I wrote the following essay a couple months ago. Somebody told me to share it with others. Perhaps it can help some people come to terms with some things. I am brutally honest here, and fairly personal. But I think it’s true that many in my generation can probably relate.
(I talk a lot about college debt. A few years ago, Bernie Sanders stood on a thousand stages talking about debt. He struck a chord with people like me who are frustrated and mad about it. But for all his empathy, good intentions, and creative policy ideas, he sort of missed one emotion we have about debt: shame.)
I found some hope about some things one morning.
Here is my story.
I woke up this morning at 6:45 a.m. because I needed to pee. This is unimportant – but it isn’t unimportant, really. It abruptly took me out of dream. I don’t remember what I was doing in the dream (other than realizing I had to pee), but this is all important because of what happened when I woke up. Some things came together in my mind that have been struggling slowly under the surface with great weight for years, like tectonic plates moving beneath the waves.
Regret. The earth is full of regret. It is full of greed and rage and lust, and a lot of times we humans let all that accumulate like the CO2 troubling our atmosphere. A lot of times we don’t care, and we go on wreaking havoc on the relationships we have with the people and world around us. But a lot of times we do care.
And that care accumulates too, on our shoulders, in our minds, in our tears, and in the wrinkles between our brows. It is as if this globe we live on is filled with the weight of bad decisions (well, sin, as my religion calls it), and the shame that comes from it adds to that weight. And this little globe we live on is crumbling because of it. And we are crumbling too.
These are broad thoughts. But this is about me, specifically. My bad decisions. My sin. My regret.
Shame has been my constant companion ever since I was a kid. It started with puberty, and all the changes inside me and around me caused a lot of confusion. I became aware of the fact that the sin they talked about at church lived in me, and sometimes that scared me. Sometimes, of course, I didn’t care, and I rebelled, like we all did. But shame started to add up around this time. Just recently, at 32 years old, I learned that I have a kind of OCD that makes me particularly sensitive to shame. So I maybe felt it more than other people did.
Of course, as I became an adult, the opportunities to make bad decisions became endless. And of course, like all of us, I made them. Some of mine are more unique to me, but maybe really we are all the same. We all have what my religion calls “sin.”
For me, I have become burdened by the shame of this sin to the point of breaking. To the point of sleeping so many more hours than I should (another thing to be ashamed of) because I didn’t want to face it. To the point of not liking myself. Hating myself. Wanting to kill myself. I know now that in addition to the OCD, I have bipolar disorder. This makes me particularly sensitive to thoughts like that. Sensitive to shame, sensitive to despair.
(Mental illness: hard).
I have thought so much about what I am ashamed of. I have had countless conversations about it with countless Christian mentors and therapists and psychiatrists and psychologists and patient friends and parents and even the hundreds of people I barely know on Facebook. I have found some peace with these people and their good thoughts (maybe with the exception of some Facebook friends). I have found some peace from some of Scripture…though a lot of Scripture has always scared me. It was the words of these people who interpreted the Scripture through mature eyes that brought me hope. Medication helps too.
But even after all that, my shame has somehow always slipped back behind my back. Again and again it has grasped my shoulders, whispering how I owe $80,000 for my education (which you don’t even use, do you, shame whispers), how I have made certain private sexual choices and had certain impure sexual thoughts, how I have been irresponsible with money, how I have slept so much of my adulthood away, how I haven’t eaten well, haven’t exercised, haven’t been enough of a friend or daughter or sister or global citizen. Shame whispers these things to me every day, and when I am not actively listening to him, I listen all the same in the pathways he has worn out in my brain.
So this morning when I woke up and had to pee, I had this strange moment. I peed, and I washed my hands. And I looked at my groggy self in the mirror. And I went back to bed and for some reason I started to talk to shame in my head. I thought, you know what? I am going to look at you, shame, and we are going to have words. I am going to walk through the swinging doors of the saloon not far from the O.K. Corral and I am going to put my hand on my new gun and I am going to look you in the eye. You are standing far away this time, staring at me with your long stare. Your gun is already pointed at me. And I am drawing mine.
Eighty thousand dollars of college debt. This is one of the biggest sources of shame in my adult life, and it is what I was thinking about this morning for some reason. It’s more, shame says (again and again), than anyone else I know owes. Way more, shame says. Okay, so why? I am asking myself that now. I came up with some things: 1) I lived in the dorms my freshman year. 2) I bought a $1000 mattress my sophomore year. 3) I went to L’Abri during college, spending about $1400 leftover from the loan money I had borrowed that year. 4) I dropped a lot of classes. 5) I took a French minor. 6) I took choir classes. 7) I studied abroad in France. And 8) I ate out too much during this time. Let’s tackle these one by one.
- I lived in the dorms my freshman year. Should I regret that? You know what, no. It was a rich experience.
- I bought a $1000 mattress. I needed a mattress…so, there’s that.
- I went to L’Abri, a Christian Center that reaches out to people with philosophical or existential turmoil (www.labri.org). That was one of the absolute best experiences of my life, and I cannot possibly regret that.
- I dropped a lot of classes. Bipolar symptoms (including a full- on psychotic break and debilitating depression) started happening in college. This made it really hard to stay on top of course work and even get out of bed to go to class. Is that my fault? Not that I have a mental illness. I have to take responsibility for those choices, but I also need to acknowledge that I had a disadvantage in this way.
- I took a French minor (which meant some more classes). One of the richest and most enjoyable aspects of my education. Should I regret it? No.
- I took choir classes. Some of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Should I regret them? No.
- I studied abroad. I got the opportunity to learn a beautiful foreign language, look at beautiful art, see the Alps, see Claude Monet’s garden, see Omaha Beach, and learn a little about a different culture, which forever enriched the way I see my own culture and deepened my empathy. Should I regret it? No.
- I ate out too much during this time. This one I can admit was irresponsible. I knew I ate out too much when I was doing it, I knew I was spending too much money. But at the same time, having a mental illness really does make it harder for people to keep their lives together. Daily responsibilities can be overwhelming to anyone these days, especially young adults. But if you have a mental illness, it is really overwhelming. So should I regret this? You know what, no!
- F***ing interest.
I thought hard about this. Oh, and one more thing:
- In the last nine years since graduation, I haven’t been able to pay much back. I mean, I don’t know, maybe like less than 1% back? But you know what, I haven’t had a full-time, good-paying job. Ever. Is that my fault? Well, I got to the end of my college career in journalism and I knew that I didn’t want to be a journalist anymore. I had already changed my major once (hey, I forgot about that! That’s another one. Do I regret that? No. What kid knows exactly what she wants to do her freshman year? Well, okay, some kids. But it’s pretty normal not to know that). So I decided not to go back and change my major, and I decided to just collect the degree I earned. I had a hard time knowing what to pursue, then, as a career. And truthfully, having a mental illness makes it very difficult to be motivated to pursue new opportunities. And it even makes any job (even part-time ones) harder. So: being unable to pay anything back has made the interest skyrocket. I owe more now than I did when I graduated. A lot more. If I had found and kept a good job, this $80,000 would be less.
Then I was thinking about my good choices. Things to be proud of:
- I have always had a job. Even in college. Sometimes two jobs. This is tough for people with mental illnesses.
- I gave up having a car after my freshman year, so I didn’t spend money on gas.
As for the other reasons to be ashamed, I can work those out as I go along. I guess I am just realizing that some things I regret just should not be regrets. Sometimes they are things to be proud of. Sometimes they were mistakes or sin, but I can have some understanding for why I stumbled. I have deep sin. But who in my life has ever told me to be ashamed? I have poured out my heart to so many good people, and have they ever told me to be ashamed? Nobody from church. No psychiatrist, no psychologist, no therapist. Every one of those people has pushed me toward grace. So who has it been all along who has preached shame?
I have my gun drawn now, but you are already smaller than I remember, shame. It won’t be long before you are gone.
I realize this morning that for all the things I have truly done wrong, for all the sin, Jesus died for me. He died for those things.
When am I going to start believing that?