Today I am sharing another testimony of a beautiful woman who is willing to be open and transparent about her walk with Christ. I must say that you will be absolutely floored by her story. She thinks it’s too long, but when I read it, I flew through the words. I am so inspired and encouraged by her testimony and I know that you will be too. So get your tissues ready, and enjoy reading what Sarah has to say about the beauty in being broken.
I always felt like I was different. Not a good different, but a different that prevented me from being “normal.” I never felt comfortable in my own skin, as I was on the heavier side for most of my childhood. And I was never in the “popular” group. I always had one or two friends that I felt barely put up with my awkwardness. When I was seven, though, life took a drastic turn for me: I found swimming. I joined the summer swim team in my neighborhood and took to the water nicely. After two summers, I decided to join a local year-round competitive swim team called Raleigh Swimming Association (RSA). Little did I know, this world I had entered would become the biggest part of my life over the next ten or so years. Awkward middle school years turned into even more awkward high school years, and I began to dedicate all of my time and effort into becoming the best swimmer I could be. Three hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week, I was in and out of the water training for meets that would be held many weekends over a three or four day period. I would give up social activities to do this because this was a talent that gave me some self-satisfaction. Although I loved to swim, I also loved to sing. I was in chorus every single year beginning in fourth grade. This did conflict with swimming, but something in my heart made me hold on to this one other thing I was able to do outside of my sport, basically offering me another dimension to my identity.
Religiously, my childhood was filled with a lot of church-hopping, superficial attempts at becoming a believer and an enormous amount of selfishness. I was born into a Christian home with a Catholic father and Southern Baptist mother. I never really paid attention in mass or understood the true importance of the information shared at church. My mom eventually left the Catholic faith because of her conflicting beliefs, and like any mother, she decided to start taking her children with her to the church she attended. My father eventually joined her, but this one issue put a strain on the idea of religion in the Henry household. Jesus did not come up in our typical dinner conversations. I grew up believing faith was supposed to be a very personal thing that was between you and this far off being known as God. I guess I can say I always knew there was a God bigger than me that created this world, but I barely prayed, never opened my Bible and lived my life trying to receive good favor from others.
You know that “difference” I was talking about earlier? Here’s my story about being different: Swimming throughout high school amplified my competitiveness and drive to succeed. Sadly, it also increased my natural anxiousness and perfectionism. Coming off of my sophomore year of high school, I was in the best shape of my life, both physically and mentally. I had just been a part of the NCHSAA 4-A Women’s Swimming and Diving State Champion team and participated in a relay that set a new state record. Looking forward to my junior year of high school, I tried to mentally prepare myself to get ready to swim fast, commence the college recruiting process, and hopefully find the school of my dreams.
The summer before junior year, I began to have certain thoughts that extremely disturbed me. I was starting to view my friends in very different ways than I was used to. Sexual images of girls I knew or had seen before in life, on television, or in pictures would pop up into my mind. The first few months, I could quickly swipe them from my memory, ruling it as an absurd teenage thing I was going through. I had never liked girls before, and I knew I didn’t want to like them in that way. As time progressed though, these specific thoughts kept popping back into my head and it became more difficult not to think them. School started and the situation continued to get worse. I was beginning to have more overtly sexual thoughts about girls, and I was becoming convinced I was a lesbian. This obviously did not sit well with me, because I was a “Christian” who believed anything having to do with premarital sex and homosexuality was wrong. In high school, I believed in a much distorted view of Christianity, basing my beliefs off of the way I never partied or had sex. I thought being a Christian meant being a good girl and having perfect morals, not participating in any illegal or promiscuous behaviors.
I eventually became so afraid of my own mind that my daily activities were starting to get affected. I was more anxious and on edge. I wasn’t sleeping at night because I would lie awake, playing and replaying the images in my head that I desperately wanted to get out. I sometimes had night terrors as well. Because I was wasting so much time thinking, school work was put by the wayside, and my grades were put into jeopardy due to my lack of ability to focus. Swimming was another aspect of my life that was severely impacted. I wasn’t able to complete the practices to the best of my ability. I couldn’t be around girls in bathing suits because it would trigger the thoughts that I dreaded so very much. I think above even being afraid of thinking the thoughts endlessly, I was terrified by the idea of acting upon them. By November, I was trying to reach out to my parents, asking questions about their position on homosexuality. I was severely ashamed of what I was going through, and I just wanted it all to go away, but I told them and they were very sympathetic and confused. We decided to wait out the rest of the month to see if the situation would get better, but it didn’t. After a while, my panic attacks started occurring during the day, I lost a significant amount of weight, and had developed a prominent physical tic. Practicing was still sub-par and I was not meeting the incredibly high standards I set for myself. December was when I finally crashed-and-burned, so to speak. I wasn’t able to finish practices, my grades were declining, and my anxiety was consuming my life.
During this period in my life, I definitely had moments when I wanted to give up. My depression was real, I felt like my fears were legitimate, and I did not want to be in the situation any longer. I don’t actually remember heavily questioning if there really ever was a God or not because of this. What I do remember is asking God why He gave me this pain and why He wanted me to be gay. I remember thinking that my life was over and that I would never be the same person I was because I would be labeled a lesbian. I was brought to my knees at this point in life by the God who loved me enough to do it when I needed it most. But, I digress…
Thankfully, January brought the turning point that I needed to start my ongoing recovery process. On January 4, 2012, I was diagnosed with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with generalized anxiety and perfectionist tendencies. From that day forward, I commenced my treatment with my psychologist and psychiatrist in hopes to get my disorder under control. I had a very rough six months, and my anxiety began to translate into my relationships with friends, family, and guys. I had a boyfriend during the first few months of treatment, which was a poor mistake on my part. I kept him around to validate the fact that I wasn’t a lesbian and was actually interested in boys (This is NOT a reason anyone should have a boyfriend, just to clarify!!). My family was heavily affected by this: my parents were torn up emotionally and my siblings didn’t know how to act around me. I would have good days and bad days, but things did get somewhat better. I returned to swimming slowly and eventually joined a lower group in hopes of returning to the level of training I had prior to my diagnosis. I so desperately idolized swimming that I thought it was my life, and I couldn’t see my future without it. Although my parents had many apprehensions, during the summer before my senior year, I began the college recruitment process, switched therapists, and began to see some drastic improvement. Senior year was a lot easier than junior year, but I was never able to reach my best times I had set during my sophomore year of high school. I was still in good shape and I was physically fine, but my mental state had been so tarnished by my fear of failure that I developed a sort-of mental block for racing. I found my school in October 2012 and signed with the University of Maryland- Baltimore County that November after a 5-day stint in the hospital with severe pneumonia. It was the icing on the cake. I had been through so much already, and I had achieved my goal! Or so I thought…
I ended senior year similarly to the way I started it, getting better and still practicing/competing with the mental block. There was a large overhaul of my team senior year, and the team that had been my family for ten years was decimated but still alive. All of my closest friends that had helped me through the darkest time in my life had stayed, and I finished my club swimming career on a high (but not necessarily ideal, in my mind).
I entered freshman year of college with the highest of expectations. I could not wait to get out of NC and experience life away from home. When I first got there, I became friends extremely fast with all of the other swimmers that it almost seemed too accelerated for me. Practices began, and soon after that, classes. I would hang out with the team on the weekends at parties where I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I didn’t drink or party in high school, so it was a major culture shock for me to walk into. At first it was tolerable, but I had secretly always looked down upon those that drank, did drugs, had sex or did anything that wasn’t “Christian.” I felt like I was better than them because I didn’t participate in those kinds of activities. Without fully realizing, I was distancing myself from making any connections with the people to the point that I thought I didn’t fit in with them. I got to the point where I was unhappy, and I would start to spend way too much time alone, and felt isolated from the team. The team usually did everything together – eating, practicing, and living with one another – making it a close knit group of people that I just didn’t relate with. I would make out with a different guy every few weeks and try to make connections romantically that never satisfied my yearning to be accepted. I began to have panic attacks on the pool deck, random crying fits in my room, and would call home every night in a fit, eager to come home. My coach was having trouble handling my situation, and it was understandable, as he had a team to look out for. I think by this time, I was beyond help though. By November at our big travel meet, I had an anxiety attack prior to every race and I was exhausted from the tireless effort I was putting into the sport I had lost my love for. Thanksgiving weekend was a big blur of lightheadedness, crying and the eventual decision that ended my swimming career. I went back to school and broke down crying to my coach, explaining how I was tired of the pain that I was inflicting upon myself. I came home after ending my semester in Baltimore lost and heartbroken, but ready to make a drastic change.
I knew coming home that I wanted to come back to God. I knew that He wanted to create something from this mess that is me, but I did not know what exactly that was. I got certified as a lifeguard, got a job at a local YMCA and started taking classes at community college. I went back into therapy, and started working through the depression and anxiety issues that had resurfaced during my time in Maryland. I started to attend church with my family, and my parents finally settled at a non-denominational church that offered much wisdom for me over the coming months. I learned a lot about myself and how I viewed others before I came to UNC. I think that God set me up to have a much more open heart and He also solidified my thoughts on becoming a teacher.
When I began school at Chapel Hill, I thought I wasn’t going to find a strong Christian community because of its liberal identity. What I found was the exact opposite – a group of students and leaders so in love with the Lord that I couldn’t help but want what they had. I was baptized on September 28, 2014 at the Summit Church where I found a campus filled with college students that would gather to hear the Truth poured out over them. I joined CRU, a campus ministry with a wide variety of believers with very different stories that have come together to share the joy they have in the Lord. I went through the school year with a more open mind than I have ever had before. Sure, I had struggles, and I still do to this present day, but I was able to find a support network of friends and mentors that kept me accountable and helped me grow in my relationship with Christ.
The biggest turning point this year came during the CRU Women’s Beach Retreat in Wilmington in March. This weekend was three days filled with fellow female believers all sharing and relishing the community which God had placed us in. On the final day, there was a time when we participated in an activity called “Stand Up for your Sister,” which consisted of anonymous admittance to certain sin and brokenness. The vulnerability that this group of 150 girls had and were willing to share became so clear to me in that room. After this activity, we had a sharing time where people would relay things that they had learned or experienced during the time at the beach. One after another, girls would stand up and reveal different sin they had been harboring, affirming even more our brokenness. Jesus was giving me an opportunity to lift the shameful emotions I had that morning. I stood up in front of those girls and leaders and admitted that I had been suffering from same sex attraction issues. I can’t tell you the weight that was lifted that day or the outpouring of love and support I received from my sisters. It was too much to put into words.
I am broken. I am not perfect, and I never will be. I need a Savior just as much as the next person. I can see now that Jesus gave me my struggles to work for His good (Romans 8:28). He never said this life would be easy. He actually tells us blatantly in John 16:33 that we are going to have troubles in this life. BUT, Jesus follows this statement by saying, “But take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Not only did Jesus want me to reveal my struggles that day to provide me some relief, but He has shown me now that He wants me to help others that are enduring hardships as well. He also revealed some pride that I never knew I had. At a church conference I attended in September 2014, Elise Fitzpatrick said something that struck a chord in me, saying that believers had the right to come to Jesus after sinning and say, “Sorry, I will do better next time.” She said that this was inherently selfish, and that the whole purpose for repentance was to come to the Cross acknowledging that we as sinners will never be able to “do better next time.” Jesus is perfect, and He is what covers our sin, not ourselves. In hindsight, by keeping my struggles to myself and my immediate circle, I was not allowing others to help me carry my burden as God instruct us to do. I am so incredibly humbled every single day by the promise that God says we can “cast our anxieties upon Him” (1 Peter 5:7). He loves me, He cares about me, and is always there for me. He provided me with the amazing community I found at UNC, and I am eternally grateful for the Savior I have in Jesus. Without Him, I can do nothing, but with Him, nothing is impossible.
I still experience the struggles I do with my obsessions over same sex attraction and sexuality in general. I am not sharing my struggles to take a specific stance on homosexuality or same sex relationships. I am sharing this because I want to show that I have a Savior that loved me enough to bring me out of a pit of despair, lifted me up to my feet, looked me in the eye, and said, “I love you enough to get you through this. I give you trials so that you may grow in perseverance” (James 1:12). This love that surpasses all of my human ability of understanding is the only reason I am able to love others and be loved by them as well (1 John 4:7).
I spent so many years placing my identity into things – swimming, others’ opinions of me, my singing ability, etc. – that only brought me temporary personal satisfaction. Now, I realize my identity is not of this world. I am a daughter of the King of the Universe (HOW COOL IS THAT!?!). This year, God has really stressed the message in the story of the woman at the well from John 4. She was considered the lowest of the low socially and was seeking her worth in men. Jesus came to her and told her that she must begin to retrieve water from the “living water” of Christ. This is such beautiful imagery to me- when I draw water from the well of God, I am made clean, pure, and whole. I was drawing water from other wells that would turn up dry because they did not have the water necessary to sustain life. Jesus is my strength, and I now realize I “lack nothing” when I pursue Him (Psalm 34:9).
So as I continue to move forward in this life, I will “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” I will fix my eyes “on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Despite everything that I have been through, I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). A beautiful God made me beautiful through His selfless sacrifice of His son.
I am beautifully made. I am broken. I am beautifully broken.
WOW. Absolutely wow. The emotions were just pouring off the page weren’t they? I don’t know about you, but if I saw anything through her words, it was her strength. So thankful to know this woman who is beautiful on the inside and out. Do you have anything that you’d like to say to her? Comment below!
PS. If her words encouraged you to share your own testimony, click here to send yours or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hanha Parham is a Christian author and speaker. Her personal mission is to provide the millennial woman with fun and practical resources that help them confidently believe who God has called them to be. When she is not encouraging others or writing her heart out, she enjoys watching Grey’s Anatomy, drinking iced chai lattes from Starbucks, and connecting with friends on Instagram. Come say hi!