My Journey With God: The Abridged Version

I didn’t have a lot of exposure to organized religion as a child, and not much has changed in that regard since.

I was baptized Catholic and attended mass with my Grandmother on occasion. Nobody talked to me at mass although many attendees knew my Grandmother. I was a small child with not much to say anyway. I liked to close my eyes and listen to the choir and sing along when it was encouraged.

I didn’t know much about the bible. I knew the Christmas and the Easter story from the beautifully illustrated books that my mother read to me during the season of these celebrations.

Mostly I found God in nature. I was a student of John Muir and Ralph Waldo Emerson before I knew who they were. When it came to religion, in many ways I was a young transcendentalist at heart.

I would talk to God while I played in the river. Swallowing the icy, glacier water, I felt alive and awake in every aspect of my life. I felt clean. I opened my mouth and drank thirstily the holy water.  I thanked Him, I laughed with Him, I sang to Him the songs I remembered from church and a few I made up just for Him. I climbed onto the largest rock that over looked the riverbed below and sang Happy Birthday to Him every Christmas. It was our thing.

I ran along the riverbank. The hot, uneven stones beneath my feet were smooth and slick, but I never fell. I put all my faith in Him and He carried me over those stones, the wind beneath my outstretched arms. We laughed with pure joy and I felt Him living inside me and all around me. When I think back on our relationship then, I am awed by the power and sheer innocence.

Then Christian camp happened and that’s when I learned my worship style was “wrong”.

It all started when my parents announced they were getting divorced. Being the thoughtful parents that they are, they wanted to do something fun for me after the blow of the divorce announcement. So, they sat me down and explained that I would be going to “horse camp”. (With a little sprinkle of Protestant influence and activities.)

Cool… horse camp, new friends, learn more about God. Yay!  I thought it would be great, but I didn’t know that I would be a tadpole in a sea of well-versed Christian fish.

My parents dropped me off with my shiny new bible, a shirt that was an inch too short, and a bikini instead of a one-piece, condeming me as the next Delilah. A note on the shirt: I have a very long torso and this was the early 2000’s before longer shirts were made fashionable. (Finally.) My parents DID NOT drop me off in a tube-top and Daisy Dukes. Although with the looks the counselors gave me you would think I was about to do a strip tease on the hood of the General Lee.

The counselors snickered at my shirt and some of the other campers joined in. That was how my first day beganme pulling my shirt down every 30 seconds. Avoiding eye contact with everyone.

The next day at bible study I learned that I brought the wrong type of bible. First, my bible should have been in a more “used” condition. The shiny crispness screamed “Never been read!”. Second, I should have had a bible that was more learning friendly, not one that was so traditional. Then we were told to reflect on all the ways we could make our relationship stronger with God. That last part seemed fair, although a bit negative to kick things off.

Anyway, while I was reflecting and our counselor walked away to give us some space, I started to eat some pink huckleberries that are indigenous to Washington State. One by one, my cabin-mates began eating the berries too. Suddenly I was Eve in the Garden of Eden, leading my fellow campers to the biblical fruit of sin. Our counselor came back and scolded us for eating wild berries. I explained to her that they grew in my yard back home and I’d been eating them my entire life. (The poor woman thought her girls were all about to be poisoned.) We were not poisoned. She was still furious. I was officially “the bad kid” at camp.

My transgressions continued. I made one bosom friend who I adore to this day. We left everyone out. Our friendship was easy and we didn’t have time for jealousy or judgment. We would rather talk about the camp horses rather than who wore too much makeup. We clicked, and just got each other. The same kids who judged me also complained that my friend and I ostracized them. It hurt their feelings that my friend and I didn’t include the other eight girls we were forced to share a cabin with. They also loved nothing more than to point out our flaws. One night, I held hands with a boy that I liked. One of my cabin-mates spit at me that it was disgraceful and may as well have called me a whore with the level of disgust in her eyes. I laughed in her face.

For the first time in my life I was an outsider. I wasn’t liked. The counselors didn’t know what to do with me.

In my hometown, I had many friends and my teachers adored me. At camp, I was the bad girl. My twelve-year-old-self didn’t know what to do with the new camp version of me. Then, for the remainder of my stay, I embraced it.

I went back to that same camp a few more times and with every visit my “screw you attitude” became stronger. I didn’t want to feel the sting of their rejection so I ignored it and acted like their judgement amused me.

I wasn’t completely upset about returning to camp the following year. There were many aspects of the camp that I loved. The ocean was a short walk away. I adored horseback riding and taking care of the horses. I liked sleeping outside in a tent. I liked Christian camp for all the wrong reasons.

Every time I returned home, I was a slightly different version of myself. I felt God move away from me as I walked by the river year after year.

I know now that it was I who distanced myself from Him. I began to feel unworthy of His love and attention. I went to a camp that praised Him, but I failed there. Our relationship became more complicated over the years. The pettiness I learned at camp was just the beginning of our challenges.

My late teens and early 20’s were the loud years in my life. I didn’t allow any quiet to sink in, I couldn’t hear Him. I was in string of challenging relationship. I partied hard.

Then I met my husband and we built a peaceful life together. I reached out to God again, but it was difficult to find Him, even after my life had calmed down. The years between us weighed heavy on my heart.

I became pregnant with our son. I learned that bringing a child into the world strips you of all vanity and arrogance. Birthing my son revealed a depth to my spirit that I previously thought was shallow. When I pushed my son into the world and held him to my chest for the first time, I was brought to my knees and humbled beyond measure. Childbirth was the greatest force of nature I’d ever experienced. I cried out to God in gratitude, I felt His presence in every corner of the delivery room.

When I look at my son I see such bliss, love, and curiosity in his eyes. I see a sacred innocence that shinesthe same light that once danced in my eyes as I raced along the river shore. There is a spiritual light that illuminates children, perhaps because their tender years make them closer to that side of heaven. 

I watch my son race across the grass in our yard, his toddler legs moving as fast as they can go and my own feet are light again. My spirit soars as I chase after my baby. A familiar, but long-lost smile breaks across my face when my son looks back at me. My arms rise like a bird in flight, a voice whispers in my heart, welcome home.

-Rachel McKee

Author’s Note: I don’t normally talk about religion, politics, or sex on this blog. (You know all the things you wouldn’t bring up at Thanksgiving dinner.) But this essay kept coming back to me and it wouldn’t let me go. I had to write it down. I hope none of you take offense from my journey with God. I also don’t want to give the impression that I am against organized religion because I know many people who attend church and have deepened their relationship with God this way. This is simply part of my story.

When I Realized I Couldn’t Fix His Mental Illness

I posted a poem last week called Everywhere I Go You Follow. I wrote the poem when I was nineteen years old and experiencing a rough relationship. Daley over at The Invisible Moth asked who the poem was about and I told her to stay-tuned and that I’d answer with a follow-up essay.

I wrote the essay, When I Realized I Couldn’t Fix His Mental Illness at the beginning of this year and XONecole published it on their site in March. Even though this breakup story is far in my past, and I’m very happily married nowas you all know. I’m so grateful for this relationship and all that it taught me. Writing this essay cleared my creative voice that had taken me years to rediscover.

Here is the link to the original article.

When I Realized I Couldn’t Fix His Mental Illness

Loving someone with mental illness is driving through mountain passes at 2AM in early spring.

Climbing up switchbacks and taking hair-pin turns way too quickly and listening to The Beatles’ White Album. It’s nurturing someone who is running from their demons–holding them on the side of the road while you huddle under a blanket and look at the stars on the edge of a mountain lake, and concurring the darkness and greeting the morning sun while inhaling your victory into burning lungs and gazing into sleepy eyes that radiate relief that the night is over, only to take a new adventure the next night to divert the memories again.

I fell in love with a boy who was officially diagnosed with extreme bipolar disorder, but it took two years to get a diagnosis. We were both 19, young, selfish, and ignorant to the details of mental illness. There were numerous nights when I would get a phone call and the only sound on the other line would be heavy breathing and a shaky, “Help…me.” I would instantly jump out of bed and drive to his apartment and find him in a puddle of puke and reeking of alcohol. I would clean him up and put him to bed and pray that he would be “better” in the morning.

I continuously told myself that I could fix him. My touch would erase the dark circles that formed under his eyes from the impossibly long nights that he couldn’t sleep. If I held him long enough his anxious, tight, wiry muscles would relax. If we partied and had fun we could be a normal couple like the rest of our friends. We could laugh and drink and be silly, not everything had to be so dark and dramatic. I did not understand that when he was on a manic high that it was not his “normal” self. The extreme happiness would not last and inevitably the other ball of fear and anxiety would swing and the Newton’s Cradle that was his personality would slam back down again. The constant swing of emotion was torturing him. I was in a perpetual state of fear that he would die and I was frustrated because I knew that I was not helping him.

He was constantly self-medicating. He drank… a lot. He cheated on me multiple times. Our relationship was crushing me and I was already working and attending school full-time. During the year and a half we were together he ran away more times than I can count, stopping all contact completely. His illness was causing me to have severe anxiety and there were days when I desperately wanted to ignore him, leave him, and forget about him. But then he would call and I would criticize myself for being so selfish. I could never voice my worst fear out loud, especially to him:

What if I’m not there and he dies…

He was finally brought to a rehabilitation center where he was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The words schizophrenia, manic, and depressed, were tossed around like common cold and a possible ear infection. The smell of bleach and ammonia was such a sterile contradiction to the moldy, dusty appearance of the neglected building. There were cracks on the tiled floor and an eerie silence that trailed behind my reluctant footsteps as I followed a nurse to see him. I walked into a fluorescent cafeteria and to tell you the truth, I don’t remember a single word we said. I know, I’m sorry for the let down, but I honestly can’t think of what we said to each other. I remember him being very sedative and his eyes were incredibly sad. I distinctly remember going home and eating some banana cream pie only to expel it into the toilet 15 minutes later. I still can’t eat banana cream pie.

Shortly after, I went off to Western Washington University to finish my four-year degree. He went through more rehabilitation. We began to drift apart. I went to visit him at one more facility that was much nicer than the last. I didn’t know how to tell him that I had found someone else. We weren’t together, but I still felt heavy with a guilty heart that I was moving on. I made the incredibly cruel and stupid decision to tell him the day he was sent home that I was dropping out of our relationship. I will never forget the sound of his voice when he whispered in an exhausted tone, “Why would you tell me that today, the day I get to go home?” I selfishly decided that day that I was done; I wanted to leave our relationship in the past. I was bailing hard because I wanted to enjoy my two years of university life.

We have hardly spoken since that final goodbye where we literally hung up the phone and ended the conversation of “us.” From our brief interactions following our breakup, and the gossip mill of Facebook, it sounds like he is doing incredibly well for himself. He went back to school and we now share the same alma mater. Without my help or influence he picked himself up and made a new life. In my vanity I thought it was me that was holding him together when ultimately he was always in control of his own life and didn’t need me backseat-driving for him. His battle ultimately had to be fought with the aid of professionals and a loving family.

He has a new shotgun partner now. When I think of them driving through life together I feel a surge of emotion that hurls itself through the timeline of “us”. I fiercely want her to be the one for him. I want her to stand strong where I crumbled under the weight of his illness. I won’t ever get a chance to tell him that I am proud of him. Even though we shared soul-wrenching truths about ourselves, there is the ever-present barrier that holds steady when lovers decide to take different directions. After speeding through the dark tunnel of time that was “us” and the discovery of illness, I hope he basks in the light on the other side.

-Rachel McKee