[Suicide/Child abuse trigger warning: If child abuse and/or suicide are triggers for you, you may not want to read this post or at least prepare yourself.]
In Pastoral Counseling Dr. Hammer made the statement that our role as pastoral counselors is to help people come to a new understanding of themselves, in a way that they would not have without our presence. After many months of introspection and self-reflection, counseling, and recovery I feel I am for the first time coming to a new understanding of myself, that I probably would not have without putting in all this effort. This post is an amalgamation of sorts and a record of how I have very recently connected the dots of insights and questions that I have been processing, at times in this blog, for months.
The source of most of my problems is my self-hatred. Almost nearly as far back as I can remember I have hated myself. This was recently brought into high relief when I recalled a vivid memory from my childhood I had not thought about for years. In elementary school I ran away from home and in the “goodbye letter” I left my family on a whiteboard in my room with those colored plastic magnetic letters you see on fridges I apologized for being born. I remember taking several minutes trying to remember how to spell “born.” Was it “b-o-r-n” or “b-r-o-n?” I can also remember sincerely meaning what I said – I was apologetic I existed because I had caused my family so many problems. I was an unplanned and unexpected third child which I just knew and I felt that I was unwanted. On top of this I had recently become diagnosed with arthritis and had “cost” my family a lot of time, attention and money in the course of it.
This self-hatred did not drop out of the sky. My self-hatred was the result of the abuse that went on in my “Christian” home. Even my parents reaction to my attempted escape from the family system was dysfunctional and terrifying. When I came home my father, screaming at the top of his lungs, berated me for being stupid and attempting to run away. He angrily scolded me, and assured me that kids who ran away in the Phillippines were kidnapped and beheaded. I know, intellectually, that my father was talking about what happened in the Phillippines, but it really felt like he was threatening to kill me if I ever attempted to run away, and he had a means in mind: beheading. My mother made some ineffective attempts to stop my father instead of truly defending me and later my sister mocked me for spelling born wrong. I had gone with “b-r-o-n.” Thank you Gonzaga household.
In this environment I came to believe that I was a burden to other people and that my very existence was offensive to others. This feeling, mixed with other experiences growing up, led me to a fear of abandonment. Part of me feared and still fears people are perpetually making up their minds about me and always assessing and evaluating my performance and worth. I believe that if they realize who I am, or I am not performing enough to their expectations, they will leave me. Therefore, to continue and maintain friendships or relationships I feel that I have had to perform, excel and produce just to be accepted or my presence tolerated.
Not surprisingly I tend to hide when I am hurting or troubled. When I am dealing with “bad” emotions such as sadness, or anger or going through difficult times in my life my default reaction is to isolate, withdraw and become incredibly silent, even from people whom I know I am safe with. “Nobody,” my past says to me, “wants to be around someone who is sad/angry/hurting, etc. You are already normally a burden to other people, and if people are on-the-fence about staying with me, if I talk to people about what is really going on they will most certainly leave.”
My parents are human beings with their own character defects and they tried their best, but however gracious I am towards my parents, what happened happened and my childhood left me really wounded. I was left in a horrible situation where I hated myself and isolated from other human beings, even those who truly would love and care for me.
Every person needs to have a positive view of themselves and needs to be deeply rooted in community to enjoy live and survive the trials that naturally come with it. If you hate yourself, and you believe no one is on your side, or you keep everyone at arms length, there is simply no reason to live life and you will not be able to cope with life. Yet this was the situation, so how did I survive and what did this “life” look like for me?
Through a combination of creativity and resiliency, not uncommon to children, I found ways to navigate life believing and thinking in the ways that I do. To survive life I needed to find a way feel I was worthy enough to exist and provide meaning for my life. So I turned to and at times created what I will call “external structures” to provide validation and affirmation for myself and meaning for my life. I have historically given myself to a variety of external things (people, addiction, family, friendships, relationships, institutions, my Christian faith, etc.) wholeheartedly. Often this has been at great cost to myself. I will be whatever other people want me to be, like whatever other people want me to like, or do whatever an institution asks of me to be acceptable in their estimation. I will work long and hard for very little because in a very real way, my life depends on it. Without self-acceptance and real community these external structures keep me putting one foot in front of the other, even during very dark times. Meanwhile the whole effort I am putting into this project distracts me from thinking about my life and my self-hatred. All that is necessary for me to sink back into depression is to just stop, put down my distractions, and think about my life. Working at these structures keeps me too busy to think. When a structure works for me, my life is stable, has meaning, I feel good about myself and the world, and am highly motivated to continue in life.
However, when these structures fail I am at a loss. I have never been healed of my self-hatred, only distracted from it, so I am dependent on these external structures. And wouldn’t you know it, these structures have a habit of always breaking down. Sometimes they break down through no fault of my own or (especially with human relationships) because of the unwarranted pressure I put on them. When these structures break down I fight long and hard to make them work again, and if they do not I rage against them as if they are denying me something that I was owed. While a career, faith, ideology, family or relationship might be a good and helpful thing in this life, they were not meant to heal wounds left over from childhood and they can never do what I want them to do: fix me. In this, I realize my anger at these things is completely irrational; I am mad at the fact that they cannot do what I want them to, even though they cannot and never agreed to this the first place. Sometimes even this anger becomes another distraction myself from my self-hatred. I do not nurse resentments because I am by nature a hateful and vengeful person, but because this is yet another way to avoid my self-hatred. But eventually even this runs its course, though it may take months or years.
After the anger has calmed down I am left in the situation where I am left with my self-hatred and no distraction or structures to provide meaning for my life. When faced with this situation I have historically done two things in sequence.
First, I struggle with depression that may or may not include a serious contemplation of suicide. With no structure or means to earn validation or produce meaning for my life there is simply no reason to continue. This is why I almost drove my car into oncoming traffic in high school and after college I performed a “temporary suicide” by isolating from everything, quitting everything, and binging on porn for almost a year and a half.
Second, I then set about the project of finding and/or building another external structure. I cannot stand to stay in a depression for too long and have to have another structure, even if the last one failed. This is why after my plans for the military fell apart I devoted my life to God and ministry. After I experienced failure in and after college I devoted my life to recovery ministry and eventually my then-girlfriend, both extensions of my loyalty to God whom I thought had called me to both. After these have fallen apart I have devoted myself to the PsyD and helping other addicts. When a structure falls apart, and my anger fades, I feel a vacuum and seek to fill this vacuum as soon as possible with another structure.
Recently, in the last year or so, all of my structures, even the two long-standing ones of my family and my faith have fallen apart. I am currently estranged from my family. I have cut myself off from the insanity and unhealthy ways in which my family interacts, but this has also cut off whatever I was getting out of my relationship to them, no how meager that payoff was. I am also currently estranged from God, who, if He exists, has broken my heart too many times for me to think of Him as loving and seems unable or unwilling to powerfully act on my behalf. I have known for some time I do not need help, or improvement from transformation. I have though, and been told, this needs to be a spiritual transformation from God but I am still the same and struggle in the same ways that I always had after years of spiritual practices and rituals. Furthermore, the Bible, another pillar of my faith, which I have devoted my adult life to studying, is offensive to me when I read it devotionally. It is filled with verses I have read, prayers I’ve prayed, wisdom I’ve tried to live out, and promises that have all fallen flat in my life. My academic study of the Bible is worse. It leads me to one of two conclusions: that Christianity is entirely fake or that the Church has used the Bible for centuries is incredibly wrong manner. The most recent structures also fell away with my move to Pasadena last year. The woman I thought God was calling me to marry left me in one of the most vulnerable and broken times in my life, when I had *just* started dealing with the abuse from my past, and I was so dissatisfied with the M Div I actually left the program. The fresh hope I had for a marriage and family went with her. The degree program I came down here to do, an M Div with a recovery emphasis, I now see as a complete waste of money and time. Both of these realities have eroded whatever trust I had in my ability to follow God’s will, if He exists and communicates such a will to us. In terms of recovery, I realized last fall I get stuck at Step 2 and 3 because I do not believe God cares about me, and have not believed so for some time. As a result I am stalled out in my recovery and disconnected from both CR and SAA. My current hope of applying to the PsyD or being part of some kind of healing ministry I deeply suspect is just my most recent attempts at constructing a new structure to rely on.
With the dismantling of these structures and my suspicion and hesitance to give myself to anything new it is not surprising that I went through a season of anger and frustration at just about everything (my family, my ex, God, etc.) but then have followed the sequence into a deep depression. This depression started at the end of last summer that lasted through most of the Fall. Sometimes I would wake up and immediately just start crying because I realized I still existed. While it appeared that I had made some progress in the Winter Quarter this was quickly undone as this Spring quarter has seen the demise or continued dismantling of any remaining structures I have.
The last several weeks I have been trying to hold onto hope, and even began attempting inner healing prayer for the first time. This is a practice incredibly foreign to my experience of Christianity where you basically invite Jesus to heal old wounds, renounce vows and judgments, break curses, etc. While 99% of my prayers for help to God have gone unanswered, anything was worth a shot at that point and time. I cannot deny that Jesus Christ showed up in a powerful and healing way. (I am chronically my experience in my three sessions for a large mega post that will be available later.)
However, in a quiet time on Easter where I attempted to re-connect with God for the first time in months, I poured out my heart to God and was led to surrender certain things to Him and ask Him for help in other ways. This, in and of itself, was not distressing. However, the immediate realization that I had prayed these exact prayers before was. Last summer I prayed this same prayer almost verbatim. God had not acted in that situation and what’s worse is that in following what I thought to be His will I was led into an absolute and complete disaster that marked my descent into depression last Summer.
The week that followed Easter I was plagued by very distressing questions. If God did not answer my prayers then what hope did I have that He would answer me now? If following what I truly thought to be His will led me into dire straits (again), what hope do I have that things will be different now? This has left me questioning if Jesus’ most recent show of power and love just like previous ones. God has a habit of showing up in my darkest times of need but then leaving me there. He will show up enough for me to not blaspheme His name or leave the Christian faith, but not enough for my Christian faith to count for anything.
As the week went on certain events, thoughts, and questions left me feeling that while I had put great effort into this year in counseling and recovery I was spinning my wheels and I was not changing. I reflected on my life in general, and even read journal entries from years ago, and I came to see that I had struggled in exactly the same ways, pursued healing and answers, only to return to those same struggles. Despite years of prayer, Christian practice and ritual, working the Twelve Steps of recovery, counseling and now inner healing prayer I was not changing the in ways I needed to – I was still this person that I hated.
In short I the feeling of “I have been here before,” and “I have tried this, and it didn’t work” robbed me of any hope that I could change and I became suicidal. Since I averted killing myself in high school I have struggled with depression, but when suicidal thoughts came up it was no longer really an option but a sign of how bad things were. The Friday after Easter I was back at a place of truly contemplating suicide. For the first time in my life I began fantasizing about putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger, and this led me to considering going home to get my gun. I have been around guns for some time, and even owned a gun and struggled with depression, but I have never thought about killing myself with my own rifle. Thursday and Friday in particular I was fantasizing about putting the barrel of my rifle in my mouth, pulling the trigger, turning my head into pink mist and putting the gray matter of my brain on the ceiling of Apartment 3. I knew from my Pastoral Counseling training that this was a highly lethal plan. This wasn’t taking a bunch of pills when you know people will come home in time to find you, or driving your car into oncoming traffic…with your seatbelt still on. This would not be a cry for help. This would be the permanent suicide.
I knew I had people I could call, people I should call, but I didn’t. Again, it goes back to the part of me that believes if I am a bother to people, say by needing help in a dark time, that they will abandon and reject me for being needy or a burden to them. It is completely against the grain for me to reach out in a moment of distress. To paraphrase the words of a friend who I talked to later about the situation, “It’s easier to report what happened, than to let people in on what is happening, because that requires vulnerability.”
There are basically only two reasons I didn’t go through with my highly lethal plan. First, oddly enough my absolute pessimism about life in an odd way saved me. I honestly thought that I would somehow screw up my suicide. That, in keeping with an overall pattern of my life, I wouldn’t even be able to kill myself correctly. I feared that I might shoot myself in such a way that would leave me maimed and disfigured, but not dead. “No,” I said to myself, “I would probably lose everything but my ability to be conscious and be aware of what I had done, but be left unable to kill myself for good. I would be stuck on some hospitable bed on a respirator for forty years. No way God would let me get off that easy.” Second, I did not bring down my gun to Pasadena. It is five hours away in my parent’s home and my estrangement from my parents would make it hard, if not impossible, to just casually show up one day to get my rifle.
Eventually I emailed a professor who has been doing inner healing prayer with me and talked to my roommate about it on Saturday and my counselor on Tuesday. And much of my reflection on why I wanted to die so badly and what has happened in my life since then led me to connect the insights that started this post.
I feel now that I can finally see the underlying reasons, forces, and choices I have made to perpetuate the vicious cycle that has repeated in my life and led to a lot of my cynicism. While, if there is a God, He has certainly not helped or bears at least some culpability, I must also own the fact that I have been my own worst enemy. From my woundedness I have only continued the abuse, continued to self-sabotage my own life, and hurt many people in the process of living life the best I know how.
Currently I am stuck in this liminal space, this space between depression and a normal life. I smile at a friend’s party but then go home and sink into myself and my junk. I am surrounded by wealth, abundance and friends, but manage to hate my past, find my present unfulfilling and am deeply pessimistic about the future. The demands of my life keep me putting one foot in front of the other, even as I have no real motivation to keep going.
I am feeling the vacuum and I am very tempted to just find and build another structure. However, I am trying to choose another path. A path that leads to a solution, not just back into this cycle.
The task before me is to deal with my self-hatred. I need to come to a place where I see myself not just as a sum total of the worst choices I made and my character defects, but see my mistakes and my character defects as parts of who I am but not the total and final estimation of my worth as a person. I have no idea how I am going to do this but I know it is the only way forward.