It’s taken me a long time to drum up the courage to write these words. Not because of any major difficulty or traumatic event, but simply because it’s the story of my own life. And that, obviously, is very personal. We live our lives typically feeling they are nothing extraordinary and often not really paying attention to the way God has woven our story together through the years. That’s true for me anyway. But then somewhere along the way He starts to show us how the dots connect. And then if we’re really lucky we have friends and family who encourage us to share our story with others, because just maybe someone else needs to hear what we’ve learned from it. Or perhaps they just need to know they’re not alone. So here it is…my story. Some of it anyway. Will it blow your mind? Doubtful. Are the lessons I’ve learned earth shattering? Probably not. But they’ve changed my world. So maybe they can impact someone else’s world for good too.
My Mom gave birth to me in a small village in West Africa (Dad was there too!). Ferkessedougou, Ivory Coast. Throughout the years writing and explaining where I was born has been cause for both laughter and frustration. Try explaining to the city clerk that there is no way you invented your birthplace and falsified your birth certificate. Look at the name of that village again….why would I do that to myself? I have no memories of my life in Africa since I was only 18 months old when we moved. What I have are pictures that I cherish. Pictures of me, with my super white skin, against the beautiful dark skin of the women who would carry me on their backs. I never thought too much about Africa until the Ivory Coast experienced some very frightening and difficult years of political instability. It hit me during that time that I felt grief for a place I didn’t even remember.
As a toddler my family moved to France where I spent the majority of my formative years. Grades 1 and 4 were spent in the States and every other grade until 10th grade was completed in France. My family returned to the States permanently on July 14, 1994. I’ll always remember that day because it was Bastille Day in France and I remember eating at McDonald’s before leaving for Paris. I entered 10th grade in the States, my older brother would start his senior year, and my younger sister entered middle school. And my parents? They had the greatest adjustment of us all, only I didn’t realize it at the time. My parents had decided to take a small family vacation as we returned to the States, so we flew directly into Washington, DC. That’s the first time I really remember seeing my parents argue (yes, at age 15). Mom and Dad have never been screamers or yellers, in fact, we’re quite the quiet family I realize now. Hearing them raise their voices was a startling experience for me at that time. I felt afraid in that moment although I wasn’t sure exactly why. Looking back I now understand where my fear and their arguing was coming from. The stress of uncertainty and instability. My parents had to suddenly re-arrange our entire lives. My siblings and I had not fully understood that this was a permanent move until later that year. My parents had to find housing and entirely new jobs with little to no career experience other than being missionaries. Can you imagine? If you ask them, Mom and Dad will tell you they felt they made many mistakes as parents. They will also tell you they prayed constantly for us. If you ask me, I will tell you it took loving, wise, dedicated parents to maneuver such a transition and an infinitely more loving and caring God to help us through.
My memories of the 2-4 years following our relocation to the States are generally painful. The fact is, it was a tough time for all of us. I felt a great deal of anger that I struggled to understand and took it out on others. I remember specifically calling out my new classmates when they made statements that I felt were ignorant. Let’s be real. I thought they were all stupid. I could not understand why cheerleading was so important, or school spirit, or why everyone thought that the States would forever be invincible. I do not recommend voicing thoughts such as “well someday we’ll likely get invaded or just implode” to your high school peers (especially as the new kid in town). I struggled intensely with not knowing my own identity and where I fit in.
Skip ahead to college, college graduation, working and living in Chicago to accepting a 2 year short-term missionary assignment in Japan to teach English and assist in church ministry. I had learned to live in the States, had made amazing friendships, had an amazing church, and was enjoying life in Chicago. A “well-adjusted” missionary kid, right? Prior to moving to Japan I was told more than once that it would be easy for me to adjust to living there “because I’m an MK”. Being an MK seemed to automatically disqualify me from the universal experiences of missionary adjustment. Nothing could have been farther from reality. Within a few months of arriving in Japan I was assaulted with overwhelming unresolved grief and depression. I’ve never actually mentioned this to anyone, but I sincerely prayed for the Lord to take me on to heaven. Thankfully I was surrounded with supportive teammates who encouraged me to engage in counseling services which began a journey toward healing and growth. It was such a special time for me, one of the altars in my life that I revisit periodically. God met me where I was and the weight of suffering began to lift.
By the end of my term in Japan I felt like a new person in many ways. But more than anything I felt God nudging me to enter the mental health field. It seemed logical to me that all of our lives are made up four relationships: our relationship with God, our relationship with others, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with God’s creation (nature, money, etc). Our mental health revolves around those four relationships as well. So graduate school was the next logical step. I began a long journey to obtain a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family therapy and eventually my license. The initial driving force was a desire to serve missionaries and their families through member care. So far the Lord has had other plans for me and I have had the opportunity to work and learn from colleagues and clients alike in drug and alcohol treatment, private practice, school-based therapy and community mental health. God works in mysterious ways, truly, and I would not trade my professional experiences for anything. He knew what I needed before I did.
So here I am, many years removed from my international childhood, sitting in my office where I work at a local community mental health agency, listening to people’s pain on a daily basis. You know what I hear underneath all the pain? Grief, uncertainty, instability, fear, anger, insecurity, not knowing where they fit in, depression, hopelessness. This is the unavoidable struggle of humanity, no matter where or how we grew up. Yes, there are unique challenges to growing up among different worlds. There are also countless blessings. Either way the wonderful truth is, we are not as different or alone as we tend to think we are.
I sincerely hope you’ll join me in this blogging journey as we explore all things missions and mental health with the ultimate hope of encouraging Kingdom Builders to embrace or renew the freedom, purpose and fulfillment already promised them in Christ. Stay tuned for more posts! Shorter posts 🙂