In 2005, in the big-city-for-Indiana that is Indianapolis, I decided, at the ripe age of 12, that I'd had enough of this bullshit, and was gonna go see Jesus.
Twelve-year olds are weird. All of them. If you’re twelve, you’re weird. It’s just a fact. It’s not a bad weird, but puberty and society have joined forces to make that age part of an awkward spectrum of years that very few look back on without laughing at some parts, and cringing at others. I was definitely weird when I was twelve, for many of the usual reasons, and for other reasons that have followed me into adulthood. One of these “other reasons” was my conservative Christian upbringing. From church at least once a week to ten years of religious school and even a few religious summer camps, I was surrounded by the culture of Christianity from birth.
“I have no memory of a time when religion
was not a part of my life so central I
assumed it was inherent to being human.”
It all started… well, it probably all started at birth, but my first religious memory is when I prayed a “conversion prayer” at the wise old age of five. My mom asked if I understood what I was saying, and I said yes. I wanted to be smart, I wanted to be a part of this good thing I’d heard so much about, and I wanted to please my mom. Throughout my growing up years, I heard this prayer many times, with varying embellishments and levels of complexity, but the same at the core: asking God to forgive me of my sins and become a part of my life so I could go to Heaven. I did some in-depth research (translation: I looked at the top 5 Google search results) on the concept of “praying the prayer” at a young age, to see if others had reflected on this strange experience. Instead, I found links of various ways to help your children learn to pray, including one that suggested having them try to pray before they could even speak coherent sentences. The word indoctrination tends to have a negative connotation, yet many churches refer to their beliefs as doctrine, and encourage parents to begin instilling these beliefs in their children at a young age. I have no memory of a time when religion was not a part of my life so central I assumed it was inherent to being human.
Many of my church and Christian-school friends had similar experiences. Yet as I grew older, while I felt secure in my faith, it sometimes troubled me that I wasn’t sure when I had really “become” a Christian. I didn’t have a heart-melting moment where I finally gave up my old sinful ways and saw the true light of the Lord. Over my early childhood, I “prayed the prayer” multiple times (including once during kindergarten naptime, but I might have just been bored). I was confident of my faith until sometime in church camp, or during Easter service, or after a particularly emotional Christian school chapel that culminated in a call to faith. These events were carefully planned and coordinated to bring as many impressionable young people as possible to convert. They always had music playing, quietly in the background at first, then building up to a dramatic crescendo in sync with the speaker’s message. Surrounded by people and sound, my developing emotional sensibilities were easily manipulated as I became lost in the fervor of the moment. These moments made Christianity palpable for me. God became real as I felt him in the vibrating bass of the music (and it wasn’t even good music!). They made Christianity seem so great, and just like when I was five, I wanted to be part it. So, many times when the pastor led the conversion prayer, I prayed along in my head, just in case. When it came to the next step, however, making it public by either telling some adult leader or coming to the front, I wouldn’t, because I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t already a Christian, especially not those who knew I already converted last month, or last year, or when I was five. But each time renewed my assurance that I was really a Christian. I had no doubt I was going to heaven when I died.
“My sense of being an outsider
increased with bullying”
Yet, strong as my belief was in God and Christianity, or perhaps partially because of my confusion involving Christianity, my weird twelve-year old self was not happy. My sixth grade year of school was a struggle socially. As an outsider, I tried to make it an elitist thing by claiming sour grapes. I would go on to snarkily declare, first in high school, and yet again in college, that even though I was a freshman, I hated freshmen too. While this snide attitude largely had to do with appealing to the upperclassmen, it was also a result of consistently finding myself having to adapt to my own environment. My sense of being an outsider increased with bullying. I remember one specific instance when, as I sipped my Diet Coke, one of the school bullies in my class commented that I “should be drinking more DIET Coke,” implying with the incredible cleverness only found in the minds of sixth grade boys, that I was, in fact, FAT. Believe it or not, for a chubby girl in the throes of puberty, being called fat was extremely hurtful. I don’t even remember how I responded (probably some equally lame insult), but more than ten years later, I remember how it felt. I internalized it, and it added to my increasing dissatisfaction with my life. My experience in sixth grade was especially disheartening when contrasted with my fifth grade year, which had been pretty successful on multiple levels: I had loved my teacher, I had been friends with most of my classmates, and I was even voted mayor of our pretend class city. I had never felt the need to talk about my problems with anyone, because they were few and far between. Now, when everything started going downhill, I struggled. And as my world grew colder outside the home, I was unable to seek solace within it.
“I mistook privilege, wealth, and conformity
for something truly beneficial”
I had, by all appearances, an ideal home life. We were like a checklist for the White American Dream: a nice house, father a doctor, married to our mother, a homemaker, and four children: two boys, two girls, and a dog. With a swingset in our large backyard, we were only missing that white picket fence. We even had a fucking boat. But I mistook privilege, wealth, and conformity for something truly beneficial. While we’ve certainly had our share of troubles since then, my early adolescent years were definitely a tumultuous time in our family. Although my memory of specific dates and years has become blurred over time, the fact was that my family life was an evolving chaos. For starters, though we tried act like the perfect normal family, my autistic younger brother disrupted our boxed-in perception of ourselves. By eleven years old, his various behavioral problems increasingly (both in frequency and in severity) resulted in a house filled with yelling and fighting. He was always a ball of energy, exerted either in excitement or anger depending on the moment. Now that he was in the beginnings of puberty, it added another layer of emotional and behavioral stress.
He also had to switch from our beloved religious school to the local public school, which had more special needs resources. For all the spiritual and stringent academic offerings in Christian school, it couldn’t accommodate anyone who had educational and social needs that were outside of tradition.
Neither could my father. It was so hard for him to ignore my brother’s behaviors, to not feel respected or that he was in control. The advice from numerous behavioral specialists, therapists, and books (not to mention experience) told us that when my brother acted out, it was almost always in desire for attention, positive or negative. Even an angry response would fulfill his desire for attention and teach him that shouting, throwing things, and other disruptive behaviors were the fastest and easiest ways to get it. This is true for many children, but at eleven years old, while still a child, my brother had gotten better at knowing exactly what irritated us the most.
It didn't help that my father saw himself as a protector of the women of the house, perhaps even more so now that my oldest brother had left for college. However, most of the time, his responses to my younger brother were more distressing than anything he was doing or saying. In efforts to regain control, he escalated situations that were already tense. His booming reprimands and threats overpowered and magnified the noise and the chaos begun by my brother.
I began having friends over less frequently, because there was little chance of a peaceful night at my house. Not that hanging out with friends was a guarantor of peace. Events from basic Friday-night sleepovers to carefully planned birthday parties were always marred with group drama. Goofy pranks gone wrong, miscommunications, and certain tones of voice or facial expressions quickly turned a fun time into a warzone. But that was just the way it went when we spent any extended amount of time together. Girls are catty. Girls fight. Those are just the facts of life, right? While I accepted the fighting as inevitable, I still tried to stay out of the main drama. Spurred by my overwhelming desire to be liked, the effort I put into staying on everyone’s good side was exhausting. But I felt it was worth it, because these girls introduced a new world to me, one that appealed to my desire to feel older. I had been very into the tomboy image during my elementary years, and while I continued to sport the baggy t-shirts and pants, as a sixth grader, I came into a sort of girliness that made me feel grown up and included. Even though we totally weren’t, I felt I was “cool” with these girls. So I took the good with the bad. And of course, parents knew little to nothing. Their goal was to stop us from having any fun, and they had no understanding of what our lives were like. So we hid what we did (not that it was ever anything actually scandalous), snuck around, and cussed incorrectly.
“She wanted to protect me from
the big bad world, but she couldn’t
stop the big bad world from existing.”
My relationship with my mom was changing. I had never doubted that she loved me. We were connected on a personal level because we had similar mental and emotional tendencies: introversion, easily worn out and even anxious in social situations, a habit of keeping our problems to ourselves, and so on. Not that she didn’t love my sister or younger brother, who had more outgoing personalities, but we had a sort of connection that kept us close even as, in many ways, our differences grew as I got older.
She learned from her religion to “train up a child in the way [s]he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, King James Version). Yet I definitely departed from “it,” whatever tangled web “it” is. However, she raised us in a way that was consistent with her religious upbringing, not simply because she feared God and wanted to be morally upright, but because she loved us and truly believed this was the best for us. She cared so much about us, even the little things. For example, I was always weirded out because she would use cute names even when yelling at me, like sweetheart. I asked her about it once and she said, “Well, I want you to know that even when I’m mad at you, you’re still my sweetheart.” I thought that was so adorable. Still weird, but adorable. She taught me many good things and I’ve been affected by her positively in so many ways, from not worrying about food being a few days past the expiration date, to her selflessness and love she shows toward others. Even as I reflect on certain choices that definitely had a detrimental effect on me, like sheltering me to the extreme, I know they were done out of love and an effort to be a good mom. She wanted to protect me from the big bad world, but she couldn’t stop the big bad world from existing. And she couldn't protect me from what was growing inside myself. When faced with real emotional danger, I was left unarmored. When all you have is protection, you can never address anything, only hide from it. She was trying so hard to mother in a way that would result in pure, good Christian kids who would live their best lives. But it resulted in me hiding anything from her that I thought would disrupt her view of how I should be.
It’s funny, when I was older, I looked back at my experience and considered the middle school years something kids need to “just get through.” Just get through them, and they’ll start to chill in high school. I saw middle schoolers, particularly middle school girls, as a lost cause. I mean, not lost entirely, because in a couple years they’d calm down. Not that high school didn’t have its own forms of bullshit and drama, but it was tempered by experience and development and was no longer exasperated by the physical and emotional stresses of puberty. Just get through it. Thinking on it now, it was an odd perspective for someone who almost didn’t get through it. What kind of fucked up culture has led me to believe it is not only 100% normal but typically unavoidable for 2-3 incredibly crucial, complex, and formative years of life to be void of anything positive? To be spent in isolation from parental or at least some sort of adult guidance? Yet, just like with the bullshit with my friends, I accepted it under the premise of “that’s just how it was.” The drama of my everyday life both overshadowed and built upon an increasing dark space in my heart and mind. It was always there, but pushed away when things were going well.
“The Christianity I learned put
the onus of happiness on me alone”
And if we’re talking percentages, things were “going well” a majority of the time. But it wasn’t enough. I convinced myself it was, but it wasn’t. The very nature of the symptoms of depression, combined with social stigma, make any conscious recognition very unlikely. Add to that the view of mental illness that is all-too-common in Christian discussion and households. I remember a church youth group leader telling us about how she occasionally struggled with anxiety, but in the context of her confessing a sin. She didn’t trust God enough, and that was on her. If you are depressed, it’s because you aren’t connecting with God enough. Your relationship with God isn’t good enough. You are to blame for your own pain, because God is perfect and would never do anything to harm you. The Christianity I learned put the onus of happiness on me alone, and if I couldn’t be satisfied in Christ’s love, I was simply sinful and selfish. But I wasn’t satisfied.
This brings me back to the bully. One of the reasons I remember the “Diet Coke” instance so clearly is because when he made the comment, I remember immediately thinking to myself, “I’m going to kill myself when I get home.” Not to downplay the serious effects of bullying, but if one mean comment makes you think you want to kill yourself, it’s a sign of something else happening.
And I had those thoughts a lot. Most of the time, I would get in a good enough mood by the time I got home that they passed. My friends helped when they made me laugh. I remember in my stubborn criticism of my mom’s disapproval of them, I once thought if only she knew that these friends had, by momentarily distracting me from the darkness, “literally saved my life.” Of course, the fact that my life was in danger in the first place never got any contemplation from me.
When I was in a dark place, I didn’t want to consider why I was. I just tried to escape, most times through distraction. Joking with a friend or a funny TV show would push away the pain and help me forget, or at least postpone, my morbid plans. But it never lasted. Death is a fascinating and often ominous concept for many people: What will happen? Will I cease to exist? Will I be reincarnated? Will my soul survive? The unknown can make death fearful.
Not for me though. I knew what would happen when I died. Christianity taught me that, when I died, I would go to heaven, where everything was perfect, and there was no crying, no sadness, and where you could hang out with Jesus 24/7. Well, not exactly 24/7 because time as we know it would cease to exist and blah blah blah, but you get the point. A popular song we sang as little kids in Sunday school went “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace. I want to see my Savior’s face because Heaven is a wonderful place.” It was cute and upbeat. Sometimes we sang it in funny voices, dragging out the vowels and giggling. That was part of what was so great about being a Christian. You had confidence in certain things. God was always there for you to pray to, or you could read the Bible, filled with advice and encouragement (not to mention lots of gruesome stories of murder, rape, and incest, but I digress), and when you died, you had eternal bliss waiting. Who wouldn’t want eternal bliss? Especially in a world surrounded by conflict.
Years later, in less tumultuous times, I would discard many of the pieces of the Christianity I grew up with. I grew, I questioned, I kept questioning, and I slowly let go of the comfort I held onto for so long. It was not initially a freeing feeling, but like a breakup of a longterm relationship. A relationship you know was unhealthy and manipulative, but that had positive aspects, not least of which was basic familiarity and a sense of community. But sometimes it’s better to be lonely. And I was already lonely. In sixth grade, I felt utterly alone. The same God who would someday welcome me into his heavenly home was content to let me struggle while alive. But I didn’t see it that way. Christians are really great at excusing God for everything. He’s all-powerful, but when bad things happen, it’s a test of faith, something you will come out stronger from. And the good things are of course blessings, another example of his benevolence. Praise God for healing this person from cancer. That person died from cancer, but she’s in a better place now. God’s will be done. If you are trying to pray but don’t feel his presence, maybe there’s some sin in your life you need to deal with. Maybe you need to wait and see what the big picture is, because God always has a plan. Well, I wasn’t willing to wait.
It was an average day after school, and I was tired in every sense of the word. At twelve years old, it was too much. I had considered it many times, planned it, once even stared into a mirror with a handful of pills in my hand, only to back out at the last second, but not this time. I had some ibuprofen I snagged from the medicine cabinet downstairs. I didn’t know much about ibuprofen, but I knew if you took too many pills, you would die. I probably learned in form of a warning. “I know your headache is really bad, but you can only take two. These are dangerous. These could even kill you if you took too many.” Perfect. I popped a handful of ibuprofen and laid down on the bed. I thought I was going to be scared, but I wasn’t. I was calm and ready to go home. I had a vision of large, beautiful homes, built up thanks to our good deeds on earth, lavish but small enough where people could hang out and talk to each other as neighbors. The sun was shining, and everyone was happy, and I was going to be happy too. Beyond that, I only had a vague idea of heaven, but I knew it was better than what I was experiencing on Earth. And of course, Jesus would be there. I wanted to see Jesus, and as sleep overcame me, I thought that I shortly would. The pills didn’t kill me though. Instead, I was sent back to my white purgatory.
My next memory is my mom calling me down for dinner. I woke up sort of confused, but came downstairs anyway. In a surreal delirium of post-nap/suicide attempt grogginess, I briefly noted that it didn’t work. Jesus was nowhere to be found. No shining light, no angels singing… I wasn’t sure how to feel. I wasn’t extremely upset. Similar to my past experiences, the overwhelming desire to die had passed. Plus I was kind of hungry, so I went downstairs and ate. As my father prayed that God would “bless this food to our bodies,” the ibuprofen slowly ate away at my stomach. Had I taken Aleve or aspirin, or even found something prescription to take, the effects might have come earlier, and lasted longer, perhaps even permanently. The rest of the night is a blur. Maybe I could pretend it never happened. And it didn’t happen, not the way I planned anyway. Just get through the night. Or not. Maybe I’d die in my sleep, for real this time. I had a sort of tentative grasp on my mortality. It could go either way; I’d let my body decide. Even in the act of taking my own life, I felt lost. Should I try again? This wave of confusion overwhelmed me as I went to bed.
By the time I woke up the next morning, I knew I couldn’t go to school. Physically and emotionally overcome, I couldn’t face the day. I couldn’t even leave my bed, so I waited until my mom came to check on me. I had to tell her. The night before, I had tried to hide my suicide attempt like I hid my suicidal thoughts so many times before. Life had been too much, but now emotional labor of hiding my brush with death was too much. I had to tell her. But I could barely get it out, and at first she couldn’t understand my muffled speech as I fought the disconnect between my whirling thoughts and my physical capabilities. Then, when I finally spat out the words, she couldn’t believe what she heard me saying was true. She called out to my dad and went to talk to him for a second, then quickly returned to me. We were both crying. She had no idea. And how could she? The monster that grew out of our slice of Christian culture had ensnared us both.
Later, she spoke to me of regretting harsh words here, of pushing me too hard to work on my homework or clean my room when I was stressed, as if small things here and there could have saved me. As if the pain I felt could have been alleviated by something so simple, something that neatly placed the blame on herself. I have no children, but I can’t imagine the pain she must have felt learning that her child wanted to die. I only know the pain I felt. I knew something was wrong in a very central and overwhelming way. I had known all along, but now I had to face it, and in doing so, to face myself.
A few hours later the Advil finally took effect, rejecting the hot chocolate my mom had made for me, and I was puking in the hospital parking lot. However, that was the worst of the physical repercussions, and my body recovered. Over the years, while my childhood still informs who I am, I too have recovered. Although, the past tense “have recovered” might not be appropriate, since I am continually in the process of growth, learning, and perhaps, recovery as well. While this process has been painful and involved more struggle than I could have imagined living through at age twelve, I haven’t tried to visit Jesus again.
Jessica Swim works and lives in Chicago. She organizes with FURIE and has worked artistically with several local theatres when she can escape her day job. To learn more, connect with her on Facebook.