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Lies Religion Told Me About My Depression

CW: disordered eating, depression, religious trauma, self harm

I first struggled with depression and body image in high school. For the better part of my junior year, I restricted my eating or avoided eating altogether. I was in a theater production at school, so my evening rehearsal schedule meant I could pretend to eat all three meals at school while managing to only munch on some free oyster crackers from the cafeteria throughout the day. After several months of this, as well as constant urging from my friends, I summoned the courage to talk to someone at my church about what I was going through.

My youth leader and I went to dinner at Chik-fil-A (the classic Christian restaurant, obviously), and I confessed my hatred for my own body and general unhappiness with my life. I remember saying, “I don’t know why I’m so unhappy. I have a boyfriend. I have a lot of good friends. I’m doing well in school.” To which my youth leader responded, “Yes, but you need to be able to be happy even if you don’t have those things. That’s why we find our joy in Jesus.” Here is the first lie: If you really love Jesus, you won’t ever be unhappy.

It wasn’t until over a decade later that I realized how disturbing this was. There I sat, a fragile, 95 pound 16-year-old, and instead of getting the mental health assistance I so badly needed, I was being told that my unhappiness was directly correlated to the depth of my religious belief. If I would only pray more, read the Bible more, and be a better Christian, then I wouldn’t be having these problems. I wasn’t referred to get any outside help and instead was referred to a devotional book for teenage girls.

For whatever its worth, I did start eating again after the conversation with my youth leader. Whether it was the confession of my issue itself or my deep belief in what I’d been told, by the time I graduated from high school, I’d started eating all three meals again. But, really, that’s not the thing that matters the most. What does was my belief in my ability to be cured from mental illness simply by praying and going to church. Sure, prayer, meditation, and community can all help improve mental health and personal awareness. I don’t discount that. But my brain chemistry cannot be cured by sitting in a dark room with my eyes closed. People far more devout than I experience unhappiness and depression all of the time. And the refusal of many church communities to acknowledge the dark emotions we all face leads to a church full of shiny, happy people. When church does not allow us to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, or angry, it denies us the fullness of our human experience.

Earlier in my high school experience, I struggled with other self-harming behaviors. Like any addiction or illness, I would go through periods of recovery followed by periods of relapse. Every time I fell back into old patterns, I would spend the next spiritual retreat with my youth group reflecting on my own short comings. This is the second lie: My inability to overcome mental illness is based in my unwillingness to let God work in my life.

I spent countless high school retreats crying while participating in whatever metaphorical spiritual practice had been employed to help us “let go” of the things holding us back in our relationship with God. Sometimes this was writing down what we needed to let go of and nailing it to a cross. (Don’t get me started on the disturbing theological implications of this one.) Sometimes it was writing down our sins on a piece of paper and throwing it in the fire. Sometimes it was holding a small stone in our hands, meditating on it, and then laying it at the foot of the cross to represent our burdens. While I understand what was being attempted with these practices, for me, they did nothing but damage. Each time, I contemplated the same things. I wasn’t happy: I was depressed, self-harming, anorexic, and lonely. I believed that if I tried hard enough and really meant it, then God would take these problems away. Each time, this turned out not to be true, and each time I thought it was my own fault for not having enough faith for God to take away my burdens.

I do not believe that God magically rewards “good people” with joy, wealth, and easy lives. I do not believe that God spitefully punishes “bad people” with mental illness, sickness, and poverty. My brain chemistry has nothing to do with my actions in the world. I was born with a brain that is suceptible to anxiety and depression, and this does not make me a failure in the eyes of God. While I do what I can to maintain my mental health – exercise, healthy diet, meditation, therapy – I am the best version of myself when I’m on the right medications. This does not mean God made me incorrectly or that I’ve done something to cause God’s anger at me. It just means I have to work harder each day to find the things that ground me.

Earlier this week, my therapist asked me what things were grounding me currently. I struggled to come up with an answer. Finally, I was able to mention my partner, my cats, a vegan pot pie I made for dinner, and my new garlic plant. I certainly did not mention guilt from being unhappy or a lack of faith. Days are hard right now, but that makes me no less faithful. It does make me more grateful for the good things when they grow. I am also grateful for the people and spaces that allow be to feel all of my feelings, even when they don’t make sense, even when they are overwhelming. I am grateful for a God who honors all of my feelings, especially the ones that hurt.

Being a Queer Methodist, February 2019

This photo is from my commissioning in 2016. I was living in the closet and unemployed. Despite my lack of direction and continual anxiety about my identity, I was overjoyed. As the bishop laid his hands on my shoulders, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Long years of reflection, study, and discernment came together. I felt empowered. I felt like my church believed in me. It felt like coming home.

However, as my three years as a provisional member wore on, I felt more and more conflicted. In fact, this photo might represent the most at home I’ve ever felt in the Methodist Church. I grew up Methodist and have never belonged to any other denomination. My commissioning was the pinnacle of all I had worked for, all I believed the church should be, and all I believed I should be. But it’s been downhill from there.

Some of the ways I’ve started to grow apart from the UMC are due to the structure doesn’t work well for the type of ministry I want to do. This is more of a logistical issue than a personal one. I am not personally hurt by the fact that Methodist polity doesn’t seem to line up well with my ministry vision. It’s akin to a romantic relationship that would be better as a friendship. I’m not angry about it, I just think I might fit better elsewhere. So, it is with one foot already out the door that I witness General Conference 2019.

When I came out as bisexual last July, I assumed I would receive backlash from the church. I’ve received none, which can be partially attributed to the fact that I’m in a relationship with a cis, straight man. I am “self avowed” but not “practicing,” so my aberrance is marginal. Despite the fact that I have received little official feedback about my coming out, I know that, depending on the results of this conference, I could readily be asked to leave. Technically, I’m not allowed to be commissioned, even before GC 2019. Technically, my collar should go back in the drawer and my certificate should come off the wall. But, in my opinion, God is not overly concerned with technicalities.

I’m spending the next few days watching a live stream of primarily cis, straight people deciding if I can continue to be a part of this church in the way I planned to be. Truthfully, I am exhausted by the constant avoidance of the UMC to actually make a decision about inclusion. We’ve been having the same argument for a decade and yet all we’ve managed to do so far is make another committee. Despite the fact that this is comically stereotypical, I wish we would just get it over with. Part of me is grateful for the grace and care with which the church leadership is attempting to make this decision, but part of me is frustrated by the kid gloves everyone is wearing. This decision is going to hurt whether or not we take two years to think about it. I am tired of “praying our way forward.” I don’t think prayer can fix this. We don’t need more time to sit in a room in pray. We need to get our own house in order so we can go back out into the world and send love into what are currently some really broken places.

I spend each day working with people experiencing homelessness, trying to get ID’s and birth certificates for them so they can go back to work and get housing, listening to their painful stories, and holding space for them. I will continue to do this whether or not the Methodist church wants me to do this in their name. I believe it is holy work and I believe God is in it whether or not I’m straight. I struggle often between my high church beliefs in the value of structure and my thoughts that God works far beyond our made-up systems. I don’t know how to hold my conflicting thoughts about the Church all at once, but I do know that all of us deserve a place in it.

So, what do we do with a church that has become just as injured, maybe even more so than the world around it? I don’t know. I think there’s value in an imperfect church because I spent so much of my early childhood thinking that church was a place where I had to be my most perfect self. But I also believe the church should be a place of safety, something I can rely on when my mental illness overwhelms me or when I feel burnt out by the pain I bear witness to in my work. I don’t want to be charged with doing the emotional work for an organization that supposed to be offering me healing and rest. I think there is far too little individual work being done. Before we can address racism, sexism, and homophobia as the UMC, we have to address our individual biases. This is hard work, harder than praying while secretly believing God thinks the same thing that you do.

I don’t know where we will be this time next week, and I am terrified. I’m worried I wasted 3 years and thousands of dollars getting a degree I won’t be allowed use. I’m afraid that I am going to watch my family fall apart and that it will be all my fault. I don’t feel safe in an organization that has been a giant part of my spiritual and personal formation, and I am tired of my personhood being debated. I don’t want to pray about it anymore. I just want to be allowed to come home.

Why “unguarded”?

When I created this website for my writing, I wanted to have an intention. I didn’t want to write just for the sake of writing, although I need to do more of that too. I wanted this blog to be a space that required something specific of me. I thought about how I wanted to brand myself but, more personally, I thought about what it would mean for me to reveal glimpses of myself on the internet. In the past, when I’ve shared my writing, it’s always been polished. I would rarely share things that were in-process or unedited. Even within the writing group I attend, I wouldn’t bring pieces if they weren’t finished.

It took me a long time to realize that I was a perfectionist, which is ridiculous. But, coming from a long line of perfectionists, for the first 25 years of my life, I thought this was just how everyone was. I thought all of us walked into a room and fixed throw pillows, hung up jackets, and adjusted papers to be at a right angle to the countertop. It turns out, most people don’t do that and I’m a little bit obsessive. Realizing my perfectionism, though, was my first step in challenging my bar for self-acceptance.

What happens if I don’t have the perfect outfit? What happens if I don’t put everything away that’s on the kitchen counter? What happens if I leave a bag on the floor that needs unpacking? Clearly, nothing, but it took a lot of deep breathing for me to realize that. I have so much anxiety around being perfect that it’s physically difficult for me to not adjust everything around me to my unrealistic standards. This doesn’t help me and it doesn’t help anyone else.

So, why unguarded? It’s right there in the tagline. Relinquishing perfectionism. Witnessing messiness. Sharing my truths. Instead of striving to have the smartest, most creative, most innovative piece of writing each time I post, I’m striving to simply write about what I’m experiencing right now. Instead of editing over and over again, I post after one or two read-throughs. Instead of worrying about what others will think of me, I think of who might need to hear about my experiences in order to feel less alone. So, this space is not about sharing my best writing. It’s about sharing all of me, imperfect, messy, and unguarded.

Why I Stopped Shaving

header image: Cathyrox

When I was in the seventh grade, I couldn’t wait to shave my legs for the first time. Despite the fact that my leg hair was still blonde and whispy, I knew that many of my peers had smooth legs and I wanted them too. Shaving seemed like something intensely personal that I needed to discuss only in whispers. The day I set aside to shave for the first time, I told a friend at school that I was excited to get home from school that day. When she asked why I replied, “I just am.” Shaving had the mysticism of sex combined with the taboo of menstruation, at least in my mind. It was something women did but never talked about.

It wasn’t until high school that I first began to question why it was that I was required to shave off my body hair. I went the whole winter of junior year without shaving my legs, wearing pants each day. My high school boyfriend asked me when I would start shaving my legs again, and I asked him why it mattered, since no one could see them. “Because I like your legs and I want to see them,” he said. I think he genuinely meant it as a compliment, but, thinking back, it makes me feel gross. This interaction solidified my growing suspicion that shaving was an activity that women did for men, not for themselves, and that, if I was going to be considered attractive by the opposite sex, then I better keep shaving. A few weeks later, when the weather started to warm up, I did shave my legs again, eager to reveal them to my boyfriend from their hairy, wintry prison.

Despite a short period of weird grunge in high school when I wore only boys pants, I’ve always presented as highly feminine. I like makeup, wearing skirts, and the color pink. So, I followed the script set by the women before me. Every day I would shave under my arms and several times per week I would shave my legs. Throughout years of knicks, razor burn, and Nair mishaps, it never occurred to me that I could just NOT do it anymore.

Every summer, I spend several days in Hot Springs, NC at the Wild Goose Festival. Two years ago, I met a fellow queer woman at the festival and noticed her armpit hair. I had always assumed that, if I grew out my body hair, I would look disgusting and mannish. However, this woman was beautiful and I thought her body hair only added to her ~*Earth Goddess Aesthetic*~. I doubted I was cool enough to pull it off, but I stopped shaving my armpits at Wild Goose that year, partially because I usually don’t shower during the 3 day outdoor festival, but this year I continued my no-shave experiment when I got home. Two years later, and the experiment is still going. It wasn’t as though I made a dramatic decision on a specific principle. I just stopped shaving and never started again. I found that it didn’t make me look gross like I thought it would, and, if anything, it made my armpits healthier. No razor bumps, no burning when I put on deodorant after a shower, no irritation when I run in a tank top. Essentially, my laziness turned into feminst rebellion and self-confidence.

My decision to stop shaving my legs was similarly unremarkable. During some medication changes last fall, my depression was particularly bad, and I decided to give everything in my room with which I could harm myself to my roommates as a safety measure. One of the things I gave them was my razor. After a few weeks, I was feeling better and asked for my things back. However, my leg hair had already sprouted, plus it was November, so I decided to let it grow. This week, for the first time since I was 12, I wore a skirt with fully grown leg hair, and I loved it. I could FEEL THE WIND. At first, I thought something was on my leg and I kept looking down, but I eventually realized what I was feeling was the natural little feelers sticking out of my calves.

I’m not trying to tell everyone to stop shaving. I don’t care what you do with your own body hair as long as it’s making you happy. Middle school me was pumped to have smooth legs. It made me feel glories. But adult me is tired of spending time in the shower removing hair and wasting plastic. I’m tired of men and capitalism telling me how my body should be. But if shaving is what makes you feel like an empowered super-lady, do your thing, girl. Shaving is a personal decision. Maybe my 12-year-old self was onto something. Removing body hair is intimate. It can be seasonal like cycles of the moon. It can be empowering. And it can be painful. Do what gives you power, and do it because you owe your body the best you can give Her.

My Word for 2019 is Brave

I’ve never chosen a word of the year before. Honestly, it always sounded a little bit corny. I feel the same way about making New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s feels like a tired joke about how Americans are terrible about following through. I have a love-hate relationship with New Year’s – I love the concept of new beginnings and fresh starts but I hate the ways we’ve turned it into a method of being dissatisfied with who we are and how we’re living.

This year, though, I decided to try the PowerSheets goal setting planner for the first time (I promise this isn’t an ad…stay with me). I’ve seen other successful women use it and love it, and I currently have a lot of dreams but need some help making them happen. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good planner, especially one with stickers. Part of the PowerSheets process is choosing a word of the year. Ideally, it’s something that can serve as an umbrella for all your goals and plans.

I looked at all the threads I was weaving together as I dreamed up my 2019. I want to be more intentional: about money, about food, about zero waste, about minimalism. I want to continue my recovery from perfectionsim. I want to take risks even if it means things don’t work out as planned. I want to keep journeying through my trauma toward healing. I want to work towards getting published. I want to clarify my vocational goals. I have a lot to manage, but a lot of it seems to come down to progress over perfection. I can spend the next year wishing that things were different or I can take actual steps toward making things happen. (I’m using a lot of PowerSheets language here…sorry y’all.) After choosing goals and focusing my priorities, bravery seemed like the thing I would need most.

At the end of 2018, I needed a lot of bravery. Politically, autumn was full of triggers of my own experiences. I had to attend an event where my abuser would be present and had to make an emergency mental health plan. Changes in my medication had me feeling less stable than I had in nearly a decade. After Thanksgiving, I took a week off from work because of an intense relapse of depression that nearly had me checking myself into the hospital. Changes at work meant I would be starting 2019 with only 1 coworker out of the 3 I usually have (and running a whole nonprofit is hard enough with only 4 of us). I did not feel ready to take on new things. But as I reflect on what all of the turmoil that the end of last year taught me, it was nothing if not bravery.

Bravery to be honest with my boss about my mental health. Bravery to speak out with my doctor about how I was reacting to my medication. Bravery to work through my memories and flashbacks with my therapist. Bravery to ask friends to come sit with me when I couldn’t be alone. Even though I’ve largely come out of the darkness that was the past few months, I still need this bravery.

I also need bravery to give myself permission to take breaks from all this goal setting – to watch TV and relax when I’m so worn out that my insides feel like sandpaper. Sometimes, I become all consumed with my new goal setting habits and feel guilty when I spend my evenings doing anything but working toward my goals. But balance is absolutely necessary. Spontenaity is necessary. Breathing is necessary. I’m still struggling to manage my time in a way that combines both working toward my goals and resting. I have to keep reminding myself that I was doing some intense healing just a few weeks ago. Being brave is both big and small and I can’t wait to see what it brings me.

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

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.