Today I read two posts that connected with my past on a deep level. One was an article talking about trigger warnings in classrooms and how there is a trend towards keeping places safe and free from emotionally fraught material. The other post was a blog written by one of my new favorite authors about her experience speaking at her alma mater.
When I remember my time in college, I have to fight to see the good parts. Because there were good parts. There were friendships and wonderful professors and late night giggles and getting yelled at too many times to count for being too loud during quiet hours. There were fall retreats and Battle of the Floors and singing in choir and loving the city I lived in even though it also scared and intimidated me. But mostly I remember how hellish my final time there was. I remember the crippling depression, the eating disorder, the alcohol abuse, the self-injury, the hospitalizations (yes, plural) because I didn't know if I had the strength to keep living. I remember falling HARD and feeling like there was no one to help.
College was where I first got real help. I had a counselor who made me feel less alone, like my problems weren't who I was, just things I was dealing with. So I will forever be grateful for the help I DID receive, because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that that help saved my life. But college was also the place where I learned that my problems were too much, too big. I learned that Christian institutions want shiny, happy, healthy students that they can show off to benefactors, alumni, and potential students. They don't want messy imperfection in their walls. I remember living in fear of being honest with how bad things were because I was afraid of being kicked out, afraid of being rejected. Well, that did happen to me, and it was every bit as horrifying as I had feared.
I am super passionate about people feeling supported when they are down. I have been in the black pit of depression too many times, and I live in a constant state of alert waiting for the next cycle of despair to rear up and try to drag me under. I know how isolating it feels when your friends and family seem happy and healthy and you feel alienated from them in every way. I know how HARD it is to have faith when you can't feel love or joy or peace or hope and everyone who tries to make you feel better feels gratingly fake. So when a friend comes to me and wants to talk about how they're REALLY feeling, I do my very best to be a good listener. Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning and someone asked if they can use my floatation device, too, but I try to listen anyway because I know they might not find another person to help them float a little until it's too late.
Why don't we talk more about how hard it is to be human? Why don't we talk more about how painful it is to be alive? I'm not saying there aren't AMAZING things about life, but I'm so tired of hearing how amazing things are when they most certainly are NOT in my life. It has been 8 years since I had the courage to go to the counselor's office at my college and say that I didn't know why, but my life was hard and I needed help or I wasn't going to make it. Sometimes I wonder how different my life might be if I had known how to ask for help sooner. Part of the problem was that none of the people around me had any understanding of mental illness. Pretty much my first year of counseling was learning what depression was and how to identify what I was feeling. Because I didn't know how to sit with my emotions long enough to identify them and their roots. All I knew was that I was supposed to be happy, but I wasn't.
I want a culture where we don't hide when life is hard. I want an environment when pastors and church leaders can publicly talk about the hard parts of their lives as they live through them, not once it's all over and resolved. I want people to feel safe talking about their pain so we can learn to empathize and understand each other. The more we understand each other, the better we can love each other. We have to stop crucifying people for failing, because THAT'S WHAT HUMANS DO. We fail. But we learn from our failures, and that's how we grow and mature.
Tomorrow will mark 5 months since my dad died. The first month after the funeral, I was more angry at the lack of support from the people around me than I was sad about my dad being gone. Part of that was because anger is easier to deal with than pain and sadness, but part of it was because I was so furious that even after years and years of trying to build a support system for just such an event, it failed spectacularly. I was furious at every person who tried to high five me and be cheerful in my direction. There was NO room in the culture around me for me to mourn openly. I felt anguish and guilt at how poorly I had supported my three friends who lost parents just months before I lost my dad. Being on the other side, I had so much more insight about how to be a good friend in times of tragedy. If I couldn't figure out how to find a safe place to express my true feelings for a loss that people universally recognize is devastating, how am I supposed to create a safe place for people who have hidden, little understood hurts? Why are we so afraid to drop the smile and cry when we are hurting? I know it's hard. My therapist and I have been working closely together for six and a half years, and I think I've only cried twice in front of him.
I don't have answers. I know it's hard. But if we all made an effort to reach out just a little, I think it would add up to a lot. If we all just texted one or two people each week to say, "Hey, thinking of you. How are you doing today?" I think maybe we would feel less alone and a little safer to share our true selves. I think we wouldn't be so afraid to share the complex parts of our humanity because we would understand that we belong to each other and together we can do hard things (to borrow two sayings from one of my favorite authors Glennon Doyle Melton). Sometimes when I need support the most, I offer support to a friend, and then we discover that we can support each other and make it through.