I love birthdays. Everything about them. But especially the generosity with which people tend to shower you with love and adoration. I especially like that part. I also like thinking about my birthday as a milestone, a flag in the sand marking the distance traveled since this time last year.
As I celebrate what my family lovingly calls my “birthday month,” I’m struck by how different my life looks today than it did just a few birthdays ago. I’m more myself, more alive, more secure in who I’m created to be, and more resolutely convinced that this life-long journey toward whole-hearted living is worth the hard work it requires.
I’m further on my journey than I used to be, but I’m still traveling one step at a time. And sometimes the steps are really, really hard. Remembering the journey gives me courage to keep pressing onward. Looking back, I can also see firsthand how nothing is wasted when surrender is the outcome. Because sometimes we have to fall apart to discover who we really are.
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Five years ago, my world came crashing down. It was the culmination of a lifetime of performing, achieving, working to earn my value in the eyes of myself and others. I had always prided myself in my capacity to handle more than most people should, but my inability to see the danger of a lifestyle defined by busyness, urgency, and a need to be needed led to my breakdown.
For the six years before that point, I had been doing a job that I loved, but where my duties had gradually increased to a point that was beyond any one person’s capabilities. I alternated between feeling inspired by the challenges of my role, gratified by the impact it allowed me to make on students and school culture, and feeling overwhelmed by the impossible weight of my responsibilities.
Stress was a constant. I depended on adrenaline to get me through the days, and my mind would spin on overdrive during my workday and beyond. There was always too much to do and never enough time to do it. It became more and more difficult to sleep, as if my body was constantly in fight or flight mode, trying to survive the danger of anxiety to my mental, physical, and emotional health. I felt alone, as if the burden of changing school culture was mine alone to bear–prideful in my belief that I was even capable of such a mammoth undertaking. But my passion and belief in the significance of my work made it easy to ignore the warning signs of an unsustainable lifestyle that was driven by a subconscious fear of failure.
I finally hit a wall midway through the school year five years ago when sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion forced me to deal with the limitations of being human. I. Could. Not. Keep. Pushing. The job was too much for me. My expectations of myself were too much for me. I had reached my breaking point.
My husband had been watching me struggle, carrying the weight of my stress more and more in the previous months. He agreed to let me submit my resignation, effective at the end of the school year, still several months away. The relief was indescribable, but so was my sense of failure. I ended up taking a couple months of sick leave, providing time for my body to recover from extreme fatigue and for my mind to slow down from months and months of constant spinning.
Even though I was desperate for rest, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was abandoning the students who needed me, the school I had poured my heart into, and my dreams of the positive changes I could make if I could just keep fighting. I was tempted to fill my time away from work with other stuff I never had time to do–but Corey kept reminding me to rest. Don’t waste the gift of time, he would say. Just rest.
It was a fight, but a couple weeks into my sick leave I slowed down enough to start really sleeping again. It was uncomfortable at first, but I finally learned to enjoy moments of stillness in my days. I was quiet and unproductive. I read books and attempted painting. I felt like I was wasting time, but in reality I was healing from years and years of spinning, striving, and working to earn the approval of others.
After my sick leave was up, there were still a couple months left in the school year. I went back to work with a new awareness of my limitations and with a much lower capacity for stress. I wondered with much trepidation, “Will I still have what it takes?” It turns out that I didn’t.
I had changed for the better after two months of recovery time, but my job was the same as when I left it. I found myself unable to function at the pace I’d set earlier in the school year—it felt like I was sitting on the freeway while cars raced past and I was still struggling to start the ignition. I’d lost momentum in my teaching and credibility with my students, and I felt isolated and alone. I just didn’t have it in me to keep pushing anymore, but I had to finish out the school year somehow. I felt trapped. Stuck. Overwhelmed. Hopeless.
Depression set in quickly as I realized that my best efforts weren’t enough. I was failing to live up to the standard of performance I had set for myself. I was failing. It was more than just a hard couple months at work, it felt like it was defining who I had become. My worst fear had become my reality—failure.
Somehow I managed to crawl across the finish line at the end of the school year, but things only continued to spiral downward. My confidence was gone, my energy was depleted, and I was finishing my Master’s degree as we prepared to move to a new town where my husband was called to a new job in ministry. Life was too much to handle.
I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had always been Jillian the overachiever, the perfectionist, the hard-working one who can do it all. Now I was just Jillian, the failure. What was I worth if I couldn’t do anything important? I could barely get out of bed in the morning anymore, let alone work to earn my worth in the world. I was spiraling quickly into darkness that felt consuming.
We moved and Corey started his new job, but I didn’t have it in me to even look for work. Bless the man I married for seeing my desperate need for rest. He told me again and again that taking care of myself was my job for the year. Even that was overwhelming some days. I had lost hope. It seemed like this new version of myself was who I would always be now—paralyzed by anxiety and despair, believing that God had abandoned me and I deserved it.
In my hopelessness, I sat one morning alone in our living room, sobbing over the mess I had become. I finally cried out loud a desperate prayer for rescue, yelling, “God, don’t leave me like this!” I held nothing back. All my shame, anger, fear, and anguish came out in ugly tears as I realized that I had no hope of doing anything to change the way I felt. I could not rescue myself.
Freedom comes with surrender, and that was my moment of freedom.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, hope started to creep back in. There were small glimmers at first, then moments of relief, then even days and weeks at a time when I started to feel like myself again. I was able to talk about how I was feeling without being overwhelmed by hopelessness. My eyes were lifted from my own consuming pain to see the truth that I had never been abandoned by God, I had just stopped believing his promises were true.
Months passed, and I realized that the circumstances that had brought me to such a dark place were divinely orchestrated. God used my sense of failure to rescue me from a lifestyle of busyness, perfectionism, and endless striving for approval that would have killed my soul if I had continued in it. Someone once told me that the only difference between a rut and a grave is its depth. I had been digging my own grave.
It took failure to break me free from the pressure to perform.
It took hopelessness to force me to examine where my hope actually comes from.
It took coming to the end of myself to realize that my identity is deeper than the things I do.
I would have never guessed it at the time, but my greatest sense of failure has since led to a greater freedom than I’ve ever experienced. It has come over the past five years of learning to be still and rest in God’s presence, listen to his voice, and believe what he says about me. Freedom comes as I continually fail to live up to who I think I should be and instead choose to rest in who he says I am.
My strength comes in recognizing my weakness.
My freedom comes in surrendering my fear.
My purpose comes in sharing my story so that others might know that God is exceedingly trustworthy. I am living proof.