“My belief in God…has kept me from harming myself. When I really didn’t want to be conscious, didn’t want to be aware, was in so much pain that I didn’t want to be awake or aware, I’ve thought to myself, ‘If you injure yourself you’re injuring the body of Christ, and Christ has been injured enough’”—Poet Jane Kenyon, 1993 interview with Bill Moyers
Let me begin with what this piece is not about. This is not about Jesus curing my mental illness, it’s not about Christianity changing my life, and it’s not about miracles.
This is, however, about pain. Disillusionment about faith, Christian colleges, and churches. It’s ugly and has no clean solutions, like most of life. Nevertheless, we keep going.
I came to Wheaton College (Illinois) because I had an existential crisis about my faith. At the time, it was the foundation of my identity. I grew up in Taiwan and our residence was on top of the church my dad owned. Both my parents are pastors. We moved to America thirteen years ago so my mom could start her church.
Skepticism about my faith was not just a theological question, but a question of my upbringing, relationships, and even my Asian American identity. I thought to myself, Four years figuring me out seems necessary. I flew from LA to the majority white suburbs in the Midwest to attend Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school.
Freshman year, I spent a lot of time alone, reading and studying theology and philosophy. How do I know that I know God? There were a lot of questions I got to explore. Yet the more I learned, the more I realized my life thus far was filled with truthless ideals.
I spent my first year dismantling my old self, unravelling and exposing base assumptions. Yet the freer I became, the more unfettered my thoughts were, the more I sank weighed by a loss of ignorance. I had lost a simplistic model of myself and the world that had kept me happy for so many years.
Desperation manifested as my learning—I knew no other way to struggle. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, I only knew how to fight by thinking. I held onto the principle that what I learn should necessarily affect my life. To gain knowledge is to change how you see the world and fundamentally tied with how to live.
ASIAN AMERICAN IN THE WHITE MIDWEST
My Asian-ness wasn’t apparent until I came to a predominantly white college. Growing up, the city my family and I lived in a town mainly populated by East Asians. Many of them were like me, immigrants from a young age or second generation. Boba shops, authentic Chinese food, and TaeKwonDo studios were all around the corner.
I was “normal” there. It was normal to take SAT prep classes after school, to know how to play the piano, and to be bilingual. We take off our shoes indoors and respect adults, no matter how rebellious we are.
But I had urban America deep inside me, thanks to our suburb located close to Los Angeles. Part of me is grit and concrete. One of my favorite memories is going to an underground concert at a venue named The Smell. Local punks and screamos hosted a “prom” there on a Friday night–no one dressed properly. As the night went on, I found out why it was dubbed The Smell.
At Wheaton, both the LA and Taiwanese in me didn’t fit in. I spent a lot of time alone. I couldn’t tell my parents about what was happening at college due to language barriers and want for independence. As I spent more time learning Western philosophy and literature, I forgot my Chinese more and more.
Growing up in Taiwan and Los Angeles, I never knew how dark winters could get. Or how that would affect my emotional health. Stress from school, unanswered identity issues, isolation, skepticism about my faith, and distance from my parents all accumulated. I never experienced depression before and didn’t recognize the symptoms.
When winter came, it triggered the worst of my depression.
I began cutting. Then I began drinking and smoking in order to stop cutting. I started losing sleep and waking up panicking in the middle of the night. By second semester, thoughts of suicide became a daily routine. On occasion when I heard the nearby train roll by, I would imagine jumping in front of it.
Poet Sylvia Plath had a form of depression and bipolar disorder similar to mine. During my darker days, her writings were a source of comfort. “Your body/Hurts me as the world hurts God” (“Fever 103”), she wrote. I translated that to myself, My body/Hurts me as the world hurts God. Voluntary pain–wasn’t that what Jesus did too by coming to earth? If he experienced all possible temptations as a human, wouldn’t it be possible he had depression too? Or were his temptations, as most theologians argue, all from external sources and never arising from internal disorder? Was I still alone?
Everything climaxed after one bad night. I was depressed that day, drank at night, and went back to the dorm drunk. I pulled a knife and tried cutting myself while my roommate was there. But she had slowly talked me into putting the knife down and managed to get me into bed. She stayed up that whole night while I cried, laughed, and described dying until I fell asleep.
The RA on my floor found out about this night, and reported me to the Student Care. One thing lead to the next, and I began intensive therapy little over a month while away from campus.
Recovery was slow. I switched therapists a few times (one of them rejected me as a patient). I went on pills. I had to check up with Student Care in order to come back on campus. The whole thing worsened my condition.
But through it all, I reconnected with my family. I had forgotten so much Chinese by the time I was in outpatient therapy I stuttered through what’s happening. Although my family couldn’t understand me, they tried.
“It’s okay,” they said in their accent, “We still love you.”
My family and I have been in America for 13 years and there were many moments where we changed. But at this moment, I cried because their love for me didn’t.
I am a junior now at the same college. Last semester I was discharged from mandatory therapy and have not needed to go back.
It’s been a little over a year since I last cut, and the scars are fading. I used to rub my fresh cuts as I sat in mandatory chapel. The little bit of pain calmed my anxiety. It stopped me from my thoughts spiraling into a dark place.
I don’t need them in chapel anymore, even when the sermons dive into issues which used to trigger episodes. I do, though, sometimes still need to put in my earphones and blast music–one can only endure so much.
I am still learning, but I’ve stopped expecting myself to do well all the time. If I am too out of it, I would skip class. It’s okay to turn in assignments half-baked as long as I pick it up later at my own rhythm.
I go into Chicago and Chinatown as much as possible. Every Saturday I tutor at Pui Tak in Chinatown, working with adult immigrants. It reminds me of home. After two years of struggling, it’s a relief to find a place that reconnected my scattered identities.
Love is Not a Victory March, It’s a Cold and Broken Hallelujah
Things certainly have improved in my life, but I don’t think I drastically changed as a person. I did gain a confidence–dug out from what survived those two years–in my identity. That, and my inability to lose my faith. It has somehow remained, and I accepted it with a sigh.
Jesus’s described by the prophets as “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Perhaps Jesus experienced depression and understands what the longing for death feels like. At least, I imagine he would have especially during Roman torture and crucifixion. I think of him bloody and flayed on the cross, naked and God forsaken, for the first time in eternity.
I learned in New Testament class that as Jesus hanged dying alone, he smelled of alabaster oil, a strong perfume Mary Magdalene poured over his feet before he was arrested by Roman soldiers.
I had no idea, did not imagine once, that Jesus would’ve smelled so sweet. The blood and death which haunted me, and yes, him too, was replaced by this.
His scars–those wounds which didn’t heal completely–suffices. The smell of alabaster oil which lingers even now suffices.