23 November 2015

signs of the divine

I could take a really long time to tell about the depths of despair that I experienced through nine years of darkness, but it might get a little redundant.  It was a hard, black, scary, lonely time.  Yet I have to tell you, I was never alone.  When I felt darkest, inevitably, I would glimpse a flicker of light, hear a whisper of hope to keep me going.

Years ago, at the very beginning of this process, I went looking for a phone charm for my cell phone.  In the entire store, I found exactly one charm, and it was a scripture reference, Jeremiah 29:11, which says, "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  I had no idea at the time that I'd be in this process for so, so long, but it was already looking bleak.  Though I wasn't looking for hope, God sent it to me.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I reached a point where I couldn't sing, a devastating time for me.  Music has always been the way I most meaningfully connect with God, and when I could no longer feel song in me, I was lost, completely adrift.  I still listened to music, though, and I remember dreaming to a song one early morning, waking in tears.  The dream showed me that in my most unguarded state, I was still able to connect with God, and it gave me hope for future wholeness.  

When I felt unloved and ugly, I heard words of boundless love all summer long, through songs and scriptures.  

When I struggled to believe I was personally known and loved by the Creator of the universe, I began to hear a theme everywhere, of God knowing my name.

In this way, God gently and continually brought me through the darkest night of my soul.  He pursued me when I wandered, led me as I trudged the weary path, carried me when I was too tired to move, held me when I was shattered with pain.  In this way, he brought me to Light.

And he still does this even today.

14 November 2015

what not to say

One of the things that has sometimes been hurtful along the way, is the well-meaning comments when people hear bits and pieces of my story.  I get it:  it's hard and awkward to hear deep pain from others.  Most of us have people in our lives who have experienced loss and pain.  I mean, what do you say to someone who's lost a child?  A husband?  What do you say to someone who has been raped?  Fled from an abusive spouse?  What do you say to someone who confesses that they have wanted to hurt their children in a moment of rage?  Someone who tells you they live with a mental illness?  It's hard!

I don't have the answers, really.  All I can do is speak from my experience.

So, one of the things I've mentioned that I struggle with is low self-esteem.  I can't count how many times I've felt dismissed with, "oh, me too!"  or "yeah, every woman struggles with that..." or similar sentiments.  Sometimes the responses are spiritual:  "you need to see yourself as God sees you!"  or "just tell yourself the Truth!"  Some people give self-help pep talks:  "you're beautiful just the way you are!" "accept yourself!"

Another feeling I've never been able to shake is this feeling of 'otherness.'  And when I've talked about it, again, I've heard all sorts of well-meaning things:  "everyone feels that way sometimes;" "you have a great group of friends!" "we love you!" "you're part of us!"

Oh friends, we mean well when we throw out these platitudes or commiserative comments.  We want our friends and fellow humans to know they are not alone, to feel better.  But listen...let's stop.  Let's think.  Let's even pray, if we believe God hears and answers us.  Let's listen to the heart underneath words of pain.  Because here's what I'm talking about when I say low self-esteem:  I'm talking about a 2-year old who is horrified to be wearing a bikini in public because her belly button is showing (read: she thinks her body is ugly).  I'm talking about a tiny 7-year old who can't bring herself to wear a dress whose fabric she adores, because she thinks she looks pregnant (read: fat).  That is NOT 'normal' low self-esteem, folks.  And when I talk about this feeling of 'otherness,' it's not that I feel left out or not a part of things.  I feel like I'm alien, like I'm not even of the same genetic make up, or like I'm observing from outside my body.  I feel like I'm unwelcome everywhere, barely tolerated, like I'm completely forgotten when I'm out of sight, completely locked out of community (I have heard this 'otherness' feeling is often experienced by adult survivors of abuse).  And when I have received pep talks, spiritual thoughts, and platitudes, I've walked away shredding myself, because there has to be something wrong with me for not being able to believe the right things about myself or rise above these 'normal feelings' that everybody has.

Hear me, friends:  I've not arrived; I am guilty of speaking too quickly way too often!  But here's what happened one time, years ago:  a dear friend's husband received a cancer diagnosis, and she came to use our computer to send word to friends and family (we lived overseas at the time).  I did not know what to say!  I felt awkward and awful.  I sat beside her saying nothing at all, and she didn't say anything either.  After awhile, she got up to go back home, so I stood with her and gave her a hug.  When she left, I felt terrible that I hadn't offered words of hope or care - I didn't even offer prayers or condolences!  I felt like a failure as a friend, and as a Christian.  But a couple of years later, she mentioned that NOT speaking was the best thing I could have done, that she felt comforted and cared for in the silence.

This is not to say everyone is the same.  I'm just saying, please:  be quick to listen, and SLOW to speak.  And when you do speak, a simple, heartfelt "I'm so sorry" goes a long way.  Less is more.

09 November 2015

"saved"...from what?

Reading a few posts back, I realized that for people who don't know much about the Christian faith, talk of being "saved" must be pretty nebulous.  Let me take just a minute to explain what being saved means to me.

As I have mentioned before, at the core of the Christian faith is relationship, between God and humanity.  As a Christian, I believe that through Adam and Eve, our covenant with God was broken, and a new covenant was made between humanity and Satan.  Satan is the enemy of God and man, and will do everything in his power to turn people from God, because God's greatest desire is to restore relationship with us.

Traditionally, Christians, along with those of several other faiths, believe the soul is eternal.  This means that when you "die" physically, you don't actually Die; there is an afterlife that goes on forever.

You've probably heard of heaven and hell.  What I've learned growing up as a believer in Jesus is that if a person physically dies, having rejected the gift of salvation that God freely offers, that person will go to hell, but whoever accepts the gift of salvation, procured through Jesus' death on the cross, will go to heaven when they die.  Hell, usually depicted as a burning pit with a red, horned, pitchfork-wielding devil in attendance, would probably be better described as eternity separated from God.  Heaven, then, is eternity spent with God.

So, I believe that everything good comes from God, and that heaven is living in restored relationship with him forever, healed and whole.  I live in hope that the broken pieces and scars that I live with in this present, earthly life, will be made beautiful and new.  I picture hell as a place that's utterly void of good.  This means, no party in hell, folks.  Instead, all the depression, pain, self-loathing, evil, despair, and ugliness of this life just continues, magnified 1,000 times over, with no hope of ever getting better.

When you hear a Christian talk about being saved from their sins, there's a good chance they are talking about this restoration of relationship with God and the confidence that they will go to heaven rather than hell after this life.  God longs to be reconciled to all people, and offers this reconciliation with an open hand to anyone who wants it.

Anyway, I'm no theologian, but I hope this little post is helpful to anyone who has wondered what Christians mean when they say they are "saved!"

07 November 2015

hope sealed

25 July/10

The past four years have been long, hard, and painful. Hope has been a gossamer thread, spun so thin that I've questioned its very life.

My life, my relationships - with God and others - have been ruled by performance. It seems like one of my life goals has been to do things well and right. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, I suppose, but when it becomes supreme, it is destructive. Unconditional love has been offered, but I have not been able to see and receive it.

Though hope has been fragile, it has not died. Somehow it has continued, woven within my tapestry, sometimes so deeply that even very close inspection of the fabric does not yield a glimpse. Yet, it remains.

I have borne, and continue to bear, much pain. I have been surrounded by blackness and despair. I am consumed by self-loathing. I long to destroy myself. I have wished for death.

I have tried to slip from the tight bonds of performance these past years; I have cut myself, cut my hair, pushed people away, deprived myself of nutrients, and done the things I've always wanted to. Somehow, by being "bad", I might understand unconditional love and acceptance.

Today I got a tattoo that symbolizes these themes. In my legalistic world, a tattoo is the embodiment of "bad" or "rebellion". Yet it clings to the possibility that there may yet be healing. rest. joy. acceptance. It represents the stand I take: the choice to live, the choice to cherish hope.

© July/10

05 November 2015

thoughts on suicide

I'd like to take a moment to talk about suicide.  I know, this is a loaded topic!  The word alone induces pain, anger, grief, and confusion; it's a difficult subject.  Carefully, I want to address suicide from the "healthy" perspective and the "suicidal" perspective, because I've lived on both sides.

Looking back, I realize that I battled anxiety and depression throughout my whole life, but it took different forms than your typical "panic attacks" when I was a child.  It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized many of my childhood migraines, "flu bugs", and belly aches were actually anxiety and depression.  By the time I was a teenager, my bouts with depression looked more typical, but I was a Christian, and as many people believe, Christians simply don't get depressed if they have enough faith!  Let me just say right now that I believe this is a bunch of malarkey!  Christians don't have a corner on the mental health market.  We are just as broken as every other human on the planet, just as affected by the broken world we all live in.

Anyway, I was probably around 17 when I first "seriously" contemplated suicide.  I carried deep, unexplained sadness, terrible self-esteem, and even back then, I felt like I failed all the time.  I went as far as to dump a large bottle of Tylenol in my robe pocket, so that if I decided I couldn't live anymore, I would have something at the ready, in my room.  What stopped me then was worry about whomever would find me, how hard and painful it would be for them.

For a long time, I felt pretty virtuous about myself for caring so much about my loved ones.  When I would hear about successful suicides, I confess: I judged, even as I tried to be compassionate.  I thought I understood pain, and I thought suicide was a selfish way out, a coward's way.  Like many people, I felt angry that people could hurt their families and loved ones that way.

And then.

Let me tell you, all those years, I did not understand.  I was speaking out of my vast ignorance.  And during my nine year valley, I was educated in an up-close and personal way.

I reached a terrible point in my life when I absolutely COULD NOT care about how I affected my family, or what my death would do to them.  I could not care about being a coward, or about being selfish.  I was so wracked with deep emotional pain. It was overwhelming, consuming, debilitating, crushing, even physical.  Suicide was, for the first time in my life, a truly viable option in my mind.  I wish I could explain this place to people who haven't been there...and I know there are readers who have a deep knowing in this area.

I am so sorry, dear one, if you are one of those people who know exactly what I'm talking about here.  Please, hold on.  Hope reigns, friend, even when you can't see it.

There was no thinking about who would find me during that time.  Daily, hourly, I would think of ways to kill myself.  I collected and saved extra prescription drugs.  I went online to see which drugs were most effective and how they interacted.  I sat with my car running in the garage and wondered how long it would take for it to fill with poisonous gas.  I toyed with the idea of driving my car into cliffs.  I wanted to die.

I would be dead, if not for the abiding love of my Jesus, who carried me in the palm of his hand even when I couldn't feel him, couldn't see him, couldn't hear him.  I would be dead, if not for prescription medication that brought me enough relief that I could at least stay alive.  I would be dead, if not for several people who would make me promise not to hurt myself, to contact them if I got to the point where I was ready to do something permanent to myself.  I would scoff and say, "ok, fine," while thinking to myself, who cares what I say to them?  they are so stupid!  if I'm dead, what does it matter what I told them? - but apparently, many of us want to keep our word, even in such a dark place, and extracting promises like that is actually an effective means of preventing suicide.  

It was a slow journey up out of that pit.  I finally reached a point of decision where I made a commitment within myself, not to make myself die.  This did not mean life was wonderful.  I prayed every day for so long, after that decision, that God would let me die.  God had other plans, however, and I'm still here.

Honestly, heaven still looks better to me than this life.  But since I'm here, I share this hard journey with as many people as I can, because in the end, there's the matchless grace of Jesus that somehow makes this life bearable.  Ah, friends, he longs to share this grace with you!  As long as I'm alive, I have to speak it.

03 November 2015

the continued road to grace

So I grew up carrying the impossible responsibility of perfection.  Of course I failed constantly, which fed depression, self-loathing, and fear:  if I could never measure up, how could I be a good wife, a good mother, an acceptable Christ follower?

Understanding God's extravagant grace toward us was an incrementally slow process for me, beginning only when I sank into the long, nine-year valley of trauma recovery.  I gradually dropped all the balls I was juggling.  I stopped cleaning my house.  I stopped cooking meals for my family.  I stopped baking bread and treats for them.  I stopped making lunches for my husband to take to work each day.  We were a homeschooling family, and my children shouldered more and more responsibility for their schooling.  I began to suffer from insomnia.  I could no longer be available for people, which was something I had felt gave me value in the past.  I stopped planning get-togethers with friends and stopped going to activities.  I gave the bare minimum to teaching homeschool co-op classes and youth group, which were activities I had committed to and was unable to extricate myself from.  Physical intimacy with my husband became emotionally pain-filled to the point of being unable to even think about it.

I reached a point where I couldn't pray, couldn't read my Bible, couldn't sing (and because I breathe song, this was particularly devastating for me).  I was so, so tired of doing for God!  Spiritually, I was like dry bones; my soul was an utter wasteland.  I decided that I couldn't -wouldn't- be a Christian anymore if the life I was living was all there was.  I had a deep, abiding longing for MORE, but I never felt fulfilled and I thought it was because of my continual failure to "be a better Christian;" I had come to a point of knowing I would never be able to be better.   Add to all these failings, the "bad" behaviours I had begun - self-harm and disordered eating - and well, I met despair.

A journal entry from June/08 describes where I was:
I feel like I'm teetering on a precipice. Never in my life have I actually wanted to walk away from Christianity, until now. I've never even considered it before. Now it's a very real open door that I've never faced, never imagined. I just. don't. care. about living a Christian life anymore. It's not that I would jump off the deep end and go crazy-bad or's just that I would stop trying hard to be what I'm "supposed" to be, I guess. I'd just live and God wouldn't really factor in anymore. It would be nice to be finished with this wrestling.

And then there's the other side of the precipice, the side that is familiar as breathing to me, the side I've been on since age four. A small part of me (feels like it's getting smaller all the time) cries out to leap off the precipice, to be freed from the things that weigh me down and fly into God's arms with abandon. The weights feel like they are chained to me: fear, mistrust, anger, pride, pain, cynicism. I don't know how to be free of them. As soon as I see a glimmer of blue sky, black storm clouds billow in and blind me.

Oh, GRACE is coming, friends!  GRACE! so abundant, extravagant, and freeing.  Keep traveling the long way with me!