We Live in Two Worlds

woman-1207671_1280The holidays have been hard this year. In reality, they have been hard for many years, but this year I am self-aware enough to realize that I am struggling, to understand why I am struggling, and to roll with it rather than get confused and worked into a tizzy about it. My mantra this year has been “I officially hate the holidays, but I will continue to wear my snowman socks in full faith that one year I will enjoy all of this again”.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the holidays can be a wee bit of a trigger for those that are in active addiction. So, having lived through many a holiday season with an active user has dampened my ability to experience the wonder and joy of this blessed season.

I actually understand that to be the reason for my holiday blues this year, but in years past, I have been confused by it and spiraled out into weird behaviors that seemed like coping but really only made things worse. Even with this year’s self-awareness, I found myself responding to things with more of an edge than I intended to have. I intended to have no edge at all in the things I have said, but the Grinch still found his way into my words or tone.

Despite all the grumpitude (the word we use in my house for grumpy with a side of attitude), the newfound self-awareness also let me really see the long view of my life. I have been able to understand how completely chaotic and awful things were years ago, how much better things are now, how much better I AM now, how I have really changed in about a million microscopic ways that make the pace seem slow, how much work is left to do on myself, and still how far there is to travel.

But having the ability to see the long view keeps me grounded in reality. Honestly, it is where my hope lives. Trauma has kept me shortsighted and focused only on survival for a very long time. To finally be free of it to the point of being able to see a future again is a huge deal. To have hope again is a blessing beyond words.

If you believe in spiritual warfare, then you will understand that this newfound hope has been under attack. I wish I could tell you that I have handled it like a warrior champion, but mostly I’ve learned that I need a thicker skin.

A few weeks ago, I received feedback along the lines of my “inconsistency, lack of structure, and chaos” is the reason for all my troubles and all my family’s troubles. I attempted to explain the trauma history and the progress made, but as is often the case, I was treated like I was making excuses and subsequently dismissed.

I chewed on this feedback for a long time, because there is truth to it. I know that healing from trauma takes time, and therefore, the chaos is still present even if it is there to a lesser degree. As I chewed on it, I recognized a pattern in my personality: nothing will light a fire in me like the opportunity to prove that I have been misjudged. I decided to recognize the huge gap in this person’s perspective of my life. This person only saw where I am now and clearly was not interested in learning about where I came from or how far I have come. I was not going to receive validation for the hell I had already conquered from this person, so I gave that validation to myself. And I used the fire ignited by the feedback to simply move myself farther along the path of self-improvement that I was already working on.

Then yesterday, as I was shopping for a few things to spruce up and help organize our house, my daughter started lighting into me. She has taken to lecturing me about how I should behave, and these conversations have often ended with me issuing one of the clichés of motherhood: “because I am the mother” or “because I said so”. But this time, she said something that was a true knife to the heart, because it was clear that she was repeating something that she had heard from someone else. She ended her little rant with “you need to start acting like a real grown-up”.

Having been somewhat prepped for this by my last experience with negative feedback, I chewed on this for only a few hours rather than a few weeks. Again, I have to remind myself that only I know where I have been, where I am now, and where I am going. I cannot expect everyone to see, understand, or validate my experience. All I can do is keep on going and doing the next right thing, understanding that the people who want to know the truth about me will stick around long enough to figure it out.

But, none of that did anything to satisfy my ever growing concern about the 2 worlds my little family lives in and how it is influencing my child. I often think about how different my daughter’s experiences would be if we were really living a life that was congruent with our resources and circumstances.

My daughter goes to a private school that I will never be able to pay for. She is surrounded by dual-income families with high-paying, professional jobs that have many more resources than I do. She spends her afternoons, play dates, and birthday parties in homes much bigger, newer, and nicer than our home. She has and is developing expectations of me and of our life based what she sees all around her. When she returns to our home and to the limited time and financial resources of the single parent, I do not measure up. And in her child-like honesty, she lets me know it.

It begs the question, would my daughter have a greater appreciation of me if we were surrounded by families that looked more like our family? If she attended a public school and was immersed in a community where everyone, much like her own mother, was creatively using their limited resources to put together a life for their kids, would she have a different perspective of what “a real grown up is”? Would she be more grateful and hard-working instead of demanding and entitled if she saw that there were a whole lot of other parents holding life together with their teeth and fingernails?

I don’t have any answers for any of these questions. Maybe I just needed to vent, because the pressure in this culture to live up to THE CHILD’S expectations is REAL. When did that insanity happen?! And I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I know full well that we are supremely blessed by the people in our lives and the school my daughter attends, and I do not take that for granted even a little bit. Certainly, I don’t want to deprive my child of anything that is beneficial to her development. Yet, the truth remains that our reality is very different than the life we lead, and it is setting up some serious future conflicts between my daughter and I.

I’m really not railing at the problems in our culture, community, or families; I am railing at my own participation in what I know to be the less-than-healthy parts of our world. I have fed into “entitlement culture” as much as the next girl. But I have also come to a place in my life where I accept the fact that there is nothing in my life or happening in my life that I have not allowed. I have also accepted the slowness of the pace of my recovery in a world that keeps telling me that I’m not doing enough fast enough. Having lost the majority of my possessions to trauma, I no longer place any sentiment in things and am truly content with living simply. My child, on the other hand, is another story. My point being, I have accepted the fact that my life is going to look different to the majority of people and that I will always be doing battle with the ways people perceive me to be counter-cultural or “a little bit off”. I’m ok with that.

Needless to say, if a fire was ignited in me with the first feedback, then the second feedback has fueled that fire into an inferno. Things are going to change in this family. I can’t yet say how or when, but I know through prayer, the answers will come.

Redemption in Divorce

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If I had remained married, today would have been my anniversary. This day has become like the New Year’s holiday to me, because I tend to reflect deeply about the time that has passed and the time that lies before me. I do not set goals like I may choose to do for a New Year, and I guess this is where my holiday analogy would move toward Thanksgiving. On this day, I find myself so very, very thankful and deeply humbled at the redemption the Lord has brought to my life, which leads to a story that I haven’t shared with many people until this moment.

When my marriage reached the pinnacle of insanity, I dug into my Bible looking for answers. At least, I thought I was looking for answers, but I was really looking for justifications. I was using what I was reading in the Bible to prop up my own insane thinking and to justify continued efforts to ignore all the very obvious evidence that my child and I were in very real danger. I would pray for protection, for 10,000 angels to form a protective perimeter around my house, but I would not leave. I would not leave, because “God hates divorce”, “the husband is the head of the wife”, and “wives obey your husbands” (that was my ex-husband’s favorite) and all those other scriptures, not to mention all the Christian judgments that have become so deeply ingrained in some sectors of Christian culture that they are mistaken as scriptures, were perpetuating the same cycle of shame as the abuse I was enduring. I was trapped by “my faith”. My ex-husband knew it and I knew, and he exploited it for all that he could.

It was not long until I reached a place of such deep mental and emotional anguish that I cried out to God from a place so deep in my soul that I never knew it existed. And you know what, He answered me. Clear as day, He answered me with, “If you will trust me to lead you out of this, I will give it all back to you. Family, friends, everything that you’ve lost will be restored to you”. In that moment, scenes from the last year of my life flashed across my mind, and I recognized them as opportunities God had put before me to escape that I hadn’t taken.

You might think that I packed us up and hit the road right then, but I did not. Trust was not something I was in possession of at that time. My head was all messed up, and I had a long history of poor judgment to prove it. Trusting God to lead me out of that deep hole was out of the question at that time, but like Gideon and so many others, I kept asking for confirmation. I bought a little notebook at the dollar store and carried it around in my bag everywhere I went. All day long for months and months, I would write my prayers and questions for God in my notebook, and when those answers came, I wrote them in my notebook too. In this way, I started building trust with God. He started giving me small successes that helped me begin to trust my judgment again.

That process played out for a year or so, and I finally did leave. And you know what? Only 2 people threw the whole “God hates divorce” thing up at me. One of them was my ex-husband and one of them was another man who had chosen to exit my life for the entire 8 months of my divorce process, and therefore knew next to nothing about what was going on but chose to levy his opinion against me the week that my divorce was final. It makes me wonder what those 2 men have in common that out of all the people who knew the scenario, from professional counselors to preachers to close friends and family, that only those 2 men expressed eerily similar opinions that had I followed them would have kept me in danger. It begs the question: what compels us to use the Bible the way we do, much like a shield to hide our secret sins? But this I know without a doubt: everyone’s secret sin will be exposed at one point or another. All houses built on sand eventually fall. I’ve spent years crawling out of my own collapsed house of sand, learning what true repentance means, trying to show my family and friends that I understand and take full responsibility for the ways that I went wrong, and that I intend to spend every day of the rest of my life following the path that God has laid out for me.

With that being said, let’s go back to the promise God gave me the day that I stood in the bedroom of my beach duplex, face to the ceiling, crying out for relief. The best part of today is looking back and counting the ways He has been faithful to that promise over the years. The first year, I won the right to move out of state from the Florida Court. The next year, I accepted a job that would allow me to support my little family. This year, May Lee and I moved into our very own home. And that is just the “big” stuff! I see His promise answered in some small way just about every week, whether its rekindling relationships that were lost to the chaos of my marriage and divorce, new relationships that have come into my life, advances at work, being able to enjoy experiences that I never thought I would be able to have again, and being able to dust off and reignite talents that have been dormant under the heavy frost of trauma for so long.

All of those things are so very awesome, and I will admit that I am amazed and deeply humbled every time I recognize a new layer of His promise coming to fruition. But I think the best part is yet to come. Some day, when someone else’s sandcastle collapses and all their secret sin is revealed to what feels like the entire world, I’ll be there to help them dig out the way only someone who has had the same experience can. One day, my story is going to help someone else see the light at the end of the tunnel, as well as the light of the One who wants to restore everything they have lost. That will be a great day, my friends. Who knows, maybe that will be one of the experiences I’ll be sharing with you a year from today. Either way, today I trust in His promise fully. I trust the instincts and ability to use good judgment that He has restored to health within me, and I know that goodness and adventure lie ahead.

AMEN.

A Word About Grief

By trade, I am a therapist- the mental health kind- and I have spent many years studying, observing, and theorizing about human behavior. Since grief is an inevitable part of the human experience, it has been a theme of study and practice throughout my career. Every culture, every group, and every family has its own beliefs, rituals, and traditions surrounding loss, dying, and death, and they serve an important purpose in the survival of that group.

Grief and loss signal to a family or group that it is time to circle the wagons, to move closer together, to conserve and share resources, and to work for the benefit of the entire group. There is a kind of unity inside of grief that is not experienced during any other time. At least, that is what a healthy grieving process looks like. I think about the atmosphere of unity in grief that our country experienced during the days following September 11th with all of the amazing stories of humanity transcending one of its darkest hours with faith, resilience, and bold acts of generosity and kindness. People worked sacrificially to meet each other’s needs, because everyone knew instinctively that it was time to take care of each other. It was time to circle the wagons and people didn’t wait for instructions on what to do or worry about how others may perceive their actions, they simply acted.

September 11th was a trauma to all of us, and we are learning more and more that trauma is inter-generational. That means that even the kiddos that were born years later are subject to the repercussions of the original trauma. We know that in families, the effects of trauma often result in addictive behaviors, even several generations away from the original trauma. The addictive behaviors serve the purpose of avoiding the pain associated with trauma, and it blocks the natural and healthy process of grief and recovery.

When I look at our country today, I see unresolved trauma and a pattern of addiction. The trauma of 9/11 was so great that the stress still runs through our veins. At some point in our collective grieving process, fear was able to weave a destructive web around our hearts and minds. With each new tragedy, large or small, our collective nervous system was overwhelmed and unable to manage the heartache of a new loss. We retreated to whatever soothed us, to whatever temporarily numbed the pain. Then the next tragedy occurred and we again retreated to our self-soothing mechanisms, and this cycle has played out so many times that we don’t even need to retreat any more. At this point in the cycle of our collective addiction, there is no one left in the middle to retreat outward when tragedy strikes. Everyone is now permanently spread out, isolating in their sanctuaries of false security, and attempting to communicate with each other by shouting across the divides.

Friends, what happens when the wagons aren’t circled but are spread far and wide with no form of effective communication? The answer should make your blood run cold, because you know the cost is high and the loss of life is imminent.  If we want to survive, we can no longer allow our first response to tragedy to be debates over policy. Don’t get me wrong, the social activist in me loves a good policy debate, but I truly believe that our retreat behind policy is taking the human element out of the tragedy. It is our drug, numbing the pain and heartache so we don’t have to feel it anymore.

Like everyone else, I don’t have answers or fixes for the senseless tragedies that our country continues to experience week after week, but I do know that collectively we are trauma-weary and coping in an unhealthy way. I also know that without unity we will be devoured, either by our own unhealthy pattern or by an outside force that we are now too unhealthy to defend against. It could be that those first steps toward unity may lie in allowing ourselves to grieve together once again. If we grieve together as one nation, we will not be washed away by the sadness. We will transcend as we draw closer and are able to really hear each other again.

Friends, it is time to circle the wagons.