Oh, High School….

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I know a lot more about the teenage brain now than I did in high school. I know the teenage brain is messed up. I know their pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed making it harder to make wise decisions. I know their amygdala are very reactive which leads to strong emotions triggered by seemingly insignificant events. I know about the spotlight effect where teenagers think people are always paying attention to them even though most teenagers are too busy thinking about themselves to be wrapped up in others’ every move. I know the deep pull teenagers feel to be accepted by their peers while at the same time feeling like no one truly knows them or accepts them for who they are. There is a deep need to feel significant. Acceptance is important and a huge motivator in decision making for teenagers.

I also believe behavior is teleological.  Behavior is a form of communication. It expresses needs when words fail. So when a kid misbehaves, it’s not simply because they are a “bad kid.” They’re trying to communicate a need they have that is not being met. When a teenager is intentionally unkind to a classmate, as a therapist, I try to figure out “the why” behind the behavior – “the why” of which they may not even be sure.

I carry all of these things with me when I meet with teens. Knowing these things gives me patience and understanding in my interactions with them. It helps me extend grace to their experience when I really want to tell them what is going on with their boyfriend of two days is really not the end of the world.

My 20-year high school class reunion is this summer. I did not enjoy high school. I do not trust people who enjoyed high school. I was not going to go. Then I got the invitation, and my service dog’s name was on the invitation. It warmed my heart. Several of my classmates donated money so I could get Valko, and I realized it would be nice if they could meet him.

The emotional residue left from high school is powerful. I see it in my clients. I see it when I read my college students’ papers.  I see it when I talk to classmates. I see it in myself.

And it’s too bad.

We do not choose who we go to high school with. We get lumped together because of where our parents chose to live. We are victims of circumstance. Yet we use often use our high school classmates as a measuring stick for our own success throughout our lives.

When I was in my 20s, my intense struggle with mental illness was made worse with each marriage or birth of a child I read about on  a classmate’s Facebook page. It was a reminder to me I was not on track – I was behind schedule; I was unlovable. I was a failure.

It took me finding people who were more like me – people I sought out, people who sought me out – to feel accepted. And that makes so much more sense than expecting acceptance from people we may not even like that much!

I have an advantage my young clients do not have: I know the things that seem so important in their teenage brains often won’t matter even a year from now. I know life can get so much better when you’re not trying so desperately to fit yourself into a box that was never intended for you.

I extend to the teenagers in my office my best self, my empathy, my understanding, because I know what the teenage experience is like. I know their brain is not working to make their lives easier. They are not trying to be dramatic or unkind, they are trying to figure out life with little support from their bodies or their community. My job is to support them unwaveringly. My job is figure out what they are trying to communicate through their often frustrating behavior. My job is to love them.

So as I met with a high school classmate recently, whom I had not seen in years, we talked about the upcoming reunion. We talked about the anxiety associated with going, and as I drove home, I wondered if I could treat my former classmates’ teenage selves with the same kindness I treat my teenage clients.

Our brains weren’t any different in 1998 than today’s teenagers. We were not set up physiologically to be reasonable people who thought about the needs of others. We were desperately trying to fit in and often making regrettable decisions to do so.

I have changed a lot since high school. I’m so much happier. I’m a better friend. I’m more confident. I enjoy life and people so much more. I have let go of most resentments from high school thanks to a lot of therapy, the ability to follow my dreams,  and amazing friendships that have developed in adulthood where I feel loved and accepted.

If I can step back and see how much I have changed, isn’t it safe to assume classmates who did hurtful things to me in the past have also changed for the better? If understanding the teenage brain helps me have compassion for my teen clients, can’t I have compassion for who we all were back then, including myself?

I hope when my classmates come together in August, we are able to meet each other as new people. I hope we can leave past opinions at the door and approach one another with curiosity and wonder. I hope we welcome one another warmly. I hope we are all able to breathe deeply and let go of the pain that haunts us. I hope we can forgive one another if it seems appropriate, or at least grant one another the benefit of the doubt for a few hours on a hot night.

 

 

 

 

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Help My Unbelief

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A poem about my Lenten journey and beyond.

What new and glorious things the Lord has prepared for you.
Listen…
Put down your phone; tuck away all gadgets.
Listen…
When you walk, pray, “I believe; help my unbelief”
Repeat it until there is peace in your heart.

Repeat it when that peace flits away
Because he doesn’t text, a client doesn’t show, you ate sugar once again.

“I believe; help my unbelief.”

Remember you were born worthy.
*the stories of sin were created to make you forget
*You Were Born Worthy
*”I believe; help my unbelief.”

I once wrote a list of all the things I believed in.
Now I just want it to say GOD.
That’s all I want to have to believe in.

G-O-D

Why do you make yourself so elusive?
You created us.
Why did you make us so blind to you?

My heaven is mornings when I read about you and Atticus and Tucker lay at my feet (or on me).
That is when I feel most at home in who I am.

It’s away from the noise.

Yet I also feel at home when teaching is going well, when a client gets something helpful out of our time together.
I feel at home with beautiful women who share laughs and stories and tears when needed. (Okay, mostly it’s me crying.)

I can’t seem to let go of you.

“I believe; help my unbelief.”

My house is a mess; I’m a domestic failure.

“I believe; help my unbelief.”

My car is messy; there’s garbage in my yard; I didn’t get papers graded;I don’t want to go to work; I went through the drive-thru again; there is no clean underwear anywhere in this house; Anthony has broken my heart once again.

“I believe; help my unbelief.”

Because maybe if I say it enough
it will become a part of me
to accept and not this thing
out there I wrestle with.

Cuz you love me, right?

The Best Day of My Life

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Prior to my 27th birthday, I asked my friends to participate in a 5k with me as a birthday present to me.  I was in seminary at the time, and walking and rock climbing had become a regular part of my life thanks to the friends I met there. I finally felt ready to take the leap and start running. Inviting my friends on my journey was the perfect way to motivate myself and make the whole experience fun. In addition it made for a unique birthday experience, and I am always looking for ways to make my birthday celebrations unique.

My friend Cyndi designed t-shirts for us. Because we were all somehow connected to the seminary, I opted for a religious theme. The front of the t-shirts had a picture of a foot and read, “Save Our Souls.” The back read, “Eschaton or Bust” and quoted the Bible verse Isaiah 40:31: “They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” We even drove to the event in the official seminary van.

Fourteen of us (including my brother) showed up for the Flying Nun Run in Tower Grove Park on March 31, 2007 in our matching shirts. I found pictures of this day as I was cleaning today. As I sat back and looked carefully through each one, I realized this was the best day of my life. Without a doubt.

The strange thing about this day is this: I don’t really remember it. If I concentrate enough, I can see glimpses of it in my mind. I remember showing up to the registration table and telling them it was my birthday. They gave me a medal just because it was my birthday. After that, my memory gets very fuzzy. I remember telling them I couldn’t actually participate in the whole 5k, and if I did, I don’t remember if I was honest about why I couldn’t participate.

I couldn’t participate because I left St. John’s Hospital the morning before with strict instructions from my psychiatrist: Do not rock climb. Do not run 5k.

I had been going to St. John’s for three days a week for a few weeks by that point. Either my mom or a friend would drive me to the hospital early in the morning for my ECT treatments. It’s officially called electroconvulsive therapy. You may know it as shock treatment. Yes, they still do it. Yes, I opted to do it. After all this time, it is a hard thing to really talk about it. I can joke about it. I’ll mention it casually if it relates to something that is being talked about. But to really talk about it- that causes all the feelings to rise up inside of me, and some days (like today), I can’t deal with going into all of it.

What I will tell you about ECT and how it relates to this story is I had almost no short term memory for…..I don’t actually know. I don’t remember how long I couldn’t remember things. I had to be supervised 24/7. I was like an Alzheimer’s patient. If I was left alone I might turn on the stove and forget I turned it on; I might leave the apartment and end up lost somewhere with no idea where I was or how I got there.

I was living in St. Louis –  five hours from my family. My parents came down as often as they could, but a lot of the time, my friends were the ones taking care of me. It is the most amazing act of love I could ever imagine. I believe there was a list serve among my seminary friends coordinating who would be with me when, whose apartment I would sleep in that night, or who would be sleeping on the couch in my apartment that night to make sure I stayed safe; who was taking me to treatments and other doctor appointments. . I was never alone.

I don’t think I was a lot of fun to be around during that time. I remember asking people the same mundane questions over and over because I couldn’t remember that I had already asked them how their day was going. I really don’t know how I was. One friend who visited from out of town said I was really boring because when he asked me what was new, I seriously had no idea. I couldn’t tell him anything that had happened recently. I was a blank slate.

When I had initially asked my friend to run the 5k with me, I didn’t know I would be having ECT treatments at the time. Then the depression invaded so strongly that I did what I thought was the last resort after medications and counseling weren’t enough and started the treatments.

However, my friends kept training, and I was determined to at least be there for the race. I was so exhausted from treatments, I don’t think I even walked a mile. I remember being in good spirits. Four of my friends got first place in their divisions. We dominated the Flying Nun Run.

My friends were thoughtful enough to make me a photo album of that day knowing I wouldn’t remember it. When I left seminary, one friend put our group picture in a frame for me. Until today, I hadn’t looked at the pictures in quite some time. As I went through each pictures, I found this one:

Nun Run

I realized more than any pictures taken of me, this picture sums up my life succinctly: I’m surrounded by people whom I love and who love me; I’m taking on a new challenge amidst personal difficulty; I’m smiling;  I have no idea what is going on (this time due to memory loss); and most importantly, I have my arms raised in victory.

I often tell people I didn’t really have strong, positive friendships until I went to seminary. Through the extreme generosity of my friends there, I learned how amazing friendship could be, and I’ve worked since then to be the same kind of friend to others that my seminary friends are to me.

A lot of people my age say their wedding, or the births of their children, are the best days of their lives. The Flying Nun Run on March 31, 2007, is the best day of my life. Even though I don’t remember most of it, when I look at the pictures of that day, I am filled with love, extreme gratitude and joy for the friends in my life who got me through something I never imagined having to go through.

Thank you Cyndi, Jenn, Abby, Ryan G., Ryan O. Mikey P., Jenni, Heather, Brad, Lora, Daniel, Becky, Sarah, Melissa, and Jackie for all being a part of that day and my healing process.

This IS Our Circus

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My heart is hurting right now. I can feel its dull ache. I just dropped Anthony off at his house. He told me at dinner the neighbor who has lived in an apartment across the street for twelve years was kicked out today because his downstairs neighbor reported there had been “traffic” up there – traffic meaning drug sales. He said they put all of his stuff out on the lawn and everything got wet when it poured rain earlier tonight. I felt some sadness when he told me the story at dinner. According to Anthony, the man has cancer. Although, Anthony doesn’t always get all the details of a story correct.

By the time I took him home several hours later, I had forgotten about his neighbor. Then I saw him as we pulled up to Anthony’s house. He was sitting alone on the front step of the building and all of his belongings were stacked in the front yard. I felt devastated. I feel devastated.

I quickly ran through a mental check list of what I could do, but I knew the answer in that moment was pretty much nothing. I thought about having him sleep on my couch. Anthony suggested I should give him a ride, but I thought, “To where?”

Anthony once suggested I date this man. Anthony tells me just about every time I see him that he has found me a boyfriend. I always ask two questions: does he have a job and does he do drugs? I ask this because employment and sobriety are two things almost all of the men Anthony has suggested lack. He first told me this guy smoked a little crack from time to time to which his older sister said, “He’s a straight up crack head.”

I drove past a church in the neighborhood on my way home, and a few people were standing outside. I thought about stopping and telling them about this man and seeing if they could help. A police car was in front of me on the way home, and I thought about asking them for help. Then I thought about one of those meme type things that had gone around Facebook recently that said something like, “Not my circus” in response to other people’s drama.

But the thing is, I think sometimes it is our circus even when we’re not directly involved. That’s my calling as a Christian. As I’ve stated before, I don’t think someone needs to be religious to be moral and ethical. However, those of us who call ourselves Christians do have a responsibility to get involved in the messiness of the lives of others sometimes because of our religious affiliation.

I struggle a lot in my relationship with Anthony. I’m not his mom. I’m not his legal guardian. He tells people I’m his god mom. I refer to him as a kid I mentor to those who ask. The reality is we have a really messy relationship because there is no term to describe what we share. I don’t always know where to draw the line. A lot of the time he feels like my child. Lately he’s been annoying the crap out of me by acting goofy or something. People have told me he’s acting his age and that is what is annoying.

There are times he wants things that other kids get to take for granted, but he doesn’t have access to them because of his life situation. His grandma can’t drive much, so he has a hard time getting a ride to the mall or the movies. I don’t often want to take him to the mall or a movie on a Saturday afternoon and pick him up, but  when I’m not doing anything else, I feel like there is no reason to say no. Sometimes I do say no, though.

I have a friend who tells me I don’t owe Anthony anything. I try to puff myself up by repeating that to myself. But the thing is, I do think I owe him something. It may not be a ride to the mall every time he wants to go, but as a disciple of Jesus, I owe a lot of people something.

I am told that I have a good heart and that what I do with Anthony is wonderful. I know both of those things. Yet I also find it kind of a strange compliment because I really don’t feel I have a choice. As a reluctant Christian, I have always been sure of one thing in my faith: I want to live my life following the example Jesus set forth by serving “the least of these.” That’s engraved in my heart and soul and every nerve ending in my body. That is what I am called to do.

So on nights like these when I see someone in so much need, and I have nothing to offer because I’m afraid of becoming a member of someone else’s circus, I feel deep sorrow. Then I feel anger. And then I feel deeply alone. I don’t like feeling responsible for taking care of people I don’t know. There is no joy in that. There is sorrow, anger and loneliness.

So I use what I’ve learned studying Buddhism, and I sit with those feelings. I ask myself where in my body I feel the feelings. I breathe with them. I notice I am not going to dissolve or explode from my anguish. I calm down enough to function.

That’s what I have on nights like these.

From the Mouth of Miriam: the Electric Chair and the Atonement

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In the United Church of Christ (UCC),the denomination to which I belong, we choose our own ministers. We do not have a bishop tell us who will be the next to lead our flock. This is one thing I love about the UCC. We have a search committee made up of members who read profiles, conduct interviews and bring candidates to the congregation. A vote is then held, and someone is hired. It’s a beautifully democratic process.

The weekend of the vote, the candidate comes to church and leads the service. In our church, there are several meet and greet activities as well. When our current pastor came for her weekend, I attended one of those events. People would ask her questions and she would respond. There was a question I really wanted to ask. However, after hearing some of the other questions, I felt uncomfortable. She was asked what her favorite hymn was. She was asked if she liked potlucks.

I wanted to know her view of the atonement. I wanted to know what her thoughts were on the traditional Christian belief that Jesus was sent by God specifically to die for our sins so we could go to heaven (or hell).

This is important to me because while I listened to the story as a child, I never really thought critically about it until I was in my 20s. And it is the critical story of the Christian faith. Christmas is the start, but Easter is the point. It is the resurrection; it is the promise of new life; it is God’s way of telling us God loves us so much that God sacrificed God’s son. It is also a story that is really hard to believe. It is also a story that creates Christian guilt. I struggle with this because I do not believe the purpose of the crucifixion and the story of the resurrection is to induce guilt into Jesus’ followers.

A few years ago, I ran a non-profit, and part of my job was to go to area churches and talk about what we did. One time I went to a Methodist church and spoke to their children. I brought little cans and asked if they would be willing to put any spare change they had into the cans during Lent as a donation to the organization.

The talk had gone well, and I was ready to wrap things up when the Sunday School teacher said to the kids, “What did Jesus do for you?” A small boy raised his hand and said, “He died for our sins.” The teacher responded, “If Jesus died for your sins, the least you can do is fill your cans with spare change.”

I was mortified. It was not my intention to guilt the children into giving money. I completely disagreed with how the teacher handled the situation. That situation has stayed with me.

So a few weeks ago I was helping lead music with the kids at my church. One of the lines of the hymn we are singing is “God of the empty grave.” One of the kids raised his hand and asked me what that meant. I asked him if he knew the story of Easter, and he said no. It seemed several of the kids also weren’t clear on the story, so instead of handing it over to our Minister of Faith Formation like I should have in retrospect, I began telling the kids the story of Easter.

Except, it wasn’t the story I was told as a kid. It was the story I’ve mish-mashed together as an adult who struggles daily with her faith. I introduced it as a really important story we tell in our faith tradition – not as the Gospel truth. I talked about how Jesus did things that made the government mad because he believed in what he was doing enough that he knew the “president” would kill him and was willing to make that sacrifice.  Then there might have been (okay, there was) the mention that the cross was the equivalent of our present day electric chair. I talked about the empty tomb, and anticipated the zombie comparison that one child brought up. I then told them how Jesus taught for a little longer and then went to heaven. I was floundering. I don’t remember if I told them what I really believe the resurrection is about.

When I went home that night, I realized that I didn’t even mention the dying for our sins part. I didn’t mention it because I don’t believe it. I believe what I told the kids: Jesus believed in justice and love and mercy so much that he was willing to continue his work even though he knew it meant Pilate would eventually put him to death. There was extreme sacrifice involved; that part I believe. I just don’t believe Jesus died for our sins.

And I’m okay with that. Most of the time. But then there are moments like yesterday morning when I text a minister friend and said, “I think for Easter this year I’m coming out as Jewish.” She said that yes, I am a reluctant church goer, but she wasn’t buying the Jewish bit. I said, I don’t believe in the virgin birth, I don’t believe in atonement and I don’t believe in the resurrection. She said she was aware of the first two but was surprised by my lack of belief in the resurrection.

I told her I believe Jesus was resurrected, but not in the way I was taught as a child. I believe Jesus was resurrected (and is resurrected) by his disciples continuing to tell his story after he died. He is resurrected when as Christians, we do good works for people in need. He is resurrected when as Christians, we stand up against what is popular in favor of what encompasses justice, mercy and love. He is resurrected when we commune together in the Body of Christ, not as a metaphor for a violent death, but as a metaphor for welcoming all to the table to celebrate a community that truly wants the best for the world.

She asked me if I believed in the message of the resurrection, and the truth is, I believe it very much. It is why I do the work I do. It is why my psychology class at the university where I teach often comes off as more of a social justice course framed through the study of psychology. It is why I lose sleep and cry over acts of injustice that have nothing to do with me.

I am so grateful she challenged me. It’s not that I would mind being Jewish. Or Muslim. Or really any other faith or non-faith. I don’t think one needs a religious tradition to have a strong moral compass and do good things in the world. And we all know plenty of people of faith who do atrocious things. That’s not what this is about for me.

It’s about my constant struggle to find a place in a faith tradition that means a lot to me when I no longer believe the things I was taught as a child. It’s about not throwing my hands up and walking away out of frustration.

I need the resurrection. I need the promise that I can keep coming back from the dead again and again when I feel like I’ve let myself, or the world, down. I need to know that each time I fall into a depression and want to be done with life, there is hope for another start. I don’t need a promise of heaven, but I do need a promise of recreation in my darkest times. And that’s why I am a Christian.

The Struggle to Keep Going in Dark Times

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I have been all over the radar when it comes to emotions lately. Life hasn’t been my first choice much lately. I’m haunted by self-defeating thoughts and regrets. I haven’t been doing a very good job of being responsible and getting things done. My apartment looks worse than normal. I think I’m caught up on my bills. I’ve spent enough time in my bed under my covers scrolling through my Twitter feed in an attempt to stay connected without actually having to connect that I exceeded my data limit on my phone. I canceled class on Friday because I just couldn’t get myself to leave my apartment. One day my pastor and her wife had to come over to my place because I was so filled with anxiety I really didn’t think I could get out of my car on my own. They sat with me until I was able to get out. One night I called my mom proposing an idea that perhaps if we are going to keep comparing mental illness to cancer and diabetes, that perhaps an assisted suicide law for people with mental illness is a good idea and wouldn’t it be great if family members would just tell those of us with mental illness that it is okay to just let go?

On the other hand, I’ve had some good days. Class went exceptionally well on Wednesday, and I presented at a leadership conference yesterday. I was so excited after I finished, I could hardly keep calm. I had a few dates I really enjoyed with someone who kept me on my toes, and even though there is no future there, I enjoyed myself and laughed a lot. I looked forward to watching my new favorite show “Empire” on Wednesday night. Last night I had an exceptional night with a friend who invited me over for dinner. I’ve held a baby.

Today isn’t so great. I had every intention of it being great when I woke up. I’ve managed to get myself to the library at the college where I teach to get a little work done after a four hour delay. I altered plans with a kid I mentor because I know he hates to see me sad, and I knew I couldn’t be strong for him today. Tonight I am supposed to have dinner with my siblings, and while I love the time we spend together, I have no desire to go. Thankfully one of the symptoms of depression is guilt and I still feel plenty of that, so I will go.

So what do I do with this? The answer is pretty simple: I just keep going. There is no magic solution. No combination of pills that takes it all away. I do what I feel I am capable of in the moment, argue half-heartedly with the voice in my head that tells me to just try harder and stop being such a lazy wimp and hope a good moment will come by to lift my spirits for a bit. I’ve begun labeling these moments “pockets of time.” Sometimes just a few minutes of conversation with someone gives me a pocket of time where I forget how much life hurts. A good song comes on the radio and I forget I was just thinking about how hopeless everything seems. Fifty minutes with my students can remind me I have something to offer others. Dinner with a friend reminds me I have amazing people in my life.

I will not kill myself. Suicide is not an option for me, and while there are times I wish it was, I know that’s not how I’m going out. I’ve worked too  hard to survive with this to let it win in the end. So I will keep going. And I will remember I will have pockets of pain and pockets of joy and sometimes pockets of nothing much at all. I will keep going.

How It Began

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When I was 19 years old, I had magic powers. At least I thought I did. I also knew I was God’s number one person. God had chosen me as God’s best friend. It was such an honor, and I felt true sorrow for all those who were not fortunate enough to know what it was like to be God’s chosen one.

These feelings lasted for several months. Then one day, I walked into the atrium at my college. I knew no one in the room, but I did know one thing for sure: everyone in that room had been talking about me before I entered that room. There was no doubt in my mind these total strangers were conspiring against me.

Life suddenly didn’t feel so good anymore. My best friend, God, had obviously turned against me. The whole world was turning against me. At this point, I went and spoke to a priest who taught at my college. I had a test the next day, and I just didn’t think I could take it. Something was wrong; I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

The priest was understanding. He let my professor know I would not be in class the next day to take the test. He also scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist for me the next day.

This was February 14, 1999.  It was Valentine’s Day.

My boyfriend at the time had planned a special evening for us to celebrate the romantic holiday. He made dinner. He bought me a stand for my guitar and a paisley guitar strap. At some point during the night, though, I ended up on the floor in my closet, hiding underneath my clothes, crying and shaking uncontrollably. He called my parents, who were four hours away, and said he didn’t know what to do. He was scared, and he needed their help. My father drove to Indiana the next morning to go with me to my doctor’s appointment.

I sat on the couch in the doctor’s office with my dad. I explained my symptoms to the doctor. It took a few moments for him to explain to me I probably had bipolar disorder. I was relieved.

That sense of relief puzzles people. However, I was relieved I wasn’t randomly going insane. There was a name for what I was going through; other people had experienced it, and thus, there was treatment for it.

I would love to tell you I took the prescribed meds and never had another problem related to the bipolar disorder for the rest of my life. However, that was not my reality. I struggled for almost ten years before I finally figured out what I needed from medical professionals, family, friends, and most importantly, myself to live a manageable, productive life.

During those ten years, many medications were tried, many psychiatrists and counselors were consulted, stays in psychiatric units were had. I was restless –going to seven different colleges before getting my bachelor’s degree – trying to find a physical location where everything would be okay.

I returned to Iowa when I was 27 after leaving seminary where I had hoped to become an ordained minister. I became the stereotype I never imagined I’d be: single, unemployed and living in my parent’s basement.

I remember driving out to the park on the edge of town, sitting in my car and just hoping I would somehow die. I imagined what it would be like for someone to find me. I was not going to kill myself, but I pleaded with God to let me die somehow so I could end my pain without destroying my family’s lives by taking my own life.

At one point I picked up a hitchhiker secretly hoping he would kill me. I’d been told my whole life not to pick up hitchhikers because they would probably kill me. I got the one who wasn’t interested in me at all. He just wanted a ride home. (I have since promised my parents that no matter what my mental state, I will never again pick up a hitchhiker.)

I found a psychiatrist who worked with me to find a combination of medication that worked for me without any side effects. I found a counselor whom I began seeing twice a week. She and I worked on how to cope with the symptoms of the illness. We could not make the illness go away; we could figure out ways to help me address the symptoms so they no longer created chaos in my life.

The work began. Mental illness is different than other illness because its main symptom is it affects the way you think. Medicine helps, but it doesn’t change the ingrained thought patterns we’ve all had since we were children. At the age of 27, I had to rewire my brain and change the way I had thought about myself and about life.

Having mental illness had caused me to doubt my ability to function as an adult. I was convinced I was not capable of much in life. I certainly couldn’t go back to school. I probably couldn’t work a full-time job. I was smart, yes. I was likable, yes. But I couldn’t handle any excessive amount of stress  – or so I thought – so a “real” career was out of the question.

As things got better, though, I entertained the idea of going back to school to get my master’s degree in counseling. I had stabilized quite a bit. I was pretty doubtful it would actually work out, but I decided to apply anyway. I applied, was accepted and started the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Western Illinois University.

Once in the program, things started going well. I was doing well in my classes – gone were the excessive absences I’d had in the past due to the bipolar disorder; I was making friends; I was enjoying what I was studying. I was slowly coming out of the depression with which I’d lived with for the past three years.

It was subtle, and I would not have noticed it had it not been for a drive home from Moline to DeWitt one night after class. I was driving north on 61 like always. I thought about how it was odd I had not yet hit a deer with my car on these trips. People hit deer all the time on this road. So, I thought, well, if I hit a deer, I know I’m not supposed to swerve, I’m supposed to just hit the deer, but I knew me, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to drive into something knowing I would kill it or badly injure it. So I assumed I would probably hit a tree. Then I thought, well if I hit a tree head-on at 65 mph, there’s a good chance I will die.

This was all a very matter of fact conversation I was having with myself in my head up until the moment I realized I might die. I was suddenly drenched in a sense of panic I had not felt before. I realized I didn’t want to hit the tree and die. I no longer wanted to die.

After years of just secretly wishing I would die, and honestly, not even noticing that was my mentality, I no longer wanted to die. While this sounds like good news, and it really was, it forced me to look at life in a completely different way. It’s one thing to live life because you have to, going along with the motions just to get to the end of the day. It’s another thing to suddenly want to live. This caused an existential crisis like none other.

The bipolar disorder will never go away. I have no intention of ever going off my medication.  I will continue to do the things that got me to this place, because I know they work. I have a life I never thought possible. It does not mean my life is easy. It means I’ve found what works for me and practice it every day.

(This post is taken from a speech I gave at a women’s leadership luncheon where I spoke about the importance of telling our stories and more importantly, listening to each others’ stories.)