But You Hope

hope

*This is a poem I wrote several years ago as a theological and emotional reaction to Holy Week, pain and resurrection, and the tension of the now-and-not-yet Kingdom of God.

That moment of agony when you realize
that nothing in the world

no amount of numbing
or screaming
or hiding
can make it feel okay again.

you are left with a void,
an absence of what should be
and nothing can be done about it.

you are left there, dying
holding onto the faint hope of a Being much greater than yourself
that is able to make these dead, broken, dry bones come back to life again

you do not know, but you hope that God can cling onto you
when you are not able to cling onto anything at all

you do not know, but you hope.

The One About Graduating

I have been reluctant to write this post ever since I graduated last Sunday. My excuses are justified: I have been working and tired, so, so tired after a whirlwind 16-month program. Notwithstanding legitimate excuses, something was still holding me back.

Completing a master’s program connotes mastery, a feat of monumental importance… as if I have mastered social work. Mastery seems more fitting of an engineering project, a new drug that will benefit others, something more tangible perhaps, something less messy.

There is nothing about social work that is clean and simple.

In my program, I learned of deep systemic issues that are nearly impossible to penetrate. I spent nearly 1000 hours interning at a nonprofit agency working with mentally ill individuals, their families, and the community. I fell in love with working with these people and with this work.

Echoed over and over again was the sentiment, Why do things have to be this way?

My only possible response was (and is) silence.

I can’t tell people why their lives were interrupted by mental illness in the primes of their college days.

I can’t tell someone who was abused in an old school mental hospital decades ago why he or she was treated that way.

I can’t wave a magic wand and find solutions to life’s most horrifying social issues.

Knowledge is a dangerous, subversive thing. Once you know something, you can’t go back. I started my social work program, frankly, for the reputation and versatility of the degree, and I have come out with more questions and a deep understanding of the brokenness that exists on every level of humanity. As a “master of social work,” I don’t want to celebrate my accomplishments as much as utilize what I’ve learned to help others.

Social workers have the reputation of having bleeding hearts and wanting to change the world. Tapping into life’s brokenness perhaps somewhat explains the high burn out rate in the profession. “Changing the world” as a blanket, lofty goal is too abstract to implement. So, for this blog post, I am only going to talk about changing the world with respect to myself and my own sphere of influence.

I want to work with mental illness (eventually eating disorders) and address social issues that arise within that context… but if you have read my blog at all, you know that I have felt deep pain and suffering, and I am deeply attuned to that constant struggle. Healing from said pain is an ongoing process. I feel odd to be in a helping profession when that negative inner voice whispers, You’re not good enough to do much of anything, much less be of help to others. I have fought that persistent little voice of inadequacy for so long, but it keeps coming back, much like a whack a mole game at an arcade.

Changing the world is one thing.

Changing myself is another thing entirely.

I was reminded by the student commencement speaker at my graduation ceremony that we in helping professions are ALL wounded healers (Henri Nouwen’s concept). No one is impervious to the systemic, individual, familial, or societal pain of a fallen world. Social workers, as well as every other human being, are wounded. The question is: what do we do with woundedness?

What am I going to do with my woundedness? 

I am going to advocate for those with debilitating mental illness. I strive to eradicate eating disorders. I fight so that every person with a mental illness can get adequate, respectful, humane treatment. I want to write about my struggles with an eating disorder and anxiety. I want to change the way people see mental illness. I want to do that all because I have suffered.

Compassion is seriously lacking in this world. Machines cannot replace human love and affection. For all of us, and especially for people in the world who are most vulnerable, compassion is exactly what is needed. There is something sacred and humbling about standing in solidarity with those in their darkest moments. Compassion can be the healing ointment that soothes the oozing sores that arise in this scary, painful, dark, lovely, sometimes horrifying, strange world.

So going back to the beginning of this post, yes, I have graduated with a degree so that I can work in a helping profession. That has meant a lot of things. I have become a “master” in using CBT to treat anxiety disorders. I have become a “master” at using the DSM-5. I may be a “master” in the field of social work.

But I have not become a “master” in understanding the human condition, human suffering, or the solution to social problems. Nor could I be. What I do know is that I can empathize with others because I have suffered. I can hold on to difficult, complicated issues because I have felt the full spectrum of human emotions myself. I love others and treat them with dignity because I have been loved.

I am privileged to receive an advanced degree in the first place. I don’t discount that. But a degree is only a degree. I need to be continually taking deep, hard looks at myself before I start changing the world.

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.