My Story an Invitation to Hope

The sound of grace is really, truly, soul-touching amazing. My life didn’t use to sound like grace. In fact, until I had to choose an “alias” for a new job three years ago, I had no idea what “grace” was outside of how a deer bounded through a field. My life may have looked like success on the outside – a gifted musician who went to a good school, a generous and loving family, a kind heart and great encourager of others. Inside screamed the sounds of shame, self-hatred, failure, worthlessness, fear, rejection and hopelessness.

What went wrong for this precocious Chicago suburban girl to cut and burn her own skin, starve herself, purge, abuse diet pill and laxatives, exercise to extremes and more self-destructive behaviors? A shattered dream and an abusive relationship in college changed the sounds and script from dream-come-true to a dirty disaster. As I fought for my recovery, it seemed the minute I found hope another shoe would drop.

Then the unthinkable happened – I lost my marriage, both parents to cancer, and my home all within a three years. Any reason I still had to live was gone. I was done.

God wasn’t finished with me yet. Before my marathon season of loss, He gave me a guide, a therapist I met at a residential treatment center I attended. From the start, I felt drawn to the peace and compassion of her presence and words. I continued my work with her after treatment, during which time I pushed everyone’s capacity to have hope that I could ever life a meaningful life. Had anyone done to me what I did to myself, she would certainly be in jail. I should have been locked up for life.

Through the steadfast forgiveness and hope of this beautiful woman of faith, I held on to my life for dear life. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to make God hate me, He was relentless to love me. In fact, I wasn’t orphaned and alone but adopted by a Good Good Father God. I learned what “grace” really was – unearned favor, forgiveness for what I thought unforgivable. I learned from whom and where grace came from – the only perfect person in the world, Jesus as He died for even miserable me on the cross. And now saved, quite literally saved, I never have to try to be good enough again. I am a living, breathing miracle.

In this blog, I will share my stories of hope. Stories of how I found light and hope through depression, self-harm, eating disorders, loss, anxiety, loneliness and abandonment because today I live free of the old sounds of shame, fear and rejection. I’m working and living on my own and pursuing my dream of writing a book. And because life does and always will have pain and struggle, I will share stories of how I still work to overcome these problems today.

Maybe, like mine did, your life sounds like shame, rejection and pain. Maybe it sounds hopeless and like there is no way out. Lies. All lies. I’m here to tell you that love is for you, too, no matter who you are or what you did. Grace is real. You can be forgiven and you can move forward with a miraculous new life, just like I did. There is a door to hope. Let me show you the way.

Lens of Truth is Greater

Try this with a friend: One person puts on blue-tinted glasses. The other person holds up a lemon and asks the person with glasses on what object she sees.

What will she see? A lime.

That’s right. Yellow and blue make green. The reality is that the object is a lemon. The blue-tinted glasses distort the yellow-color of a lemon to appear green – a lime.

How many of you look at yourself through a distorted lens? I sure do and I have for many, many years. You may see me as strong, intelligent, inspirational, creative, kind, hard-working and successful. I see me as broken, scarred, too-much, a burden, selfish, a failure, never-good-enough, and worthless.

I see myself through a distorted lens of strong self hatred. I wasn’t born hating myself and with a strange bent to want to cut and burn my own skin (and neither were you). My lens of self hatred came from what people told me and did to me. From an early age, I was told I was fat, over-emotional, too sad and I made too much of a big deal out of little problems. Throughout my life, people who loved me – family members, friends and significant others – hurt, used and abused my body and my feelings. Love was not only conditional on what I did, but it seemed people who loved me hurt me a whole lot. That’s the very short and simple explanation of how I learned to hate and hurt myself, to see myself through a distorted lens.

I tried all sorts of things to change my lens and see myself as the beautiful, valuable person other people saw me as. I went to therapy. I attended several treatment programs and therapeutic groups. I sought love and truth from other people and married a man I believed loved me unconditionally. But feelings are fickle and ever-changing. It didn’t take much for a bad day, moment, month or memory to convince me again what a horrible person I was. And how could I trust people? People who loved me sometimes acted like they cared about me and sometimes they hurt me.

Not long ago, my world was turned upside-down when I got divorced, my dad got cancer and died, and my mom got cancer and died all within three years. I had made strides in my recovery and started to accept a different version of myself than my distorted lens of self hatred. But the things I loved most were taken away from me – certainly I must be the worst person in the world like I believed all along!

Without having a husband, mom or dad and their value of me and the truth that they loved me; without having a meaningful job, career, home or many friendships to find value in myself from; I had nowhere to left to turn except to God. My therapist, a beautiful woman of faith who walked me through that terribly painful time, had been teaching me about God and God’s love for all people. My therapist knew that I believed in a Higher Power, a Creator, a God Almighty. The challenge was for me to believe that He loved me, too. She empathically told me that all God made was good and that He loved all people and that there was no place in the Bible that said “God loves all people except Janelle.”

I decided to ask God myself if He actually loved me. But first, I even dared to tempt Him to hate me. Surely if I hurt myself more and hurt myself worse, even God would hate me. His answer was clear. “No, Janelle. I do not hate you. I love you more than you know.”

‘How could God not hate someone who intentionally hurt His creation and masterpiece, me?’ I thought. Evidence in hand – failed careers, failed marriage, no family or parents or home, scarred head-to-toe from hurting my own body – I asked again, “God, do you love me?”

God’s answer came back emphatically loud and clear. “Janelle, I love you from here to the farthest star and back times infinity. I love you and forgive you, yes, even you.”

Why would God Almighty, the one who put the stars in the sky, the one who makes rain and put boundaries on the light of dawn and dusk, the one who moves mountains and calms seas, have time, effort, thought and love for me?

The fact is that God is God. I accept the Word of God as TRUTH and His word is clear – no exceptions, not even for me. As Almighty Creator, God created all things including me. All things God created, He calls good and He loves. That means He loves me, even and especially me. He feeds and cares for the little sparrows, certainly He loves me so much more and can take care of me. I’m not too much. My therapist is right, it’s not written anywhere in the Bible that God loves all people except me. Not because of anything I have done or not done, but because God is God, unchanging, unfailing and true. He loves me because He created me and He loves what He sees, scars and all.

God and His perfect, everlasting, never-ending love for a miserable, self-hating failure like me changed my lens. He change my lens to the lens of His TRUTH as seen through His Word. I absolutely cannot rely on my own feelings about myself to find my value. I absolutely cannot rely on what other people say and think about me to find my value, though there are Godly people who faithfully speak truth into my life. The Word of God, the Love of God, the Truth from God is greater than my feelings, my lens or the lens, words, feelings and actions of other people.

I am created by God. I am loved by God. Period. End of story. Truth. No arguments. And I believe the same is true of you, too, even and especially you.

To Bare Bare Arms

This is my all-time favorite skirt. All winter and spring, I catch eye of the white and bright skirt in my closet, anxious to wear it and watch it flounce at my feet as I walk in warm summer sunshine.

Hot summer days also mean short sleeves and tank tops. For a person with arms significantly scarred by self-inflicted cuts and majors burns, this is more than just a matter of common sense and comfort. The decision to bare arms involves personal dignity and sometimes facing difficult situations and emotions.

To see my scarred arms, you probably would not question that I have been through great pain. You would be correct. I communicated my inner pain and turmoil resulting from from abusive and invalidating relationships, physical and sexual abuse, and self-hatred by cutting and burning my own skin. I wore my emotional pain on my skin. I hurt to extremes both inside and out.

When people see my arms, do they ask me questions?

You bet. My scars don’t necessarily suggest self injury. Most people ask me if I am having the tattoo on my left arm removed. In my own way, I was trying to remove the word “love” tattooed over other scars to help prevent me from self-harming again. But that’s not what I tell people.

When people see my arms, do they stare?

Yes again. Many people stare from a distance. Far more uncomfortable, though, are the people (even people I know) who seem to be having a conversation with my heavily scarred left arm. I have come to understand that humans are naturally curious. Their eyes are drawn to things that look different, out-of-place, or not-right. So their eyes are naturally drawn to my scars. Far more often than not, though, people don’t stare. They either don’t notice or they are focusing on my eyes and my conversation.

Am I embarrassed? Ashamed? Self-conscious? Scared?

At times, yes. No doubt, having a body that does not meet our society’s standard of flawless makes me feel vulnerable. The staring and questions often make me feel uncomfortable. I’m a human with feelings and nobody like to be stared at or made to feel out-of-place because she looks different. Anyone with a natural birthmark or scar probably has similar experiences.

While others may not assume or know that my injuries are of my own doing, I sometimes look at and touch my marred, leathery arm with shame, remorse, guilt and regret. I believe some degree of remorse, guilt and regret reminds me to be gentle with myself, forgive myself, and to not hurt myself again. Add in shame, though, and I know I am moving away from forgiveness of myself and inviting myself to enter the cycle of shame and self harm again.

So what do I say when people ask me what happened to my arm?

I simply say with a smile, “I was hurt and now I am healed. Healing is good.”When the situation is right, I take the opportunity to share my story of recovery from self harm. But most of the time, people smile back and leave it at that.

Now recovering from my self-destructive past, I strive to be a person noticed for my character and kindness, not my skin and appearance. I want them to see not my skin but my heart – how I treat them, talk to them and interact with them. I don’t need to communicate my emotional pain with my skin any more. Instead, I can use my experience with inner and outer pain to connect with and help others struggling with their feelings and self destructive behaviors.

Thing is, in recovery, self injury is one of those things that can’t be hidden. Unlike some other unhealthy coping behaviors people struggle with, our behaviors of cutting and burning leave marks – scars. It’s taken me years to come to believe this – I believe my scars are a gift and a crucial part of my story. Were you to meet me today and talk to me and get to know me, you may never believe that I was the broken, hurting person that I was or believe that I overcame all that to become the person I am today. My scars are proof of my pain and all I walked through to find peace and healing.

Truthfully, wearing a bright, beautiful skirt, genuine smile and caring personality, only a few people ask me about my scars but a ton of people tell me how pretty I look. Wearing my summer skirt with short sleeves on, I feel like a princess, radiant in my healing from a bruised and broken past. Scar tissue is also much tougher than skin and I chose to wear mine with pride and honor, baring bare arms even in the summer heat. My scars tell a story, a story where love won and I survived the unimaginable. I am not ashamed of my scars – they are proof of the miracle of healing.

Not Giving Up

“Strike three! You’re out!” the ump called….again.

We were a baseball/softball family. Both my brother and I played ball since we were old enough to be in the park district league. Mom and Dad came to every game to cheer us on. Memories of summers playing catch with my dad and brother, weekends spent at traveling team tournaments, celebrating home runs and winning games all make me smile.

From the start, I either socked the ball far over the right fielder’s head or I struck out swinging. One particular batting slump when I was about ten years old lasted at least a few games. I, always the clean-up hitter, felt embarrassed letting my team down like that. My dad sensed my frustration and decided to help me out.

We took a small gym bag full of practice balls and my lucky florescent orange bat down the street to a large field next to my school. My leftie dad lobbed pitch after pitch at me. I swung and missed every time. He’d offer tips as we gathered the balls behind my batter’s box for him to take back to the mound. For hours, into having to squint into the setting sun, Dad pitched. I swung and did not make contact with the ball even once. I was sunk. Defeated. Ready to quit. Still, Dad put a hand on my shoulder and encouraged me that I would hit the ball again.

Despite the positive forward movement in my life of a new job, I seem to be in a similar batting slump of life lately. Depression, grief and anxiety have reared their ugly heads at me yet again. I have nightmares and wake up shaking and looking for my mom and dad. I have panic attacks and flashbacks of past abuse. I miss my parents – a whole lot. I miss talking to them, going out to breakfast with my dad and shopping with my mom. I miss just knowing they loved and supported me so very much. It’s like I’m living and going through the motions, only floating without an anchor to latch onto. The ground beneath me feels slippery, shifting and uneven.

I’m searching for something, anything familiar to tell me they still love me yet at every turn I avoid pictures of them and things that remind me of them because it hurts too much to think about them not being here. Navigating this life without them, even three years now after they both have been gone, is more than I can handle some days. I’m putting all my skills into play to get up and go to work and keep moving forward. But some days, it seems my best is laying in bed wishing I just wouldn’t think and be tortured by my own memories and cruel and destructive thoughts towards myself.

And then I remember that day that my dad took the time to pitch to me while I swung and missed every time. He was so caring, supportive and patient. He never, ever, ever gave up on me. Not during that batting slump, not after my suicide attempt, not during my season of unemployment. As I worked on job applications, Dad would tell me to list him as a reference so he could tell them how amazing I am and what a good worker I’d be. While he was in hospice, he shared with me that he knew it would be hard on me to lose him but he knew I’d make it. I promised him that I would be OK.

That unconditionally loving daddy is still in my heart. I only need to remember, not avoid, and to listen for him. My mom is there in my heart with him. She’s not giving me on me, either. Neither is the therapist, a beautiful woman of faith who has not given up on me even through the hardest of times after losing my mom – nor are my handful of beautiful, wonderful close friends.

Most of all, God is not giving up on me. For all I’ve been through and done to myself, I very well could and probably should be dead. I’m not. I’m here breathing and living despite it all, even on those days when all I can do is lay in bed and sleep and cry. Clearly, there is more for me to do here on this earth. And Dad, Mom and God did not make me to be a quitter. I’m not about to let everybody, mostly myself, down and quit now.

Back to that batting slump… The game I played in after that day of my dad pitching to me, I bat the cycle – single, double, triple and home run. It was the start of an incredible batting streak with lots of home runs. So I have hope. Hope that this batting slump of life will break forth with success and fulfillment, peace and joy – SOON!

With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, I want to say thank you to my best buddy and biggest advocate, my dad. It’s been over 5 years since we went out to breakfast and you had your favorite French 2x2x2. I still miss you and love you with all my heart. I know you are still in my heart, cheering me on and not giving up on me. I told you, Daddy that I’d be OK, and I am going to keep my promise to you, one day at a time. Thanks, Daddy. Love you forever.

Not Just a New Job

I start a new job tomorrow. It’s usually a pretty exciting and hopeful thing for a person to start a new job. For me, starting this job now is more than just a nice new job. For me, starting this job is a major, huge, mind-blowing miracle. To understand what a big deal this is for me, let me walk you through my history.

When I was 4 years old, I wanted to grow up to be a horse. True story.

When I was 13 years old, I decided that I wanted to be a professional French horn player in the Chicago Symphony. I put my mind and heart to it, practicing and studying hard to get into the best college to learn French horn. And I did. I went to Northwestern University and in June 1997, I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education. The dream had changed from being a pro horn player to being a famous university conductor, married, with 2 kids, a golden retriever and a house on the lake.

When I was 23 years old, a year after my first year teaching music, I had a full-blown eating disorder. I attended a Partial Hospitalization Program for depression and ended up hospitalized for the first time. Not hospitalized in a room with a nice view decorated with cards and flowers from friendly visitors, and sweet nurses to bring me trays of food and asking me to eat. That’s what I expected. No, I was hospitalized on a locked psychiatric unit for adults in mental health crisis.

That was only the beginning of my career in mental health. By the time I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt in 2001, I knew there was no career as a famous conductor. I did the best I could but nothing seemed to keep me safe from me. I hurt myself often and severely. What was the dream then? More like, “Why dream?” I was hospitalized numerous times for my self harm, depression, anxiety and PTSD. I was still a bright and gifted woman but my mental health issues and necessary treatment kept me from being able to maintain a healthy marriage or decent career/job. The best anyone hoped for me was a somewhat stable life still needing psychiatric care and hospitalizations.

When I was 37 years old, after about 20 hospitalizations and a divorce, I made a last ditch effort to get my life back. In June 2012, I admitted myself to Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center for Women. The experience saved my life. I learned that I was seeing myself through the distorted lens of self-hatred and trauma, not through the loving lens of truth that the people who loved and cared for me saw me through. I challenged myself to believe their view of me. They supported me and inspired me. I started to believe I was a human worth caring for and I managed to be successful in recovery as I never had before.

When I was 38 years old, my worst fear came true. My dad died of cancer. I returned to Timberline Knolls for safety. Not able to stay as long as needed, I struggled with grief and keeping myself safe. But I was also working with the therapist I met at TK and involved in the TK alumnae community. I bonded with my mom, whom I lived with and was also grieving my dad. By the year after my dad died, I had begun to start seeing myself through the lens of truth again instead of despair and self hatred.

When I was 39 years old, the rug got pulled out from under me. My mom was diagnosed with Leukemia, a blood cancer. My mom, the strongest woman I ever knew, was very ill and very weak. Our roles were reversed. I was her strength and inspiration. After a lifetime of depression and despair, I had a hope like I had never hoped before. Hope that my mom, my hero, my rock would survive this fierce trial.

When I was 40 years old, in fact one week after my fortieth birthday, the unthinkable happened. My mom died. My hope shattered, I pretty much died, too. In my mind, my life was over. How was I, a chronic mental health patient with no career or job to sustain me, going to survive? It was a practical issue and an emotional issue. Without a husband, home (my childhood home that I had been living in was sold), parents, or career, how was I going to support myself? With a 20 year history of self harm, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and PTSD, how was I emotionally going to survive this trial?

At first, I didn’t. I self harmed severely and was hospitalized again. I had a plan to end my life. A social worker was hired to help figure out the practicalities of my future life and it was suggested that I apply for disability and live in some kind of supportive care. The state hospital was suggested and we even applied for me to live in a senior independent living facility. They said I was too young.

I had a choice, literally to live or die. Under the care and guidance of that amazing therapist, a beautiful woman of faith, and a handful of other women who “mothered” me after my loss, I decided to live. I decided to trust that loving lens of truth that I had started to believe in. I put into action all the wisdom and skills I learned over many years of treatment. I trusted that so long as I was breathing, a loving God who was good even when I and my circumstances were not, had a good plan and purpose for my life. I took care of myself, my new apartment and my dog all on my own. I not just maintained but was successful at a good job. That job was not enough to support me, though, and I relied a little too heavily on the small amount of money left to me by by mom.

When I was 42 years old, I got a job at Timberline Knolls as a Behavioral Health Specialist. Through my hard work and service in the alumnae community, my commitment to my previous job, and evidence of success in living a recovered and meaningful life, TK actually hired me. Instead of asking someone to let me into the locked bathroom, I held the keys to the place. Wow. Just wow. And I was even told by nursing staff and my supervisors what a great job I was doing. I was known for my patience and compassion, knowing those girls in a way only someone who had been in their shoes could. Still, TK was a far commute for me and I still was relying too heavily on my inheritance.

Now at 43 years old, I am starting a job as a Behavioral Health Associate on the adolescent inpatient unit at a hospital not far from home. It seems my years in treatment earned me an “honorary degree” you might say in mental health treatment. The circumstances of this job are definitely moving me forward towards being able to support myself on my own.

It’s an intense job, working hard in a field where my expertise comes out of a world of personal pain and experience. It’s living a modest life on my own with a little brown dog. Is it a career as a famous conductor, a husband, 2 kids, a golden retriever and a house on the lake? No.


Yes, as I start this job, I thank God for every failed career and job. I thank Him for every misstep that landed me in the hospital gaining more experience, skills and compassion. This is not just a nice new job. It’s GRACE and it’s REDEMPTION and it’s a MIRACLE.

So if you are struggling with things not turning out as planned, I encourage you to consider this that I wrote in the months after my mom died…

“We are not the writers of our stories. Our good and gracious God has a plan for each of us. Whether or not we agree with or like the plan is not the debate. It’s how we are going to surrender to His will and handle these situations with grace.”

I believe my story of redemption and healing speaks to just how truly amazing grace is. And I believe there is a story of amazing grace for you, too.

The Time is NOW

“Janelle, if we waited for you to want to stop hurting yourself, we’d be waiting forever,” my therapist said. I wish I could say that she only had to say it to me once. As with me and my stubbornness to let go of my self harm, it took a few times over the years before I followed through and “got it.”

What my therapist was trying to tell me was that I did not have to want to stop hurting myself to actually stop hurting myself. I can both want to hurt myself and keep myself safe (a dialectic for anyone who knows DBT). She was asking me to trust her and trust the people in my life who cared about me when they said that hurting myself was dangerous, unhealthy and unkind. It was a behavior that may have helped me through some difficult times but was now creating difficult times. She was telling me to stop hurting myself whether I believed I would or should stop.

Part of me knew that what I was doing was not right, but I always had an excuse.

  • I just have to do it one more time – I haven’t hurt myself bad enough yet.
  • I have to do it. I can’t survive without doing it.
  • It’s my body. Nobody else should care. I can do whatever I want to myself.
  • I’ll stop after I work on my……. self esteem, eating disorder, anxiety, marriage…..
  • I don’t like or care about myself so it doesn’t matter if I still hurt myself.

I see those things now as lies and procrastination. Did I want my pain to end? Of course! Did I want to stop feeling ashamed? Stop having to explain wounds and scars? Stop damaging relationships and jeopardizing my jobs? You bet I did! But to take the risk to get through my overwhelming and challenging emotions without hurting myself seemed impossible, especially for a so-called screw-up like me. My self harm was my best friend, my got-to, my crutch. As much as I wanted my pain to end, I did not want to actually stop hurting myself nor did I think I could.

Good thing that my therapist believed in me, challenged me and encouraged me (we all need a good support person!). I put my trust in what she was asking me to do. I took an “I will not hurt myself at all costs, no matter what it takes!” attitude. I started to actually use the skills I learned over the years. Moment by moment, day by day, like it or want to do it or not, I kept myself safe. It was not easy, especially in those first days and weeks. Then days and weeks turned into months and into years.

I understand now that while I was hurting myself, I was a body, mind, heart and spirit constantly under attack. A person in that state will be depressed and anxious and not feel good about herself. I was not going to find some “fix,” some magic cure to my self esteem problems, some magic motivation to stop hurting myself while I was already under attack. I had to just do it.

As I practiced life without hurting myself, I noticed how I felt more relaxed and less anxious. I had more confidence and much more hope. Instead of using my energy to hurt myself and let depression suck up all my motivation to get better, I used my energy to do things to help other people. I started writing my book which I hope to use to encourage others. Through all that, I started to actually like myself and forgive myself. When I told my story to a dining hall full of women in treatment for mental health issues, with all sincerity I breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Now I just want to be nice to myself.”

I believe you can get to that point, too. I also believe that before you can want to be nice to yourself, you must practice being nice to yourself. It’s hard work. It takes bravery, courage, trust and strength – all things I know you possess! You don not have to want to stop hurting yourself to stop hurting yourself. Don’t wait! The time is now! You got this!

Find Hope Here

My guess is that if you found this blog, you have done things to hurt yourself. Maybe you cut or burn yourself, but there are lots of different ways people hurt themselves. Many people don’t understand why someone would hurt her own body like that. It confuses and scares them.

Maybe you are confused and scared, too. Chances are that you are hurting very much on the inside. Chances are that you have been hurt and you don’t know how to communicate that pain you feel on the inside. Because of the shame you feel for what you do to yourself, it’s probably hard to ask for help. For that, I am sorry and I feel your pain.

If you found this blog, I might also guess that you hope for your pain to end. You long to be released from this cycle of hurting yourself, feeling shame, and hurting yourself again. The cycle never frees you from the pain on the inside, which is what you really want – to be free. You hope to pursue the dreams I know you have (even if they have been buried deep down inside) and to live a healthy and meaningful life. It may feel like everything inside of you and maybe people in your life are convinced that a free, meaningful, and purposeful life like that, for you, just isn’t possible.

I want you to hold onto hope. I know that people who self harm are not crazy. I know that you are not a monster or freak. You are not stupid – chances are you are bright, resourceful, kind and creative. You are not a lost cause or hopeless case.

I know this because I used to think all those things about myself but I don’t, in my heart, believe any of it anymore. I found freedom. I live a meaningful, purposeful, often challenging and often rewarding life today. Recovery is possible. Recovery is real. I am living in recovery from self harm and I believe that you can, too.

If you are here looking for hope, inspiration and wisdom to overcome self harm, this is the place for you. It has always been my personal policy to not give advice. I will not tell you what to do, who to be or what to think. You are uniquely you in your experiences, thoughts and feelings. It’s not my place to tell you what to do so this blog is not an advice column.

What I can do is share my personal experience. Through personal stories, I can share what I have learned and what has helped me. I can share my experiences with different situations and applying different skills. I can share my personal beliefs, how I discovered those beliefs and how they help me to live a recovered life today.

So here are some stories of my scars, stories of overcoming self harm. My purpose is to share hope, strength, wisdom and encouragement with you so that you can overcome self harm, too. Your pain can end. There is hope. Let me show you the way.