Elli Johnson Poetry

The most dangerous question.

I want to tell you about the most dangerous question.

And when I say dangerous I mean; difficult, contested, threatened but ultimately life-giving question.

It is a question I have been asking myself for the past couple of years on a regular basis. I am ill-equipped to answer it.

The question:

What do you want?

Or, as I ask myself,

What do I want?

This question shouldn’t be hard. I know for lots of people it isn’t. Most (not all admittedly, but most) men dont seem to struggle with this question. And I have numerous female friends who don’t have to pause for a second before clearly articulating what they want. But for me, it is about the hardest question you could ask.

I was brought up in an incredibly loving and in many ways wonderful, passionately evangelical Christian household. I have parents who are still together nearly 50 years on. I have three great sisters who all live within an hour of me who I also get to call my friends. In so many ways, I have been amazingly fortunate. I need to say this first. I want to honour the good.

However being brought up in a devoutly evangelical home imprinted itself on me in other ways which in recent years I began to notice have separated me from myself.

The church I was raised in was progressive for its time. Women were allowed to preach and even be on the leadership team. I never heard anyone say that women were not allowed to do… pretty much anything. Women were encouraged to lead, to speak, to pray.

But the majority of the time, most of the women still served. Served on the hospitality team, served in the kids work. As in many other organisation that work to promote equality, the language changes first. It can take a long time for behaviour to follow suit. I was raised in the community of the church which meant I was in and out of the houses of others in the church. Here it was the women who prepared meals, who cleaned and looked after the children. It was the men who had ‘important’ jobs, who earned the money, who had the status out there in the world. These men needed their wives to support and care for them.

I was raised in a household that believed the man was the head of the household. Despite my teenage left leanings and feminist beliefs, I didn’t question this. When I got married I vowed to, ‘love, honour and obey’. It had been repeated to me often that although Paul (in the Bible) tells women to obey their husbands, the corresponding command for husbands was to love their wives like Christ loved the church, meaning they should sacrifice (be crucified) for their wives. I was told I had the better deal. Easier to obey than die.

The patriarchy infiltrated my mind in thin threads, like the grey hairs now appearing on my head. One by one, over time I don’t really notice them but one day I will be a silver fox: the grey will have taken over. The threads of the patriarchy wove their way through my thinking, tying me in knots.

I married young. I knew nothing. The man I married is a good man. I am very fortunate. But when you marry young with ideas about two becoming one, you can merge yourself so much into someone else you lose yourself all together.

I didn’t notice it happening because as Ferris Bueller famously said, “life moves pretty fast.” My twenties were a blur of trying to be the person I thought I was meant to be. This person wasn’t necessarily me, but it was someone others would have admired. I didn’t even really think about whether I was moving towards or away from my true self, I didnt really know that was a thing. I just kept on keeping on, trying to be all the things I thought I should be. Committed and active at church, part of a large community of friends, having a quiet time, being a good Mum, working on a career, thin, keeping a clean, organised and preferably stylish home, making nutritionally balanced meals. I read books like ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, and ‘The Success Principles’.

At 30, as I have written about many times, I had a breakdown and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I finally realised those horrible moments that kept happening were panic attacks. I was not coping.

I said to my therapist once that depression is like a slow degradation or disintegration of a sense of self. That was how it  was for me. By the time I was 30, I was all at sea. I had no idea who I was.

How are you meant to move from this place to knowing what it is you want from your one wild, precious life?

Somewhere in my teenage years I had stopped asking myself what I wanted and started trying to be someone I thought I should be. In my early 30s as I started to recover I regularly asked myself – how do I find me again?

Ten years on, I am still working on it. There has been so much to unpick, so many beliefs to challenge, so many mindsets to challenge. The patriarchy, the church, the media have all played their part in telling me who I should be. I have been working to silence these voices and find who I am so I can as myself:

What do I want?

I wrote a poem about how these ideas manifested themselves and had consequences in my marriage. It wasn’t pretty.


I want to apologise for all the times I made it your fault

that I didn’t know what I wanted.


For how I filled my time with things that could be done around the house and for the kids

because I didn’t know and so couldn’t say

what my heart longed for.

And I blamed you

as though you were stopping me from fulfilling my dreams.


You weren’t,

I just didn’t know how to think, or ask, or say or demand

and it was easier to get busy and blame you

than recognise my ignorance.

In my new book, You Don’t Have To Do It All, I touch on this idea. I use a story to illustrate it about my friend ordering pizza. I’d like to share it with you now:
“I am sat in a cafe with two friends. Both wives, both Mothers. One tells us a story.

She has been out for dinner with her husband and their kids and in this particular restaurant the deal of the day means they are all going to get their own individual pizzas. The waitress comes to the table. The kids and her husband order and then it is her turn. My friend orders the vegetarian pizza. Her husband, of nearly twenty years, looks surprised.

“Why are you ordering that? You never order vegetarian!”

She tells him she is ordering it because it is her favourite. He (her husband of, let’s repeat this, TWENTY YEARS) didn’t know what her favourite was because every time they ate pizza she had prioritised her husband and their three children. For twenty years she had ordered one meat feast, and one ham and pineapple because that suited the rest of her family.

To re-iterate.

Her husband didn’t know vegetarian pizza was her favourite because she had never ordered it. She had been deferential, flexible. She had minimised her desires so the desires of those she loved were met.”

Sound familiar to you at all?
If it does, and you have been feeling overwhelmed you might appreciate reading You Don’t Have To Do It All.
You can order a copy here:


If you haven’t read my first book you can buy You Don’t Have To Do It All, with my first book, How Not To Be Good ( a memoir about living with anxiety) for a discounted price here:


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