Enough time has passed that anyone who had read part one of this had probably forgotten I wrote a part one to begin with.
You can catch up here if you don’t mind typos I’m still too lazy to go back and change (honestly, if you do mind typos, this site is not the one for you): https://missalissaann.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/getting-there-pt-1/
I don’t feel like summarizing it, so can you just go back and skim it or something?
Now that you’re back I’ll fast forward to the winter months of the spring semester of my sophomore year of college, which was 2013.
Freshman year had been fun. I had pushed outside of my comfort zone and met a lot of new people including some of the amazing friends I still have today. I didn’t do anything crazy or immature, which sometimes I regret every now and then. But I still had a lot of fun. I had spurts of what I see now as wonky brain periods. It was nothing too paralyzing; I still felt Jesus’ presence strongly. At that point, I had come to understand there was points in my life where I felt kind of sad for no reason and that eventually it went away.
I was living in an apartment with my childhood best friend, involved in a tiny campus church which was home to my hilarious, weird friends who played nonsensical pranks on each other, and part of a small group my husband and his friend had started which was home to my sweet, normal friends.
I had a spark inside me for understanding and living the gospel. I was fascinated and energetic about it. It was further kept lit by a new best friend I met freshman year. We had long talks about what we were learning and how we were growing while we killed the planet driving loops around town or kept busy walking around campus exasperated by slow walkers. Both my community group through my campus church and my small group provided excellent discussions that challenged me and fed me intellectually and spiritually. I actually hadn’t planned on going to church when I got to campus. Like I said in Part 1, I’m pretty much over my snobby, critical attitude toward church now—though I still do have spiritual authority issues I’m trying to work through—but at the time it was the last place I wanted to be. Some reasons, I think, were valid. I had some wounds that needed to be healed, needed some room to think for myself. Other reasons were, as much as past me would hate for present me to admit, just me being a judgmental asshole. But Jesus brought these two groups to me. I met the pastor of my church at a training for my summer-after-high-school job, and a boy who word-vomited his life story to me minutes after meeting me invited me to his small group (I later married that boy). The point is I didn’t quite get away from Christian culture, though it was different than the one I’d grown up in.
I was taking an introduction to social work class at the time. I think I was already toying with the idea of switching my major (it was plant sciences at the time). In this class, we learned about different areas of social work (I had had no idea there were so many). We were talking about social workers in the mental health field. As the speaker, who was a counselor, talked about their experience and expertise, God told me, I think you should go see a counselor. Back when I had been doing so bad in high school, I had thought about how it might be helpful to go to a counselor and talk about the float trip trauma, but didn’t want my parents to badger me about what was wrong if I brought it up (I was so dramatic about keeping every nook and cranny of my emotions private—heaven forbid my parents try to talk to me!). But when God brought it up during that class, my immediate response was, “No, but thank you!” I assumed it was to talk about the float trip, which I felt I was pretty much over. Looking back, I think I also wanted to forget I had ever felt so terrible. I didn’t want to dig up things that were doing just fine buried and under control.
It’s funny, but God is usually right about things. Maybe something in that class had stirred up the past, bolted into the storage room of my mind, dug through the restricted areas and found long abandoned feelings of hopelessness and fear, and returned to the forefront to spill them all over everything. I fought it as long as I could, but eventually the wonky brain made itself at home.
It’s hard to explain what it was like, maybe because I’m lazy and maybe because I’m afraid in my search for the words, I’ll unleash some sort of curse which strikes me those messy feelings once more. It’s also difficult to put it all in chronological order. These feelings and thoughts were less linear than they were scribbles all over a page. This time and the months following, even after I did meet with a counselor (I’ll elaborate more soon), were filled with a lot this:
The heaviness of depression, sleeping too much, not having the energy to do anything. The feelings of worthlessness and guilt. They were piercing. I easily can recall the first time I realized they were back. I had accidently eating a meal I thought was mine, but was my roommates. Upon her asking and me realizing my mistake, I felt engulfed in embarrassment, shame, and rage at myself. I could tell she was annoyed but, really, by no means ready to hold a grudge about it. It was an accident; it was a freaking salad. Yet I walked to my room, collapsing in tears, beating myself up to no end about it. How could you do something so dumb? Stupid bitch. Wonky brain warps your thoughts like that. I also remember being scared and surprised, because I didn’t think I was capable of that twisted vision, looking at or treating myself that way anymore. I thought Jesus had solved all that.
I had trouble getting to sleep and then slept for too long, always needing a nap no matter how long I’d slept the night before. It was hard to find motivation to work on school, to do things with friends. I tried reaching out the God, but there was nothing from the other end. That was the worst part. This spiritual force that had been my companion, my healer, my confidant the past couple of years had vanished. I can’t really recall every feeling that alone. I felt alone, of course, before I knew Jesus, but to have that presence removed felt somehow worse. On one hand, I returned to my old conclusions that silence from God was due to something I wasn’t doing enough of or a belief I didn’t have quite correct. This was mostly at night. I would be tormented to the wee hours of the morning, terrified of falling asleep without all my doctrinal t’s crossed and i’s dotted. My church upbringing and natural personality was inclined toward hell and brimstone, of remaining theologically sound (as well as perfectly pious). I was paranoid about falling asleep with some sort of misunderstanding about the truth or some sort of wrong attitude about God which would result in me being thrown into hell (pretty fucked up, right?).
In other ways, I felt the burning pain of betrayal. Where was God, anyway? He had told me I wouldn’t be alone anymore, that we were family, that I could trust him. [By the way, I do cringe at how God is always he—let’s not go down that rabbit trail today—but it’s such a habit for me to talk in this gendered way that for me to try to edit and reword it in this post would feel awkward to me. But it is on my radar, just so you know]. Funny way to treat someone you love, to abandon them when they need you the most. I was angry and throbbing from the pain.
I did make an appointment with a counselor eventually. My first stop was the student health center at my university since it was free. They got me in relatively quickly. I only had to wait a week or so. Only that week felt like a year. It was excruciating. I was so nervous about going, not being sure what to expect, not knowing what I would say, wondering if I’d be able to actually open up emotionally, fearing if I did open up it would be like unleashing a flood of emotions I couldn’t regain control of, worrying I was either being dramatic or that there was something terribly wrong with me, and terrified it wouldn’t help meaning I would trapped in this state forever.
It was not helpful. It was just an assessment, which I didn’t realize is pretty typical for a first appointment. It was not some deep discussion and the counselor seemed to be mentally diagnosing me with something related to hearing voices as I talked about God (can I really blame her?). When the appointment was over and I was told I wouldn’t be able to get in for another couple of months (it was close to spring midterms when everyone’s mental issues flares up), I was completely thrown off and decided not to schedule another one. If this week waiting had been a nightmare, how could I stand to wait another few months?
When I got into my car, I started sobbing. I began to drive one of my familiar routes on the country highways outside of town. When my thoughts began to race and my body entered high alert anxiety mode, as it had routinely began to do, it was the only thing I knew of to calm me down in the slightest (Sorry, mother earth—I’ve found better coping mechanism now). I was wearing a ring my mom had given me a few years prior that said, “Fear not, for I am always with you. -Jesus” What a fucking joke, I thought. I had sought and sought God in every way I knew how, studiously and in stillness, crying out in complete desperation. Yet I had time and time again received no words, none of that spiritual comfort I had been spoiled with. I decided when I got far enough out of town, I was going to stop and throw the stupid ring as far as I could.
Not to be anti-climactic, but I didn’t end up throwing the ring, maybe for a spiritual just-in-case reason or maybe because my mom gave it to me and I’m sentimental like that. But I did stop wearing it and seeking God’s relief quite as often though far from completely.
My brain got wonkier and wonkier. My thoughts were chaotic, dark, and tangled. I felt helpless.
It go so bad that I *gasp* opened up to my parents (who, by the way, are the sweetest, least judgmental, biggest-open-armed people I know, if that tells you anything about my refusal to talk about my emotions) because I need to ask if our insurance covered counseling. They were supportive and my uncle recommended someone he had gone to college with. I was pretty skeptical about trying her out. While I had not enjoyed the student health center’s professional looking at me like I was crazy when I talked about talking with God, the last thing I could stomach was some feel-good, cheesy Christian counselor judging me or, worse, throwing bible verses at me as a treatment.
I scheduled it anyway. What did I have to lose? I was nervous, of course, just like the time before. She was awesome. She made me feel as much as ease as was possible for me at the time. She was a Christian, but never pressured me religiously. She was very professional and I miss her (she retired). She was older than my parents but probably not enough to be my grandmother. I thought this might mean she would be a little out of touch, but she wasn’t. She was the best counselor I’ve had. She did a good job of listening to understand then asking more questions to understand further and then collaborating with me to brainstorm what to do, contributing her expertise as needed. I never felt like she was waiting for me to get done talking so she could give me all the solutions. I felt so exposed sitting on her couch at first, someone giving me their full attention. She was paid to do this; I didn’t have to worry about talking about myself too much or scaring her with my darker thoughts. I couldn’t avoid talking about myself by asking a bunch of questions about her. I felt safe, and that was very important to me.
Some appointments later, she asked me if I had considered taking medication. My immediate response, just like that original suggestion to see a counselor, was, Nope! The idea of medicine interfering my brain scared me—just think of all the things that could go wrong.
It was helpful to go to counseling, but it wasn’t enough. My anxiety was at an all time high. Not just about faith, but about everything. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I have a big fear of people breaking into my home. My roommate stayed with her boyfriend a lot at the time, so I essentially lived by myself. I could never relax at night. It’s like my body automatically entered flight or fight mode when it got dark. Every little sound made me jump, and the lack of sleep didn’t help my wonky brain. It was miserable. Then I would sleep all day, which maybe me feel like a lazy piece of shit. I had no time management skills or any understanding of how to motivate myself or how to find hacks for my short attention span. So I wasn’t doing great at school. There was some sort of mental block to do anything productive, like go to the grocery store or exercise, which of course was good for me.
It was also around this time the idea snuck up on me slowly (but then soon consumed me) that either God wasn’t real or God wasn’t as good as I had previously thought. How else could he have left me? How else could all the evil in the world go on and on? It was scary to admit this was how I felt, but it was true. Eventually I got to the point where I realized there was no finding truth without being truthful about how I felt.
And I did want the truth about life, about God, the peace that comes with the confidence of a well-research decision, but it seemed impossible to find. It was draining to keep thinking about it and sifting it through the overload of information and possibility. I was overwhelmed but couldn’t let it go for even a minute, couldn’t settle down, couldn’t catch my breath. I was wearing myself thin. I didn’t want to keep adhering to a false belief but didn’t want to give up on something that was true. What could I do? My brain was a computer with too many tabs open, my soul was shaky, aching arms weighed down by an unreasonable amount of grocery bags that just needed to be unloaded in one trip, my heart was an old, broken down car trying to drive cross country, and my body, well, I don’t have a good analogy for it but it was simultaneously unable to relax and was also too exhausted to function properly.
I don’t know that most people would have guessed much was wrong. When around my funny friends, I had a lot of fun, I was quirky, mischievous, and thoughtful, but the second things were quiet or I was alone, I was back to this hell I couldn’t escape.
In the fall, it got so bad I decided I was going to kill myself. It was different than in high school, when my suicidal came and went only when I was too worked up to think clearly and left when I could. This time around, it came to me slowly, this conclusion there was no other way to make the excruciating chaos in my brain end. Not to glorify, but I remember it vividly, sitting in the tub after a shower and calmly resigning that I had tried what I could, that some people get dysfunctional brains and there’s not much you can do about it. It was like I did some sort of eerie assessment which decided I had exhausted all options and it was better to not live than to live like this. I wanted to plan it out, thought, so it looked like an accident, that way my parents and friends wouldn’t blame themselves and wonder what they could have done. [By the way, if you feel this way, please know you are not alone, that things can getter, that there will be help soon if there isn’t now, that the national suicide hotline is open 24/7—you can call at 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741]
Obviously, I didn’t end up killing myself. As I was in the planning stage, a friend spoke at small group, and while I don’t even remember what he said, it impacted me in a way that swayed me not to end anything just yet. [There were also several other long-term crucial factors and important moments created by my parents, brother, friends, and spiritual leaders but those deserve their own post] I didn’t automatically feel a ton better; I just made the choice to not kill myself, at least for the time being. I decided to stop wishing God would mystically take care of and just do it myself—another shower time revelation. I wasn’t sure how, but I tried to detach from myself, pretend Alissa was someone else and I was her caretaker. That mindset helped some and it led to my decision in February of 2014 to try an anti-depressant, Zoloft.
It was by far one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was stuck in a dark, musty, scary basement with broken legs and arms, counseling and the preventative and coping strategies I learned from my counselor (and God and blogs) were stairs we built as a way out of the basement, and those pills were the casts that helped those bones heal so I could actually utilize the stairs. I don’t regret taking them, I’m not embarrassed that I took them, and, while I do think they can be overprescribed and used instead of working through issues in some cases, I wholeheartedly believe the notion that it is spiritually wrong to use them is complete bull shit. My decision not to kill myself would have fizzled and I probably wouldn’t be here.
There were some side effects in the first few months of taking Zoloft, like night sweats, becoming more forgetful, and losing my appetite to the point I had force myself. Even after those beginning months, my appetite didn’t go all the way back to normal.
The side effects were worth it to me. I started to sleep normally, started to be able to focus on other things, felt like I was coming back to life. The brain power that had previous been being syphoned into fueling my never ending anxiety could be used to creatively problem-solve through those anxieties and other wonky brain symptoms. Since I wasn’t exhausted emotionally and mentally all the time, my depression started to disappear. It wasn’t a pill I took to feel happy; it doesn’t work that way. It was a pill that turned the faucet of my anxiety off so I could learn how to fix the water pipes on my own without being submerged in the waters of wonky brain at the same time.
It was during some of the darkest months before Zoloft that I began writing at the encouragement of my counselor. I created this blog , but didn’t share it with anyone I knew other than my counselor (if you ever read this, I can’t thank you enough for everything). I liked the idea of someone out there reading my thoughts, as long as it wasn’t someone I’d ever have to face. Sometime after I started getting better I shared the link on Facebook, because I had written some not mental health post that I felt was important share, whatever it was. I can tell when people go back and creep on the posts from when I was doing really bad and never thought I’d share the blog. I can’t see who read them which make it’s almost weirder. Sometimes I think about deleting those posts, but really they are part of who I was and therefore part of who I am today. Feel free to creep. I’ve had a handful of people admit they went back and read them all. Flattering and embarrassing (but mostly flattering)! It’s shifted now, my writing. Now that I’m not usually in crisis mode, I like to write about ways I learned to manage my wonky brain.
I only took Zoloft for about 8 months before I felt balanced enough to try going off it, which I think was also a good decision to me—though some people need to take medication forever, and that’s valid and brave too. I realize counseling and medicine is not a financial option for a lot of people, which is a shame. It’s also part of why it’s so important to me I write about my wonky brain and how I manage it.
Wonky brain made me feel alone, ashamed, and helpless. On top of counseling, online article and forums where people wrote about practical things they did to manage their mental health is something I’m grateful I had access to. They made me feel less alone, less ashamed, and less helpless. I had felt more in charge and capable of running my life instead of having it run me. I want to play that kind of role for someone else now I’ve made progress.
By the way, God had showed back up here and there before Zoloft, in fact I felt his encouragement to try it, and before the suicidal weeks, but it wasn’t the same. Mostly I was bitter about him leaving me alone when I was in need. It took me a really long time to process what I think and feel about that, to not be emotionally distant, and to let down my spiritual guard. Truth is something I’m forever shuffling towards. But that’s a blog for another day. I’ve already sat in Panera and then Dunkin’ Donuts for long enough I’m starting to feel weird about it.
There you have it, folks: part two of me getting there. Wherever, there is.