A Prescription For Perfectionists

Continuing with our series of entries from Judgment & Love, here is Sarah Richey’s chapter. […]

Mockingbird / 9.28.10

Continuing with our series of entries from Judgment & Love, here is Sarah Richey’s chapter. Again, J&L is a collection of 35 true-life stories illustrating the powerful truth that when love is shown in the face of deserved judgment, lives are changed. To order your copy at the reduced price of $10, go here or click on the button at the bottom of the post. 

The day I graduated from college, I had a lot going for me. I was graduating with honors, had a new job in youth ministry, was buying an apartment and moving to a new city, and had a hand- some young fiancé to go with me! My expectations for that Summer and my new life were high and when people would ask, “How are you doing it all?” I would demurely say something about taking it in stride, enjoying every minute, not worrying about the details. What I didn’t tell people was that for a few months prior, a steady sense of fear and foreboding had gradually taken over my thoughts. In reality, I was so consumed by being the perfect graduate/bride/youth minister/homeowner that I floated through the two months before my wedding in a haze, not wanting to make any mistakes. God forbid that I become Bridezilla or not actually be perfect for my new job. I started having tension headaches and trouble sleeping. I lost all hope in the future; it was as if fear had knocked out my drive to hope and dream and I became numb as I smothered the fear and kept up the appearance of a young, thrilled, bride-to-be.

About a month before the wedding, my parents took me to see a doctor to check out my headaches. She was a Christian, had married young while in medical school, and was now a successful doctor in the city. During the physical she kept asking, “Are you sure you’re not stressed about anything? You’re getting married, that’s a pretty big deal.” I kept replying that I was fine, not at all worried, so looking forward to the big day. I remember her looking at me and wondering if she could see straight through to my terrified little heart. “Uh huh,” she said, “Well, you’re completely healthy, maybe try some allergy medication and see if that helps. Sarah, you have a lot going on right now, it’s normal to be a little stressed.”

People still talk about how calm a bride I was on my wedding day, although all I remember is feeling paralyzed, afraid it was all going to go terribly wrong. I wasn’t afraid of marriage, I was afraid of failing to meet all the expectations I had built up in my mind about who I was and what people expected from me and how the perfect 22-year-old should act and get married. I was constantly judging myself, weighing every move, and critiquing everything I did.

It didn’t take long after the wedding and honeymoon for the fear and expectations and judgment to come crashing down. The headaches returned, I didn’t want to get out of bed but I couldn’t sleep, I cried a lot, and I really didn’t want to go to work and tell kids about Jesus’ love and grace because I had forgotten how to describe it. Finally, I found myself back at the doctor I had seen the Summer before.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” I cried, “I think I have a brain tumor, or cancer! I can’t sleep, I hurt all over, I’m not feeling like myself. Something is seriously wrong!”

She just looked at me and smiled. “You are perfectly healthy. And this is perfectly normal. If I could, I would prescribe you yoga twice a week, and weekly meetings with a counselor. You just need to breathe and relax.” And as she described her own stress over getting married and dealing with a career and family, I began to breathe. I felt as if I had been holding my breath for six months. She had said “normal,” this was all perfectly normal! Nothing was wrong with me; I wasn’t bad; I hadn’t failed.

It was this encounter with a gracious doctor that started the climb out of a deep pit of depression, and led me to understand, truly for the first time, how oppressive the judgment is that I place on myself, and how freeing the grace of Christ is that has defeated that judgment once and for all.