By Rebekah Muilenburg
One individual that has had the most profound impact on my life was someone I encountered while working as a live-in assistant at L’Arche Chicago—a community of group homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. This individual had a diagnosis of both Down syndrome and schizophrenia. She often heard voices that told her she was not good enough and that she was ugly. I distinctly remember crawling into bed, turning off the light exhausted and ready for sleep, when suddenly I heard the softest of knocks on the door. I got up to open it, and she would say the same line to me every time—”The voices are making me angry again.” The voices had a reputation for threatening her and preventing her from sleeping.
Comforting her proved to be a challenge at times, but it helped me better understand mental illness and the tolls it can take on your life. I learned strategies to help with these episodes—often constantly reassuring her that the voices were not true; she was loved, she was valuable, she was beautiful. I said this to her an average of twice a day for the entire summer, yet she could not shake the lies of the voices inside her head. I tried my hardest but realized in the quiet moments of prayer with her that simply being an un-anxious presence and a shoulder to lean on was sometimes all I could do.
Fast forward a few months later and my life changed drastically. I had just returned from studying abroad in Romania: reverse culture shock became an ever–present struggle, my relationship of three years ended abruptly, my future was staring me in the face, and I had no plans to counteract its punches. These circumstances went along with deteriorating thoughts such as “I am worthless” and “I am not good enough.” Day after day, I heard these voices—In short… the voices were making me angry.
As the trusty psychology major I am, I turned to self-help books in my time of dire need. Humanity has an innate desire to be understood, and we all want to “find ourselves.” Personally, I attempted to accomplish this by taking countless personality tests. I figured out through this process that I am an INFJ, Type 9 on the Enneagram with a 1 wing, a Ravenclaw (#Ravenclawpride), and my spirit animal is a horse. Fun stuff… but ultimately pointless tests that don’t actually define me. One book in particular I picked up shortly after Christmas break talked about how we can find ourselves simply by blocking the lies we tell ourselves, in five easy steps. When I first read the steps, I was skeptical; if it was this simple, why wasn’t everyone living their best life and discovering themselves? Why was my life in complete chaos (and for this, the very reason I picked up this book)??
Through multiple conversations, I realized why this is. It’s because attempting to stop believing the lies we tell ourselves is incredibly difficult, maybe even one of the hardest things to do. This is true regardless of how many self-help books we read and counselors we see. We will continue to fall flat on our faces. After a few weeks, I decided to try again, but this time turning to the Bible for answers instead of one of the bazillion self-help books on my bookshelf. I am thrilled to say I got answers—answers so profound and so clear that I was ashamed I hadn’t realized it much, much earlier.
The voices say, “Nobody loves me”; God says, “I love you” (John 3:16). The voices say, “I can’t go on”; God says, “My grace is sufficient” (II Corinthians 12:9). The voices say, “I feel alone”; God says, “I will never leave you” (Hebrews 13:5). The voices say, “I am worthless”; God says, “You are more valuable than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).
Reading this came as a shock to me, but the kind of perfect shock at just the right moment in time to jerk me aggressively out of my funk. This is how God performs miracles; he used my broken circumstances to transform me into the person I am meant to be. I decided to start taking the advice I gave my friend at L’Arche. Over the course of only three months, I have drastically improved my attitude toward myself and others, have renewed my inner spirituality, been accepted to occupational therapy grad school, and remain more happy and hopeful than ever before—complete with booking a plane ticket back to L’Arche Chicago to visit my cherished friends over spring break.
The voices don’t have the last word—grace does.