About halfway through the drive I fell asleep at the wheel.
And rather than in a ditch or a hospital, I woke up parked at a toll booth to a middle-aged woman snapping her gum and impatiently waiting for me to hand over my coins.
Make of it what you will, but I knew it was a miracle. So I did what any highly spiritually attuned individual would do under the circumstances: I told God thanks and kept driving. After a weekend in Indianapolis I returned to my dorm room in Texas only to find that my love would not answer the phone nor return my calls. Within a week it was clear that I was being completely frozen out, and in fact I would not hear a word from him for another four years.
If we refuse to be wooed by His kindness, the Lord will use our pain.
And pain it was.
Clearly, it was not a loss of a mutually satisfying or life-giving relationship. It was not grieving what a great thing we had or the hope of a future marriage. No, these things were never present. But it was rejection of the deepest possible kind. It was ringing confirmation that I had never been precious. I had never been worthy. I had never possessed a beauty, internally or externally, that could really matter. It was the culmination of all of my greatest fears, and the enemy of my soul swallowed my sinews for lunch each day.
A few months before, with foreshadowings of the end of this doomed love affair plaguing me, I had cut his initials into my hip with a safety pin. By the time I stopped hoping for a miracle on the other end of the line, the initials had long faded. I moved to my arms.
It's a slow kind of therapy, making your own blood emerge from your skin. It feels tangible when your agony feels anything but. It feels real when you aren't sure if it's day or night. It feels like asking for help, which you know you should be doing but can't bring your lips to say the words. There's a strange chemistry of nurture in the endorphins that you desperately long for; your brain rushes to comfort your heart in a tragically beautiful attempt at healing.
But it never lasts.
I kept it private, for the most part. Not because I really cared if people knew, but because it seemed like the thing to do. One night some friends delivered me back to my dorm room nearly unable to walk from the tequila. I woke up in the morning in my roommate's bed to find pained compassion in her eyes. "You were trying to cut your arms with the corner of that picture frame", she said quietly, nodding towards my bedside table. "You kept screaming 'bleed!'. I thought it'd be best if you slept here."
If you ask Deloris about our freshman year, she'll say that we took care of each other. Neither of us were making a whole lot of healthy life choices at the time. But I think about that night, and I wonder what her faithful presence spared me from. We don't have to have our act together to lessen each other's burdens, we just have to show up for each other.
After a few months my parents found out, God bless their terrified hearts, and they set me up with a Christian counselor on campus. I gained enough tools to cope in other ways and quit cutting, mostly so that everyone would quit worrying about me all the time, but the truth was I was lost. Although the term "lost" didn't quite fit either, because didn't I have Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior? But what was I really saved from? I didn't feel particularly saved.
Eventually I settled down with a serious boyfriend. All the saints and angels know we had more than our share of dysfunction, but living with him probably kept me out of a good bit of trouble for awhile and I think he did really love me. But after a year, I cracked under the stress of his chronic rages and my own instability. We broke up, and I was more numb than heartbroken. I remember one Saturday waking up at 4:30 PM.
I knew I wanted a different life, and I knew that supposedly Jesus was the way. I even began darkening the doorway of a church here and there. My mom had once given me the Bible she'd used at my age and one day, alone in my sophomore dorm room, I thought "what the hell?" and picked it up. There were markings in it that she herself had made in college, which fascinated me, and I was drawn to one in John. "In this world you will have many troubles, but cheer up, for I have overcome the world!" (16:33)
And I have absolutely no idea why such a seemingly trite saying sparked it, but for the first time in as long as I could remember I felt the deep-bone truth of what the hymn writer had described: "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices...".