Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith: Part 2.


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Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith: Part 2.


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Con­tent note: men­tion of dis­or­dered eat­ing.


This is Part 2 of a 10-part blog series.
Intro­duc­tion | Part 1


Lesson #2: Against all odds, I’m never really alone.

I keep talk­ing about the real­ly bizarre and para­noia-induc­ing atmos­phere at Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty for a rea­son. It’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to explain to peo­ple who have nev­er expe­ri­enced an envi­ron­ment like it, and I’m hop­ing that the con­stant ref­er­enc­ing helps to answer the inevitable, “Why didn’t you just leave? You should have known bet­ter!” ques­tions and accu­sa­tions that get thrown at those of us who lived in such con­trol­ling sit­u­a­tions.

The atmos­phere and its com­plete per­me­ation of BJU dorm stu­dent life is impor­tant because of the nec­es­sary iso­la­tion it engen­dered. There was sim­ply no way of know­ing who was fol­low­ing the rules because they believed them to be right, and who was just try­ing to keep their head down long enough to get out as unscathed as pos­si­ble.

Not with­out open­ing your­self up in ways that could have pret­ty seri­ous con­se­quences.

That made it all the more pre­cious when peo­ple would acci­den­tal­ly let slip that they were a nor­mal per­son try­ing to get by, just like me. These moments were quite rare, but absolute­ly sacred — mem­o­rable if for noth­ing else than the brief sol­i­dar­i­ty they brought.

I remem­ber my very first week there, as a group of stu­dents sat out­side our adviser’s office wait­ing for our one-on-one class sched­ule con­sult. We were all sit­ting in rel­a­tive silence, con­sumed with our sched­ules and thoughts, when a guy’s phone start­ed ring­ing — play­ing Dolores Umbridge’s theme from the fifth Har­ry Pot­ter movie. His eyes widened in hor­ror as he fum­bled with his phone in a rush to silence the uncheck­able music. Once suc­cess­ful, he straight­ened back up in his seat, relief pro­nounced over all his features…until our eyes locked. I couldn’t sup­press a con­spir­a­to­r­i­al grin. He vis­i­bly relaxed and returned the smile. We nev­er spoke, but in that moment, we had each oth­ers’ backs. We weren’t alone.

Come to think of it, if you want to imag­ine the atmos­phere of BJU, just imag­ine Hog­warts under Umbridge’s rule, and you’re pret­ty damn close.

Some­times, though, the most sur­pris­ing peo­ple of all were the peo­ple who dis­cov­ered my secrets and didn’t use them against me but band­ed around me rather than turn­ing me over to the lion’s den that was the admin­is­tra­tion.

As I men­tioned in part 1, I was ignor­ing a host of seri­ous men­tal health issues dur­ing my time at BJU. One day after chapel, I ran into a girl from my hall. Melis­sa. We were typ­i­cal­ly friend­ly with one anoth­er, but not actu­al­ly friends. My eat­ing dis­or­der, long in hiber­na­tion since junior high, was once again start­ing to over­take my life, and I was fight­ing the resul­tant migraine and dizzi­ness. So when she asked me how I was doing…I didn’t have the fil­ter to stop myself from say­ing, “I haven’t eat­en in days…I’m just…not doing very well.”

I knew, with­out ever real­ly hav­ing to have it spelled out for me, that depres­sion and anorex­ia were things that could get me in trou­ble at BJU. But Melis­sa looked momen­tar­i­ly sur­prised, then sud­den­ly under­stand­ing. “I have a car. I can take you to lunch if you want.” I’ve often kicked myself for refus­ing her offer, for not trust­ing my gut that she was some­one I could lean on, espe­cial­ly since we recon­nect­ed after school and are friends now. But I’ll nev­er, ever for­get her kind­ness in offer­ing to help and her under­stand­ing in not push­ing the issue.

Per­haps the most mean­ing­ful sit­u­a­tion I found myself in, how­ev­er, was the time that my boyfriend and I were caught hug­ging.

No. No, you real­ly didn’t read that wrong.

We were the same major, and dur­ing our sec­ond semes­ter, we were tak­ing a draw­ing class togeth­er. The project at the time was for us to draw faux-mar­ble busts that were set up and lit in the draw­ing room, so we met there to work on our project and sim­ply be togeth­er. This night was unusu­al because there was no one else in the room, but since we both need­ed to work on the same project, we assumed that wouldn’t be a prob­lem. (You know. Since usu­al­ly men and women aren’t allowed to be alone together…ever.)

Since this was after our Great Trans­gres­sion (men­tioned in the intro­duc­tion to this series), emo­tions were high and we were guilt-rid­den and afraid, con­stant­ly try­ing to fig­ure out how to fix our tremen­dous sin. Dur­ing the course of our con­ver­sa­tion that evening, I began cry­ing. My boyfriend, being a nor­mal human being in the face of grief, com­fort­ed me with a hug.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for us, that was the moment that the hall mon­i­tor decid­ed to check in on the room.

Real­iz­ing that it would be bet­ter to come clean than pre­tend we hadn’t had any phys­i­cal con­tact, we answered hon­est­ly when she asked if we’d been touch­ing. She was flus­tered and clear­ly had no idea what to do with us. After call­ing the head of the depart­ment to see what he want­ed to do, she told us that we had to leave. The next day, she report­ed us to the admin­is­tra­tion, who called us both out of class, inter­ro­gat­ed us for the bet­ter part of an hour (sep­a­rate­ly, then togeth­er), then told us that we weren’t allowed to see each oth­er for a full month as pun­ish­ment.

All because we hugged.

Lat­er in the week, the head of the depart­ment took time to talk to me. Appar­ent­ly when he got the phone call the night of the inci­dent, he drove to cam­pus to talk to us. Since we’d been told to leave the build­ing, of course we weren’t there. He’d planned to take care of the inci­dent him­self with­out tak­ing it to the admin­is­tra­tion, give us a warn­ing, but the hall mon­i­tor went behind his back. He was so kind and under­stand­ing, telling me how sor­ry he was for the pun­ish­ment we were going through and assur­ing me that he didn’t think less of either of us. I need­ed to hear that so bad­ly, and was impressed and grate­ful that he seemed to real­ize the sit­u­a­tion was com­plete­ly blown out of pro­por­tion.

Still rid­dled with guilt over every­thing, exac­er­bat­ed by being socialled from my boyfriend, I apol­o­gized to my pro­fes­sor and admit­ted that I felt like I deserved no more chances, that I seemed to squan­der them with all of my bad choic­es. His reply is some­thing I have nev­er for­got­ten, some­thing that helped me sur­vive the months to come: “Christ gives me chance after chance, even and espe­cial­ly when I don’t deserve it. Who am I to treat you any dif­fer­ent­ly than He treats me?”

There are more of these moments and these won­der­ful peo­ple. My room­mates, Ter­ri­anne, Danielle, and Alyssa (and of course our hon­orary roomie, Tam­ra) and the many won­der­ful adven­tures we had. Alis­sa, from my prayer group, whom I often took to var­i­ous doc­tor and chi­ro­prac­tic appoint­ments in town who was so guile­less and yet so full of com­pas­sion. Kristin, who one evening when it must have been clear that I was strug­gling with depres­sion, cupped my face in her hands briefly while singing hymns of encour­age­ment. (I promise, it’s not as weird as it sounds.) Peo­ple like Eri­ka and Melis­sa who have recon­nect­ed with me in recent years, friend­ships (how­ev­er spo­radic or casu­al) that seem to redeem the time I was there.

Even when sub­merged in a cul­ture like Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty, designed to iso­late peo­ple and erase indi­vid­u­al­i­ty for spirituality’s sake, when I felt like no one real­ly got me…I learned that peo­ple are a con­stant sur­prise, and we’re none of us tru­ly alone.


Les­son #3 will be com­ing next week!

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