on being a woman

I grew up in a conservative family, in a conservative church. Most of the moms I knew didn’t work, and most of them homeschooled their kids–the rest sent them to private schools. I can only think of a single friend in elementary school who went to public school. My mom loved homeschooling, and she genuinely wanted to have a large family, she says it was her calling. I never felt like she was unhappy or chafing at the boundaries of her existence, so I kind of assumed that I’d follow in her footsteps–because it’s all I knew, and it was a worthy life’s work. I agree with the primary values behind my parents’ decision to homeschool: having your kids close to you, having a strong family dynamic, and allowing plenty of time for free play. Other factors probably included being afraid of what we might be taught outside the home, because I believe a lot of conservative Christians tend to be fear-based in their decisions of how to parent. Overall, though, it was a truly positive experience, and my parents grew as they went, becoming more flexible where it was warranted.

Once I had kids, though, I quickly began to feel like I was, well, not my mother. I definitely did not want to keep having kids. As much as I wished I could, because traditional schooling seems like a colossal misuse of time, I couldn’t imagine homeschooling them. I also wasn’t like some of the other moms I knew, who liked playing with their kids more, or doing crafts, or throwing cool birthday parties. None of them acted like motherhood was all make-believe and glitter or anything, I just had zero interest in those things and even found them painfully boring. I spent a while feeling horrible about this. Then Matthew finally convinced me that for me to be healthy I needed to work outside the home. He was perceptive, and right.

In typical fashion, when I realized I didn’t need to be or do all those things, I figured I wasn’t maternal in any way and therefore wouldn’t stay at home at all. I also felt the pressure of the all-or-nothing mindset I absorbed growing up. I don’t know if the things I believed were taught explicitly, if they were just implicit in the culture around me, or if my anxiety turned it into something more (probably some happy cocktail of all three) but I felt like if you weren’t doing God’s will, you were outside of God’s will–like there were just those two options. Redundant, but scary. If you weren’t being obedient to him or whoever was in charge, you were probably outside of his will. Also scary. I felt so much anxiety from internalized pressure to want to stay home and care for my kids that I couldn’t help but swing to the other extreme when I first began to consider what it looks like for me to be a mom. To be a person, really. I thought about going to law school. I guessed I’d work full time. I had trouble reconciling the dreams I’d had for my family and the nonconforming life I’d imagined as a college student with the person I felt like I was now (thanks, anxiety!).

Complicating my feelings further, even though the church I attended for most of my adult life is much less socially conservative than the one I grew up in (there’s alcohol at church functions! the pastor smokes cigars sometimes! an elder said “shit!”), it was still tricky for me to figure out where I belonged. There are lots of moms who didn’t work, plenty who homeschooled, some who worked full time, all of which I knew were valid yet still I wrestled. In the years I worked there, I was told I was being blinded by ambition, that I was railroading over my husband’s desires so I could work more. I was told to smile when I was leading worship. I was told by a man who wasn’t even my boss that I should not wear a particular outfit on Sunday.

The hardest part about those things was that they were all said by people who are lovely, genuinely lovely. People who care about me and about the church. The only way I can reconcile it is to realize they were all influenced by extremely narrow perceptions about what it means to be a woman in general, and even more what it means to be a godly Christian woman. That we’re supposed to be these nurturing, helpful, gentle people who assist our husbands and sweetly care for our children. That we’re designed to be maternal, and that, generally speaking, it looks a certain specific way.

I’m realizing now that I am maternal in the same way that I always was, even as a 19 year old college student. I am passionate about caring for people, about knowing their hearts and bringing them into meaningful community. I want them to understand their motivations and I want to call them to the life they were meant to lead. I want systemic justice, for the church and the world to be called to account and be better, for my children and others’. I am maternal, and so is God. I am a woman who is uniquely made by God to speak truth powerfully and care for people. The external trappings may and/or may not look the same as generally prescribed, but social norms in and out of the church do not determine what it means to be a woman called by God, and they never have.

I am learning what it looks like for me to live out of that truth. Right now it means recognizing that I do have a heart for my little children, and connecting with them in the way I was uniquely made to do. It means finding ways to use my leadership abilities in the work place and in the home. It means prayerfully considering what it means to be a woman in the church, and what it looks like for me to use the voice God has given me. It means freedom.

self talk.

“You are going to get through this.” I’ve written a lot on here lately about my anxiety, and the ways it’s made life hard for me in the past. And it’s true–life as an adult has been hard for me because of my quirky brain. But finding out that this is how I work has also given me a lot of hope for the future.

“You have a really beautiful life.” I’ve been telling myself this a lot lately. For years I thought there was something wrong with our life, like somehow we had it so much harder than everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, life was definitely hard: we had three kids in 35 months, while Matthew was finishing up school and then starting his own business, and this all happened right after we got married and moved away from everyone we knew. So, yeah, we fit a ton of stuff into a really short amount of time, and then we had a crisis that brought everything to a head and me to the end of…everything. But once I worked my way through to this diagnosis, with the help of my counselor, I could see the beauty and goodness of the life I have. It’s not that my life is horrible and needs to change–it’s that my brain interprets the life I have pretty inaccurately a lot of the time, making normal things into impossibly heavy things, and heavy things into death sentences.

“This feels hard but it is normal, and I can do it.” So, this summer is going to be the best one yet, because I’m learning to change the self-talk that’s on rotation in my head. Instead of constant panic and negativity, when I catch myself going that direction, I tell myself the truth. And when I feel my body tensing up, instead of going further in my head to figure out what’s wrong, I’m simply breathing. Feeling, seeing, smelling…connecting to my physical reality instead of the faulty one in my head.

Finding out I have anxiety has been hard. But living unaware with anxiety was so, so much worse. Now I have the chance to engage the life I have, and while working to stop the cycle of anxiety is almost as exhausting as the spiral, I know it won’t always be this way. Because I have a beautiful life. And because I can do this.

words, part III

I experienced my first bout of serious depression when I was thirteen years old. I had spent most of my early childhood escaping my emotions through reading. Even though my childhood was a secure, healthy, and happy one, my anxiety had manipulated my experience of life since before I can remember. Reading was my coping mechanism of choice, which honestly is a pretty healthy one, if we’re going to rate ways of shoving down all negative emotion. I was homeschooled in elementary school, so I could basically race through my schoolwork and read for hours on end. I experienced a wider range of emotion vicariously through the books I read than I allowed myself to feel in my reality. Half way through sixth grade, though, I began attending a small private school, and my coping mechanism was no longer available to me; I had to be present, all day, for all my classes. This was my first experience of facing “bad” feelings without an avenue of escape. I had hit puberty, I was experiencing normal insecurities about myself and my body, and since I had not let myself learn how to process anything negative, I spiraled. I developed an eating disorder and plunged into a deep depression.

To my memory, I was never someone who questioned my salvation, even though I grew up in a church that taught that you could lose it. But I certainly wondered about my place in a church that vigorously celebrated the joy of the Lord and the expression of the Holy Spirit, when I didn’t always feel that joy. Sometime midway through high school, I began to chafe at what I felt was a hypocritical and limited portrayal of the Christian life. I felt like it wasn’t ok for things to be hard in that church. People tended to share their struggles in retrospect, once they’d been triumphed over spiritually. When I started attending college I kept going to my childhood church, albeit more sporadically. I visited other churches and skipped more Sundays than I ever had. During my junior year of college, I experienced a heartbreak that left me devastated. Anytime I’d go to my church, I’d stand in the back during the hour-long worship set and just weep. I couldn’t pretend, I couldn’t keep it in. And I think my open struggle had an impact on others maybe trying to keep it together…I was astounded by the number of women who came up to me during that time and thanked me for my tears. While the theological and practical issues I took exception to remain issues in my mind, I certainly felt a large amount of angst as a person who grew up in the church needing to find her own way, the bulk of which has subsided over the years.

Fast forward several years, a different town, a few kids, and I found myself in a new church with an actively preached theology of brokenness. Each week we would kneel as a congregation and confess how much we needed Jesus. Then we would stand and remember that we were a part of his family. We were encouraged to live in the open, to not pretend. But what I didn’t realize was that the focus on specific personal sin was causing extraordinary confusion in my life and ultimately ended up masking and exacerbating my struggle with my mental health. I would read a confession about not loving our neighbors, choosing instead the comfort and security of our own lives, homes, and agendas. And I’d think, yes, that’s me. Thus, the growing agoraphobia from my anxiety was misdiagnosed as the worship of comfort and went unaddressed another day, another week, another year.

As I’ve begun the process of sifting through my life, my motivations and my reactions, since my diagnosis, I’ve begun to think about sin a little differently. I’ve had to: after all, so many of the things I was hearing called sin (and I’ve heard everything from procrastination to depression labeled such) were things I felt or did that were either outside of my control or simply how I worked as a person. And I began to realize a couple of things.

First, God didn’t make us on the same level as him. Even before the fall, before we ever sinned in the garden, we weren’t on his level. We were less, we were weaker, and we were varied from each other. And that wasn’t wrong. So, while a pastor may have to write sermons or confessions in a sweeping, one-size-fits-all fashion, we don’t have to live that way. Procrastination for one person is laziness, for another it’s motivation and enables their brain to wake up. Being bummed might be discontentment for one person, for another it is their brain blocking their ability to feel happiness. Even Paul understood that some things were sins for some people and not for others, so I think this is biblical.

Second, you’re not perfect because the world is broken, not just because you specifically choose sin. Sometimes you do, but sometimes you are experiencing the brokenness of the world in a specific way that others don’t. My anxiety is something that has made me look and feel a particular way, interpreted at times by myself and others as my personal fault or shortcoming. That cycle then drove me deeper into anxiety. I am learning now to not place such moral weight on things that are actually symptoms, to let them just be what they really are. Lightening up that load makes it possible to practice the physical and mental habits that will help me interpret the world and my feelings in a more accurate and appropriate way.

The words you use to speak to yourself about your identity as a human and as a Christian are so important. This is true for all Christians, but it’s even more important for those of us with mental illness. You can’t just accept things the way they are, because if you do it will destroy you. I have been there for years and I’m starting to dig my way out, with many varied forms of assistance. You don’t have to live your life trapped in confusion and guilt over things that are outside of your control. Accept that they are, and reach out for help. It’s my hope and prayer that the church will develop a better method of relating the gospel to people with mental illness; for better or worse, that may begin with those of us who have experience speaking up. There is no perfect church. You won’t be able to find one with people who don’t say the wrong thing sometimes. But there is room for growth in the system as a whole, and I hope my story makes it easier for you to share yours.

This has been part three in a three-part series about our words. In part one I talked about how in the “mom” culture we can use the same words to talk about different things. Part two discussed the way the church plays a big role in the struggle of people with mental illness because of words, and this segment covered a differentiation that I think is helpful for people in the church with mental illness. Thanks for reading!

 

words, part II

I was lying on a couch, and I had been hyperventilating for a half hour. There were several other people in the room and the tension was palpable. Dirty laundry was being aired, grievances long held in secret being shared…everyone was upset. We were having an upsetting conversation, so it made sense. But I was about to pass out. The lights were kind of funny, I was dizzy, and I couldn’t breathe. As I lay there, trying desperately to exhale fully, one of the people in the room came up to me with tea and said gently, “It’s okay, Rebekah. This just means you’re having a soft heart about all this.”

That scenario has played over and over in my mind as I’ve started to look back at my life through the lens of my newly discovered anxiety. There are so many instances I can think of that make sense in retrospect now that I know this about myself. But this experience is the most blatant example of the damage that the church does to people with mental illness when we persist in looking at things in the black and white terms of sin. When people with normal brains get upset, they don’t almost pass out. A panic attack is not a soft heart, it is anxiety. In my case, anxiety finally bursting its way out from deep under the surface. They totally missed it because they were totally focused on my perceived sin.

As much as I’d love to, I can’t even blame them entirely, because I missed my own anxiety for thirty years. The culture I grew up and remain in is very concerned with personal sin. The motivation behind it is kind, in that we want ourselves and others to get back to the place where we’re right with God. You can’t really do that without coming to terms with your sin in some way—after all, the entire premise of Christianity is that you’re so incapable of bridging the gap between you and God that Jesus had to come down to make a way for you to be in his family. This is generally agreed upon by most branches of the Christian faith. But when you have a mental illness, of whatever severity, your brain literally works differently than other people’s do. So you may find yourself, like I did, using the same words as others to talk about very different things. In this case, the word is sin.

Before I was capable of conscious memory, I decided that some feelings were wrong. This happened when, like most toddlers, I was punished for behavior that was inappropriate. Rather than taking from it the lesson that the behavior was wrong, the way that most of my siblings did, I decided that the feeling behind the behavior was wrong. Taking it even further, as is typical of my deeply intuitive brain, I came to the conclusion that it was wrong to want whatever it was that prompted the feeling that then resulted in the behavior. This all happened by the time I was two, so I don’t remember deciding these things and I never thought about them. I coped with varying levels of success until I got married and had kids.

Then, faced with feelings I could no longer escape, because you don’t just have a kid and then not ever have to interact with that kid, I began my downward spiral. This spiral covered every aspect of my emotional and physical life, but I’ll give just one example to keep it simple. In the entirety of my life up to having kids, I had never let myself be angry. But when I could no longer keep down my panic at the intense emotions of young children, I would explode. I used the same words I heard other parents using—the idea that circumstances don’t create emotion or sin in you, they just bring out what’s already there. And it’s wrong to yell at your kid, right? So that’s sin. Right?

But the thing is, my anxiety that was unseen and therefore not dealt with was manipulating my responses in a way that was completely outside of my control. But sin is sin is sin in the Christian church and the only cure for it is Jesus, prayer, and trying hard. So instead of finding ways to confront what was really happening to me, I kept trying to control my “temper” and I continued to spiral. I had friends during this time who knew something was up, but I couldn’t hear it because I genuinely thought that what I was facing was what everyone faced: the sanctifying struggle against my sin. Except it didn’t get better, it got worse.

We can’t stop talking about sin in the church. I know this. The truth about who we are and how much God wanted us in his family anyway is our hope. But by largely limiting our discussion about the world’s and our brokenness to the category of personal and purposeful sin, we are keeping a whole host of people trapped in confusion, guilt and despair.

This has been part two in a three-part series about our words. In part one I talked about how in “mom” culture we can use the same words to talk about different things. This segment discussed the way the church plays a big role in the struggle of people with mental illness because of words, and part three will cover a differentiation that I think is helpful for people in the church with mental illness. Thanks for reading!

words: part one.

I’ve spent a lifetime talking about my experiences using the words everyone else uses. Being a mom is hard, frustrating, exhausting. I’m overwhelmed, I can’t get things done. I get mad at my toddler and feel so awful. I struggle to stay present. Everyone I would talk to would empathize. These are universal struggles, aren’t they? And then years earlier, same thing. Being a pubescent tween is hard, frustrating, exhausting. I wish I were prettier, thinner. I want to fit in. I feel like everybody else is cooler or more confident than I am. Everybody feels that way, right?

But here’s the thing, words fail us. Sometimes, hidden in the conversations about normal things with normal people, there are people whose brains are different. Whose experience of life is different. It just is. It doesn’t mean we are worse, or better. It just means we are different. Sometimes, we’re using the same words to describe totally different things.

Being a mom is hard, and overwhelming, and exhausting. But normal moms can feel the good parts, not just the bad parts. If you are only intellectually experiencing the good, and not emotionally feeling it, then something is unbalanced. Everyone feels overwhelmed, nobody can get everything done. But if “everything” feels like a mountain crushing you slowly under its weight, maybe something is wrong. If it feels so hard that you daily wish it could all be over and then remind yourself that you want to be with your family, you don’t want to miss this, then your hard is not the same as other people’s hard. If struggling to stay present means you are detached to the point where you frequently feel like you’re outside of yourself, watching yourself, then you’re talking about something different than everyone else. And it doesn’t have to be normal. It doesn’t have to be your life.

That’s the thing, we’re so obsessed with normalizing the struggle that we can inadvertently make it difficult for people to recognize legitimate problems that need to be addressed. I spent five years thinking how I felt was normal, because everybody’s life is hard. Everybody’s life is hard! I completely validate that, and celebrate the community that can be formed around that solidarity. But I was really hurting, and for much longer than I needed to be. And I missed it because for my entire life, I’ve had this anxiety that makes me either shove down negative feelings or, alternatively, when I can’t shove down or escape them, it makes me freak out far beyond what is warranted by something normal, like being angry with a toddler. And my brain started working this way before I was old enough to have memories. So I’ve grown up using the same words to describe something totally different, and never uncovered it until the bottom fell out.

It is a gift to offer empathy to someone, to let them know they’re not alone. But what we take for empathy sometimes puts assumptions onto what people are feeling or experiencing that do them a disservice. When someone is upset beyond the scope of the words she is using, pay attention. Words are important and empathy is important, but listening is more important. You may be able to hear beyond the words she’s using and help uncover something that needs to be addressed. I’ve had so many people tell me I’m a great mom, that x, y, or z is “totally normal!” But the best gift I was ever given was when a friend told me, “Yes, life is hard, Rebekah. But I just don’t think it has to be this hard for you.”

 

This post is part one of two. Part one focuses on using the same words to talk about different things as it relates to mental health. Part two will focus on the way this happens in christian settings, often inadvertently hurting or alienating people who have had traumatic past experiences.