Mental Health Awareness Month: Isabella’s Story

I remember the first time I met Isabella. She was anxious in addition to struggling with depression and addiction, and her big accomplishment of the day was making it to my recovery group. She graciously allowed me to share her story in my book, On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context, and in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month I will share it with you here:

Abandoned. Thrown away. Left to fend for herself. This is how Isabella describes the themes of her childhood. Her older siblings always seemed better looking and more successful than Isabella ever felt. Maybe her parents favored them, or maybe it was just in her own mind. But somewhere at a young age Isabella got the clear message that she was inferior, and perhaps not even a part of the family.

After a move to a new town around second grade, Isabella struggled to make friends and her sense of being an outsider grew. Within a year or two of moving, her mother had a new baby and her older brother was seriously injured in a car accident. Trips back and forth to the hospital meant many missed school days and an even bigger gap between Isabella and any kind of social group.

The stress of life took its toll on the whole family, and Isabella’s mother developed her own health problems. Unable to care for the younger children, Isabella’s mother stayed in her dark bedroom for days on end, leaving Isabella to care for a baby and a toddler. By the time she was entering her teen years, Isabella couldn’t take it anymore. She was doing so much to take care of everyone, yet no one seemed to acknowledge or care about her. She began acting out to get some kind of attention and ultimately ran away, hoping to find love and acceptance somewhere.

Because of her behavior problems and incidence of running away, Isabella was taken into state custody and placed in over fourteen foster homes, group homes, and girls’ schools across three states. She attempted suicide several times, once nearly succeeding. These attempts and her ongoing depression meant trips in and out of psychiatric hospitals as well, and her family became less and less involved. Eventually her parents moved out of state and never returned to Isabella’s life.

As an adult, Isabella has continued to struggle with depression and low self-esteem. She fears that she has already passed on some of her negative thinking to her children, but in the past few years has tried to turn her impact around as she has become a Christian and seeks to train her children in new and godly ways. But as a Christian, Isabella has struggled to fully understand and accept God’s love. With the abandonment and trauma she has endured, her brain just seems to keep going back to some of those same old thoughts. When those negative thoughts come along, she now has new thoughts that only compound the problem: “If you were a real Christian you wouldn’t think this way. You must be doing something wrong.”

In her worst moments, when life seems  challenging and she feels so alone, “negative” isn’t accurate to describe Isabella’s thinking. Self-loathing might paint a truer picture, as she simply hates the very skin in which she lives. Grounding herself in the truth of the Bible sometimes helps, but Isabella knows there is no quick fix. She spent years of her life living in a context where no one loved her — grasping the love of God is going to be a long process.

For so many like Isabella, even after they come to know God they still struggle to love themselves. The impact of years of rejection, trauma, and put-downs takes time to heal. On top of negative thoughts come more negative thoughts, and it seems they live in a perplexing world of contradicting beliefs.  Like Isabella, they often ask themselves, “Why do I still hate myself when God loves me so much?”

Counselor’s Response

I have heard many people tell me, “I just hate myself.” Most professionals would label this “low self-esteem” and some may go so far as “self-loathing.” I agree it’s a terrible place to be emotionally. But over the years I have come to a new conclusion: you don’t hate yourself. First of all, anyone who has made it into a counselor’s office has already made a statement that her true desire is for help. You do not wish ill on yourself — as one might wish upon someone they truly hated — but instead you want something better.

I have never heard someone who grew up in an emotionally stable, nurturing environment with a healthy family make that bold statement. I have not met anyone who would say, “I’ve had a great life. People just poured encouragement out on me. I know myself well and frankly, I hate what I see.” Now why is it that people in that happy circumstance does not come to the conclusion one day that they just aren’t worth it? My answer: they truly know themselves. They have been told about the beauty and wonder of just being themselves.

Those who say, “I hate myself” do not know themselves at all. Most likely, they have experienced at least emotional abuse if not other forms of abuse as well. They’ve been told they’ll never amount to anything. They have been told they are useless. They have heard all their lives about all the family “screw-ups” that they are doomed to imitate. And so they say, “I hate myself.”

If you have experienced what I am describing, then your picture of “yourself” is not your actual self at all. It is a broken shell of a person, tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage. The words of others, lies that resonate within your head day after day, have now come to control your identity. Abuse internalized becomes “me.” And yes, you should hate that. But it is not you.

You entered this world with beauty. You entered this world with potential. You entered this world with something unique that no other person on this 7-billion-person planet has. A personality, a fingerprint, a thought process, a heart, a soul. On that first day, you were not something to hate. Even you could probably admit that. But you now sit and hate something. Perhaps you hate your life circumstances. You might hate the person you have become after others have snuffed out your flame. Maybe if you had been encouraged rather than told to conform you could have discovered that truly unique and beautiful self.

So how do you get there? Now that you’ve spent years thinking you hate yourself how do you start again? I have good news: there is hope. The first step is to redefine your enemy. You are not the enemy. The true, real you is under there somewhere. The enemies are the lies you’ve been told, the abuse you endured, the person you have pretended to be in order to find love.

Once you begin to fight the right enemies, you must set out on the journey of discovering yourself. Usually it helps to go back in your mind to the age you were when you began to lose your true self. For some, that’s age three. For others, it’s ten or twelve or fourteen. Think back to a moment in your life when you were truly happy just expressing yourself. When did that light inside dim? When did that beautiful, hopeful person get crushed? If you can find that age, you can discover yourself in ways that children of that age range do. Paint a picture, pick daisies in a field, climb a tree, watch a sunset, play with stickers, watch Mister Rogers. (Seriously, watching Mister Rogers and believing every word he says about you with child-like faith will boost your self-esteem like nothing else. Bring a box of tissues and just let him tell you how special you are through that TV screen).

If you can’t identify a specific age that you lost yourself, just explore your interests. Take a class, try a new food, experiment with a new haircut, go on an adventure. Find a safe friend. Find the true you that’s hiding underneath the self you’ve become. Let someone love you. Let God love you. Let you love you once and for all.