You opened up.  You were really composed and you answered all her questions.  It’s not easy to do.”

“I felt bad for you, just sitting by the wall the whole time.  You weren’t bored, were you?”

“No way!  It was so cool to just be a fly on the wall and observe.”

As we parked, I took the time to look her in the eye.  “I don’t know if I’ve said this, or if I ever can say it enough, but thank you.  No one has ever done anything like this for me before, and I really, really needed it.  I think, just hearing somebody in a professional setting tell me I wasn’t overreacting really helped.  Somebody listening to me, like what I said mattered.  It was like I mattered, and I didn’t deserve all the hurt I’ve gone through...well, it’s just made a big difference.”

“You don’t deserve it.  I’m glad to help.  I’m glad I could be there.”

“Thank you.”

“You don’t need to keep thanking me.”

“Yes, I do.”

FAITH TO MOVE FORWARD:

It’s been nearly fourteen years since that night.  And it hasn’t been easy.  There have been multiple times over the years where I have encountered triggers that caused an impulse in me to self-harm.  (Particularly during church youth group when a graphic video was shown of someone injuring themselves and the aftermath the next morning.  There was no warning about the content of this video.)

Many things have helped me cope in the ensuing years, and though none of them were learned in the church, I feel they are worth sharing.  The summer after April comforted me through the onset of my anniversary reaction, I bought a PTSD workbook and began to face what happened for the first time.  In the front of the book, it had a place for names and phone numbers for “safe people” to contact in the event that I was triggered by the material in the workbook.

While I never used the safe people while going through the workbook, I did transfer the concept to my recovery for self-harm.  I started speaking to specific people and asking them if they would mind if I called them to tell them when I was triggered.  I have not needed these people frequently - perhaps once every couple of years - but I do reach out to them.  They change as my needs and friendships change.

I also read a book about children who had experienced abuse and trauma.  While the book was not particularly well-written, one excerpt stayed with me.  In it, the author spoke about a child in therapeutic care who was visiting her family for the weekend.  On that visit, the child told her mom that she was having thoughts about hurting a sibling.  The little girl’s mother panicked and called the therapist, who explained that the little girl had been taught to verbalize her unhealthy thoughts.  If the child verbalized them, she would not act them out.  Secrecy was where the damaging behavior could thrive, and without it, she was a much healthier person.

Though my situation was very different, I internalized that passage of the book and made it work for me.  Today, I contact my safe people to tell them I am triggered and admit to any other unhealthy behavior linked to self-harming, even if I have not hurt myself.  These things help to keep me safe.

I share this because self-harm is not widely discussed or understood.  I think it’s important to share the real issues I faced while attending church.

Countless people have offered to pray for my physical healing, heedless of the message it sent:

That I was broken, worthless and incomplete.

While many people in the faith community made a negative impact, Sally stepped up to help me. This set me on the path of healing that I can proudly say I am still on today.

You may never know what long-term effects your actions will have on those around you.

If a loved one opens up to you and shares that they have self-harmed, you being there for them just may make all the difference.

And if you have struggled with self-harm, know that you are not alone.

There is hope.

Self harm for me, was about many things, but mainly, it was about control.  I craved having control over when, where, and for how long I experienced pain, so it was no longer a random onslaught.  So it was predictable.  So I could say "enough" when it got to be too much.

Today, I know that I exert just as much control over my pain by choosing not to hurt myself.  By being vigilant about my triggers, I am being smart and taking care of myself.  Every time I offset that urge for a second, or a minute, I am in control.  By reaching out to someone, by being honest, I reaffirm that I am worth loving, and that I do not deserve the abuse that I experienced.

While I will always struggle with these impulses, it's what I do with them that matters.

[Image is: My arm with the word LOVE, flowers and a heart drawn on it.  Participating in a To Write Love on Her Arms event in 2010, which raises awareness about self-injury.]


***

My enemy lives
Within me
Along with my strength
To fight it.
If I can keep 
Perspective
Everything will
Be all right.
If I never think I
Beat it.
If I remember
I have the power,
All will help
Me in deciding
Not to hurt
Instead of
Hurting. 

written January 30, 2010

***

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