The things we trade away

Yesterday my daughter shared some of her feelings about how abused women are treated by our patriarchal culture. I’m so proud of my daughters when they share, and also terrified. I’m terrified because I know how the response in times I have shared has affected me. Deliberate transparency has been a tool used against me by men who sought to control and fix me. More and more I find that when women are transparent about our anger, men are quick to tell us why we are wrong. Put a Bible in that man’s hand, and he’ll use scripture to punch you too. I’d rather spare my own young women these experiences, but this form of sheltering does them no favors, not in the world we live in today. So, I do my best to let them express themselves and not interfere– with varying degrees of success.

Enter my rage.

When my daughter bared her heart, one of the perpetrators of my abuse chimed in. The emotions sweeping through me were so fast and so fierce they literally took my breath. My hands shook; my face flushed. I immediately felt powerless – powerless to stop his words, powerless to change what was happening, powerless to protect myself or anyone else from the punishment that was sure to follow.  This is what surviving trauma feels like, terror often coming out of nowhere.

I wish I could pinpoint the moment I began surrendering my power. Why did I do it? What made it seem like a good idea? Sometimes I blame the money. We made a lot of money in ministry.  People may say money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure as hell buys health insurance and groceries and a place to live and college tuitions and so many other things that make happiness easier to come by. For a long time, it bought me the freedom to be home with my ladies as they grew up, which I desperately wanted after staring down my own mortality.

I don’t know when I began trading my power away for these things, I only know that I did. Piece by piece – my control, my desires, my abilities, my identity and eventually even my voice. I gave it away. I signed it away. I did it. I did those things. I was an instrument in my own unmaking.

I feel shame when I talk about this, shame so deep it almost buries me. You know why women who are victims don’t speak up? I do. I know it every day, all the way down to the deepest cracks in my soul. Those cracks will never go away; the only thing I can do is to accept that they are part of my terrain.

What I am slowly learning is the things I may have done wrong, don’t excuse what happened. Just because I willingly surrendered, doesn’t make it right that they were asked of me, or demanded of me as the relationship evolved. Fear and gaslighting aren’t tools of love, they are weapons of power and control and they are wielded by those who feel they are entitled to use them. And, in my case at least, not only entitled but morally mandated to put me in my place by whatever means necessary, a terrible, holy duty.

I’ve internalized a great deal of rage over the last few years. This rage has manifested itself in anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and depression – the list is quite extensive. Sometimes I struggle with anchoring myself in reality. Sometimes my brain feels shrouded in fog. All of these are symptoms of internalized anger because I believed expression would lead to punishment. I believed because it was my lived experience, over and over again.

All of these concepts and constructs played a role in my emotional response to a person with a history of abuse trying to influence my daughter last night. I wanted to shut down, suck in my anger and disappear just like I always have. But then I didn’t.

Six months isn’t enough time to undo all the toxic messages and ideologies I’ve absorbed. I may spend the rest of my lifetime dismantling those things. But it’s apparently enough time for me to decide unaddressed bullshit isn’t something I’m willing to leave lying around any longer.

Instead of taking that anger and stuffing it down, I pushed it out. I pushed back. I called bullshit. It was freaking terrifying and totally civil and all of twenty people saw it. But I don’t care. It felt like fireworks and marching bands and unicorns with wizards on their backs shouting “RIDIKKULUS!!” riding across my soul. I took back my voice. I grabbed on to my power and held tight. I made anger my tool instead of my enemy.

I called bullshit. And I keep calling bullshit to the message that what happened to me was done in love, was a loving act. I reject that toxic “love” and the claim that it even resembles love. For every woman who has ever heard that weepy, “I love you” while she cowers, hoping the next blow won’t fall I say THAT IS NOT LOVE!  It’s power and it’s control and it’s ego and it’s fear and it’s small and it’s toxic and seeks to kill, steal and destroy but it sure as hell is not love.

For years and years, I traded away bits of myself, for money, for an image, for religion, for a fragile, hypermasculine god, for comfort, for fear of the unknown, for fear. I rode all the way to the end of the tracks and dropped off the edge.

But I’m still here.
I’m an angry woman. I’m not swallowing it anymore.

 

 

September Song

“Oh it’s a long, long while from May to December, but the days grow short when we reach September” — Maxwell Anderson

 

September has been a hot mess of a month, perhaps the meanest one this summer. I can’t even talk about the temperatures except to say that the last two days I have at least not wanted to die the moment I stepped outdoors. Party’s over summer; SEE YA! But mostly the weather has served to underscore the discomfort of some necessary soul work. It’s been six months since Craig was fired from his position in ministry. The first three months we spent adjusting to me working full time and him not working at all (Oy Vey!). The second three months we spent adjusting to his new job and both of us working full time at which point I completely gave up ever caring about what’s for dinner or whether anyone eats at all.

 

And here we are. Forty-eight hours from the final severance check, the final tie to anything church-related, and me with enough normalcy and time on my hands to start uncovering the wounds and scars in order to see what’s left of me. The good news: I seem mostly intact.

 

I don’t know what I expected to happen at this point, but in some ways, I think I hoped to be further along than this? Which is silly, really. A decade of damage doesn’t magically go away in only six months. Perhaps it’s the settling that has me unsettled. For six months everything was new and exciting and amazing. RAH! RAH! RAH! And now? Well, now we’re settled. This is life. Probably life until we retire to the beach and what the hell are we going to do with it? That’s a question, isn’t it? Probably not one I’ll answer in one morning of writing.

 

You see, I’ve started making myself write every morning again. Most of it is not for public consumption but some of it may evolve into thoughts worth sharing. The thing about all this freedom is that I don’t want to squander it. I literally have everything I wanted, everything I asked the Universe for this time last year and I don’t want to waste time wallowing about in the mire of victimhood. And yet, I’ve rumbled with the chains of professional religion for so long, I haven’t quite figured out how to live without them. I’m so buoyant I don’t know what to do with my limbs, and I worry about floating away instead of using my freedom to fly. Or maybe I’m just creating my own drama now that I’m free of drama thrust upon me. I wouldn’t put it past me.

 

We’re racing into my favorite time of year. The span from October to January is traditionally a time I thrive. I’m using these creative morning moments to look at the months ahead as a canvas to paint on rather than a soapbox to stand on.  Now that I’m finally free to share whatever opinions I want, I feel less inclined to. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have to worry about setting myself apart from a culture which lately has me feeling more and more ashamed of its image. I’m looking forward to creating my own image and identity and exploring Divine images and identities previously unknown to me. For the past two years, we hoped to be done with Milledgeville by the close of the waning year, but this year we’ve chosen a new outlook. We’re ready to thrive in a place which grew on us when we weren’t looking and provided a chance at something entirely new in ways we never expected.

 

These are gifts I can’t ignore.

 

Last night as I was climbing into bed, I thought to myself, “This is my real life. What am I going to do with it now?” I know, nice put you sleep thoughts, aren’t they? But the truth of them is still ringing in my head this morning. This is my real life. I’m not waiting to move, or for the other shoe to drop – An aside, I don’t know how many shoes those people wore, but they dropped them at least monthly for years – or for things to get better. This is my real life to shape and create and do with whatever I please. The only person I answer to is just as invested in creating a great life with me as I am, which is another gift I don’t take lightly. Along the way, I’m certain to talk about my life experiences, both recently and long past. They have me shaped into the person I am, a damn fine, imperfect and evolving human being, more gifts upon gifts.

 

What will I do with my real life, my wild and precious life? I guess that’s partly what this space is for now, to unwrap all the gifts that freedom reveals and all the ways I am learning to grow and fly in it. This doesn’t have to be the settling place, instead, it can be a launching pad, a dynamic space which includes my wounds and experiences but isn’t limited by them. Where both what has happened to me and what I do with it propel me forward instead of constantly dragging me back.

 

What does life look like when the kids are grown and the mid-life crises are navigated, when the careers have changed and the retirement plans are decided and all that freedom you thought you had when you graduated college as a “real grown-up” (don’t take offense, I use quotation marks when I call myself a “real grown-up” too) finally makes an appearance?  Well, I don’t know. But I plan to find out – starting now, at the end of a hot, messy September.

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