Exodus: Decisions

Part One. “Exodus” is a series of vignettes, posted till completion, describing my experiences growing up and out of an evangelical church. All names have been changed to account for privacy.

“Do you want to be baptized?”

I was seventeen and desperate — to please and be loved, among other things — when I heard those words. Desperation is funny in the way that it convinces you that you don’t have a choice. So when my friend Megan, a card-carrying member of the Going-to-Heaven-Club, asked me if I wanted to join the walk on that narrow road…I knew that I would say yes, regardless of how I felt.

The prospect of baptism had sat like lead in my heels since I’d first been told of it as a child. The weight of it caused me to drag myself spiritually for years, avoiding the topic while many of my church friends took the holy plunge at ages as early as fourteen. The only way to get to heaven is through baptism, said my Sunday school teacher. Some churches teach that you can pray Jesus into your heart, but we know that not to be true, said my pastor. People who aren’t baptized disciples go to hell, said my church. I felt broken every time I heard these “truths” and felt everything but the relief I was told comes with knowing that eternal life could be mine. Why didn’t I want that? Who wouldn’t want that?

Anxiety is funny in the way that it convinces you that you couldn’t possibly know what you want.

I envied Megan, and the way she truly loved the church we’d grown up in. I looked up to her—my first memories of friendship were of her and the other girls my age, and I desired their affection and acceptance more than most things. Megan was one of those intelligent, kind, funny people that everybody genuinely liked, including me. And even though I knew from years of conversation that her attitude and demeanor were not effortless on her behalf, I still wondered what I could do to be like her. Her response would be to say that she just wanted to be “like God,” a common, but meaningful, phrase in evangelical churches. So I considered that, perhaps baptism—a ceremony that our church believed not to be a symbolic, but literal, washing away of all sins in exchange for committing your life to God—was the way to acceptance and approval. A life less dominated by desperation, or enslaved to anxiety.

Of course, I was also into the whole peace-in-heaven-instead-of-being-tortured-in-horrific-ways-for-all-of-eternity thing.

I was careful to take my time before answering, though. It was the summer before my senior year of high school when Megan asked me this question. I was attending an arts school that had already saved me in a lot of ways, and studying theater had helped me explore experiences outside of my heavily Christian upbringing. I loved the challenge of taking my “self,” and denying it in order to fully embody a character. My entire major revolved around finding the humanity in people, discovering the good among the ugly, learning that humans are never always good or always bad. Theater is, in a sense, the expressed study of people. And my studies were leading me to become more open minded, more skeptical of the hyper-religious life I was leading.

While this growing skepticism had increased the space between the question and the answer, it had done nothing to change the answer itself. I was intensely afraid of rejecting 14 years of effort and immersion: attending church every Sunday since I was 3-years-old, midweek studies on Wednesdays, youth-services on Fridays, a week of summer camp, spiritual retreats, praying before every meal, praying before bed, praying, praying, praying. I was living my life according to the idea that baptism, and the believed connection it gave my soul to the creator of the universe, was the reason I was alive, the reason behind all of my actions.

And who the fuck is going to reject what feels like a reason to live, when they haven’t yet found what else there is to live for?

Megan stood in front of me looking expectant and hopeful, as expectations and hope are the fuel Christians run on. “Yeah. Yeah, I do wanna get baptized,” I told her. She squealed and hugged me tight. I hugged her back, her enthusiasm and loving nature contagious in the moment.

I can do this, I thought to myself.

I can be this person that loves God, loves her neighbors, loves religion.

My parents will be happy.

My sisters will look up to me.

I won’t be a disappointment.

And I’ll go to heaven.

This is the right decision.

This is what I want.

It’s not lying to say I want this.

This is my decision.

Dear God, if you’re listening…

I’m not lying.

I’m not.

On Pets and Anxiety

20180102_145601.jpg

When I went to the Humane Society, my hands were shaking despite the fact that I was very certain of the type of dog I was looking for. Not breed-wise…I didn’t really care about that…but that I wanted a quiet, medium-sized pup that liked to cuddle and was at least 8 months old. My therapist had given me a written letter prescribing me an emotional support animal, and I was thrilled. And terrified. Going to a shelter when you have a specific idea of the kind of dog you want can be hard, because it just might not be there. I couldn’t tell if I was more worried about going home without a pet, or going home with one.

However, as I walked along the kennels, a dog caught my eye that seemed to fit every criteria I was looking for. She was 40 pounds, ten months old, silent as the dogs around her barked their heads off at the visitors, but still came up to lick my hand when I walked up to her. She was beyond cute.

I flagged an employee down. “Can I visit with her?” They gave us a small, concrete room to play in, and this pup walked up to me and set her head right in my lap like we’d done this before. She looked up at me with mismatched eyes — one was blue with speckles of brown, the other brown with a blue streak coming out of the iris — and I fucking melted. I put a hold on her immediately, and took her home a few days later.

I think it only fitting that an anxious person ended up with an anxious dog. Or fearful? I can’t tell which one it is, but listen…Nova does not like doing new things. A list of things Nova was scared of the first couple days after she came home:

  • Going into the car
  • Walking into buildings
  • Going up stairs
  • Going down stairs
  • Playing with toys
  • Going into her kennel
  • Going into the hallway
  • Walking past cars

You get the idea. All of these things seem ridiculous when you’re an adult human, but I tried to imagine being a creature that was low-to-the-ground and possibly hadn’t spent much time outside of a cage…it became easier to be patient with her.

I quickly learned that “patient” does not mean “without anxiety.” Every time she didn’t listen to a command, my pulse would rush. Even though she’s now doing a good job at all of the things she was initially afraid of, there are still moments when she misses a command, or doesn’t want to go into her kennel, and my brain goes wild. What if she refuses to ever go in her kennel again? What if she gets loose and doesn’t come when I call her and gets hit by a car? If I bring her to puppy training, will she be okay? How come she didn’t do this thing? Is it my fault? Should I have a dog? What if I can’t take care of a dog? What if I can never take care of anything except for myself for the rest of my li-

My brain on its anxiety setting is the actual worst. Imagine thinking this way about…literally everything?? I’m a goddamn mess. I haven’t written on this blog for about two months because I was anxious about it. In fact, I haven’t written anything, not even just for myself. What if I’m wasting my time writing? What if I’m actually a terrible fucking writer? What’s the point of practicing writing if I suck so much that I’m never going to do it professionally anyw-

Again. You get it.

But having Nova, and working with her to get past the seemingly-silly things she’s anxious about, has been nothing short of amazing for me. I look at this puppy and think, “If you would just get into the kennel, you’d see that nothing bad would happen.” Then I look at myself and wonder, oh shit…what am I avoiding that, if I just did it, I’d see that nothing bad would happen? What’s the car I’m afraid to jump into because “what if?” When Nova doesn’t follow a command, am I anxious because I always expect perfection in my life, and that’s unreasonable with a puppy? Why am I uncomfortable and anxious about imperfection?

My therapist has fucking loved our last few sessions.

Nova’s done some amazing work in the past week. Repetition and forcing myself to stay calm when she doesn’t want to do something has resulted in a scared pup turning into a pup who loves her kennel, enjoys meeting people when we go on walks, comes when I call her, gets into the car (as long as there is a treat involved), and runs up and down the stairs like she was born to do it. All my anxieties about her were just that…anxieties. Thinking of “what ifs” in a loop doesn’t make them true, and she’s helping me realize that every day.

So here I am, in my favorite cafe, writing my first blog post in months because my beautiful, lovely, anxious puppy got into her kennel so I could have a couple hours to write and read.

Cheers!

preface: about taking trips

If you asked me, I’d tell you that I’m not good at making plans. This is a lie. I would also tell you I don’t enjoy making plans. This is sometimes a lie, sometimes the truth.

I didn’t talk much about my first trip to Europe this year, when I visited London and Amsterdam, mostly because I was mentally really fucking over it. I’d planned the entire thing. I went with two other people, but I was the only one who put in effort to figure out the plane tickets, and the airbnb (which I’d never used before and now use almost exclusively during my travels); I was unofficially in charge of figuring out how to get to airports and train stations, I found/booked the hostel we stayed in in Amsterdam…you get the idea. All of this on top of planning fun things I wanted to do and see.

And I did have fun! I got the chance to explore the cities both by myself and with the one of my companions who was/is still a good friend of mine (the other companion was someone I have a weird history with and frankly it was a mistake bringing them along). It was my first time leaving the country! Amsterdam was the first city I’d been in where the main language wasn’t English (which was exciting to me), and I loved that place more than I’ve loved the many cities I’ve been to. But my god…

It was fucking exhausting. I resented that trip by the end of it. I hated that I’d planned the entire thing. I hated that I’d brought someone I didn’t want to hang out with (and once we returned, never hung out with again in true “you’ll either hate them or be closer after a trip together” fashion). In the weeks following, I would think about that trip and get frustrated because I felt like I’d spent the entire time being bossy and annoyed, neither of which are core aspects of my personality but show out when I’m anxious. But I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for what was a huge privilege to get to do. So I just didn’t talk about it.

All of this to explain that despite what I might say, I’m actually great at planning, but depending on the circumstances, I don’t always get a kick out of it. ((However, if you ever wanna pay me to put together an affordable and lovely trip (or an expensive and bougie one) to someplace for you though, just let me know. Will perform labor in exchange for currency.))

So when I decided I was going to go a second time, I knew it had to be either alone (like my trip to San Diego this spring that was truly an amazing time) or with someone who’s personality complimented my own.

Planning this trip to London was so much better than the last time. My companion, Allie, bought her own ticket and didn’t need me to walk her through it. In fact, we only met up once to decide on where we’d stay. We each have day trips we’re going on solo in the middle of the week to focus on our separate interests. Like, it’s been the least stressful experience. It’s even been fun figuring things out because I’ve barely felt, and still haven’t really felt, anxious. She, like me, doesn’t always feel the need to talk because there’s so much to see and make mental notes of to write about in the future.

The personality of your companion makes a world of difference when it comes to how much you’ll enjoy yourself on a trip!! Don’t go someplace with someone you argue with a lot, or who’s anxiety adds to your own. If you wanna be extra safe, take a short trip somewhere with someone first before you travel to another country. Magnify the way they act on that trip by ten and then decide if you can do 1-2 weeks with them elsewhere. Learn after my mistakes, kiddos, it’s what I’m here for.

So that’s how this trip has come to be.  More on “why london” and what I’ve been up to while I’m here, later!

World Mental Health Day

So, let’s talk about it.

I have major depression. I have generalized anxiety. I have borderline personality disorder.

I wish I could say that the hesitance to write that publicly is gone after so many years of reckoning with my mental health. But there is still a sense of shame, as well as a fear that if I tell people my brain doesn’t function the way it’s “supposed” to, they won’t like me anymore. Or even worse, that my illness will be misunderstood and, by association, I will be misunderstood. I especially feel this way about BPD.

I think I’ve had…maybe three?…real conversations about having BPD with people. Conversations where I said the words, “I have borderline personality disorder,” and then proceeded to explain what that meant, the ways in which it’s fucked up my life, and how I deal with it now.

Imagine only having three conversations about something that you deal with every single day, because you’re afraid. Because every time you acknowledge it (and I have to in order to manage it), you’re reminded of the boyfriends who called you crazy before you knew what this brand of “crazy” was, the friends who deemed you toxic because your brain couldn’t make healthy connections (and the pain you felt when you realized you had been toxic then, even if you weren’t anymore), and the think-pieces you’d read where some neurotypical person declared all people with BPD to be manipulative assholes purposely out to wreck people’s lives (classic).

Mental health stigma still exists. I know because the effects of it on my heart and mind are very, very real. I know because I see the way it tells my friends they’re the only ones going through shit. I know because people still don’t treat mental illness like physical illness – something that needs healing and can take you out of the game for days.

I still have to put in the effort not to stigmatize myself, especially with a “less popular” (ugh) mental illness like BPD. Part of the effort means speaking about it, being open, and being honest.

So. I’m mentally ill.

Are you?

We should talk about it.