Editor's note: Trigger warnings for mentions of suicide, depression, PTSD, and anxiety. Thank you, Elizabeth for bravely sharing your mental health journey.
I never wanted to go to college. Too much a homebody. I didn't let people get close due to my secret, embarrassing struggle with anxiety. Except for one person.
Off to college I went. Made new, close friends pretty quickly. Relationship problems with my close friend from the church where I grew up, and my deeply wounded spirit tried, tried, tried to forgive. So much pain, so much trying to make others understand. So many people who tried to help - some who did. Forgive. But how? I did everything right, why can't I forgive? And why is there so much pain? Every time I started feeling better, reaching the top of the cliff, I ended up back in the pit.
Sophomore year--better roommate than the first part of my freshman year. One year since the breaking of that close friendship at home, and the house protecting me from full-blown mental illness splintered, leaving me at the mercy of the whirling storms of worthlessness, fear, and doubt. God, where are you? I can't see... I can't… Medicine, but it takes a couple of weeks to take effect. I pressed my face against the glass that kept me from living. Let me out… Driven by the incessant longing to end it, I sat by my chosen method--a body of water. So hard to fight...to keep on, keep on fighting...minute by minute...day by day. Part of me knew it would be better to stay away from the water--especially at night, alone, but I kept coming back.
A project about psychology prompted me to read a book that opened my eyes to the physical side of my struggle...brain chemicals. I began going to a calm, peaceful church, and I let friends into my pain, friends who let me sleep in their room one time when I knew I shouldn't be alone. I stopped seeking out the means to end my life. I graduated, barely able to believe I had made it through by the skin of my teeth and the slip of my boot in the mud the one time I almost attempted suicide.
I worked retail for a few years after graduating, then married my true love, Ken, hoping to put mental illness behind me, not letting anyone except Ken into my secret past. Trauma, then PTSD. Again, God? It felt different than before--sudden kickflips of anxiety that had me racing to non-chemical addiction, pushing aside those who wanted to help me. Ken. God. While I stayed married to Ken and continued to attend church, I kept both Ken and God at arm’s length. And, once in awhile, I took the unwelcome journey down the dark spiral of false guilt that led to me feeling suicidal again. I had done everything right, so why was God letting this happen? Am I just a burden to others?
For two years, I retreated to a “safe” place of emotional numbness, a “safe” distance away from anyone who could hurt me. I lived half in, half out of the Christian life, still following the rules, as always, but increasingly frustrated by my own imperfection. I began to wonder if I could really belong to God and the church, if I could be truly loved with all my issues, with the PTSD that I couldn't shake. I no longer felt satisfied in my “safe” place. One time during devotions, I physically took Ken’s Bible, handed it to him, and asked him “Is this for me?” The same summer, I woke up with the theme and music for a song in my mind. Strange, especially given that I have no musical ability whatsoever! The song described God wanting to be involved in the life and pain of a troubled person. Coincidence?
Later that same summer, my mom needed surgery, and I stayed with her during her difficult recovery, little knowing that I would return home to Ken a different woman. At first I thought it was just an emotional reaction to coming home, but I soon realized it was much more. God had stopped me from trying to earn His favour and given me the world-shifting realization that Jesus had earned it for me. Jesus took God’s punishment on the cross for all the wrong I have ever done against Him and others, and God raised Him from the dead, sweeping me with Him from death to life. Only by trusting in Him to save me could I become the woman I had been created to be. I couldn't shake the PTSD, but I didn't have to be healthy to be accepted into Jesus’ family, to be truly loved by God and by others.
Get baptized. But I can't; there are too many issues to work through. Interspersed with my elation at being caught and cherished by God came anxiety. Remember my history with water? Can I really write the story of what God has done in me? What if I write something that misrepresents God? What if this all ends badly and I end up heartbroken--again? Get baptized. I need this. I need it like I need my food, like the deep breath of one who has been running, running, running for far too long. Peace. Yield. What makes you think you can be part of God’s family? I can't make myself whole.
Talking with our pastor, then baptism class. Surely something is going to get in the way; things this awesome don't happen to me. Surely, with all these pain-in-the-neck anxiety issues, one of them is going to throw itself in my face and try to force me to give in. Peace. I checked the weather forecast for my baptism day obsessively, watching as the prediction of snow changed to rain and it became clear that Ken and I wouldn't have to rent a Hummer or spend the night in a nearby motel to be assured of getting to church. The day finally arrives, and I dress in black. And I see the tub of water, but I can’t believe it’s actually going to happen until I’m finally, finally standing there in front of the tub, Ken reading my testimony. And I come to the water, my fear drained away, gone, just like I have been praying for. I climb in. Jesus is Lord! Yes, yes, yes! I can feel your Spirit inside me, emboldening me to say the words with passion. Yield. ”I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I close my eyes and hold my nose. Whoosh! Down. Down, under the water. The same hand that kept me from killing myself in water before now led me to yield to being submerged in it. And then, my baptismal waters, our grave, part above my hopeful face. The pain and trauma of constantly wanting to kill myself in the body of water during college receded, pushed back by the triumphant memory of the baptismal waters parting, a sight I will never forget. ”Your sin is forgiven. Go now to new life in Christ.” I can’t help but grin with joy at those words.
The honestly best freaking awesomest day of my life! I reached out to my church Community Group leaders, then to others in the group, sharing how much my baptism, a symbol of death and new life, meant to me. I also asked them for support in fighting the suicidal urges. It isn’t easy to talk about, but it feels so good to know that my friends have my back. Forgiveness is still hard, but having friends who understand my pain helps, as does knowing how greatly I have been forgiven. I’m seeing a skilled, experienced counselor, and he and I have just started to work on the PTSD. Ken and I pull together, a team. And, most of all, I know that whatever sorrow I might experience in this life will be eclipsed by the joy of forever being with the One who saved me.
“My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak; but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever.” Psalm 73:26 NLT
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