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!