Viewfinder

Too far to the right:
the foreground fades and I’m lost
in endless trees, afraid
that I’m blind to the present
moments I take for granted
because I’m “too anxious”
about the things I don’t know.

Too far to the left:
everything else dissipates–
the misty rains and falling
snow– but now I’m distracted
from my independence
because all I see is you
and your rarity of a smile.

I can’t seem to get it right.
I don’t think I ever will.

Maybe that’s the point.

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a ramble: anxiety

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*Note: The following post is in no way meant to generalize anxiety. My own is relatively mild, and my experience is not going to be the same as another’s. Please love your friends well and make sure you’re not making assumptions about their stories. Take the time to listen. Be there for them even if that means giving them space for a while.*

This post has sat in my drafts for several months and used to be a lot longer (oops). I’m hesitant to publish it because there’s so much negative stigma around mental illness, especially in the church. But we have to talk about it and break down the shame around sharing our stories. Simply having a mental illness never makes someone a “worse Christian” than someone else. If anything, it’s more reason for us to come to Jesus.

I recently wrote a story that placed anxiety in a fictional setting. It was based off my personal experiences, and I felt terribly exposed when it was put up for constructive critique between my classmates and professor for a workshop session. I was struck by the different responses. Those who have not encountered mental illness did not understand the piece. It was “too hard” for them to get inside the character’s head and they couldn’t “rationalize” why the character made some of the choices she did. Those who have struggled with anxiety or depression easily related to the character and to me.

It got me thinking. How does one explain mental illness to someone who hasn’t experienced anything like it?

For me, anxiety is a dark monster that lives in a box in my mind 24/7. On good days, it leaks out a little bit at a time and only erupts when something drastic happens. On bad days, the darkness rushes out and takes over. It’s there when I wake up, and suddenly I’m afraid to get out of bed. I’m afraid to go to class. I’m afraid to talk to anyone, even with people who usually bring me joy. The fear doesn’t even need a reason to be there. It just is.

My anxiety is a pounding heart when there’s nothing to run from and nowhere to run to. It’s the pressure on my chest as if I’m suddenly allergic to the air that’s supposed to keep me alive. It’s the feverish fear that lies just beneath the surface of my consciousness, present enough to keep me on edge but absent enough for me to push my way through. It’s the longing to be loved but pushing everyone away. It’s the numbness. It’s constantly being in “fight-or-flight” mode. And like most things, it comes on a scale.

While I was always more introverted and experienced normal periods of stress, I didn’t always have this daily fear. I can remember when meeting new people, while nerve-racking, did not induce the pressing urge to run away. I can remember what it was like to wake up and just feel tired, not afraid. Now, when I wake up and just feel tired, I smile and rejoice; that means I can get out of bed and go about my day like a relatively normal human being.

So where does God come into all this?

Usually my symptoms decrease when I get enough sleep/rest, eat well, and am with good people. Yet prayer most consistently helps me focus on something other than myself, and simply crying aloud “help” to God often breaks the cycle or at least leads to calming down from panic.

Satan would like nothing more than to cut off our communication with God. Prayer is our most powerful weapon. It must be. If it weren’t, why would Satan always try so hard to keep us away from it? Even Satan believes God and trembles (James 2:19). He knows what’s up. He does everything he can to stop prayer because that’s a place where God’s heavenly power meets earth.

I still struggle with where God comes in to mental health, and like any human I have a lot of doubts. However, I am sure of one thing: that God wants us to come into His healing presence with all our brokenness. Mental illness is not powerful enough to keep us from God. Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and mental illness is no exception.

Sometimes all we can do is sit in silent, wordless prayer. But God hears our hearts. He hears all the unspoken needs. And He answers us. He brings us peace.

You and I are loved by the God of the universe. Of all things that He could be concerned about, He is concerned about you. And that’s incredible. Of all the time He could spend doing other things, He takes every moment to love you. Take each of these next steps knowing this, my friend. I’m cheering for you.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:38-39)

encounter

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I entered the chapel with a couple hundred other students, and the only thing I felt was numb desperation. Where was God? Why couldn’t I find Him? Why couldn’t I see Him? Why didn’t He seem to be in any of the usual places I found Him?

God has always communicated with me in very emotional ways. That’s not the way He communicates with everyone, but that’s how I typically encounter Him. However, when I am not emotionally present, when my mental health spirals and I feel apathetic towards everything outside of myself, it feels like God’s not there anymore. It’s as if my emotional state determines the presence of God. And that’s simply not true.

After weeks of wrestling with this spiritual angst, I sat down on the right side of the chapel and willed my heart to feel. But it ached to praise God with my lips when my heart was only half invested. It hurt to raise my hands and get caught up in the nice music when my heart struggled to give thanks. It hurt to close my eyes when all I could see was pain.

The student chaplains read the entirety of Psalm 119, one of the longest passages in the Bible and certainly the longest Psalm. It’s a prayer about coming back to God’s Word. It’s about longing to long for Him. It’s about valuing God’s purposes above anything else. But it’s also an acknowledgment that doing so is hard, especially in the midst of suffering. The psalmist pleads with God to help him seek after God even when it feels like the world is against him.

I made the prayer my own. I didn’t have any words of my own but I had this psalm. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong about praying prayers written by someone else. Sometimes someone else has the exact words our heart longs to speak but cannot find.

We then participated in communion together, a public declaration of the trust we place in Jesus, and a physical sign of what Jesus has done and is doing in our hearts by the Spirit. Bowing my head in prayer, I begged God to renew my joy. I begged Him to restore my hope. I begged him to help me rediscover what it means to follow Jesus with all of me.

The worship team led us in a song called “You Are My King.” I immediately had flashbacks to fifth grade, when I discovered God for myself and committed my life to Him. He was no longer the God my parents followed. He became my God, too. And this song had been one of the things that God used to save eleven-year-old Eliana. As I sang the lyrics tonight, many years later, I was brought back to that place of awe.

In the middle of the song, God drew my attention to one of the student chaplains standing along the side of the room. Without speaking specific words, He made it clear that I needed to go over to her and ask for prayer. I balked. I had no idea who she was, and the last thing I wanted to do was ask a complete stranger to pray for me. But after a time I couldn’t fight the pull any longer, and I made my way over to her.

I broke down in tears as soon as she wrapped her arms around me and asked what was going on. Not able to get out many words, I blubbered, “I’ve had a lot of trouble praising God recently. I can’t feel Him and I don’t know how to find Him. I’m feeling very called to missions but… how can I bring people to Him if I can’t find Him myself?”

As she prayed over me she kept her arms firmly wrapped around me, and I felt the Spirit pass from her to me. First she addressed the things I’d specifically mentioned, and then something really crazy (and, I’m not going to lie, kind of scary) happened. She started speaking into very specific areas of my life that I’d been wrestling with. She pleaded with God to drive out the bitterness and anger in my heart. She asked Him to mend broken relationships in my family. She asked God to remind me, His child, that Jesus died for me. That He took the fear and the ugliness and left them at the cross.

And then she met my eyes and told me I am worthy. That even though I’m afraid to enter the presence of God with all my mess, I should enter anyway because He wants to welcome me in. She grasped my hands in hers and declared that anxiety and depression have no place here. They can’t keep me from His presence. They can’t hold back God’s power.

She was about to release me then but suddenly held me again and let me cry. She placed her hand on my back and began to say Jesus’ name over and over again. All I could think of was that there is such great power in the name of Jesus. Abruptly, in a moment that could only be, inexplicably, the Holy Spirit, I felt peace wash over me with mighty vengeance.

For the first time in a long time I felt clean. I felt whole. I felt worthy.

And I knew it was God. It could only be God.

When on the day the great I AM
The faithful and the true
The lamb that was for sinners slain
Is making all things new

Behold our God shall live with us
And be our steadfast light
And we shall ere His people be
All glory be to Christ

All glory be to Christ our King!
All glory be to Christ!
His rule and reign we’ll ever sing
All glory be to Christ!

Week Thirty-Nine

52 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 39: Your heritage

To the little girl who lies
in a soft gray arm chair
with a book between her hands
and a smile that brushes her cheeks

To the little girl who struggles
to get through just one vocabulary
lesson a day and whines
because she doesn’t get it

To the little girl who loves
colors and drawing pictures
on the dining room table
next to her baby brother

To the little girl who walks
into a room and stops to cry
as they all laugh and point
at her almond-shaped eyes

To the little girl who longs
after perfect hair and pink
tutus next to other girls
who don’t look like her

To the little girl who hates
the thought of being anything
but American because of the burden
of bearing this other name

To the little girl who likes
running through the grass
playing tag with butterflies
and staring at the clouds

To the little girl who’s tired
of the jokes and the mockery
from the lips of friends
that lied in their ignorance

To the little girl who laughs
when mommy tells a funny story
or when daddy swings her high
so she can touch the moon

To the little girl who’s afraid
of being herself because of their
judgmental stares and sharp-edged
tongues that never shut up

about her race:

you have a sweet face
you have a true language
you have a real family

you have a beautiful smile

you have a beautiful God

Week Thirty-Eight

I realize I am very, very behind with these weekly poems. Sorry! I’m slowly working to catch up without having to dish out halfhearted poetry. I hope you enjoy them as they come!

52 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 38: Music you love

sit at the piano with a large mug of tea
listen to break-up sounds around a dying fire
dance to anthems that bring back high school memories
be proud of “your” bands that nobody else knows

notice the rain at one in the morning
take a warm shower after a cold autumn day
hear the wind whistle around the room
see your warm breath blend with the wind

wake up to worship that echos down the hall
get through the evening with beats not caffeine
miss the old days like a ballad longs for home
write a new song about an old and lost love

Week Thirty-Seven

52 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 37: Something you created

I hold your existence
in the palm of my hand
and it drips
between my unworthy fingers to flee
the oppressive suffocation
choking the light from your words
and forcing you to be mine;

I let you go
in a halfhearted surrender
and you collapse
away from my gasping breaths
that say too much
yet never enough
in the grand scheme of loving you;

I don’t know you anymore
than I did when I only wore blue.
Before I adore
too many lies about you
and mistake them for truth
in a blasphemous attempt
to stay,

This is good-bye
to the 3D glasses under my bed:
hiding you
from my rear-view reality.
It’s time to make something
better than fences
and better than independence—

Week Thirty-Six

52 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 36: Home

let’s love these old roads together

over cobblestone streets long conquered

by the wheels of caravans.

let’s run until the grass steals up

to our un-braided hair and tangles

with our outstretched fingers.

and when we’ve finished building

our house of memories, we’ll

tear it down and start again

with new ones;