Someone recently told me (paraphrase), “people always tell their stories of pain when they’re over and they have lessons and hindsight and insight. They never tell the stories when they’re in the messy, painful middle and the outcome is uncertain.”
In response to that, here is more of my messy middle. Because, as Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” and the story that I’m in is burning me up. So here are the words, to help ease the burning.
A line from a Swell Season song has been ringing in my head all morning as I drive Alice to school and weep, return home and weep, supervise baths for the boys and weep:
You have broken me all the way down.
Last night I fell apart—again. It seems to be happening more and more, like a tightening circle with less and less space between breakdowns to recover. In the midst of it, after I had finally stopped shouting and hitting myself and was trying to explain to Adam—and to myself—the source of the pain that overwhelms me, I said, “I need things I can’t have.”
Adam said, “You mean Heidi being better, and Erica moving here?”
Yes. I desperately want these things—for Heidi’s cancer to be healed, for her suffering to be over, to have my sisters close and well. But also, no. Because more than that, I need something else—rescue. For myself.
This past year, cancer, God, time, suffering—they have broken me all the way down. They have together eaten away all my protective layers. At the smallest sting—and regular life is full of them: a rebuke, a criticism, a perceived failure, a misunderstanding—I now crumple as if at the thrust of a sword.
Old Jenna was self-confident. Had high self-esteem. I considered myself to be a resilient, perseverant person. Someone with strong willpower who could put her mind to anything—and succeed. Someone who had soul-power. Someone who didn’t let rejection get to her. Someone whose faith would carry her through the hardest moments, with grace. Someone who could call on the Holy Spirit for comfort, and receive it. Every one of those things has cracked. In fact, everything I used to like about myself has crumbled to a fine dust.
I knew when we got Heidi’s diagnosis in December of 2018 that I would be facing suffering unlike anything I’ve faced. So I put my mind to “doing cancer well.” I determined I would hang onto faith and be a “strong Christian woman,” like I had when I lost a baby, or during those trying months after Ben’s diagnosis with a rare and life-threatening neurological disease. Surely there was a way to do cancer “right”—and the reward (I thought) would be that my suffering would be imbued with hope and some semblance of faith and beauty. Those things (I thought) would make the suffering bearable.
I pictured resilience as a walking person. Perhaps the elements were striving against that person—a fierce gale, a hurricane even—but this person would simply lean into the storm and press on.
But I’m not walking anymore.
Perhaps, then, the resilient person could be hanging onto the side of the cliff instead. Not walking—but enduring, at least, fingers crunched tight on a sandy ledge.
But even in this lesser version of resilience, I have failed. In the picture of the cliff, I’ve fallen off, and I’m falling still. And no matter how much I thrash against the falling, there is no escape from it. It just keeps going . . . and going . . . and going, carrying me further and further down.
I used to think that self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and self-loathing were for others. Maybe for teenagers, whose brains are growing and who have huge hormonal swings. Maybe for people who have endured profound trauma, the kind that even now has never touched me, like abuse or neglect or rape. Perhaps for people whose parents hated themselves, and never had the kind of examples of self-esteem I grew up with.
But now, these things are for me too. I didn’t want them. Oh God, I didn’t want them.
At my worst moments, like last night, when everything I took pride in about myself has proven empty and I come face to face with my weakness and the fact that I can’t save myself—in fact, I want to end my own life—the voices in my head start to scream, Just die, you dumb, worthless fucking bitch.
The voices become my own. I scream that at myself. My best efforts to be a light, bright person of faith in the midst of trial didn’t succeed. I have failed at everything I valued. I’m not resilient. I’m a wreck. I hate what I’ve become but I can’t claw my way out. I’m trapped. And there is no help.
Adam likes to remind me at these times, you are persevering. You’re still getting up in the morning. Going to work. Getting kids to school, bathed, to bed. Reading your Bible, going to church.
Adam and others like to remind me that God is there even when I can’t feel him. That God is in the people surrounding me with love and care.
But the reality is that I am so profoundly disappointed in God. And in myself. And I don’t see a path to recovering from that. He has let me down. When I needed emotional comfort—his presence in my feelings, which are the very things that are destroying me—he didn’t come through. He was supposed to be the God that reached down when I was emotionally at my worst, took my hand, and yanked me up. Instead, I’m falling. He was supposed to be the God that, in moments of profound darkness, shone a ray of hope. Instead, he has broken me . . . all the way down.
In a parallel universe, there is another Jenna. This Other Jenna did something different. She did it “right.” She stayed strong. She praised God and believed hard and stayed positive and breathed hope. And incidentally, she also gets her hair cut and her nails done and actually takes the time to wash her face. She has energy to love her husband and her kids like they deserve, and doesn’t melt down on a regular basis. She’s emotionally constant, dependable, with strength for the weakness of others. She wants to have (frequent) sex, loves her body, cooks lovely things, makes time to work out, and laughs in the face of rejection, disappointment, or slights from others.
It kills me that I am not that Other Jenna.
Adam says, you have to let go of Other Jenna. You have to let go of everything you are not and love the Jenna that God loves.
But guys? I have to face the fact that I never learned to do that. I always liked myself well enough. Loved myself, even. No longer. I don’t know how to like the mess I’ve become. I don’t know how to accept the weakness and failures that leave me gasping, I just want to die.
I need rescue.
Where is the Rescuer?