These words were written as a speech that I gave before some people at my church, my small group (a group of other believers with whom I gather weekly to grow in fellowship and faith). So they're really designed to be read aloud with some improvisation (so forgive that my writing might seem kind of all over the place/imperfect!) Anyway, a testimony is designed to be not just the 'story of my life,' but specifically the story of how Jesus has become the most vital and integral part. It's a little scary to share because it's raw and definitely TMI, but that's kind of the point: when your heart is healed (and still healing) because of the hand of something much stronger than you, there's no experience to which you are captive, and no experience that need be buried in judgment or shame. So I hope no matter what you believe you enjoy it, and can somehow be healed or encouraged or touched by it. xoxo
I choose to tell my testimony in writing because it takes a lot of twists and turns, both in life and in my heart, mind, and soul – in how I have learned to think about life. I was born outside Chicago on September 30, 1987. I should start by saying that if faith and a Christian worldview is building a life more strongly around the real, active, loving presence of God than it is around self, then I didn’t grow up with faith or a Christian worldview. I grew up going to a Catholic church every Sunday. My mom, a very independent, Italian woman raised in Brooklyn with 2 sisters by a single mother, initiated this in my home. My dad was always along for the ride but he never initiated faith practices, or much of anything, in our home. He and I never had a very active relationship. He was born in Pennsylvania to immigrant parents from Syria, which I didn’t know until I got older, and he was the oldest male of 5 children, which presented its own pressure on him growing up. His family was Christian, not Muslim, but as far as I knew he never grew up going to church or in any active faith process. I’d learn later that it wasn’t so much my parent’s very different upbringings and very different cultural expectations that challenged their marriage, but more the fact that they never acknowledged, communicated about, or even celebrated those differences, or much of everything. Which made my identity somewhat confusing for me to navigate when I was young; I always felt the like the byproduct of two people who never seemed to act like they should have been together in the first place. The general mode of operation in my house, in most things, was to make sure everything looked okay – good, socially acceptable, peaceful – but I never saw or learned the skills to create a life that actually was that way. I spent my younger life the way I see a lot of my extended family living it today: pretending, crafting an image of life that doesn’t address the heart or develop the person. I think you'd call it survival mode.
My parents had a turbulent marriage, at least that’s how I recall it from the perspective of being their child. I was the oldest, I have one younger sister. Growing up there was a lot of fighting. I can’t remember my parents ever ‘resolving’ things, they just yelled a lot, blew up, and retreated from one another and, in their own ways, into their own personal darknesses. Which meant I never really felt like, emotionally, I got a lot of love, or at least felt a lot of it in the air. I think my mom harbored a lot of pain from her fatherless past that showed up in the inability to be vulnerable, and in constant self-protection. It also showed up, as pain so often does, in anger. My dad was mostly absent, and always seemed secretive, like he didn’t particularly want to be involved in anything. This all seems important to note, because as their child, you learn what they teach you. They were my models, and from a young age they were forming an intellectually savvy child, sure, but not a very emotionally or socially adaptable one. I think the creative brain I have today is partly due to the way I grew up: I was often retreating into my own head, trying to organize my inner world as best I could.
Since I was the oldest, I bore the weight of a lot of my mom’s emotional pain and had one of those childhoods that people often describe as ‘growing up too fast.’ As soon as I was old enough to make money, I was covering for my not-so-responsible dad, who was often unable to come up with what we needed for school, soccer, or the family. It became very natural and expected for me to carry the burdens of other people. I often listened to my mom unload her feelings about the brokenness of her marriage, or the terribleness of my father, to me. Often, her anger manifested in lashing out at me and I was hit regularly, though not for anything I did wrong. She was just explosive, and I was just there. It was weird, but I didn’t learn it was weird until I got older, because it was simply all I knew. So life from elementary to middle school was characterized by this pretty turbulent, emotionally unspeakable home life – but I was a good student, a good athlete, and a nice kid, and had learned by watching the rest of my family that appearance was more important than any kind of inner reality, at which I was not regularly looking. I cried often but never prayed, I read and escaped in academic pursuits because that's where I was comfortable, but never had any idea that a God was there. I never felt safe, mostly emotionally, and the fatherly concepts of protection, provision, or prayer made no real sense to me- I never heard anything about them, they weren’t part of my learned worldview. Religion was mechanical and I didn’t actually have faith in anything but my own intellect and ability to survive.
This isn’t to say life was all bad. I have a lot of happy memories and my parents were great in many ways, which I recognize a lot more now that I’m older. Though there was no sense of fundamental trust in my home, there was sometimes happiness, good times spent with extended family, and times of laughter.
Though this wasn’t my overwhelming experience. By the time I was 12, my dad had had an affair - about which my mom told, and showed, me every detail - and they were separated. They had a habit of separating as I was growing up, threatening divorce a lot and one party or the other regularly storming out. But at this point I thought they were really done. They weren’t, but I’ll get to that later. But things were never really the same after that. As I went through middle school, then high school, I was noticeably troubled, but again, a good kid, with good grades, quiet and mild mannered. I remember lying regularly to teachers who asked why I had bruises on my arms (they were from soccer), or why sometimes I was late to be picked up from school (my dad’s work hours, I would say, but in reality my parents were too busy trying to survive their marriage to be fully present for their kids).
A lot happened between ages 12 and 16, but by 16 I began developing real manifestations of the emotional pain I felt in childhood. Unable to process what I had been through, and having hidden and never talked about anything, I developed Anorexia as a coping mechanism. I remember being in a health class in middle school and thinking in the Eating Disorders unit, 'I'm Italian and ‘not eating’ could never happen to me.’ But it did, because it was about control, not eating. I need something to grab onto that I alone had control over, because there was nothing else in my life I felt was going for me. It is the most strange, surreal disease - to feel like you are outside your own body is a completely identity-shattering process. The Anorexia developed for that reason: I didn't know my identity, so this monster had a very strong foothold. I also would have rather controlled the physical pain I was in from starvation than confront what was emotionally bothering me - where would I even start? In January 2006, at 18 years old, 7 months before I graduated high school, I was admitted into an inpatient program in Chicago, severely malnourished and with the body mass index of a 12 year old girl.
It was the worst, most depressing time in my life. I felt numb and dead. I just remember my hair falling out, and my skin being thin, and looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself. I can’t remember feeling much at all. I didn’t want to fight for my own life, really. I knew I could die - I was reminded often - but I didn’t know what to live for. I was also being monitored for self-harming, which often coincides with eating disorders. This is how a lot of people, at school and in my family, knew something was wrong in the first place.
It’s only looking back that I see any beauty in this experience. After every meal in the hospital program, patients had to sit at a table in the hallway monitored by a nurse for an hour and a half, to ensure that they didn’t purge their food or self-harm from the guilt of eating. You could read or draw or do whatever, just not be in your room. For the time I was in there, every time I had to be in that hallway, I tried something I’d never really tried until that time. I painted.
I was discharged and in February and graduated high school mostly by the graces of my teachers, and went to college, though that didn’t help much. I definitely backslid into my old behavior, as my true self and heart were not really healed, but in college I was alone so no one had to know. Long story short, college was a blur.
After college I moved back to Chicago and eventually got my first real job at a marketing company. I was living with my aunt at the time; my parents had officially divorced while I was in college. By that point I was in a relationship with someone I met waiting tables in college who was 10 years my senior- which was going about as well as it sounds like it could go. As I write this and take the tone of who I was back then, it doesn't even feel like I am telling the story of my own life. It seems like I could never have been that broken and confused - now - but at the time, it seemed like I could never really be anything but.
After a few months at my job and a few years in this neglectful, immature, unintentional relationship, with divorced parents, no permanent address; still not even aware of how little self-worth I had and what an unstable identity, and with a strong desire to go somewhere other than the suburbs where I grew up, I think this is when God started stirring something. I knew since I was little, I don't know how or why it was in my heart, I just knew - that I wanted to volunteer abroad. The role I played in my home growing up was as a sacrificer and a helper, but there was also a deep, real, genuine goodness in my heart to love and help others that had always been there since I was little. It's a part of who I am, but a good part. I just didn't know how to really let it out.
So I decided, instead of looking for another job (since I wasn't crazy about this marketing one) to quit, and go volunteer in Peru. I imagined myself as someone free, who wanted to travel and see the world - somehow this brave, visionary version of myself was still alive in my heart. In April of 2013 I left to volunteer to teach English in a small shantytown outside Lima.
It sounds way too cliché to say that this experience changed my life, I know - but it did. I think it would be hard for any relatively sheltered, comfortable middle class American not to be changed or challenged by immersion into an impoverished part of the world. But it was more than that. I was there for 2 months and I think the distance from my life here; the seeing things in a new way; the release of my identity so much that I finally began to fathom the idea that I was not in fact subject to a fixed, permanently broken state - somehow, that helped me heal. And of course, the degree to which you think your life is unfortunate is relative. There was something about taking my eyes off my own suffering that changed me. About 2 weeks before I came home, I remember being on a bus (if you could call it that), going up the side of a mountain in the hot Peruvian sun, and just crying. I looked out at the mountains, at the sunshine. I thought about how far I had come. I was still alive, I had life; I was here. I sat in my little corner of the bus, full of Peruvians and some other Americans in my group, and I just cried in gratitude like I had never, ever cried in gratitude before. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. God finally felt near.
That was the moment I felt it: something was pursuing me. I had missed it. Or ignored it, was running from it. I didn’t know at the time it was God, or the Holy Spirit; it was just something much much bigger than me that was protecting me, watching me; making sure the little dreams in my little heart came to life. I did return from Peru changed. On that trip, since I was certainly looking for answers in my life, I brought a ton of books about Buddhism, which was the worldview that made most sense to me and was most appealing at the time. I'd say, 'I think if I believe in anything, this one makes the most sense.' I read many quintessential books from this tradition the whole time I was abroad. But for some reason when I got home, I picked up, for the first time ever, a Bible. I hadn't heard the Gospel at that point, but something in my heart told me what I had gathered up about 'spirituality' to that point was not truly complete. There was still a fundamental emptiness I knew didn't have to be there.
Eventually, I moved out of my aunt's into my first ever apartment, broke off forever my bad relationship, and slowly, but so, so surely, God drew me near to His heart. I was breaking, but in a good way. I was alone, but in a good way. At 26 I started separating from those friendships and people that were not good for me, going to church with my mom, who had been on her own journey: she had since truly found faith for herself, and was in a small group, something I had never heard of and wasn't ready for, but she would talk to me about hers. I was working part-time at Anthropologie outside Chicago, and painting again. Or really, for the first time, as a healthy, alive person. It was freeing and healing and I found it essential. I began to think it might be what these new Christians around me were calling 'a gift.' This was 2013. And it continued. God put people in my path at work, new wonderful girlfriends who I got to watch get married, and have children, and have fellowship with, and they all had this joy that I never understood. Joy, and momentum. Many were creative. They were provided for in a way that I struggled to comprehend; they believed in something. They had faith. They knew the character and intimacy of God and I loved who they were because if it. It was very hard at first for me to grasp the concept that this Christianity thing might be true, and that someone like me might belong, but I began to see it and then it became all I wanted.
It has not been an easy road but it has been so real, with all the pieces connecting. God has never failed to use every single pain for something good. My mom and I are best friends. We wouldn't be if I never learned that God requires humility and forgiveness. And if I never knew this superhuman idea that love is not a feeling, but a choice, and that it is redemptive. I listened most of my life to psychologists tell me - from childhood to the time I was hospitalized - that I may never get what I need from my parents and that's just something I'll have to accept. But God had bigger plans - plans that only He could deliver. My dad and I are on good terms and we talk often. My mom and I almost daily. And, my parents have been dating each other for the past few years. I assume eventually they'll get married. Last Christmas was the first time inn a long time that my mom, dad, sister and I were all at the same table, and we all went to church together.
There's nothing about my story, when I really look at it, that went the way I thought it would or even the way I would have wanted it to. It was characterized by a lot of pain that I wouldn't have chosen for myself, but God needed to refine me to the point of realizing I'd be lost without Him. There's nowhere I'll go where He has not already stood, nothing He doesn't know ahead of time, nothing He can't turn into the most beautiful good.
I wouldn't say I know because I'm Christian, I'd say I'm Christian because I know.