When I was 10 my world and worldview changed radically when my parents announced their separation. I had been such a daddy’s girl, so sure my family was secure, so positive that when parents loved Jesus that they stayed together – and this news threw me for a loop. It was compounded by the later revelation that my father had been having a long-term affair. As if that wasn’t bad enough – everyone in my small church knew. There was no way to keep this under the radar, everyone knew, and in my brain, everyone was talking about us. My fear of judgement went exponentially skyward as I felt that our entire family was now “wrong”.
My brother, now 15, handled this with fairly typical teenage rebellion. He skipped school, drank a little, and missed curfew. If there was more to it than that, he never told me. I however, took that simmering anxiety and turned it up to a raging boil. And then I just hunkered down and stewed in it.
I had to be doubly perfect now. Perfectly perfect. Perfect so as not to upset my mom further, perfect so that my dad would come home, or at least not decide that he wasn’t even coming to visit. Perfect so that no one in the church would be able to add me to the list of things they were already talking about.
Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.
To be fair – this was never communicated or even insinuated to me by my parents. It’s just who I was. Who I still am in many ways.
Looking back, I don’t believe my parents separation, or even my father’s infidelity, was the CAUSE of my anxiety and depression. I’ve certainly known many people who went through similar situations in their childhood who didn’t react the way that I did. Rather, I think that it was an event that exposed something already within me, a scraping off of a tenuous scab over a festering wound.
I was 11 when I began self-harming – unable to cope with my rising anxiety and afraid to tell anyone. Eleven. I was otherwise bright, high functioning, and articulate. I made good grades, had a small group of friends, and was a Christian. I’m not sure anyone ever thought to even wonder if I was ok.
I was 12 when I began seriously considering suicide. And still, I told no one.
The small church where I grew up became a place where I had to absolutely hide my feelings. In my church, mental illness was a giant red flag that there was a problem with your relationship with God.
Anxiety? Well that meant you had a faith problem. You obviously weren’t casting all your cares on God. Maybe you aren’t really even a Christian. But you should definitely just pray about it.
Depression? Well, maybe there is an unconfessed sin in your life that is causing you to feel this way. Maybe you haven’t been reading your Bible, because surely the answer is in there. It’s definitely a sign you aren’t close enough to God. Prayer is the best way to fix that.
And so. . .I kept quiet and added this to my list of worries. Maybe I wasn’t a Christian? Maybe I should get saved again? Maybe my prayers weren’t being heard because I lied to mom that I had studied for that test already, when really that class was stupid and I didn’t need to study?
I took my anxiety and depression, I mixed them with shame and guilt, and I kept absolutely quiet.
On the plus side here, while I considered suicide frequently, I never really had an attempt. I’d like to say that it was because things weren’t as bad as all that. . . but in reality, it was straight up fear that kept me from following through. My religious beliefs told me that people who died by suicide, went straight to hell. There was no gray area, and as someone who was constantly worried about my relationship with God – that wasn’t a risk I was taking. So, my religion fed my guilt, but kept me alive.
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