When It’s Hard to Pray

Today, like so many other days over the past year, I opened my Bible to Psalm 40. In the margins, written in pencil, is the date 9/13/18, and I pray I always remember what that date means. It’s the day I got my Bible from the security staff at Lakeside. I had to specifically request it because they don’t give you anything but essentials from your belongings unless you ask and only if it passes the safety test (I guess they figured I wasn’t going to try and whack myself or anyone over the head with my Bible). When I was admitted to Lakeside on September 11, 2018, I was unprepared to have to relinquish all of the stuff I packed, and it wasn’t until 2 days later that I realized I could ask to have my Bible. Being without my Bible or any way to read it on my phone (since Lakeside took that away also) felt jarring. I have gone more than 2 days without reading the Bible before, but I felt the loss very acutely being in an unfamiliar, scary setting with unfamiliar people. When I finally did get my beloved Bible, I opened to Psalm 40 first because Stephen had sent that Psalm to me in an email, and I loved everything it said and related so much to its words. I was in a pit and saw no way out, but I hoped and prayed that the Lord would deliver me and set my feet on a rock. I wanted to know that His steadfast love and faithfulness would preserve me and that He does not withhold mercy from me. 

On September 13 I had a hard time believing these things to be true (and sometimes still do, if I’m being honest), but I read the words over and over again nevertheless, underlining them with my stub of a pencil (the only writing implement Lakeside allowed, although I don’t know why because you can totally do some damage with a sharp pencil). I prayed weak but desperate prayers, begging God to help me and be near me and rescue me. I couldn’t believe I was actually in a place like Lakeside. I couldn’t believe that I had come so close to ending my life. And I couldn’t believe–yet–that there was end to the despair that was eating me up from the inside out. But I clung to the words of Psalm 40 and have continued to read them almost every day since September 13.

There have been days when the pain was too deep, when the darkness clouded all rational thought, when I could barely form the words of a prayer. On days like that, I turned to words already written, words expressing better than I could how deep the pit of depression was but also how strong the grip of God is. Praying God’s Word back to Him has been the lifeline I have needed when I feel my grip weakening, when I can’t imagine how to hold on a minute longer. It is in those moments of desperation that He showed me that He always does the work of holding on to me and keeping me under the shadow of His wings while the storm rages. 

One day during my depression found me in the office of my pastor, who has been a  source of counsel and comfort to me. He listened to me tell of my continued despair and doubts in God’s goodness, and he met me with compassion and love. He encouraged me to keep clinging to the Scriptures and to be honest with God about my doubt. He assured me I was not alone. And then he opened his Bible and encouraged me to read Psalm 88 aloud as a prayer to God. I only read two or three verses before I started crying. The words in that Psalm–some of the most depressing words in the whole Bible–mirrored my own feelings so closely that I could not ignore them. I was overcome with the kindness of God, the kindness that led Him to move the writers of the Bible to include such gut-wrenching words. That very same kindness of God led me to my church, to my pastor, to my friends, to my therapist, to my husband–to all of the people who have helped see me through this long darkness. Reading those words back to God as a prayer felt not just like a desperate plea but a holy moment, one on which I can look back and recall the nearness of God at a time when I questioned His very existence. 

On days like today, when hope seems far and troubles so very near, how glad I am to have the Word of God to give voice to the prayers I can’t pray on my own. I can pray Psalm 40 and believe that one day God will put a new song in my mouth, that others will see and put their trust in the Lord. And when that day comes, I will not restrain my lips but will tell of His deliverance. 

May I Be One Who Laughs



Back in February I spent several hours by myself in Stephen’s office, writing and thinking in the quiet of the university library where he works. I already spend a lot of time thinking–too much time, if I’m being honest–but very few of my thoughts are actually productive or constructive. I wanted to set aside some time to be intentionally reflective. I found some reflection questions in a book I had just read (Christians Get Depressed Too by David Murray–highly recommend) and online (from a website that I have already forgotten). I wanted some structure to guide me so I didn’t end up with wandering thoughts. The questions ended up being really helpful for me, as they made me stop and consider various aspects of my life and what I think and feel about where I am and where I have been and where I want to be. 

One question asked, “What do you think about the future?”, and this question has stuck with me ever since. There are many ways you could answer this, but I immediately thought, “I don’t like thinking about the future.” In fact, the thought of the future didn’t appeal to me at all but instead filled me with dread. 

I don’t know precisely when I stopped looking forward to the future, but I think it was after I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Before ulcerative colitis (UC), life was relatively uncomplicated. I had struggles, but nothing that altered my life in such a profound way as being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Being so sick for an extended period of time caused a shift in my thinking. I started to fear future flares and started to expect the next unwelcome event. The disappointments that came after my UC diagnosis (hip surgeries, chronic pain, weight gain, other things listed in my last post) became debits that were being drawn from my hope account, and as far as I could see, no credits were coming in. I started believing that the future would be just like my present reality. I wrestled with my thoughts and tried to cling to the truths of Scripture, but I missed the way fear crept in and took up residence in my heart and mind. Even as I read verses that talked about all things working together for good (Romans 8:28) or suffering producing endurance which produces character and hope(Romans 5:3-4), deep down I did not have hope, but apprehension. Looking back I see the many blessings that accompanied these difficult years, but most of the time I allowed the pain I experienced to overshadow anything good. 

Now, I dread the future because I am afraid. I’m afraid the hints of joy I have seen the past few weeks won’t last, and so the future will be just as painful as most of the past year has been. That is not a hopeful picture to me. All of this is complicated by the fact that much of what I’m afraid of is outside of my control: I don’t know when my disease will flare (it’s flaring now, in fact) or if the depression will subside completely or how long I will have hip pain. However, unpleasant circumstances don’t excuse me from obeying the commands of Scripture, and Scripture calls me to rejoice always and pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). ALL. Even though my circumstances may not change, I can change my perspective. I want to be like the woman in Proverbs 31 who laughs at things to come instead of dreading them. I want to embrace whatever lies in front of me because I know the One who is preparing the way for me. I want to live in confident assurance that He who began a good work in me will carry it to completion (Philippians 1:6). I need to put aside the lie that only bad will befall me. Realistically, no one’s life is 100% bad.

The truth is that my future couldn’t be more hopeful. Because the righteousness of Christ has been imparted to me, I know that I will spend eternity with God in heaven. I will be healed and whole and lovely because He loves me. There will be no more tears and no more pain and only love and light and joy. What future could be better than that?

Far from Home, Part 1: Why I Went to a Residential Treatment Facility for Depression

I have wanted to write about my time at Timberline Knolls, but I haven’t even known where to begin. Being away from home for 4 weeks to live with 30 other women with mental health problems is by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and there wasn’t a day when I was there that I didn’t question what in the world I was doing. However, I know that going was worthwhile. I know that going probably saved my life. And I know that going changed me. There is much that happened, much that I want to tell, but also much that I will keep to myself. 

So here are bits and pieces of my experience at a residential facility, where I received intensive treatment for recurrent, treatment-resistant major depressive disorder

My decision to go to a residential facility actually began while I was still inpatient (for the second time) at a mental hospital in Memphis. I was there for nine days and was miserable the whole time. The only bright spot was my therapist, who met with me every day. Towards the end of my time there, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “There’s a corner you haven’t turned yet. There is more you need to address, and we can’t do it here. You need extended time to heal. You should really consider a residential program.” I was completely taken aback. I hadn’t seen this coming. No one had ever mentioned this before, nor did I even realize that there was such a thing as a residential program for depression where you could actually take extended time away from your life to deal with mental illness. Of course, before this year I had no reason to know such a thing existed, for it certainly wasn’t anything I had needed before, nor has anyone I know ever been to such a place.

My first instinct was to dismiss his suggestion, and I said as much. There was no way I could leave my family for any longer than I already had. There was no way I could ask my husband to bear the full weight of household responsibilities. But then the therapist spoke the obvious: “If you were dead, he’d be taking care of it all, all of the time. Don’t you think he’d rather do it for 30 days instead of the rest of his life?” Though I resisted for a couple of days, after praying and talking it over with Stephen, we made the decision for me to pursue residential treatment. I had tried so many other things to little avail; what if what I needed was something big and drastic? After many tears and a lot of phone calls, I was connected with someone from a program much farther away than I had imagined going: Chicago. Timberline Knolls (TK) supposedly had a good reputation, though, and since I knew I wouldn’t be getting a lot of visitors no matter where I ended up because visiting time is so limited at these kinds of places, I decided it made little difference whether I was two hours away or eight hours a way. A representative from TK did a very detailed, somewhat intrusive phone screening with me (asking me such questions as what medications I take, how often I have suicidal thoughts, what, if any plan I had, etc.) and then told me I was cleared to receive treatment there, and they could accept me as soon as I was able to get there. This all happened on a Friday, and we decided that my parents would drive me part of the way on Monday and finish up the trip on Tuesday, when I would be admitted. 

When I first arrived at TK, I was terrified. My mom and dad waited with me while I went through pre-admission screenings and answered questions I had already answered several times over. At one point I just laid my head on my mom’s shoulder and cried. I felt lost and scared. I couldn’t believe this was my reality. I had left my husband and my girls hundreds of miles away, all because life was too much for me to handle. I felt like a failure and a burden. I remember pleading with the Lord for this to make a difference, for the time not to be wasted, for me to have a renewed appreciation for life. 

After several hours, I was led to the place where I would spend the next four weeks: Willow Lodge. One of the other residents gave me a tour of the facility, which helped me feel a little more comfortable. The lodge is basically a huge house, with several bedrooms that housed anywhere from 2-4 residents. It had a small kitchen where we had our snacks (and where some residents who were not permitted off lodge ate all their meals), a common area called the milieu, and three group rooms where group therapy was held. There was also a medical area (essentially a closet) where nurses dispensed medications three times a day. I feel like I spent more time waiting in line for my medications than anything else!   

I was assigned to a room with two other women, and the following day a third woman was added, bringing my room to full capacity at four. I was really anxious about living with other people, but I was fortunate to have roommates who were easy to get along with and who did not cause drama. We each had a twin bed and a chest of drawers and a small open closet to hang up some clothes, and we had a display board where we could hang up pictures or other mementos. One of my friends had taken the time to make several printouts of various Scriptures and put them on pretty scrapbook paper, so I was able to rotate through these the whole time I was gone. It was a simple gesture that made living in an unfamiliar place a little more bearable, and I was so grateful for it. 

The first night I was there was a blur. I wrote in my journal, begging God to be near and asking Him to deliver me from darkness and restore to me the joy of my salvation. I didn’t know how He would do it, but I prayed that being at TK was setting me on the path to get there.

To be continued…

To My Worst Critic

When I was at Timberline Knolls, every Thursday I went to a group focused on body image. It was right after a group I had that focused on self-image. Since I have just a FEW issues related to both of those things, I cried in almost every session. (Basically, Thursdays were a real treat.) One of the body image sessions talked about the negative messages we receive about our bodies, ones that come from both external and internal sources, and how we can counter these messages with healthy, productive thoughts. One exercise we did was to write a letter addressed to our body critics. We were given paper with pre-printed lines and text at the top that said, “Dear Body Critics.” It didn’t take me long to realize that my biggest critic isn’t someone else, so I crossed out “Body Critics” and wrote my name instead. Below is the letter I wrote in the few minutes we had. It’s not terribly profound, but somehow seeing the truth in black and white was a breakthrough for me. I hope it encourages someone else to remember to listen to the truth instead of lies.

Dear Erin,

Be kind to yourself. Your value is not determined by the amount of space you occupy in the world. Your value is not determined by the number on the scale or on your jeans. Your value is not determined by what others think or say about you. Your value is set by God, who declares you fearfully and wonderfully made, who delights in you, who dances over you with singing and joy. In Christ you have the value of a redeemed child of God–pure, blameless, beautiful, and worthy to approach the throne of God with confidence. The only words that matter are the words that God speaks over you. Listen to His voice, and may it be loud enough to silence the voice of hate always ringing in your ears. Remember that nothing can separate you from God’s love–not height nor depth, death nor life, not even your own self-hatred. Walk in the truth that you are loved, and stand tall and live fearless.

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