[This is the first in a five-part series on my experience with biblical counseling]
I was almost done with my internship at the Academy– also known as “14 weeks in Shayol Ghul.” The internship itself was demanding 100+ hours of work every week, and combine that with my insomnia and trying to keep myself together after my fiance had broken our engagement . . . it wasn’t a very pretty time in my life. So when my internship director confronted me about my less-than-eternally-cheery attitude, my response was, well, less than lackluster. I mustered up enough assurances and promises out of my lethargy– yes, I’ll do better, yes I’ll try harder, yes I’ll focus on my work . . .
About a week later, I was standing in front of my mailbox, staring at a green note. A green note had a variety of names on campus, none of them pleasant, but the most favorable was “The Summons.” It meant I had an appointment with Student Life– a non-optional appointment. It’s a bit more like a mandated court date that if you don’t show up for it they put a warrant out for your arrest. There’s also never a specified reason on the note. Sometimes, you know what you did– sometimes you didn’t. In this case, I was pretty sure it had something to do with my interview at the Academy. “Catching the Spirit” of my fundamentalist college was also one of those non-optional requirements. I certainly did not “have the Spirit.”
I waited in the Student Life office, trying to tune out the chipper quartet singing in the background and trying to ignore the receptionist that was earnestly stapling papers– a bit like Marianne from Easy A. Eventually, one of the Student Life deans called me into her office. I had been hoping to graduate without ever meeting her– or her husband. Ironically, her husband’s previous position had been as a prison warden; we students that was just a bit too coincidental, considering the fact that our campus was surrounded by barbed wire and we slept on beds purchased from a shut-down prison.
I sat in the miserably uncomfortable chair and waited for her to speak. She didn’t say anything for a while, just looked through a file on her desk. After flipping through some of the papers– one of them I recognized as a copy of a form I’d filled out at the campus clinic about depression– she looked up. “So, Samantha . . . well, we’ve been hearing from people who are genuinely concerned about you. It seems that you’ve been having some trouble.”
I waited. Not saying anything was always the safest course of action until you knew exactly where they were going.
“Well, are you, Samantha? Having trouble?”
I shook my head. “Not really. Just stressed, but who isn’t?”
“Well . . . that’s not what we’ve been hearing. There seems to be something more going on. Do you want to talk about it?”
“I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about?”
“Well . . .” She seemed hesitant to give specifics. “Dr. Marlowe* said . . . that when she talked to you about your internship and your plans for graduation . . . your reaction seemed to be like there might be something you should talk with us about.”
“Okay . . . I remember that.”
“And?” She had this odd Southern drawl that was lengthening her words that reminded me of creepy villains from black and white films.
“And . . . she said one of my supervisors hadn’t seen enough focus from me. I’m working on that.”
“That doesn’t really seem to be everything you two talked about.”
I just shrugged. “She asked about after graduation; I said I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
“Oh, alright – - have you thought about staying here? For grad school, I mean? We have an excellent education program.”
I pursed my lips and shook my head a little bit. “I’m not really interested in being a teacher.”
“But then why are you an education major? Our world needs good, Christian teachers, you know.”
“I’m just not really cut out for it, I don’t think.” I also just wanted this pointless conversation to end. She badgered me for a few more minutes about staying for grad school, but then moved on.
“Well . . . I can see that there is clearly something going on that you’re not telling me. I’m going to send you to our counselor, Miss Bradley*. Set up an appointment with her– do you know where her office is?”
“Ok, good. Now, make sure you set up an appointment with her today, and she’ll decide how many visits you need.” I could tell that this was just as non-optional as coming to see her. She dismissed me, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful to get out of that particular office.
The next week, I was sitting in yet another office, waiting to be seen, in yet another uncomfortable chair. At least there wasn’t any music and the receptionist wasn’t glaring at me. And I didn’t have to wait as long. It was still at the end of a 14 hour work day, and my exhausted self was not exactly thrilled about being required to meet with the counselor. Miss Bradley, while a much sweeter and gentler woman than the prison warden’s wife, was still not someone I wanted to talk to. Not talking to anyone would have been my preference, but my college doesn’t have a reputation for not caring about personal agency for a reason.
She called me into her office and asked me to sit down in a slightly more comfortable chair. She opened up a cabinet behind her desk, and I saw that it was stuffed to the brim with Kleenex boxes. She set one on my side of her desk, and gestured that it would be ok if I took one.
“So, Samantha, how are you doing?”
“I heard you were getting married– how are the wedding plans going?”
I went blank. It was an innocent enough question, but the answer . . . I didn’t want to talk about this. “We, uh– we’re not getting married anymore.”
“Oh.” She seemed genuinely surprised, so at least not all of my personal life had managed to make it through the Student Life rounds. “What happened?”
I closed my eyes. “Uhm . . .” Don’t think about it. Don’t go there. Just don’t. “It– it just didn’t work out.”
Her voice dropped, became even more gentle. “Was there sexual sin, Samantha?”
It didn’t even occur to me that this was an unusual and invasive question. I didn’t have the tools to sense that she had just made a huge leap forward in the conversation– but the leap had been fueled by an assumption that I was more than familiar with: the assumption that physicality in a relationship always leads to its downfall.
I didn’t even know how to begin to answer this question. If I said “yes,” then that would put me on the road to getting kicked out. I wanted to tell the truth to someone– I wanted to explain what had happened and have someone tell me that it was going to be ok, that I could come back. That maybe, maybe, what had happened to me hadn’t been my fault. My mind was skittering all over the place– for a millisecond I could feel old carpet scraping against my back, then I could feel a flash of pain from my head being slammed against a car door, then fluorescent lights glaring down at me, my neck twisting as I was thrown on a bed . . . I swallowed down the rising bile.
After I didn’t respond, she continued. “You know, Samantha, I don’t know what happened, but what I do know is how deep God’s forgiveness is. No matter what has happened, you can ask to be forgiven– you do know that, right? God is just waiting, hoping that you’ll come to him, that you’ll see His face . . . You don’t have to carry the burden of your sin all your life.”
I didn’t event want to nod, terrified that if I admitted to anything they would kick me out.
“You see, no matter what’s happened, there’s always something for you to do. You can’t take responsibility for what he’s done, but you need to admit to the sin in your life. If you do that, then you can find freedom from that sin.”
I managed a nearly silent “okay.” Inside, I felt bruised and drained. It felt like someone was trying to crush my heart, to squeeze it until it just disappeared from existence. I felt hot and cold all over, and agitated– like I needed to run, to flee. I wanted to get outside, just to feel like I could breathe. And I wanted to bury myself in blankets and never come out again.
Miss Bradley slowly managed to cover the same topics I’d been over with Dr. Marlowe and Student Life, and I managed to give the same answers. No, nothing’s wrong– just stressed and not engaged anymore, that’s it. Finally, she looked at me. “Do you feel like you would like to come see me again?”
I was so grateful she was giving me an option. I didn’t know if I could ever do that again. “No, I think I’m ok.”
“Ok, well, Samantha– you can always come back to see me. Anytime you need to, alright?”
I just nodded, picked up my bad, and tried not to make eye contact with her again before I left.
I didn’t seek counseling again. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me. I did my best not to think about it– I buried it, and hoped that would be enough. These two experiences, as well as a lifetime of victim-blaming, had taught me that if I were to “go through counseling,” it would be a heavy, long-term process of confessing my sin, taking responsibility for my actions. To me, just avoiding the problem would have to get me through it.
It took me three more years to start to see the truth.