Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith, Part 1.
Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith, Part 1.
Content note: mention of disordered eating, suicidal thoughts.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how my short time at BJU changed me, for good and for ill. In many ways, I began my path to self-discovery at BJU. I learned a lot in my semester-and-a-bit, and what I learned has shaped me into the person that I am today. And so, in many ways, I owe a bit of thanks to the World’s Most Unusual University.
Bob Jones University, you taught me so much. Allow me to innumerate just a few of the many valuable lessons I learned behind your barbed-wired walls.
Lesson #1: I learned how to be independent.
I know. Ironic, isn’t it? Allow me to explain.
I’d gone to a community college in my home town for 3 years before transferring to BJU — gotten a 2‑year associate degree and a 1‑year certificate. Since the college was public, local, and dorm-free, I could come and go as I pleased, wear what I wanted, miss classes if I needed to — basically, I could be a human being with normal allotted freedoms.
More than that, though, my teachers assumed I was a responsible adult who could take care of myself and my classwork without constant supervision. There was a basic level of trust and respect that I took for granted.
Having also grown up in the same small Christian school and small church from the age of 6, I’d never really had to do things alone. These places afforded me ready-made friends who were constant companions. We were also in the same town I’d been in since childhood, which was really convenient — I am notoriously and hilariously awful at finding my way around any town of any size.
Basically, I was an extreme introvert who was decent at taking care of myself and accustomed to constant familiarity of company and surroundings.
When I arrived on campus at BJU during Labor Day weekend 2008, I was utterly alone in a sea of thousands of strangers in a new town 500 miles from home.
I was also ignoring a host of mental health issues I was facing at the time: severe depression, severe anxiety, and a relapse into an eating disorder — all of which, when combined with being cut off from everything and everyone I’d ever known, left me suicidal. But from both my upbringing and the constant stream of spiritualizing the minutia of life, I believed that all I needed to cope was to trust the Lord and learn my place. I believed with all my heart that God had called me to BJU and that He wanted me to learn submission and self-discipline.
Looking back on it, I guess being a straight‑A student for 3 years with almost a year of real-world experience in my chosen career under my belt should have counted as “self-disciplined enough.”
For the first month, I did my utmost to be as obedient, submissive, and compliant as I possibly could. I was determined to make a fresh start of my life, which I believed to be desperately lacking true spirituality and closeness with God, and I’d be damned if I didn’t grow as a person and a Christian.
I didn’t go off campus very often at all despite having the enviable junior privileges that would allow me to do so. I somehow internalized that leaving would signify rebellion of some kind, and that the longer I stayed on campus, the easier it would be for me to submit myself to my strange and unsettling surroundings.
Not to mention the fact that I was completely beyond terrified of having to learn my way around Greenville on my own without my trusted friends to guide me.
There were so many rules and schedules to follow. So, so many. Whereas my only obligations at home were my classes and work schedule, at BJU there was a non-stop stream of distractions and interruptions to my day: the aforementioned complete lack of privacy or solitude, daily chapel meetings during the week, daily prayer group meetings no matter what, a strict quiet time at 11pm and lights out at midnight rule. There were also a myriad of required meetings: Vespers, Artist Series, the random student body meeting, society meetings, mandatory church attendance. It was never-ending.
It also seemed to communicate a fundamental lack of trust from the administration to the student body. It was as if we couldn’t possibly handle having free time, so there must be required activities and checks and balances to ensure that we were always where we were supposed to be, doing what we were supposed to be doing.
Failure to effortlessly comply with this scheduling circus was, of course, indicative of spiritual failure.
Such constant oversight and complete lack of control over my schedule was crushing in so many ways. I’m sure there are people for whom this structure is really helpful. I suppose for the “typical” BJU student that came to the school fresh from home-schooled or private-schooled graduation, having every aspect of their lives planned for them was simply par for the course. But for me, an older student who expected some modicum of freedom and respect, it completely destabilized me academically, mentally, and emotionally.
I quickly realized my mental health demanded I take action of some kind.
Out of desperation, I began keeping a tiny notebook with written directions on how to get to important places. I’d study Google maps for hours, meticulously jotting down directions to and from places I thought I might need to go. I thought the better prepared I could be, the less likely I’d be overcome with anxiety. I thought of all the places I might need to go: the hospital, for obvious reasons; anywhere that had free unrestricted WiFi (this was during the days when all social media was banned on campus); the Plymouth Brethren church I attended on Sunday evenings; different stores where I might need to buy school-approved clothing or art supplies.
I’ll never forget the first time I ventured off campus with the intent of being gone for an extended period of time. I was so tense that my entire body ached. The atmosphere of mistrust and constant second-guessing myself was wearing on me so badly, I could hardly function. Despite my fear of exploring a new town complicated by my fear of being alone while I did it, I chose a Chick-Fil‑A several miles from campus, packed my laptop and a couple of school books, and drove myself there, having a mini-panic attack on the way.
The moment I stepped into the restaurant, though…it was almost spiritual. My favourite song at the time was playing on the radio, and I felt relief pour over my entire body. Muscles instantaneously unclenched, my brain cleared, it seemed I could even breathe more deeply. I ordered my food, claimed a back corner table, and soaked up the normalcy around me. I remember thinking gratefully to myself, over and over again, I’m not crazy. I’m really not crazy.
(One day, perhaps, I’ll write about how that song and the music I listened to at that time in my life contributed to my mental health issues, but that day is not today.)
After that, I was hooked. If I started feeling the paranoia and anxiety press in on me, I would plan an outing for my next free period and go exploring. I stopped denying myself the simple pleasure of my non-checkable music (but only off-campus). I stopped pretending that the rules and schedules I was forced to keep were markers of my spiritual health. I simply went into survival mode, determined that I was going to use every ounce of freedom I could possibly manage in order to keep myself sane.
I realized that I’d learned something valuable when my roommate and I got lost one evening. She began to panic, and I was shocked to find that I was completely calm and confident. I assured her that we were going to be okay, and managed to help her calm down and find our way back to Wade Hampton Boulevard without having to stop and ask for directions. It was amazingly empowering and liberating.
What started as a survival tactic to escape the paranoia that Bob Jones University instilled in me turned into a confident determination to control as much of my life as possible. It revealed my independent spirit, and for that I am thankful.
Stay tuned for Lesson #2, coming next week!