“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
There she lay, my weary-boned Nanny Verna, looking uncharacteristically peaceful, on her presumed death bed. I had literally just flown 6,300 miles—from Tokyo to Tulsa— because I needed to see her once more and tell her thank you and I love you and you really mattered to me. Everyone back home was messaging me that it was finally going to happen, that she was stubbornly refusing to eat or drink or do anything they told her to—that she was ready to go Home and digging her heels in. Any day now, the doctors said.
So I got myself on a flight from Tokyo, childless (which was glorious), flew thirteen hours, and went straight to the hospital to say my piece. When I arrived, disheveled but impassioned (basically my normal state), my Nanny was passed out from her morphine drip, of course. They said she’d been basically sleeping for weeks and then pretty pissed off when she woke up intermittently. I know the feeling. I had written her this beautiful letter, which I then realized she’d never be able to read or comprehend. She was alive still, but that sharp mind of hers was warm and fuzzy for her own good. But selfish me was melodramatically devastated that I’d waited too long to tell this spunky, ever-loving saint what she had meant to me. I just needed to say my words to her for my sake really, for closure, if we’re being honest. I never got to say them.
But a funny thing happened while I was there. Everyone in my family wss there. They all live there in T-Town still, which is good and fine for them, but it’s not the place for me. I’m the traitor, the misfit who left the Oklahoma Sky to see the stars from other corners of the world. And no one there understands why we on earth we would want to live our lives on any other side of the ocean. But that’s a whole other story, I’m getting distracted. It was a little awkward, saying all these tearful “hellos!” and “I miss you toos!” while trying to fight my way up to the front of the line to her, the one I needed to speak to. She had barely woken up at all for days, they said. Naturally disheartened, I took my place at her bedside, and I held her bony freckled hand gingerly. People everywhere. I couldn’t say my piece in these conditions. What to do! I was really in a conundrum when quite suddenly, without any warning at all, mind you, my Nanny Verna squeezed my hand hard, looked suspiciously around at all these people who loved her the very most, and made that face I’d seen so many times—that face that warned us that she was vexed to no end. Then she lucidly spat out words I’ll never forget,
“Well SHIT, what the HELL am I still doing here?”
My Nanny Verna loved Jesus, but she cussed a little. Is it terrible that as I’ve gotten older and wiser, something about the every-once-in-a-while cussers inspires affection in me? Not that you can’t be real without cursing, but come on. Sometimes there are just no other words. And that’s coming from a girl who loves her Thesaurus as much as her children.
We were all in quite a shock, but as you can imagine, nervous laughter threatened the somber atmosphere, for certain. She didn’t stay awake for long, just fidgeted uncomfortably and asked me, “Don’t you live in Japan? What are you doing here?” I was barely able to begin to tell her why-of-course-I-did, when she drifted back into euphoria. (That’s where I wanna live.)
But her exclamation needed no explanation. We all knew exactly what she meant. You see, Nanny Verna was ready to go to Heaven, that lady. She knew she was done here. She’d been suffering for so long. Her body had quit on her, but I sensed that her mind was still as sharp as ever underneath that morphine fog. And she was downright pissed off that she was still alive and in that hospital bed. Turns out, she took a temporary turn for the better and didn’t die that week (or for a couple months). I never got to have that conversation with her, but I got to say goodbye at least. I had to fly back to Tokyo to tend to my husband and four young children. She died a couple months later and I wasn’t able to return to Tulsa for the funeral, so that sucked. Such is life.
My Nanny Verna was a spitfire of a lady and she was one of my favorite people in the world. She made the best fried chicken. She taught me how to mop a kitchen floor. She was actually my step-grandmother, not biological, but she always treated me like her own—which means I incurred in equal parts her matriarchal wrath and some of the tenderest moments of my childhood with her. She was a straight talker, and I always loved that. It was the summer after third grade when my mom finally left my alcoholic, abusive father for good. It was my Nanny Verna and Papa Sam who took us in. I can’t recall exactly how long we lived with them, but it was long enough to do something pretty special for me. You see, Nanny had an enormous library. Books piled everywhere, all over the place. It was the most beautiful mess I’d ever seen. She was a voracious reader, and as far as she was concerned, that was the only way to be. She was either kicking me outside to play in the sun or making me read a book all summer long, any book I wanted to from her collection—no censorship! It was exhilarating! For a child whose life was punctuated by deafening tornado warnings left and right, those books gave me a shelter from the storm. Years before I learned that glorious name that would forevermore be my strong Tower (JESUS!), my Nanny’s towers of books gave me refuge. I needed that holdover and I’ll forever be grateful to her for that.
Plot after plot, character after character—one of the greatest secrets of the universe became mine at the ripe old age of nine: there’s a whole big beautiful world out there, with all kinds of adventures to be had. I reveled in the reverie that I could someday make a life for myself that looked nothing like this.
I was doggedly determined that I would do my best at school, that I’d get into a good college and that I would survive the next decade the best I could with whatever resources I could muster up. I would survive this family and then someday I would choose my own family. I remember the smell that filled my senses every time I slammed shut one of those old books of her, but as I whomped closed my Nanny’s second-edition, falling-apart copy of Gone With the Wind, (which is now one of my most precious possessions), something clasped shut inside me too. My heart snapped tight as an angry fist. I remember the searing tears as I uttered promises out loud to my own young soul, a covenant I could barely comprehend: I resolved with bitterness and gall to be my own girl, not anyone else’s, especially not theirs. My soul was mine and they couldn’t have it anymore. They were frankly not to be trusted, like Rhett. I was at least observant enough to notice that when it came down to me or them, they’d choose them every time. And I wouldn’t cry about it anymore. I would be an ox, because I had to be. I would be my own lawyer, judge, and jury–and theirs too. I would do whatever thing I thought was right, whatever I had to do to make it out alive. I may never be happy, I thought, but I would at least survive like Scarlett, come what may, and make something of the plot of land I’d been given.
I counted the years in my head (a little less than ten) before I could smartly start my own life. I decided that I would essentially block out my home life as much as possible; stay away from my house physically as often as possible (which entailed entering any/every social or community or church activity available); But I would survive.
When you decide to live that way though, even if you’re just nine and doing the best you can with a crap hand, there’s a price. There’s a debt that runs deep into your soul, a predator’s loan with sky-high interest rates and trick-clauses that ensure you’ll never, ever be able to pay it off. But how was I to know? I was just sure that I had no other choice but to be unapologetically self-seeking simply to survive the war. I would burn it all down to make it out alive, if I had to. Come what may, I would survive. Like Scarlett. Right? I would survive this God-forsaken land and get the hell out of there to try and become my true self. I would go to a new place and become the me I wanted to be. I would build my own life with my own blistered hands, in the scorching sun and all by myself if I had to. These heroic delusions got me through for a few years, until I unfortunately discovered that I am just as untrustworthy as any other. Actually, strike that, I am the chief of untrustworthy. I do the things I want not to do; I fail to do the things I know I must to thrive. I can want to do something with my whole heart but still not do that thing and for no good reason at all. But that’s another story.
Lo and behold, the bitter resolutions of my nine year-old self got me through at least the absolute insanity that was the next few years of my childhood. It seemed like such a good plan at the time, a perfectly plausible plot device to ensure that I could someday be the hero of my story. My Nanny Verna’s books gave me a sort of hope—even if it was not the eternal kind— that worked for a little while at least. Until I was about fourteen. But I’m so grateful to her for that very good gift she gave me.
Nanny had been living with chronic and debilitating back pain for over thirty years. I can’t remember her standing up straight or ever bopping around the house cooking or cleaning, only hobbling around, hunched over or in her special room reading and chain-smoking. She’d had three children and two of them had died tragically. Mike had died of AIDS when it was brand-spanking new and Cheryl died in a horrific drunk driving accident. Unsurprisingly, Nanny was severely depressed and probably agoraphobic, in hindsight. The only time she came out of the house was for the Christmas party, as far as I know. I don’t think I ever saw her anywhere besides her house, come to think of it. She was always in a tremendous amount of physical pain and always, always, always cranky and on edge. I don’t remember her smiling much or laughing much at all. But she wasn’t mean like my dad. She was pointy-edged, but not mean. There was always love underneath it, I sensed. There was something unmistakably affectionate when she yelled at us to, “Scrub behind your disgusting little ears!” or “Turn off that damn television!” There was always love beneath the surface, and it felt more familial to me than most any other thing I had going on back then. I think she was just in so much pain. It’s hard to be nice when you’re in pain. It’s hard not to curse when you stub your toe for the third time today on that same corner of the footboard. I know that now. It’s hard to be kind when you’re all twisted up inside and out and you’re limping, sometimes crawling just to get from one room to another.
I am now thirty-eight years old as I write this, and for the past seven years, I have struggled almost daily with major depression. With all of my childhood trauma, this should not have been a shock to me, but it was. For the entirety of my twenties, I impersonated Superwoman and I really kind of had it going on. Sure, my daddy issues came up every once in a while, but it didn’t put me down like a taser. It seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere when I was thirtyish, like a stealthy bullet shot from a sniper’s gun that got lodged in some secret chamber of my heart. Irremovable. Insufferable. Inoperable. It literally feels unbearable to breathe sometimes, and I wish I could just disappear. Stay asleep.
Some days are easier than others, but to be honest, most of them aren’t. Most days, I wake up like my Nanny Verna did that day and think, “Shit. I’m still here. I have to wake up and breathe and talk and eat and live now. Shit, shit, shit.”
This is what depression feels like, people. Literally paralyzed in my bed, unable to make the first move. My soul at a stand-still, death-match with my body. My body is begging me to live, to move, to breathe, to exercise, to eat. But this daily duel with despair, first thing in the morning. Before coffee even, it’s just a ridiculous, grueling existence.
But I am still here. Still standing. Still lifting my hands as high as I can when I sing His praises, even though I feel like a fraud. My God is REAL, and the blood of Christ is what makes me worthy to enter into His presence, so no matter how I feel, I’m gonna praise Him. It’s literally the only thing that makes me glad to be alive–singing to Him at the top of my lungs and telling Him how much He’s worth to me. It’s the only prescription that works every time, being in His presence. But it takes so much energy to get out of bed, to put my clothes on and brush my teeth, and find socks that match. I do it here too, but it’s incomparably more powerful to worship Him in communion with other believers. So I go and I cry through entire services, like the emotional wreck that I am. Because I’m still here.
Unlike my Nanny Verna, my body is still strong enough to carry on and probably to bear a whole lot more than I can imagine right now. Unlike my Nanny Verna, I am not finished. Most importantly, thank God, His Word says that HE will be faithful to complete what He started in me. He is not finished with me yet. All my towers of self-help books and spiritual memoirs and theological discourse, they help. They really do. But I don’t doubt for a second that it’s the strong arm of the Lord alone that can pull me out of this pit.
`I kept that covenant with myself for years. Defiance as my fuel, I survived my parents; I went to college and walked the line between being a good and honorable daughter and staying emotionally detached from the never-ending drama. I didn’t do it well, most of the time. But I did it. I got out. I studied hard and became a high school English teacher and pursued a Masters in English; I prayed hard and waited even harder for the right man to start a different kind of family with than the one I experienced; I lived in Japan for nearly a decade and I’ve lived in Germany for four years now. I’m living the dream, man. What do I have to be depressed about? First-world problems. Shouldn’t I be ashamed of myself? And then shouldn’t I be ashamed of my being ashamed because I have access to the Great Physician, do I not? Oh no, He bore my sin AND my shame. I’m not built to bear shame. It’ll crush me. It even crushed Him, all our sin and shame.
But here we are twenty years after I “got out,” but in so many ways, I’m still under them. It keeps coming back to me. All the ways I didn’t want to be? They’ve crept up like poison into my thinking and into my demeanor and into my very way of being. My life might seem to shine with the veneer of happily-ever-after. But the happiness part is not-so-much. Maybe this is just a “dark night of the soul” and my joy will return someday. (Please come shoot me if I write a book later about 21 Ways to Beat Depression.) The truth is that when you are suffering from depression, you are often in excruciating emotional pain for seemingly no reason at all. I have a wonderful husband who loves me and four gorgeous, healthy, happy children. I live overseas, and not just because I wanted to get away from my roots, but because God planted that dream in my heart as a teenager through Isaiah 49, speaking to me as clearly as can be that I would spend my life going to the ends of the earth. And then He made it come to pass. All things considered, I have nothing to complain about. I SHOULD NOT BE DEPRESSED. His mercies are new every morning, so why does my soul awaken to instant despair? What is this unbearable affliction? The pain seems too much to handle for a mere human. And I can’t even begin to diagnose it! I can’t find the bullet. Neither can I find the self-help book that will make it go away. I can’t find the psychiatric surgeon! I can’t find the pill that will take it down even a notch.
And the ghosts of my childhood, and a few from my adulthood, taunt me mercilessly. But really that’s just ME taunting me, isn’t it? So why can’t I just freaking STOP it? All the over-thinking and over-reacting and over-feeling and over-sharing. Are you wondering if I’m crazy yet? I sure have. I’ve checked into it.
But of all those ghosts living in my head, my Nanny Verna is not among them. I can hear her laughing from somewhere not too far above, among that great cloud of witnesses, cheering me on: “Keep going, kid!” she exhorts. “Sing some more, child!” “And don’t forget to floss between your molars!!” Such a bossy-pants.
P.S. The photo is my newest tattoo. Perhaps you can surmise its significance on your own, due to my chronic oversharing.