I have always been the kind of personality that is all or nothing. So when I met the Lord in my late teens I was an in. My personality combined with my passion meant I found myself in church at least three times a week, serving on numerous ministries, and leading a weekly connect group at home. Whenever someone called, I was there. Even my job at the time was somewhat of a ministry, working with high needs, long term unemployed clients to help them deal with the challenges they were facing. Of course my desire for excellence opened up many opportunities for me. I was offered and accepted a role as a national partnership manager in my field, I started to lead ministries and was presented opportunities to travel abroad.
I wore my business as a badge of honour as my identity hung on the thread of what I did. I lived on the accolades of others, always affirming how ‘on fire’ I was. I felt significant for the first time in my life, which provided more than enough drive to keep me living a life that was constantly overextended. This landed me in South America on a three week intensive youth mission trip. Every day of the trip was jam packed, long days with long meetings, long meetings with long lines of people waiting to be prayed for. Everything was long except for the time I allocated for sleep. I got a few hours of sleep at best each night, not wanting to miss a single thing.
When I returned from my fiery ministry trip in South America, still enjoying the high, feeling like the hulk spiritually and ready to have a crack at raising the dead, I felt unstoppable. I’ll admit I had a few moments overseas where I started to feel a little unwell — a sinister rash appeared on my neck and I experienced some flu like symptoms. However, I shrugged it off and gave my attention to improving my awful Spanish and mastering the art of preaching with an interpreter. Turns out ‘please’ in Spanish translates with way more syllables and sounds ridiculous if said multiple times in a row. In spite of me, an entire church received the joy of the Lord mid message. My newfound friends survived my lousy Spanish and I soldiered on for the rest of the trip.
Though I felt ready to take on the world, physically something was off. Landing back home was rough. Not just because of the jet lag, stinky feels and the fact that I had misplaced my toothbrush but because I felt really unwell. I got home with zero intention of braving the lag and reunited with my beloved bed. Hours later, I was up with a raging fever and fluids coming out of all openings. I’ll spare you the finer details. For two days I couldn’t hold my head upright without becoming nauseous and violently ill. Finally, my roommate drove me to the local medical centre for examination.
Long story short, I had glandular fever and some South American virus I can’t spell properly. I didn’t think much of the doctor’s assessment and was given some brief instructions on managing the fever and symptoms and sent home. I was told to rest, but I didn’t have time for that.
At the time, I worked in a high pressure role with long hours and extensive travel. It felt great being the youngest person in the company managing reasonably sized government contracts. When I wasn’t in a work meeting or on a flight, I was at church. There was always something to attend or be involved in. I didn’t eat well and when I did, I would eat on the run. I never took lunch breaks, or breaks at all. Looking back, I can see how unsustainable my lifestyle was and how it was a disaster waiting to happen. Eventually the fever broke and all traces of an illness from my trip to South America seemed to have disappeared. I escaped this bout of illness without those around me having any clue something was wrong.
However, soon thereafter, my health again began to deteriorate and a long painful journey led to a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. From the outside, my life appeared to be flourishing. Whenever I would start to feel vulnerable: I would withdraw, isolate myself and pull it together before showing my face again. No one knew that secretly I was battling debilitating chronic illnesses and that my soul was straining under an incredible amount of grief, anxiety and unresolved trauma.
I had no idea about self-care, sustainable rhythms, boundaries and the importance of managing myself well– spirit, soul and body. Consequently, in my mid twenties the rug was violently pulled from under my feet and everything in my life collapsed like a house of cards — I suffered a nervous breakdown.
In the painful months that followed, I could barely function. I couldn’t sleep properly, I was barely eating, and I could no longer work as I struggled just to leave the house. My body would tremor uncontrollably and my cognitive capacity was so low that I couldn’t even fill in a form without feeling overwhelmed and bursting into tears. To make things even worse, the people around me were grossly underprepared to handle my struggle.
This was in part because I presented myself as a very consistent and high functioning woman. People around me only knew of my strength, stability and stamina in my personal devotion to the Lord and in loving others. They had no idea of my painful past.
I don’t know that I was taught explicitly that my past trauma was irrelevant since I had become a new creation, I just think it was one of those lessons I absorbed from the culture of the church. Consequently, I lived a significant portion of my Christian walk in denial about the impact of my past. Unfortunately, this meant I spent a long time and a lot of energy trying to pretend I was okay or hiding the fact that I wasn’t. I did not realise that suppressing my pain or denying it was preventing me from experiencing the healing and hope that was on the other side of working through the heartache.
I had no idea how long it would take for me to dig myself out of the rut I was in and there were days I questioned whether I would ever be my normal again. I had six months off of work to recover, during which I made mountains of terrible choices, just trying to numb, suppress, or medicate the pain that had exploded inside my soul. At the time, I had no reference point or tools for processing pain in a healthy way.
It was a terrifying and excruciating season of my life, yet in it I was met by the kindness and nearness of God in a way that still impacts me profoundly. He really is close to the brokenhearted.
Looking back, here’s where I went wrong:
I said yes, when I knew I needed to say no.
I often let my passion for helping people go unchecked and unrestrained, meaning I would always say yes to what I felt passionate about at the expense of better judgment.
I did not set healthy boundaries or limits and I did not communicate powerfully.
I listened to the voice of fear — fear of being rejected, judged, misunderstood; the fear of failure, disapproval or disappointing others.
I didn’t see myself being equally as valuable as those I ministered to.
I allowed myself to be pressured, guilted and manipulated into doing things that I did not want to do.
I gave grudgingly, resentfully and under compulsion often, although I would never have had the security to admit that to myself at the time.
I did not make time to both rest and recharge.
I did not manage my time, energy and resources to match my priorities, and if I had priorities, they were all out of whack.
I did not live powerfully, I let the days demands and people’s needs or expectations dictate how I would spend my time. I did not look beyond the moment to consider sustainability or longevity and I never adjusted my commitments to match my capacity, in changing seasons and circumstances.
I believed I was expected to be okay all the time and that joy was the only appropriate Christian emotion.
I neglected to understand, embrace and value my humanity, with its vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
I was afraid of pain and did not understand how vital it is to process through it in a healthy way.
I shamed myself for feeling, which was way more destructive than just embracing the initial feeling. I tried to hide my pain from God and others instead of inviting them into it which only served to prolong pain and prevent healing.
I think self-care can be a difficult truth to grasp in a Christian context. We are taught from the onset that to be a ‘good’ Christian is to be selfless, to love the poor, befriend the lonely, generously serve, be hospitable and lay down our lives. Somehow though, we mistranslate this to mean giving people unlimited access to our time, energy and resources.
It has just ticked over four years since my rebirth. Although it has been hell at times, I can say I have risen from the ashes a more compassionate human. Pain has been a game changer for me. When pain is fully felt with the Comforter, it is the very thing that propels us in our destiny. Everything is drastically different now, my walk with the Lord, my love for people, and the way I live and do ministry.
Maybe today you are reading this and you can see yourself in my story. Maybe you are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and at a breaking point. Or maybe you’ve already found yourself there, amongst the wreckage, feeling discouraged, despondent, disappointed or even disillusioned in your faith. I wrote this just for you — to tell you I see you in the rubble, to say I am with you in it, that God is in the mess with you, not distant or aloof, but present and close, redeeming every detail. The word for redeem in the Bible translates as a simultaneously past, present and future tense word, the implication is that God is all the while redeeming you. Your broken places, like mine, are being restored and you too will rise from the ashes. You’re gonna be okay.