My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 1

When I was a little girl, going to church on Saturday (because we were Seventh-day Adventist Christians), was a disaster. I was apparently in my feminist phase, and I refused to wear dresses. I used to throw tantrums. Yes, the same woman who is quiet and reserved today—the one whom many dub phlegmatic and calm—was a stomping, screaming terror.

Temper Tantrum
Photo Credit: http://no-maam.blogspot.com/2012/06/woman-most-responsible-teenager-in.html

Why were the worst days on Sabbath? And not just for me, but for my whole family? We all yelled at each other, piled into the car with frowns on our faces, and crinkled brows. We drove to church seething at one another. My parents usually still made me wear a dress…after up to an hour of screaming at me and me screaming back.

Oh my.

Then we got to church and acted happy—I think. Truth is, my memory has left a lot of gaps, especially of the early years, which makes it hard to write a memoir sometimes. So here’s a digression…because this is a messy testimony…

Blanking Out the Past…Because It Hurts

I’ve been writing to my roots (writing this blog and writing my memoir) for about a year, and memories of my childhood are just starting to surface. It was only in the second draft of my memoir, after my editor pushed me to go there, that I delved into my formative years. Why is this?

I think it’s because I needed time to get back there. After my parents’ divorce and my depression, my suicide attempts and my hospitalizations, the present moment—the struggle to just maintain life and just be—became all consuming. I plumb forgot about my past, bad and good.

I used my parents’ divorce and the mess surrounding it to justify my depression and my eating disorder, among other self-sabotaging behaviors. I discounted the fact that—hello—I had depressive tendencies long before my home blew up. And now we go back to the story.

Bad Beginnings

Sad Tears
Photo Credit: “Sad Tears” by Lusi

In writing to my roots, I’ve uncovered the ugly truth that I was always a melancholy child. Facing the fact that the problem has always been inside me—and it didn’t come from any externals (although it was certainly exacerbated by them)—has been hard. It means I can’t totally blame the dysfunction of my early adulthood on my parents or my church or anyone else—except the enemy of my soul.

It’s hit me hard lately that he was attacking me from very early on. I always had the tendencies to stress and despondency and impossible perfection that I still blog about. I remember freaking out about doing my fifth grade Science worksheets “just right.” I remember that my sixth grade Minnesota portfolio had to excel everyone else’s. Every year of elementary, I had to beat out the other kids in the reading program.

At home, I used to rant and rave about how stressed I was, making entire days a living hell for my parents. I learned there was some power in airing all my negative thoughts—“Life sucks,” “I wish I could die”—because they got me some attention. Even when I was shut away in my room, I wallowed for hours, yelling, weeping, complaining. Everyone knew when I was in a bad mood, because it clouded the whole house.

It’s amazing to me that these messages found their way into my brain so early, and that life was sometimes too heavy to handle, even at age ten. (Satan’s that good—I mean, that bad—isn’t he?)

Okay, let me pause again. These admissions are really embarrassing, but I make them in hopes of showing how our negative roots (negative thoughts) must lead to more and more negative fruits (negative behaviors) later in life. In my case, though my outward tantrums stopped around teenage-hood, I found other ways, inward ways, to sulk. The biggest way was keeping a very negative journal from age fourteen until age twenty-five—which, though less visible to the world, still reinforced my poisonous thoughts every bit as much as my childhood tantrums.

Tantrums Change…Temperaments Don’t…or Do They?

melancholy
Photo Credit: “Melancholy” by Lusi

For most of my life, I’ve classed myself as a Christian. However, after I married and entered my adult phase (which events, I think, happened in that order), it always struck me as problematic that I still lived with my negative, “please let me die” thoughts. Was this the kind of fruit a truly “born-again” Christian should be producing?

Writing on the new life in Christ we are promised when we accept Jesus as our Savior, Paul said, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). Romans 8:1-17 is all about living life through the Spirit, in fact, and it’s all about inward renewal, or thoughts. It tells me Jesus conquered “sin in sinful man” so that I could live not according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit (vss. 3 and 4).

The true, spirit-filled life doesn’t sound like it includes wanting to die. The “born-again” experience doesn’t seem like it has room for thoughts like, “Life sucks.” When I think back now to my life before rebirth, I see what Paul meant by his statement, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”

Before I accepted Jesus as my Savior on the inside, my mind was centered on death…which tells me that, although I was “in the church,” I wasn’t really “born-again.”

In part 2, I will explore why some Christians are depressed, and why my “Christian” family eventually imploded.

Read Part 2

Book Review: The Glass Castle

Glass_Castle

Here’s a little memoir writing inspiration for you today, or just a great read (if you’re looking for either): Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. After skipping past it several times in Half Price Books, I had to finally read it when both a comrade in my writers’ group and my editor suggested it.

Here are three reasons why you should read it:

1)    The story. The story of two genius, yet crazy parents and how their eccentricities drag their four kids down, it’s wacky enough to the point of being unbelievable; but I’m taking Walls at her word that this is what she remembers of her childhood. Imagine an engineer dad and an artist mom who are too freethinking to be shackled to regular jobs, who do the “skedaddle” whenever they get in trouble with the law. Imagine parents who would rather have their family live in shacks, ditches, or inside their van than have air conditioning and heating and plumbing and food—all in the name of chasing their dreams. It’s particularly fascinating watching young Jeannette and her siblings come of age amidst the chaos of their parents’ childishness (mental illness? I still can’t decide what would possess parents to act like this) and note the strength they muster because, well, they must. A fascinating psychological portrait of a dysfunctional family, as well as an amusing, and at times, heartbreaking, read.

2)    The writing. Vivid, fast-moving, and clear, Walls sucks the reader in on the first page and doesn’t let go until the end. As my editor put it, note the detachment with which Walls describes the “wacky and terrible things her parents did to her.” Walls writes details that a child would notice with the diction of a well-trained writer—and she doesn’t get overly analytical. Instead, she lets the reader point to her family in horror and amusement and disbelief and disgust. As my editor also said, children aren’t able to process what certain things mean; all they know is, “Here’s what happened.” Reading about the horrors of living in such a dysfunctional family from the perspective of a speaker who can only report, not analyze, is fascinating. Just fascinating.

3)    The reassurance that your own family isn’t that bad. After reading about Walls’s family, I felt a lot better about my own. If you can’t say the same, I am truly sorry for you, but at least you have the makings of a great memoir in your head!

glass-castle
The book’s title comes from Jeannette’s dad’s grand plan to build the family a “glass castle” in which to live someday. This image becomes increasingly ironic and heartbreaking as the book progresses and the family slides deeper into a squalor from which, the children slowly realize (and readers much sooner understand), they will never emerge.

The one criticism I would levy at the book is this: I feel there is no way an adult could remember in such clear detail (as Walls seems to) what happened in childhood. Though I ate up every scene with each painstakingly stinky or ugly detail, I found myself disbelieving that she could really remember what she said at three years of age, or what her home looked like at four, or the fight her parents had when she was five, etc.

I voiced this to my editor, saying, “I could never write about my childhood so vividly,” to which she replied, “It’s amazing what children with dysfunctional backgrounds can remember.” I’ll have to research that, but for the sake of a great story, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and grant that Walls reported to the best of her ability (without needlessly embellishing) a story that was real and true, as far as she could remember. In the end I have to grant that, for a memoir writer, memories, however we filter them, are truth. So hats off to Jeannette Walls for letting us in on the horrors of her memory. Today I go back to my own memories feeling strengthened to report.