Sunshine came through dusty glass, backlighting her silhouette; she was so small, her tiny fingers white knuckling her forehead, her freckled cheeks puffy and red. We were alone in the house, everyone just a few feet away on the back porch. Big blue eyes drowning me in tears, and my little sister’s voice over and over again—“Jenna, help me, the voices, something is wrong with my head, help me, help me!”
She was five, and I was almost ten.
I named her, you know. I got the T-shirt that said “I’m the big sister” to wear to the hospital the day she was born.
She was so little.
One minute, she was playing a game in the other room, and the next minute she was getting up every twenty minutes in the middle of the night to wash her small hands; we couldn’t go to get ice cream without her blurting out what she thought about the people in line and then bursting into tears because the only way she could find relief from her own mind was to voice it all; she couldn’t get through math homework because every number had a name and personality. And those were just the “easy” symptoms.
My little sister, the light and hope of our family, was diagnosed at five years old with severe OCD.
Out of the blue. No previous related tendencies. Like flipping a switch and turning the light off.
Those next few years after that day in my grandmother’s living room looked like waiting rooms and learning coping mechanisms, all in hopes that we would be able to find the five year old girl who had been buried by demons not a single one of us would have been strong enough to live with.
Hers was not the first demon I had seen, though. In my family, mental health is both an open wound and an open conversation. From my uncle who tried to live, unmedicated, with bipolar to my cousin with scars on the back of her thighs.
So you would have expected it to be easy for me to ask for help when I needed it myself.
Over the years, I’ve learned that self harm doesn’t always look like razors edge on soft skin: self harm can look like abandoning your faith to try and navigate the pain alone, without a life vest or lighthouse in the darkest harbor. It can look like a behavior or a mentality.
At its highest point, the bridge turned to the left before leveling out an connecting back to the main road. It was familiar—I took that exit to get home every night, rode that bend.
Then suddenly, all I could think about was driving straight.
It would be quick, wouldn’t it? Faster than I could blink, and then Jesus, finally.
I would be able to breathe again, right? Rest?
So I blinked, and there I was in the front seat of my mom’s car, watching the rainy lights on highway 140 drive by. I was telling her about that bridge, and she was crying.
I wondered how many more times I would make her cry.
How many more texts from my little sister I would get saying they would all miss me if I wasn’t here.
How many more times would I have to have this conversation?
The truth is: mental illness touched me once, and there are pieces of it that will be here, now, ‘til Kingdom come. It’s as much a part of who I am as my taste in music, my favorite places—even my faith. Gosh, there are times in my life that the heavy tugging on my throat feels like the only constant. I just can’t believe I used to be conditioned to think that I had to pull myself out of it. That it was my job to be better even if I wasn’t. That a church was the last place that had room for my dark. Now I would argue that maybe our churches should be full of more of all of our dark just from how open and broken we can all be with each other—just so that our darkness can be touched by the Truth.
And now I know that the idea that I should be able to read my Bible “enough” to not be winded by that sinking feeling—the idea that if I just prayed harder, more sincerely, then I would be able to sleep at night—that’s an idea of salvation based in works, and there’s no room at the cross for that.
Do you know what there is room for, though? My sister’s OCD. The pastor kid’s bipolar disorder. My best friend’s anxiety. My depression. In fact, Jesus is screaming at us from the cross: “It is finished! I said it is finished! Don’t try to pull that out from the cross’s shadow. That belongs to Me. I carried that up this hill so you don’t have to carry it ever. Leave it here. It can be here. That’s what this hill is here for. That’s what I’m here for.”
The last thing I want to do is come at you as someone who has figured it out—because, for the most part, I haven’t.
In October 2014, I told my mom for the very first time that I was struggling with suicidal thoughts. Back then, I was handling my depression in a much different way: without God. While the past six years have touched my life with light, I would have never guessed on that first October day that, four years later, I would be telling my husband the same thing, despite my strength and what my faith had grown into. And then again, just this past January.
There’s a lot of unwarranted shame I’ve had to work through in the past few years; shame rooted in this mentality that “fixed” is the goal and “better” is still failure. More than that, I don’t want to preach that faith is how we “get rid of” depression—just don’t hear me say that it’s not.
You see, in this war against mental illness, depression can seize the day.
But don’t forget, and hear me when I say this like it’s the only thing I’ll ever write that will ever matter: making an advancement in the battle is different than a victory.
I hate this darkness. And I hold on to the vision in my head where I am finally sitting at my Savior’s feet.
But it’s only because of this darkness that I see how light can break through in a way I couldn’t in the sun.
I can’t wait to see Jesus in heaven. I’m sure there’s nothing like seeing Him there. But I sure do love getting to see Him here, today, right where I’m at. Because I’m still here.