I am seven. I help Grammi make pancakes flavored with oranges every Thanksgiving and cookies with Red Hots for eyes every Christmas. I build wooden boats and cars out of old wood scraps that Gramps left behind.
I am twelve. Twenty-four people come to our house I mimic the older cousins at the kids’ table. We buy the biggest turkey the grocery store has to offer, and I am proud of its size.
I am twenty-one. Two days before Christmas, my parents tell me they are getting separated. When I visit in January, they’ve changed their mind but never explain why.
I am twenty-five. The table is set for three. My cousins are in California and Virginia and Kentucky and prison. We visit Granddaddy who speaks only in jibberish and doesn’t remember me.
I am twenty-eight. I still sleep with the same pillowcase decorated with fleece snowmen every Christmas Eve because I still believe in its magic.
I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring. It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters. I loved that ring. It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth. I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules. As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!” I loved the rules. The rules shaped who I was.
I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group. All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another. The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation. The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night. I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.” I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules. And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.
What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship. We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain. I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect. There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart. Everything would be perfect.
It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD. Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD. I love my partner. He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other. We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about. I never learned how to do any of this in the church. I had no idea that I needed to learn it.
Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture. If anything, it perpetuated it. First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough. The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture. By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing. Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have. It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual. (Hot tip: it’s not.) There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.
Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed. There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing. While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before. All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility. Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend. No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.
Purity culture has damaged so many relationships. I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later. I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain. I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned. I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture. Purity culture hurts all of us.
I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire. If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies. Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers. Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me. Rings are easy. Love is hard.
In high school, I had no concept of self care. I woke up at 5:52am every day, like literal clockwork. I left my house at 7, got to school at 7:20, got coffee from the cafeteria, and met my friends in the back of the theater to finish homework or talk. I went to class, went to cross country practice, and got home at 6. I did homework, and went to bed by 10:00.
Why am I telling you my daily schedule from 2004-2008? To point out that there was no time for doing what felt good. I enjoyed being on the cross country team, going to school, and spending time with my friends, but I didn’t do anything just for me. I did what I had to do and what was required of me by others. No one ever asked me what it would mean to do what felt good to me. The first time I heard that question, I was 24 years old and having an emotional breakdown in graduate school. It never occurred to me before then that I could do things for no other reason but to care for myself. In high school, I was focused on what needed to be done to succeed in life after high school. Studying, taking standardized tests, being captain of the cross country team, leading worship at youth group, and applying for colleges – there was no time for rest. Rest wouldn’t help me in the future.
What I didn’t realize was that taking care of myself at the age of 16 would’ve made things much less painful 12 years later. I never dealt with my depression and harmful behaviors in high school, so I never healed properly. I went to a therapist in high school, but after a year of meeting, she concluded that there was nothing wrong with me and that there was no reason for me to feel so depressed. She branded herself as a Christian therapist and told me that if I only prayed enough and tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way anymore. I believed her and tried to move forward. But, because I was never given any real tools to cope with what was actually a chronic mental illness, old patterns continue to resurface.
During the past five years, most of my mental illness has surfaced in the form of anxiety and panic attacks. Medication, therapy, and learning proper self care have helped me move through the hard days. But I was surprised when, this past September, I began to feel familiar symptoms I hadn’t felt in over a decade. My anxiety and depression started an exhausting tug of war of apathy vs perfection. I was paralyzed by the two extremes. I didn’t know how to deal with both of these illness at the same time.
The only thing I know to do now is to listen to my body. I recently heard poet and healer Jamie Lee Finch refer to her body as “She” in a podcast. I’ve adopted that same practice, trying to personify my body in a way that gives her more value. I try to listen to what she tells me, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. I let her rest so she is free to cry. I take her on walks so she can breathe fresh air and absorb the sunshine. I ask her, “what would feel good to you right now?” because, for decades, no one had asked her that before.
The way all the muscles in my jaw and back clench when I feel the gaze of a nearby man, it’s no wonder I have knots in my neck. I remind my hips to relax into the earth, grounding back into their Mother, who does not recoil when we mine her for all she’s worth and gaze hungrily at her beauty. Instead her mountains stand brilliantly, her seas crash violently, her desserts burn relentlessly. She reminds me there is power in my bones, strength in my muscles, and fury on my tongue. She shows me the resistance of blooming after a prolonged winter, of new life interrupting the grey.
Each year on November 5th, I post a picture of my mom. Some years, I feel strange about this ritual, especially if I’m in a new place where people don’t know that my mom died. I do it anyway, though, because I have to find a way to hold space for her. I think about her on November 5th even if I forget about her the rest of the year, and that feels holy.
For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t think much about grief. Right after my mom’s death in 1995, my dad took me to grief counseling where I did both individual and group therapy. I’m grateful for that early therapy but it was nearly impossible for a five year old to fully process death. The loss of my mom because more of a “fun fact” that I could pull out when people made “your mom” jokes in high school or when I had to explain why my dad was getting married when I was in the 4th grade. I would wear some of her jewelry or her tshirts with cats on them, but that was the extent of it. I didn’t consider what it meant for me as a daughter or a mother or a person trying to understand herself.
It wasn’t until college that the weight of it fully hit me. I was on a worship team for my university’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian fellowship, and on one of our annual retreats, we had a particularly poignant sharing time. Team members shared about breakups, deaths, friendship struggles, and other things we usually kept close to our chests. I remember suddenly bursting into tears, shocked at my emotional reaction to something I hadn’t cried about for a decade. It sunk in that she wouldn’t be there when I got married, when I graduated, or when I had my own children.
Since then, I’ve tried to get to know her more. It turns out, getting to know a dead person is difficult, but not impossible. I talk to her and write to her and talk about her. This doesn’t make it hurt less. If anything, it makes it hurt more, but if I feel nothing, the grief will fester inside me. And unresolved grief can be a real bitch. My decades of not feeling grief brought about depression and self harm. So, even if it’s been years, it turns out I can’t just pretend that nothing happened. When I recognize that my desires to be perfect and control everything around me have a lot to do with my need to live out her legacy and protect myself from an early death, I can learn to let those things go.
I recently joined a community called The Dinner Party (TDP). There are chapters all over the world, and their mission is:
OURS IS A COMMUNITY OF MOSTLY 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS WHO’VE EACH EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT LOSS & CONNECT AROUND POTLUCK DINNER PARTIES TO TALK ABOUT IT
I’ve only met with this group once, but it was overwhelmingly refreshing to be in a room of people who aren’t afraid to talk about death. One of my close friends recently lost her dad, and as I watched our other friends respond to her grief, it brought to light my own experiences in which people weren’t sure how to approach death. At TDP, I could joke about death, cry about things that I “should be over by now”, and talk about the things that don’t seem to make sense. I didn’t have to put my grief in a box that looked the way others expected it to. Listening to others describe their experiences clarified my own.
Each year on November 5th, I can’t believe how long it’s been since she died, but I hope that as I grow farther away from her temporally, I grow closer to knowing her. I see her in myself as I approach the age that she was when she died. I see the shape of my body when I look at pictures of her. I think about how much she would love my cats. None of this makes it easier, but it’s better than pretending none of it happened.
“I’m Trash,” she says, “or whatever you want to call me.” In the Kroger parking lot in January she wears pajama pants and flip-flops. She asks for money. She says she’ll clean windows but can’t offer her regular services because she has an infection.
He wears a white turban made of blankets and a puffy ski jacket no matter the season. He’s always in the same places, walking up and down next to the road staring at cars, never speaking, never walking on the path with all the other walkers and joggers. Instead, he travels parallel, ten feet away, to keep either others or himself safe.
Ten minutes into the church service, a man in dirty jeans, carrying garbage bags full of belongings sits in the third pew. A large, graying man in a suit hands him a hymnal. He holds it away from his chest as if unsure how to use it. But when the soprano soloist takes the stage, he raises his arms making small motions from his fingertips in the air, conducting her voice, his own personal symphony.
I once thought that mental health safety plans were only for people who were “really suffering”, only to be used right on the verge of self harm or suicide. But recently, I realized that once someone reaches a place that urgent, it’s too late to make a plan. Asking for help should happen much sooner, immediately after symptoms and warning signs start to appear. Many of us, myself included, think our symptoms aren’t “bad enough” to get any serious help from a hospital or a helpline, but the truth is that it’s much better to ask for help too early than too late. So, based on my limited experience (DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional), here are some helpful insights into creating a mental health safety plan.
Know your triggers. Do you have something really stressful coming up at work? Are you going to have to have a difficult conversation with someone you love? Are you going to be interacting with someone who makes you feel unsafe? Have you been looking at literally anything on the news? Be able to identify the things that trigger your anxiety and depression (or whatever it is you experience) so you can make sure to have a plan ready before the triggers are present.
Make a plan while you’re feeling helathy. By the time you find yourself in a hole of panic or depression or suicidal thoughts or substance abuse, you’re not able to make a cohesive plan. Have you been feel good lately? Now is the time to make a plan. Every office building and hotel I’ve ever been in has an emergency evacuation plan posted on each floor. They don’t wait for the building to catch on fire to make an emergency plan. They make the plan while things are still safe and functioning well. Once the emergency begins, the chaos makes logical thinking impossible. It’s important to be thinking clearly when you make a plan for yourself.
Know your warning signs. Know what to look for within yourself so you’re aware of when you should start to reference the plan you’ve made. If you can stop yourself from spiraling deeper by implementing your plan early on, that’s a huge victory. Knowing yourself and how you respond to triggers is crucial. If you can identify what you’re feeling and understand your symptoms, that’s honestly half the battle.
Plan for the worst case scenario. As an anxious person, this is not always something I would suggest. When I’m getting on an airplane, I should not imagine the worst case scenario because I’ll find myself in a panic spiral about my plane falling out of the sky in flames. However, when it comes to imaging what you might do at your worst, you need to be prepared. Even if you’ve never harmed yourself or attempted suicide or abused substances or developed disordered eating, mental health can be an unpredictable monster. Know which hotlines to call, even if you’ve never needed them before. Know what resources are available at hospitals near you. Know your therapist’s phone number. It’s not overkill to have the resources at hand.
Have a support system. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is huge for me. I hate asking for help. I’m an #indepedentwoman and I don’t like having to depend on others. But I promise that your friends would much rather get a call at 2am or have you ask them to come sit on the couch with you in silence than know you were suffering and didn’t reach out. List a few people you can call when you’re struggling. If you’re not good at saying how you’re feeling, develop code words with your partner or best friends so you don’t have to do the emotional labor of explaining what’s going on.
This is all fairly new to me, so if you have any suggestions of your own or things that have worked for you, please share them! Also, here are a few resources I’ve found helpful:
Check out the My 3 app (not sponsored, just a great resource). It’s available for Android and iPhone and provides a place for your safety plan that’s always in your pocket. You can choose friends to contact, list resources for yourself, keep track of your warning signs and coping skills, and make a plan to keep yourself safe all in one spot. 10/10 would recommend.
Lastly, here is a template that I made based on personal experiences. I had trouble finding a template related to interacting with your abuser, so I made my own. Check it out here: Assault/Abuse Survivor Safety Plan Template.
Stay safe out there, friends. It’s a crazy world, and we have to take care of ourselves in order to fight the good fight!
If you are having thoughts of suicide (or if you are concerned about someone), there is help available right now. A trained counselor is ready to talk to you and provide help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This is a free 24-hour hotline. (Press 1 for a dedicated line for Veterans and their families. Para español, oprima 2.) If emergency medical care is needed, call 9-1-1 or go to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.