Trapdoors, treasures, and adventures in the darkness

Forgive my self-indulgence in rambling post, but it’s been a hectic week and my brain isn’t as sharp as normal. Sixteen years ago this weekend, I had my first nervous breakdown.

I was at a Christian college, struggling with anorexia and depression, and I hit bottom. At least, I thought it was bottom.

Later it was clear that this was only one of a series of trap doors that opened beneath my feet at unexpected moments. Boom, boom, boom, and I tumbled down another level, like Virgil and Dante travelling through the descending circles of hell in the Inferno.

But at the time, this particular low seemed the lowest I could get—dropping out of college was surely the worst!—and it hurt after the initial anesthetic shock wore off.

For a long time, I couldn’t look at that experience without feeling like a failure and seeing only the negatives.

But trap doors don’t lead only to pits; sometimes they lead to hidden treasure. Some insights can only be learned through pain. (Why are the most painful lessons the ones we learn by heart? Is it because they are learned by changing—or even breaking—our hearts and not just our minds?)

What were the valuable experiences?

For one, my Christian bubble burst. Up until then, I had never had a teacher who wasn’t a Christian, nor had I ever heard some of the language that sprang from my classmates’ lips, nor had I seen how Christians look to those outside Christianity. (And Protestant, evangelical, conservative Christianity, at that.) Only those outside can see inside; those inside cannot see outward.

It’s a little like being a painting: Mona Lisa can’t see her viewers, but the rest of us can see her (and wonder what the heck is up with that smile-smirk.) As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”

Number two: I took courses that either weren’t available at a small school or that weren’t required for my major. Horizon expanding, in the form of graduation requirements.

Astronomy, which I enjoyed, despite the Christian classmate who cleared his throat each time the prof mentioned evolution or the old age of the earth. (Eye roll.)

Political science, where the prof advised that we read the constitution every day. Those who did were prepared for the exam; those who didn’t . . . let’s just say they were horrified by the exam.

Art history, which exposed me to the things as varied as the Roman empire’s twisted family trees and the rebellious philosophy behind the Impressionists and so many wacked-out postmodern theories that my mind was bamboozled. (Is that a word? It should be. Spellcheck agrees. It isn’t squiggly-lining it.)

So there were valuable things that came from falling through that particular trap door.

But the price I paid was loneliness. I never truly made friends at the second college. From the time of my breakdown until I was married, I was alone much of the time. My then-church was suspicious of art and literature, my classmates and professors were suspicious of religion (too much badly done evangelism, I think), and I was left to navigate the secular/Baptist cultures without any guidance.

It’s tempting to try to twist this and put a positive spin on it. Leaders are alone at the top, or To be great is to be misunderstood, or some other such nonsense. But we’re made for community, and I didn’t have it. Slowly, sixteen years later, I’m cobbling together a community. Slowly.

For some reason, this last part brings to mind a scene from The Magician’s Nephew. Uncle Andrew is explaining to Digory why he made the magic rings that have sent Digory’s friend Polly to a different world. Digory, understandably, thinks his uncle horrid and cowardly. Uncle Andrew replies that magicians are above the rules that govern children and women. “Ours is a high and lonely destiny,” he says.

For a moment, he looks noble, and Digory is impressed. Then he remembers Polly’s disappearance and is disgusted.

Later, Queen Jadis tells the children the same thing. Coming from her, it sounds grander—Uncle Andrew isn’t seven feet tall and beautiful—but that’s not enough to justify her actions against others. Which shows one thing:

Sometimes who the speaker is influences our interpretation of what they say.

But the results of the words show that the intention is the same. Which shows two other things:

The words of the uncle and queen are meant to justify evil.

– and –

Just thinking that one is an important person and exempt from rules isn’t the same as actually being an important person. The principle behind the rule still apply, even when the actual rule appears to be broken.

A very rambling post . . . If you made it this far, bless you, and I hope you garnered something of interest from it. Feel free to add anything about your own experiences with nervous breakdowns or valuable experiences from painful times or anything else!

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10 thoughts on “Trapdoors, treasures, and adventures in the darkness

  1. The trapdoor imagery you use captures it completely, Laura. Whether it’s a nervous breakdown or some other tragedy, it feels as disorienting as if the floor has fallen out from underneath one’s feet.

    P.S. Uncle Andrew and Queen Jadis are made for each other. They both have the rules-are-for-peasants philosophy down pat.

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      1. I wanted to write more, but I didn’t have a chance at the time. I have gone through periods in my life that isolated me from other church members. One time was when I suffered from postpartum depression. At the time I remember hearing a message that depression is just selfishness and that made the situation so much worse. For some reason trying to stifle the sadness and overcome by internalizing what I felt just compounded the problem. The second time period was when I was in school and working a job while trying to care for my family. I just didn’t fit into my peer group at all so I had no real support system. Again I was battling with depression because of my workload and the difficult circumstances that I was in. Instead of seeking help, I just beat myself up for “not rejoicing.” That time period lasted 5 years and there were days that I thought I couldn’t endure any more. God’s grace was sufficient and I got through it, it just wasn’t pretty. We just recently changed churches and I finally graduated last May so things have improved. I am thankful that it happened because it has changed me in a good way, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Like you said community is important. Anyway I said all of that to say again, thank you for sharing, you are definitely not alone.

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      2. I’m so sorry to hear that you went through all of this! Being alone and being depressed are both difficult, and when put together, they feel insurmountable. We had to go through a change of church shortly after my bipolar diagnosis, and that was helpful. Congratulations on your graduation! I hope your new church is supportive and loving. Hugs!

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  2. You can ramble anytime. That will make me feel less alone since I do it too! But I have to say that I didn’t find this particular piece to be rambling at all, and that your brain was *plenty* sharp in writing such an impressive recollection. It was very interesting getting to know your background more as well…I appreciate your honesty as always!

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    1. Well, I never know if my background (or backstory, as novelists call it) is interesting to anyone other than me. This particular time period is vivid in my mind. It wasn’t a long time period, but it had a lot of painful incidents stuffed into it. I loved my college classes, but I’m glad it’s over with. (Though, I confess, sometimes I read a deep, difficult novel and want to get a bunch of professors together and discuss it with them, or even write a paper on it!)

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  3. Hi Laura

    There is a beautiful tapestry of love for others in your writing that is real, open, vulnerable. If you read my life story “A Boy’s Calling to be a Missionary of the Heart” you will learn more about me and why writing is so important to me. It became my way of healing from my childhood abuse from my schizophrenic father.

    Your writing is a refreshing breeze of reality in a world, in the Church, where there exists far too much superficiality. It is the spiritual meat that is so desperately needed when so much writing fails to delve into the deeper issues of life and our response to them.

    Please prayerfully consider if you feel a nudge in your spirit to become a co-author on Mind’s Seat. You are welcome to email me at osborne2029@gmail.com with your thoughts about this. You can ask Marmar to take a look at your blog and see what he thinks about it. You can mention I referred you.

    C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors. There are such soul-searching thoughts in his writing about faith and our quest to know God.

    Laura, I encourage you that I think C.S. Lewis would be pleased by what you consider ramblings. In them there is a cohesiveness of thought as you are finding your way through life’s struggles and how we are all with our differences and our imperfections, on that daily journey to discovering how God fits into all of this.

    For over 48 years I lived without the sharpness of mind and ability to write with the full measure of tmy abilities. Four pills taken twice a day of a mast cell (immune and systemic) stabilizer keep me alive. They are used to help control mastocytosis, which simply means I have way too many mast cells. These are the cells that form part of your immune system and are in your tissues and organs.

    I am one of 300 Canadians who have this condition for which there is no known medical cure. Among those in developed countries I am among 1 in 500,000 people who have mastocytosis.

    The first time I took the ketotifen it was like I had been given one of the best early Christmas presents one could receive. The brain fog that plagued be all of my life was gone. I could understand complex subject material in a variety of subjects with an ease unlike I had ever known. I struggled with the mixture of feelings I had of euphoria that the shadowy darkness of lack of focus was gone and the sadness over the many years of living less of a life than I might have had. Yet, I do believe because I did have to work so hard to get the good grades I did, I value what I have achieved. I can offer valuable insights on the importance of perseverance and our individual and collective challenge to use the mind God gave us to make a difference in the lives of others..

    Like Helen Keller when her teacher, Anne Sullivan, opened Helen’s heart to the world of knowledge and self-discovery, of seeing her existence defined in relationship to the Light that shines in her darkness, this is how I feel that first time I took the ketotifen. My old life of lack of focus and confusion about what I read, the many years of staying up late to absorb what I was studying in high school and in my pastoral and post secondary studies died. In its place there is a deep spirit of thankfulness and blessing that decades of so many times of cloudy thinking are over.

    It is now an exciting journey of discovery to see what my Lord will do with this new-found life. Perhaps, I am being called to lead many out of their dark prisons of fear, so that they too will see God’s purpose in all they go through.

    Perhaps, Laura, it is your journey to take the lessons you have learned in your own time of darkness, to bring others to the knowledge of Christ in their hearts and lives.

    Shalom,

    Kevin

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    1. Thank you for sharing part of your story here, Kevin. I will consider the co-author offer with a lot of prayer!

      I definitely identify with your appreciation for your achievements. I had to work hard for my good grades; I wasn’t the smartest person in the classroom, but I wanted to learn and that drove me to work hard and appreciate what I achieved. And after my depression/eating disorder/mono, I had to work even harder because I didn’t have much physical energy. But God still gave me enough energy to continue. (Isn’t that what he always gives? enough to continue, but not too much lest we cease depending on him.)

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