I’m not famous, but I’ve always wanted to be. When I got my first Walkman portable cassette player, I’d lay on my bed listening to Mariah Carey and picture myself making a music video in my grade-school playground. When the tape would stop after 4 or 5 tracks and I’d have to flip it over to continue, reality would hit.
My reality was this: I lived with my mom and my half-brother; my dad died when I was 1½ years old. My mom was addicted to QVC (teleshopping?) and my half-brother was addicted to drugs. I ate fast-food for dinner and had a TV in my room. I would sneakily watch MTV and Home Improvement, while I swooned over J.T.T. and daydreamed while listening to music. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I chose to live in a fantasy world for much of my childhood in order to avoid this painful reality.
In first grade I was so big that my legs wouldn’t fit under the classroom tables so they had to bring in a bigger desk just for me. So all the kids would sit in groups at their tiny little tables and I sat alone. One time I told a lie that my cat died and my teacher discovered that it wasn’t true, so my punishment was that I didn’t get to shake the jar of cream that we were making into butter. And my mom got cancer.
After that, second and third grade are kind of a blur... I know that I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and that things at home were different. Fourth grade is pretty clear though. I remember going with Mom to chemotherapy and radiation, and visiting her in the hospital. I still have one journal from that time which I named “Edgar” for some reason, and it’s full of medical jargon no fourth grader should know and stories of trips to the hospital. There was one highlight in that year: my mom and grandma took me on a cruise to Alaska. Sure, we got super seasick the night of the special lobster dinner with the captain, I had a traumatizing experience with pine nuts, and I discovered that I had gingivitis. But I also saw glaciers and ate ice-cream, visited Juneau and had fun with my mom one last time.
When I returned to class, the other kids teased me because I had left a bottle of Tang in my desk and they said it was pee. I hated that. But not too long after our trip to Alaska, Mom died. Now that I think about it, she probably knew that things weren’t going well and that was the reason she took me on that cruise. But I didn’t know that then. All of a sudden my life had become (an even bigger) tornado and I was standing dead-center. Everything around me was moving violently as I stood there in the eye of the storm wondering what the heck was going on.
Before my mom died, she asked me where I would want to live if that were to happen: with my grandparents or with this family that we knew from church. I was pretty good friends with the son in the family, so as any 9 year old would do, I said I would rather live with them. And that's what happened. My once-friend became my adopted brother. My last name changed. I got a new room and another TV, this time I was watching “It Takes Two” with Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen on repeat. I cried when the Doodle Bear that my Mom gave me on our last Christmas together fell into water causing her handwriting to fade away. After a few months I asked if I could call my now legal guardians, ’mom’ and ‘dad’, and they agreed. While I do believe they really tried to make me part of the family, the reality was: I wasn’t. And I was deeply jealous of people who shared blood with other people.
Not long after, my half-brother took me on a trip to Seattle. It was amazing. We went to Pike Place Market and saw the Space Needle. He bought me magic jumping beans and brought me home. We were never really close because there was such a huge age difference between us, but we had some of the same blood and that was special. Unfortunately the drugs tore a hole in that relationship and after some crazy stuff, he left. Disappeared, actually. And I didn’t hear a word from him for years.
When I was in eighth grade my grandma died because of complications with her heart. I thought maybe my half-brother would come around, but he didn’t. For my grandpa, it was all too much. I forgot to mention that my mom had an identical twin sister (they had been adopted by my grandparents when they were babies), and she died when she was 13. That’s just too much death for a person to handle, and so slowly my Grandpa started to lose his mind. I can drag it out with details but there are no funny anecdotes to end this story. When I was in ninth grade, Grandpa died. In the course of five years, I lost everything that was familiar to me: my mom, my half-brother, and my grandparents, the home I grew up in, the way of doing family life that I was used to. Everything was different.
After the death of my grandpa, my half-brother showed up out of the blue. Five years with no contact, and bam- there he was in the flesh. He wore funny penny loafers and he felt like a stranger. I remember talking with him in my bedroom after the funeral asking why he left… he said he was sorry and made a lot of promises, but then he left again. This time I did have an address and a phone number so I tried to keep in touch. I sent a letter and it came back saying the address was wrong. I called once and he didn’t have time to talk. And that was it. I haven’t seen him since then. We’re friends on Facebook now though, but I’ll tell that part of the story later.
As I’m sure you can imagine, these losses have had a great impact on my emotional health and personality. I became insecure and I expressed that through aggression and control. I was also so lonely and longing for love that I was ready to hook-up with any guy who even glanced my direction. Thankfully, not many guys glanced my way and I’m certain that it was God protecting me from even more damaging experiences.
For my 13th birthday party I invited some friends for a sleep-over in the old camper my new family bought for our trip to Arizona. We watched, “You’ve Got Mail” and ate whipped-cream from the can, and that night I "asked Jesus into my heart". The whole being a Christian thing wasn’t totally new to me since I did grow up going to church, I had definitely heard about Jesus before. But to be honest, I thought he was some guy that was always late to the church service. I seriously thought one Sunday he would walk out of the back room proclaiming triumphantly, “I’m finally here, sorry for being so late!”.
Though I wanted to understand and receive the truth of His forgiveness and acceptance, it seemed nearly impossible for me. Somewhere along the journey I had begun to believe that I was an unacceptable human being, that there was something about me that made people leave or not like me. But I tried to believe, in a broken kind of way.
I graduated high school the day I turned 18 years old, and I left my adopted home the next day. I was going to stay with a family I had met through some friends while I attended community college near to Seattle, WA. They were Christians and thank the Lord, they had a lot of patience. I think it was the deadly combination of growing up in a small town, having so much unresolved pain and having a compulsive personality that threw me (almost) off the deep end. I remember sitting in my room in the evenings feeling so cold, but it wasn’t the temperature that was affecting me... it was the emptiness.
I felt empty because I had begun to turn my back on God. Not so much because I doubted Him, but more because I thought that being a Christian meant that you were always good-- that you chose to be good and resisted sin all in your own strength. This was a belief that I struggled with since I first got to know Jesus. I remember writing a vow on a little notecard, “From today on I will never sin again”. Of course that vow was broken before sundown the same day. I thought my salvation depended on being good and acting right, because how could God accept me otherwise?
So one day, I was just done. I was tired, actually. Tired of trying and failing, never living up to the standard I thought I needed to meet in order to be accepted by God. And so I thought, if this is what it’s like to be a Christian- I’m out. I remember sitting on my bed and visualizing turning away from God, which meant turning toward darkness… but I couldn’t go through with it. I couldn’t handle to feel like a failure all the time, but I also couldn’t handle to be in total darkness. So I was stuck somewhere in between, and that’s where God found me.
This is just part of my story. I hope to share more later! ~Jenni