I generally do very poorly with open-ended assignments or questions. My counselor asked me on Monday to “tell [her] about relapsing — what does it look like” and I proceeded to stare blankly at her for a solid 30 seconds. I finally managed to speak up and tell her that I am happy to answer questions about what this relapse is entailing, but I, in general, need specific points you want me talk on because I do not do well to prioritize and organize information on my own, especially when my brain is half-starved.
So when Sarah left a comment on my first day’s entry and said she wanted to know more about me, I stared blankly at the computer for a solid 30 seconds. And continued to stare blankly for the next forty minutes or so, until I finally decided I needed to pare the assignment down a little. I knew what I didn’t want to talk about: my eating disorder, my alcohol abuse, my self-injury, my rape. I know that there are probably a lot of unanswered questions around all of these things, and while I do at some point want to give a more complete picture of my struggle, I am really trying to find myself and who I am outside of all that.
Finally, I realized that there is actually something I would very much like to see all of you write about, so this is both a way for me to tell my own story and a challenge for you to write your own. One of the things I love most about our God is the way that cares and seeks after each of us individually. Nobody’s story of faith is the same, so while I know that most of you are believers, I don’t have any idea of how you came to be that way. It’s something I’m genuinely curious about — how you came to know God, how you continue to grow in your knowing Him, and how things have changed since that moment that you decided to take on His yoke. So here is my [abbreviated] story. I can’t wait to hear yours.
I was raised in the church – literally. I was there at least three times a week and spent as much time in the halls of that old church as I did in my own bedroom. I should be clear and state that I wasn’t always happy about it. More than once, the precious souls in children’s church had to deal with my screaming and crying because I wanted my mother (I actually have memory of this), and there was one Sunday where I was forced to go to church in my pajamas because we were going, dang it, whether you get dressed or not, young lady.
I spent the years from birth to 11 at a very traditional United Methodist Church. And, children’s church and pajama day aside, I really did love it. I sang in the children’s choir, drank lemonade at the covered dish luncheons, earned girl scout badges in the small brown building next to the playground. When I was 11, my parents decided that the church we were attending was too far away – we had moved when I was four, but continued to make the half-hour commute multiple days each week. The commute wasn’t the issue, though. I was just about to start middle school and my mother wanted me to be in youth group with the same people I was in class with. She was very serious about my being able to look around the classroom and know who the other Christians were so I could know that I was not alone in facing peer pressure, etc. (This theory might have gone over better if half the kids in my youth group weren’t drinking, doing drugs, and having sex by ninth grade – but that’s an entirely different story.)
I wasn’t particularly happy about this new, contemporary church. I missed the hymnals, stained glass, and wooden pews of my first church and furthermore, didn’t really fit in with my youth group. The same social strata that existed in my middle school and high school existed in my youth group — I was an outcast at school and in the church. I still believed, fiercely, and tried to find a place – I sang in the adult choir, watched kids in the nursery, ran the prayer club at my school, went on missions trips every year. I “became” a Christian at age 12 – which is to say that I “asked Jesus into my heart,” a phrase which still confuses me to this day.
Not long after that confession of faith, I began to struggle in ways that nobody was primed to look for. The depression, the disordered eating, the self-injury: nobody expected these things from the first chair flautist with straight A’s and plans to go to Harvard. I won the scripture memory contest every week at youth group, thus solidifying my reputation as the “holier-than-thou-goody-two-shoes-know-it-all.” Nobody knew that I was crying out in my journals on youth retreats for God to please kill me, or that I slipped away to the bathroom between conference sessions to use the knife that was ever in my pocket.
I was very good at playing the role — last year I got the opportunity to meet with one of my old youth pastors for the first time since high school and when she heard me talk about those years, she looked at me with a pained expression and apologized. People assumed that I was stressed out over schoolwork, not suicidal. Looking back, I can see that I never felt safe with them – never felt like I had seen or heard anything that made me believe God was big enough to handle what I was feeling. This was the same group of leaders who were shocked and dismayed at my willingness to say a curse word as part of a literature reading and who dealt with my belief in evolution by telling me, simply, that I was wrong and needed to read the Bible.
I went to a boarding school briefly when I was 16 and never got plugged into a church there. When I returned home after a [miserable] semester [where I very nearly killed myself], I never went back to youth group. No, that’s not true – I went once, but the span of six months made the feeling of division between me and the rest of my classmates too great for a girl who was suffering a very severe depression and debilitating social anxiety. I went to church every Sunday morning, sang in the choir, prayed the prayers – and kept hoping God would show up.
When I went off to college, I stopped going to church altogether. By the end of my first semester freshman year, I ceased to call myself a Christian. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in who God was and what He was doing around the world – I just didn’t think it had any relevance to my life. Where in the Bible did it teach me how to deal with crushing depression that kept me holed up in a dark dorm room for days? Where in the Bible was the parable about self-injury? (Other than the one where Jesus casts demons into pigs, which was wildly irrelevant to an 18-year-old in a city with no pigs.) Where could I find the teachings about genocide and Darfur? Why wasn’t my church involved in boycotting the School of the Americas?
My unwillingness to call myself a Christian became even more pronounced by my sophomore year, when I was aware that I was not living a life at all within God’s will. It amazes me that even then, in some of the darkest days, I knew that I could not shame the name of Christianity — Jesus might not be for me, but He was the Saviour of the world and I wasn’t going to give Him a bad reputation. (I look back on this now as evidence that God was always there – for “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” – 1 Corinth 12:3). He could do His thing for other people, but I would continue to drink, starve, run, and flirt.
So you may find it interesting that this was the same year I started to attend Catholic Mass. I read the Bible. Both were, in fact, intellectual pursuits. I was a history and music major at the time and anybody who knows anything about either of those knows that the Catholic Church has played major roles in both arenas. I also had a terrible fear that my roommate, a devout Catholic, was going to be brutally raped in the winter during her four block walk in the dark to the local Catholic Church. I agreed to go with her one Sunday evening, as a bodyguard of sorts.
I wish I had words to describe how terrifying my sophomore year of college was – how I couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat, ran a million miles a minute trying to keep up with some goal that I couldn’t articulate, all the while sure that it going to fall apart before I could attain it, that I would kill myself before I ever had a chance to know what I was doing. The first time I stepped in to the Oratory near our campus, all of that fell away. It was the first time in months, and perhaps years, that I felt peace. Everything stopped. I was confused, an ex-Methodist in a Catholic service, trying to figure out where my hands go, what the order is, when to sit and when to stand – and yet, I was at peace.
The Oratory remains, to this day, a sacred space to me. I still visit often, especially during Holy Week and Advent. It is one of the most beautiful, emotional places to me and I place that I can go again and again and know that God is there. It is the place that God began His slow and loving pursuit of me, began to show me what a fullness of life could be with Him, and began opening my eyes to who He really is.
Tomorrow: God as hunter and pursuer. (This was getting long and the next part is too good to gloss over.)