The Fellowship of the Suffering

The Fellowship of the Suffering

Two weeks ago, I was a beaming face of hospitality at the welcome center of our little, crisp church. I greeted members and guests by name with exuberance and Christmas cheer. I wore my favorite red dress and made sure that I was an approachable presence for our parishioners and neighbors. I was sick, desperate for healing, but on Sundays, I strove to present myself as a picture of health and vitality.

I sit now, experiencing a different form of fellowship. I have identified this as the fellowship of the suffering. We are huddled in a group room of an inpatient unit for adults with eating disorders. It is Christmas night. The lights are glimmering on Christmas trees somewhere, and families are celebrating in distant living rooms somewhere other than where we are. A token wreathe and a menorah decorate our unit. Staff has confiscated my makeup and hair products, proving them to be futile. We are stripped to the bare minimum of our selves. Sweats and Pajama bottoms are the norm, even on this night where the world celebrates. We play a haphazard game of Scattergories, filling the anxious space where we all feel the agony of the unknown. Will we heal? Is there hope? We await our Christmas dinner, served on hospital trays in portions that stretch our refeeding bellies to the edge of their physical limits, as they monitor our phosphorous levels, making sure that the food isn’t actually going to kill us rather than heal us. I exchange anguished glances with these new friends, relationships forged through the furnace of the initial agonizing steps of physical recovery. We hold hands as we dangle on the edges of medical instability and emotional uncertainty. We, the broken, the underweight, the malnourished, the sick, look out the narrow windows of our fifth floor unit to the twinkling lights lining the down town streets below us. Many tears have been shed today, and with our masks forced off, we sit, barefaced, without pretense. Some of us lean into the vulnerability, opening up in ways that we thought were off limits. In our fellowship of the suffering, we have an unspoken understanding that our socioeconomic statuses are of little significance. Our degrees, job titles, and achievements sit piled in the admissions office, waiting for us to pick them back up at discharge. For now, for this evening, we sit on even ground.

Not everyone has this unique “opportunity.” I am not sure how to replicate it in the real world, but on this Christmas night, I am encouraged with the though that Jesus would be inclined to check in as a visitor to our little locked unit. He, “God with us,” gravitated to the uncomfortable situations of suffering and agony. He would pull up a chair to our “Christmas feast,” where individuals sit wide-eyed, staring at the daunting plates of turkey and sweet potatoes in front of them.

I sit with the suffering, and I think back again to two weeks ago. I forgot about the importance of transparency. I forgot about the joy of journeying the rocky road of life honestly with others. I forgot that being real is one of the best gifts that I can give Jesus, others, and myself. I am reminded of this here, in this obscenely unlikely Christmas “retreat.” With the weight of my accessories, achievements, and attachments lifted, I can breathe again. I can genuinely breathe life into the dead places in my heart, and I can connect genuinely with others.

An Advent Lament

An Advent Lament

One evening in early December, our half-hearted dinner comes to a close. Few words have been exchanged, and the children have each taken about a half of a bite of mashed potatoes and drummed the table with their silverware for the ten minutes that they have been forced to sit in their seats. Jordan and I sit wearily, lacking the energy to even mutter a few words to one another. I stare desperately at the seven candles lit in the middle of the table, longing for them to speak peace to my tempestuous heart. My heart is an impenetrable fortress and refuses to allow the light in. Jordan asks me why I am staring the candles down, and I sigh and blow them out with extended effort. Their light falls short of my desperate soul’s need for comfort and peace tonight.

The heaviness in my chest and the thickness in my throat lingers. My head aches with the aftermath of the day’s panic attacks and fits of rage. The lingering failure of the day hangs over my spirit like a cloud. And the advent candles failed me. Or I failed them. The emotional and physical pain of this advent is palpable, oppressive, and I struggle to breathe through the smog of my carnality. I feel as though I am crying out to empty heavens, staring into illusory candles, reaching for something that isn’t even there. I know that this is just a feeling, and I know, on an intimate heart level, that God is indeed with us. I just don’t feel Him or hear Him right now.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Come, Lord Jesus. Break through the darkness and brokenness of my multi-faceted infirmities. Break into our family’s heaviness, and lighten our load. Bring illumination to our darkness. In your mercy, bring beauty and grace to the daily lives of my innocent children. This Advent season, I am beyond desperate for your light. I need a pin-prick of hope. I understand that my perceived needs are not always accurate, so I will accept whatever package in which you choose to deliver said hope. I just need something, anything, soon.

Our Truth-Telling God

I have a unique opportunity this evening.  I am sitting in my husband’s office at the church, pretending to be professional.  The children are in the nursery, my husband is at the satellite campus working on technical issues for Sunday, and I have two hours to myself in a real office just to be an adult. (I am a giddy, excited, child-like adult right now.)  I am currently rocking out to the Mark Swayze band, and my mind is like simmering pot boiling over with ideas for writing.  Where to begin…

This adult time is excellent timing.  There is much to say. God is so incredibly at work, and I haven’t the foggiest idea where to begin.  Jordan (my husband) and I attended a conference last week. We boarded an actual airplane, just the two of us, slept through the night, and had the chance to finally go on our anniversary dinner (only a month late–our eyes were falling out of our faces and we were crying blood on our real anniversary–not an exaggeration, I promise!).

Jordan had to talk me into attending this conference.  I was set on attending one closer to home.  I relented after some cajoling, and I am so incredibly thankful that I did.  I knew it was going to be an awesome conference when we encountered many obstacles as we prepared to leave.  When one is on portable oxygen and has to fly somewhere, the process of flying is complicated.  The portable canisters are charged and pressurized.  They are not allowed on airplanes.  In my head, I picture massive explosions and bodies flying throughout the cabin . I don’t think that really happens, but you never know.  So instead of my normal oxygen canisters, I have to rent a portable oxygen concentrator.  If we were to purchase one, it would be thousands of dollars.  Insurance doesn’t cover these devices (they are considered a luxury, because, well, you know breathing is a luxury). So we had to rent one. Honestly,  I was not surprised that mine decided to malfunction before we boarded our first flight.  Every minute,  the blasted machine would alarm furiously until we shut it down.  Everyone around us would stop and stare.  Who knows what they thought we were harboring as we made our way through the airport.  The problem is that I need oxygen.  Thus, turning it off was not an option.  We finally found a way to outsmart the machine.  May I add that my husband is a genius?  In order to prevent the machine from alarming like it was about to explode, I was forced to push a button to change the flow about every thirty seconds for the entirety of our flights and layovers. Oh, and you can’t just trade it out at another oxygen supply company when you arrive at your destination. No.  That horrid machine has to be returned to the location where you rented it.  Thus, the process of pushing buttons every 30 seconds for six hours was repeated on our way home.  Snag one.

The other snags were somewhat expected.  My throat developed that telltale scratchy feeling that always results in a nasty cold the night before we flew out for the conference.  So began my cold that continues to this day.  Picture this:  Your oxygen is delivered through a tube that goes into your nose.  Your nose is a snotty mess.  You can’t breathe through your nose.  Bad news.  The day that we arrived I also got a stomach bug.  We are talking constant diarrhea.  I had no idea that a body could produce so much crap.  And now I know.  Totally bad for POTS.  It lasted the entirety of the conference.  True to form, however, I pushed through.  I attended all of the sessions, times of worship, and prayer meetings.  I’m not saying this is good.  It is in reality kind of crazy.  But I didn’t really consider staying back at the hotel and sleeping.  Not when I came this far and God obviously had a huge plan for this week, as evidenced by all of the obstacles that were jumping in our way. I was way too curious to stay in bed. Thankfully, He sustained me while I was being psycho.  Hopefully, I didn’t infect too many poor souls while being reckless.

So here’s what happened:

God affirmed me so beautifully.  He told me that He is proud of me.  He revealed to me more fully what I am passionate about:  Prayer, writing, and worship.  He told me that I didn’t have to try so hard.  I don’t have to try to exceed my body’s capacity.  He is using me in the here and now, in my broken body, to expand His kingdom.  He said that I am gifted and He delights in me. He said over and over again that He loves me.  I learned about what He is doing in the global church. Guys, it is MASSIVE.  He is totally at work, like all over the world.  I want to be in on it.   We can be in on it.  In order to be in on His work, we have to start with prayer.  Prayer is the starting point.  Without prayer, the church is dying.   With prayer, like true repentant, travailing, awe-filled, desperate prayer, we have hope for life.   We have to wake ourselves up.

I struggled too.  I have lived a life marked by weakness that is evident to others.  I find myself desperate to prove myself as strong and capable.  I feel chronically less than the other people around me.  It is almost like I have to look up to them from my stooped down position. This position does not lend itself well to symbiotic relationships and friendships.  I so want to feel equal to others.  I want to be able to keep up with them, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, but I have lived a life that has felt stunted and dwarfed.  We knew many people at the conference with whom we attended seminary.  I feared that they would see me this time as they saw me in seminary: limited, pitiful, not friend material.   With 1,600 people attending this conference, I was the only one walking around on oxygen,  clearly underweight, malnourished, sickly.  I got the pity-smiles, lots of sympathetic compliments on my glasses, and curious stares.  NOT WHAT I WANTED.  I wanted to scream, ” I AM TOUGH! I AM DOING AWESOME! DON’T YOU DARE PITY ME.”  People who knew me from seminary lovingly asked me or Jordan what was happening that I had to be on oxygen.  Jordan was excellent at presenting a concise and accurate story about my medical situation.  I, on the other hand, somewhat (ahem, totally) in denial, hemmed and hawed and tripped over my words, trying to minimize the situation and diffuse any concern that might arise from others. (Concern makes me squirmy).  This led to the blockage of real conversations.  I was just so desperate to be normal, for once. Not to be pitiful and weak.

So if you are tracking with me,  here I am, being loved and cheered on by my Lord while simultaneously wrestling with my core identity issues which really trip me up in my interpersonal relationships.  God obviously knows what He’s doing.  As I write this, it is clear that He was telling me exactly what I needed to hear.  I am enough.  I am complete. He is proud of me.  He is at work in me.  He loves me.  I am beautiful to Him.  I, in the mean time, am wrestling these lies that have followed me through the decades that scream that I am worthless, pitiful, and ultimately a black hole in the world.  What contradictions!  I’m pretty positive that God is a truth-teller.  I asked Jordan to fact check the messages that God was giving me.  He said that they are in line with the God he knows and with the Word.  And I got this cool book mark that also says all those things that God was telling me.  So it was legit. The bookmark proves it.

Now I have a responsibility and a gift.  My mission is to be set free from the shame.  I am commissioned to begin to believe these truths about myself as a daughter of God.  He is re-framing my personal narrative and cleaning up my resume.   I asked Him in the shower this morning if I am a mistake, and He said that I am absolutely not a mistake.  He again said how much He loves me.  I am asking Him to show me what it may look like for me to be set free from the self-hate and shame.  He is providing glimpses.  In response to our shower prayer time this morning, God sent two people to tell me today that I look like Jesus.  Yep.  He’s pretty amazing.  And I believe that He is transforming my identity.  This is the healing that He has for me.  The dawn is coming, and the night will soon be over.

Zephaniah 3:17

The Lord your God is in your midst. A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy. 

The Advent of the Sunflower

The Advent of the Sunflower

September is fast approaching, with only a hot August casting a shadow on its advent.  July is punctuated by the first few brilliant sunflowers lining the roads and fields in the Kansas heat-wave.  They seem undeterred by the 100-degree plus weather.  They actually thrive in the sun, unlike myself.  It is a well-known fact that sunflowers are heliotropic, meaning they follow the sun from East to West throughout the day, at least until their stems become a little more solidified.  At that point, they maintain a position of facing the east. And they thrive.  They thrive in what feels a bit like a desert wasteland.  The impatient ones, popping up in late July, speak to the inevitability of hope.  In this life, hope seems to sneak up on me in the soul-scorching heat of a summer that seems to be suffocating.  This outdoor oven reminds me every time that I step outside that my body is failing to do what it was designed to do.  It possesses no ability to regulate itself in any environment, especially one of extreme temperature.  And in the hot-box of the summer months, my hope has slowly melted away, as ice cubes in a glass of lemonade left in the sun.  With the absence of the refreshing hope, all I feel that is left is the boiling reality of a failing body and an over-extended life.

Four years ago, the sunflowers brought hope through the tears of miscarriage.  The following year, the sunflowers lifted their faces to assure me that there was a light at the end of the tunnel of postpartum depression and anxiety. Two years ago, the sunflowers carried with them my second, sweet, agonizing experience of childbirth and new life.  Last year, the sunflowers offered a glimpse of grace in the grips of chronic illness and life-changing news. This year, the flower that symbolizes faith feels like an empty mockery.  I trust that they will not return void come September.

Because God is so excellent with imagery and symbolism, and because I am a mystic at heart,  I know that the sunflowers will carry with them a new message of hope and reassurance in this season of trial.  I will listen and watch and wait.  I will watch from the passenger window of the cars of friends who drive me to and from my appointments and infusions.  I will watch from my scooter that is my new means of locomotion in public places and events.  I will watch from a body that is significantly withered and weak.  But maybe those positions will help me to be more receptive to message of the Spirit in His glorious creation.  Oh good God, let my position not harden my heart but soften it to the outpouring of your Spirit.  Melt away the bitterness and plant the seeds of hope with the blooming of your sunflowers.  Let my face be like the face of that symbolic plant that follows the direction of the sun from the first light of the dawn to the last ray of the evening.  Let me not grow hardened and too stiff-necked to look to your face in eternal hope.  Christ is in me, the hope of glory.

 

Wonderfully Made

Ten years ago, On the evening of my first suicide attempt, I drove home from work to the house that I shared with three other roommates, rehearsing an apology. I had no intention of ending my life at this point; I just felt the need to apologize to one of my roommates for living it poorly. I felt that I had mistreated her, been unkind, and unfairly judged her. I wanted to make it right. Assuming that I was in the wrong, I planned to approach her and beg for her forgiveness. Surely, if I grovelled enough, she would relieve me of my guilt and accept me, the offender, back into relationship.

My schema that informed all of my interactions was this: I am in very nature wrong. I was not meant to exist. I am a mistake and have to pay for my life. I cannot earn my right to exist. The only thing that I can hope to achieve is some form of damage control.  

I have learned that this is the deepest, earliest, most core damaging belief from attachment abuse. It permeates into the heart of a person’s existence. It precedes the lie that I am unlovable (usually established age zero to one), and the lie that the world is not to be trusted (age three). This lie is what programmed me for self-destruction. 

Generally, the vast majority of the population may feel compassion or at least pity on the poor, beaten, grovelling dog. They would at least dismiss the pathetic creature while trying to avoid doing further damage. Others, for whatever reason, find some sort of fulfillment in beating the weak creature. My roommate fit the profile of the less compassionate portion of the population. 

I sat down with my roommate that evening,  three hours before trying to end my life, and she cut me off before I could even fully ask for her forgiveness. The venom that spewed from her mouth I can see now to be her own self-hate. That evening, I saw her accusations and hateful names as proof that I was unredeemable, a blight on the earth that needed obliteration. I retreated to my room, and decided that I needed to extinguish a fire that was doing irreparable damage to the planet. It seemed like the only choice. It seemed noble. It felt like my responsibility to right the wrong that I had started 24 years prior when I shoved my way inappropriately into the universe. 

At that time, I didn’t have words for this process. I couldn’t entirely conceptualize the belief that drove my actions or identify the source of my fatally flawed thinking.  I only felt that it was my duty to die. I was wrong, of course, but I was convinced that my place on this planet was one that really didn’t belong to me and that I had to give it up before I did more damage. The funny, infuriating, and utterly tragic thing about suicide attempts is that they are labeled selfish. I have no idea how many times I was told how selfish I was being. I was dumbfounded by this statement. In my deepest heart, I believed that I was loving everyone the best way that I could–by removing myself. I was only trying to help.

It took 34 years to come to the place where I could say that my life has value. God did not say “oops” when He made me. He never looked at me and said, “this one is evil.” My parents said that, not my God.  To believe that I am wrong to exist is entirely inconsistent with my theology. This is not a new cognitive realization for me. What is new is the experience of being valuable. 

For me, it took looking into the eyes of my children, bearing my DNA, flawless, beautiful, beloved, so unbelievably beloved. I carried them inside my body for almost ten months each. That body that I thought was too evil to dwell among humans was the body that housed the cherubic cherished humans, so obviously knit together by the hand of the Divine, loving Father God. I can’t be all wrong if they came out of me.

This is truly just the beginning of my re-orientation. I would love to see myself the way God sees me, or at least the way my husband, children, and friends see me. I still wade through self-hate daily. I still wrestle with my grovelling beaten dog syndrome, but even in my worst moments, I cannot be convinced that I am a mistake.  My heart is just softened enough, through scripture, prayer, healing relationships, and motherhood, to the voice of a loving God who whispers that He made me well and cherishes me more that I can even imagine loving my own babies. 

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; You formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you, High God–you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration–what a creation!”

Psalm 139:13-14, The Message

God is With Us

God is With Us

It is the first week of Advent, a Tuesday. My body seems to be falling apart, and no one has any concrete answers. A few speculations, but it just feels like they are trying to placate me with something. I start with anger, rage. I want to lash out, punish someone. I know it is irrational . But it makes illogical sense somehow in my emotion-driven brain. I will punish my body.

But I can’t. That’s not an option anymore. I have charges to keep and ground to maintain. Hard-won ground that I cannot afford to lose. My loved ones cannot afford to suffer the consequences of my illogical temper tantrum. Nevertheless, I lash out at my body for two days. I give myself two days to have my starvation strike.

As my indulgence draws to a close, I crumple, resigned to my state of debilitation, and sink into an even more terrifying stage of lethargic apathy. Knowing that this can’t continue, I reach out feebly only to be met with helpless concern from those who love me. What can they do? They can’t heal me. Body or mind. I reach out again via text, but I know that such efforts are fruitless. I need a miracle.

The world sits, waiting, wounds wide open, festering, infected. We are desperate, grasping for something, anything, but we open empty hands. I sit, broken, holding a sleeping baby, weeping weak and bitter tears into his innocence. Too much. Life is too much. The physical pain. The emotional pain. I am crippled by the agony and have no answers. I simply cannot maintain the status quo anymore. My tears evidence my release. I let go.

In my other hand, I hold my phone, a life-line of sorts. A devotional appears on my email. It promises hope. It is hope week of Advent. Fancy that. The irony is not at all comical at this point in my pain. It is just heart-piercing. A dagger. I know that in my agony, I represent something larger, a deeper, more acute world-wide agony.  All is not right, and I am not alone in my despair.  We are collectively wailing and weeping, longing, but not daring to hope for a miracle.  We just can’t hold it together anymore.  If nothing else, Advent carries with it a sense of release, exhale, and deeper surrender.  Sometimes, that comes coupled with despair.

I’ve read this devotional before. She wrote it last year during Advent. The author will wait for the unlikely, in search of a miracle, just a glimpse.  The Morpho butterfly will land wide open blue, impossibly, on her shoulder for a solid 25 minutes, and she will rejoice, reassured by the presence of God.  It stands as a symbol of hope.  I scoff.  I feel a solidarity with the cynical world, who scoffs with me.   God doesn’t do that for me.  He hates me.  Or worse yet, He just doesn’t even care.

A wide open weep stumbles out of my mouth.  Tears splash the muslin baby blanket, wrapping my innocent child. No hope.  No butterflies. No real help is available from doctors, from friends, from family, or even, maybe especially, from God.  He’s silent.  I pause, as the world pauses now, in the prolonged silence of death.  We hold our breath.  A bit longer.

Nothing….

A baby’s belly-laugh breaks the sickening silence.  His sleep-enshrouded mirth opens a pin-prick of light in the midst of a pitch-black death-night.  In the midst of my broken sob, I see my child, still in slumber, laughing out loud at something.  Maybe it’s a dream, maybe he is responding to my body’s heaves. Nevertheless, he laughs a laugh that only a baby could muster in the midst of his deepest sleep.  His laugh rises like music notes to meet my song of lament, and our emotions unite.  Tears still flowing, I join in his laughter-song.  I join my son, and joy invades, takes residence in my sorrow.  This baby, oblivious to the depths of my pain, has become the means of grace through which hope takes flight. My tears still flow freely, and they mingle with tears of joy, of hope.

Out of the depths of my longing hopelessness, I look down to see a sleeping child laugh.  My child, who represents hope, joy, and renewed life. All is not lost I am not forgotten. We are not forgotten.  God is with us.  He has manifested Himself in a tiny baby boy.

Games We Play

Upon reflecting on my progress in recovery, I have come to a realization. My disorder-dance is kind of a like a whack-a-mole game. I clobber one of my issues with that little mallet and celebrate its retreat into its little mole-hole. No sooner does the victor’s smile creep on my face than one, no, two, no, three of my other issues raise their ugly faces. In the process of living, and whacking, I have discovered a correlation between my victory over my eating disorder and the resurgence of the depression and anxiety. Over the past twenty-something years, I have developed a pretty sound strategy of keeping the most issues under control at any given time. The only catch is that the eating disorder’s little lovely head has to be peeking out ever-so-slightly. My dietician said that I do an excellent job of “living with my eating disorder.” I remain sub-clinical and fly under the radar while continuing to maintain pretty solid negotiations with the eating disorder. To me, this has been survival. My little moles of anxiety and depression appear to be the more debilitating and even life-threatening issues, especially with my little ones to look after. Allowing the anorexia a tiny little spot in my life seems to be the lesser of all of the evils, and surely life is not so wonderful that I can avoid having to choose any of the evils altogether. The dance is tedious, however, and maintaining health while negotiating with an eating disorder can get tricky, especially while taking care of two babies under the age of two and breastfeeding and going without precious sleep. Maybe there are more options. Maybe I can figure out how to manage my other “moles” without having to use another one to hold them at bay. Are there healthy habits that I can grasp onto as I relinquish the habit of restriction? It may be a little bit more complicated to pursue better self-care and recovery-oriented behaviors in place of this clandestine relationship with the anorexia, but I am not so sure that it will be. It could be much more simple. Of course, I would love if my little horrible moles would just choose to never flash their hideous faces ever again, but history does not offer much evidence that they can be exterminated. I grow weary of this tenuous dance with anorexia, however. I long for a way to live free without having to use one disorder to hold back other more intimidating disorders. It all starts with following that ever-nagging meal plan. Simple enough. The complicated part comes when those dang moles start popping up. I certainly have the tools to deal with them without allowing anorexia back. Am I okay with “doing an excellent job of living with my eating disorder,” or do I really want to live free? Can I possibly live free of all of my disorders, or am I like Sylvia Plath, waiting for one of the bell jars to descend again? I honestly don’t know, but I am willing to step out to see.