27 October 2015

on the road to grace

As children grow, they go through different developmental stages, and one of the early stages is the belief that you, alone, affect your environment.  Young children are completely self-centred, little gods and goddesses, if you will:  "my world revolves around me."  This is a natural part of the developmental process, and children obviously (or hopefully!) grow out of this stage as they begin to understand that outside, uncontrollable forces have an impact on them.

As such, very young children who have been affected by trauma naturally assume (not cognitively) that they are responsible for the things that happen to them - whether it's abuse, natural disaster, parental discord, death in the family, etc.  For me, this translated into "in order to keep my world safe, I need to be a good girl," and when bad things continued to happen, "I am not being good enough."  And so, a perfectionist was born.  This affected all areas of my life:  as I grew older, I tried to be helpful at home, at school I was a diligent student, I took on leadership roles, went to church and youth group, etc.

It deeply permeated my relationship with God.  I was a wee girl when I decided to "ask Jesus into my heart."  If you are not a believer in Christ, let me explain in a very short nutshell (you'll have to read the Bible to get the big picture!).  At the heart of Christianity, there is relationship.  God created man for relationship, but man decided God could not be trusted and went his own way, which is sin, thus breaking his relationship with God.  God can't abide sin, because he is JUST...but he is also LOVE, and so he made a way to redeem us, to bring us back to relationship with him.  Rather than give up on us, Jesus came to stand in our stead, to take the consequences of sin - because justice demands payment for disobeying the law.  The Bible says that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).  So Jesus lived a perfect life and died the terrible death of a criminal (read about crucifixion; it's one of the cruelest ways to kill someone), and then, miraculously, he rose again, which conquered death and fulfilled justice's demand.  Christians believe that "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9).  This "saving" is a free gift, and we can do nothing to earn it.  All we can do, really, is open our hands and accept it.

So, I accepted this gift when I was four.  However, rather than accepting the gift of salvation in the heart of grace with which it was offered, I accepted out of fear.  I was well acquainted with JUST God, but not so much with the other side of the coin, the God who LOVES.  So, with all my little heart, I set out to please this exacting God who demanded a pure heart, right living, and faithful service.  I longed for acceptance and love but never felt that I was good enough to earn it, not understanding that God already loved me completely, just the way I was.  I grew up reading the Bible, going to church, hearing all the verses in the Bible that talk about God's deep, personal love and abiding grace for us, but it simply did not compute.  I had no concept of being loved as Jes, an individual; rather, I had a vague idea that God loved me as part of creation, as part of the masses.

As a perfectionist, I could never, never measure up to the perfect standard.  My earliest picture of God was of tiny me standing at the foot of a looming, concrete chair, with huge God leaning over me and asking in a booming voice, "WHY DID YOU..." while listing every single thing I had ever done wrong (at the ripe age of six, I was already weighed down with heavy guilt), and me cowering, having absolutely no answer.  What a sad, burdensome load for a small child...and even a grown woman to carry!

25 October 2015

hope on the long way

"So why are you writing all this sad stuff?  I thought you said this blog wasn't about trauma or childhood or mental health issues?!"

In order to help readers fully appreciate the wonder of God's miraculous grace, I think it's necessary to clearly show where I came from.  As I've mentioned before, it was a hard, ugly process.  I could see no light in the tunnel I was in.  I felt absolutely alone.  Even though I had professed faith in Jesus Christ from a very young age, this healing process was, by far, the most difficult thing I had ever experienced, and honestly, I couldn't see or feel God on a lot of days.  I knew that the Bible said I was not alone, and I scrabbled to hold onto some tiny grain of faith that it was true.

I can look back now and see in hindsight that I was never alone, not for a moment.  I feel compelled to write because I think there must be others with similar feelings of being locked away in darkness, unable to find a light source; or drowning in the black with no rescue in sight; others who feel desperately hopeless and completely alone.

To you, I declare:  there IS Light, and there IS rescue.  Hold on as tightly as you can, dear one, even if it feels like a bare, fingernail grip.  Don't give up; you are not abandoned in your journey.  There IS hope.

19 October 2015

descent

And so it began:  this reluctant journey on the long, long way to wholeness and freedom.  By November of 2007, I was fully engaged in disordered eating, and I guess this served as the catalyst to seeking help on the journey.  I was depressed and hated myself, I had begun to suffer with insomnia, and physical intimacy with my husband was becoming increasingly difficult emotionally.  The eating disorder had begun as a spiritual, 40-day fast for Lent, but disintegrated into laxative use, stringent limiting of calories, then vomiting, and then sometimes bingeing and purging, within months.

An eating disorder is a strange creature.  I didn't believe I "had" one for a long time.  Because I grew up being bombarded with eating disorder prevention, I was well aware of their destructive, dangerous nature.  I believed I was purposefully choosing this path, that I could stop any time, and that I was fully in control.  It hasn't been until recently that I've realized the hold that my eating disorder had, and continues to have on me.  I have come a long way, but not eating is a often a knee-jerk reaction to anxiety that I continue to wrestle with.

I grew up being "good" - I worked hard in school, was obedient to my parents, went to church and youth group, didn't party...my good behaviour had much to do with earning favour with God.  I didn't understand his gracious heart toward me at all, and I was afraid to "be bad" because I thought he would bring me to harm if I stepped out of line.  But this kind of following God left me wanting:  I felt there had to be more to a relationship with God than a bunch of do's and don'ts, and I had reached a point in my life where I was ready to either abandon Christianity or go down fighting to find the MORE.  So I think the eating disorder started, really, as a way to "be bad" and ask God what he was going to do about it.  But I was still terrified that he would strike me down, and so, because it felt like purposeful disobedience to God, I wrestled with him a lot about it.  This wrestling was what led to accidental disclosure to some girlfriends in late fall of 2007.  Several of these women came around me at that time, pushed me to tell my husband, and sought counseling for me.  Although I was deeply cynical toward the counseling process, I agreed to let them see if they could find someone for me to talk to, and so they did.

Although I can be a fairly articulate speaker, what was going on in me was far too deep and difficult to voice, so I began to keep a private blog in order to give just a few people a view into my thoughts, so they could better understand how to support and pray for me.  As I began counseling, I continued to spiral deeper into depression and anxiety, so that by April 2008, overwhelmed with screaming emotional pain, breath-taking anxiety, and terrible thoughts of self-hate and ending my life, I began harming myself.

"carving"

silver-grey flash
a glint catches the light
keen, hard edge
cold, tapered point
...hypnotic

ease in gently
a fleshy dimple gives way
skin creamy, fair
light and smooth
...anticipation

push down harder
a thin line slowly traced
dark red seam
deep pressure eased
...fascination

catch of breath
a momentary twinge of nerves
just a pinch
inner agony relieved
...peace

slicing out the pain.

© April 2008

13 October 2015

the view from the roundabout

When I began this long road to healing, a lot was happening at once - I'll stand in the roundabout and turn in a circle to look down each avenue, in order to give a bit more of a 3-dimensional view of my life at that time.

I tried really hard to be a good Christian.  Our family had recently served in Nigeria for two years as missionaries.  I loved serving in youth ministry, going to Bible studies, and singing on the worship team.  I faithfully attended church, adult Life Groups, taught preschool Sunday School, helped with Vacation Bible School and summer Junior Camp.  

I worked hard to take care of my family and home.  I cooked and baked (mostly from scratch), cleaned, drove my kids to and from piano, soccer, dance, play dates, and Wednesday night church activities.  I also cared for children in my home, so I would do activities with them, plan fun field trips and play dates.  I was a homeschooling mom involved in a homeschool co-op, so I spent a lot of time working with my children on their schoolwork, lesson planning for the classes I taught, and  sometimes developing my own lesson plans, to round out my children's education.  

At this time, too, I began to study online for my Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education.  I took two or three classes a semester, so I spent a lot of time reading, writing, and working on other assignments for classes.

I had many friendships that I kept up with.  Periodically, I would plan group "coffee nights," where we would put our kids to bed and then leave dads in charge while we met for talk, laughter, and encouragement for a couple of hours.  I spent time regularly with many friends, during the day or evening.

I don't think anyone would have guessed at that time that I battled depression, that I was gripped by a terrible self-loathing, or that the outer shell of my life concealed a river of rage, constantly bubbling just under the surface.  In 2006, my private life slowly began to come apart at the seams as I found myself unable to keep functioning in the face of debilitating depression.  In hand with the feelings and beliefs about myself that I struggled with, I began to cultivate an eating disorder in 2007, and then to cut myself in 2008.  These behaviours served many purposes:  to dispel shame and self-loathing, to quiet unwelcome and disquieting thoughts in my head, to satisfy a desire to hurt myself, to be in control of something in my life, to defy God, to quell the desperate emotional pain I was becoming aware of.  I suffered with insomnia and anxiety; I often had suicidal thoughts. Around this time, I was also diagnosed with a mental illness.


09 October 2015

trauma memory

Trauma memory can be different for everyone; for me, they are disconnected pieces that make very little sense.  Sometimes I dream, sleeping - as in my first trauma memory experience - or waking.  Sometimes I have sensory memories, like physical pain somewhere in my body, or a swirl of strong feelings that I can't explain.  There are times when I get little flashes of picture in my mind that have no emotion or words attached to them.  Often there are triggers that throw me into one type of memory or another.

When I first began to experience trauma memories, I felt frightened and alone.  Even though I had been aware of the high probability of abuse in my childhood, I wasn't prepared for the reality of it.  Because these memories were so disconnected and isolated, with no story/picture/emotion knitted together, I couldn't understand how they could be real or how they could have happened to me.

I have been so hard on myself through this process, and this is one of the things I want to share with anyone and everyone who needs to hear:

oh friends, be gentle with yourself!

Don't waste time berating yourself, disbelieving what you experience, denying, beating yourself down, trying to be someone you just can't be.  No matter where you are in life, understand that you are in process and be kind to yourself.  If you have already reached this place of extending grace to yourself, I'm so, so glad for you...continue in that way and share that message of grace with others!

Here are two different examples of trauma memory that occurred early in my process:

Trigger event
We served as missionaries in Nigeria for two years, and in March 2004, our compound was robbed and terrorized for an entire night.  Even though we weren't on the compound at the time, I shut down for about ten days. I had no energy, couldn't focus, and experienced insomnia.  I didn't understand why I would be so affected since I wasn't present, but later I realized that I had been terribly shaken by the fact that women were held hostage and a rape occurred during the robbery.  Soon after the rape and robbery, there was a seminar about responses to rape, and I remember feeling physical pain and being emotionally distraught.  I didn't understand the strength of my emotions or the physical sensation of pain I had.

Emotional memory
I would be doing every day things, and suddenly I would have this flash of terrible emotion:  panic, confusion, terror, wanting rescue.  They were accompanied by the feeling of being in a dark place, surrounded by people who meant harm.  My adult mind recognized that they were child feelings related to a bad situation, but I didn't understand why I would be experiencing something like that.

04 October 2015

regarding trauma

What is trauma?  If you're like me, your mind quickly jumps to terrible events and grisly scenes.  However, you may be surprised to realize that "trauma" doesn't necessarily have to mean "over the top."

When I first began to experience trauma memory recovery, I had a very difficult time reconciling what I remembered of my childhood with general pictures that the word "trauma" conjured.  In fact, I spent too much time on the way, denying the existence of trauma in my life, because I could point to so much worse in the lives of many others.  I didn't feel justified in saying that I had experienced trauma.  Looming large in my mind was the question, "how do some people come through much worse experiences than I and fare better?"  It took time for me to understand that "trauma" can be a relative concept, dependent on the person experiencing it.

So, I've really learned not to compare.  Every person is unique, and everyone experiences life through their own grid of genetics, nature, nurture, personality...however you want to look at it.  For one young child, a simple surgery might be a breaking point because she thinks she's going to die.  One child may be traumatized by a death of a family member, while another child may manage the loss more easily.  Some children come through traumatic experiences with no lasting effects; others grow up coping with mental health issues:  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, to name a few.

Through my journey, I've come to understand that I was a gentle, timid, sensitive, creative child.  Was my trauma experience one of the more horrific stories you'll ever read about?  No, but it was unlivable for my spirit, and because of that, my brain found the best way to help me cope until I would reach a point in life when I could come to healing.