I still remember the text I got one mild spring day two years ago. A friend reached out to say, “Hey, I’ve been prepping a Bible study lesson focusing on Psalm 88. I think you should read it.” I pulled out my journaling Bible, and opened to Psalms. This wasn’t a Psalm I remembered reading before. It took up most of the page.
“My life draws near to death.”
“I am set apart with the dead . . . whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.”
“You have taken from me my closest friends.”
National Suicide Hotline
Tears poured from my eyes as I read its eighteen verses. Someone had put words to my emotions. An author in the Bible verbalized the thoughts that I could barely acknowledge to myself.
“My eyes are dim with grief.”
“Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction?”
“From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair.”
“Darkness is my closest friend.”
The darkness was written down, passed on through hundreds of generations, and now was speaking as if written about me.
My Chronic Struggle
For as long as I can remember, I have always struggled with chronic mental illness. There’s a chemical imbalance in my brain and I will most likely live with anxiety and depression as companions for the rest of my life. If being an optimist is wearing rose-colored glasses, then living with depression is like having gray tinted contacts superglued to your eyes.
Up until age twelve, I distanced myself from God anytime I didn’t feel together enough to approach him. From thirteen to seventeen I began to be a little more open with God, but only when it felt like the pain inside would break me. But during those years, I dreaded going to bed because being alone with my thoughts in a dark room triggered panic attacks. For hours I would sit in bed attempting to calm myself enough to get a little sleep. But panic attacks make you feel like you’re dying slowly and that you’re powerless to do anything about it. It’s like drowning on dry land.
The terror I felt left me wondering where God could possibly be. I filled journals with the pain of my situation as my body ached from anxiety and exhaustion. The entries were prayers I threw to God, hoping he would hear me. Yet I was still too scared to talk to the people around me. Growing up in the church taught me that you always and only bring your best face with you when interacting with Christians.
The longer that I dealt with my mental illnesses and suicidal ideation alone, the weightier they became. My secrets were dark and eating me alive. As time went on I felt more isolated. I felt I was the only person to have these struggles.
You get worse before you get better.
In January of 2014, I went to counseling for the first time and began unpacking the seventeen years of struggles that I had repressed. I started seeing a psychiatrist in 2015 to add medication to my arsenal of tools. For two years I went to weekly counseling sessions. With my therapist, I processed through the past, talked about what to do in the present, and made a safety plan with concrete steps that I could take when I had suicidal thoughts.
Yet it felt like my life just kept getting worse. The thought that nagged me was, “Why on earth am I putting in all of this work if nothing is getting better?” Every time it seemed like I had hit rock bottom, I tumbled down another cliff and realized rock bottom was even deeper. Life kept rolling downhill.
So, on February 2, 2016, I found myself thinking, after forty-five minutes of laying in the dark, listening to the breathing of my roommate slow as she fell asleep. “I don’t have a plan to kill myself, but I would be okay with dying.” My body ached from the tension it held. And death appealed as a welcome escape from the sleepless nights and weary days.
I followed my safety plan and called the campus number for emergencies. That night after talking to the on-call Resident Director for an hour and then my psychologist for another hour, I voluntarily checked myself into a psychiatric inpatient unit. I was so ashamed of what I saw as my failure to be “Christian enough.” If I had only trusted God more, tapped into the Christian joy, or prayed harder, I would not be here.
A Frightful Return
How could I return to my private Christian college campus and have conversations with mentors and peers about how I had to stay in a locked facility for my own safety? How would my parents react, knowing that they were an eight-hour drive away from their struggling daughter? It was a fight to look at my own darkness without shame.
On April 13, 2016, the day my friend sent me Psalm 88. I sat with that passage for hours, weeping from relief. Someone knew how I felt and had expressed those thoughts to God. The author trusted God with his darkest secrets. I had no idea what to do with this new knowledge but it brought me comfort.
And so I filled the margins of my Bible with pieces of the verses that I related to the most. There are still wrinkled spots on the tissue-thin paper where my tears hit the page.
Finally, I was seeing that people in the Bible struggled with mental illnesses, that even these men and women experienced trauma and felt deep pain. The difference between me and them was that they were honest with God about it. And as I began to search deeper within Scripture, I saw more and more people who could relate to my suffering. My honesty began when I found a God who is not dismissive of my pain.
Cover photo by Maranatha Pizarras.