Walking on Eggshells: thoughts on trauma, anxiety and healing

“Living, growing up, working or worshipping on eggshells creates huge cracks in our sense of safety and self-worth. Over time it can be experienced as trauma.” – Brene Brown

I had a bit of a battle with an old companion yesterday. Anxiety came knocking, and it took a while to convince that bitch to leave. I’ve hit life hard since returning from vacation, working over forty hours each week. I’m juggling five work and school schedules with only three cars (and occasionally two). I’ve altered my eating habits and cut out alcohol. I’m running again, and I’m trying to get no less than seven hours of sleep every night.

I am also someone functions better with a nice margin, space, both physical and mental, where I don’t feel the burden of expectations pressing down on me. I have a long ugly history with perceived expectations; it’s one of my toughest battles, still. Because of this personality trait, all these transitions mean I must also make an equal amount of marginal space for processing the demands of life or things get ugly.

Last week was no respecter of my margins. And here’s the thing, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, there were some things about last week that were quite good. But when it comes to needing that pressure-free space, I find both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ events are equally stressful if I don’t have the margin to process the experiences. Some people, like my Hunky, can leap from event to event to event with ease. But I can’t.  I will manage for a short period, but that only means I need an equally long recovery time on the other end.

This weekend, I had planned a do nothing, go nowhere kind of weekend, my favorite kind. But those plans…didn’t happen. They didn’t happen last weekend either. Yesterday when we all started talking about our schedules for this week, I felt the flush of anxiety start to creep over me: the familiar ringing echo in my ears, the hot prickly flush over my chest, the buzzing in my fingers and toes, the constant need to look over my shoulder. “Here is a list of expectations, and I must meet it.”

Oh, Anxiety. It’s been a while. And no, I haven’t missed you.

I first began experiencing anxiety AFTER  I started going to therapy. I know right? Therapy is supposed to reduce anxiety.  However, what therapy revealed to me was some toxic areas in my life which we weren’t able to disengage from. I would need to do a serious compartmentalization dance, keeping my emerging-self separate from my pastor-wife self, which isn’t really a wholehearted way to live.

Ask most pastor’s wives in the evangelical church and they’ll tell you, we aren’t paid, but we have a job description with an expectation list about three miles long, anyway. It’s not healthy, but it’s true, and as I was informed towards the end, “That’s the way things are and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

You can see why other people’s expectations and I aren’t on speaking terms.

I am my own person. Yes, I am married to another human whom I love deeply, but I am not defined by his work or his position any more than he is defined by mine. We each have our own work. Sometimes our work intersects, but most times it doesn’t, and there is nothing wrong with this way of sharing our lives. We also have theological and ideological differences. What’s more, our individual belief systems have changed and evolved as we have changed and evolved and matured, sometimes those changes intersect, for us they often intersect, but even when they don’t, we love each other and move forward together.

Ours is a pretty healthy relationship.

But other areas of our lives weren’t so healthy. If you have ever seen a plant grow in or near a constricted space, you have seen that the unconstricted side grows healthy and strong, but the other side will grow stunted, twisting in on itself until it withers and dies off.

Going to therapy opened a thousand doors for me. My therapist saw things in me that no one else had ever spoken aloud. She built me up in ways I hadn’t experienced from anyone besides my husband in a long time. She empowered me and challenged me, and I began to finally grow into the wildly free and open space that was my self…my soul.

The more I grew, the less inclined I was to meet the ever-changing, ever-tightening list of expectations compiled for me by people who barely knew me beyond my job description. Make no mistake, in fundamentalist environments, an empowered woman who goes off-script is a dangerous woman, a force which must be managed, rebuked, fixed and controlled. Eggshells, anyone?

This tension mounted for years, while we tried to leave town and move on, door after door after closing on us while anxiety gripped me tighter and tighter.  My growth stunted, and I withered. When I am stuck in unhealthy behavior patterns, I avoid conflict at all costs. I tried checking off all the expectation boxes, tried disappearing, tried “putting on a happy face.” I even tried all three at once. But inevitably, anytime I began to feel more like my whole-hearted self, a rebuke of some sort followed. Usually, my husband bore the brunt, as if he were responsible for all the ways I never measured up. The more I tried to protect him from harm, the more harm I seemed to cause, around and around in an increasingly toxic spiral.

This was not a healthy time for our relationship.

I honestly am not sure any other set of circumstances than what has ultimately unfolded would have allowed us room to walk away so completely and begin to experience healing so fully. I have received margin in glorious abundance.  We have new lives and new identities now, but trauma leaves echoes and shadows which reach out sometimes and caress the familiar broken places. I may not have reason to be anxious now, but I still wait for the other shoe to drop, even though the footsteps of the persons wearing them are so faint now they are barely a whisper in my soul.

Yesterday, I wrestled with expectation and anxiety. Expectation and I go back decades,  church wounds are part of the scars from these battles, but those seeds were planted long before religion was part of my identity. We may battle for the rest of my life, but now that I am learning to live wholeheartedly, her voice is less insistent. Some days I don’t hear it at all. Anxiety and I only go back a few years, so I am hopeful her voice will soon be entirely gone.

What I know is this: an experience can be traumatic whether or not the parties involved intend to do harm. My story is my own. There are other voices who won’t see or tell this story the same way, and who will deny the validity of how I feel, what I experienced and the wounds I carry. I hope anxiety will one day be a thing of the past, a response to an environment that was toxic to me. Telling my story is part of what makes the anxiety dissipate. It cannot stay in a space where I will not permit it to flourish and grow. My experience is real and valid. Though the ground under my feet is no longer fragile eggshells, I still sometimes wonder if it will hold my weight. Thank goodness I am learning to fly.

Take that, anxiety.

 

100 dreams

In February of this year, I was in the middle of a conversation with my husband when he said this: Maybe, I’m not supposed to be happy. Maybe, I’m just supposed to work hard and be content with that.

Let me give a bit of context, this conversation happened on a roadtrip on the way to a place I didn’t want to go, orchestrated by people I did not trust with my emotional and spiritual well-being (a feeling which hasn’t changed), and these two sentences only served to highlight the reason for my feelings.

I wanted to throw up. I wanted to open the car door,  throw myself into traffic and run all the way home. Then I wanted to pack all my things and move to Canada and leave no forwarding address. I wanted to open up my brain and push that shit-message right out of my soul.

I love my husband with every cell in my body to the last shred of my soul, but in moments like this, I wondered if his calling would actually destroy us both. I simply cannot believe in a god whose highest calling for us is unrelenting duty, and to whom our best response is settling for it.

Fast forward to any number of evenings this summer. We regularly celebrate our new living space by thoroughly enjoying our front and back porches. We sit outside long after the sun goes down, sipping wine, listening to rain or crickets, weather depending, and talk about the ways we want to shape our lives. We plan; we hope. We dare to dream. Granted, we limp a little as we go, and we don’t look very hard into the shadows lest we see the demons which still linger. We’re working on those. Healing takes time.

I remember specifically after one of these nighttime conversational ramblings thinking, Oh my God. I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten what’s it like to talk this way, to be these people together.

A few months ago, I started writing a list of 100 dreams. I work on it from time to time when I feel inspired, or when I need to be  inspired. To date, I only have forty-six items on the list. Some of them are big: trip to Iceland anyone? Some of them are geeky: read 1,000 books by the time I am 50, starting now. Some of them are simple: live in a tiny house. All of them have very little to do with duty or responsibility. They are things which simply make me happy. It makes me happy to think about them, to pursue them; it even makes me happy writing and thinking about them.

It would be easy, now, to look back and harshly judge myself for how much power I relinquished over the direction of my own life, but that’s time and energy wasted. Instead, I choose to create my list, to dream and build, to feel awe that I have a chance to relearn what it means to dream.

If we were actually in reality show, this week’s episode would feature a very different roadtrip. Imagine van packed with five adults and their baggage – literal and emotional – driving down the highway singing ‘A Million Dreams’ from the Greatest Showman as loud as we can, even Craig joining in. Maybe it’s a hallmark movie ending, but it’s also my real life. Mine, to shape in the ways that are best for me and the ones I love.

Look, I’m all about personal and communal responsibility. I firmly believe that all of creation is deeply interdependant and as such we care for each other. I am not advocating for personal gain at the expense of other people. What I don’t believe is that we are to take on responsibility at the expense of our selves or our souls. Obligation and obedience aren’t markers of character, they are demands made by the powerful of those they consider powerless. I’ll take free-will, please and thank you.

In all of humanity, there is only one me. There will only ever be one me. Only a sadist would create each unique individual only to demand our subservience at the expense of our individuality. There is little divine about conformity. If you believe in Purpose, and I do, then this way of thinking is an abomination not only of the created but of the Creator. We are made for more than duty and responsibility. I only have to look at the platypus to believe that.

There is a debilitating level of sickness and despair which accompanies the belief that we aren’t actually meant to be happy, to have dreams. I’ve swum in those waters, an act I will fight hell itself to never repeat. So I dream, an act I believe is fighting hell itself. I believe we are meant for more, for deeper, for restoration, for relationship and yes, for responsibility, but embracing these things should only make us more ourselves, never less and never someone else’s vision of who we should be.

Dreams
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

— Langston Hughes

 

On Being (and being on the beach)

I just returned from the beach. If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know what that means for my body soul. I am rested, relaxed, restored. We lived by the beach as a family for sixteen years ( Hunky grew up there) and the lifestyle somehow crawled under our skin and into our bones and took up residence. We are beach people. We have sand in the marrow.

The last time I was at the beach, Hunky had just been released from his position in ministry. I sort of love the story: he called at 7am to tell me he was packing his office because he knew what was coming; I went into work and was hired that day as a full-time supervisor (of books and reading!!! Dreams do come true!!!!); by 2pm we were in the car on the way to the beach- headed to the place we love to wed people we love and imagine a life we could love.  I am forever awestruck by Divine Providence and this part of our story is drenched in it.

Last time we were at the beach we focused on getting our feet under us, planning our next steps (by the time we got home Sunday we had a place to live, and would begin moving 72 hours later). We cried a little, laughed a lot, created a retirement plan and remembered who we were before…before what I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint when I lost myself, I only know I did.

This time the beach spoke to me, or God spoke to me, or a holy communion of SpiritsunwindwaterSoulskinsand, probably the last one. I received one Word that sounded like a clear and unmistakable constant call to prayer: whole. Whole. I can be whole. I am becoming Whole. We are becoming Whole.

It may take longer than we think, but the becoming…well, aren’t we always becoming something? One of the choices before me now is wholeness, and the universe wasn’t subtle in telling me which path to choose.  God doesn’t always light the way with trumpets and a band of angels, but when They do…

It’s true though, every book I read – even the junk books- every song I listened to, every voice, everything, everywhere was about becoming whole again. Whole in my skin, whole on my path, whole with my vision, my goals and my future.

There is a form of Japanese artistry called Kintsugi, where the artist takes broken pottery pieces and fills the broken spaces with resin which has been mixed with silver, platinum or gold. The result is a whole piece whose brokeness isn’t hidden, but highlighted,  making the piece far more beautiful than it was when it was unmarked. Wholeness doesn’t erase brokenness but we become more than we were when our broken places are mended with an eye towards beauty instead of perfection.  I am walking Kintsugi. Golden light is shining through my broken places, and yet, I am whole.

I thought a great deal about writing as I stared at the sea. I thought about this space, why it’s here, why I bother, what is my purpose in sitting down and crafting these thoughts? For awhile, I pushed back against writing about God. I didn’t want to be that person: that ‘church’ person, that ‘religious’ person. I didn’t want people painting me with that brush.

But people are going to paint me however they please to paint me. I can’t alter or change it and so, I am letting it go.  This is me, the paint another person chooses reflects their own soul, not mine.

I am deeply Spiritual and writing is part of how I create my being, especially, my spiritual being.  Taking all the dancing and even the dark and deceptive thoughts in my head and focusing them into words, ideas, paragraphs and eventually essays is my way of saying, Let there be.  It is an act of creation. Writing, for me, is a spiritual act. It is about becoming.

This doesn’t mean I write only, exclusively about God, quite the opposite. One of the major issues I have with the evangelical paradigm of God is localized Spirituality. God is in this, but not in that. This is sacred, that is secular. God is here (especially if here is church), but cannot be found there. My whole self rejects this paradigm, and in so doing I affirm that I can write about whatever I want, but nothing I do write can be separated from the Spirit in me. If my paradigm says God is in all and works through all, then whatever I write about will be inherently Spiritual whether or not I choose to name it.

While I was away this week I realized I’ve been pushing back on God: Don’t come too close; be here but not all up in here. My experience with church skewed my boundaries and I forgot that the problem was not God but toxic spiritual relationships, a distortion of God’s image, not the true Divine image. In pushing back, vomiting up, cleaning out all that was poisoning me, I’d tied some of that mess to the Divine Spirit in me, and I was holding her at arms length, afraid of losing myself again.

I’d love to be able to say, this is the moment the switch flipped and I saw everything clearly again, but I can’t. What I do know is that some point I decided let down my guard with God, to invite Them all the way back inside, gulping her down like rum punch after hours in the hot sun, leaving me quenched and heady and little bit drunk.  What appeared as deconstruction was actually God laying down the red carpet and saying, this is the Path; don’t be afraid to dance while you’re on it.

And so I am.

So what does that mean for this space? It probably means I will speak a great deal about God. I may call them Jesus or the Divine, or Spirit or the Universe or Soul or any number of other things. I’ll probaly also use confusing pronouns. Currently She and They/Them seem more appropriate when speaking of the Divine. God’s not a man, that I know, and my record with male religious leaders ain’t great.  I’m definitely avoiding male pronouns for a bit.

I plan to be both playful and honest. As Anne Lamott says,

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

It may make people unhappy or uncomfortable, hell, my life makes me uncomfortable all the time, but it will be real. I’ve had a thousand quiet, private conversations as I tripped and stumbled down the path of deconstruction. I know what the world needs is more voices saying, it’s ok. God’s at the bottom of the slippery slope. Higher up and further in. We can do this; take my hand.

I know professional church wounds as much as it heals and someone has to stand on margins of faith with band-aids and gatorade and sometimes with life support.

I know we need a place to talk about where to go and what to do and who we are when we can no longer be defined by the rules we learned growing up. It’s hard. We all limp out here. But if we remember we move and live under a singing, dancing God who loves with the wild, tender, untamable, unstoppable fury of ten thousand jealous mothers, we can become….whatever we desire to be.

Come now my love. My lovely one come.

Become.

Be whole.

Be.