A silent suffering

It’s hard being a young woman. Crippling student debt, a rough economy, a competitive job market and vocation crises are just a few of the struggles. But many women, more than ever today, are suffering invisibly from mental illness.

It’s no secret that mental health struggles are on the rise: about 1 in 5 adults experience some form of it every year, and nearly half of chronic mental illnesses begin around age 14, and three-quarters begin around age 24. In 2014, the CDC released a study revealing that the suicide rate among young women is at a 40-year high — nearly doubling between 2007 and 2014.

And while people are slowly beginning to talk about it more, and despite it being more and more a common experience, there’s still a stigma. People don’t understand mental illness. They’re afraid of it. We don’t talk about it. And the biggest culprits of that are those of us who experience it.

And for those of us who do experience it — there is so much shame. And we suffer in silence, too afraid to get help or share our struggles with people who love us; it’s so easy to fall into despair.

I’ve always struggled with anxiety. I’ve always felt sick to my stomach when I encounter big changes, and especially in big transitions, such as going to or graduating from college, moving and new relationships.

But, I didn’t see it coming. I had no idea that I would be slammed by a tidal wave of unnamable fear just a year out of college, triggered by seemingly unrelated experiences, like visiting hospitals, going on dates or traveling to new places. I began experiencing debilitating panic attacks and had no idea why. I started cognitive-behavioral therapy, and continued it for about a year and a half, until around the time I got engaged to my husband.

Weeks after getting engaged, I was experiencing the worst anxiety I had ever felt, and in my mind, it was all centered around my relationship and getting married. I knew there was nothing to fear in reality, nothing actually wrong in my relationship — so why was I so anxious?

Of course, I turned to Google, and somehow, I stumbled on a therapist’s website about “relationship anxiety,” where people who suffer from anxious thoughts and feelings about their relationships could get help. It was a Godsend — everything she described on that website about the people who benefit from her practice was exactly like me: highly sensitive, creative, perfectionistic, high-achieving people, who’ve suffered from anxiety their whole lives, and then in relationship, find it worse than it’s ever been.

I began taking her online courses and discovered that the whole point of her practice was to help people realize that anxiety about their relationship (unless it’s a real red flag) wasn’t actually about the relationship at all — it was old relational and familial wounds resurfacing in the context of a safe environment. As I dug into the deep work, I realized that was happening to me. I was realizing, for the very first time, just how deep my wounds were and how I had built bad mental and emotional habits to protect myself from my past pain.

As I entered into this invitation to heal, actually feeling that pain was agonizing. I suffered from horrible panic attacks and could barely eat or sleep. But, as I explored my thoughts and feelings and their origins, anxiety gave way to a grief unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was the darkest pit I’ve ever been in, and places inside me I didn’t even know existed revealed themselves as crumbling pieces of my soul that screamed for my attention in order to heal. I entered into grieving these wounds that I had not realized were dormant inside me for so much of my life.

During that process, I felt like I didn’t know who God was anymore. He was silent. And the way I had known him before this somehow didn’t feel real to me anymore; I don’t know how else to explain it. It was like I woke up to a reality I didn’t know existed, and I didn’t know how He fit into it anymore. My rich, daily prayer life vanished into a mere daily acknowledgement of His presence. It was all I could muster after being shattered from the inside out.

I found a therapist who helped me process my grief and past and validated that I was going through a major identity shift and healing the core of my being, as well as getting married soon — one massive transition on top of another.

Most days it felt like too much for me. I felt crushed beneath the weight of my feelings and felt like I was breaking into so many pieces. As badly as I wanted to just “get to the other side” and get over whatever I was going through and for these negative feelings to stop, it wasn’t like that. God didn’t make it go away or instantly heal me. I was angry with Him about that for a long time.

His way was different: He was letting me break. He was letting me die on the inside. He was the one letting me be crushed. He let the darkness feel like it would overwhelm me. But little by little, so gently, a tiny light crept back into my soul as I pushed myself to work through therapy and my own self-work toward inner healing. Slowly, so painfully and slowly, I was becoming whole. I was becoming the true self that was always inside me, but had never had the space to live and breathe with freedom because I was chained by my wounds. And as slowly as the light dawned inside, I began to realize that hope had never left me.

In my darkest moments just earlier this year, I kept going, because somehow I knew, despite everything my thoughts and feelings were telling me, that I had not been abandoned, and this pain wasn’t for naught. He showed me, by letting me suffer so profoundly, that God isn’t a Father who is in the business of fixing us, but rather through that breaking down, we can be made more whole. He was after my broken heart all this time, breaking it further so that He could gather it back up and make it entirely whole, new and real. A heart based in reality and freedom, pursuing Him because of love, rather than fear. I couldn’t see Him during most of this; but He was all I had. Whatever darkness I was going through, I had to hold onto something. So I held onto Him, even if I was angry or frustrated doing it.

This wasn’t magic. It was an ugly process. I needed therapy badly. I had a lot of work to do myself. Prayer didn’t make it go away, as much as I begged for that. But He allowed it for some reason, and I think it was because He wanted me to be a part of His process of healing me. It was a team effort. It’s not magic; it’s an ongoing healing process. I’m still being remade into something new. I’m still working through therapy and healing old wounds. But as I grieve, light grows brighter than the shadow a little more every day, and I feel like my true self more and more. My thoughts and feelings are managed better, and I know what to do with them after the hard work of rewiring my brain.

It’s hard to describe an experience like this to someone who hasn’t been there — what it’s like to heal from things so deeply embedded in my core, to undo the self that I had been before realizing how unhealthy I was. I wouldn’t say I “understand” God any better. But, I know that I’m enough for Him and He’s enough for me. He never has and never will leave me, especially in my suffering, even if my thoughts and feelings tell me otherwise.

I don’t have any answers to suffering or mental illness or where God is in all of it as a result of my experience. It’s a mystery. One of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor, said, “Evil is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be endured.” How true that’s been in my own experience.

But I do know that we’re not alone. None of us are alone. And just because we might suffer from mental illness does not make us broken nor mean we need to be “fixed.” We are inherently good and loved, but it’s okay to feel like we’re broken. It’s okay to not understand and be frustrated with God, just barely holding onto the fact that He’s there with us whenever we feel like the darkness will never end. He will walk with us in anything we feel or experience. Someday we will see the wisdom of His entire plan.

We’ll see that His peace is much greater than the absence of inner turmoil. His peace is wholeness. It’s knowing that we can let the broken be there, and trust that He’s healing us as we heal ourselves, that what He wants most for us is to be free, so that we can be free to love. It’s knowing that He’s a Father, who holds his suffering child in His arms while she cries. This is what’s true. And we can always hold onto that.

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