Thanksgiving typically marks the beginning of the holiday season, and with it comes various posts across social media platforms about what people are thankful for.
If you would have asked me what I was thankful for a few months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer you. 2017 has been the worst year of my life. I’m aware that sounds super dramatic and petty, but it has sucked. This year through me to rock bottom and created the worst version of myself.
But now, I’m in a much better place. I’ve experienced the restorative power of God’s grace, and I’m a better person because of it.
This time last year, I was living my best life (or so I thought). I was teaching 5th-8th grade students at a small school and loving every minute of it. Little by little, my life was consumed by this job I loved, this position I had dreamed of. I had immersed myself in the culture of the school, attending not only school sport and music events, but also supporting my students with their other interests outside of school.
I poured my heart and soul into that job.
Before I knew it, my job took over my life. Notice that I didn’t say “teaching”, I said my job. I am a teacher through and through. At the core of my being is someone who loves nothing more than to reach and lead people. Teaching people is a facet of every part of my life whether I’m teaching a lesson in a classroom, sharing a book I love, or talking about the Bible. The problem wasn’t teaching; the problem was the how addicted I was to my job.
By the start of the second semester, every second I had was thrown into my work. I was usually in my classroom by 6:45 each morning. Since my prep period wasn’t until the last hour of the day, I’d typically stay at school until 5:00. Depending on what I had to get done, I’d either go home to eat, then work until 9 or 10, or I’d go to a coffee shop and work until they closed.
The first year of teaching is hard for anyone, so I’m not bragging or complaining about the amount of time I spent working. Honestly, I’m not sure that was the problem. The issue was that I could not escape from my job. Other things I normally held as high priorities started to become less important. I’d try to make time for friends and family, but while my body was there, my mind wasn’t. I was always in my head thinking about what I had left to do.
My personal relationship with God was also suffering. Rarely would I make time to read the Bible or pray, and since I still went to church, I told myself I was fine. However, even in a pew, I faced the same struggle: my body was present, but my mind could not have been further away.
In January, my grandmother passed away. To help support my mom and be a comfort to my grandma, I practically lived at the hospital and hospice for the two weeks leading up to my grandmother’s death. My coworkers were extremely helpful and encouraging at this time. They prayed for me and kept my classroom running, always making sure things were done in order that I could step back into work as smoothly as possible.
I’ve never been one who is able to communicate my emotions very well. Usually, I just prefer to not deal with them at all.
This is a wise and productive choice for your mental health, I’m sure.
Anyway, to cope with losing my grandmother, I dove deeper into school work. If I just kept busy all the time, I wouldn’t have time to feel anything.
The thing with being a teacher is that there is always more to do. So, the more I focused on work, the more stressed I got with everything I had left to do. In order to cope with the stress I was feeling from work, I started drinking more. Tough day at work? Drink. Good day at work? Drink. Lesson planning to do? Drink.
I felt so much guilt and shame during this time. I was never fully present anymore. I wasn’t able to get everything done that I needed to get done. I didn’t understand how I could be working every moment of the day, yet still never feel like I had my act together. I even felt guilty for not having a family. People started to question why I was so busy, saying I didn’t have a family to take care of and I had the most free-time of anyone else who worked at my school.
Here is one thing I think someone needs to tell you in case no one has ever told you it before: If something is hard for you, it is hard for you. If you are getting burnt out, you are getting burnt out. It doesn’t matter if you’re a mother of three or a college student, if you’re a grandmother or a pastor’s wife. If something is difficult for you, it is.
I feel like there is a stigma around that in order to feel stressed or burnt out, you have to be super successful. Normal people aren’t allowed to feel drained. So, we don’t ask for help. I didn’t think I had a right to be stressed out, so I never reached out for help. I knew I was burning myself out, but I was ashamed that I was. Like I was hearing, I didn’t have a family or a spouse, it was just me. Why would I be struggling so much?
I was falling apart, mentally and physically. I had lost over 15 pounds and had a constant headache. You can imagine how good of a place I was in around Easter when I was informed that my contract would not be renewed for the following school year.
All in all, I handled the news pretty well, if by well you mean doing nothing but drinking and not moving from my couch.
I’ve never drank too much, but I drank far too often. Constant thoughts of shame and worthlessness filled my mind. How could I tell people that I wasn’t good enough? How could I admit that I was a disappointment? Alcohol helped slow down my racing mind. Eventually, I started drinking more and more.
While drinking did help me slow down, it for sure didn’t fix the problem. The thoughts were still there, and they were debilitating. I was hurt and angry. I felt the sting of rejection and inadequacy. I had spent tens of thousands of dollars on my degree and licensing, and now I would be returning to my college job with my tail tucked.
I remember texting my boss shortly after I lost my job. I had warned her that I wasn’t sure who she might have working for her over the summer. That’s how rock bottom I was. By throwing my entire life into my job, I had placed my identity there. Without my job, I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. I had lost a lot of who I was because of how consumed I was with my job. Unsure of how to deal with all of that, I turned to alcohol, and now I was a person I detested.
How could I work with children like that?
I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t care. I would show up to my summer job, do what was required, and then leave. What was the point of anything anymore? Why should I build relationships with anyone?
When hard things happen, I hide. My solution to what was happening in my life was to hide myself and present a polished version of me to do what was expected. Once the workday was over, I could go home and sleep.
God has a unique way of changing our plans, doesn’t He?
I began working that summer as a shell of myself, but God used some truly amazing people to help me heal.
Through all of this, the hardest part for me was accepting that losing my job did not mean I was a disappointment, a failure, or worthless. I’m not sure when I started to believe that I had to be perfect. There are probably a lot of factors at play, but I think the most foundational moment was when I was told by a church member that my reputation affected my church, my family, and Jesus; if I messed up, then I could ruin their reputations as well. For whatever reason, my elementary-self picked up on that and held onto it. I had the belief that if I wasn’t perfect, if I didn’t succeed in absolutely everything, I’d mess things up for everyone, including Jesus.
Newsflash: If Jesus was dependant on you not messing things up for Him to work, we’d all be screwed. Infinity times over.
Looking back, there were two pivotal moments when things just clicked. These were the moments I believe God used to grab my attention. It was almost like He said, “Okay. I’ve given you time to sulk, but now we need to get to work.”
The first was in the middle of July when I was at a sports bar with some friends. I have always prided myself on being there for everyone else but never asking for help. The fact that I had people worrying about me and trying to care for me drove me crazy. My pride of being independent caused me to hate myself for being a burden for my friends. Angry at myself, I texted one of my best friends basically apologizing that she had to put up with me and warning her that I’d eventually be too much to handle. In probably one of the most encouraging texts I’ve ever received, she simply replied, “Then we will get over it.”
As insignificant as that text seems, it meant the world to me. I’m a human being, I’m going to make the people around me upset at some point. The fact that she shared she was willing to work through stuff for the sake of our friendship was the wake-up call I needed. Here was someone who had claimed to love me and was now proving it by walking through the darkest point of my life with me. If she could still love me when I didn’t like myself, maybe it was okay that I wasn’t perfect all the time.
The second moment came toward the end of the summer. I had been applying to jobs over the past few months, but only had one interview, which didn’t lead anywhere. I was plagued with thoughts of not being good enough. On top of that, I was beginning to see areas of personal and spiritual growth I needed to make, and the changes I wanted to see where overwhelming. Knowing I have a tendency to isolate myself when I’m struggling, I reached out to someone who would become one of my best friends asking her if we could talk. We sat by a lake, and she listened while I shared my concerns about never being enough. As we looked over the water, she said, “You don’t need to be the example for everyone. Other people need to be examples, too.”
In my head, I knew I didn’t have to be the example for everyone to follow, but I had a hard time truly believing that. Hearing someone give me permission to not be that took a huge weight off my shoulders, a weight I didn’t realize I was bearing.
Those two moments gave me the springboard I needed to really start healing. Losing my job was devastating to me, but it’s what I needed. I was building a life I didn’t want. I was becoming a person I didn’t like. I had placed my entire identity on my job.
If God had kept me where I was, I’m not sure I would’ve done anything to change my trajectory. He had to place me in an entirely new context so I could fix the way I was living my life. Sometimes it takes drastic measures to make changes, and God loves us enough to force us through it if it’s going to make us more like Jesus Christ.
Never place your identity in something that can be taken away. I cannot stress how important it is for you to find your identity in Christ. By finding my identity in my job, I couldn’t handle losing it. Once my job was taken away from me, what was I? I had nothing left.
If there’s anything you learn from this, I hope that you’ll start working toward placing your identity in Christ above all else. He’s the only sure, eternal hope that we can place all our faith in. He’s immovable. Constant. Everlasting.
By placing my identity fulling in Christ, I’ve found a freedom I didn’t know existed. The old me was so consumed with being accepted, being valued, being respected that I was willing to become someone completely different. But now? Now I’m done living in fear, the fear of not reaching a nonexistent standard of perfection. I now know Who I belong to – a God who was willing to live as a man in order to conquer sin and death. If He’s behind me, what else matters?
I’m no longer willing to sacrifice my personal and spiritual well-being and my relationships on the altar of success and productivity. To quote Brené Brown, a favorite author of mine, “I’m just not interested in being liked and patted on the head anymore. I hope I’m respected and respectful, but I’m not afraid of a hard conversation anymore. I don’t enjoy them, but I’m not afraid of them.”
I’ve newly realized the vast love God has for me. In spite of my shortcomings, my mistakes, my failures, His steadfast love is always there. I may not always see or understand how He is working, but He is ever in my corner, fighting on my behalf. I will mess up, but He’ll help me up again and push me forward. My life doesn’t need to be perfect; Jesus already took care of that on the cross. Living a perfect life isn’t the expectation I’m given. The expectation I have is to love God and love people.
So despite everything that has happened in 2017, I’ll be thankful, thankful for the pain and the heartache, for the broken dreams and the tears, because it got me here. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been surrounded by people who love me, and I’m at a great place to see how God leads next.
Because I have no idea what I’m doing.
And that’s okay. I’m confident that God will show me where I am to be next. I’m just doing the best I can to follow Him in the little things I do each day.
Above all, I hope that this post has been an encouragement to someone. I’m not a vulnerable or transparent person. I tend to be pretty private. But I also know there is power in sharing how God is working in your life. Please feel free to comment or reach out to me.