Saturday, October 19, 2013

When I Was on Fire

*This blog is written in response to the book, "When We Were on Fire." I was going to contribute to the synchroblog, but in typical Emily fashion, I missed the deadline. But, I'm sharing anyway. Because maybe you need this. 

I was 13 years old and sporting a horrific bob haircut that had resulted from my attempts to cut my own hair. My curls and frizz were never meant to be worn that short and the appearance of pictures from those days of life serve as an eternal reminder of that time in life that can only be defined with one word: AWKWARD. 

I was at my first church camp, sitting in folding chairs in a tent learning about the rapture and the New Jerusalem. At that point in life I don't think I could even tell you that Revelation was the last book in the Bible, but I was learning the exact dimensions of new walls that would create a new city Christians would live in one day. Or something like that. Truth be told, we were staying up so late and getting up so early and sitting through such deep lessons that it was my first time experiencing genuine, POW type sleep deprivation. I would literally fall asleep sitting up and jerk awake trying to figure out where I was. I would glance down at my khaki shorts, Duckhead striped t-shirt, and K-Swiss and remember I was at church camp.

How I ended up there, I will never know. I guess it was, as we say in church, a God thing. My family had recently moved back to my hometown after a short 11 month move to Orange Park, FL. During those 11 months I had come of age. I left my hometown a chubby 12 year old with glasses, still playing with Barbies. While there I grew a few inches, thinned out and got contacts. My mom bought me Cover Girl lip gloss and Baby Soft perfume. I had my first boyfriend, a blonde haired, wild child, nothing but trouble boy who gave me butterflies in my stomach and filled my thoughts that had once revolved around Baby-Sitter Club books and roller skating. It was a tumultuous time of wanting to be grown up, but having no clue what was going on in life. I sought the wisdom of Sassy magazine and longed to be cool like the girls in the magazine with burgundy lipstick, baby doll dresses and Courtney Love CD's. Suffice it to say, I wasn't cool. 

I moved back to my hometown and  somehow connected with another "bad boy". It is, I'm sure, laughable to anyone who knows me now that I was once drawn to the bad boys. I used to tell myself it is a phase all girls go through, but now that I'm the mom of 2 girls, I've decided it's just a phase I went through. They never will. :) I longed to be bad too, because in my mind that equaled cool. Like the Sassy girls. 

Eventually that bad boy moved on from me and I was left with heartache and regret because I had never managed to be cool by being bad, but I had managed to become someone I didn't really want to be. During that time my family was attending the church I had grown up attending VBS at during my childhood. We just went on Sunday mornings. I sat in service and daydreamed and thought about things 13 year old girls think about. We left church and went through the drive-thru and got KCF chicken. That was the extent of my spiritual experience. I had been "saved" and baptized at the age of 7, but there had been no growth, no real desire on my part to learn more about what the Christian life was about. I thought it was about going to church and getting chicken on the way home.

Somewhere along the way a couple of the girls from the youth group at that church befriended me. I'm sure out of pity and a leading by God to include the weird, quiet girl who only came on Sunday mornings. I would later learn that everybody thought I was a huge snob because I never talked to anyone. What they didn't know was that I was painfully shy, scared of my own shadow and living in fear that I would be asked a question about the Bible and the truth would come out that I knew NOTHING. 

Then, one day it happened. They began announcing the upcoming camp that everyone would be going to. I really can't remember if they asked me to go or if I just randomly decided I would. Either way, I went and there I was surrounded by all of the other kids in khaki shorts and polo shirts and we were learning about Jesus and singing songs about papayas. (Don't ask, I can't remember.) My new church friends were in love with the worship leaders and any other boys who happened to acknowledge our existence. 

I still have the workbook from that camp and to be honest, 20 years into this journey I realize it is full of things I still don't fully understand. Leave it to me to choose the church camp that started with the.most.complicated part of the Bible EVER. Oh well. It didn't really matter. Because even though I didn't fully get what it was all about (although I would do my best to explain  the Rapture to my 7th grade friends when I returned home), it happened for me. I became completely overwhelmed by the idea that the God of the universe loved me and had sent His Son to die for me. This was especially fresh and full of grace for me after my brief stint in "bad girl" land. I cried and felt like I should walk forward during the invitation time even though I didn't know why. I fought it as long as I could and waited so long that I had to go on a search to find someone to talk to. That night I would sit down with two people who had exemplified grace and love to me and they would pray with me and one of my new church friends and life would never be the same again. 

I returned home a different person. I sprawled on my bed for hours reading my Teen Study Bible, underlining every verse, reading every devotion. I began sporting Christian t-shirts, replaying the tapes of the music from camp constantly and trying to explain the dimensions of the new earth to any person unfortunate enough to encounter me that summer. :)

From 8th grade until my senior year of high school, I was on fire. I prayed around flagpoles, signed True Love Waits commitment cards and led the Bible Club at school. I spent my free time going on visitation and memorizing Bible verses. I dated good Christian guys. In fact, I may be the only girl who can say that at the age of 15 a guy broke up with her because he was a different denomination. My well-meaning friends confronted him about the seriousness of that issue and how if we were going to consider marriage that could be an issue. This now makes me laugh hysterically, one because that guy grew up to marry a Baptist girl (like me), and two, who is thinking about getting married when they're 15???? I was just thrilled to have a guy talk to me and my immediate goal was a driver's license, not a marriage license. Oh well. I am glad I had friends who were concerned for me. :)

I also smiled a lot during that time. It kind of became what I was known for. Because Christians are always happy, right? That's what I thought. I didn't know life could be as hard as it would soon become.

Toward the end of my junior year another boy came into my life. He was fresh on the heels of another heartache in my life and I did my best to keep him in "friend" status. He was quick to make it known he had feelings for me that were more than friendship and I was quick to put my fingers in my ears and say "la la la". His mom still tells the story of when Josh woke her up late one night after talking to me and what he told her was that he liked me and that I was always smiling.

Just a month after Josh and I attended prom together as friends, I was 12 hours away in Mentone, Alabama having the time of my life working as a camp counselor. I got to teach dance lessons (my passion) every day and hang out with 5 and 6 year old campers and wise and worldly college age counselors. It was my first summer since 8th grade to not be going to church camp or on a mission trip with my church. I was venturing out. I was growing. I was about to receive the most tragic, life altering news I had ever received.

I still remember it like it was yesterday. We fed the campers supper outside, Mexican food. A mess. I was still cleaning up our table when the camp director came to get me. She was a kind, beautiful, outdoorsy kind of woman. She kindly asked me to walk back to the cabin I shared with several other junior counselors. I began to panic. Were we in trouble for the mess we had left it in? Oh the times I have thought back on that night and wished that she was taking me up to the cabin to chew me and the other girls out for leaving wet towels on the floor. We didn't make it back to the cabin before my world crumbled. As we climbed the hill my Dad appeared. In that split second I instantly knew that something was wrong. I thought of my Papaw who had been struggling with Emphysema. In a whirlwind of humidity and emotion I heard the words "Cat died."  Cat was my six year old cousin and those were the only words I heard and I couldn't wrap my mind around what that meant. The gathering of my belongings and getting to our family's green Ford Aerostar are absent from my mind. But somehow I was in the van and my Dad explained to me that Cat had been riding in the back of a pick up truck when she fell out and was hit by another car. And we made the 12 hour drive, trading off driving duties and staring blankly at the road, not really able to absorb what we were driving home to.

My senior year was a flurry of activities and excitement about the future. And grief and sorrow and change. And news stories about my family where reporters mispronounced "Catriona" and radio talk shows debated what happened in a clinical, mean spirited way that you discuss things that have not impacted your entire life. 

I went to church, and dance. I was in the Homecoming Court and named Prom Queen. I was the President of the Bible Club and chaplain for our senior class. I went to football games and pep rallies. And court hearings. And I pressed on. And I never questioned God, never blamed Him for what happened. But even in the midst of senior activities and falling in love (Josh and I became "official" in September of my senior year) something was changing in me. My smile was fading. My motivation waning. My understanding of life shaken to the core. It was during this year that I skipped school for the first time for no reason. My Dad called it a "mental health day". And I told him I didn't understand why I felt the way that I did and he said, "Emily, it's not your job to make everybody happy." But I sincerely thought it was and it grieved me that in my grief I didn't feel all that happy, so I certainly didn't feel like I could make anybody else happy. But that was my job because Christians are always happy.

I really don't know when I decided that. That Christians were always happy. Maybe I just saw the people who appeared to always be happy and wanted to be one of them. Maybe I internalized all of the sermons I heard on Jesus being the Answer and the Way and the only way to have joy and decided that I should always be happy since I had Jesus. Whatever led me to believe that would be what led me to the greatest challenge of my life. Depression.

It seemed like such a dirty word. I lost two grandparents to suicide, one before I was born and one when I was 7. I had no understanding. All I understood were the people who said that it was selfish to take your own life. And that those people must be weak to do such a thing. Yes, I thought, so weak. And I determined at an age that most people don't think about such things, that I would never be depressed.

So I pressed on. And I chose a college (a Christian college) that was 5 hours away from home and everybody I knew because I had something to prove. Even today as I thought about this I wondered who I was trying to prove something to. And finally, after 33 years on this earth, it hit me. It was ME. I was trying to prove something to myself. That I wasn't a scared, insecure, fragile little girl. That I was bold and brave and ready to embrace the world. I took out my student loans, loaded my Mitsibushi Mirage and turned up the Dixie Chicks "Wide Open Spaces" as loud as it would go. My high school sweetheart slept in the front seat next to me and we were determined that we would beat the odds, we would survive a long distance relationship.

I moved into my dorm room with the concrete walls and the community showers. I decorated my side with smiley face decor and lived on a diet of Spaghettios freshly heated up in my one worldly possession, a microwave purchased with graduation money. My roommate and I forged a friendship based on mutual loneliness and Golden Girl marathons. 

Sometimes those are lost years for me. There are several memories that really stand out, and good ones, but overall the change that was happening in me was so all-consuming that I am just now, a decade later, able to look back and appreciate the journey without being overcome with raw emotions. During that time I attempted to make friends and be involved. I just couldn't seem to find my niche. I had been super Christian back home. Here, I was just another girl in a sea of people who were there to be missionaries and preachers and theologians. I found myself spending most of my time sleeping. I tried to find a church to belong to, but nothing felt right. I soon started making the 1 1/2 hour drive to my grandparents house every weekend where I would immediately fall asleep on their couch and spend the rest of my time on the phone with Josh.

My first summer back home was hard. All of my friends were away at different schools or on trips. I felt increasingly out of place and realized I was torn between wanting to be back at school with my roommate who had become my best friend and never wanting to go back, never wanting to have a calendar to mark down the days until I would see Josh again.

It was that summer, right before I returned to school, that I went to a family dr. for my physical. Out of nowhere he asked if I had been "weepy" and out of nowhere I began to cry. I assume he looked at my family history of suicide and promptly wrote me a prescription for Zoloft. I still remember sitting on the hood of my car asking Josh, "Do you think I'm depressed?"  It seems strange now, because so many of the following years of my life would be defined by depression, but at that time, it was such a foreign concept to me. I was the girl who always smiled.

I started the Zoloft and headed back to school. I went for 2 sessions with a school counselor and he was a great guy.  I was supposed to go for a 3rd session, but on that day I poked my head in, told him I wanted to go to the mall and headed out. I thought I was cured because I actually felt like getting out of bed. All was good again. In the following months Josh would propose, I would decide to move back home and change schools and my days would get darker than I could have ever imagined.

I became increasingly angrier. I had never been an angry person. Never. If there was a poster child for stuffing your feelings, I was it. I would turn that other cheek like a boss. Until I couldn't. Until it all fell apart and one day I got so upset that as I pulled out into traffic I wished that a car would hit me. Thankfully in that time of irrational thought I shared that with my Mom and she promptly scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist. He basically concluded that I was a spoiled, selfish college kid and upped my dosage of Zoloft. It would be several years later before it would hit the news that Zoloft was not safe for children or young adults, which I was. It would be years before I realized that that medication actually changed the chemistry of my brain. Years before it hit me that all changing my dosage did was turn all of my feelings off and turn me into a zombie.

In the next year I would get married and pregnant. Married in June, pregnant in October. I took myself off the Zoloft before I got pregnant (even though getting pregnant was not in the plan) and for me pregnancy seemed to balance my emotions. I was so happy. You may notice I haven't mentioned God or church or any of that during all of this time. It's because I wasn't sure where He was. Wasn't sure where I was. Occasionally I would watch a preacher on TV or Josh and I would attend a church on Sunday morning, but mostly I was still trying to feel and figure out who I was now that I wasn't always happy. That girl from high school seemed like a different person altogether and I had a hard time remembering that we were the same person.

I had my first baby in July of 2002,  less than a month after our 1 year wedding anniversary.I was 20, Josh was 19. I decided to take a year off of school. These would become the darkest days. As much as pregnancy had balanced my hormones, postpartum hormones wreaked havoc on me. I had postpartum bleeding that lasted 2 months before my dr. figured out what was going on and my gallbladder shut down, something that took 8 months to discover. I just knew I was miserable. Exhausted. In pain. My beloved Papaw was on Hospice, near death. Josh was working 80 hour weeks. My baby had colic. My body was ruined. My friends weren't moms yet. I would literally lock me and Sarah in the bedroom and only get out of the bed when she needed to be fed. I became angry. So angry. In a way I never understood. I was overwhelmed. That was my word. It became the only prayer I prayed. God, I am so overwhelmed. God, help me. And there were people who would have helped me, but I had something to prove, and so I wouldn't let them. I learned during that time that people could be very much in the same location as you, but not in the same place. I felt broken in a way that I thought could never be fixed. I hated myself. I couldn't smile anymore. I literally didn't recognize myself when I looked in the mirror and it wasn't just the postpartum body, it was the emptiness in my eyes.

Some nights I laid on the floor and wished I would die. And I thought of the people who said that was selfish, how I had thought it was selfish. But now it didn't feel selfish. I felt like it would be selfish for me to still be here. To put Josh through this. I wanted to just disappear so he could find someone who could be happy and make him happy. He assured me that I still made him happy, but I couldn't fathom how.

After I finally had surgery to remove my gallbladder I started to regain some energy. Sarah was finally sleeping more and I had learned some ways to ease her tummy aches. I would look at her and think that with all of my flaws and brokenness, nobody else could love her the way that I did. I was her Mom. And nobody else could be that. So, I pressed on.

My New Year's Resolution for the year 2003 was to make my bed every day, simply for the reason that if my bed was made it meant I was out of it

I can look back on those days now and see Jesus laying on the floor with me. But at the time, I didn't. I couldn't find him anywhere. I couldn't believe that He would have anything to do with me anymore. The pain of depression is that the more you need to reach out, the more you don't. The more you cocoon yourself into your own, isolated pain where you convince yourself that you are the only person who has ever felt this way.

The other day someone was telling a story about the time as a child that they got glasses. All of a sudden, they could see the leaves! She had been able to see them as a blur in the trees, but now, she could really see them, the colors, the veins on them, the textures of the tree. That was exactly how coming out of my depression felt. As if I had spent years in a blur, and one day, I could see. I could once again appreciate beauty around me and I could feel emotions, and  not just anger. That's how it felt to come out of  my depression. I've attempted to tell this story many times, but the thing I always struggle with it how to explain how the depression went away. Because if I could bottle the solution I know I could make millions. But I can't. I never gave medicine another try, but I never want to say that others shouldn't. I believe God healed my heart, but I've come to learn that I will probably always have a part of me that can slip into those dark places. I've come to learn that just as my journey into Christianity was much longer and wider than a prayer prayed at church camp, the healing of my heart is an ongoing process. 

I am now a preacher's wife, but I'm not on fire. Not the way I was in 1995 when I started high school ready to pray around flag poles and wear Christian t-shirts everyday. A LOT has happened in those many years. I've finished college. I've had 3 kids. I've lost my Papaw, my Dad and my Mamaw. I've experienced life in the living room of a pastorium, and Christianity looks different from that view. I've been hurt by people I love and I've hurt people I love. My high school sweetheart has been my husband for 12 years and only by the grace of God. He decided to love me even when I wasn't the girl who smiled all the time. He played a big part in putting that smile back on my face. He took it like a man when I said ugly things and held me when I couldn't stop shaking. He has chosen to never, not one time, remind me of things I said during the dark time.

This retelling seems so long, and yet still it has not even scratched the surface of my story. I am thankful that I am where I am in this journey. Because at times I've wondered how this story would end. If I would survive. If my faith would survive. But it has.

Not because Christian cliches in any way helped me, but because Jesus met me in places beyond the cliches. He's been in hospital rooms, church business meetings, funeral homes, and all of the hard places. He has filled the many cracked spots of my story with grace, and placed an arm of comfort over the times when no words helped. Mostly He has taught me that there are those times. And that's okay. Because that is the journey of this life.

I used to want to do "big things" for God. That was the thing to do. I don't know if any of us knew what those "big things" were, but I was pretty sure they included Africa and women's conferences. Sometimes people still tell Josh and I that God has "big things" for us. And that used to fill me with pride and hope for the future. Now when someone says that, I'm not sure how to take it. Because it feels like they are saying that what we are doing now is not a big thing. That raising 3 kids and ministering in a needy community, doing the daily grind of counseling and praying and feeding neighborhood kids doesn't matter. Or that it's not as big as what we could be doing. And I realize that what I was trying to prove all those times was that I could do "big things".  I am so thankful that over the course of my journey God has lovingly and patiently led me to realize that loving people good is a big thing. That listening is a big thing. That ministering to people who don't register on most people's radars is a big thing. That walking with people through the dark days and rejoicing with them in the good ones is a big thing. 

No, I'm not on fire. I don't read my Bible for 3 hours at a time anymore. I'm a working mom of 3, I don't get to do anything for 3 hours at a time! I don't chase down people I've never met with tracts to witness to them. I don't even own a Christian t-shirt at the moment. But, my Light still burns. It may not be as bright, but it's steadier. It knows that no matter what winds may blow, it can always be rekindled. When I tell people about Jesus it's from a place of knowing, a desire for them to experience what I've experienced, not to win a contest of who invited the most people to church. 

For many years I wanted nothing more than to go back and redo the dark days. Find a way to avoid them. To never face them in the first place. Now I can see that they were maybe the most important days I've ever lived. Because you can pray for compassion and wisdom and patience and humility. And maybe God can just supernaturally give them to you. Or maybe you can experience heartache, and loss and sickness and failure. And those things grow in you with such deep roots  that you can't remember when they weren't a part of you. And you have no doubt that they were planted with meaning and watered with grace and grown in mercy.  And that makes you smile. 


Kristy said...

Very blessed by this post! Though my time of depression was much, much shorter and much less severe still I remember looking in the mirror and thinking I had dead eyes. God is faithful to see us through such times and bring us out on the other side with a deeper, more sure faith. And it is so true that the 'little things' we do really are the 'big things!'

sarah said...

Beautifully written! I feel like we could have been best friends were our duck head shirts and reading Sassy magazine. I went into a depression in high school and was diagnosed as a spoiled brat. I also got medication, several in fact that didn't work. I also feel that God has helped to bring me out of that darkness.

Emily :) said...

Kristy, I am so glad that you came out on the other side! Thanks for stopping by!

Sarah, I had no idea you were dealing with that. I'm thankful that you too were able to overcome. Thanks for sharing!