Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 5 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Body Wars.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
As the surgical staff members returned my organs to their places, they told me not to worry. I’d have a flat stomach again, and my doctor was “great with scars.”
Only minutes had passed since I’d given birth, and the encouragement was my body might not even bear the marks of it. I still shudder thinking about how my doctor came to be known for that. Despite the assurance, I rather would have had a doctor with a reputation for successful natural births or at least good bedside manner. I can handle scars.Christ’s suffering on the cross accomplished everything I ever hoped to achieve in drawing my own blood.
Months later, I held my daughter before putting her down for a nap. She squirmed and kicked my gut at just the right spot—the exact cut where she entered the world to use her lungs for the first time. It was still healing.
I heard my tiny one nuzzling closer and thought about how I didn’t care about the scar anymore. If that three-inch reminder didn’t sit so far below my navel, I might show it off, just to start conversation and tell my birth story, because it’s a good one. No plastic surgery or scar removal strip could entice me to erase the physical memory of welcoming my child into the world. For once, I could say I was proud of one of my scars.
Holding my sleeping child, I continued rocking her and remembered an interview I recently had with a tattoo artist. He told me women came to him all the time to cover their scars. He said some came to him looking to hide stretch marks or C-section scars, but the majority were women transitioning their addiction of harming themselves to adding ink.
As I listened to how he felt honored to be entrusted with their sad secrets, I was happy to know the audio recorder caught what he said, because I had ceased writing. Little white streaks are all over my skin, hiding in plain sight. I too could invest in some ink or form of scar removal. I don’t because they tell a different sort of birth story.
When I was bored during church sermons in junior high school, I used to read Leviticus just to see if I could shock myself. There was a lot of weird stuff in there about God’s views on bodies. Most of it didn’t seem to apply to me—until I got to the part about not cutting yourself in Chapter 19, verse 28:
“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.”
Although I didn’t cut myself because I was grieving the dead, I knew whatever reasons I could come up with probably still wouldn’t get a pass if I ever had to explain myself to my Maker or anyone else. As a Christian, I didn’t know what to do with a very blatant command to refrain from hurting myself.
Every time I did it, I thought about how God knew. Not only was I sad but guilty too. Yet I felt helpless because no matter how much I prayed, I couldn’t find a way to stop, and God hadn’t fixed me either.
It started long before I had access to the Internet or read books about depressed teens.
At 3 years old, I didn’t know how to tell my parents I was sad. I knew you only got Band-Aids when there was blood, so I bit my arms until I broke the skin.
My mother caught me sometimes. Although I was very young and don’t remember why I was doing it, I remember how she reacted. In the kitchen, she kneeled down next to me, held both of my arms and said, “No. Don’t hurt my Jenny.” Over and over, she told me I didn’t need to do that. It wasn’t nice to hurt her Jenny, she said.
Maybe I could have stopped then if I had believed her. I wish I had.
Of all my siblings, I got considerably more affection, stability, and material advantage than the majority; but it wasn’t enough. Nothing could prove to me that I was wanted. I sang “Jesus Loves Me” in Sunday school and never believed it.
Around that time, my father used to pick me up, kiss me, and encourage me to be a “tough muffin” when I fell down while playing. It quieted me, but it wasn’t his gentleness that did it. Already, the allure of obtaining kisses and bandages had worn off because needing attention was embarrassingly weak. Strength appealed to me because it meant I wouldn’t need anyone. I wanted to be tough all the time. I supposed that if I bore pain in secret and alone, I could get hard enough that I wouldn’t be so obsessed with the approval I never believed I would get.
An abandoned aluminum foil container next to my sandbox provided me with my first razor when I was 4 years old. The box had been left outside after a cookout. At first, I was intrigued by its teeth. Then, after I pricked my finger, I couldn’t believe it. I was bleeding, and it didn’t hurt badly. Running my fingers across the sharp row again, I discovered I could cause and contain my own hurt. I didn’t need to cry, and no one saw me.
That incident taught me a lie that has haunted me ever since: My sadness is singular, and my body worthless.
Regardless of my efforts to be emotionally self-sufficient, I had to find some method of gaining acceptance. Before kindergarten, I tried being good because good children gained favor.
Being smart was a lot easier. Throughout elementary school, I was precocious and physically awkward but excelled in nearly every subject except penmanship. I was a teacher’s pet, so I stayed busy enough to focus on homework more than how much I hated everything about myself.
Sometimes I would take bathroom breaks just to scratch the inside of my nose in the stall so I could feel the blood run down my face. Then I’d make a quick poultice of toilet paper and water to shove up my nostrils before returning to class. I scratched my scabs on purpose because I wasn’t using knives yet.
I wasn’t sad all the time, and I didn’t hurt myself regularly throughout those years. The adolescent metamorphosis of my body highlighted my discomfort in my skin. I learned being good or smart would never get me everything I wanted. I needed to be pretty too.
In middle school, I brought a Swiss Army knife to my dad for him to sharpen. I told him I needed it for art class.
It was a half-lie. I sat in my room finding discreet places for scratches because I didn’t usually want to be discovered. My mom found out anyway, and my parents sent me to a counselor named Mike who looked and spoke like Ned Flanders, which probably contributed to the discontinuation of our sessions. I promised my parents that I was fine.
It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I saw another counselor. When my older sister Jo “borrowed” a pair of my jeans and discovered a miniature composition notebook in the back pocket, she promptly reported the alarming findings to my parents. She found out that I didn’t want to live, and she read all the things I never meant anyone to find about how the fear of botching the job and being left with a body even uglier than the one I had held me back.
I feared facing God too. My dad had told me people who committed suicide didn’t necessarily go to Hell because God was merciful. I couldn’t tell God that the life He gave me was worth throwing away. I imagined the white-robed Jesus in the painting hanging in our basement stairwell looking at me, disappointed. Even if He welcomed me, Heaven sounded boring and uncomfortable to my teenage heart: I wanted oblivion, not grace.
By 15, I was seeing a counselor twice a week and taking lots of prescription mood-enhancing drugs. Most of them caused me to hallucinate nonstop, break out in terrible rashes, and gain and lose weight in swings. My hands shook, and I spent a lot of time in the nurse’s and guidance offices.
Reading my Bible, praying, journaling, taking pills, and talking to counselors didn’t get through to me long enough to heal me. I was suffocating inside my head. Although my parents stressed about how to help me and find just the right counselor, it was Jo who finally convinced me that no matter how alone I felt in my body, what I did to it affected others.
She was getting ready for her shift at Pizza Hut, and even though we didn’t have a close relationship at the time, I broke down in front of her.
As I cried, her little girl toddled up and down our staircase. To her, I was “Aunt Jenny,” but to me, she was like a much younger sister. Jo told me a story about a co-worker whose brother had committed suicide. Sometimes the girl had to go home because her head hurt or she couldn’t keep it together while waiting tables.
Before I could say anything, she asked me how we’d explain suicide to her toddler, who was too young to understand where I was or why I wasn’t coming back.
Watching my niece, I thought about all the times she asked if she could “chill” in my room. Even if I didn’t believe my sister about anyone else in the family caring about me, I didn’t think it would be fair to have to give a kid some lame excuse that I’d “gone on vacation.”
Our talk on the steps cracked me just enough that I could not deny my physical presence meant something, regardless of how unnecessary I felt.
Like many teenagers, I thought maybe I could feel less alone if I started dating. Strategically, I planned that if I could stay “clean” for a year, I would let myself find a boyfriend to do something normal. I flirted a lot throughout my junior year, but it wasn’t until the summer going into my senior year of high school that I found someone, a friend I trusted—whether or not I should have. We dated off and on for four years, and during that time, I was never allowed to talk about my self-destructive behaviors because it was too disturbing for him. As long as he never found anything and we never discussed it, it wasn’t happening.
The more I shared of my body in that relationship, the less easily I could hide. For the most part, I didn’t have to. Someone finally wanted me, my body and my personality. For four years, I kept quiet and managed to restrain any urges to cut because I was too afraid of losing the one person who might love me enough to stay, regardless of my obvious instability.
Then we broke up.
He proposed in the summer, and within weeks, we fell apart. Instead of planning the wedding I thought would take place after I graduated college that year, I was alone and unwanted. The one person I wanted to care didn’t.
As a senior in college, I realized that it didn’t matter that I’d tried to be good or smart or pretty. Old coping mechanisms returned, and for months I ached to find anyone to call me home. I was lucky that I lived at home that year because my family watched me. Sometimes, I still stayed out too late trying to forget what I really wanted. On Valentine’s Day, someone noticed me in the gym. He said I looked fast and asked me out for a drink. After one or two, he asked if I wanted to go to a house party. I should’ve called a friend, but I drove myself home instead.
When I got home, I wasn’t proud of myself: I was disgusted and wanted to die. I sat in my closet considering my options. That’s when I heard breathing. I’d come in so distraught with self-loathing that I didn’t notice that the same little girl on the stairs four years before was sleeping on my futon. She had sneaked into my room and stayed up as long as she could to see her Jenny. Climbing into my loft, I told her I loved her and slept.
When I awoke, I couldn’t deny that I was dealing with something greater than I could handle. I hadn’t fixed myself, and I didn’t know how anyone could ever want a girl who couldn’t stop cutting herself. I was a Christian, and I didn’t blame God; but I didn’t know what to do when He wasn’t helping.
Long lists of side effects of the medication I took in high school always included insomnia. To cure it, I walked. Even after I quit taking it, I walked alone so I could pray. Something happened one early morning while circling my neighborhood. It was probably 2 a.m. on Saturday, and I was halfway through my route. I wasn’t smoking, and I hadn’t been drinking.
Very clearly in my soul, I heard a question I’d never been asked before:
“What makes you think you’re adding anything to what I’ve already done?”
I stopped in the middle of the street to see if anyone was looking at me.
“I bled so you don’t have to.”
My head bowed, ashamed, I pictured all the bleeding Christs I’d ever seen. Desperately, I wanted to understand these intervening words. It was a paraphrase of Christ’s story found in so many verses of scripture; it was Christ’s claim on me.
Christ’s suffering on the cross accomplished everything I ever hoped to achieve in drawing my own blood. If I wanted to punish myself for mistakes I made, I didn’t need to. Christ’s blood, not mine, is my judgment. If I cut to avoid being vulnerable, I contradicted the only worthy blood shed: Christ’s wounds were the ultimate abnegation.
At last, I understood what it meant to be “someone’s Jenny.” I have never been my own, and I never will be. The Spirit arrested me that morning because I needed to know, at last, salvation meant I wasn’t alone in my wounded body because I’d been bought at a price. That moment in the street transformed me because although I’d heard about Jesus’ love my whole life, I’d never really felt it.
Less than a year later, I had a choice to make. Telling the guy I was dating any of this felt like a gamble, but his reaction would decide for me whether or not we had a future together.
Early in our married life, I lay in bed with him. It was the kind of afternoon where the sunlight shines through the blinds and exposes all the motes of dust suspended in the air. The sheets look whiter, and your lover has the perfect skin and the most kissable mouth. He traced his fingers up and down my triceps. Holding me in that light, he found something he’d never seen before. His forefinger paused on a wisp of a scar on my left arm.
“What’s this?” he asked, and before I answered, his face fell. He knew.
In the first few months of dating, I told him everything, but this was the first time he found evidence.
For the next couple of years, he kept discovering more. Until he knew them all, he would ask about every one. No matter how small or obscurely etched, my scars interrupted us.
Sometimes I was lucky enough to be able to share a story about an innocent bicycling accident or a horrendous case of chicken pox, but it wasn’t often. New discoveries still happen occasionally, and he always tries to hide it because he didn’t want to kill the mood or make me feel ashamed.
Every so often, I find slices on my hand from some unknown cause and I panic that I will have to convince him that it was truly an accident. He knows I still struggle because I tell him, even if we’re both at work or it’s 4 o’clock in the morning.
The patient, soft, enduring love I’ve found in my husband surpasses anything I ever imagined. He met me when I was so raw that he could have become a god, or at least a saint, to me. The years since that night in the street have given me more pain than I have ever felt. Despite being pushed to the limits of spiritual darkness, I have added only one more scar to my flesh. From it, I have our daughter. But neither my daughter nor my husband can truly call me their own. I love them, but according to His strangest mercy, Christ bought me. And I am His.
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