Invisible Fires

Why, 12 years after I accepted my mother’s death and two years after she died, was I angry and blaming God for her illness? I still remembered the glorious way God told me of her death (See “Will of the Father, Will of the Child, Part II). The wonderful part of God’s answer was the certainty of the promise that I would be with her again, but the promise itself is actually extended to everyone. My step-father is also sealed to my mother and will be with her again, but he was healed from his cancer and his time on earth extended. 

Instead of feeling like I had gained something, which is what I thought before, I felt that I had lost. I doubted myself again and wondered if there was something else I could have done. But when I looked back on it, I knew there was nothing else, I had done everything I could. Thus, it was God’s fault.

I also felt that God didn’t really care about my wishes. I wanted my mother healed, He said, “No.” I wanted to get married, He said, “Do this first.” I obeyed and did get married, but then the marriage twisted and became sour. I wanted children, the Lord said, “Later,” and when I fought, I was punished with intense exhaustion, frustration, and depression. I was always the one that had to wait. I was always the one that was wrong, or too impatient, too stupid to know what was really going on.

God’s love suddenly seemed manipulative and His will forceful. Instead of listening to me, He was twisting and pushing to see how long until I would crack. His tests were mean and unfair. 

After going to the temple and feeling His unconditional love (See “Welcome Back, I’ve Missed You”), I knew that He wasn’t insulting me and pushing me down, but I was still confused and hurting.

A few months after my trip to the temple, I was in a Sunday school class. We began with the story in 1 Kings chapter 18 where in Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a sacrificial show down. He wanted to prove to the people that the idols were powerless and empty, whereas the God of Israel lived and used His power to answer the prayers of His people. When the priests of Baal set up their sacrifice and prayed to their idol for fire, there was no answer. When Elijah prayed over his sacrifice, including buckets of water poured over the fire wood, God sent fire from heaven and completely consumed the sacrifice. The people saw this, fell on their faces, and cried, “The Lord, He is God.”

In chapter 19, Elijah has fled to a cave in Horeb the mount of God. The Lord calls to Elijah and before the cave passes by a mighty wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by a fire, but the Lord was in none of these. After the fire came a still small voice. Only then did Elijah go to the mouth of the cave to hear the Lord.

As we discussed this story, which I had heard many times, I thought, What do you mean, you’re not in the fire? One chapter ago, you literally made a fire to prove your existence and your power. If you’re not in the fire, then why make the fire?

I remembered the few times I tried to share the story of my mother on my mission. I wanted to testify of the mighty change of heart, the incredible miracle that is learning the will of the Lord. My hope was to inspire people to pray to discover His will so they could see the beauty of life through God’s eyes. I never got through the story. I was interrupted by people telling me my mother would be healed if I would stop doubting. 

“You just need to have more faith.” 

“Keep praying, you’re not there yet.” 

I stopped telling it because it was too hurtful to hear people essentially blaming me for my mother’s future death, which I knew would come. It was not their intention to hurt me, they wanted to inspire me to have greater faith by testifying of God’s ability to heal, but they spoke without listening. I became increasingly frustrated with other people’s definition of miracles and their attempts to judge my faith. The complete lack of listening to God and expecting all miracles to be right in front of your face made me so angry, I just stopped talking about miracles all together. I didn’t know how to get people to understand that the greatest miracles are invisible. 

As I remembered this in that Sunday school class, I realized I had two fires before me. The visible fire that was my step-father’s physical healing and the invisible one that was in my heart the night I learned my mother would die. The Lord asked me, “which one is the more powerful fire?” 

I now definitively believe that the most powerful miracle will be the one that happens in your own heart, the one no one else will ever feel or see, except those that truly know your heart. A physical fire is a flash in the pan, it lasts only for a few seconds. If you want to tell me about a miracle, go ahead. I believe God is a God of miracles and He still works among us every day. But tell me how you’ve changed, tell me what you learned from God. Otherwise, there is no power there. Who we become because of what we learn is what lasts for eternity. These are the eternal flames where God can be found.

I also learned that too many people build their perceptions of God’s character backwards. They look around for physical fires and assign their own reasons to those fires and thus begin to sketch the character and motivations of God. Instead, if they sought to know God’s character by listening to His voice, they would know Him and then they would better understand the fire. 

God sent the fire to the sacrifice for Elijah, and people saw the fire, but they did not see God or hear His voice. They were not converted or changed. God sent the wind, the earthquake, and the fire to the mount, but Elijah did not see God or hear His voice in those manifestations. To know God, to learn from Him and of Him, to see His hands, His power, and His love, is to listen.

I was reminded that day, that I knew God because of countless prayers and time spent with Him. One healing did not change Him, I already knew who He was. I remembered my spiritual eyes and started feeling fires again instead of looking for them.

Will of the Father, Will of the Child, Part 2

Through my months of practicing Enos-type prayers (explained in my previous post), I found better ways to study for Organic Chemistry, insights into friendships and other relationships, as well as a constant sense of tranquility. When I felt confident that I knew the voice of the Lord, I decided to pray again for my mother. I went through my usual mental preparations to clear my mind and focus on what I wanted to say and how to listen. Perhaps because I was extra nervous, I also pushed my own desire down so as not to bias what I was feeling. I wanted to know that what I felt was truly from the Spirit and not in anyway a reflection of my own fears or desires. 

I was met with a brick wall.

I became frustrated, desperately angry. By this point, every time, I prayed I would feel the Spirit. Some sort of comfort, peace, love, welcome. Why was He ignoring me when I asked my most important question?

I vented my frustration in prayer. I pleaded for Him to tell me and talk to me. I told Him how afraid I was of my mother’s death. How much I loved her and how much I wanted this knowledge. And that’s when the wall came down.

I saw, in my mind, my mother walk through a veil, passing from this life to the next. There was a group of women waiting for her. They were so excited to see her, everyone hugged and laughed. A few seconds later, I walked through the veil and was met with the same enthusiasm. I understood that this did not mean my mother and I would die a few seconds apart, but that she would die, and I would finish my life without her. When I reunited with her, it would feel as if we had been separated for only seconds.

I realized my greatest fear was to be alone. I was worried about those few seconds; it wasn’t going to feel that short here and now. I begged God to stay with me, to not leave me alone. 

I remembered going to the temple with my mother and step-father when I was 14 and being sealed to them for time and all eternity. The Lord told me that He had always been with me. He knew this was going to come and so He prepared me beforehand to build me up and give me the strength I would need. He had been there for me before the storm, and He certainly wasn’t going to leave me in the middle of it. 

I felt again the promise that when reunited, I would recognize that the separation was very short and then we would be together for all eternity and never separated again. I wanted this promise desperately. The words of my prayer went from, don’t you leave me, don’t you ever leave me, to, don’t let me leave you, don’t let me leave this church.

I saw, in my mind’s eye with my physical eyes closed, Christ sitting in the chair upon which I was kneeling, holding me and stroking my hair as I cried. I felt like I was on fire, my entire body burning. Physical reflexes took over and I jumped back to get out of the flames. I started to drop to the ground to roll and put out the fire, and then realized there was none. 

Years after this event, while training to be a missionary, I read 2Ne 4:21, “He hath filled me with His love, even unto the consuming of my flesh,” and I felt an echo of that fire. God’s love is a fire. 

God’s love is intense enough to consume fears, to sear truth into our very souls. I knew that my mother would die from her cancer, but I was not afraid. The weakness of my flesh, the fear that came from a mortal perspective, was gone—consumed by the flame. I know that I will be with her again. The truth of God’s promises seems to be in my bones. 

When Christ invites us to be one with Him as He is one with the Father, it is not merely poetic. Neither is it a blessing to be enjoyed only after we die. There are ways here and now to be united with God. We can learn directly from Him and He will teach us to see as He sees, to do as He does, and to love as He loves. To truly know and see the will of God, is to love it and accept it as your own. His perspective is beautiful. To change your perspective to match His is life changing. The change that will come to your heart is nothing short of miraculous. 

I knew this. Why did I forget it? The Lord had to remind me of it and help me see it afresh when, years later, I became angry with Him. I thought He was cruel and manipulative for forcing His will upon others without consideration or fairness. I had to be reminded that the miracles, the justice, the mercy, the fairness is in His love. And it is found in unity.

This story is continued in Invisible Fires.

“I will be Enough”

My mother and father divorced when I was still an infant. One night, my mother watched me as I slept in my crib and cried saying to God, “Why did you give her to me? You knew this would happen, so why give me a child now? She deserves a mother and a father, brothers and sisters. I cannot give her those. I am not enough.”

In response, she heard the Spirit say, “I love her more than you ever could, and I will be enough.”

My mother told me that story when I was young, but it didn’t stick with me until she told it again after her cancer diagnosis. I had come home from college for a long weekend to be with her after her first surgery. Her cancer was advanced, stage IV metastatic breast cancer and with each new test, cancer was found in a new place: her lymph nodes, her shoulder, her spine, her hip, and her liver. They did not think she would live long but she wanted to be as aggressive as she could in treatment options to have as much time as possible.

I tried telling her she was enough, she always had been, but she stopped me and said, “No, I have always needed God. He loves you and knows you better than I do, and I have needed Him to tell me what to do many times. He will always take care of you, and He will be enough.”

I left her bedside and wondered how I could trust this promise. Her diagnosis was a difficult blow for me. I often felt she was my only family, my only true confidant. I could not envision a future without her. It wasn’t just a rug pulled out from under me, it was my entire world. Could an amorphous, unknowable, silent God fill such a void?

I thought about why I loved her. She loved me, she took care of me, she listened to me, and she taught me. Could Heavenly Father do all of those same things for me? John says that we love God because He first loved us (1John 4:19). He says that He will care for us as He does the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28-30). He hears our petitions and teaches us the mysteries of heaven.

Next, I thought about how I showed my love to my mother. I talked to her, I listened to her, I did things with her, I did things for her. I realized these are the same things Heavenly Father has asked me to do. All the commandments have this as their purpose. To spend time with God, involve Him in our lives, learn to hear His voice, do His work.

The parallels were there, and I wanted to try and build a close parent-child relationship with God, but the differences were also stark.  I started by reading the scriptures and ran into some problems right away. Some verses were confusing. I didn’t get to know my mother by reading other people’s stories about her, God just felt too far away. He wouldn’t take me out to dinner for my birthday, He was harder to hear than my mother over the phone, I didn’t know His laugh. I did know He could heal.

In the beginning, I prayed constantly for my mother to be healed. If He gave good gifts, and the greatest gift He ever gave me was my mother, then healing her would be an ideal way for Him to keep His promise.

I did not understand the promise at first, but as I turned to God, I learned more of what He could do. The greatest way I have found God is in prayer. He is not unknowable or silent. The next few posts are the story of how I learned the importance of spiritual things, spiritual healings, and what I consider the greatest miracles of all—unity with God. Because, He is enough.

No Self-Hatred Necessary, Welcome Home

God is so smart. I expected lectures and condescension when I got mad at Him and questioned His reasoning. Instead, the Spirit helped me remember my own past experiences. He gave me space and showed a tremendous amount of patience. Looking back on it now, if He had tried to send me a message about why my mother needed to die while my step-father got to be healed, I would not have responded well. 

My anger against God for the death of my mother did not stop my attending church. Rather, I attended with challenge in my heart. I practically dared God to comfort me with cliched platitudes, or to say that His ways were higher than my ways. In my mind, this would prove He didn’t know or care about me personally and that He was purely manipulative. When nothing came, I felt both vindicated and disappointed. Eventually, I came to crave the comfort, even if it was a platitude. I just wanted something.

I decided to go back to the temple. There was no grand sin that made me feel unworthy to be there, but rather the embarrassment of talking badly about someone behind their back, they over hear you, and then you have to go to their house and ask them for a favor. I definitely had my tail between my legs, head hanging in shame. An entire apology with generous amounts of self-flagellation was scripted in my head before I began.

I was worried about going into the Celestial Room—this is the one place I know for sure I will always feel the Spirit and I love how peace washes over me as I walk through the door—but what if it wasn’t peace this time and I met anger instead? I braced myself for a rebuke knowing that I deserved it. 

Before I could sit down and offer my prayer of self-recrimination, I felt the presence of God and His words, “Welcome back, Christen. I’ve missed you.” I felt loved. And that was it.

I sat down and tried to pray but nothing else would come. The words I had formulated beforehand disappeared and could not leave my lips. God, it seems, did not want me to rake myself over the coals. He simply wanted me to sit and relax. He did not try to explain Himself, He just let me feel loved and safe. 

We don’t need huge reasons or grand intricate plans before we accept others, ourselves, or Him. We simply need to feel loved and know that we are safe. He is infinitely patient and understanding. You don’t have to explain it to Him. He already knows what happened, what you were thinking and feeling.

He knew all the nasty things I thought about Him and He knew why. His feelings weren’t hurt, and He wasn’t out for vengeance. He just missed me.

He misses all of us. He will help us understand, show us the things we overlooked, teach us how to move forward. First, we need to let go. Be still, know that He is God, and God is love. 

Sometime after this, again at the temple, I offered an apology without self-hatred, just an acknowledgement of what I didn’t want to do again. As if sitting right beside me, He said, “Yes, we need to work on your conviction, and we will do it.”

I understood that we were a team. He did not abandon me because I was such a useless failure. I still had a purpose, a mission to fulfill, and we would do it together.

Godly Sorrow

Not many people would understand why I felt guilty about failing to finish graduate school when I had spent the time with my sick mother, but to me, this was a spiritual failure. I knew what the Lord had asked me to do—He made it clear as day. I knew that He would’ve helped me because He had done it before. Yet, I failed to remember, and I didn’t trust Him.

About eleven years before Michigan, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer during my sophomore year of college. By my senior year, she had outlived her original prognosis and prayed to see me graduate.

I needed to decide between going to graduate school and going on a mission. I prepared both papers at the same time, unsure of which path to take, and watched my mother’s health. When I prayed, graduate school never felt “wrong” per se, but a mission felt lighter. Once, an impression that my ancestors in the spirit world wanted me to go on a mission came to me. It felt like we were a team. No clear or powerful words, just a feeling, but enough to get me excited and I chose a mission.

My mother didn’t discourage me from a mission, but she did tell me her concerns. Her chemotherapy treatments were not working at the time of my college graduation and she felt she was running out of time. When my missionary assignment came, I wondered if this was really what the Lord wanted me to do or if I had gotten it all wrong. Meanwhile, my mother said a silent prayer asking Heavenly Father if He really needed me right then or if she could keep me for just a little longer. I looked up and saw her jumping for joy. This woman with cancer in her bones and treatments that liquified the marrow vibrated with excitement. The answer to her prayer was immediate and she knew that it was my mission and the Lord needed me.

My Stake President set me apart as a missionary and blessed me that as I served, my mother would be protected. I felt an assurance that she would not die while I was gone. 

In the Missionary Training Center, I received a letter telling me her chemotherapy treatments were working and her cancer was receding. Three weeks later, the first letter I got in Tennessee said that her cancer counts were low enough she could take a break from chemotherapy. 

The Lord keeps His promises. He honors our sacrifices until they’re not even sacrifices anymore. I know it.

Where was that faith when the Lord called me to go to graduate school?

I doubted the Lord’s call to go to graduate school, but the spiritual experience telling me to get a Ph.D. was far more powerful than any I received calling me on a mission. As I described in the post “Problem 1: I am Mad at Myself,” I quit my graduate program because my fear of losing my mother and not having her with me when I had my own children was too great. I gave in to fear.

In Michigan, remembering my mission felt great, relearning how to stand strong in the face of fear was empowering, but I still beat myself up over the fact that I had forgotten those lessons at a crucial time. What was the difference between the first call and the second?

I still don’t understand why I forgot to rely more on the Lord, but I can say that I became so narrow-mindedly focused on what I wanted I didn’t listen to anyone else and did not acknowledge any other options. I started to cut myself off and the cost came years later when I was torn apart by grief and anger.

I used to think I finally went back to God and asked for help because I simply hit the bottom, but now I think that He reached out first, bringing me memories that strengthened me to the point that I could reach out.

 Recognizing my depression and working to remove my avoidance tactics, carve out erroneous assumptions of my value, and chip away at my fear, prepared me to build unity. Unity with God and with others is essential to complete unity within ourselves. They are intertwined in that the Spirit testifies of our incredible value, gives us perspective, and courage. The people around us can help us find this too. When we share, ask, and listen, we see things afresh. A new angle will reveal truth we didn’t see before. One doesn’t replace the other, rather they are additive. At the same time, unity within ourselves is needed before we are open to seeking unity with others. We need confidence to reach out, assurance that we are valuable enough for someone to reach back, knowledge that we do have the strength to keep going.

There is sorrow that is destructive because we try to hide it, and thereby, we cut ourselves off. Then, there is sorrow that brings us together. When you’ve accepted the sorrow yourself, instead of avoiding it, recognized your value is intact, completely independent from your mistakes, you have the courage to ask for help. This is Godly Sorrow, this is Humility.

Sorrow that cuts us off is prideful independence ruled by fear. Godly sorrow is one that is shared, and it is powerful humility lead by courage.

Be Bold and Show Up

I am, by nature, a rather passive person. When depressed, my tendency towards passivity is incredibly damaging. 

I felt stuck. I couldn’t stop the thoughts that I was incapable because I didn’t do anything. I wanted my actions to be centered on love and connection but was worried my efforts wouldn’t be correct or welcomed.

As a new missionary, I was also timid and afraid. I devoted a lot of study time to the topic of boldness but, unfortunately, didn’t find much that was particularly helpful. The prophets were so sure of themselves, their spiritual promptings so distinct. I knew the Spirit only as a general feeling—I didn’t understand what it meant to receive directions so clearly. Some examples from other missionaries didn’t strike me as bold as much as downright mean. I knew the truth could be hard to hear, but does it then necessarily follow that we must be hard when we deliver it? I wanted to be brave, but I didn’t want to be unkind.

A couple of months into my mission, my trainer and I were affected by an emergency transfer. Our Zone Leader, knowing that this was a tense situation for us, came to give us Priesthood Blessings that morning. In mine, I was told that there were people waiting for me to teach them the gospel and that I would find them and have a successful mission if I could be bold. I appreciated the encouragement of the Spirit, but also thought, I know, I’ve been trying, but how am I supposed to do it?

Later, that same day, a sister from the ward called to say she couldn’t go with us as scheduled to a lesson because she was feeling unwell. I told her that was fine, and I hoped she got better. I thought we’d go by ourselves, but my trainer told me to find someone else. I prayed to know who to call and felt that I should call back the original sister. That seemed rude to me. She’d just told me she was sick. I thought it was just wishful thinking on my part, a desire to avoid any more phone calls, and tried someone else instead. That failed. I felt again that I should call back the original sister.

I thought about the Priesthood Blessing and my direction to be bold. I was afraid the sister would be mad at me for bugging her when she’d already told us she couldn’t. I decided to call her but not push her. I said, “I’m sorry you’re sick, is there something we can bring to you when we go out to our appointment?” So bold. She replied that she had just been talking with her daughter and realized they weren’t sick, they were just feeling low and what better way to get out of the dumps than to go out with the sister missionaries. She asked if we still wanted her to go with us to our appointment. I was amazed! I had done something bold!

When my trainer and I arrived at the sister’s house, she asked if we could take some flowers to her mother’s grave on the way. What happened in the graveyard was far more than I expected and taught me what it was to be bold in a way I hadn’t thought of before. The full story can be read in the post “A Light in the Darkness.” I would like to add that while I wish it was some grand inspiration that made me move and help the injured man in the cemetery, it was not. I was frozen and I didn’t answer my companion’s call to come and help, at least not right away, because I was too afraid. A dog came out of the woods and I went to the dog. I love dogs and they don’t scare me. I pet his head and shooed him away. Then, I went to help.

I have learned that boldness is to act in spite of fear. It is to move when you think you can’t, even if the move is small. One action will bring more. Confidence grows as we simply try. Sometimes, “all we can do” is show up and then the grace of God will meet us where we are (2 Ne 25:23). The reality of our fear isn’t as big as we imagine and the realization of our hopes is always grander than we dreamed. 

Act with Purpose

As an overwhelmed working mother, I thought only of my to-do list, and how I fulfilled my duties determined my self worth. If I didn’t do the laundry, I was a bad mother. If I didn’t get results from the experiment, I was a useless scientist. If I gained weight, I was a horrible woman.

We live in a world that assigns value to things on a constant basis. We even assign values to people. And for some reason, we often accept another’s evaluation over our own.

Perhaps someone has hurt us and we start to think that we deserved that ill-treatment. Or another has something we want but can’t have and we think that is a reflection of our own worth as well. We become so entrenched in our societies’ economical systems that it can be difficult to step aside and learn a new way to see value. 

In Michigan, I taught a youth Sunday school class for 12 to 13 year olds. We read the first verse in 1 Nephi that reads:

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parent, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

I can’t remember my original purpose in reading that scripture, I only remember that as we read it, the Spirit told me I was highly favored. And I didn’t fully believe it. I honestly asked those young teenagers, “How do you know if you’re highly favored of the Lord?”

They started complimenting each other’s hair. Then mentioned their families. Then said they were grateful for the gospel. 

I’m sure that beautiful 13 year old girl with long blonde hair did feel blessed because of it. She complimented everybody’s hair regardless of color or style. But what about bald people? Or people that hate their hair? Are they still loved?

Nephi also felt blessed because of his parents, but Laman and Lemuel had the same parents and did not feel favored of the Lord because of it. Too many of us have bad parents that make critical mistakes, aren’t we loved? 

The gospel is important. However, we must be careful not to think we are better for being in one religion over another.

There is nothing wrong in being grateful for what you have, but when we think of these as measures of love, we might run into some trouble. Nephi says that he had afflictions but “knowledge of the goodness…of God” is what he focused on. This is available to everyone. I realized I was loved—I was just looking at the wrong measure of it.

Once, when I was a teenager, I felt miserable but also thought that the Lord wouldn’t help me because I wasn’t going to church. I was desperate to feel the Spirit and my sorrowful mind believed that I was too bad to talk to God. He wouldn’t listen to someone like me. 

I figured that if I could start doing better and show Him that I could be better, then maybe He would hear my prayer. My depression logic came up with one week of nightly scripture study for one heard prayer. As I read, the number of nights I needed to earn a heard prayer started to come down. Surely, five nights will be enough, a few verses later, maybe after three nights. By the end of my reading, I realized I was allowed to pray and the Lord would hear it. I felt the Spirit and I felt loved.

Commandments are not chores we do to earn nickels and dimes we can spend at God’s General Store of Blessings. Because society can only see the outside, it is society’s value system that determines love by what we do, how others treat us, and what we have.

The Lord sees our hearts. Commandments are God’s invitations to come and be with Him. Our obedience is our way of inviting Him to come be with us. We are loved regardless of what we do. The invitation stands even if we don’t accept it. If we do invite God to be with us, we will know how much we are loved.

What we do is important. We are always making choices even when we are passively trying to avoid making choices. The purpose behind those choices matter. We don’t need to earn love as much as we need to act to show love and accept it. When the purpose is true, our actions have power, even if they’re not perfect.

The Soul: Body and Spirit United

Depression is, at its core, a condition of separation. Its cure is connection. A depressed person is at war with herself and thus retreats from everyone else. 

This is a part of the physical nature of the disease. A depressed brain has become incapable of sending proper signals often due to biological or environmental stressors. Perhaps caused by a chemical imbalance or even a change in hormones, depression can happen to someone with a seemingly idyllic life. Or, if someone’s life has been extremely stressful, the brain can deplete the reserves of transmitters necessary for dealing with stress. Either way, a depressed person is only processing a portion of what is truly before them.

When you make a mistake there is no encouraging signal to allow you to process what you did right or even what you could do better next time. You get stuck, so fixated on a minor failure that it becomes a catastrophic collapse. An unkind voice becomes the only one you hear. No other voice or thought is able to get through.

This can be hard for a depressed person to understand or accept because our brains, our thoughts, are so intricately linked with our perceptions of ourselves. We think we are in control. If there is a failure, it’s my fault. If I can’t fix it, it’s my fault. I’m weak. I’m broken.

When my therapist began to prescribe a medication, I did not want to take it. I thought that if I, Christen, was not strong enough to be happy, and I needed to be Drugged-Christen to be happy, then the drug just confirmed that I was defective. He described some of the signaling of the brain, specifically dopamine and serotonin, and said that in my case my brain was using these signals faster than it could make them because of my current circumstances. The medication would support my brain in making these necessary transmitters.

He also pointed out that my body was working hard to support me through some intensely difficult things. My body was strong, pushing through and doing everything I asked of it. It was time for me to support my body.

When depressed, we develop habits, physical and spiritual, that numb the pain. Unfortunately, numbing is not the same as restoring and these habits often leave us worse off than we were before. Separating ourselves from what we’re feeling and thinking also leads to separation from others and the depression deepens.

As a teenager, I obsessively watched classic movies and did puzzles, solitary activities I always did alone. In Michigan, I obsessively read cheap kindle books. I joked that I was a book-aholic, until my daughter wanted to play with me, and when I put her off she quietly answered, “I don’t like book-aholics.” That’s when I realized avoiding my problems was making them worse.

I wasn’t listening to my body when it said I was tired and needed sleep, because I was too busy trying to numb my spirit and stop the negative thoughts. I was too exhausted to think and thus also unable to hear my spirit ask for those things that would bring true relief.

There is a unique doctrine in the restored gospel that the soul is the body and spirit of man (D&C 88:15) and the two inseparably connected bring a fulness of joy (D&C93:33). I find a lot of power in this unity.

The body is not evil and weak—a thing to control or suffer through until your final freedom. Your body is a part of your eternal identity. The experiences it brings you will teach you things that are impossible to learn in any other way. To care for and listen to your body will strengthen your spirit and increase your capacity for joy.

On the other hand, your body is not the only determining factor of your identity. Your biology does not dictate your life. When left to itself, the body has no view beyond the present. It easily falls to appetites that cannot be satiated and the resulting constant pursuit leads to destruction.

Together, spirit and body united, you can find joy and truth. Either one in dominance at the expense of the other is living only half a life. Both bring awareness and connection to the world around you. 

I tried to stop reading so much and realized I first needed to reconnect with myself—to listen again to what I was feeling. When was I tired? What made me feel rested? When was I hungry? What made me happy?

One thing I love about my daughter was that she never said she wanted a cleaner room, or better food, or a prettier mom. She just said she wanted me. When I stopped avoiding the thoughts running through my mind and instead focused on actually being with my daughter, I was better able to tell fact from fiction.

Slowing down to fully feel and connect physically and spiritually was the first form of unity that helped me wake up and truly see myself.

A Promise of Light

This post is a part of “my story” which begins with “Finding Purpose”

When I say that I was frozen with fear in that small graveyard (full story in “A Light in Darkness”), it’s not inaccurate, but it’s not a full description either. It was fear, but not of anything physical. It was shock, but not from seeing blood. It was the fear of picturing myself in his position. It was the shock of a formerly depressed and suicidal person seeing an actual suicide. 

I was not detailed in my suicidal fantasies when I was a teenager. I remember feeling completely powerless. Frustrated that no one would listen to me, I wanted a powerful display that they couldn’t ignore anymore. But, I also realized that if people thought everything was my fault in life, they would do the same in death. I wanted to make people listen. I wanted to be understood so that I could understand.

I can now definitively say that suicide is not an eloquent expression of feelings. It’s messy, stinky, and awful. Death doesn’t enhance your voice, it silences it. 

When I was depressed, I lived and breathed because of Alma the Younger. He was my favorite prophet because he knew what darkness was. Although Alma the Younger was raised by a righteous and powerful prophet, Alma the Elder, he pulled people away from the church. An angel appeared to him and Alma fell into a coma-like state for a few days. In chapter 36 of his book in the Book of Mormon, Alma tells his son that he “was racked…with the pains of a damned soul” until he remembered his father preaching of Christ. When he remembered this, he cried to Christ for mercy and was filled with joy. He says:

And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.

I knew that this was my promise. One day, I would receive light as intense as was my darkness. 

Alma went on to have more joy through his missionary work. I also discovered my full light and an immeasurable joy in being a missionary, lifting and serving others. I found my voice in helping other people through the darkness. God kept his promise.  

Words cannot express how I have wished that we could have found that man earlier. He fought with intense darkness but, in the end, was not claimed by it. I find hope in this—there truly is no darkness so thick that Christ cannot banish it with light. But, I also feel deep sorrow. I can only conclude that his darkness was such that he isolated himself from those that would help him until God sent two sister missionaries that could connect with him while he was too weak to push them away. 

There are still too many that die alone. Too many that believe the lies of depression that they have no power, no one will listen, no one cares. The truth is that you have incredible power. The truth is that you are the only one who can tell your story, and there are people waiting to hear you. 

We all pass through sorrow in our own way. We all discover our light. I think those of us that have survived darkness, perhaps especially suicidal thoughts and depression, have a duty to say there is light and joy. The night does end. The light is equal to your darkness. So, if you’re feeling especially dark, your light will be that much more amazing. Just hold on.

Remember, remember…doctrines over habits

This post is part of “My Story” which begins with “Finding Purpose”

We are never grateful for our trials until we start to learn from them—until we start using them to build strength in spite of fear and pain. The memories of previous trials and triumphs give us the courage to face current ones. When we learn from our experiences, even the failures, the truth we’ve gained gives us power throughout the rest of our lives, come what may. 

For me, the turning point in Michigan came late one night when I couldn’t go to sleep even though I so desperately needed to. Filled with various levels of rage, frustration, self-loathing, and weariness, the most shocking thing was how familiar it felt. Lying in bed with my thoughts swirling around, I remembered that I had felt this way before. 

It had happened in the Missionary Training Center, in an auditorium full of missionaries. I just panicked. I felt like a fraud. What have I done? I asked myself. I’m not strong enough to serve a mission. This is the stupidest mistake of my life.

Then I looked down and read from the Joseph Smith History, open on my lap.

For I had seen a vision, I knew it and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God 

As I read these words, memories returned of the things that I knew from personal revelation, those things that God had taught me Himself through His Spirit such that I knew it, and God knew that I knew. My mission was an expression of gratitude to Him for all that had come before. Knowing that He wanted me to do this for Him, it seemed ungrateful to quit.

I was still terrified, but I served. I served with love, and I grew, and I found joy. Not only had I survived my mission, I had thrived as a missionary. 

Lying in my bed, seven years later, I remembered being that missionary. Once again, I was scared, but I remembered the promises and the blessings. Did they still apply?

Before leaving my mission, I spoke with the Branch President in my last area. Sensing my sadness about going home, he told me not to worry. “Your title and job description change, but you are always serving,” he said. “In all important matters, nothing really changes. You just move from one calling to another.”

I tried at first to think of the missionary schedule—the measurable goals, the reporting methods. These didn’t work in my new life, no matter how hard I tried. I no longer had two full hours in which to study, or a 24-hour companion, or the luxury of focusing completely on the work of God. My responsibilities had expanded and become so varied, I felt pulled in too many directions.

But that Branch President was right. My covenants didn’t change. My study time may have decreased, but the scriptures are still a source of inspiration. I still serve many people in many ways. As a missionary, I learned how to serve. Those lessons were just as powerful as ever. I loved my mission because I had become a missionary. 

In Preach My Gospel there is a quote from President Boyd K. Packer that I used constantly when planning lessons for others: 

True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than the study of behavior will improve behavior. 

If someone was having a hard time with a particular commandment or aspect of the gospel, I would try to find the underlying doctrine that would help. I was there to help people build testimonies, not boss them around. I now needed to do the same thing for myself. 

Just as memories had strengthened me in the MTC, memories of previous victories over depression and pain strengthened me again in Michigan. The circumstances were different, but the feelings were the same. I combed through my memories, reliving the experiences and paying particular attention to the lessons. I thought about the significance of those lessons and how they applied to me in my new roles. I discovered that eternal truths apply regardless of position or circumstance. And truth really does set you free.