When I Almost Wasn’t

It was blistering hot that June afternoon. With my sister away at vacation Bible School and my brother at a friend’s, I had the house to myself which, honestly, wasn’t really that big of a deal. Not even a week out from school activities and I was already succumbing to dangerous boredom. Just another long, hot, boring summer day alone at home. Nothing to do. Nowhere to be. And our home had practically no rules, no filters, and no consequences, and I stood just as likely to get away with anything regardless of who was home. In fact, that afternoon, the lack of any concern for how I spent my alone time, and no friends to ever share it with, contributed to the deep sadness I felt.

I had crashed. Hard.
I had just finished my junior year of high school and was in the middle of a stellar second half of a high school career. I was landing straight A’s and a growing positive reputation (and known for a few shenanigans), scored brilliant on college tests, had a lead in half the plays, and was finally kicking the ‘new kid’ stigma. And literally the wee hours of that same day had scrawled out the beginnings of what would be the most awesome speech in Expository history and land me a championship. Just a week prior I had achieved one of the greatest accomplishments of my life – I took my exams early so I could attend a week-long mock-congress event in the state capital. I had been nominated on a whim by a teacher (“If anyone will shine in this event, it’s her,” she told the committee) and I had excelled in the competition to a point of being elected to the national event in Washington DC where I would meet the president, congressmen and senators, justices, and work with 99 other girls from around the country for this prestigious event. I could already count the scholarships. Did  I ever did shine! I made new friends, I learned that I’m actually decent at public speaking, and every minute of everyday kept me busy and out of trouble and my adrenaline surging.

I knew I was headed for a downer  when the phone call informing my parents I had been elected to Nationals resulted in tears after my mother told me I couldn’t participate. The whole thing was never brought up again, even on the ride home. No questions about the event, how my week went, what it was like… Back to nothing ever being a big deal.

On top of that, I had managed very well with zero cravings for my chosen addiction the entire week away – addiction that was so strong it almost kept me going in the first place. But that’s a blog for another day. Now, back home, with no repercussions, I was back at my old habits the day after I returned, and the shame and disappointment in myself were cutting. The habits, though, were all I had as an alternative, so I thought, to the boredom, and further cultivated a feeling of emptiness.

Every summer brought depression. With no routine, nothing to look forward to, and now, in the middle of rural Montana, no one to hang out with other than my friends on the other side of our lousy internet connection, I felt lost. With school out, I had no purpose. I was just a nobody, again, with a nothing future.

It wasn’t just summer.

My life was a mess, deep down where only I could see it.

My parents appeared to have given up on me a long time ago, having little regard for my academic or extracurricular successes and absolutely no clue as to how miserable I was. My dreams of law school were just dreams, I knew, because I’d never afford college and my parents would never let me go. I had no close friends, largely due to circumstance, but also do to my need to keep people from getting to close. My desires for relationship were just desires, and they would never be met because, well, there was something wrong with me… something…  I didn’t know, maybe I was too chubby or too ugly or too boyish or too afraid or just something! On top of that, I was trapped in an addiction I was too ashamed to reveal, one that made me feel dirty and worthless, and was tangled in a web of lies designed to protect that addiction, as well as hide symptoms of something I couldn’t explain. I lost sleep and sanity to an unquiet mind that couldn’t understand seemingly causeless feelings of violation, a confusion as to how much of the nightmares I had at night were real, and a constant blurring of my dreams, my present reality, and my history…

There was an inexplicable certainty that something was ‘off’ about my very being, something in my moods to make me so volatile and angry and swing from intoxicating highs to the deepest pits of despair. I was so tired of keeping up appearances, of maintaining the lies, trying to make some mark on the world, and riding the roller coaster of my emotions – and doing all of that alone.

Always alone.

The self-hatred was oppressively deep, but I shrouded it with a biting sarcasm, wit, and faux confidence that was almost arrogance. The “armour”, the masks, got heavier, and at the end of the day I grew lonelier, sadder, and frustrated because I had no idea how to ever break out of the pattern I was in.

My heart was angry. My heart was ashamed. And my heart was deeply hurting.

All of it was hopeless.

I was so empty and lost and stuck, being torn by a past I had forgotten and a future I didn’t believe in, overwhelmed by an illness we didn’t know I had, and wouldn’t know for another seven years.

This was my life, I thought, and it will not, not ever, get better. And nobody, not anybody, cared.

At first I thought I’d take a nap.

A nap can fix just about anything.

For me, my internal moods seemed to run on their own clock that governed when I was productive or creative, or when I was lost in melancholy. Often it was just the middle of the day I found myself in such doldrums, especially in the oppressive heat. Usually I could shake it off by playing video games with my brother, building mock light sabres out of pool noodles, or, if I could time it so the less creepy guys were online, indulge in a little online fun. (That’s that blog for another day). Too early in the day to be creative, too late to be productive, and just all around uncomfortable, I realised I didn’t know what to do with myself. And the emptiness of the house just compounded my feelings of being alone, and the tears started to fall. Such heavy tears, I even heard them splash onto the notebook I had tried to start expressing my feelings in.

A nap it was, but it would need some help if it were to quiet all the loud thoughts and feelings vying for my attention.

As long as I can remember, our house always had a veritable pharmacy in at least one cabinet, complete with sleep aids as my mother often struggled to make it through the night.

I didn’t recognize any of the labels and found several listing “for sleep,” so I simply grabbed them all and made my way to the kitchen where the rest of them were stored. I grabbed a few more in prescription bottles, thinking I’d take the lot out to the office where I might look them up online and find which would be best for helping me sleep away the afternoon.

But I didn’t make it that far.

Instead, I took down a small bowl and poured several of each medication into the bowl. It looked like candy. I took the now mostly empty bottles back to the bathroom medicine cabinet and then, thinking they would probably work best when washed down with something strong (the way my mother often did), I grabbed a bottle of cheap vodka from one of its many hiding places, under the sink.

I took one more survey of the house, ensuring I was alone and that nothing, not even a dog or cat, could disturb me. It would be a very long nap, I decided.

I curled up against my bedroom door, arms wrapped around my knees, tears rolling down my face, biting my lip so hard it bled, just 17 years old and gradually swallowing enough pills to send me to an afterlife I wasn’t sure I believed in, searching the ceiling for the booming voice of a God that I hoped would break through the rafters and help me make sense of my life, prove to me that I had some point, some reason to bother existing.

I don’t remember much after that. I know I dozed off, but not before I made a conscious decision to stop. I remember taking another long dram of alcohol in hopes it would make me puke my guts out. I remember feeling like I should be afraid that maybe I had taken too much, but it was just taking a really long time. And I remember seeing a set of black and white paws stretch out from the chasm that was under my bed, claws grip the ugly carpet and pull the rest of the little stripey-faced cat out with an audible yawn.

Izz, my little cat, the only one of the three that believed in cuddles and head boops and all the nice parts about owning a cat, rubbed his face against the now mostly empty vodka bottle, tipping it over, smelled the tablets I had dropped on the floor, and then swatted at the fingers I wiggled at him to draw his attention.

To this very day I will swear to you that I picked up that very cat an hour earlier and intentionally placed him outside, knowing that he’d be a disturbance to my nap or whatever activity I was about to partake in. But there he was, in the furry flesh, and all I needed to hold on to reality for at least a few more minutes as my brain sifted through the hazy storm of feelings that were increasingly becoming once again overbearing.

Somewhere in the fog three distinct thoughts started to come together.

The first was that I was that I was such a failure at life that I couldn’t even get dying right, and that made me even more of a loser.

Second was a sort of rumbling in my heart and mind that I should wait at least a few days, that hope might surface if only I was patient and waited on God, like he was waiting to show me something. It was a sort of kind and warm and gentle feeling, but so pointed and real that I couldn’t ignore it. It was the first time I ever felt God touching my heart in such a personal way, and it was hard to dismiss.

Third, I suddenly remembered that I had made a promise that I was to make good on the upcoming Saturday, three days later. It was a silly thing, really, nothing earth shattering or even all that important. But I had made it in good faith, and, well, it wouldn’t be very nice to back out of that promise, especially in this manner.

Maybe that’s what God meant by waiting, I thought. Silly, but… well, it’s something.

And so I waited.

The following Saturday I showed up for the volunteer training session for the local Baptist church’s “Mt. Extreme” Vacation Bible School leaders, which I was now one of.

Some background: a couple of months prior, I begrudgingly went with my family to the Easter service at the church we somewhat attended. My father went regularly, with his massive grey leather Bible that he kept by the door. Dad wasn’t particularly involved in my life, but he always made it a point to make himself so anytime faith was involved, like my anxiety-induced baptism as a kid or taking me to youth group when I was a moody and depressed adolescent.

Something in the sermon resonated with me and I realized I had a greater desire for God’s love in my life, especially as it seemed I’d never earn my parents’. Of course, earning was the problem. I understood the economy of Jesus and forgiveness to be predicated on a.) my avoidance of bad things, including my pornography addiction and sea of lies, and b.) my positive deeds, particularly those that were directly linked to God, faith, and all that jazz, such as attending church or being involved in ministry.

I went for the next couple Sundays, avoiding the youth minister at all costs – in part because I didn’t want to hear about how important saving myself for marriage was, which appeared to be the main message of the youth ministry. Also in part because I’ve never liked “game time” in any context, school or AWANA or even at family gatherings, and it appeared stupid games filled the sections of youth group that weren’t geared toward sexual purity. In May there was a special announcement that teachers were needed to help with Vacation Bible School – a week long children’s day camp that served as an introduction to the story of Jesus through creative lessons, skits, crafts … and game time… usually with some sort of theme – which would take place at the end of June. I had attended my fair share as a kid so I had a rough idea what was involved. I saw it as an easy opportunity to earn points with Jesus, and no one really bothered to ask if I had any solid understanding of the Gospel – the very Gospel I would be teaching at this event. So I was approved.

And now I was there, being handed copies of the skits I would be performing, songs I would be teaching, and a rough outline of my responsibilities, and officially making good on the promise that I would show up to help, even if I had no idea what I was doing. Like I said, at least it was something.

The irony was not lost on me that I was about to spend five days teaching kids about a heaven that I had, just three days prior, tried to send myself to.

So I learned the songs and memorized my lines, even got struck with a creative whim and made some costumes out of stuff we had laying around the house (my prize was a pair of lederhosen out of coveralls for our yodelling song). When the kids came in, I danced and sang with them, even played during game time, and at the end of each day received hugs from kids whose day I apparently had made.

It turns out I was actually kind of good at all of this. On the second day of VBS the music/drama teacher whom I was assisting started to ask me questions as to why I’d never volunteered in the past and whether or not I’d like to get involved in other ministries at church, and started hinting that perhaps I should attend the youth ministry. I flatly said I didn’t like it, that it wasn’t for me, and I’d stick out since I’m not really a normal teenager. At least, well, not like the normal teens who attended the group, who seemed to struggle less with deep emotional turmoil and more with what boy they were interested in.

“Yeah,” she said, “but it’s not about them. That’s the thing, a lot of kids come for other kids, for game time, to see their friends. And that’s fine. Better here than trouble. But that’s not the point. The point is to learn more about who God is, and who he wants you to be. You seem like the type of kid who wants to grow in your knowledge and your relationship with Jesus – you might even be a good influence in that regard.”

“I don’t have one,” I said flatly.

“One what?”

“Relationship. With Jesus, I mean. I don’t really have one. I’m honestly not sure what that means.”

“Listen to -“ she started to say, but the next wave of children was about to come into the music room. She never finished the thought, and I never quite knew where she was going with it, but I made it a point to listen.

During the five days of “climbing Mt. Extreme – the ultimate good news challenge,” (I’m pretty sure those were the lyrics), I listened. The songs we sang, the stories we told, the themes for the crafts – I listened to all of them. And for the first time in my life, I heard about this Jesus I’d only sort of believed in all my life in a way I’d never heard before. The Gospel was laid out in its simplest forms: God loves me, I need Him, I’ve messed up (more than I will ever know), but He loves me anyway, and did the unthinkable to prove it.

The night before the last session, I dug out my dusty old Bible that the leader of a junior high group had given me years prior. I had attended off and on during my eighth grade year while wrestling with very similar feelings of depression, hopelessness, and even self harm in hopes of finding peace and purpose. He, too, had made a comment about me always being more focused on who God wanted me to be than socializing or, again, game time, and one night he pulled me aside and gave me my own youth-oriented version (I was, at the time, still using my pink children’s version that helped me navigate the inquisition before my first encounter with all this salvation business).

I looked up all the memory verses that the kids had worked on all week, read them in context, and then put them all together. In that, I found what I was looking for – hope.

The following morning, before all the songs and sharing, I stopped and kneeled beside a little boy, probably eight or nine, who laughed until it hurt at all of the skits I did. I don’t remember his name, Jeffery or Gregory or something like that, but I asked him what he learned over the course of the week. Without skipping a beat:

“I learned that there’s nothing you can do that will make God love you more, and nothing you can do that will make God love you less than He already does.”

I felt a lump in my throat, and I managed to choke back tears until later that night, alone in my room, pulling the bowl of pills and mostly empty vodka bottle out from under my bed where I had stashed it following my rock bottom low just one week or so before.

I can’t explain it, but somewhere in that moment I felt like the feeling of abandonment and loneliness that I had felt my entire life was lifted. I had prayed before, even prayed often in some stages of my life, including heartfelt pleas for forgiveness, but this was a little different. I remember asking Jesus to forgive me for what I had almost done, but realised that He had been kneeling across from me on that hot afternoon, tears streaming from his eyes, begging me with scarred, open hands to let Him take away the pain I had held on to all my young years. He didn’t say, “You’re a sinner, repent.” He didn’t say, “If you’ll only do, or stop, or think this, that, or the other.”

He just said, “I love you. I love you too much.”

And that was enough for me.

I shoved the pills and bottle into a sack and then dropped it to the bottom of the rubbish bin, covering it with all my math and chemistry homework from the year (now that school was out). And while I would eventually share in my story that I had contemplated suicide in my late teens, I never told anyone how close I came until many years later.

The following week I dragged myself to the youth event, found one person I felt I could confide in, and started to ask questions about what I was supposed to do next.

The week after that I was shaking hands with President Bill Clinton (pictured), visiting congressmen, and standing in front of a thousand people – girls from the mock-congress event, volunteers, even tourists – for an ecumenical service at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC sharing my story of finding hope in Jesus. (Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why they picked me as one of the five people to share).

That was the beginning, really, of God doing real, transformative work in my life. I felt freedom and joy in forgiveness, hope in my future and the promise that there were good things planned for me, and, in many ways, a new lease on life. I trusted God to help me survive my final year of high school and navigate my way through college. I started attending some youth events and became, as had been suggested by others, the kid who cared about learning and growing than game time. And the new sense of purpose found its way into my school work, relationships, and my overall desire to make more of myself than I ever had before.

I wish I could say that was the last time I ever crashed so low. I wish I could say that after my ‘come to Jesus’ moment that I was immediately free and untangled from the very things I knew I needed Him to save me from. I wish I could say that I grew in my faith and understanding and love so well that it thrived in spite of intense adversity. But I didn’t.

Even later that year I found myself dealing with passively suicidal ideation – something I coped with by trying to feel loved in ways that were, I guess, less than satisfying and even somewhat demeaning. And I overcompensated for my feelings of inadequacy by pushing myself to achieve, to be the best, to have the highest grades, and find my value in success.

Four days before high school graduation, my boyfriend and I, though hardly speaking at the time and despite my countdown until he shipped off to boot camp and I could be rid of him (that’s a story for another day), took country back roads on an errand for my parents. I confess that there had been many a long drives on winding country back roads that led to a trouble and situations I’m not terribly proud of, but this time was different. This time he was trying to get back in my good graces, get me to laugh or smile or anything that wasn’t death stares and slapping his hands away. To get a reaction, he started to swerve and weave on the road, already surpassing the speed limit. He got a reaction – I punched him. Now on gravel, he kept it up, without reducing his speed. I told him flatly that he was going to kill us, to stop, and that it wasn’t funny. He just laughed, until the back wheels started to fishtail, and he lost control of the car. We spun around a few times, and he overcorrected in time for us to find our way to a ditch, into which we flipped one and a half times and slid down so hard that a boulder took out the beam next to me, knocking my headrest off. We kicked out the shattered windshield glass, and climbed up the steep embankment to the road. I had managed to find my cell phone – a rare item for a high schooler at that time – and called my dad to tell him we were in an accident on a road I didn’t know.

The car was crunched. A boulder had taken out the entire passenger side, the side I was sitting on, and there was nothing left of the back of the car. My only real injuries were a minor cut on my arm from climbing out the window and a small bruise on my leg. I suffered a concussion from falling on my head when I unbuckled my seat belt, unaware that I was upside down in the car. It made me sick just looking at it. Police, EMS, and anyone else who saw the car echoed what I was thinking – we shouldn’t have survived.

That night, amid the pleas from my boyfriend to forgive him and, again, slapping his hands away, I did some serious soul searching.

Everything I had, everything I was, everything I might have been could have been lost that night. Should have been lost, really. And almost one year from the afternoon I tried to lose it by my own hand!

But it wasn’t lost then, and it wasn’t lost now.

There was, in my heart, only one explanation:

I matter.

Not my stellar achievements. Not my talents and gifts. Not my awards and trophies and championships. Not my future – college, law school, career. Not what I do or will do.

I matter.

In spite of all of my flaws, all of my problems, my addictions, my selfishness, my anger, my self hatred. In the face of this crash that could have killed me. In spite of trying to do it myself a year ago.

I matter.

Maybe not to the boy who just flipped us into a ditch and nearly killed me. Maybe not even to my parents or teachers or what few friends I had. Maybe not even to me.

But to God, my life matters.

And not just matters, I heard God say in the long hours. It is treasured. It is adored. It is beloved. It is beautiful.

It is worth dying for.

And that was more than enough for me.

From that point on I knew I belonged to God, and that God took my trust and heart very seriously. The decision to end my life would be His, on His terms and in His time. Of course, I would still (and do still) wrestle long, deep, dark nights of the soul despairing to a point of wanting to end it; I have passively suicidal thoughts at least every other month or so, but it’s pretty obvious they are tied to the bipolar. But in my heart I know that God loves me far too much. I find that when I feel most weighed down by thoughts of suicide or death, God is good and patient and reminds me that He won’t leave me, that He will help me, that He knows it’s hard and that it hurts, and that He wants to help take away my pain.

The promise was not for an easy future; the road would be hard and sometimes dark and seem impossible, but it would be one I’d never walk alone (just as I never, truly had). And I believed it. I chose hope. I chose trust. I chose life.

And life abundant.

How such amazing love works its way out in my life is a series of stories for other days, and those stories are, more or less, every choice or moment or action from that point. They are every time I’ve awakened in the morning and decided to choose life. They are every time I’ve stood at an edge and wondered whether I’d fall or whether I’d jump. They are evident that I matter, and that a God who loves me more than I will ever imagine has plans – good plans – for me.

Broken, wounded, and treasured me.

I wasn’t sure I could share such stories unless I laid out where it really began…. Well, besides that one time I turned to Jesus after watching “Ghost” as a kid…

But that’s how it started – an eight year old speaking truth to a suicidal teenager. The rest is not just history, but my yet to come as well.

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