I was 13 years old when I had my first major depressive episode. I was younger than my age implies; I was naive. I was innocent. The "worst" thing I had ever done at that point was probably, I don't know, watch MTV even though my parents thought they had blocked the channel. I was raised a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints my entire life and taught Christian values since infancy — values I strove to put into practice even in my young life. I did what Mormons do: I went to church. I said my prayers. I helped my family and tried to love everyone I came in contact with, or at least not hold grudges or get involved in petty disputes. I did my best to follow God's laws and understand what He wanted from me, and I thought was on the right track. In essence, I was "doing everything right." But yet I suffered — oh, how I suffered.
I remember lying awake for hours at night, praying for my pain to be lifted. It was an anguish so deep that metaphor completely escapes me. It was paralyzing. It was black. It was consuming. I thought, "If God listens, if He really knows and loves all of His children, then He will hear my prayers. He will know that I don't deserve this, that I've done nothing wrong. If I have enough faith He will take this away from me."
But He didn't.
Time went on, and sometimes things were better. Sometimes they were worse. As the weeks and months and years went by, somewhere along the line, I decided I'd had enough. But I didn't turn my anger at the depression, at myself, or even the people in my life who couldn't see what I needed them to see, even though I did my best to hide it from the world. No, instead, I got angry at God.
I often thought of the poem "Footprints," which tells the story of a man walking along the beach with God. He sees footprints marking the path of his life and notices that in his darkest hours, there was just one set of prints, not two. When he asks God why he was abandoned in his time of need, God answers, "It was then I carried you."
I'd think about this poem and then I'd say to myself, "What a load of crap." Because God wasn't carrying me — He wasn't there, wasn't even with me at all.
It's been nearly 20 years since that first bleak episode with depression, though I've had many others that have been far worse. Through the decades I have learned so much about life and about God, but the fact still remains: I don't fully understand Him. I don't know what He wants me to do, though I struggle to understand it each and every day. I don't know why He lets bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. I don't know if He curses us or blesses us through trials. I don't know why some people seem to face every obstacle known to man while others seem to sail through life. And I just don't know where He is when it all goes down.
But of the many, many things that have changed since then, one thing remains the same: No matter how abandoned I have felt, I have never doubted that He is there. Whether He was indifferent or suffering along with me or simply absent I'll never know for sure, but since choosing to believe that God does exist, I have seen evidence of Him even in the worst of times. And now that I'm a parent, I'm starting to understand Him better and better every day.
Because sometimes, I am not there when my children get hurt. Sometimes I'm not even there when they recover and move on from the fall. I cannot hold their hands and wipe their tears and guide them through every storm, or even rejoice with them through every triumph. It doesn't mean I don't love my children or that I'm not heartbroken when they are; it means I love them fiercely and want them to become more, because it is in those absences that my children find their own strength. They learn what they're made of and what they can do — and what they can't or shouldn't do. They learn resilience, that they can be happy again even after they are consumed with sorrow. They learn that there's always another chance to try again. They learn to trust their inner voice, not just the ones whispering softly or screaming loudly all around them. They are discovering who they are and what they can do, how they fit into the world around them and how to change their world. They are deciding each day who they can and want to be. In the end, these discoveries will give them the ability to trust their own instincts and rely upon their own strength. And I pray that they will be strong, that they will find stability and inner peace. That they will grow.
Now, I'm starting to think that 13-year-old girl was right all along. God wasn't there. But now I'm starting to think that maybe He chose not to be there. He had to step away and let me fall, again and again and again and again. He had to let me grow strong and find my inner peace. It doesn't mean He doesn't love me; it means He wants me to know who I am, as He does, and what I'm capable of. Then, God lets me decide who I am, and He lets me change when I want to be someone better. I know He has given me the ability to write and the desire to help others. And now, He is letting me change the world in the way that only I can, with all the wisdom I have gained because He wasn't there.
What's more, I have learned that God's laws and requests don't always protect me from heartache and frustration. I don't believe they were ever fully meant to. But I do know that they provide me with sure footing when I am ready to stand again. They bring the joy more quickly into my life when the world has extinguished it. And they give my children security and my family the peace and stability we need in our home. And for those times when I'm not quite ready to stand, choosing to be a member of my church provides me a community to lean on — a community of imperfect people like me who are struggling to understand God's place in their lives and their place in His. And if we choose to reach out to each other in times of anger and sorrow and frustration and pain, and to be there for others in those same lonely places, we are doing what God needs us to do: be there when He can't.