A front row seat to an incredibly brave breakthrough.
I met a girl a few years ago, and her name was Mary.
She showed up at my door as part of a student group from our local Bible College as we hosted a home group/small group in our church that invited the students to be a part of our local church.
Her smile lit up the room, and we hit it off instantly with a shared love of English, grammar and tea. She had arrived on campus after classes had already started for the semester, and though I didn’t know her story yet, I knew she needed to feel at home. I tried to love on her and encourage her as much as I could, and hoped and prayed she would find her place in our community as she settled in to college life.
Once a month, she would come to home group and we would chat. Our family was just heading down the path of foster care and not even really thinking adoption at the time for Liam, but we were in the thick of it and it was getting hard. I was getting worn down, and our family was tripping a little along this unknown path. We were tired and confused and weary. Still, we knew how to love, and serving other people seemed to comfort us as we faced the hard things of trauma and grief in young children.
One night, we were having spaghetti for dinner and I remember I cooked a huge batch. As I cooked it, I thought about Mary, and something in my heart was so urgent to reach out to her. She had teased that her family had strong Italian blood, and though I could never compete with family heritage and treasured recipes, I could share our loud home and authentic Wall-style food. It was all I had to give anyway, and I just felt to offer. I sent the message and left the invite.
Little did I know that she was going through a really difficult time at college, and was thinking about leaving. Now, we have had students come and go through the years, and although it is always hard to say good bye, my heart was not agreeing with it, and I have learned over the years that when my heart does not agree with what I’m hearing on the outside, I need to stop and sort it out.
Still feeling uneasy, I waited for a response from her and got nothing. Instead, around nine o’clock that night, she messaged as she came down my driveway. She wasn’t there for spaghetti. She needed a friend. She had been driving around for hours, trying to sort things out in her mind, and it wasn’t quite working. Then she saw my message, and took me up on my offer.
We brewed some tea and went in the quiet basement so we could figure this thing out. Over the next couple hours, she tried to piece together a picture of her life and where she was at in that moment.
The long and short of it was that Mary had been a student at one of the most renowned colleges in the nation. All her life, she had been dreaming of following her mother’s footsteps in politics and this was the best way to for her to start. She was about to start fulfilling her dream, and she should have been on cloud nine all the way there.
What she couldn’t have understood at the time was the dark cloud of depression that creeped in behind her while she wasn’t looking. And while she was as strong as she could be, trying to live out that college life and fulfill her dreams in her own strength, the cloud started overshadowing more and more of her life. What once looked so bright and full of hope was now dimming every view of her world, and the life and energy it stole from her sent her frozen inside in a small corner of her mind she could barely survive in.
Ten years ago, the things we knew about mental health and challenges were so small and narrow-minded. There was hardly any science to back up any theories, never mind any medical solutions that did not look mind-altering or erratic and over-the-top.
The stigma and shame that came with mental struggles was nearly worse than the problem itself. The temptation to hide it and fake it and cover it over and pretend everything is normal was very strong. So many people lived in a darkness they did not have to, but they couldn’t have known what they didn’t know, and they never knew the tools that were available to them should they try. Some were not created yet, and some knowledge had not been found and explained and shared yet as well.
Mary was facing these very same challenges as a young girl in college, and no one could have known. She was very good at doing the “right” thing and saying the “right” thing and the “right” time, and any doubts were quickly shushed by her smile that reassured any thought or questioning that she was just “fine.”
But she wasn’t fine. The cloud was growing bigger, darker and heavier, and Mary was carrying it all, pretending to bear it all so gracefully with a smile, with no one to walk with her through it, because no one knew.
And that is the blistering quandary of mental health that holds captives: the stigma of trying to shush it all until it becomes quiet. The trouble is, it doesn’t quiet when it is shushed: it grows increasingly greater off the isolation and shame that it brings.
The years passed by at college and Mary came to nearing her graduation date. The trouble was, she had carried that thing alone for so long she was losing her grip on it all. It takes a lot of work to pretend that everything’s fine when the truth is nothing is fine, and those years of struggle had finally taken their toll.
While she should have been celebrating life and the upcoming joys of all her accomplishments, Mary was barely treading water in survival mode to make it to the end. While she should have been anticipating this next chapter of her life, she was drowning in the seeming hopelessness that she could not shake.
There are some things that happened near the end of that semester that are only Mary’s story to tell, should she ever decide to share. But any one who has ever struggled with depression or any kind of heavy silent illness knows that when you are in the thick of it, you can’t think clearly. You can’t see clearly. And maybe the scariest thing, you just don’t care anymore. So she went through some really hard things, endured some really hard times, and thankfully, thankfully, was able to get some people to see her through and get her on her feet again. The hand of God is all over that part of her story, really all the parts of her story, but that was the background that got her to appear on my front steps that day.
As she shared with me over tea late that night, I started to understand her more. I started to ask God how I could help more. I started to see the enemy was really shame and stigma and ignorance. So much time in her life was stolen by those enemies and I was determined that would not happen any longer. Not on my watch. Not with any friend or teen or child that would come across my path. Not anymore.
We cried. We prayed. We made a plan. Mary went back to campus and determined to finish Bible College. It was a two year school that earned an Associates Degree in Theology. Mary pushed through and stumbled and struggled and braved and faced and fell and got back up again until she completed the course and earned her Associates Degree. Then she went on to take the optional Third Year Program an earned a Diploma in Graduate Ministry. She was the class representation as speaker, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more proud moment as seeing her get up there in her spiky red shoes and testifying of the goodness of God.
She was healing. Every day she chose God’s grace, she healed a little more. Every day she walked a little farther away from the dark cloud and towards God’s purpose for her life.
There were days she did not want to get out of bed. There were days she was so triggered she didn’t think she would ever be able to complete school. There were days the darkness taunted her and threatened to come back so scarily she would rather give in than keep fighting.
But she did it.
I remember the day my six-year-old son shouted randomly in his larger-than-life way, “Mary! You are not wearing your coat anymore!”
It was true. Mary had a gorgeous dark coat that she came in the first day she came to our home. And every time after that. She wore it to church, she wore it to class, and I wondered some days if she even wore it to bed.
I never said it out loud, and I never discussed it with anyone else. So to hear my son holler something so detailed in such an unexpected way made me sit up and pay attention: God was doing something. Mary was healing. And in the midst of her facing these big scary challenges at college and in life, she was strong enough to take her coat off. She was warming up, and she was not planning on running away any time soon.
God is so faithful.
There are times in my life when I know that God has spoken to me, just as sure as I know how many children I have or that I will get hangry without dinner or tired without coffee.
The time came when I knew God told me that we needed to ask Mary to move in with us. She was finished with Bible College and was not quite sure what her next steps were. Well, to put it more accurately, she knew it was time to finish her degree from Hillsdale, but she just didn’t know how to slay that giant yet. Sothis was the list that God gave me to help Mary: 1. Finish Hillsdale College. 2. Get financially stable. 3. Heal and stabilize.
You see, any kind of life change can bring such upheaval that it drains your body of energy. Emotional stress is a real thing and takes its toll in real ways. How many mothers can relate to postpartum blues as the life changes they may have even been overjoyed for have just set their hormones off kilter and in need of TLC? Could it be as simple as breathing and taking vitamins and giving your body a pause? Sometimes. And how far modern medicine and science have come, that we can duplicate our body’s natural seratonin and get it in a pill form for $4 at our local pharmacy?! So many ways we have come so far, it only takes awareness and courage to try.
Mary was willing to try.
What that looked like for her: we built a 12 x 12 room in our basement so she could have some privacy. All around her were boys and boys and boys and girls. The kitchen was above her room, and the family TV was just outside her room. For this introverted, single girl, raised in a small, quiet home as nearly an only child, I often wondered why she ever said “yes.” There were a few times over that year that I would literally ask the Lord why He would punish Mary so, placing her right in the middle of our loud and crazy family. What had she ever done to deserve such a life sentence?! But still she stayed, and we learned and grew and did life together.
She had three papers and a final exam she needed to finish to complete her degree from Hillsdale. So we set up a contract, and every completion became a milestone of victory. Some rewards were simply chocolate cheesecake and lunch at her favorite coffeehouse. Another was a more lavish girls movie night with charcuterie boards and coffee in the most beautiful friends’ home. The final reward was Mary’s dream come true: a freshly manicured set of hands holding up her new “Hillsdale Alumni” license plate bracket. She would finally become that, in every sense of the word.
There she went again, facing her past and all it contained to complete the thing she felt that God set before her. She hemmed and hawed, tried and triggered, spiraled and tripped… and every time, she got back up again. Every time, she pushed through and kept going.
There were a few times we had to have a chat over late night tea to get back on the bandwagon and keep on riding. There were a few times I had to get a little fiesty and step on her toes to see if she was still going strong, but I felt I owed it to every mother and sister and friend and child of God to see her through to the other side.
Clearly, God had big plans for her and I was not going to be found at fault for not doing my part.
There were a few times over that year I would become frustrated at the heavy load, and tired of trying to help. Why did I have to go and stick my nose in to other people’s business, anyways?
Weren’t there other people around to help? Why did I even think I was qualified to help?
One day as I wrestled with these thoughts, an image came to my mind as sure as any answered prayer that I have ever heard.
In my mind, I saw a raging battle, similar to the Revolutionary War. There were bombs and cannons exploding and igniting in between the sounds of the cries of wounded men and shouts of danger and pain. I could barely see in the black gunpowder cloud haze in front of me, but I knew I had to do something.
I looked to the right of me, and there on the ground was a wounded comrade. I knew I needed to get him back to safety, back to the trenches, back across the line where the medics were that could help him. I did not think to assess his wounds or decide if he was “worthy” of being saved. I did not wonder if it would be worth it to save him, just in the event that he would die later. None of that crossed my mind. None of it mattered. I bent down to grab my comrade, pulled him over my shoulder, and went in to the thick smoke to find safety.
And that settled it for me.
For as long as I have walked with the Lord, one thing has sustained me and stabilized me and carried me farther than anything else: minding my own business.
It has saved me from wrestling with offenses, worrying about drama, and weakening my faith. All I have to do is ask myself, “What did God tell ME to do?” and nothing else matters.
With so many kids in the house, this works wonders as a parent, too: we teach our kids, “Nunya.” When they want to know what another sibling has done, or what they’re being punished for, or what trouble they got into, many times we respond with “Nunya,” meaning, “None of your business.”
It comes from the story where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him, and Peter gets so overwhelmed by having to repeat himself, he finally directs the attention to John and counteracts, “What about him?” Jesus’ only response is to tell Peter that it doesn’t matter what He tells John to do, it’s none of Peter’s business… just go feed my sheep.
What a lesson I will try to never forget.
So I just set my mind to doing the three things that God told me to do with Mary and left the rest up to Him.
This journey through Hillsdale for Mary was harder than her Bible College experience because it was forcing her to face her trauma from the past. She was no doubt stronger and healthier now, but the idea of having to face the very things that nearly drowned her in her silence was too much to handle at times.
During the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, it just so happened to be Mary’s birthday. I could easily order groceries and make her favorite blackened fish and bake chocolate cheesecake for dessert, but what about a gift? Surely nothing from Walmart would suffice. I sneaked over to my office across the street that day and created a Hillsdale Alumni shirt for her to wear once she was ready. When she opened it, she cried a little, and I wondered if I had pushed too hard. But after a moment we realized they were happy tears, and she was just having a hard time believing that it would be true for her to wear it someday.
Through fear and doubt and past failures and fallen trials, she learned not just to accept that all those things had happened, but that they were a part of her story.
She went from carrying the shame of her journey to realizing it was not hers to bear. Not only did she learn to shake it off, but she learned how to send it back to the pit of hell from where it came from.
There is when I learned the reason she got “stuck” with our family as she walked this part of our journey: the Walls never quit. Not only that, we finish until the bitter end, do or die. And once we do, we go back and get everyone else that we can so that they never have to stay where they don’t want to be.
So it is with Mary.
Our biggest and final hurdle was to drive back to Michigan once she completed and passed all three of her papers. I knew that I knew that I knew that I needed to be the one to take her, so we made it into a girls’ trip of epic proportions and geared up to celebrate the close of this chapter. My Abby was coming to pump up the party with us, and Mary’s mom was flying in from Colorado to join the fun as well.
Suffice it to say, the way there took nearly 11 hours with torrential rain and traffic and construction. In my overwhelm and anxiety in the moments I literally could not see the road, I would breathe and think of a safe place to pull over, and all I would hear is the Still, Small Voice whispering: “Just get her there. That’s all you need to do.”
So that’s what I did.
We toured the gorgeous campus and laughed and told stories and drank coffee until we crashed. When Mary when in the next morning to take her test, the professor was not there. No email, no call, no staff to notify her. What was even happening? We prayed, we listened, we thought, and we reached out to anyone we could think of. No one knew anything.
By lunch time we started getting a little brassy, and Mary looked at us over the cafeteria table and announced, “I’m going back over to the Hall to get some answers.” As she walked away, I could not have been more proud to watch her face her giants.
She wasn’t gone for five minutes before we all got a message that the professor had replied to her email: he was so sorry he had to officiate a funeral and had totally forgotten about the test; he would be there shortly.
Within hours of that email, Mary had completed her comps and was officially done with all her requirements for Hillsdale. She also “just so happened” to run in to the Dean of Women while waiting and caught up after so many years. On the spot, the Dean invited Mary to come back to Hillsdale in the future and share her story with the other girls there who might be dealing with anxiety or depression and need a helping hand to overcome.
Sometimes I forget what a multipurpose God we serve.
The more that reality of graduation set in for Mary, the lighter her steps became and the more laughter came in to her voice. Clarity was in her mind, and hope for the future of helping others was in her heart. Even in her exhaustion in the days that followed, she carried the joy of someone who had the weight of the world taken off her shoulders.
And that’s exactly what had happened.
So if you are someone in the middle of battling something too big for you, you are not alone. We serve a big God, a great God who has big plans for every one of us, and all it takes is for one person to come along side of you and walk you through to get you to the next part of your life.
I don’t know exactly how every one of us is going to change the world, but I do know that it starts with just one person, one day at a time.
Just ask Mary.
Cynthia C. Garrett says
Very touching & heartwarming with so much wisdom & compassion, Tara! It’s late tonight, but this was well worth the read. What God began, we pray that He will surely finish with Mary. We love unconditionally, & that love with prayers make all the difference.
I love her story of redemption & grace as well as yours with open arms.
We stand together to see her continue on the right path. Love you. And Mary♥️♥️