Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith, Part 1.

Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith, Part 1.

This is Part 1 of a 10-part blog series, the intro­duc­tion of which can be found here.

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!

Posted in Fat Girl,