We have had quite a start, haven’t we?
Mental Health awareness is so much more than understanding that mental illness exists. It’s understanding that there is a person behind the illness and that every heart has a story. Behind the story is the person who lived it, and at the end of the day that is what the therapeutic journey is all about: Discovering the person underneath the story. I continue to trust that in my sharing of the story I help destigmatize mental health…from both sides of the couch.
So, Back to the story…
But, before drop off day in the sweltering heat of a South Carolina Summer, enter two rounds of Accutane- one of the most powerful and controversial acne medications on the market.
The summer after high school graduation I pumped my body with powerful drugs which in turned cleared up my skin. I then cut my hair and in symbolic fashion shed the old me as I drove 650 miles to the north to the tiny sleepy town of Clinton, South Carolina.
College was a true refuge. But for a girl who may no longer look like someone with deep insecurities I certainly had them. A search for significance was deeply embedded into my soul and I was willing to find the fastest way to happiness, which if you have ever been around a college student is most often found in a red solo cup. I was ready to party (even though I didn’t drink), get a boyfriend (even though I had just received my first kiss weeks before at a summer camp) and be popular (again zero experience in this department) so I had a big game mentality with backyard game talk. However, the recipe for the girls in high school that were brutal to me was boys + party = popularity so why couldn’t it work for me now?
With my new found (emerging) confidence I marched myself off to the boys dorm to meet my future boy…friends.
Cue the screeching halt noise.
I’ll spare you all of the details but suffice it to say South Carolina was drastically different than Florida and boys weren’t exactly accustomed to girls making it so easy on them. And in what I truly believe was Divine fashion, before I could give myself away for moments of temporary pleasure, I was given a pivot and found acceptance in a group of people who loved me for who I was, and I didn’t have to drink or sleep around to hang out with them.
Primarily because they were the kids in the College Christian ministry.
Getting involved in a college ministry was ideal for a kid like me. I was searching for significance and what better place to find it than with God. I was a kid who grew up with little to no rules or structure, so the structure of religion was a balm to my searching heart. I also wanted to please anyone that would show interest in me, so I was really good at being obedient. I was a model new recruit. I rose the ranks in leadership and found a place of love and acceptance…as long as I wasn’t wearing a two-piece bathing suit.
I should note here that twenty years after this indoctrination, I still love God with all of my heart. I have a deep love and appreciation for the Church but also experience the frustrations of the marginalized and outcast and how we use Jesus for our gain when it’s convenient but not when it means we have to welcome those who are different than us. The black and white thinking that originally led me to God is now a much warmer, beautiful shade of grey for which I am very thankful. AND, I know now that It wasn’t religion that drew me in to that group of college students, it was relationships and community and a sense of belonging.
All things that this girl had never once felt.
The blessing and the curse that comes with religion is that it’s a lot about the rules. And at the end of the day, college students need a lot of rules, so rules keep you safe, but they also miss the mark of true worship. Spirituality is more about a relationship with God, but I was too immature to know that then. And I really want to tell you that I was kind of a jerk too. A real legalistic jerk face. Or asshole. Sometimes it’s still hard for me to cuss, but I am growing in all sorts of ways now so it’s important that I let you know that I went back and forth on jerk face and asshole and decided to include them both.
There is a story in the Bible were the Pharisees (the folks that wanted to look super spiritual but weren’t really spiritual at all) start praying and they each pray louder and louder and more eloquently and elaborately to be louder than the person praying next to them. Just imagine that for a moment, a prayer competition if you will. Jesus uses them as an example and tells his followers NOT to be like them. The Pharisees want people to know how spiritual they are, so they DO all the right things, but their hearts aren’t in the right places. Instead, Jesus tells them that when you talk to God you should do it quietly so it’s just about you and God.
First I was a pharisee. I wrote notes on my drunk suite mates whiteboards telling them that God loved them. I looked down my nose at women in my sorority for partying and I made myself look good so others would look worse. I was the Christian version of a mean girls and I am SO SORRY for that. (I have since written letters to a handful of girls that I was an absolute bitch to and apologized for my behavior but it still makes me cringe.) What I know now is that I was still hurting deep inside and this time, I just had clear skin.
That behavior is about the farthest thing from how God acts so I tried another way. Just me and God. I read my Bible and discovered that God loved me and cared about me and had a plan for my life. He was in control and he was going to be with me every step of the way. No matter what had happened in my past, God was working it for good.
And goodness started to emerge. With me and God, with people around me, and for the first time in my life, within myself. I started to think that maybe I was worth something. Not for how I could perform or show up but because I was simply me.
I started to like me.
College ministries aren’t perfect, and neither are the people who run them, but for 4 years in college I had a place of belonging. For this latch key little girl with an alcoholic father who spent the better part of high school faking that she was sick, so she never had to go to class, I needed to know I belonged more than anything in the world. God met me through the broken and sometimes legalistic place of college ministry in the foothills of the Smokey mountains to tell me that I wasn’t forgotten, that I had a place to belong.
I was rescued from the old me in order to ready myself to meet the new me.
There was a lot I had to get to know.