Exit 16.

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.

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Remember when the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings?

Did you know that I wanted my first kiss to be with my husband, on our wedding day? Yes, just like one of those really uncomfortable videos that went viral back in 2008.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I was thirteen and watching a movie in my boyfriend’s basement, and he reached over to plant one on me. I got really mad, of course.

For about five minutes.

Funny, how quickly we’re willing to push our boundaries.

Ten years later, my first kiss catches me up on his life while I finish making his latte.

And when someone asked me to talk about “pursuing sexual wholeness” in dating relationships, he was the first person I thought of.

Not necessarily because I regret kissing him—it’s just, sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to end up an internet phenomenon than to have asked him to kiss me again.

And if I can be really, truly unedited here, I want to start by saying: I think the church talks about sex too much. Especially to teenagers and college students. In fact, growing up, I wish the church would have talked to me more about not gossiping; I wish it would have talked to me more about the importance of a reputation and not ruining it for someone else; I wish I would have heard more about how dangerous it is to depend on other people to make you feel okay; I wish the church would have talked to me more about how to read the Bible correctly and how to pray fierce, God-moving prayers. I wish the church would have talked to me about protecting my heart, and how safety isn’t about how much you let a boy kiss you.

Greg has always had good boundaries between him and I. I remember, when Greg and I started finally dating, he was always so organized with our time together. He was living two hours from me, so we would meet in the middle for our dates; I remember how our third date together was me packing us a picnic and then going to a movie at the Movie Tavern in Gwinnett. As soon as the movie ended, he walked me to my car, kissed me quick, and told me he would text me later.

That may not seem strange, but for me—I was used to unbridled, play-it-by-ear, don’t-go-home-til-three-in-the-morning dates. So when Greg promptly put me in my car and sent me off right on time, I thought his next step was to tell me it wasn’t going to work out between us. In actuality, that’s how he continued to treat every date: we did what was planned, and we didn’t go a minute over.

This may come as no surprise at all, but I said, “I love you,” first, too. We were on a mission trip together. I pulled out the notes on my phone and wrote it down every time I thought it during a whole day serving next to each other, and I showed it to him on the bus ride back to our place.

He didn’t say it back. In fact, he didn’t make a single comment about it until I found him sitting on the roof of our complex with the Dominican Republic sun rising behind him the next morning; we were alone, and he had asked me to meet him. He wanted me to know how much it had meant to him that I felt that way; more than that, he wanted me to know how much it would mean when he said it back to me, even though he couldn’t yet—because the next time he wanted to say, “I love you,” to someone, it would be because he was going to spend the rest of his life with them.

He always had good boundaries, and even though they were frustrating at first, it was later that I realized how well his own boundaries were protecting me.

While I left our dates wanting more time with him, he was guarding my heart, making sure he didn’t take up too much space in my life for me to miss him if it didn’t work out.

While I showered him with “I love you,” for months without getting to hear it back, when he said it—I knew he meant it. And our relationship moved forward pretty quickly after that: we were engaged six months into dating, and married three months after he proposed.

You see, he knew that giving someone your time can mean just as much as giving someone your body.

Making promises about tomorrow can feel just like a first kiss.

Dreaming out loud about “one day,” can steal the joy from this day.

It’s no news that Greg wasn’t my first serious relationship, either. However, he was my first serious relationship where we didn’t jump ahead; we saved up our promises and dreams for each other, and that set the tone for how attached we got—and how willing we were to hold back, physically, too.

There was a boy I loved very much in college. We definitely got ahead of ourselves; we would talk about what it would look like to make it through the four years of school together and getting married and we’d very frankly tell each other that we thought the other person was, “the one.” We went all in with out the actual safety net of the real commitment. And you know what happened? I started to live in the, “one day,” and traded our boundaries for something that wasn’t real.

Let me be clear: the word “boundaries,” isn’t just to mean physical. Pursuing “wholeness” is not just referring to staying abstinent.

What I mean is: one of my last good memories in that relationship was when he was moving into a house on tenth street. With the excitement of a home, we started planning decorations and setting a drawer aside for me; I even looked up bakeries in the area that were open 24 hours so that I could surprise him with French pastries and coffee in the morning. While I was picking out wash cloths for the bathroom in my head, he was thinking about how to tell me he had fallen out of love with me.

We had crossed the boundary of our commitment level; he was my boyfriend, not my husband or even my fiancé. But I was planning and dreaming and living like we were more.

And I lost more than just him when it was over: the life I was looking forward to that wasn’t even real, weekends at his place, promises and kisses that should have been kept for the girl he’s actually going to end up with.

I wonder if it would have been easier to move on from that relationship if we had treated each other like we belonged to somebody else until we could have promised ourselves to each other.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Jenna, you don’t know my story. I’ve been with this guys for three, four, five years.” Or “Don’t worry, we live together, it’s forever.” Maybe even, “He’s saving to buy the ring, though.”

Trust me, I get it. Like, I’ve-been-in-your-shoes, get it.

The thing is, I was wrong. And as important to me as that relationship will always be, I wonder how sweet it would have been to have only been able to dream dreams about my future with Greg; I wonder how much more it would have meant if I had saved the sweetest words for him only. Not to mention how much easier it was to make excuses for pushing physical boundaries when we were constantly speaking make-believes and hoped into reality.

It’s kind of like when you are about to go on a vacation abroad; you spend months saving money, looking up flights and hotels, planning an itinerary, packing. Except that, until you’re actually there, anything could change and keep you from going. Then, you’ve spent so much time throwing yourself into preparation for something that you thought was going to happen, letting go of other responsibilities and friendships, and you’re left with a heavier disappointment of what “could have been.”

No, what you should do is a step-by-step process.

You don’t buy tickets to the Louvre before you book the flight to Paris.

It’s the same when you’re in love and you want to stay whole.

If you don’t start planning your trip through wine country in France before you find a hotel, then you won’t plan your entire trip around that one neighborhood.

And if you don’t start planning what patterned china you’re going to have in your first home before you have a ring on your finger, then you won’t think twice about getting into his bed.

If you don’t tell him he’s the love of your life before you have actually started your life together as husband and wife, then you’ll feel uncomfortable spending the weekend away with him.

If you don’t stay over at his house until the early morning hours, then you won’t get comfortable enough to play house with him.

You think it’s okay to tell him all your dreams for the two of you. But when he’s saying everything you’ve ever wanted to hear, and you’re nowhere near getting married, he’s going to take so many pieces of you that you start believing you’re completely his. More than that—you’ll start living that way, too.

And that’s how you miss wholeness.

So I won’t tell you not give him your body, because you’ll only do that as a result of the promises you make and the time you spend.

Start with the heart. That’s the thing that will break in your pursuit of being whole.

An open letter to every person I ever loved.

Am I different than you remember?

Less than?

Contradicting?

Softer?

Did you think I would be more?

Do you recognize me in the photos I post? Do my words make you cringe?

Can you believe we were ever close? Loved each other?

Does the man I love now surprise you? My dreams? The way I live my life? All of my tattoos?

Me, too.

What version of me did you get?

The girl who was going to go to the University of Georgia for Psychology?

The one who didn’t know what she wanted to do?

The girl who was going to be the nurse and help kids overcome the biggest curveball imaginable?

Did I want to be the writer in the loft with the four dogs?

Was I the one running social media for a small start-up, telling the world how worth loving they were?

Did you get the version that was too loud or too sad?

Did I tell you about my dream wedding or did I not want to get married at all?

Would you even recognize me, now?

Would you be disappointed?

If I’m being honest, in my most insecure moments, I thumb through each version you could have known, wanting to hide in the expectations put on some past self rather than the ones I look at now.

Are you hiding, too?

‘Cause I’ve got a list of all your wrongs, and I’ve been ready to spit off all your transgressions; imagine your face when I remind you of all that you took from me. What would you have to say?

Instead, I shrink behind those old expectations of yours. I become a girl jumping through hoops all over again, and it isn’t until you’ve walked away that I realize—all I want to do is wrap my arms around your neck and tell you how sorry I am. Me—I’d be the one with the apologies.

In the safest world, we would stand in the same room and it not be awkward, our hearts not feel like magnets ripping our skin to take us back to the door out; having a history wouldn’t be so hateful, so marking, so final.

I would tell you how sorry I was for the way I loved you too much, the way I pointed my finger at you for making me feel bad for it.

I would tell you I was sorry for the weight I always built on your shoulders to save me, make me everything, choose me.

I would apologize for the way I spoke brokenness over your character for the way you made me feel less than.

I used to think life was too short for boundaries, that the risk of getting hurt was worth it—it wasn’t until now that I realized that maybe boundaries in my life are for the sake of the people I care about, too.

I wish you could have known the beauty of my bridled, not the burn of my bitter.

Yes, in a safer world, we would stand in the same room, and my hands wouldn’t shake, nor would you act like you had never known the words to all my favorite songs or why I loved them.

In a safer world, I would tell you why I am different than how you remember me, and I would tell you that the one single thing I’m the most sorry for is that fact that I didn’t talk with you more about Jesus.

Before, I was always good at tidying up a guest room for Him, filling it with things to make Him feel at home; now He is my roof keeping me dry and the door that opens and closes for me. And all that time I was wasting trying to build a sanctuary out of you, chipping away at the both of us to make us fit.

You see, whenever you knew me, I had a God-sized hole I tried to stretch you to fill up, and when you couldn’t—I just thought it meant you didn’t care enough. Or maybe the hole was my fault. Now I know that it wasn’t up to either of us to top it off—it was meant to overflow.

I wish I could tell you that, in this place, there is no fear, and there’s no bad habits that come with trying to appear unafraid. I wish I could tell you that here, nothing is about you, so all the pressure that comes with having to make sure you get it all right just falls right off you. I wish I could tell you that there’s no oxygen for uncertainty to breathe here because even in the unknowns, when we don’t know where to go, how to achieve, what decision to make, we will always know how the story ends and who is in our corner. And I wish I could tell you that there’s always Someone in your corner, Someone never giving up on you, always taking your side.

You don’t have to fight, here. You can rest, here. You’re given an anthem in the battle, here. There are mended bridges and peace, here. There’s no night too long or too dark that Light can’t break through, here.

I wish I could wrap you up and give you this Love that has changed me. I wish I could reach out and touch your arm and you feel the difference. I wish I could give you an ounce of this Hope I’ve found. I wish it would mean something, to you, if I could.

I wish I could give it to everyone. Because it has meant everything.

The Unmasking

When I was seventeen, I started an internship with one of my favorite authors. At our first meeting, I showed her my hidden words on the note app on my phone. We talked about my stories and starting a blog. Of course, I objected. “My words have always burned bridges or made people ask questions, and I just don’t have the capacity to handle it.”

“That’s why you’re supposed to Taylor-Swift people,” she said back.

She showed me how to write without hurting people. But it’s been five years, and instead of hurting other people, I think I may have hurt myself.

That was the day I learned how to lie. That was the day I became a mask-maker. That was the day I learned how to turn my pain into something people could dance around. That was the day that I created The Boy with Blue Eyes.

So you could call this an unmasking. Because I gave him a new name six years ago, and what took me too long to realize is that I let him hijack my story, too. I wrote about what it felt like to play God when you felt like you couldn’t save something, but really I had given him the role no one is ever meant for: the sun.

He moved, I moved; I was brave because he said I was; I could do it because he said I could. And when he was gone? You can imagine.

Now, it all sounds a little too religious. Still, the world understood it, from Florida to London. Because, I think that if we’re being honest, we want our own tangible version of God without having to play the part ourselves. So we let someone else swoop in to take the spotlight and do the saving and the fixing.

But this is the unmasking, a reckoning, and it starts with calling myself out— The Boy with Blue eyes was just a boy, and I should have never been allowed to make him more than that.

I don’t remember how we met. I remember what school I was at, so I know I was in the fourth grade, and my first memory of him is the two of us sitting on the roof of a storage unit. When I think about it now, I remember he was always so still with me, even when we were that little, like he knew what I needed. I remember him at my family’s lake house and how he pushed me in with all my clothes on the second we got out of the car; I remember the night we told him to go hide with the girl he liked during a game in my back yard, and how we never came to find him so that he could have his first kiss. I remember when he joined the football team, and he suddenly wasn’t around anymore; I remember driving an hour to see him score a comeback touchdown, how the crowd went wild, and how I thought that now everyone loved him half as much as I did. I remember reading the story of Troy out loud in my living room with my legs across his lap, and the way his voice sounded when he told me about all the things he thought I deserved in this life. I remember how he never left my side the whole night that we celebrated my sixteenth birthday, and I remember the day he bought his car. I remember my eighteenth birthday, how he bought me my favorite cake and lit a candle in it, a white rose in one hand, waiting for me when I walked through the door to pick him up for lunch; I remember the night he got his heart broken and I showed up to take him to get a tub of his favorite ice cream—we ate right out of it with plastic spoons in a gravel parking lot that I still drive past sometimes. I remember how he took me to prom so I wouldn’t be alone, and how we ended up playing cards with my family all night, all dressed up. I remember when the panic attacks started coming, and the way he would talk to me on the phone while I laid on my bathroom floor at three in the morning.

I remember all of it: eleven years celebrating, dreaming, showing up; every inside joke, late night texts; all of those Waffle House meet-ups and haunted houses, and how many photos I was in at his graduation. I can still smell his living room couch, and I can’t forget how we always just took care of each other. When nothing had meant anything anymore, he meant everything to me.

And I remember our last day together.

The weather was cool, so we sat outside at my favorite dinner spot in town. We had made it past what I thought then to be the impossible: the things he had said when he walked away from me just a year before, a kiss he said had meant nothing so we both acted like it never happened, and me somewhere between thanking God for giving him back to me but wondering why He had. People would have looked at us and seen how unhappy we were, me sitting there trying to figure everything out and him not caring, but not leaving the table, either.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” he said, taking his last few bites, and at some point after that my ears started ringing until I couldn’t hear the rest of his story at all.

With the golden sun setting behind me, warming my back, he spoke words over me that welcome my worst fears up to the table there with us. And he was laughing about it.

I blinked, and for a moment, we were sitting on that storage unit rooftop in fourth grade again, our knobby ankles knocking against each other, when the only worry we had was how we were going to get down.

Then I got up from the table and left.

There’s this story in the Bible about the earliest years of the people of Israel. They had the World-Maker protecting them, providing for them; they were recovering from their past as slaves, thriving and conquering; they had walked through a split sea and seen God come to guide them as a pillar of fire, had begged to know His presence, and He had given it to them. With the world and power of the heavens in their laps, the people of Israel looked around at all of the other nations and said, “Wait. We want a king, too. A real one.”

They wanted to trade the Creator for the created.

God told them no, that they didn’t understand what they were asking for. But they kept asking, ceaselessly.

For the longest time, I thought I related more to God than Israel in this story. I could imagine Him throwing his hands up and looking around in shock — “But you know Me,” He would say, “I have always come through. I have done the immeasurably more. Look at all we have been through and how far I carried you. Am I not enough? After all this time?”

Yeah. I got that. Those same questions kept me up at night. Those questions followed me through my childhood and into my early twenties, and I can’t tell you how many times I asked them out loud hoping the answer would save me.

I wonder if the heavens shook at the sound of God’s breaking heart—He had made a whole world that didn’t want Him. He had stood there with them through everything, and they forgot.

Sound familiar? There’s a lot more God in us than we are willing to slow down long enough to notice. Maybe, if we did, we’d be a little kinder. Maybe we would forget Him less.

Except, He’s better.

In the end, He gives Israel exactly what they’re asking for.

Even now, I can still recount all of the prayers God never answered better than I can remember all the times He showed up.

So I wondered why God had chosen to answer the prayer to give me my best friend back.

It took some time, but I finally realized that, in the story where Israel asks God for a king, I’m not God—I’m the one asking for a counterfeit. I’m the one who doesn’t choose God back. I’m the one who looks at what He’s offering and tells Him that it’s good, but not enough. I’m the one who asks for a king, instead.

Sometimes God doesn’t give us things we ask for because He knows that we aren’t ready for them or that they aren’t any good for us anymore; other times, God gives us the things we ask for to remind us why He took them away in the first place, why they don’t fit, why He is better.

Sometimes He doesn’t give us the things we ask for because He wants our full attention, and other times He does give us things because He knows we won’t move on until we see what God already saw in the first place—the reason He didn’t want to answer our prayer.

If I’m really, embarrassingly honest, I’ll admit that I don’t know when I would have finally gotten the point and stopped asking God to have him back. When people asked me how I was, I thought of him. When I met someone new, I thought of his words. When I felt anxious, I felt his absence. His was the story I told. Not mine, not hope’s, not love’s, not God’s.

He had spoken my whole world into existence when I needed someone the most only to take a step back when it counted. We like to point fingers at God, saying He’s not there, that He just sets our world spinning and then walks away—but really, I think we’re the ones who don’t know how to stay after we’ve built someone up.

I made an idol at the foot of God’s mountain, and I gave him blue eyes. When the wind and rain came, he got swept away, too. But God’s mountain is still there.

Sometimes, I wonder if—when Jesus talked about moving mountains for us—maybe He meant people, too.

Anything to bring us back to Him.

God gave me what I wanted just to show me that it could never be as good as Him. He gave me what I was convinced I needed just to show me that I didn’t.

So, let’s not make this more than it was—The Boy With Blue Eyes was just a boy. His name was Sam, and he was my best friend.

And that’s all people are meant to be—people.

A Letter To My Little Sister: 2019

Dear little sister,

I am unforgiving.

I hold on to things.

I have hard lines in my relationships.

In the final few months of 2018, I talked to you a lot about grace, but I’m not so sure I always know how to give it to myself or others.

I’m worried that my pain in endings is probably my own fault.

Because I am unforgiving.

Because I hold on to things

Because I have hard lines in relationships.

Little sister, you and I look at our parents and their stories and we preach that no one has a darkness too heavy that Jesus can’t change their stars, but I wonder if we, too, are just the byproducts of the wounds we were born into.

It’s a nice gesture to say that what’s happened to people is not the defining factor in who they can become or the life that they can have.

But do we believe it for ourselves?

Because we used to sit on the edge of our seats during family dinners, straight backed and polite, trying to finish before people started yelling.

We used to lay in the dark and talk about the people we missed while our mother sat down the hallway, stricken with fear that had been instilled by family.

Our favorite uncle died, and we never got to tell him goodbye.

Our cousin left.

Secrets were whispered in the light of our living room that would change the dynamic of our household and finally make sense of our past.

I told you things too late.

And while I was old enough to shuffle through what hurt and take what I could handle, you were just growing up.

I became unforgiving. I stopped letting things go. I formed hard lines in my relationships.

But you? The little forming parts of you that were still learning about family, friendship, staying—those were the little parts that watched.

You were shaped by absence.

While the rest of us were learning how to cope with loss, you normalized it.

Me? I took my church pews and tried building sanctuaries out of people.

You? You never saw the point in that.

2018 took its best swings at you, little sister.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not still trying to figure it all out. I’ve played a very unbalanced game over the past few years: caring too much and saying, “at least I can say I gave it everything I had,” or searching wildly for the worst in everyone so I could have my list of reasons to not care at all.

But it’s 2019, and now I have another list, and this ones just for you, little sister:

Don’t build a guest room for loneliness to stay in.

Don’t leave a spot at your table for Goodbye, because goodbyes aren’t normal.

Search for the best parts of people.

Don’t hold on too tightly to those parts, but God, clap loudly for those parts.

Give it all you got but accept when peoples’ arms are just too full to accept what you have.

I think we thought we would be the types of people to have lifelong friends, but now I think that we might need different people for different seasons.

Its okay that people change. You’ve changed a lot, too.

Send the text, little sister. Get in the car. Say yes to the invite. Get dressed up. Buy the shoes. Go on all of the first dates until you know exactly what you want. Don’t close your eyes for the breathless moments—open them wide.

And most of all, little sister: that thing inside of you that walks away before, “goodbye”? Run against it, fast and hard. When you feel that pull in your stomach that wants to keep you from getting close, run towards what it’s trying to keep you from.

It’s okay to make new inside jokes with different people. It’s okay if someone doesn’t already know the name of your favorite band or how you got that scar on your chin, and you don’t know their favorite color or that they snort when they laugh.

It’s not about people staying. It’s about sitting down at the Waffle House booth and not thinking about loosing them for even a second because you’re too busy letting them get to know you.

Because little sister, you’re someone worth knowing.

I’m probably going to cut all of my hair off after this.

2018.

The ball fell, and everyone kissed. We had missed midnight by a few minutes because the television had buffered. Somewhere in my head, I had the thought for only a second—the fear—that 2018 was going to look like that: missing it. Coming up short. Trying to celebrate even though the time for celebration had passed and we were left with the echoes.

Yes, there I was: it seemed impossible to see the year ahead of me. Sure, I knew what was supposed to happen: my one year wedding anniversary, my twenty-third birthday, graduating with my Master’s. There were things on the calendar, and I could see them like a silhouette in a dream. But everyone was pouring champagne, and I was straining to see anything past January. It wasn’t even an excited sense of the unexpected and endless opportunities laid out in front of me; no, nothing felt like an adventure.

I looked at my husband who was laughing at something Blake said—my stomach dropped at the words we had said to each other, and I wished so fiercely that one midnight could fix everything; I wished recovery was that easy.

What’s more, I still felt the thickness of the air I had breathed only a month before when I asked my family and friends for help; the way the sun felt on my lap when I finally admitted what sort of thoughts I was having to my mom; how I don’t think my dad and I have ever had such a good conversation like the one we had that same night when he came to help me after the car accident.

Recovery. I wanted 2018 to be recovery, and I just couldn’t see it.

January came and went, and it was all out of body for me.

February was some sweet relief for a moment. I was able to say some things to an old friend that I had wanted to say for a while, and I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before: I got to be in charge of my own pain.

March was spent on my knees in gratitude: it had taken three years of feeling forgotten by God, but at last, He had come through on His promise. You see, my calling to a new life in ministry came after the heaviest heartbreak, guilt and shame, and believing I shouldn’t be alive anymore. My calling was all I could hold on to in order to make sense of everything that happened. So to turn around only to be led through the desert when you thought God had invited you to a prodigal feast—three years is hard. Yet, there I was in March, taking a leap, signing up to serve as a Content Coordinator and Blog Editor with a ministry for high school girls.

Hope grew in April. In April, I could finally see a way out of the life I had been stuck in for a year and a half. The year finally had a face. What had been such a season of uncertainty—where would we end up, when we would find out what was coming next—it was all finally a little more certain. April was for making plans. I was finally starting to see everything that 2018 was going to be. I could see past April. I had plans. My days were spent daydreaming. Everyone was excited. We were excited.

And then the phone call came in May. I had daydreamed about our weekends, days by the lake, coffee shop evenings, cooking more and falling into a routine. There was a whole world I had built in my head, and I was already letting it shape and change who I was.

But then the phone rang. And meetings were scheduled.

When we should have been popping champagne, I was just angry.

Again, I found myself praying for sleep at night, staring at the ceiling, trying to count the arms of my fan as it spun.

I should have been on my knees with gratitude, but I was too busy still fighting to get back what I believed I had been robbed of.

You would think I would have learned to not think about my tomorrows by now. I’m sure God must have laughed to Himself and said, “Little one, you think you can speak things into existence, but you still need to learn that I’m the only breath-giver.”

June looked like me facing myself in the mirror, clenching my fists and gritting my teeth, having to make a decision about what kind of wife I was going to be. When I felt like I was alone and on my own team, pointing fingers at God, I had to learn how to look for Him in spite of the fact that I had lost everything I had wanted. I had to recover from thinking I had heard God clearly only to learn that I was wrong.

Do you ever do that? Make all of these plans, draw up the itinerary, check the weather and pack accordingly, and then realize that you forgot to wait on God before you started pulling out of the driveway? I left God behind. And somehow, in June, with my May hangover, I blamed God for not accepting an invitation that I never took the time to send.

June made me define myself; I had to figure out if I was going to be bitter towards the life choices that had been made or if, in the midst of feeling like I was playing on a team all by myself, I was going to come alongside my husband and be the best teammate he needed.

July was kind. I fell in love with Greg all over again. I heard my dad laugh like I have never heard him laugh before in an old Whataburger in Birmingham. I became an expert at building something from the pieces; I showed up, and said, “Yes,” to God without following it up with a “I’m not happy about this, but, yes.” July was a season of reaping from open hands and willingness to follow even when following meant being deterred from where we had our eyes set. Some of the most selfish parts of me died in July. I got to have new dreams in July.

August breezed by: I remember the ocean and concerts with my sister; there was Nashville and tacos, and getting back into coffee again. There was a sudden understanding that, maybe recovery was never meant for one midnight; maybe part of recovery was the slow time it took to ride the rollercoaster up.

September was all over the place. I remember driving in my car, talking to God, thinking, “I’ve never fasted about anything before,” only to hear, “You’re about to.”

There is something sacred about the way our prayers sounded that next week in our little 1323 apartment; we were honest with each other and God, and Greg and I learned about what it could look like for God to show up in our living room: sometimes the most ground shaking thing He can do is change our hearts.

And one thing was certain that week in September: God had definitely done a number on our hearts to cultivate the desire—the desperate yearning—to move back to my home town for what we could only be a God-sized dream.

But what I couldn’t have dreamt was the way that God would push us. You know what I mean? Not very often does God invite us into something without first wanting to make us into something.

September taught me about guts; about going toe-to-toe with people I had once called family and calling them out for the horrifying things they were saying in the name of Jesus; September looked like breathing, “finally,” only to have my confidence crushed by someone I had once called my hero; it was hard conversations with friends who didn’t agree with me and couldn’t bravely stand by me, but it was also hearing from people in the shadows who cheered me on and said, “me, too.” It was red-taped meetings in church buildings and crying in Greg’s arms in the same living room we’d heard God in only weeks before.

September taught me this: God is not just a crown-giver, He is a Knight-maker. And most of the time, He wants to do both in you.

October never stops happening.

November looked like moving back to my home town. It looked like staring my demons in the face. It looked like getting more time in my childhood home and finally learning how to sit in it without wishing for other things. And more than anything, it looked like having to face the worst version of myself. It looked like the same bends in the road, gas stations, and coffee shops that had broken my heart. In a season that is usually marked by thankfulness, I was learning how to be thankful for what God had built in me. I was learning to embrace October’s and midnights that didn’t fix everything all at once. I was learning that self-preservation loves to dress up like fear, and that being brave actually looks like saying, “Okay. God can have this darkness that I said He could never touch, and He can make it beautiful even if I can’t see how.” Being brave looks like following God back into the shame and fear and uncomfortable so that He can claim victory in those places.

2018.

The ball fell and everyone kissed, and I couldn’t see past that.

My hopes rose and fell a lot. I was afraid to dream, and I learned how to hold God-dreams instead of my own.

But most of all? 2018 was about people. It was about learning how to be a good loser.

And at the end of the day if I learned one thing about myself it’s that—

I love the character of God more than I love God Himself, most of the time. I put His qualities on a pedestal, loyalty most of all, and when I can’t find God in the people He loves, I hold it against everyone.

2018 was a realignment. It was God bringing me back to Himself at all costs. It was Him giving me immeasurably more. It was painful and I scraped my knees a lot.

Sometimes, recovery has to happen a lot before we’ve reached the final destination of “recovered.” Sometimes, recovery looks like being built into something entirely different than before when we’re just hoping God—or midnight—fixes us.

So it’s only fitting that, in December, I found a verse in Genesis that I’m carrying into 2019 with me. Because 2019 looks like something I can see, like digging my way out of the desert. Even in the uncertainty and the wondering—I’ve got my eyes set.

2019, this is my prayer, now: God is here. “For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”” (Genesis 28:15). So God, keep me close. Don’t leave me finished. 2018 is not where I get left.

This rollercoaster is going up.

I’ve learned to lose; you can’t afford to.

He doesn’t know how to lose people.

He’s got dark circles under his eyes, and he looks at me with empty hands in his lap — the things I would give to fill them, so heavy that he could forget the engagement neither of us would wish on anyone, the ministry that slipped through his fingers, the friendships he reached after even though they were already gone, the funeral he spoke at while his aunt sobbed in the front row, the twenty-two years that had finally caught up to him and forced him to wade through the person each loss has made him.

Because loss makes us.

And he doesn’t know how to lose.

He’s lost so much in two years, and there are weeks when he feels like he’s losing more everyday.

So he looks at me with his dark eyes and empty hands and asks me how it’s done.

Because we are told to expect life to be hard, and to prepare for harder than our expectations; we are told to move on and let go, and the best of us can make having open hands sound romantic, but the truth is that you can say you have given it to God and still have the days where you’re expecting your best friend to come through the door at work or remember the way it felt to drive through town with your cousin and the top down on a fall day. For just a moment, you’ll wonder about God — and then you blink, and remind yourself that you have “let go.”

But have you let go?

Because he’s waiting for me to tell him how to let go, how to lose people.

Me? Twenty-two years of being too angry. At twenty-three, finally feeling like it’s okay to lose people. Until now, I spent most of my life being mad at God for being God.

It wasn’t fair that He got to let people in and lock them out, especially if He wasn’t going to tell me why. It wasn’t fair, the way He got to be in charge and move the chess pieces of my life.

But can I tell you something?

It’s in the deepest, darkest, loneliest, most hallow pits that you find a newer light than the one you came from. And it’s brighter and whiter, shining on new things you couldn’t see before.

So I look at this man, with his dark eyes and empty hands and his wondering. I smile and say:

“I think the people we love—make us. So when God wants to make us something else, He has to get rid of those people. And it hurts—God, it hurts. That’s why they call it ‘pruning’ and ‘molding,’ and it’s why it feels like you’re loosing who you are and the only truth and life you’ve ever known—because you are.”

Sometimes you have to lose the people you love—the people who make you—so God can make you into something else. But that person is always better. Even if it takes a few years to not feel so unfinished.

You’re not finished.

He’s not finished.

He takes, but He gives.

You’re gonna lose.

You’re gonna be new.

And maybe you’re never really losing at all. Even though you’ve been laying bricks for too long now, with mud under your nails and rain falling down, and no one there to sink into the dirt with you—but you’re building.

You’re losing, but you’re being built.

And that’s how you lose people.