The Feminist in the Room

Healing

This weekend my husband spoke at a marriage retreat. I swear speaking ideas to a crowd is his lifeblood. Me? I’d rather do a.n.y.t.h.i.n.g. else in the world, but he is so damn good at it. He’s known he was going to do this since some time last fall. I finally decided I was going about a week ago.

Before I decided, I set some stipulations: 1) I don’t have to decide until the last minute if I don’t want to. 2) I can change my mind at any time, even up to the point of pulling away 3) I don’t have to go to the sessions if I don’t want to.

I know it’s hard for people to understand why I would even consider going in the first place. It’s certainly hard for me to understand why I would put myself in harm’s way. I’m still very much working out my own spirituality, but sometimes, I miss experiencing it with people. I miss being excited about the potential of discovery that only happens in when ideas are shared. I don’t want what we used to have, but I don’t want to walk away from spirituality either.

It’s complicated.

Even though I had a big ball of anxiety in my stomach the first night, I was excited to hear Craig speak again. I am the reason he was pulled from the platform at our previous church. Apparently, if you can’t control your woman, you don’t get to do what you love, even if it’s to the detriment of the organization. In my head, I know this is some messed up bullshit, but in my feelings, I still wrestle with those emotional wounds.

Nervous or not, it was ok. I was doing ok until the question was asked, Can you imagine if there were feminists in the room listening to this right now? I know. I know it’s shocking except to me it isn’t. I am intimately acquainted with the ideology and language of church and believe me, Feminist might cause more raised eyebrows in a sanctuary than the actual F word ever will.

And there I was, the feminist in the room. The odd one out, again.

I started to go into a shame spiral just as I have for years when I realize I am the one who is wrong, broken, who doesn’t belong. And then I thought, NO! Nope. No. I don’t have to buy that steaming load anymore. Yes, this is hurtful, but it isn’t personal. Yes, it is generally exclusive, but it isn’t personally directed. And I don’t have to stay and be a target if I don’t want to.

So I didn’t.

And while I am desperately disappointed that I didn’t get to see my husband do what he does so very well, I took myself on a morning adventure. I meditated on the water. I watched all the water birds whose names I remember, and some I hadn’t met yet. I walked where Spanish moss trailed through my hair and stood with my eyes closed and face upturned to the sun. I breathed and laughed and petted random dogs and was fully my feminist, feminine self.

I didn’t go to another session the whole weekend, and I had a marvelous time. And I met delightful people who I don’t see eye to eye with theologically, and it’s ok because I don’t have to. I can know people and not agree with them. I can work with people without being a victim of conflicting worldviews. I can walk away if I no longer feel safe.

Maybe that all seems like practical common sense to you. It probably is to most people. But when you’ve been the subject of spiritual abuse and a controlling personality, you lose sight of these basic concepts. I experienced learned helplessness for so long it manifested as general anxiety and unpredictable panic attacks. I was not ok, and I could not escape.

This weekend I practiced a skill that I hadn’t felt free to practice before. I left a room where I felt unsafe without feeling shame about it. And I found ways to feel safe again without being less myself for it. If that’s the only spiritual stride I make in 2019, then I’ve already conquered ten thousand inner demons.

I’ll keep being the feminist in the room, thank you. I’ve had enough of pretending to be anything less than who I am.

A little help, please?

Healing, Living

I wasn’t my best self last night. I came home from a very busy work day to burned rice and an overflowing sink and trashcan. I was tired and hungry and for some reason cold. all. damn. day. It was not a recipe for success.

After I frammed and slammed around the kitchen for a while, putting dishes away, washing dishes, putting dishes away -we don’t have a dishwasher and sometimes that makes me hate everything- taking out the trash, I made cornbread and fried apples to go along with my rewarmed chili and burned rice because I wasn’t about to allow being pissed off keep me from the ultimate comfort food meal. Anyway, after all that, I served up my dinner, left everything on the counter, texted my kids to coax them from their bedrooms, and took my dinner into my room.

And closed the door.

And turned on Netflix.

And channeled my own mother.

And texted swear words to my husband.

As you do.

My narrative was filled with should: Those are grown women. They should see what needs doing. They should do something about it. They should know I am going to come home dragging. They should should should should should.

Gross, right? I mean GROSS.

Do you know that when Craig and I first married, sometimes dishes would sit in the sink for an entire week until the apartment stank? It’s true. I’m not proud of it. We were two grown adults who couldn’t be bothered to even wash up after dinner. So I’m not going to sit here and pretend I don’t understand about mess apathy. I do. Back then, I was happy to leave that mess because I didn’t have a mom in the house to fram and slam around making me feel bad for not meeting up to expectations.

Should is a heavy burden to lay on someone, especially when those someones share our DNA or our bed. The fact is, as a grown, fully functioning adult, there are three words that could have diffused my temper tantrum fairly quickly. What are those words?

I need help.

I need help with the trash, with the house, with these tasks that never end because we just keep living here day after day. I need help living this life, as much as it pains me to say it sometimes.

We all need a little help.

And maybe we’re right. Maybe someone should notice or act or handle or whatever. But more often than not, our default setting is to handle our own priorities. We can be quite blind to things which don’t make that list. I am as guilty as anyone. Whether or not someone should do something, by our estimation, when they don’t, it’s our job to communicate what we need. Framming and slamming may be momentarily satisfying, but it still left me alone in the kitchen doing all the things I was pissed off about having to do. I didn’t prove anything except that I can slam the cabinet doors really hard and repeatedly, oh and isolating my family.

I could have asked for help.

And maybe then they would have frammed and flounced about, but maybe not. Maybe I would still have retreated to my bedroom for introvert dinner, but maybe not. Maybe I would still have texted swear words to my husband.

But at least I wouldn’t have should all over everyone in an unmet unexpressed expectations ambush like a martyr guerilla. Gross.

This whole being a decent human in a crazy world, having it all together, getting things done, not eating your offspring gig comes with an impossible list of things we should be doing. We absolutely can not do it alone.

We need a little help. We’ll probably have to ask for it.

It’s the very best way to receive what we need.

How I’m Handling the Inner Critic

Healing, Learning

It’s been a highly imperfect week. Yesterday, I broke a two-week meditation streak, completely unintentionally. I just didn’t do it. I’ve checked off fewer things and written on fewer mornings. I feel on the edge of mental and emotional overwhelm.

Making room for the unexpected things I wrote about Monday? – HELLO!! I didn’t really mean this week when I said it!

Side note, I became pregnant with my amazing middle child when my first child was 5 weeks old. That’s right, I said weeks. I had just gone back to work and all I wanted to do was be home with my baby. At the time I was still firmly convinced that I would have a cancer recurrence as a result of completing the pregnancy. I didn’t want to miss any of the time I had with her. We joke now, that I prayed to be able to stay home one day and God thought I said “Stay home MONDAY” which is how I got pregnant.

I kind of feel like that about this week. “LEAVE SPACE FOR THE SOMEDAY UNEXPECTED, UNIVERSE! THAT WAS NOT A CHALLENGE!” HavemercyAmen.

My inner perfectionist is yelling at me that fifteen days into the year I already messed up. My streak is ended; I’m missing check marks. Yesterday I didn’t even USE my bullet journal. Intentions-schmintantions. Who was I kidding?

I like to step back and take a look at this nasty inner voice lately. Where did she come from and why do I listen to her? Who told me perfection was the goal and why did I believe them? Is it an evangelical wound? Because they do believe that we should be perfect as Jesus is perfect. But I don’t think that perfection means that Jesus never made a mistake, or tripped on a rock or had a bad day, because HUMANITY DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT, and furthermore, isn’t intended to. Does it go further back than that to when a B wasn’t good enough when I could have made an A? There are so many things that work together to make up our inner voice.

Where do we learn that our inner voice should be a critic rather than a cheerleader? Who sold us the bullshit package that tough love or even worse, hyper-critical nit-picking was the way we would convince ourselves to change?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I just know that I’m not having it any longer. I didn’t escape a hyper-critical toxic religious environment to just keep echoing that rhetoric with my own inner voice. I can love myself better than that, and I deserve to love myself better than that.

So I’m being transparent. It’s a highly imperfect week; I’m being way too hard on myself about it. Maybe you are too? Let’s stop this nonsense and remember that the journey is the work. The process matters. Lapses, mistakes and difficult days are all part of that process. Evolution is slow and sometimes it gets sidetracked. Birth is messy and bloody, and we’re, all of us, still being born.

Let’s be kind to ourselves, so we can fully love.
Lighten up by throwing out the garbage messages our inner voice has been feeding us for years. We deserve better. We deserve love. And what’s more, it’s already ours, if we only have the gumption to claim it.

How do we become ourselves?

Healing, Living

I’ve never been a very fast writer, which is why when life gets busy – which is often- I stop writing. I want everything I put out for public consumption to be lyrical and lovely and technically perfect. There’s nothing wrong with wanting anything I create in the world to be a good product, except when my standards are so high that they hinder me from doing anything in the first place.

I occasionally say I am a writer, but I’m not consistent in the practice. I also occasionally say I’m a runner but I haven’t run since the fall. There’s a distinct separation between what I say I am and what I embody. I don’t think this separation is a deliberate form of disinformation; I’m not trying to make myself look better. I think it’s more a form of self-deception – projecting who I want to be on who I really am today.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot along with my word for the year: embody. It’s one thing to say I am something, it’s another thing to embody it. One is a form of self-deception and one is a way of becoming.

Look, even when I am running, I’m not winning any prizes. I’m slow and awkward and usually very red in the face, but if my feet are moving, I am a runner. There are no other qualifications. In fact, one of my favorite things about the running community is how fervently they promote the message: if you are moving, you’re a runner.

But I’m funnier about writing. Perhaps its because I love books so much. People who create those chapters and stories, those people are writers. Me? I’m just me, occasionally playing with words.

Which begs the question: at what point am I writer? Is it when I get published? I’ve been published. Is it when I make it big? Make a career of it? Go on tour? If these are my criteria then I’m also not a runner because I’ve never won a single medal (nor do I expect to) and I will never make a career of it. Why am ok with calling myself a runner (when I run), but not a writer?

It’s an interesting question isn’t it?

At what point do we give ourselves permission to be the person we want to be whether or not the world recognizes it? My husband left professional ministry nine months ago but he still calls himself a pastor because he embodies the traits which make a person pastoral: he loves people and cares for their well-being and they know it. It doesn’t require any form of public recognition or permission for him to be this thing.

I’m definitely one who gets tripped up in if/then thinking. If this thing happens, then I will be ________ (happy, a writer, able to lose weight, good enough, insert your own if/then statement here.) We seek outer validation to apply an inner identity rather than simply becoming that person because she’s the person we envision for ourselves. We make ourselves crazy trying to become someone we already are.

So I’m making myself a promise this week to write more and doubt less. To believe that it’s enough to put words on paper (or on screen as the case may be) whether or not they are perfect or poetic or worthy of national acclaim. A writer writes and I can believe in myself enough to do exactly that thing without needing perfection or outer validation.

It’s a new year – who do you say you are in it? Are you waiting for some form of validation before you embody that person? Do you need permission to become the person you always believed you could be? Don’t be afraid to take that first step and keep taking them one at a time. The Universe is waiting, and She applauds you.

Embody

Healing, Living

In November, I wrote about how 2018 was a year without a name. The concept of a word or theme for the year is fairly widespread (go ahead, google it if you need more information.), and I have taken part in the concept for years. Maybe you think it’s hokey or gimmicky, which is fine, your word for the year can be ‘cranky-pants’, but for me, it’s a deeply spiritual experience.

I listened for this year’s word for a long time. I knew it wouldn’t be anything related to church culture. I knew I wanted it to be self-centered (not in a selfish way, but in continuing to focus on self-love, self-healing, a generative and growing word.) I knew it needed to be feminine and empowering, fully accepting of where I am while allowing me to develop bigger dreams, bigger ideals, and bigger love.

One of the foundational tenets of most Christian theology centers on the depravity of humankind. We don’t just do bad things; we are bad, born inherently broken and unworthy of Love. To be indoctrinated with this message is to learn to hate your self. Hating your words and your actions is bad enough, but it can teach you to hate your very flesh. If you’re also a woman? Forget about it. You ate the fruit; you caused the fall, and the patriarchy has reminded you of it ever since. You are doubly damned.

I’ve lived this reality for a long time, even when I stopped believing it, I couldn’t escape a culture that was steeped in it. Breaking free of this destructive and decidedly unloving doctrine has been like picking sand out of jello. Just when you think you’ve removed it all, you find a little more crunching between your teeth. Believing this body I inhabit is inherently divine and capable of producing beautiful and miraculous things is a conscious act of will every day.

For a long time, I thought my word would be ‘Goddess’ honoring the process of coming to know the Divine Feminine. But ultimately, this word still places the emphasis outside my actual body, an outside being or force who acts upon me, which I think is a disempowering view of Divine Love.

Embody is a word which cannot be divided from the messy muscle, blood, and bone of humanity. It is flesh-bound even as it leaves the lips. And yet it is also deeply entwined with the spiritual. As we think in our hearts, so will our body behave. We will embody that which we believe, understand and feel, and we will be affected mentally and emotionally by what our bodies encounter, and how they perform. We are bound together, flesh and soul.

The Gospel of John begins with a beautiful poem: The Word became flesh and lived with us.

I often think of Jesus, His never-ending welcome to those who were considered outside the love of God and man, unworthy and dirty, wounded in body and soul. Religious men hated him for his welcoming spirit, his work of unbiased love and healing. People flocked to his touch and his message of invitation: All who are weary and heavy laden, come… Bring your wounds and your loneliness and receive restoration. Remember you are loved. You always have been.

Fundamentalism has lost this message somewhere in it’s striving to attain what it’s had all along: worthiness and welcome. I hope being embodied will remind me that this body, with its scars, its unshapely bulges, its stretch marks, and failures is that I have always been divinely inhabited by an overwhelming Love, perhaps wandering, but never lost. This humanity cannot be separated from Divinity any more than I can separate my soul from my skin and still exist.

Whatever it is I wish to see in the world, I must first be in the world. This one is perhaps the hardest for me. It is much easier to accept love than to be it, but the two are also impossible to separate. The more open we are to love in the world, the more readily we lavish it on others. Love isn’t merely what we feel or say (if I had a dollar for every time I heard my abuse was enacted “out of love” last year…), it’s what we birth from our bodies in the way we make caress the world as we move through it.

2019 will be a year in which I become what I believe, and so I must curiously explore and wisely choose who and what influences me, and I will practice creative love for myself, for humanity and for the earth.

Embody.

Beyond Belief

Happiness Project Experience, Healing, Learning, Living

So here we are, at the dawn of a new year. I’ve thought quite a bit about this writing space during the waning days of 2018. I’ve considered its presence and its purpose, how I have used my voice and how I want to use it moving forward. I even considered how I felt about having shared my experience in so public a forum, knowing what people are saying about the things I write and the person they assume I have become.

Vulnerability isn’t easy at any time, but least of all when it questions the most basic tenets of foundational belief systems.

2019 is a brand new page to write upon. I have considered whether I want to keep sharing the story of my experience with fundamental theology, and why I understand now that unless it evolves into wider, more open space, it will continue to devolve into more rigid and abusive means of expression. Unfortunately, when the stakes are the eternal damnation of your soul, questions and doubts are singularly dangerous. Slippery slopes end only in lakes of fire.

I can do nothing to change the path I’ve already walked. I can’t retrieve the years I lost to narrow-minded concepts and “loving” with an agenda. But I do know I am in good company where regrets are concerned. We’ve all gathered a fair collection, and now it’s our decision how far we carry them, and what lessons we will take when we lay them down.

For me, I’m still working it all out: faith, wholeheartedness, emotional health, relationships, kindness, empathy, loving humanity. It’s hard work interspersed with tremendous beauty and glorious belly laughs. I want to end my days feeling I have lived them well, not that I have lost myself in the bitterness of what has passed.

And yet, there is an empty space which demands the voices of those who have been down the slippery slope and lived to tell the tale. Whether we call ourselves the Nones or the fringes, whether we are humanists or agnostics or atheists or simply none of the above, there is space for us to come together and share ourselves and our dream of a better world and kinder humanity, a space beyond belief. Whatever label you affix to its members, I believe that space is sacred, and it needs voices brave enough to stand up and say, “A shitty thing happened to me! I was changed by that thing, but I am not defined by that thing.”

I’m developing a set of personal commandments, which I am sure I will talk about more in the days to come. One of the fundamental understandings upon which I intend to live is this:

People will love me. People won’t love me. Carry on.

I won’t continue to dwell in the events leading up to and culminating our graduation from religion in 2018, but I also won’t ignore they happened, and they still happen to people who desperately need to know they aren’t alone.

It’s been over twenty years since I had cancer, yet every time I hold space for someone walking their own cancer journey, it hurts as much as it did the first day a surgeon said to me, “You have a cancer.” I have lived that moment a hundred thousand times in my mind, and will probably live it a hundred thousand more, but I can carry it and not be victim to it as long as I let it remind me how strong it made me, and the rare and strange gifts it left behind.

I can follow this same pattern with my experience of spiritual abuse. I can hold space and still live and grow and move away from the reality of it. The reality will fade, but the experience will remain, and others will need to hear it.

I intend for 2019 to be a year beyond belief, outside of the faith constructs which guided me at one time, but which eventually strangled and expelled me.

I also hope 2019 will be a year of growth, experience, and adventure. I invested in myself and joined the Happiness Project Experience (The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is a book I have read and reread and enjoyed every time). I believe there is space for this voice too, the voice of a woman rediscovering who she is in the middle years of life, a woman embarking on a journey after the kids are raised and after a year where everything, everything changed.

So much change happened unintentionally in 2018 that it excites me to imagine how much can change when I intentionally set out to expand my life, my heart, my understanding of the world, and my love for myself, for humanity and for the earth. The possibilities are endless. There is space for that adventure and all the stories and ponderings it brings.

Thus we ring in a whole new year in this space. People will love it. People won’t love it. And that’s exactly as it should be.

When endings are Beginnings

Healing, Living

We had a lovely Thanksgiving weekend. I didn’t leave the house for four days, and I didn’t have to cook after 2pm on Thursday. The weather was cool and slightly dreary which means hours of candles and strings twinkle lights. Over the course of the weekend, we binged the entire first season of The Amazing Mrs. Maisel – OMG why has no one urged me to watch this before?!?! I slept. A lot. Hours and hours each night, awakening long after it was already light in the morning. It was absolutely unremarkable, and yet everything I wanted it to be, especially after the emotionally charged week which came before.

We’ve already begun Christmas shopping here, but I turned my mind a bit to finishing the project. Gift giving isn’t one of my strengths, less so since I became so much more intentional with the things we acquire. But I do enjoy buying a good, useful, meaningful gift, and I love Christmas morning, so it’s worth the effort. As I pondered and searched for gifts by the light of the Christmas tree, I began to think about Decembers past, all the reasons I love the impending month even for the ways it makes me slightly melancholy.

I considered how I want to finish this very eventful year.

December has always been a magical month for me. My wedding anniversary, the birth of two of my lovely children, and of course Christmas are all contained within its days. The memory of my father’s love of the season overshadows the grief of losing him in December as well, at least, it does on most days. December marks twenty years since I last heard his throaty chuckle, a length of time which seems impossible to understand. I have lived almost as long without my father as I did with him. How can that even be?

This particular December promises to be a different kind of month for my family than we are accustomed to. The holiday season, for us, has traditionally been frantically busy, but now that we have left ministry, and especially now that my husband is back in the world of education, it turns out I will be the busiest person in our house this season, and even so, there will be more space for rest and contemplation than I have experienced in years past. We are growing into these wider spaces and finding them more generous than we had dared to hope.

It isn’t often that I find myself presented with so much opportunity for contemplation, and so I’ve decided not to let the opportunity pass. Now, more than I ever realized before, I have the power to shape the patterns of my life to match who I want to be. Perhaps that power always existed and I simply didn’t recognize it, but I see it now. Having spent the last few months really unpacking the events of this year, it’s time to leave them where they belong: in the past.

Yes, things happened, good, bad, delightful and deplorable. Some things were random caprices of the Universe and some the hurtful machinations of other humans, but here we are happier, healthier, more excited, more content and more ourselves than ever. We chose this path. It’s time to own that fact entirely – the shitty, the gritty and the I-can’t-believe-this-is-real wonderfulness of it all.

The time for unpacking is passing, and I am ready to let it go.

The time for celebration is approaching and I am ready to leap in.

This is the season I have always loved above all others, the doorway that stands between all that was and all that will be. Even as we approach the solstice, the turning of days from darkness into light, so I am turning from the years of shadow and opening myself to all the possibilities the world has to offer. I’m learning to embrace all that was because it is the only path to all I am. The fullness of me is very full indeed. It is difficult to hate anything that came before in light of what I am becoming. I cannot have one without the other; this is the paradox of living. Glennon Doyle coined the term “brutiful” to express the idea that we see the beauty in our lives more clearly because it stands against the backdrop of the brutal. We are forever destined to dance the line between the terrible and wonderful, and sometimes we fall.

Here’s to December, the closing days. Whatever this year has brought you, whatever you have purposed to happen, let’s promise to each other to end it well and fully. We close the doors which need closing, speak the words that need speaking and when we have done so, we will leave them where they lay. We are made for the present, and here is where we find our joy. There is still time to be the person we long to be before the year has passed.

My daily bread: thoughts on gratitude

Healing, Living

I haven’t wanted to write over the last week. My family is in kind of a crazy season right now; it’s been difficult to find the mental space necessary to write. Besides all that, the local government abandoned my library community for a bit – I’m generously calling this a grievous error due to lack of information on their part – by threatening to defund the public library system.

This incident has carried some pretty serious emotional distress for me, I know I am far from alone based on the thirteen pages of letters and statements from our library-loving friends that we carried with us to the budget meeting last night. While the issue is not resolved, I am hopeful we will gain full funding, and the first budget increase in thirteen years as well, for our community within the community.

I didn’t make it into the meeting room last night. The irony of this situation is that we stayed to close the library at its normal time, even while the future of the library was being decided. I may have waited in the hallway, but even then, I wasn’t isolated from the precedings. We were all there together working for the well-being of our community, wanting a chance to add our paragraph and chapter to a much larger story.

I’m not all wrapped in the rosy glow of a hallmark ending this morning, far from it. Our immediate library funding is fixed, but in six months we could be right back in a room trying to show people who make no use of our public facilities understand exactly what it is we do. I’ll be there again, if it happens.

I share all of that to say this, on this chilly and battle-fatigued Thanksgiving Eve, I am grateful for two gifts. The first is being removed from community.

Last fall, I began the great divorce from church. It was a long time coming, and I wish I had mustered up the courage to leave sooner. The toxicity of that specific environment left permanent scars, and for a while, I withdrew from everyone. I prayed without hope for a long time that we could get out of ministry and find a healthier way to live in the world. Although the process of realizing that prayer was painful, I haven’t lived a day since without a profound sense of gratitude for freedom from religious ties altogether.

Although I was part of a congregation, there was no community there for me. I was in the hallway, but I was never part of the process, not even when I was in the room where decisions were being made.

I am daily grateful losing my place in community.

However, the synchronicity of the Universe delights me. In the same month that I signed the contract of silence, I also found my voice. On the same day my husband resigned from his calling, I stepped into mine. At the same time as I experienced profound gratitude not to be part of something, I was becoming part of something else. This is the second great gift of this year.

I could gush for a thousand more words about all the ways this new community has restored and continues to heal my soul. I realize, not every organization, not even every library, is fortunate enough to employ the caliber of people with whom I work. Perhaps we are a one in a million place, and I was just damn lucky to find a space in it. But through the library, I experience welcome for myself and for an entire community. Each day, I get to serve people creatively, and I am trusted to do my work and do it well. These experiences are treasures I hold like chocolate on my tongue, savoring each as it passes.

I believe it is a rare quality in the world to find a space that encourages freedom of thought, access to knowledge, unbiased dissemination of information and celebration of the individual. I don’t profess to do any of this perfectly, but it is the space I inhabit now. In it I have found myself again. I have found my people, as widely varied a community as any I have ever been part of and yet somehow we work together and move forward. Maybe it’s diplomacy and professionalism, but I secretly think it’s also love, for each other and for the world we inhabit, including the people who are in it. At least, that’s how I feel about it. Even when I’m standing in the hallway silently begging the universe to open other people’s eyes to the same experience I live every day.

I am daily grateful for finding my place in community again.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. I hope wherever you are, and whomever you’re with, you feel welcome and whole. And if not, I hope you find your way to whereever that place may be.

How to avoid a dumpster fire

Healing, Learning

This is an actual conversation that happened at my house last week (details blurred to protect my integrity)

Craig: I saw (unnamed) at (event he attended).
Me: REALLY?!?! Did you tell him he’s a jackass and kick him where he wishes he had balls?
Craig: Yes. I decided utter annihilation was the best way to handle the situation rather than communication and conversation.
Me: Whatever, you totally talked to him like a person and didn’t kick him anywhere. Hmph.

Friends, this is literally my marriage in a nutshell. I want to punch people in the throat and call them names, and my husband has actual productive conversations and doesn’t take my interpersonal relationship advice. It’s ok though, I recognize my need for improvement. Believe it or not, I am trying. Whether I choose to exercise my better social skills and values usually depends on how vulnerable I feel. The more vulnerable, the harder it is for me not to throw the first punch.

One of the ways I am learning to be myself again is to let down my defenses. It isn’t easy to leave an abusive relationship without feeling like everyone else is the enemy. In my situation, I was often told “people” (always nameless) were watching, calling, complaining and it was up to them (men in leadership) to uphold these complaints, rebuke and punish me. This pattern went on for years. I was never allowed to know the identity of those who monitored my every move. I actually began to believe that every person in the vicinity was a potential enemy and that no place was safe.

I’ve been unlearning this false reality for a while now, but when I feel threatened or emotionally overwhelmed, all my defenses slam back into place. My sharp edges emerge. I plot how to hurt them before they hurt me. These patterns aren’t healthy, but they were the lens of my reality for a long time. I’m learning to create space before responding in order to step back and remember not to come out with my flame flower already blazing. My healing process is awkward and imperfect. I’m growing into new patterns slowly, but I am softening.

Learning to be soft and open is a long process after trauma. When we are wounded we tend to guard the area where the injury occurred so it doesn’t receive further damage. But eventually, if we don’t move in natural ways, the ways we are designed to move, we become stiff and stunted where once we were supple and smooth. I feel stiff and stunted most days. It’s easier to resort to defensive techniques and name calling then it is to open to pain again. I tell myself it’s better to drive people away and be safe than to allow them close where they can wound me again.

I know these feelings aren’t based in reality, but they are easy and known. Easy and known can feel safe and true, even if it isn’t.

I don’t want to be a cynical, snarky, and mean person, not even when it gives that little zing of naughty pleasure. I’ve achieved expert level skills in the game of caustic comeback, but it’s not really the reputation I desire. In fact, this narrow, fearful, binary thinking of us vs. them is what led to the abuse which damaged me. In seeking to shut down and silence the ones I see as my “opponents,” I become like the very ones who damaged me so deeply.

I sure as hell don’t want that.

I don’t want to perpetuate the type of treatment I experienced. I want to be soft and open and loving. I want to hear what someone else has to say, which is hard to do when you’ve already punched them in the throat. I want to be warm and welcoming and speak with intelligence and compassion. I may eventually even overcome muttering “jackass” under my breath when I see them coming, even if I don’t go for the throat punch.

I have these heroes (my husband is one) who are strong and emotionally self-aware and able to hold conversations (without crying) about things they feel passionately without being prickly and defensive. I’m starting to love myself enough again to see the value in “the other” more than the value of being right and putting them in their place. I keep practicing vulnerability so these healthy responses are my go-to behaviors rather than all the self-protective bullshit I currently employ.

I’m working on it, working on me. Every day I’m unlearning the lessons of religion and replacing them with the truth of being human, and frail and fraught with error and filled with the Divine even so. Me, you, them, everyone. All of us needing a little less annihilation and a little more space to be heard.

How I changed the story

Healing, Living


I was listening to Brene Brown yesterday because I love her and want to grow up to be her. She was talking about the stories we tell ourselves, or as she likes to call them, ‘shitty first drafts’. If you haven’t read her book Rising Strong which focuses on how we overcome hard things, I highly recommend it. I think I have listened to it twice this year; it’s that important. But back to shitty first drafts. Brene’s – I call her Brene because we’re that close in my mind – premise is that whenever something emotionally difficult happens, our brain goes into storytelling mode. It wants a hero – always the self, and a bad guy- always the other person; a reason and a response. The brain works quickly to assemble these pieces in a moment of emotional crisis because our amygdala is screaming, FIGHT OR FLIGHT, WOMAN! FIGHT OR FLIGHT! It needs an answer and it needs it RIGHT NOW because our lives depend on it.

And this was true, a few million years ago. Life is a bit more nuanced now, if no less dangerous.

But the amygdala doesn’t evolve. We’ve grown a lot more brain around it, intuitive brain, creative brain, emotional brain, amazingly beautiful unfathomable human brain. But when it’s crisis time, it’s the amygdala who controls the shots and she has one job – protect the self. Fight or Flight.

People who live with on-going emotional abuse, develop a twitchy, confused amygdala. She’s almost, always on because the world never feels quite safe enough to let down her guard. She sees everyone and everything as a potential threat. She doesn’t trust. She doesn’t want to be there at all. Her chant is almost always FLIGHT! FLIGHT! FLIGHT! FLIGHT!

Fortunately (or unfortunately in the case of abuse), the rest of the brain also has a say, and these parts have conflicting messages for amygdala. They say things like, it’s not that bad. They don’t really mean it. We can do better. We can be better. We just need to try harder. We can do and say the right things to earn their approval and then we will be safe. We can find a way to belong, to be loved. WE HAVE TO STAY UNTIL WE MAKE IT WORK.  No fight. No flight. Stop talking, amygdala.

These parts of the brain cover up and try to placate the amygdala, who never stops kicking and screaming, by the way. She’s like a two-year-old in the throws of the worst emotional overload ever, and she really just needs a time out. But all she hears is danger, danger, danger so she just keeps screaming. And all the while she’s writing a narrative, a shitty first draft of who’s to blame and why this keeps happening.

For awhile, she recognizes the harm being done to her, but the rest of the brain refuses to comply with her fight or flight message. So eventually, she changes the narrative:

I am the problem. I deserve this pain. I am useless. I am worthless. I don’t belong here or anywhere.

She believes what the rest of the brain is telling her about working harder and trying harder and earning the right to finally, finally relax and stop constantly firing the fight or flight message. But the rules keep changing and the pain keeps happening and nothing we do is ever, ever good enough.

And around and around we go, faster and more frantically until we either become numb or explode.

I’ve done both.

There have been a lot of shitty first drafts in my experience with emotional and spiritual abuse, and the longer the abuse went on, the more I believed I was always the villian.

I am not worthy of love because…
I am not good enough to…
I deserve this…
I don’t look right, act right, say the right things, obey the right rules, submit enough, be quiet enough, disappear enough…
I just need to work harder to be perfect. Then I will earn love and approval.

Poor little amygdala. How do you resolve the fight or flight issue, when you are the problem?

However, there’s more to the story than this shitty first draft. True, we can accept that script as the finished story, as the way things are. But we don’t have to. My friend Brene also says this: when we don’t write the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.

There’s no pride in admitting I was a shitty pastor’s wife. I mean, I got us kicked out of church twice! It’s a role I never embraced. I questioned the system, bucked the rules and allowed my mind to be open and accepting. There aren’t many roles in the world I am less suited for.

I should have stopped trying to be something I was never meant for long ago. I should have advocated for myself, believed I deserved better and not cowered and kowtowed before my abusers. I spent far too long trying to be someone that men in authority believed I should be. And honestly, because I didn’t realize this sooner, I am a party to the emotional damage I experienced. This part of the story sucks, but it’s true.

But being a shitty pastor’s wife, doesn’t mean I was a shitty person. And that is where my amygdala would have been better served with some nuance and complexity. Fight or flight is a binary response system which categorizes everything in two ways: good or bad. But life comes with about a million more categories.

Emotional abuse sometimes comes with an isolating component, which my own introversion and response didn’t help. The more I pulled into myself the fewer voices I heard until finally the only ones were the ones reminding me what a shitty soul I was. Those voices often included my own.

It’s been just over a year since I stopped letting the shitty first draft control the narrative. I wish I could give a series of 1-2-3 steps to follow, but we all have our own story to write. I began by becoming vulnerable to other voices, voices which certainly could have echoed the message I had already taken to heart, but they didn’t. And when they didn’t, I started to believe them.

I was all at once surrounded by beautiful, strong, proud, powerful women who didn’t apologize for their being or their voices. They reminded me of another story I was writing about my life, and about the story I wanted to write for my children. Not pastor’s wife, meek and mild, but Woman, bold and wonderful. Their voices reminded me of the woman who survived cancer, and grief and loss and who raised children and stood up for injustice and who gave a damn about people in the margins, and who adored her LGBTQ neighbors, wasn’t afraid to learn new ways of thinking and being, and who thought tradition for tradition’s sake was a pretty lame hill to die on.

She is me. She is my story too.

I wanted that story back. So I started writing it IN ALL CAPS when the voices telling the shitty draft got louder. I started writing because writing is what I do. It’s my super power that I signed away with the contract of silence. If I were a man, the contract would have been so castrating, they wouldn’t have considered it, but because I am a woman, it was simply ‘the right thing to do.’ How shitty an ending would that have been?

I’m rewriting the narrative of my life now. I’m even learning to write some of what I have called the shitty years as good. For a time, church was good to my family and to me. It did take care of us and give us a place to belong. Until it didn’t. Maybe we should have realized sooner that we didn’t belong there. Maybe we should have been braver and walked away. Who knows what the story could have been, But we didn’t. There is plenty we did wrong.

But none of who we are deserves the years of emotional ambushes, power plays and spiritual abuse we endured. Not even simply because we stayed.

I was a shitty pastor’s wife, but that’s not the whole story, it’s not even a whole chapter. I know this, because I’m writing my own story now, and it’s beautiful.