Today I just returned back from a youth camp. I am always a bit sobered when I get back from these as I find my neat life colliding with the chaos of others’ lives that have been born in different situations.
The other two girls were like moths to the light as my attention was fixated solely on Rachel. Although their comments were equally horrific, I could not shake my hunch that Rachel possessed a certain desperation, a certain immediate neediness that required my sole attention. Although years of grooming as a people pleaser was compelling me to include the other girls in the conversation, making it a community conversation about suicide attempts and hopelessness, I obeyed this deeper urging instinct within me.
“The voices tell me I”m beautiful when I’m bloody, ” she said hesitantly, carefully studying my fact to gauge my reaction. The horror of this statement had barely sunk in when my reaction must have merited a further test of the waters: “I have 3 different persons in my head.”
With each new revelation, I felt a burning compassion within me, a need to wrap my arms around this girl and assure her that her life was valuable and important, that someday there would be pieces of joy that would gradually get larger, creating a sieve-like existence for the dark cloud of despair that threatened to suffocate her.
And yet we were walking onto the next activity, herself still talking, as if she could no longer stop the words that bubbled from her lips, perhaps corked up in her being too long. We walked passed other teenagers that could not help but hear, but she did not seem to care.
I tried to reassure her of God’s love, but she had endured years of spiritual guilt-forming, thrust upon her by well-meaning Christians who would be positive that the best way to keep them on the straight and narrow was to build a steel fence around it of do’s and don’ts, a dot-to-dot of holy behavior and Christian living. This framework, although a safe and secure place for them, did not fit the strange shapes of Rachel’s life. In fact, they could not see that the framework in which they were trying to capture her skinny body was only covering her shadow. Her body was far away from that place, that sense of reality. The harder they pressed that framework down around her, the more elusive her shadow became. And yet they couldn’t see her, this phantom girl who was merely a mirage. Her reality was more than they could imagine.
And so her lonlieness and isolation screamed at me from her story. Her mother was a failure and was out of the picture, although Rachel longed for her with an intensity that seemed unmerited given the neglect and near-starvation she had endured while living with her. Her aunt was one of the spiritually formidable ones, requiring Rachel to attend church 3 times a week and demanding an upright, sinless existence. She was furious with her grandmother from cutting her off from her mother. And she felt betrayed by her close friends who never seem to offer the same sense of self-sacrifice and giving that she extended to them.
“My other problem is that I”m bi,” she mumbled to me quietly.
“You’ve been through a lot, it doesn’t surprise me that things are very confusing in that area,” I said equally as quietly.
“Yes, I think I am sexually confused.” She said this in a way that made me think that she had heard this term from a therapist or counselor, offering such a label as a way for Rachel to guide herself through the treacherous confusion that marked her life. Although a label is confining and restricting, it offers a kind of handrail by which a lost person can have some sense of stability in a fog.
My words seemed trite and too little for a young life who was struggling with despair. However, when I saw her the next morning and gave her a warm smile and wave, I saw the unmistakable sign of pleasure flit across her face. Pleasure that she was seen? That she had been heard? I wasn’t sure.
As she got into the bus, one individual in a sea of young people, I grabbed her shoulders and looked into her eyes.
“Remember our conversation last night,” I said, hoping that somehow, in those dark moments, she would remember some bits of truth and life I tried to speak to her. That my voice would be louder than the voices that taunted her to self-destruct, that filled her being with a self-revulsion and loathing.
I know this small mercy, were it to transpire, would not be a result of the power of my words, but only by the grace of God.