Ten Years Later

Warning: Discussions of self-harm and suicide.

I think we all look back sometimes and wonder how we got where we are today, for better or worse.

February is always a contemplative month for me, but even more so than usual this year as I mark off an anniversary. Ten years ago on this day, just past the height of winter, I decided I didn’t want to be here any longer. I attempted suicide, not knowing the way it would shape and change my life forever.

As a 17-year-old high school senior, my world seemed vastly different than today. But the biggest difference was simple: I felt my life had no value.

So many children grow up believing their self-worth contingent upon their performance, and I was no exception. I saw high performance as the key to success and happiness, and for a while, my life played into that idea: I was a high-achieving competitive swimmer and straight-A student. That was never enough. At age 13, I woke up at 4 AM to arrive early at practice and help my coach put in the lane lines. At 15, I made my first Junior National cut, and a few months later, at 16, I swam my first Nationals qualifying time. In the summer of 2011, I was one-half a second away from my years-long goal of qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials. Friends and family validated me for my athletic achievements.

And then, everything sort of fell apart.

Some of it is too personal and painful to talk about here, but I began to lose my childhood faith in God and goodness. My body started to change as puberty hit. An acute awareness of my physical self, compounded by stripping down to a swimsuit each day, led to my self-hatred for that changing body. At practice, my friends and I taunted each other with the word “fat,” using the term as a synonym for lazy, stupid, or just silly. The language we used took a toll; hatred for my body became an all-consuming obsession that lasted for years.

Always worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, if people would like me or not, my anxiety worsened and depression spread over my days like fog. My physical and academic performance suffered as a result. My dreams of going to Stanford, Berkeley or Princeton suddenly felt out of reach, as my times slowed and most college recruiters lost interest in me. I felt lucky to be recruited to Northwestern, and, like many teenagers, was excited to finally have the chance to get away from home when I accepted an offer to swim there.

It wasn’t until I took AP Psychology my junior year of high school that I began to understand how unhealthy my mental state was. It took me nearly another year to seek therapy. By then, I had little motivation to work on what was wrong.

In the winter of 2011-12, each day blended into the next. I had begun taking anti-depressants at the suggestion of my counselor. My brain, a spin cycle of guilt and shame, felt like the enemy, and I just wanted to make it stop.

Memories return of pitch-black morning swim practices where I missed every interval and wondered what kind of courage it would take for me to go home and kill myself. I pictured death the way I wanted it to be: a long, warm, never-ending sleep. The thought of such nothingness scared me, but the thought of continuing to live the way I was, for what I thought would be the rest of my life, scared me more.

The anti-depressant medication I took was supposed to make my brain feel better, but it made me feel coldly detached from reality. I began occasionally abusing prescription medication to numb the pain further, then self-harming to quell my guilt.

I was transitioning off one anti-depressant and onto another in February of 2012 when I knew with calm clarity that I was going to kill myself. I’ve written about this before, here, but suffice it to say that my opioid and anti-depressant overdose was mainly successful at bringing about a trip to the ER, hallucinations, a stay at a mental hospital, and a whole lot of vomiting, in addition to the impact to my family and friends I may never understand. Once I was in the back of an ambulance on the way to the psychiatric ward, I realized the consequences of what I had tried to do. I knew that I didn’t want to die, but I desperately needed something in my life to change.

After that, though, not much did change. I knew I’d never attempt suicide again, but I put up emotional barriers to prevent the type of pain that led to that attempt. I was cold, cynical, bitterly sarcastic, often unkind, in trying to build a shield. I continued to struggle with self harm, body image issues, and substance abuse until I ended up in the hospital a second time at age 19. At the end of my sophomore year, I felt like I’d recovered enough to perform well again, but my motivation evaporated when I dove into the water at our championship meet. Frustrated and disappointed, I quit swimming the next month.

It wasn’t any one event that changed my life, but instead, a series of events in which self-destructive tendencies landed me at what felt like rock bottom. And when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere left to go but up.

Slowly, things changed. People came into my life who were warm, open, kind and also imperfect. I began reading theology for class, which led to thinking more deeply about the faith I’d left in the past, and about redemption.

On a flight from LAX to JFK for a spring journalism internship, I read C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” By the time I got off the flight, I was convinced that Christianity was worth another shot. Incrementally, I began to believe what I had read was possible: that I could live a purposeful life, forgiving myself and others while working to be more open and vulnerable.

In January of 2016, I resolved to practice gratitude daily. Nothing has changed my life more completely, bringing me a deep, fulfilling joy and helping me to battle against the easy cynicism our culture normalizes.

We must not be frightened nor cajoled into accepting evil as deliverance from evil. We must go on struggling to be human, though monsters of abstractions police and threaten us.

Robert Hayden

Slowly, I have made a truce with my body, recognizing and appreciating everything it allows me to do and the strength it contains.

Law school has taken its toll on my mental health, but I now have the foundational self-worth necessary to overcome the hurdles. Being surrounded by a community of supportive friends means everything.

The most profound impact of this deep depression was all it stole from me, unrecognized until recently. Depression stole my innocence, my joy, and even some of my friends. It stole my love for the sport of swimming. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to fall back in love with swimming, able to move past all the traumas I processed over the years while in the pool. I recognize and accept what depression did to me, but I am grateful for all I learned while battling it.

People wonder aloud why or how one gets to the point of contemplating suicide, without realizing it’s closer to many than it may appear. Without belief in our own worth, what’s the point of living?

It is vitally important to affirm and uphold every person we come across, even those who seem most abhorrent. Though I don’t like everyone, I believe each person is created in the image of God, endowed with an indentation of God’s holy spirit. Once you believe this, the only substantial choice is to look for that light in others.

Each day is a struggle in a different way for each person. As for me, I’m going to continue to choose walking in the light, hoping to share it with people who need it desperately, like I once did.

On this ten-year anniversary, I am filled with joy and a whole host of other emotions. If you are struggling right now, know that you won’t always feel like this. Darkness does not last forever. Remember your purpose; if you don’t know it, don’t stop looking until you do.

 For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.

Ephesians 5:8-9

Cheers to 28 years

My birthday is perfectly placed, smack dab in the middle of the year, for the introspection that always happens around the New Year, and then again six months later.

I’ve spent weeks contemplating this day and what my emotions are. It’s not a particularly significant birthday, and yet I feel the need to celebrate more as I grow older.

This morning when I woke up and drove to the gym, I played a song from my worship playlist that I heard for the first time as a child: Take Us to the River by the Irish worship leader Robin Mark. The words I heard this morning made me weep.

“The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon us/ This is the year of the Lord!”

Man, does that feel like a promise and a blessing.

These are the words Jesus read at the beginning of his ministry.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

Isaiah 61:1-2

It seems fitting that these are the words I ponder as I begin a new chapter of life.

Life has been messy this past year. But I have made a conscious effort to be honest with myself, to embrace the small moments of heartbreak and the beauty I see woven throughout. I’m feeling my emotions about getting older, being lonely, being surrounded by wonderful friends and community, striving to reach goals, feeling like I’ve fallen short yet again. I’m in love with my life and the people who are in it, flaws and all. What a glorious blessing it is to have another year to take it all in.

~

Zach Bryan released an album at the end of the spring titled “American Heartbreak.” His lyrics capture a lot of the spirit of being in one’s twenties and growing older and more aware. Here’s a couple of lines from his song “Right Now The Best.”

This whole world’s always waiting on tomorrow
Itching, fiending for whatever happens next
But what if I told you they’re all lying
And I love you for who you are, right now, the best.
Everyone thinks they’re going the wrong way
But they’re looking at their maps all wrong
‘Cause everywhere is somewhere to someone
And in a rush, you cannot dance to smooth slow songs.

That’s something I’ve been telling myself recently: “I love you for who you are, right now, the best.”

It’s easy to get caught up in who we are becoming, who we want to be. But I want to live out every moment and appreciate the present, not get so caught up in the future that I look back and feel like haven’t fully appreciated the moments now past.

Part of living in the present means being honest with myself. To me, self-honesty is this line I read recently:

“… I’m not running around blaming anybody. I’m doing the work… Letting it hurt. Scraping the rust off my heart.”

Fountains of Silence

Scraping the rust off your heart is hard and painful when you’ve spent your life outfitting it in armor. It’s something I’ve known for years was important, but was unwilling to open myself up to.

Slowly, that is changing. And boy, does it hurt. It hurts to open my eyes to how ego-driven, envious, impatient, and afraid of anything less than perfection I have been. It hurts to admit and analyze my flaws and weaknesses and ask God for the grace to work through those. But it is vital.

Ten years ago, I got a tattoo with the words, “The truth shall set you free.” Then, it was a reminder of the self-deception I’d been engaging in, listening and believing lies even when warning bells were going off in my head. Today, it is a reminder of the power of truth: it is the force that shines light in the darkness. Not only do I want to seek truth, I want to bear the truth as well.

This year, on my birthday, I’m grateful to be living in the present, excited but not fearful for the future. Each moment – the bright rays of joy and cool melancholies of sorrow – is a blessing. My hope for you today is that you will let the sunlight filter into your soul. Use it to truly see all the dark, hidden parts you feel like you can’t show to anyone. And then start the process towards scraping the rust off your heart- admitting those weaknesses and seeking the grace to heal them.

A Holy Moment

I don’t think it’s what most people dream of, but being alone on Christmas morning feels sort of sacred.

In the near silence, I feel better and think better. I love being around people, but I treasure these quiet morning moments alone. Or, perhaps not alone, but spent drinking in the holiness of God along with my coffee.

It’s still and quiet, save for the birds chirping, the occasional windy gust, and a few stray vehicles wending their way down the street.

Small pleasures abound: the dark coffee I inhale, a flickering, leaning candle, and the couch threatening to swallow me in its plushness. The crowning glory is the lit Christmas tree. It’s a fake one, a little scraggly with gaps here and there, and there are no presents beneath it. That doesn’t matter.

This is the marvel of Christmas: sitting alone in this humble house, I experience God’s perfection in a holy moment. This is where God is most present, most obvious: in imperfection.

Jesus Christ is the God of the great reversal. What king comes into the world, born into poverty in a barn, living a working class, nomadic existence, eschewing material possessions, befriending prostitutes, tax collectors, the weak and poor, only to die powerless? It is opposite our beliefs and expectations of what power and glory should look like. And yet, Christ is Lord of the unexpected.

That is where I find him this morning: alone on Christmas, reading the birth story of Christ. Tears stream down my face for the first time in months, as I experience the joy and peace and awe accompanying Christ’s arrival on earth.

I hope you experience joy and peace this Christmas, too. I hope you remember that whatever your Christmas looks like, there are holy moments waiting for you to stumble across them.

“Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide us to the path of peace.”

Luke 1:78-79

Vaccines and the Christian Call to Love One Another

What is the Christian duty?

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “I’m not even a Christian, who cares?” If you believe in acting morally and ethically toward others in society, you might also have an interest in this. I’m a Christian, so that’s where my ethics derive from, and what I write about today.

Christian duty is many things. When you boil it down, it is simply this: to love God and love others. There are a multitude of ways to do this, but one of the fundamental ways we achieve this is by putting others ahead of ourselves.

We live in a society where people vehemently demand their rights. But the call of Christ is that we recognize both our duty and privilege as Christians. We are sinners saved by undeserved grace, called to do what Jesus did; give up our rights in order to serve those around us.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
     he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Philippians 2:3-8

This isn’t a post that’s been fun for me to write. I have many friends who continue to say no to vaccination. I’ve said before I can respect their decisions, but the truth is, I don’t respect it. I can respect and love someone as a person while thinking they have made a poor decision.

I’m not really one to get on a soapbox on social media, but something in me was convicted the other day in the shower. Yes, you read that right. Every day, I feel anxiety and concern for those I know who are unvaccinated and the people they come into contact with. I was praying about it. Instead of giving me peace, the Lord said, “Well, what have you done about it?” I am afraid I haven’t been very courageous in sharing my beliefs with those around me, and would like to remedy that.

As the COVID-19 vaccine debate kicked off last year, I knew I’d get my shot as soon as it became available. I know several doctors and medical practitioners who told me they were comfortable with the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. And I did my own research, reading different studies and about the risks and benefits.

After reading an article from a friend who was enrolled in the Johnson & Johnson trial in Orlando, I spoke with another friend who signed up for the J & J trial in New York. Asking her questions about it prompted me to enroll in the AstraZeneca trial here in Nashville, an experience I’ve written about for the Williamson Herald.

I’m still a participant in the trial, and since being unblinded, I found I’ve been fully vaccinated since the beginning of the year.

I’m typically very healthy, experiencing between 1-3 days of sickness each year. Since last February, I haven’t had a cough, fever, sore throat, or any remote experience of sickness. If I were to get sick with COVID, I’m not particularly concerned about my suffering, or even potential death (a very unlikely occurrence, based on statistics) but that instead, I might pass it along to someone with a less robust immune system. I have several close friends with weakened immune systems and who have recently overcome cancer.

Because I am rarely sick, I never chose to get vaccinated against the flu. Ever since a doctor friend explained the immunization could save someone else’s life, I’ve gotten the flu shot every year. I view the COVID vaccine in the same way.

Choosing to receive the vaccine isn’t really about me, or you. It’s about protecting others who cannot protect themselves from a deadly virus. There is a category of people who cannot get vaccinated, whether due to young age or pre-existing health conditions. As a people who profess to care about the most vulnerable in society, we ought to consider their health when we make a decision to not get vaccinated, not wear a mask, and behave in ways that negatively affect the lives of others.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus answered a question posed to him by the disciples James and John, who wanted to know how they could be seated in positions of honor in heaven.

Jesus cautioned them, saying they didn’t know what kind of suffering they were asking for. The other disciples heard the conversation, and “were indignant.”

So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:41-45

I urge you to think deeply today: How have you answered the call to serve your neighbor during the pandemic? Have you spent time complaining about the interruption to your life, or the loss of your “rights”? Or have you sought to serve and put others ahead of yourself?

This post is not meant to be a tool of shame, but rather, self-examination. If you are feeling convicted, let me encourage you: it’s never too late to follow Jesus’ example and choose to serve others in the way we lead our lives.

The Big One

This August, I’m beginning a new chapter: law school.

When I had to choose a school, moving away from Nashville presented no issue. I was confident no matter where I went, I’d make my way back to my beloved Franklin. I prepared my friends and family for reality: I was leaving.

But throughout the process, I’ve been plagued with indecision, fearful of not making the perfect decision.

I had set my mind on one school; they had all the right programs for what I wanted to study, and they were offering me the most scholarship money. The prospect of moving to this new and vibrant town excited me.

Still, something held me back from fully committing.

Since moving to my home in Franklin a year ago, I’ve felt mixed emotions. I sought to maintain an emotional distance from my two roommates. After all, who knew how long I’d live there? Over time, the walls I’ve built to block out any emotion that might leave me vulnerable have come crumbling down. The third roommate definitely helped with that, see below.

I recognize now how foolish and prideful I have been in discounting the love and support of my friends, especially my roommates. We have grown together, through frustrations and celebrations.

And I came to realize this: Maybe God doesn’t want me to sacrifice everything to move to another city. Maybe instead, He is calling me into deeper relationships with those I love. Maybe, He knows that for me, staying is scarier than leaving. This time, I’m not supposed to leave.

I wrote these words in my journal the other day:

“I can ignore it no longer: the people God has brought into my life have changed everything for the better. I am home.”

Understanding that made my choice easy: I’m staying here and will attend Belmont Law this fall.

So why law?

I first took the LSAT over three years ago, so it’s been a long time coming. Over the years, my motivation has shifted.

At first, I was interested in the legal system in the natural way any writer becomes. As I changed jobs and roles, I began to see my skills and interests pointing me in a different direction.

An avid fan of Pamela Colloff’s writing, I always hoped to become the kind of investigative journalist who pens accounts that change things. I soon understood the type of life required to make that vision true, and felt it an unrealistic path for me to pursue.

And yet, God planted a seed.

I’ve been on a journey of understanding my own salvation and what it means for my life. In that process, God has impressed upon me a specific purpose:

Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 1:17

I understand this biblical imperative in the active sense, and I am committed to making it my life’s work.

America’s justice system is broken on many levels. In our striated society, the most vulnerable are often left defenseless and used as scapegoats. Those who have committed crimes are punished disproportionately based on skin color and socioeconomic status. Little consideration for mental health and previous trauma is factored into sentencing. We lock people up and throw away the key, choosing to look past their humanity.

I’m a privileged white woman who has never gone hungry or without a roof over my head, but I know well what it is like to be spiritually poor. I know what it is like to make big mistakes and to be shown mercy. Every good thing I have received in life is a gift from God. Each day, I feel the Christian imperative to share the same grace.

For years, I’ve felt a tug not to just listen and share stories, but to become part of them as an advocate. That’s why I’m going to law school.

Recently, I spoke with a defense attorney who has worked on prominent cases for clients facing the death penalty.

I asked him what he enjoyed about the work, and he put it bluntly: “There’s a lot about the work I don’t enjoy. When you’re dealing with and fighting injustices, it’s not always enjoyable. It can be really discouraging and upsetting.”

Still, he left his job working for a large corporate firm because of something deeper: “I just saw there were so many injustices,” he said. “It became a calling.”

I, too, am choosing to follow my calling.