The Attractiveness Lie

I am going to interrupt my series on my personal story this week with a post on some of my recent developments in thinking. I flew out to my university yesterday and will not resume that series until later this week or next. In the meantime, I am excited to share this particular post with all of you.

One of the great lies of the culture in which I was raised is that we need to be physically attractive. This lie is one of man’s most terrible and destructive creations, in my opinion.

I was raised in the Christian conservative home school movement. This movement taught its young women that their primary purpose was to be wives and mothers. This idea, combined with the culture’s emphasis on courtship and physical modesty, created a dreadful delusion under which I have lived for some time.

This focus on marriage and family as my chief end in existing twisted my mind in some really unhealthy ways. First and foremost, it taught me that my value lay in my future marriage to a man. This idea stripped me of inherent worth in my own eyes, placing all that worth in my currently non-existent relationship to another human being.

Imagine the terrible uncertainty which this idea created. I could not be sure of my own worth and happiness, because I could not be sure of my future marriage. This uncertainty further encouraged a sense of desperation to attain that all-important marriage, in order to be assured of my own worth and purpose.

But, the modesty/courtship culture in which I was raised simultaneously caused this desperation and encouraged its alarming growth, since I, as a young woman, was told that I was not allowed to actively pursue marriage. Given this teaching, it’s no surprise that I developed the idea that I needed to be very attractive. After all, with no way to actively achieve marriage, what else could I do but make myself irresistible to my potential spouses?

But I was limited in this ability also. Although I was taught to desire to be attractive, modesty condemned this desire as wrong and limited my ability to passively pursue marriage by trying to be attractive. Thus, I was once more left powerless to achieve the ends I so desperately wanted.

Guilt awaited me at every turn. I was told how wrong I was to objectify men while at the same time being told that men were my only possible source of worth and happiness. I struggled with looking at men only as potential spouses while also feeling intense shame for not being able to accept them as human beings.

When these ideas finally came clear in my mind, I was frankly shocked. The only relief was that all of these views were so obviously lies that it was not difficult to reject them, in thought, at least. Emotionally, I will struggle with the repercussions of this destructive upbringing for years.

So, what is the truth that I’ve found instead? My worth and happiness lie in who I am, not in my ability to be attractive and get married. The sense of relief and self-love which I am experiencing as I embrace this realization is really incredible. It’s wonderful to realize that I am a person with inherent value and purpose, apart from any other human being. I don’t have to wait in miserable uncertainty for marriage in order to live a fulfilled and happy life. That life is what I am experiencing right now.

Men are not objects. They are people with the same inherent worth and right to happiness which I possess. I am free at last to enjoy them as friends, since they are no longer my sole ticket to personhood and a fulfilling life.

Many others are writing wonderful posts on this topic. For one excellent source, visit Hannah’s blog at Wine and Marble. For another, see Emily Timbol’s recent article at the Huffington Post. My ideas are not original. They are, however, personally transforming, and, I hope, relevant to some of you. Please feel free to share your own thoughts on this topic. Join in the conversation.

My Father’s Violence: Part 2

Trigger Warning: I now come to another of my most difficult posts. I am about to recount some of the horrible abuse that I suffered while I was mentally ill. These experiences are the subjects of my flashbacks and my nightmares, so be forewarned that this post will be difficult to read.

Then there was the night when I first realized that I was being abused, the first time I was subjected to such severe physical violence that even I knew what was happening.

I had developed an obsession with getting saved and then having to tell someone that I had been saved. I used to spend hours in the middle of the night standing frozen by my bed, trying to pray the perfect prayer of salvation. I would then go downstairs and stand outside of my parents’ door, still trying to get saved so I could tell them about it.

After many incidents of this kind, after many times when he opened the door to find me standing there, silent and frozen, my father made a terrible choice. As he came to the door that night, he warned me, “Sarah, if I open this door, I am going to hit you.” I remained immobilized, terrified but too sick to move.

He opened the door, and, true to his word, he hit me across the head with the flat of his hand. I still remember my head ringing. Then, he took me upstairs and climbed into bed with me. He started hitting me over and over, my head ringing, pain and fear filling me.

When he was done hitting me, I climbed out of bed and stood there, chilly and miserable. My father began crying, begging me to get back in bed, but I refused. I remained standing there for hours, until the early morning when the light started coming through the windows. My feet were cold.

After this incident, my father’s violence escalated. One day, he took me upstairs and tied me to the bed with duct tape. He told me that this was what I was doing to myself.

Another night, my father came into my room and sat down on the bed next to me. He grabbed me around the neck and started choking me. I struggled. My father was so much bigger and stronger than me. I still feel the helpless fear for my life which I suffered. At last, he let go, and I think I must have screamed. My mother came to the door to find out what had happened. I screamed at her that my father had choked me.

My father angrily informed me that this was what I was doing to myself. I was killing myself in front of him, torturing him. He was showing me what I was doing to myself.

Minutes later, my parents had me lying down on my back on the bed and were forcing water down my throat as I choked on it.

To this day, I can feel the feelings. I feel the hurt, the rage, the betrayal. How could my own father treat his little girl this way? How could he do it?

I still know the trauma of these events, as well. This summer, I have had to process that trauma, living through uncontrollable flashbacks. I have relived the horror of those moments, knowing all the terrible wrongness of my parents’ actions.

So, before you blame someone for their mental illness, think about what you are doing. Before you strike your child, think about the irreparable damage you are about to inflict on that child for the rest of their lives. Before you twist another’s suffering to be all about you, think about the living Hell they may be experiencing every minute.

If any of you would like to share thoughts on this post, please feel free to do so. Join in the conversation.

My Father’s Violence: Part 1

Trigger Warning: I now come to one of my most difficult posts. I am about to recount some of the horrible abuse that I suffered while I was mentally ill. These experiences are the subjects of my flashbacks and my nightmares, so be forewarned that this post will be difficult to read.

After I was released from my first stay in a mental health facility, my mother and my older sister took me home. I recovered slightly for several months before I crashed once more.

My father had been physically abusive almost from the very beginning of my mental illness. When he came to bring me home the first time, I once jumped out of the van (it was parked) and started running away. My father had just said something that made me very hurt and angry, and I wanted to get away. He ran after me, picked me up, despite my protests and screams, and roughly dropped me on the step of the house where we were staying. I still remember the helpless indignation I felt.

That was just the beginning. After I crashed again in 2010, my father began to grow steadily more violent and inappropriate towards me.

The night before my older sister’s wedding, my parents and I met her and her future in-laws for a little dinner. I hardly ate anything, having fallen back into self-starvation as I grew sicker. I still remember the guilt I felt at not being able to be normal, at not being there for my sister.

When we returned home that night, my father reheated my leftovers and attempted to feed me. When I refused to eat, he took the food and smeared it on my face. I still remember the disgusting feeling of the potatoes clinging to my hair. My mother took me upstairs to clean me up, but I felt both of my parents’ anger and blame. It was obviously my fault that I had been treated this way. I sunk even lower into my guilt-ridden existence.

I was so convinced that I was too evil to live that I felt that the only righteous thing left for me to do was to commit suicide. I never seriously attempted this, although I did scratch my wrists with broken glass on one occasion.

Everything was my fault. When my father bit the finger with which I was compulsively reaching into my mouth (I was having obsessive thoughts that demons were entering me and needed to be pulled out), I was to blame. When he sat on me because I refused to rise from my chair, it was my fault. When he threw food on me and then took me outside to spray me down with a freezing cold garden hose, it was my fault. I still remember him ranting at me about how terrible my behavior was as I stood there shivering, miserable, in obvious suffering, unable to move even to run away from the horrible treatment.

As hard as it may be to believe, my father’s behavior only grew worse. I will release the second portion of this post later this week. Feel free to share your thoughts on this post or any experiences you may have had with abuse in your life or others’ lives. I recognize that this can be extremely triggering and is highly personal, so please share only as you feel comfortable. Join in the conversation.

Forced hospitalization

I leapt out of bed, relief and joy flooding my soul. I had done it! At last, after all these years and doubts and failed attempts, I had really prayed the prayer of salvation. I was saved!

I went down to breakfast, still feeling my delusional sense of peace and happiness. Little did I realize the fragile nature of the deception to which I would cling for the next few months.

After my false conversion, I began acting slightly healthier. Of course, things weren’t completely better. When it came time for my baptism a few weeks later, I second-guessed myself in mounting fear. When I attended evangelism training, I felt terrified. How did I know this latest salvation was real, anyway? My delicate balance of mind was threatened at every turn.

At the last minute, I decided to return to school, much to the happiness of my parents. They had told me they thought I should go back. I packed up and headed out in a matter of days, arriving at campus in a short-lived and ill-fated burst of ecstasy.

I need not go into detail to describe a semester which was tragically like the one I shared about in a previous post. Suffice it to say that, if anything, it was worse.

All my illusions of salvation faded rapidly, and I soon found myself skipping classes and assignments, just as before. Even worse, in addition to all my previous obsessions, I began to have terrifying thoughts that informed me that I wanted to murder people. I was horrified, but, believing these to be my own genuine desires, I lived in increasing agony and guilt. ***

At last, I turned myself in to the school authorities, confessing to my poor RA that I thought I was going to kill somebody. (Interesting tactic for someone intent on murder.) She told the RD, and they took me to the local mental health clinic, where I was immediately admitted against my will.

My first experience as a patient in our nation’s mental healthcare system had begun. I am sorry to say that the experience was shockingly horrible.

First, I was subjected to the dreaded medications. I have no quarrel with the fact that I needed medications, but the doctors at this facility were more concerned with rapid intervention than with careful diagnosis and long term effectiveness. Day after day, they asked me whether I still intended to murder someone. Having been informed by the staff that I was required to share all thoughts of harming others, and feeling an unhealthy compulsion to divulge my steadily growing list of obsessions, I duly confessed that my thoughts were, in fact, growing worse.
Day after day, the doctors increased my dosage until I began having violent spasms. I struggled to breathe or talk as my throat and face convulsed. They tried desperately to give me another medication to take care of the side effects, but, still frightened of medications in general, I refused to take the pill and waited out the terrible symptoms without aid.

This facility had two kinds of rooms, two long hallways filled with bare but reasonably modern living arrangements and two rooms, one on either side close to the front desk, which were entirely different. These rooms were made of textured concrete or cement (I don’t know my building materials well enough to say which), and were ugly and ancient in appearance. These living quarters were specially reserved for their sickest patients. The facility probably assigned these patients to these rooms to keep them under close observation. I have always wondered if this also had anything to do with the fact that these patients were too sick to complain. Whatever the facility’s reasoning, these rooms were dreadful places in which to live and certainly not fit for anyone, especially those suffering from severe mental illness.

Have any of you visited any of our nation’s mental health care facilities recently? What did you think of the living conditions and the treatment of the patients in those facilities? What do you think is a more appropriate approach to treatment for these facilities, rapid intervention or long-term care? Why do you take this position? I’m excited to be able to exchange ideas with all of you. Join in the conversation.

*** (excerpt from my earlier post, Fears and Fading Realities)A brief explanation of OCD may be helpful at this point. Commonly, those suffering from OCD will obsess about the things they fear most. Thus, a gentle, loving soul will be plagued with visions of themselves plunging a knife into their spouse or children. These thoughts do not reflect an actual desire on their part to commit this action. On the contrary, these thoughts display their worst fears and aversions—the things they would be least likely to do.

Overspiritualization

“Did someone give you permission to move?” my mother asked, frustration filling her voice.

I sat frozen and silent at the kitchen table. I had just leaned my head forward. My mother, losing patience with my chronic immobility, mocked me for that simple choice.

Looking back, I feel the hurt of that taunt. Then, I felt only that she was right. I had sinned. I had moved. The demons would control me now. I would never get saved.

When my father and older sister picked me up from college, I was taken home to live through one of the worst summers of my life. My parents blamed me for my mental illness, viewing it as sinful, selfish behavior that I was deliberately choosing.

Despite my older sister’s pleas that I be given medical care, my parents insisted on keeping me at home in utter torment. They felt that I was oppressed by demons (this concept is akin to demon possession, but is a form of spiritual bondage which people who are already Christians are believed to experience).

When my father picked me up at my college, he took me to see a “spiritual warfare expert.” This man and his wife turned out to be somewhat more reasonable than my father, but the very fact that I was being taken to people to talk about my supposed subjection to demonic powers petrified me.

As my older sister drove us home, my father reclined in the passenger seat, leaning back to be closer to me as he talked. “You know we still have children at home,” he said. “You need to change your behavior, or we won’t be able to keep you at home.”

The pain of his threat still resonates inside of me. This kind of speech was typical for my parents during my illness. They at once kept me from receiving adequate medical care and terrified me with the threat of turning me over to the unknown mental healthcare system. I was thus doubly shut off from the help I needed, both by my learned fear of everything that could have done me good and by my parents’ choice not to get that help for me.

My own overspiritualization of my mental illness is perfectly understandable given these and the other circumstances I have described. How was I to know that I simply had a chemical inbalance in my brain which could easily be righted with proper medications when all around me, family and friends pointed to my “spiritual battle?”

I remember one of my professors, whom I respected very highly, sharing about his recovery from depression. He told us about the spiritual insight which had set him free and concluded, “And it wasn’t because I was sitting in a closet somewhere popping pills.” The effects of his casual statement on my life were devastating. I was only further entrenched in the notions that my condition was spiritual in nature and that I should not get on medication. I did not want to be the kind of person this professor scorned.

People spent hours praying for me rather than pleading with my parents to take me to a good mental healthcare facility. My father told me that my brain would become silly putty in the hands of a doctor if I were placed on medication. “That’s all they want, Sarah,” he told me. “They just want to control your brain so that you’ll do what they want.”

Odd, how people project.

What do you think of the experiences I shared in this post? Do any of you share similar experiences of having been encouraged to see issues that were not spiritual in nature as essentially spiritual problems? How do you think this tendency could be countered?

If you don’t share this experience, what’s your perspective on this topic? Join in the conversation.

My Psychological Breakdown

“Sarah? Sarah?” My father’s voice sounded frightened.

“What is it?” I clutched the cellphone, fearful of what he would say next.

“When you picked up, I heard voices babbling in a strange language, something Middle-Eastern sounding,” my father informed me.

Terror gripped me. I had known that demons were involved, that I was giving in to their control. This proved it. My father had heard them when he tried to call me.

I was huddled in my dorm room at college at night with all the lights on. It was my fourth semester, and the senseless horror which was to be my life for the next few years was well under way.

I did reasonably well during my first year at college, despite my mental turmoil. I made friends, got good grades, and managed to make a couple of trips out of the country. Life was difficult, but I was handling it as well as could be expected.

But, by my third semester, my obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) began to intensify. I started struggling to get my homework done and spent valuable time trying to pray fruitless prayers of salvation or battling thoughts about demons instead. My grades started dropping as my misery and utter torment increased.

I did not want to go back to school my fourth semester. I went simply because that was the only path I had been trained to follow. Academic success was the shining beacon of my future. Strange how ill prepared I was in every other practical way to use that success in a career or to pursue academics as a healthy, well-rounded individual.

That semester was my undoing. I could not complete any of my homework. Life became a cyclical nightmare of hellish, fear-tormented darkness followed by days that brought no relief. I prayed again and again for salvation. I lingered in my room for hours, missing class, skipping meals, and forgoing assignments. If I could just pray for five more minutes, I knew I could get saved this time.

And then there were the demons, or rather my fear of them. I lived in utter panic, believing every moment that I was giving myself to Satan and already under his control.

I wasted away in every sense. People began to stare at me as I walked across campus. I was a pale, skeletal girl with tangled hair and clothes that literally threatened to fall off of her frail body. I remember the embarrassment I felt at my inability to care for myself. Often, I wore my winter coat to cover the mismatching outfits and unshowered odors that made me feel so awkward and unattractive.

The school authorities began to take notice of my strange behavior and to become increasingly concerned. My RD started talking to me, trying to get me to start making healthier decisions. What no one seemed to grasp was that I was well beyond the point when I could start making healthy decisions for myself. I was suffering a psychological breakdown.

I was encouraged to see the school counselor, but even this proved useless. I was too far gone for that kind of help. Even worse, the psychologist told me that I was under attack. He may have meant this as a psychological statement rather than a spiritual one, but, to my sick mind, I heard only the reference to Satan’s power in my life.

In the midst of my worst suffering, my father called me one night and informed me that he had heard demons speaking over the phone when he tried to talk to me. It was the night before I was to meet with the Dean of Students. The next day, I would learn that I was being sent home and given withdrawal status on all of my classes.

Do any of you have insights on how we as a society can learn to acknowledge the existence and extent of mental illness in our own lives and those of others? How do you think the delicate balance of respecting the voices and rights of those suffering mental illness and ensuring that they receive the treatment they need can be struck? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic. This discussion is near and dear to my heart, so be prepared to see it resurface in later posts. Join in the conversation.

You Did It!

I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that we’ve easily surpassed yesterday’s donations goal in less than 24 hours, due to a couple of very generous donors. I want to say a special thank you to each and every one of the wonderful people who have made this possible.

I will now be able to use the funds which have been donated so far to cover the vast majority of my remaining expenses for my first month at college. Congratulations, everybody! We’ve met our first goal!

Want to help me fund my future? Please donate to my second month at college by visiting my Donate page. Every month that gets funded on my behalf reduces my future burden of debt by $400-$500. You can also help me finish purchasing the remainder of my wish list at Amazon.

Again, I’m absolutely stunned by your generosity. Thank you for helping me to realize my future goals.