Tuesday, July 14, 2015

It Was Worth It

It's been over two months since my internship at TWLOHA ended. Those two months have been very full. I closed the distance with my fiancé, finished planning a wedding, wore a pretty white dress while I committed to spending the rest of my life with the man I love, went off on a week-long vacation with my best friend to one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, came home to my ever-loving cat, and started searching for jobs. It's been a difficult two months, filled with questions and depression that likes to linger in the spaces of nothing to do and emails saying I'm not qualified enough. It's also been a beautiful two months, filled with mornings waking up next to my best friend and the fear of a giant ache that comes with missing someone slowly fading away.

With as full as these last two months have been, I haven't spent a whole lot of time reflecting on the time I spent in Florida. It's weird and hard to explain, really, but I almost forget that period of my life existed. I spend a lot of time thinking about Minneapolis and the time I spent there and the friends I left there. My heart aches for that city - for the lights I could see through my apartment window as the city slept, a calm moment in an area of chaos. I ache for the roommates I left behind - for the nights we laughed about the word "whimsical" and found community in such unexpected places. I ache for my other friends, too, for Joey and Michaela and Hannah and all the others. But I don't think about Florida. I don't think about the sunsets I watched over the river or the 7/11 I bought too many slurpee's at or the big wooden door that always stuck or the dog that ran through the office. I don't think about the messages I sent or the stories I heard. I do sometimes think of the people, though. Of the girls I woke up next to on my favorite morning, lying on the ground and sweating in the awful humidity. The people I cried to when parts of my past tried to haunt me and the people I celebrated with when I finally saw a gator in the wild. I do think about them, but I think about them in a way that feels disconnected from the whole experience. As if they were a part of something different.

I think my experience in Florida was more difficult than I like to admit. It was, and is, difficult - because it was difficult in a different way than my difficult seasons usually tend to be. It was a season where my depression faded and rarely flared up, where joy found me more easily and laughter was a part of most days. Maybe that's why it's hard to think about - because it was a time when I felt "fixed," but I've since found that I may never feel completely whole and void of my illness. But it was difficult. Living with eight people is difficult - plain and simple. Responding to emails and hearing stories of the hurt that people feel - that's difficult. And I think I came in with unrealistic expectations. I tried really hard not to, but that's a hard thing to do when you're about to do something you've wanted to do for about as long as you can remember. So, it was hard. There were days when I forgot why I was there - when I focused on conflict or on the difficult parts. It was hard.

But it was also worth it. In so many beautiful ways, it was worth it. It took me two months to come to that realization. To stop being bitter or hurt over the difficult parts and to remember the good ones that outnumbered the bad ones. Today, I got a package in the mail. An unexpected surprise - a signed copy of Jamie's book, If You Feel Too Much. I haven't read a book since I graduated because I ended up reading too much during college and kind of got sick of it. But today, I picked up that book and started reading. I read words that touched me before I even knew the internship existed - words that spoke into the very dark seasons of my life. I read words that encouraged me while I was in Florida - words that reminded me to keep going, to remember why I was there. And I read some new words, too. I think the title, "If You Feel Too Much" resonated with me today - because that's exactly how I felt. Too much and not enough all at once. It was impossible to read Jamie's words without thinking of the ones I had the privilege of writing to supporters reaching out for help; and that was both painful and joyful. I took some time to finally sit down and reflect on the time I spent in Florida - to remember that it did happen and it was a part of my story, no matter how difficult or exciting that may be. Because it was both. And it is both, as life always is. And after reflecting on the days, weeks, months I spent working at the greatest organization in the world, I came away with one truth screaming louder than the others: it was worth it.

My time at TWLOHA may have been difficult for me personally, but it was worth it. If one email that I sent gave someone the courage to keep fighting for their story - it was worth it. If one of my fellow interns walked away with a new friend - it was worth it. And I know I sure did walk away with some amazing, life-long friends. Friends whose voices sound a lot like home and whose texts feel like wild Friday nights that turn into sleepy Saturday mornings. So that makes it worth it. The people I spent time learning under, who took me under their wing and taught me the words to say or the numbers to enter - they made it worth it. Lauren and Jessica and Lindsay and all the others. The stories I got to hear from strangers through computer screens and the ones I got to share with roommates on walks in the pouring rain at midnight - that made it worth it. The blog post I wrote and the ones I threw away, the nights I spent crying over Taylor again and again, the days I made tiny steps away from the monster in my past, the 5k I ran as a present to myself - it was all worth it. Every single second.

I'm not quite sure how I'm supposed to end this, because I'm sure this is only the beginning. I have a lot to think about and process if I want to keep reflecting on all that happened in those three months. So, for now, I'll leave you with the few paragraphs I found in Jamie's book that hit way too close to home today:

"Why did a group of young people put their lives on hold and move to Florida a week ago? Why would they trade everything they know, all their normal comfort and quiet, for a crowded house and endless hours of this word 'community'? Why would they want to join a conversation that most people run from?
We're trying to fight for people with kindness, with words that move, with honesty and creativity. We're trying to push back at suicide with compassion, with hope. We're pointing to wisdom, pointing to medicine, saying that hope is real, help is real. We're fighting for our own stories, our own friends and families, our own broken hearts. We're saying there's nothing we can't talk about, nothing off-limits. We're kicking elephants out of living rooms, making room for life.
You. It's about you."

And might I add: it was all worth it.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

When Passions Change

If you had asked me four years ago what one single thing I was most passionate about in life, I would have quickly and without hesitation said, "To Write Love On Her Arms." I'm embarrassed to now admit that I would have been able to rattle off facts about Jamie and that I spent too many car rides staring out windows daydreaming about interning with TWLOHA while simultaneously finding a Florida boy to fall in love with. I was 17, so give me a break. I was facing my personal struggles with self-injury and depression, and TWLOHA was the hope I needed. It was the light at the end of the tunnel, and I held it so dear to me.

Fast forward a few years - to last summer. I was still very passionate about TWLOHA, but new passions were budding. I was working at a youth center and it was a job that never felt like I was going to work. I was interning at a student ministries position with a church I loved. I was mentoring a few students, and I had never felt happier. I was in the middle of finishing my Youth Development degree, and each day I was falling more and more in love with the program. I had never felt more at home.

A few months later, I applied for an internship with TWLOHA and when I was accepted, I couldn't have been more excited. It was surreal to feel like I had come full-circle. From a 14-year old girl first hearing about TWLOHA and being amazed that someone else had put my pain into words that didn't feel like so much hurt, to a 21-year old woman who had just finished college and was going to go be a part of the organization that changed so much of my life.

Now, I'm exactly one week from being done with this internship. The experience I've had here is one I'm not sure I'll ever be able to put into words. I still have to remind myself sometimes that this is real and it's happening and I'm actually working with TWLOHA. I have loved going into the office every day and getting the chance to respond to emails sent in by our supporters - people asking questions and sharing stories. I have been let into so many different stories of people hurting and people celebrating and it has been absolutely incredible. I have also gotten a chance to help do the behind-the-scenes things at TWLOHA. The things you don't think about when you think about us. Bank statements and donor databases and a love/hate relationship with SalesForce.

Mostly, I have met people who have left very big footprints in my life. People who I have laughed with, cried with, and lived with. People who are willing to travel hundreds of miles just to celebrate my wedding with me when I have only known them for a few months. A girl who owned 40-something TWLOHA shirts before we started getting them for free, and another who had just heard of this a few months prior to coming here. People who have not judged my incredible love of anything free I can get my hands on, and people who have held me up when the stress of planning a wedding and hitting month 11 of being long-distance with my fiancé got the best of me. People who have taught me to love and to love well, and others who have extended that love to me when I had done nothing to deserve it.

I have learned more about community than I ever thought possible in these past few months. I have also learned so much about myself. I have learned that I love crepes, I still hate running, and I am a lot more redneck than I originally thought. I have learned that I suck at loving people sometimes, and that at other times, I am really quite good at it. I have learned that depression does not define me and that as much as it is okay to not be okay, it is okay to be okay, too. I stepped into the scary unknown of a world where depression didn't haunt me every day, and I've come out alright. I have struggled and I have celebrated. I have failed and succeeded. And I have learned a lot about where my passions lie.

I was afraid of this term ending for a little while. Because this is something I have wanted to do for so long, I was afraid that it would feel like I accomplished my dream and now there wasn't much left to do. I was afraid that I would feel empty. And actually, the opposite has happened. One of the most prominent things I learned throughout my time here was that TWLOHA is no longer the thing I am most passionate about. I am still very passionate about this organization and the work it does. I have nothing bad to say about TWLOHA. This organization is full of wonderful people making a big difference, and I have cherished every second I have spent working here.

But, for a while, I have felt like something was missing. I have felt like I wasn't working out of my greatest passion. It has been so difficult to work where I don't interact with or mentor students regularly. I've learned that maybe my heart for student ministry and youth work is where my biggest passion lies now, and I've learned that that's okay. It doesn't mean my time here was wasted. It doesn't mean I don't appreciate and love that I had this experience. It just means that I leave here with a full heart and better knowledge of who I am.

It was very scary to come to this realization, and for a little while, I felt like I was doing something wrong or failing in some way. After talking to Zeke and some of my fellow interns, I realized that I'm feeling so afraid because for a long time, this was my greatest dream. I thought I would come here and then I could just kind of float by for the rest of my life. But God won't let me off that easy. And change is a scary thing, but I'm learning to embrace it. I'm learning to embrace the fact that the God I serve is a God who is constantly molding and changing me into the daughter He wants me to be.

So, here I am. One week from finishing up one of the coolest experiences I have ever had, and my heart is full. I am ready to walk away from here, not as a different person, but as a person more true to myself and to what I believe God is calling me to. I'm very excited about what is to come, and I'm also very afraid - because other than getting married, I have no plans. But I'm going to learn to be okay with that and let God direct my path and continue to pray that His plans become my plans, because they are far greater and far better than my own.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Happy New Year

The ball drops and fireworks. Resolutions are made.
People scream and people kiss and is it possible to change?
Is it really truly possible to leave the past behind?
 The above words were written three years ago by someone I look up to a lot, founder of TWLOHA, Jamie Tworkowski. New Year's Eve has always been my favorite holiday because of the beauty of a single moment: because of the hope of change, because of the thought of moving forward - leaving the past behind and becoming new. This NYE, I found myself surrounded by the same friends I have been surrounded by for the past 18 or so years (maybe not on NYE specifically, as I imagine when I was three years old, I spent NYE at home, but you get the point). I was incredibly grateful for the people in that room, for the lifelong friendships I have been so blessed by. I had fun laughing and playing games, watching the ball drop and screaming countdowns. I brought in the new year with a kiss to my fiancé and I was joyful.

However, I didn't want to look back on 2014. I didn't want to, as I usually do, think of the change that year brought me. I think I knew it would hurt too much. 2014 was, hands down, the hardest year of my life. I walked through the grief of losing one of my closest friends from high school. I celebrated with my best friend/roommate as she walked across the stage at graduation, and then felt the pain of that loss as we said goodbye the next day. I spent seven months away from Zeke, three of those not knowing if we were going to even make it out of the summer. I spent my last semester feeling completely alone, as most of my friends had already graduated or moved on to other things. I battled the greatest depression I have ever faced. I spent days in my bedroom, crying for hours on end. I watched entire series' on Netflix because I was afraid to feel. I stopped turning in assignments on time because I didn't care. It was awful.

But I made it. As I look back on the worst year of my life, I find so much victory. I graduated college a semester early. I finished an 83-page paper about the thing I am most passionate about. I got accepted to a pretty competitive internship. I went to counseling for the first time in years, finally accepting that I needed help and understanding I couldn't do it alone. I walked into a doctor's office and asked about antidepressants. I asked for help grieving the loss of my friend on the one-year anniversary of his death from almost-complete strangers. I kept a resolution going that I made three years ago to stop eating meat. I said "yes" to marrying the love of my life. I made it. I made it. I made it through.

As I look forward to 2015, I am equally terrified and thrilled. In eight days, I will move to Florida and start an internship I have wanted since I was in high school. I will move to a place where I don't know a single person and start a new life for myself. I will live with eight awesome people and create memories I'm sure will last a lifetime. In 138 days, I will say "I do" and start the greatest adventure of my life. And from there, I have no idea where I will go. I do know that I will walk out of 2015 a completely different person (literally, since my name will be "Elyse Lawson" eek!), and I hope that I will find more healing in this new year.

Am I ready for what 2015 has for me? Heck, no. But I am excited, and I am hopeful. And I know I have a God that will be there for me every second of every day.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Celebrate Every Little Victory

Recovery is a journey that has many ups and downs. I'm learning how vitally important it is to celebrate every step forward, no matter how small (or big!) it may feel.

Remembering to eat dinner.
Getting out of bed in the morning.
Going to the grocery store.
Asking someone a question.
Answering a question in class.
Going to class.
Going to counseling.
Going to a small group/recovery group.
Attending a community event.
Driving to a community event, getting to the parking lot, and leaving.
Doing the dishes.
Taking a shower.
Washing the dog.
Taking a walk.
Calling up an old friend.
Singing a song.

Be proud of yourself today, friend. Look at how far you have come. Look at all the things you have done. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.

Remember: you are worth love, respect, and celebration of how far you've made it. Celebrate your victories today. Love yourself. Self-care is so important.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An Open Letter to My Future Daughter, if She Struggles With Depression

I’ve been struggling to write this letter for a long, long time. I feel like it’s something that I need to write: a story I can’t not tell. I don’t know if this will ever reach you or if you will even exist. But, I think that, at some point, I realized there is no manual to this. There is no step-by-step guide that helps you through the complexities of living life with a mental illness. And I can’t write that.  I wish I could, but I can not tell you how to magically feel better, because if something like that exists, I haven’t found it yet. But I do think I can offer something. A few pieces of advice or things I’ve learned throughout my 7-plus-year struggle with this terrible illness.

There will be days when you need to remind yourself that your bedroom is not the world. It will suffocate you, you will feel the walls crashing in, the weight of the world outside of those four falls will be too heavy to bear. But, my darling, you need to find a way to get out of that bedroom. I know, it’s so, so hard. It feels impossible. And maybe some days, it is. That’s okay. Try again tomorrow. And tomorrow, find the strength to get out of bed and live this life you have been given. Remember that you have a story that this world needs to hear.

Please, remember, it is not your fault. I’ve learned that depression and shame are good lovers. They find their place in the bedroom of your mind and they fester, for weeks, months, years. They will tell you that it is your fault, they will tell you that you need to just be normal, they will tell you that nobody wants to hear you cry. Honey, you can not let them win. You have to fight those thoughts, because they are not true. You are not at fault. It is not your fault. It is okay to feel sad and to feel alone and to feel ashamed. It is okay to not be okay. It is not your fault that you feel this way.

You need other people. You can not fight this alone. Asking for help is an extremely difficult thing to do, but please, do it. Go to counseling or find a friend or a teacher or ask me about my scars. We are people and we were created to live in community with other people. Do not let this illness tell you that you are not worth other people’s time. You are worth every second this world has to offer.

You are not alone. Depression has a great way of telling you that you are the only person that feels this way. You are not. Community is vital.

Your story matters. You have a unique story that nobody else in this world has, and this world needs to hear it. Out of the 3 billion people on this planet, you are the only one that can tell your story. You have something to offer this world that nobody else can. So find a way to tell it. Scream it from the rooftops. Write it, paint it, sing it, play it – I don’t care, just know that it is more valuable than anything else in this world.

Celebrate the little victories. This morning, I made breakfast for myself and I wept tears of joy. There are so many little steps to recovery, and I want you to feel free to celebrate every single one. You went to the grocery store? Fantastic! You remembered to do the dishes? Awesome! You asked for help finding something at the bookstore? Way to go! You are wonderful. You are worth celebrating. You are worth love. You are worth love. You are worth love. Please, try to learn to love yourself. Self-care is so essential, and it is not selfish. It is not selfish to love yourself.

Failure is a part of life. There will be days when you don’t do so well. It’s okay. You are only human. We all fall. Don’t let it keep you from getting back up. Feel free to struggle. It is okay. Forgive yourself, my beautiful little girl. Do not harbor unforgiveness against yourself in your heart. You do not deserve that.

Recovery is coming. Depression will try to steal all your hope. Do not let it. The road to recovery is long. It is so hard. But it is also good. There are good days coming your way. It gets better. I know it doesn't feel like it does, but it does. One day you will look back on where you are now, and you will be so proud of how far you have made it. Remember to laugh. Remember the sound of your favorite song. Remember to scream those lyrics if you have to. Remember the way the sunset looked that one day when you were with the people you love and you were happy. Remember the times you let the sun hit your face and you smiled, and you knew that it wasn’t fake, because nobody was around. Remember to let yourself get angry, so angry, at this godforsaken disease. It is okay. Honey, the struggle you are going through now is so worth the reward at the end. You will make it. You can make it. The good days are coming. Do not give up.

Do not give up. I love you. You can do this. I am so proud of how far you have come and I am so proud of how far you are going to go. My love for you is not conditional. You do not have to earn my love by being happy. You do not have to be happy to be worthy of love. I will love you every day of my life and I want you to know how vital it is for you to not give up. Someday you will be on the other end of this. I promise. It’s worth the fight. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

For Those Who Did Not Receive Healing

Let me start this off by saying this first and foremost: I do not claim to be a theologian. I do not claim to have all the answers or to know everything. I am simply writing from what has been on my heart lately, and everything expressed in this post is personal opinion. I understand that not everyone agrees with me, but I ask you to please respond with grace.

Okay, let's get started.

John 5:1-9a:

Afterward Jesus returned to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish holy days.  Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches.  Crowds of sick people—blind, lame, or paralyzed—lay on the porches. One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?”“I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.”Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking! 
My God is awesome. It is SO cool to see how he heals people in the Bible and today. It is awesome that He is the same God today as He was thousands of years ago (Hebrews 13:8). I love watching Him move and seeing people get healed of physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional needs. It is one of my favorite things to see my God touch people's lives in tangible ways.

That being said, let's take a closer look at the passage above. It says that there were crowds of sick people. Crowds. And for whatever reason, Jesus chose to heal only one. For that one guy, I'm sure it was awesome. Life-changing, even. But what about the tons of others? What about the people that were still sick and watched this happen? I don't know why Jesus chose to only heal one person, and I don't think I ever will. All I know is that He is sovereign and I will trust that He knows what He's doing.

As most of you know by now, I have struggled with clinical depression for a long, long time. Growing up in the church, I went to healing revival after healing revival, begging God to heal my mind. I would say to Him, I'm leaving this here at this alter and I declare healing over my mind. When I walk away, I will no longer struggle with this. And I would walk away and the next day I would still be sad. It got discouraging. What people in the church said to me was even more discouraging. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I have been told to "just have more faith" or to "believe more" or to "just ask" or to "choose joy." I will be blunt here: I am so sick of hearing that. I am so sick of people telling me inadvertently that I don't have enough faith or that I'm not asking enough. As if I hadn't thought of that. As if I hadn't thought that a little more faith would help me through.

I don't think me asking 500 more times or worshipping harder or saying the right words is going to get me healed. Why? Because healing is not about what I do. It is about what God does. And falling into the trap that thinking it is about me will only leave me either A. prideful or B. more hurt. If God is going to heal me, fantastic. I will receive that and I will be so thankful for it. But if he doesn't, still I will praise him. Because it's not about me. It's not about the way I ask to make the words just right or the way I do anything, really. It's about my sovereign King knowing more than I ever could about what is best for me, and me having the faith to follow Him in that whichever way He may lead. And I think that sometimes, the faith to follow even when the healing doesn't come can be so much more difficult, and so rewarding.

If you're reading this and you're in a similar boat as me, I want you to know that I am praying for you. If you've been struggling with some type of illness for a long time and haven't yet received healing, please understand that it is not your fault. I am sorry if you have been lead to believe that it is. Please, dare to have the faith to follow even when the healing doesn't come. Because I promise you, our God is still good. He is still faithful, He is still true. The healing may come, and it may not. I do not pretend to understand why God does things the way He does. I know, it can be frustrating and discouraging. I want to encourage you to talk to God about that. He can handle it. He can handle your questioning and your frustration, you anger and your pain. He is a good God, full of many good things, and He is holding you tonight, even if you can't see it right now.

He loves you, oh He loves you so much.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Percentages Do Not Define Me

When I was younger, my parents put me in a soccer league. My dad had played semi-professionally before he busted his leg, my mom had coached, and my brother was awesome at it, so naturally, I was placed in a soccer league. We quickly found out that sports was not my thing. I hated running so I didn't do it. In the middle of games, I would literally sit on the field and pick dandelions. It was a disaster. We also quickly found out that I am tone-deaf and pretty bad at anything musical. So, what do I have to offer? I'm smart. I'm good at school. I've always excelled in the classroom, going far beyond what was expected of me at every grade level. I found my niche in the school.

When I was in fifth grade, we had a "strikes" program. For every homework assignment you missed, you would get a strike. At three strikes, there would be small penalties and then it added for each one. If you managed to make it through the year with no strikes whatsoever, you got to go to a special pizza party. I've always loved food and I'm good at school so I thought, "Hey, this is awesome! Something I can actually win!" This turned into incredible anxiety for ten-year-old me. I remember countless nights spent lying awake re-thinking every moment of the school day, trying to make sure I remembered every homework assignment. I would watch the clock turn to 3AM and lie in bed crying and feeling sick to my stomach about missing something. I would check and re-check my assignment book and wake my parents up asking them to help me remember if there was any homework. It was terrible. I have never struggled with anxiety as much as I did that year.

I ended up making it the whole year without any strikes, and I went to the pizza party at a bowling alley. I remember sitting there thinking, "This wasn't worth it." Even then, I knew that this was becoming a serious problem. I wish I hadn't won that year. That pizza party taught me that perfectionism gets rewarded. If you never miss a single assignment, if you turn everything in ahead of time, if you get straight A's, you get rewarded. I found my identity in this. I was smart. I was good at school.

My brother struggles with learning disabilities. Growing up, I hated the school system for the way it failed him and allowed me to excel. It never seemed fair that our report cards would become a defining statement of our worth. Mine always had A's, while he struggled to pass classes. It wasn't fair. It wasn't okay that I never seemed to measure up to the ridiculous standards I held for myself.

The first paper I turned in in college got a 96%. I looked at that grade and I was disappointed. I lost sleep over it. That four percent destroyed me. I looked over the comments over and over again, vowing to never make the same mistakes again.

Throughout college, I have always done fairly well. I have managed to get all A's except for one B every semester. You'd think I'd be happy with this. You'd think I'd look at my grade card and feel pride in knowing that I'm doing well. If I'm being completely honest and vulnerable with you, I have never once looked at a grade card during my three years here and felt anything but complete disappointment. B's make me feel stupid. I am smart, that's what I have going for me. I should be able to pull of straight A's.

As I start my last semester, I have already spent a good amount of time pouring over every syllabus, trying to find a way to get my 4.0 this semester. I have found out that if I get a 4.0 this semester, I will be able to graduate with a 3.8. I tell myself that this will make me happy, but I know the truth. I will NEVER feel good enough as long as my worth is defined by a percentage. There will always be room for improvement, I will always fall short of perfection.

God has really been working in me for this last semester. I've dismissed it as senioritis or just being done caring about school, but that's not me. I do my papers weeks before they're due. I have never procrastinated anything before, and this semester, I find myself not caring quite as much. But this is still a journey. This is still going to be hard for me to work on this semester. So I ask you to join me. Pray for me, if you remember. If I start talking to you about the stress of school and making sure my grades are perfect, remind me that my worth is not determined by a grade. I am not a letter. I am not a percentage. I am a child of God. I am good enough in that.

So, here it goes. My last semester. I wish I could say that I don't care what grades I get this semester. I wish I could tell you I'm done aiming for that 4.0. I'm not. But I'm working on it. I'm slowly letting go of letting those marks define me. And I think that, in the end, if I am able (which I am because I have God and He's fricken awesome, let's be honest) to let go of this perfectionism and find peace in wherever my grades fall, I will be ten times more proud of myself than I would be with a 4.0.