How are you still alive?, the psychiatrist asked me at 9:00 in the morning on a Tuesday in September, 16 hours after having the following phone conversation with my dad, through tears:
Hi, it’s me. I’m at the Psych ER. I was feeling suicidal. I just want to come home.
I was asked the same thing on a Monday in December when I went for my medication intake.
What they meant, of course, was not how are you still alive, but rather, how have you survived this long without any support?
Easy, I replied, I just don’t talk about it.
I’ve always been this way: a woman of few words, saving my voice for when I felt I had something important to say. All my report cards said the same thing: Is a pleasure to have in class. Needs to participate more in class. My kindergarten teacher even called my parents after the first day of school to ask them if I had an attitude problem. No, they replied, she’s just shy.
Shy. I’ve come to realize the last few months that it’s more than that: you see, my whole life I’ve felt uneasy, on edge, like I’m going to be late for a class that I’m not taking, I forgot to study for a test I don’t have, hearing the Imperial March and never running into Darth Vader, like something terrible’s going to happen, or worse, like I’m watching a Bills game all the time.
And I thought it was normal to feel this way: I thought it was normal to feel like my heart is going to beat out of my chest whenever I open my mouth to speak, to feel like running out of a room anytime there are more than 5 people there. I guess when it comes to fight or flight, I choose flight.
This is anxiety. My whole life has been trying to hide what I feel and what I’m struggling with. The anxiety makes me want to be invisible: don’t make a lot of noise, don’t let yourself be seen, walk as close as you can to the walk, take up as little room as possible. And, to be honest, because of this, I don’t want to take up people’s time, don’t want to inconvenience anyone, don’t want to be a burden.
I was the kid who would set up a game on my grandmother’s dining room table and sit there patiently and wait until someone volunteered to play with me because I was too afraid to ask someone if they wanted to play. Likewise, I’ve always been too afraid to ask for help, choosing instead to deal with my problems myself, not letting anyone in, not letting people get to know me–no one can hate me if they don’t know me.
And this constant feeling of uneasiness and the fear of being a burden and inconvenience chipped away at who I was over the years. I was so unsure of myself, too afraid of being rejected to feel like a real person. Because of this, by the time I entered Middle school, I had learned to keep everything to myself: the fears, the insecurities, the comments people made about me at school. Occasionally, on the days where going to school felt too scary, I would make up some excuse as to why I couldn’t: my stomach hurts; I have a headache–emotional pain manifesting as physical symptoms. And on the days when those excuses didn’t work, I would cry. Being a daddy’s girl, it worked every time.
And then, in eighth grade, I was raped. And it shattered me, destroying any sense of self I had left. 9 years later, and I’m still trying to pick up those pieces, still trying to put myself back together, still trying to rewrite the definition they gave me: slut, bitch, worthless, unlovable.
But, because of the anxiety, I told nobody. When it was over, I cleaned myself off, went to my locker, and then out to my dad’s car, going to school every day after that for the last month of the year, feeling one of the guy’s warm breath on my neck every day in English class. And for a whole year, I told no one: choosing to keep it all to myself because what if it was my fault? Sometimes it’s easier to suffer in silence than to deal with accusations or questions or whispering stares.
And I don’t know when the depression started–if it showed up gradually over time, or if one day it just moved in suddenly–but either way, I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t talk about the self-harm or the anorexia. I didn’t talk about the suicidal thoughts and the nightmares, the panic attacks and the flashbacks. I kept it all a secret until a few months after I attempted suicide (which is a story I’ll get back to later).
And even when I started talking about it, even when I started blogging about it, I never let anybody know how bad it was; not until a few months ago. I was so afraid of being rejected, so afraid of people really getting to know me because I was scared they wouldn’t like what they saw. I was so afraid of being deemed unlovable.
Some days, I still am.
For so long I thought God had abandoned me–I wondered if He even existed. I grew up being told that God loved me, and He wouldn’t let anything bad to happen to me. I grew up being told that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Somebody once told me, after I revealed to them my struggle with depression, that I must not read my Bible enough or pray enough. I kindly informed her that as a Bible Quizzer, I was well acquainted with the Bible, and I prayed every day: Lord, help me get through this day.
God has this way of sneaking up on you: just when you think He’s gone for good, when He’s left you for a newer model, you hear Him whisper in your ear, or you see His feet sticking out from behind the curtain.
At least, that what He’s done in my life.
The night I attempted suicide, I was so tired. For one second I stopped fighting the voices in my head; I swallowed some pills, and I laid down in bed and watched the snow fall outside my window as I waited for the fight to be over. But then, God whispered in my ear, You’ll be ok. And that was enough to keep fighting.
And sometimes I still doubt.
My Freshman year of college, I heard about this missions trip to Guatemala, and I felt a twinge in my heart telling me to go. The anxiety in my head tried to talk me out of it: if you go, you’ll lose your passport and won’t be allowed back into the country. You’ll be kidnapped, and it’ll cause some major international drama. But then, God said Don’t be like Jonah. You’re going.
So I went. And I shared my story with the junior highers at a school in a mountain village we were working with. After lunch that day, a young girl came up to me and asked me, Puedes hablar? And we talked for two hours. And I lead her to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in.
And then later that same trip, we served food to the people living in the Guatemala City Dump. And I climbed onto the roof of the bus we traveled in, and in front of me, I saw all these dilapidated, rundown shanties made of tin. When I looked out farther, past the horizon, I saw the mountains blanketed in sunset. God reminded me that out of brokenness comes beauty.
And sometimes I still doubt.
One Friday evening in July, I had a flashback at the gym. One minute, I was on the treadmill doing my post-workout cooldown; the next minute, I was back in that school bathroom. I felt the world close in around me. And then the panic set in, and the only thing running through my head was I need to get out of here. I need to go home. However, every time I tried to walk down the hallway towards the locker room, I felt nauseous. For an hour I tried to convince myself that I could walk to the locker room, that I was ok. To no avail. I was about to give up; I had convinced myself that I was destined to spend the rest of my life standing at the end of that hall. The gym was not the place I wanted to spend the rest of my life. But then, God sent a friend, someone who knew my story, someone who, when I asked her to come with me to the locker room because I was having a flashback, came with me, no questions asked. And then, to top it off, she sat with me, talking with me until the storm passed.
That was the event that changed everything: the event that caused me to reach out, to ask for help.
But still I struggled with anxiety and depression and suicidal thoughts.
I almost died on my way to the gym one Monday in August. One minute, I was driving in my lane; the next I had crossed over into the other lane, heading straight for a tree on the side of the road. But then, God said, Kaleigh. He called me by name, and I regained control.
A few weeks later, I left work to drive myself to the ER because I was feeling suicidal. I should have been writing a Standard Operating Procedure on how to use Skype for Business; instead, I looked up to find the words I want to die plastered all over my computer screen. So I got up and left everything as it was: my half-eaten lunch sitting in my lunchbox, my handwritten notes laid out on my desk, the document I was proofing to the right of my keyboard, closing only the Word Document, hiding the evidence I was so ashamed to tell people I had felt for years, grabbing only my purse because what if I need my epi-pen or what if someone needs a band-aid.
When I got to the hospital, I had a panic attack in the parking garage; it took me 30 minutes to get out of my car, another five to convince myself not to climb over the concrete wall in front of me and jump over.
This was a hospital I had been in so many times: I visited family in this hospital; I had my appendix out in this hospital; I was born in this hospital. But it felt different this time: everyone around me seemed like they were moving in slow motion. I felt so heavy, so tired, like I was already dead. I had felt this way so many times.
I’ve felt this way so many times since.
When I called my father, and through the tears said, I want to come home. What I really meant was I want to feel safe.
We all want to feel safe: we all need those safe places where we can be open and honest about our struggles. We need people that make us feel that way: like when we’re with them, we can be ourselves.
The church needs to be that way: we need to be a people that meets people where they are, that loves others when they’re in the rough places. We need to be a place where people can feel like they can share their imperfections, their struggles, their fears. This world is so loud, sometimes we need to be the whispering voices that guide people to safety.
There are so many people out there struggling with hurts and pain, and they feel so alone.
Sometimes I feel so alone. Like I won’t make it out of this maze of pain and numbness.
We all need people who are willing to walk alongside us as we navigate the complex maze that is life.
How are you still alive? The truth is, I shouldn’t be. I kept my hurts secret for so long, and sometimes I feel like I got help too late. Like I’ve burned all my bridges when I got to them. Like I reached out to the wrong people at the right time. Like people are leaving me behind.
Somedays, I don’t want to be alive. Somedays, I don’t think I’m going to make it through the night. Somedays, the anxiety is so great and the panic attacks are too numerous, I wonder why I keep trying to keep myself alive. Somedays, I feel nothing at all. This is depression: it’s numbness.
But, within this numbness are moments of feeling: joy and sadness, happiness and anger, laughter and tears. And I keep holding on to these moments because if I string enough of them together, I can build a rope to pull myself out of this pit of hopelessness.
How are you still alive? What I said is: I don’t talk about it. What I mean is: God. God is the only reason I’m still here.
We have to talk about our hurts and struggles because not talking about them is dangerous. In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote “There’s more beauty in truth; even if it’s a dreadful beauty.”
I tell my story because I want people to know they’re not alone. I’ve felt alone so many times, and maybe by being honest about my vastly imperfect life, I can help some one else.
I’ve gotten so frustrated with myself over the last few months because I can’t fix how I’m feeling. It’s not fixable.
And I think we all need to acknowledge that there are hurts in this world that humans can’t fix. All we can do is be a listening ear, an ever-present support. None of us can do life alone. We need people willing to sit with us when we’re in the rough places, to walk alongside us as we work our way through the pain. Because that’s all humans can do.
The only thing we can do is give a name to the darkest parts of ourselves and let God do the rest. We have to admit our weaknesses because it’s only in our weakness that we realize how strong we are. It was at my weakest moment that I found the strength to drive myself to the ER.
I have depression and anxiety, and I struggle with suicidal thoughts more often than I would like to admit. But every so often, just when I think I’m the farthest from God I could ever be, He reminds me so clearly of his presence.
Back in October, I woke up one Sunday with my anxiety through the roof. As the service concluded, I felt this sense of peace come over me, and for a moment, I felt the burden I’ve been carrying for years be lifted off my shoulder. I collapsed in my pew and the tears started flowing. And I found myself at the prayer rail, surrounded by friends and family who walk this journey with me.
I want more than anything to be fixed: to have my past erased and my depression and anxiety gone forever.
But, only God can do that. And I’ve come to realize that He’s probably not going to fix me in the way I would like, but He can redeem it: He’s not “Mr. Fix It.” He’s “Mr. Redeem It.”
Every so often, He redeems me a little bit more and more. Every so often, He takes away part of the burden I carry.
And on the days when those moments are not enough, when the anxiety is high, and the suicidal thoughts return, on the days where the sadness is too much, I look at the lines in my hand. I am reminded that the same God who paints the sunsets and sunrises, who created the rainbows and the color-changing leaves of autumn, the God who placed the stars in the sky, stitched me together piece by piece. And sometimes, that is enough.