Dark Night of the Soul

Fall 2009.

Darkness cloaked my soul. It had been that way for some time, but nothing like this. It was as if an impenetrable wall was separating me from the land of the living: the land of happiness, impending college graduation, and apple picking on crisp fall days.

An aura of despondence haunted my every footstep. I was descending deep into anorexia, spiraling faster and faster and out of control.

It is hard to put such depression and pain into words. I couldn’t feel God’s presence, even when I opened my Bible or prayed late at night. Church was repetitious. Prayers were mindless. There was nothing but a painful, vacant void of what had been.

Maybe I wasn’t spending enough time with God. Not enough devotionals. Not enough prayer. Not enough something, certainly, because why else would God be so silent?

I was convinced that my school’s annual silent retreat would change things. Like a good fireside chat with a friend, a weekend on Lake Michigan with Jesus would restore my relationship with the Almighty and lift the heavy cloud that was weighing me down, so I hoped.

30 hours of silence does wonders to people. Sometimes Jesus comes at hour 5. Sometimes Jesus comes after a period of prayer and fasting.

Sometimes Jesus does not come at all.

I marked the hours by sleeping and pacing up and down the Lake Michigan beach. That fall weekend was so cold, I remember that. My emaciated arms were shivering at the temperature of the current.

God.

Silence.

GOD.

Silence.

God, where are you?

Silence.

The lake water crashed against the shore.

I felt nothing.

I shivered my way back to the cabin, still expectant, waiting. But no Bible verses popped into my mind. No signs magically appeared. I was empty and spent. My body was weak, but I had enough strength to feel betrayed and abandoned by God.

For the first (and only) time in my life, I felt cosmically alone.

It is a horrible feeling, to feel utterly isolated, abandoned not only by your friends and family who are oblivious to your struggle, but abandoned by God; to feel his deafening silence; to feel so dark and tired that nothing matters anymore.

I realized, fully, at that moment: I need help. 

Five years later, I still remember that silent retreat on Lake Michigan. I remember the emptiness, the terror, and the aching thoughts:

Maybe God is not with me anymore. Maybe he has left. Maybe… he was never with me at all.

My heart still aches at times, left with whisper of ghosts that are still unaddressed. However, that dark night of the soul has long passed. God answered my repetitious prayers that meant nothing in my heart. God felt my tears and answered my cries. In time, I once again felt his presence.

I expected that God would have me memorize psalms or strike me with an insightful theological revelation. Penance or Bible memorization, perhaps. But that’s not how things happened.

God came to me in the things I feared– warmth, love, nourishment, and food. The things that terrified me were what stitched me up into a living, breathing human being once again. God could not penetrate my hardened, cold, aching heart as it was. It wasn’t until it was warmed and breathed into with love that Jesus could enter.

In my depression and darkness at the silent retreat years ago, I was convinced that God had left me. It is so ironic that while I was praying so fervently for God to come, the answer had been there all along, in the dining room.

God had been there, asking me to eat breakfast. God was as close as a muffin and peanut butter, or granola and yogurt. He was there the whole time, in my time of anguish, and I missed him.

Of course, I wouldn’t conceive of eating those things at the time. The log in my own eye was causing me to stumble into everything in my path, but I was blind to anorexia’s death grip over my life.

I did not know what I know now: I cannot experience anything– including love– if I am not nourished. I cannot be empty and pure, as much as my eating disorder tells me to be, because cutting myself off to life cuts me off to God, and that is a terrifying fate.

I do not experience God’s love all the time. In fact, it is still a daily struggle.

However, I have found that I can feel God’s presence much more if I have eaten breakfast.

Soon after this, God intervened in my beautiful, chaotic mess of a story and showed me:

No, you cannot subsist on coffee and vegetables alone and expect to have your body function normally.

No, I will not let you shrivel up and disappear.

No, you cannot worship anorexia over me. 

Yes, you must accept love.

Yes, you must eat cake. 

Yes, you must laugh.

Yes, I love you. 

It is so much easier to see things in retrospect. In my story, my period of darkness was followed by an experience of tremendous growth, hope, and love.

When I was going through deep depression, I did not know what was to come. All I saw was hopelessness and despair.

The answers did not come to me right away.

Sometimes they never do, not in this life.

God did not give up on me.

God has not given up on our world.

Dark nights of the soul pass away. I cling onto the promise that darkness will never be the final word.

Perhaps things don’t make sense now, but I believe with all my heart that someday they will.

Letter to My Former School-Aged Self

When school started last week, I came to the striking realization:

This is my 20th year of school.

20

years.

That’s a looooonnnngggg freaking time. 

My high school diploma, my B.A., and 2 2/3 master’s degrees later (long story), I am faced with the reality that in 3 months, I will no longer be a student.

It seems surreal that after so many years of books sprawled across the floor, APA formatting, editing, and power points and Prezis, I will be able to work 9-5. And then I can go home and watch TV or take a walk or… I don’t know, conquer the world? What do normal people do after work?

School and I have had an interesting, bumpy, but generally symbiotic, relationship. As I tend towards uptight perfectionism, that for sure extended to school.

I was that person who started worrying about the SAT in 8th grade. Yes, I took an SAT prep class in 8th grade (ironically, the SAT changed significantly by the time I reached 11th grade, so the class was essentially meaningless). I obsessively studied flash cards for my AP French exam during my senior year spring break trip and Hawaii.

Yup, it was that bad. I needed to chill. And Xanax. Most definitely Xanax. 

Since the school year is beginning, marking a new season of school and also my last semester of graduate school, I decided to write a letter to my former student self, the uptight perfectionist student who couldn’t help but write papers on Friday nights. Because I have some advice for her. 

 

Dear Charlotte,

Hey what’s up? 

I see you’ve started school again this year. I’m just going to warn you right now, your school picture isn’t going to be great. But there are more important things in life. 

I come to you from the future. I want to give you some advice that will make your life way better. 

1. You are more than grades, scores, and fleeting praise from peers or teachers. You may have certain achievements but you are not these things. Consequently, if you don’t do well on something, you don’t suck at life. It’s okay. It’s really okay. Your academic performance isn’t your identity. 

2. You don’t have anything to prove. The sinister voice of shame whispers to you that you’re never enough, so you spend your life trying to prove that you are. But that’s a lie. You are enough, and you don’t need to prove yourself. 

3. You are not perfect. I know, shocker, because perfectionism is your daily motivator. I’m just gonna be real: you have strengths and weaknesses. These weaknesses are not sources of shame that should disgust you. They are what they are. You are good at some things and worse at others. You might have to work hard in physics, and you know what, whatever. You didn’t want to be a physicist anyway. 

4. It is okay to take a night (or weekend… gasp!!) off. You do not need to study 24/7, as if your life is in imminent danger, and the only way you can save it is by studying every. single. night. Go out with your friends. You will treasure this much more than studying later. 

5. The things you think matter don’t. That AP French test I was talking about earlier? Didn’t matter. Not one bit… because you ended up switching languages. The SAT? Also didn’t really matter. Because you ended up only using the ACT. Your grades? In the grand scheme of things, a B on a math test is a drop of water in a pond, an insignificant molecule in a long line of academic transcripts. Those hours you spent beating yourself up about these things were for nothing.

6. The things you don’t think matter do. Remember how much you hated AP Statistics? Well… that was actually one of the most useful things you ever took because you ended up studying psychology. You may think you know what you need right now, but you have no idea. Because you are a hormonal adolescent, and you will change so much. Keep your mind open. 

7. School will not fill the void that is in your heart. No grades, presentations, or awards will make you feel complete because there is something much deeper going on, an existential angst, that is within you. It will not be satiated through your hours of homework. There is so much more deep inside of you. You will find God, your passions, and you will experience connection and meaning. Not now, but someday. 

8. It will be okay. It will really be okay. Detentions are not the end of the world. Neither is a B. Your future success in life is not riding on that science test.