This essay is an excerpt from the anthology Soul Bare: Stories of Redemption published by Inter Varsity Press in August 2016.
In 1977, my mother left my brothers and me with sitters to go looking for an apartment and didn’t return for days. When she finally did, after what most people considered a “lost weekend,” my brother and I were placed in foster care. I was not quite five. It was a lost weekend, because I lost everything— my home, my family, what little sense of stability an alcoholic parent could provide. I also lost my history. I remember so little I can’t even get a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing memoir out of the train wreck of my life. I’ve battled depression and anxiety ever since.
For years, when I spoke of that event, the lost weekend, I always said, “We were taken away from my mom when I was four.” That’s only partly true. This year is the first time I’ve called it what it really was. “My mom left me when I was four.” There wasn’t an unknown they. The man. The system. For thirty years I believed that my family had little to do with my being “taken away.” Then one day, Thanksgiving, reunited with my brother David, the truth came out.
“It was Granny and Aunt Pinky that called DCFS on us.” Silence. Cogs whirring. Memories scanned. All these years I believed we were “taken away” from family, and what really happened is that we were “given up” by family? There is no way to describe that feeling, the uncovering of that truth.
This wasn’t a passive relinquishment of two children. This was an active participation in the giving up of two children.
My mother was given a choice between her addiction and her children. The ugly, painful truth is that she chose her addiction, year after year. She chose her addiction over being a mother, and over monthly visits with her children. My mother was a victim too. But I believed she was going to be the hero one day. She was going to come back for me. We were going to live together again, and Elvis Presley was going to be my dad.
It’s funny now. And sad. The only thing I knew about my mother was that she loved Elvis. I didn’t know her favorite color or her favorite flower. In my fantasy, we all got what we wanted. My mom got Elvis and I got her, and we lived happily ever after.
In all, there were five foster homes, eight schools, one group home, one children’s home, one physically and emotionally abusive home, two sexually abusive homes, one perverted youth pastor who kissed me in the dark church, two predatory teachers, one father who I knew briefly as an infant, one brother who ran away so much we were separated, and one mother who could rarely be found or bother to show up for a monthly parental visit.
After the third or fourth or ninth time my mother failed to show up for her visitation, I figured it out. There was no truth to my fantasy. It was never going to happen. I was always going to be the girl whose mother didn’t love her enough to keep her, the girl who wasn’t even worth her mother’s love. The disposable, invisible, expendable little girl who had no worth even to the woman who gave birth to her.
There was never a time I didn’t see myself like that. Even in the good foster home, I never felt like I belonged, like I was claimed as anyone’s. The different last names, my blonde hair and blue eyes setting me apart from the darker-eyed families I was placed with. My early loss defined me and set me apart. There was no way to pretend it didn’t.
The loneliness was excruciating. There was no one to talk to. The social workers alternated all the time. I didn’t have enough of “me” to believe my opinion mattered or could be expressed. I told them what they wanted to hear. I smiled and nodded. I packed up my clothes.
I longed for a home. What I got was a stranger’s house for undetermined amounts of time. Monthly visits to the grandmother, aunt and cousins who were privileged to live together while I lived apart. Nothing was ever “real” for me. I was never one of the “real” kids, and I never lived with my “real” family. I was so unknown. I didn’t know how to speak up, to ask for what I wanted or needed. I didn’t know how tell them I preferred one thing over another. I made myself small. I wanted to disappear altogether.
Even as I got older there weren’t many memories I could go back to. Truthfully, they are most likely blocked for a reason. I saw faces, houses, scenes I couldn’t tell were real. But what I do remember are the nights. The sleepless, achingly lonely nights when I cried and cried until my sobs rocked me to sleep. The nights I put my own hands around my throat and choked myself into unconsciousness, hoping that would be the fatal one. The knives and razor blades and scissors. The over-the-counter pills I would steal trying to find the deadly dose. Getting so drunk I blacked out and ended up on a stranger’s lawn.
There were required weekly therapist visits from third grade on. There was a two-week stay on a psych unit when I was seventeen where I confessed my deepest, darkest shame, being molested at ten. I couldn’t speak the words out loud. I wrote them on a piece of paper and gave them to Lori as I was leaving. Group therapy was suggested. Seriously? For a girl who can’t speak the words out loud behind a closed door to one person? The matter was dropped, but only on their end. It never ended for me.
There was medication. More counseling. The children’s home. College. Wandering. Vandalism. Theft. More drinking. More risky behavior, hoping that something would just happen to me that would end it all. I had nowhere to go until a friend helped me get to Jesus People USA, a residential ministry in Chicago, where misfits, outcasts, and lost and lonely people could find a home, a church and a purpose. I did find all of those things and more. I found family, a husband, a calling.
I discovered my gifts for mentoring and discipleship. I was given space and encouragement to write, publishing articles and poetry for Cornerstone magazine. I had the privilege of meeting musicians like Over the Rhine, Victoria Williams, Maria McKee and Julie Miller. I met some favorite authors too: Kathleen Norris, Luci Shaw, Lauren Winner, Irina Ratushinskaya, Doris Betts. I spoke to Anne Lamott on the floor of the gym at Calvin College. I sat at Henri Nouwen’s feet when he spoke about drinking the cup. I read original letters by C. S. Lewis in the Wade Center at Wheaton College and assisted in publishing several books on Lewis, MacDonald, Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor.
All of these experiences were life changing, and the people I shared my life with were extraordinary in countless ways. My husband and daughter still make my heart beat faster. God has been faithful and loving and merciful to me with such abandon that it makes me ashamed to admit that I still have that darkness inside me.
After all the years, all the counseling, all the forgiving, all the medication, all the agonizing authenticity and cringing confessions, I still get gloomy. After the diagnoses of major depression, chronic grief, anxiety, and PTSD, I still get weepy when the sun starts to sink below the horizon. I still lie awake at night with panic from events and conversations of the day and memories and nightmares from the past.
The years 2010-2011 were the longest, bloodiest battles against my own shadowy heart and hopeless spirit I’ve ever known. There was so much against us—church conflict, deaths, job loss, parenting defeats, destruction of community, financial ruin, health problems.
It was the middle of February six years ago, recovering from emergency surgery and the demise of a friendship, when I first told my husband I was struggling with suicidal thoughts. There was just no light in our future. I was so tired, so deeply hurt, so desperately disappointed. But I hung on.
Life didn’t magically improve in the hanging on, it only grew blacker and sharper and more suffocating. Eight months later it was so much worse. For weeks on end I was waking up praying that it was a nightmare, that I was really dead and being alive was the dream. I didn’t know who to share with, how to present the subject, how not to draw a person in with my candidness and simultaneously repel them with my darkness.
In September I got scared. The temptation to cut reared its bloody head again. It was all I could think about. If I couldn’t kill myself, then I should at least be able to cut. The thoughts of cutting and dying were becoming fantasies, and I entertained them longer and more frequently. Something had to be done. I needed help. More help.
One morning I told my husband that I loved him and I loved my daughter, Phoenix, and I would never want to hurt them in any way, but this black, gaping, hungry hole in the middle of my soul was taking over the rest of me, and I just wanted to jump in and be done.
Mike listened. Then he prayed for me and over me. While I was slumped over and crying and hopeless and terrified, he prayed blessing, deliverance, wholeness, and protection over my heart, my mind and my body.
And God answered. Though I doubted in the midst of his prayer, God heard and moved. And this time, for whatever reason, he moved almost immediately. I felt relieved in sharing this burden, the panic lessened, and I could breathe deeply again. The darkness seemed to recede, and I noticed a buoyancy of spirit filling me.
For me, hope wasn’t a thing of feathers, the tendrils wound around my heart as he prayed, and I felt my heart begin to beat with a different cadence, not the slow, irregular plodding despair but the steady pulse of solace. My breathing slowed, and somewhere inside, where there had been only darkness and chaos, there was now a little more light.
He acknowledged every pain and ache and wound, and he heard me. While I was driven to distraction with the desire to end the life he gave me, he delivered me, healed me, rejoiced over me with singing. He quieted me with his love. He rescued me.
That was five years ago. From that moment on, when my husband stormed the gates of hell for my soul, the thoughts, the fantasies, the temptations to cut and to die have mostly vanished. I was released. I haven’t felt the same way since, and instead, I have peace and joy I never thought possible and would have scoffed about before.
I believe God delivered me that day through the fervent prayer of a righteous man who was willing to wage war for his wife’s soul. This freedom and hope I feel is supernatural in the most divine sense. The hurting was years in the making, and the healing was years in the happening, but it did happen and it will continue, this already and also not yet. The difference is, I can wait for the not yet. I’m not going to take it by force. I’m going to let it be sung over me, and the song will be sweeter for the waiting.