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20 Years

Twenty years ago I told my therapist that there was something wrong with me.  I told her that it was like I was in a long hallway and was watching as everyone around me easily opened one of the many doors.  I, on the other hand, was standing in that hallway trying to open every single door only to be seemingly locked out and trapped in this hallway.  During that same time period, I attached to relationships with friends in toxic ways, was chastised by an unsympathetic professor for showing up to class looking like I just rolled out of bed, and began engaging  in risky behaviors centered around money, alcohol, and sex.  I was trapped in a vicious cycle of unhealthiness and didn’t know how to break free.  I was eventually referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder. That diagnosis meant that the only way things were going to get better would be by taking medication.  I didn’t want anything to do with it.

A few years later, as I was working in Bosnia, these behaviors intensified as did wild swings between the some of the darkest thoughts I had ever experienced and a sense of hyper-religiousity.  As a result, I continued to bring toxicity to the relationships I had with others.  I also used alcohol to try to numb away the feelings I was having.  In the end, my unhealthiness contributed to the downfall of the ministry I was involved in, and I left a trail of brokenness and pain for others who did not deserve it.

When I moved back to the States, it became more and more clear that something inside of me was truly not right.  My wild mood swings continued to intensify, and my world was dark.  I again was referred to a psychiatrist and again was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.  This time around, I desperately wanted to be healthy so accepted the diagnosis the best I could and began taking psychotropic medications.

The next stop for me was seminary.  I had a dream of being a mental health provider for missionaries and other Americans working overseas.  However, I was so unhealthy, I knew that dream would likely never come to fruition.  I worked hard during seminary to begin the process of becoming healthy.  I worked with an amazing therapist to process the childhood sexual abuse of which I had been a victim and to gain coping skills to help manage my mood swings.  

It was a long road that I began to venture down, and that journey continued into my marriage.  While I had a great therapist when I got married, I still was not on the most effective cocktail of medications, so my mood swings were still intense, and I continued to bring toxicity into other relationships and use alcohol to numb myself.  I still had my dream of becoming a mental health provider, yet knew that in my current state, that dream too was out of reach.  This left me feeling lost.  It fractured my sense of self and sense of purpose.  My marriage was strong, but I didn’t know who I was or what I was supposed to be.  I had children and while that was fulfilling, my pregnancies and births of my children were accompanied by yet another round of terrible darkness – the kind of darkness that I couldn’t begin to see myself getting out of.

Now…20 years after this journey began, I am amazed to be more healthy and whole than I’ve ever been.  I have a great therapist and great psychiatrist.   I am on the best combination of medication that I’ve ever been on.  I’m getting the right amount of sleep, my moods are in check, and I no longer find myself trapped in the debilitating and out of control cycle of depression and mania.

The most amazing part of it all is that I am healthy enough to be a therapist myself.  It was a dream I had given up on, but here I am.  Part of me has been afraid that the people I hurt so much while unhealthy would be shocked to hear that I work as a therapist now and even think it was dangerous for me to be trying to help others in this capacity.  Yet there is another part of me that knows that my unhealthiest self has prepared me for this.  I feel good about what I do.  I see my clients doing amazingly difficult work, and it is an honor to be sort of a compass guiding them along the way.

Twenty years.  That is what it has taken.  I suppose the point of this reflection may be that dreams should not be given up on.  However, I’ve also developed the realization  that if I wanted to live into my dreams, I had to be willing to do the difficult work of digging deep and becoming healthy and whole.  I discovered that a dream that does not elicit a strong desire to become healthy and whole and does not inspire one to do the difficult internal work to arrive at a healthy and whole place, it is likely that the wrong dream is being pursued.  For me, that dream at one point involved being in ministry, but when I was chasing that dream, I was more motivated to hide my unhealthiness than I was to  heal it.  My work in the mental health field is what inspired me to more vulnerably seek health and wholeness in my own life so that I could help others pursue the same.  I continue to battle with the shame and embarrassment of the damage I have done while not well, but that shame and embarrassment no longer bind me.  The work to move past these emotions will take more time, and I am willing to do the work to get me to a place where I am no longer shackled by them.  

Twenty years.  Twenty hard years.  Yet here I am.  I am healthy.  I am whole.  I am living a dream that I once thought was out of reach.  

Here’s to twenty  more years and twenty more years after that.

Work Around Your Abyss

I recently read Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection.  It triggered a lot of soul-searching.  It led me to the realization that I define my self-worth based on how well I do things.  Thus, I feel very positive about myself while I am at work.  I am a productive employee who meets expectations in all areas. 

The problem is I am not a productive wife or mother.  Being a mother, especially to a preschooler and child with ASD, is so overwhelming.  Most of the time as a parent, I feel frustrated, anxious and hopeless.  This has produced a wife who is too emotionally and mentally exhausted to contribute much around the house.  My husband does all the cooking and laundry at our house. As a wife, I feel lazy, ashamed and like a burden.  So while I love being at work, I feel like I am crawling out of my skin at home.

And it’s all because I define my self-worth based on my level of productivity.  And I have no idea how to stop this.  For me, it’s like the facts are in.  My employer is highly satisfied with my performance.  If polled, my husband and children would likely say they are not.  I’m mean, bristly and short-fused.  I’m inattentive, unaffectionate and unhelpful.  I can rationalize that these statements are mere conjecture, and even if true, not true all of the time.  But even when I can mentally grasp that, I still can’t get those feelings out of my heart.

But today I read this:

 “There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss.  You will never succeed in filling that hole, because your needs are inexhaustible.  You have to work around it so that gradually the abyss closes.

Since the hole is so enormous and your anguish so deep, you will always be tempted to flee from it.  There are two extremes to avoid: being completely absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so many things that you stay far away from the wound you want to heal.”

Work Around Your Abyss – Henri Nouwen

Now I feel like I have a road map of sorts.  I can see that I have let myself become completely absorbed by my pain at home and it has paralyzed me.  I can also see that I have pushed myself so hard at work that it’s allowed me to avoid the pain of ill-defined self-worth.  I need to understand this abyss of mine.  What led me to this place?  What purpose has this torturous self-worth served for me?  Why is it so hard to settle for good enough?  I don’t know the answers to any of those questions yet, but at least now I have a place to start.  Going to work around my abyss, trusting that someday it will close.

My Kid is Not a Brat

My kid is not a brat. He has Autism and ADHD. We have made a few parenting mistakes with him, but we have not raised him wrong. The biggest mistake we made was not advocating for a diagnosis and services early enough. Vaccines did not do this to him. Both his older and younger sisters are neurotypical. They were both vaccinated and have been raised in much the same way that Caleb has been. It is an insult to hear people blame my son’s behavior on poor parenting or vaccinations. I would rather have a child with ASD than a dead child.

My son wants what every other kid his age wants. Namely, friends to play with. Except he is hard to play with. He is focused exclusively on dinosaurs, the solar system, vehicles, Lego and coloring pictures of any of those things. He carries around stuffed animals with him. He still wears a pull up. He has major meltdowns if he is misunderstood due to his speech impediment or if he is asked to transition from one activity to another without enough warning. He physically lashes out if people are too close or the environment is too loud. Oddly enough, he has no sense of personal space and is constantly trying to hug, kiss, snuggle and otherwise touch everyone he encounters. He is also the loudest human I have ever met. He still puts just about everything in his mouth. He struggles to get dressed on his own. He only eats around 5 foods and will only eat with his fingers because he does not have the dexterity to successfully eat with silverware. Needless to say, he isn’t exactly the kind of kid other children his age are begging to play with.

There is a little boy in his grade that lives on the other side of our fence. There’s even a gate between the two yards. Lately, the kids at that house have been telling Caleb he can’t come over. They might be legitimately busy, but my protective mama bear can’t help but think they just don’t want to play with him anymore. Caleb stands at that gate every day, staring and begging to come over. Then they say no and he starts screaming and sobbing. Then they really don’t want him to come over and play. My heart breaks every time. Yesterday, it broke enough that I sat with him in my lap and we both cried together.

School starts on Tuesday. We are fighting tooth and nail to get him special education services. We are starting an intensive therapy called ABA that will hopefully address some of the struggles I mentioned above. We are also hoping that this year he will make some friends, that he will have someone to play with at recess and that he won’t get kicked off the bus. We are hoping this year, he will somehow miraculously turn a corner and that around that bend he will find happiness instead of tears.

Why it Matters to Me

I have had some people, especially family, ask why what’s going on with the current presidency matters so much to me. They say their 401k is doing great and that’s what matters. Besides, they say, what’s going on with the border, what’s happening with race relations, what’s happening with trade – none of anything that’s going on for people that are different than me makes a difference in my life, so why does it matter?

Here’s why:

I am a follower of Christ. I believe that what Christ says about how we are to treat the poor, the refugee the stranger and otherwise disenfranchised is gospel truth. Christ commands us to do this. Therefore, it matters to me. I believe it should matter to all those who profess to be a Christian. It deeply troubles and confuses me when fellow Christians view the status of their 401k to be more important than how others are being treated.

The things the current president says also deeply trouble me. The things he says are vile, racist, sexist and bigoted. Some may say that he’s just calling it like it is and they like it. But it is so wrong. It is not something a Christ follower should say or condone. Again, it deeply troubles and confuses me when fellow Christians view the status of their 401k to be more important than what our president says.

Another thing that deeply troubles me is that our president is in denial about what is happening to our climate. There are more floods, fires and other extreme weather events than ever before. The Amazon rain forest is burning down. The icebergs are melting. Coastlines are being swallowed up by rising ocean levels. This is real. Call it climate change or whatever you want but it is happening. Protections for wildlife are also being stripped away. God called Christians to care for creation. It deeply troubles and confuses me when fellow Christians view the status of their 401k to be more important than fulfilling a duty that God gave us in the first few chapters of the Bible.

The only Christians who support our president right now with whom I can find common ground are those who are anti-abortion. They believe lives are truly at stake. I have come to find some respect for that position because I too believe lives are at stake. People are actually dying because of our president’s words and actions. The dignity and respect we should have for all people as Christians has apparently become optional for so many followers of Christ and I just can’t wrap my head around how this happened.

All of this matters to me. It does affect me personally because the marginalized are so close to my heart. They are who I serve everyday as a social worker. These people matter more to me than my 401k. As a social worker, I am ethically, and in some ways legally, bound to have my priorities aligned in this manner. As a Christ follower, I am biblically commanded to have my priorities aligned this way.

And it truly scares me when I see the opposite as true to other Christians.