When Trauma Comes to Visit

Don't you hate it when you've done all you can to process a trauma and it still comes to visit from time to time? I wish there was a way to not be shaped by our traumas. I know that's not possible and probably not even good as terrible things often shape us in somewhat positive ways, if you're in a frame of mind to see it. Though I must admit, that's hard to do in the middle of the night when you wake up from a nightmare sobbing. It's been 5 and a half years since we left professional ministry. We've been through other traumas since that time that were even more severe and yet that one still leaves a mark. I think I must admit to myself that it always will. My ultimate goal is to not let my traumas make me a bitter, hardened person. Unfortunately, sometimes in order to get to that place, you gotta work through a lot of pain and anger.  

I am still connected to our old church through a weekly MOMS group I attend. Most of the women there are unaware of my history and the church has been through a major overhaul in both style and leadership since we left. Yet, I'm still walking those halls, seeing many of the people from our "old life" and everyone acts like nothing ever happened. I guess that's the only way to move forward. It's not like I want to spend my 2 hours of weekly free childcare sussing out old pain with people I don't really trust. And I know I've already had the hard conversations I needed to have way back when. The group has been a great source of fun and friendship for me (I feel I need to justify my attendance since being in that environment is clearly still triggering).  

Perhaps it is the perfectionist in me that wants to check "professional church ministry trauma" off the list and move on. And I have moved on in ways I am really proud of and genuinely grateful for. I know if the trauma had not happened, we would not be the people we are today. And I think we are better people. I am so much more humble, gracious and honest than I was before. I was always a nice person but leaving professional ministry helped me embrace my humanity, give myself grace and become an all-around kinder person. I've found my voice, my values and my own footing having had that formerly precious security blanket ripped from me. And yet, it's still hard. It's still sad. And sometimes, that trauma comes to call. Maybe that's how you know something you lost really meant so much. When that pain knocks, perhaps the healthiest thing to do is open the door, embrace the pain and let the tears flow.

The Value of Failure

I've been reading a novel I picked up at the library recently. I find such joy in reading books and it feels like a special treat when one surprises you with a "truth nugget" right in the middle of an otherwise normal narrative. One of the characters is as nostalgic as I am. As she's processing her divorce, she comes to this conclusion. "It's funny what comes to mind when the worst possible thing happens. After Jim left, I thought my life was over. I had tried so hard, and Jim had stopped loving me anyway. But failing isn't proof that nothing matters or that we were fools to care. We fail even though things matter very much; it's the possibility of failure that makes them matter even more."*
Grief causes us to go back to what we lost and to reassess its value. Sometimes we overvalue what is was, living in the "glory days" and remembering everything from that time through rose-colored glasses. Other times, usually when we don't want to feel the pain of loss, we try to convince ourselves that what we had before was not as good as it really was. It allows us to squash the grief we feel so we can limp forward in search of something better.
I love what this character is saying. When something fails (loss is all failure of some kind: death is failure to live; divorce is failure to work things out, etc.) that does not diminish its value. In fact, we put more value in things that have the potential to fail. Relationships fail. And rather than saying that, in order to grieve that failure, we must carry it forever (rose-colored glasses) or devalue our experience (denial of pain) of it, she's saying that the very act of failure gives evidence of its meaning. 
This idea blows my mind. I often find myself so disappointed when something fails. As an achiever and a perfectionist, I try so hard to make my life (and the lives of those I care about, see: caretaking) work. And when things don't, it's so easy to want to reduce the value of that experience. The pain of loss is so great, and often I take on the responsibility for that failure regardless of the situation. So on top of grief, I add on a heaping measure of shame. It's so much easier to say that whatever failed was not worth the effort it required to continue. 
She goes on to say, "At fifty-three years old, I almost lost what I had somehow known from the time I was a small girl. I almost lost the knowledge that made my life work...the faith that made three decades of marriage possible and everything good that happened in those years: the family we had, the friends we made, the laughs we shared, the tears, the everything of it. At fifty-three, I almost forgot what Avis Briggs always knew. It all matters." 
She's saying that just because her marriage didn't last forever (and believe me, she's grieving that in a big way) does not mean that their thirty years together were a waste. Just because she's crying now, her years of laughter still happened and still matter. I find this idea so beautiful, so comforting and so, so true to my life. I want my experiences, both painful and beautiful, to have meaning. 
I have no control over how my life will go. I know everyone reading that last line will have a gut check reaction to that truth because we so desperately want that to not be true. We want our good behavior to control the future, that bad things won't happen to us if we behave ourselves, that we will not experience failure in the places that are the most vulnerable in our hearts if we just keep trying. We want to box in our world, our God, our choices, whatever it takes to know that everything will be okay. But the joy of this narrative, both in the novel I'm reading and in the life I'm living is that experiencing pain does not erase the experience of joy. 
As a black and white thinker, I often paint things with a broad brush. If the teen girl gets pregnant, then she shouldn't have had sex with that boy. No matter that she loved him, no matter that she wanted to, no matter that she learned something. She shouldn't have done it and now she's reaping the consequences of her choices. But this is life. The joy of sex and the fear of parenting. The safety of a thirty year marriage and the shock of divorce. The fun of loving your babies and the grief of them moving on. On and on it goes. We want to live in a way that we think we can foresee the consequences and learn to avoid them. Or that the foreseeable ones shouldn't hurt as much as they do. Of course, there are obvious high-risk choices and some of us are more prone to them than others. But there is no way to have complete foresight, no true security in life. 
While there is a lot of fear in acknowledging this, in some ways it comes as a relief to me. For one, it's true in what I've seen and experienced and when I stop denying my heart, I find peace. Two, it takes me off my high horse. It's a lot easier to judge people when you think you've got this life thing all sorted out. Three, it creates community. The lack of security we have in this life fosters dependence on each other in a way that is beautiful, sacred and ironically, security-giving. When we know we have hands to catch us, falling is not as devastating. Four, it takes the pressure off needing to figure everything out, being the one who always needs to be the giver. It levels the playing field, this acknowledging of our collective human experience. We have so much more in common with each other than the areas in which we differ. Five, if we know failure is part of life and therefore, inevitable, does that not make the victories more sweet? When things work out, isn't it almost an unexpected surprise? When we pick up a random novel off a shelf and we find hidden gems of truth, this is the sweetness of life. It's pure, unexpected and resonates with the truth in my heart. 
* For anyone who's interested, the novel is called We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride.

Weaning Day

It dawned on me on Monday that Penny was beginning to wean. Her several weeks-long unpredictable nursing patterns finally translated into the truth (I'm slow on the uptake. I literally just bought my first fedora. I hear they're not cool anymore): Penny is ready to stop nursing. There are so many good things about this. 1- She's initiating it, so as a caretaker there's no possibility for guilt on my end. Having my child increasing in independence over time is one of my main goals as a parent - developmentally-appropriate independence with support available as needed. Check. 
2- Tim and I can finally put to rest any illusion that my presence is critical to making life with Penny work. With all our post-partum baggage, this is really healthy for me. My leash, at least physically, is being severed. 3- We can travel! We will celebrate 10 years of marriage in January and we're really hoping to take a trip to commemorate that huge occasion next year. 4- I can go back to underwire! (Okay, so maybe these points are not all of equal value).
Even though we're "ready", it is still a major transition in our relationship, probably the biggest one since birth. The change is physical, emotional, logistical. I liken it to a breakup where you're trying to end the romantic relationship while still attempting to remain friends. 
Your connection is changing and it's sad, awkward and liberating all at the same time. In some ways, you cling harder because they're the person you're used to turning to when things get tough, even though the transition is within your relationship. 
As with most transitions for my kids, I'm thrilled for them while simultaneously sad/nostalgic for myself. I've always been sentimental and processing these things when they happen helps me to minimize the fallout in other areas of my life (let's not even discuss the car I backed into today in the Office Max parking lot. Seriously, who even buys office supplies in retail stores anymore?!?!)
So, we spend a fantastic day on Tuesday celebrating Penny's "weaning day." It felt like the 1 year old version of a bat mitzvah with a little first day of your daughter's period mixed in for good measure. I took her somewhere she'd never been (Portland Children's Museum) and watched her utter delight as she everything freely (there is no greater gift to an active toddler). I got to gaze at her in admiration while she raced around curiously. Occasionally she'd stop and search for me, making eye contact. She may not need to nurse anymore, but she's still checking back to make sure mama's only an arm's length away.
I'm so proud of her persistence, her amazing ability to connect and also remain her own entity. She's fierce. Already her own advocate and bent on discovery, Penny moves as quickly as her little legs can carry her (and the higher they can climb up, the better). Not one to give up easily, my little Pen takes risks. She's such a gift! I'm so grateful to be her liason into the world. At one point, she was literally connected to me and now I get to be the one to show her around. 

Look out, world. Here she comes!

On the Cusp of Something

I'm in that weird vortex between two seasons of life. We all are. I've got one foot in fall and one foot in summer. Macy starts 1st grade on Wednesday. In some ways, this is awesome! I love the fall and frankly, I'm totally over sweating. I want to break out the skinnys and the boots. I want to have pumpkins on my porch and my child in school all day. I love her, but she is my mirror. And sometimes it's hard to look at my precious firstborn and not see myself in all my glory. I see her pleasing. I see her perfectionism. I see her enthusiasm. I see her insatiable need for love and attention. I see her wanting more and more from her loved ones. I hear her voice talking on and on. I see her passion, her anger, her smile, her fear. Sometimes it's overwhelming. Sometimes for my own sanity, I want to set her on a shelf for awhile. It's terrible, but it's honest and there's no way I'm the only parent who feels that way. I'm just that person who always outs themselves in brutal honesty.
I'm ready to slow down. I'm ready to take more time and energy for myself. I'm ready for some quiet. But the perfectionist in me also feels let down. Summer is over. All the things I wanted to do this summer that I didn't get to do are scrolling through my mind like a parade of shame. All the hours I let my kid watch TV while I hid in my room, I remember. I really tried to cut myself some slack this summer, but I still wish I was capable of more, that I could just go on forever. There's a grace in me being unable to do and be everything I want to be (and everything I feel pressure to be). Because if I could go on forever, I would. I would not eat, sleep, rest. I wouldn't. And that is one of the beautiful things about being human. I don't have a choice. Thank God for that.
As a caretaker, I often pull up short when my own needs present themselves. I don't realize I need to eat until I'm starving. I tuck self-care in the nooks and crannies of taking care of everyone else. This is common for women in this "season of life" when you have small children. But when I have noticeable emotional needs, it surprises me. Gah!
When I was in college, my therapist mentioned to me that small transitions require extra self-care for me. (Yes, I'm in therapy now and I was in therapy then. Best time/money spent ever). I need to give myself a little extra grace when the seasons change, when my schedule changes, when my friends leave and when new ones come. The changes don't have to be "bad". In fact, they are often the changes that I anticipate that throw me the most.
This seemingly small transition from one season to another is greatly exacerbated by Labor Day. I know, weird. It's such a non-holiday. But in our family, it has served as a benchmark of pain the last few years. 3 years ago, it was on Labor Day that we walked away (not by choice) from ministry forever. It was on Labor Day weekend last year that I took my husband to the ER and had him admitted for pervasive suicidal thoughts, with 7 week old Penny in tow. He then went to a respite facility for 2 nights, finally with dear friends for 3 weeks in town. In those weeks, I was raising our newborn alone (with MASSIVE support from friends and family), caring for a traumatized 5 year old starting kindergarten, and myself in a frightening post-partum experience. It was, by far, the worst thing I've ever endured. I learned I was capable and that I need help. I learned that marriage is a choice and depression is not. 
Well, Tim had a minor surgery on Thursday that landed me in a medical facility waiting for his medication and discharge for 2 hours with 2 hungry, tired kids. We then ended up in the exact same ER as last year 90 minutes after he was home from the surgery because he was vomiting all his pain pills. I missed Macy's Back to School night because I was juggling my now very mobile daughter while my husband was treated. And since then, I've been racing around caring for the 3 of them on our final days of summer. It's all way too familiar. Tim will have to get a stent removed from the surgery sometime this week, which means there will be another procedure. I've found myself crying in parking lots, crying in my kitchen, crying now at my computer. This is an anniversary I wish to never revisit, a season of life I would like to bury forever. I wouldn't wish the way I witnessed my spouse a year ago on anyone. Sometimes life has a way of sticking it to you, right in your weakest places, making the world that I usually see with naively rosy glasses suddenly feel cold and untrustworthy. 
I know today is not a year ago or 3 years ago, for that matter. As familiar as this feels, it isn't the same. This weekend gives me an opportunity to continue to grieve the pain that was last year and previous years. But it also serves as a reminder that we've come a long way. I choose to sit in that rather than focus on how far we still have to go. But sometimes on nights like this, it feels heavy. I try to be present, to sit in the mess. As you can imagine, perfectionists don't like messes, particularly emotional, familial un-fixable ones! I have a savior complex. Being "in process" myself, not being able to control the processes of my family members, and waiting for simple moments that come more often now but not often enough is not an easy thing for me. 
I'm learning that we don't get to choose our life, only the way we're living it. I choose to live mine honestly. I choose to tell my story when I'm crying in parking lots and when I'm laughing with my kids. It's all part of my story. And I have to believe that ultimately, my story is good, that I'm part of a greater story that matters. Our suffering has value. It's not a punishment. It's a reality, a critical piece of our human experience. In some ways, it is what most greatly unites us. I want to connect with the people around me, with their humanity, with their compassion, with their story. I don't want to live in an ivory tower, rising above everyone else. Of course, I'd love to get out of the trenches for awhile. I don't want to stay here forever. But if being in the trenches makes me a more open, honest, compassionate and generous version of myself, is it worth it? I think it just might be. Luckily, it's not up to me to decide if I stay in the trenches or not. We usually stay in longer than we thought we would or intended to. We're antsy and ready to rise above the ground. I believe I will, stronger than ever, in time. But for now, I'll be down here if you need me, in the trenches. 


I've always said that the first and second birthdays are the hardest. Then Macy turned 3, 4, 5, & 6. So far, there hasn't been a birthday yet that hasn't thrown me for a loop. Even though I anticipate my children's birthdays with excitement and I really enjoy making plans to celebrate them, somehow I'm still surprised when they actually happen. Kind of like how you feel when someone who's been sick for awhile finally dies. They were ready. They were looking forward to it. And on behalf of them, you were ready for them and celebrated their release from pain. But for yourself, it's still sad and somehow shocking. I still don't get it. 
My little Penelope is turning 1 year old tomorrow. For those of you who don't know, it took us 2 and a half years to conceive Penny. There was a time that I wasn't sure if we would ever get the pleasure of having another child. That process was such a learning experience for me and very personal in my relationship with God. He spoke to me in those places of longing, loss and impatience. There were times I really thought I was pregnant and wasn't. I tried to tell myself not to get my hopes up only to find myself disappointed time and time again. I remember one month, God actually asked me to thank Him that He did not give me a child. Ouch.
One year into the process, we were fired from ministry. Initially, God was asking me to trust Him with the timing of another child. That turned into a season of Him asking me to trust Him if there was to be no more children at all. And finally, asking me to thank Him for my empty arms. He reminded me that my arms were not empty, that He had already given me a child, whom I loved very much. At the end of all of that, we lost our friend Ryan to cancer. He was 30. In our grief, we clung to each day and to each person whom we loved. And in the midst of that grief, we conceived my precious treasure Penny. 
As I may have eluded in other posts, and will surely discuss many times in the future, my theology has changed a lot in the last few years. It's been a difficult but mostly intentional process. But there are a few things in my faith experience that are incredibly personal to me, times in which I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was working. This fertility process and the timing of the gift of my second and final child is by far the one of which I am most convinced. 
I had a difficult pregnancy which resulted in me slowing down a lot. Her birth was totally nuts (somehow it took 5 days of false labor and then only 1 hour and 52 minutes for her to be born) which resulted in me biting my husband at one point (bet he was wishing I'd had time for that epidural). We went through a very painful post-partum season with Tim's depression, which was so much more severe than we ever could have anticipated. We had the privilege of being loved through crisis. Our life was literally held together by the people who love us. Somehow, in all the darkness that was this year (and we are SO not done), Penny has been the shining light through it all. As much as we've cried, our moments with her have been almost entirely pure joy. She is a gift. I call her my treasure (and then promptly sing Bruno Mars). 
I am so proud of the fact that I have spent night after night rocking her to sleep, nursing her, reading to her, feeding her (which feels like an Olympic sport these days), kissing her, holding her and talking to her. I have not taken her babyhood for granted. When I had my first baby 6 years ago, I was more anxious, almost seeing the baby phases as something to hurry through. Boy, did I regret that! Babies do require a lot of care, duh. But then when I didn't know if I'd ever have another one, I promised myself I would savor it. As much as this year has thrown us some very painful curveballs, ones that we never intend to repeat, I have so many moments with her that have changed me forever. She's changed all of us forever. 
She's made Macy a big sister, which I'm convinced has been as big of a gift to her as it's been to us. I've never been prouder of my oldest than when I've seen her day after day welcoming her little sister into her world. She has grown tremendously this year and I hope they will always have each other. There's just nothing sweeter than watching your kids love on each other. 
There have been moments this year when I've felt anxious about the passing of time. Like an hourglass, the time of Penny's babyhood felt like it was slipping through my fingers. In those moments, I've reminded myself that I really have done the best I could to treasure her, and that the time passing isn't within my control. I only get to decide what I do with the time I'm given. And so, with a heavy heart, I laid her in her crib tonight and kept my hand on her back until she fell asleep (this isn't me just being super nice, it's actually the only way she'll sleep:) And I came in here to capture my thoughts, knowing that the next time I see her, she'll have magically turned into a one year old. 

Tread lightly

It's an understatement to say that Americans don't like pain. We're drawn to quick solutions that include prescription drugs, food, TV, beer, shopping and sex. We can't sit in pain. We compartmentalize. We “move on” (deny, avoid). If the people in our lives aren't getting better fast enough, we rush them. On top of this, I find that evangelical Americans further minimize pain by spouting out well-intended but not lived-in theology. We say seemingly comforting things, that at the wrong time are incredibly insensitive and ignorant.
There comes a time in everyone's life (and let's face it, it happens more than once) where our souls are laid bare. When something so gut-wrenching, life-altering, paradigm-shifting happens to us. Recently, one of my friends lost her beloved husband to wasting-away, horrifically violent cancer. I've known 5 separate families who've lost an infant in the last 3 years alone. FIVE babies. I've walked with friends through divorce, depression, job loss, moves, chronic illness, coming out, rejection from their families...all within the last 18 months. During this time, we went through the most difficult time of our own lives with a mental health crisis and a newborn. LIFE. IS. HARD. 
Many of us have been trained to “plant seeds” (share our beliefs with conviction) in these times because people are vulnerable. They need something to hold onto. So we say things like "God is in control. God has a plan for you. All things work together for good. There is a reason for everything. They're in a better place." While many people believe these things earnestly, I say, tread lightly, my friends, because you are standing on the holy ground of someone else's soul. Please be careful. 
It's not that these things are untrue (though I believe many of them are). But when you put yourself in the shoes of the hearer, they can come off as dismissive. If I could live the rest of my life and not hear another person “lovingly” invalidate the pain of another human being, I would be grateful. I think, as Christians, we're afraid to admit how much pain we're in, that somehow this minimizes our faith. That our humanity may be too much. Or that our faith isn't enough. That somehow, if we're in bottomless pain, we're no different from “the world”, that God is not doing his job, that we're not good Christians. Like we have an obligation to put on a good commercial for Jesus with our lives, and that includes having less pain and more smiles (watch out for the disclaimer at the end). We're afraid of the power of our anger. We don't want it to get out of control. We're impatient with grief. It takes too long. We're weary and we're afraid. We just want the pain to stop.
Here's the reality guys. It won't. Sure, in time the agony eases and we very awkwardly stumble into a new normal. But how does that help us today, when our lives are in shambles? When we tell people it will be better in time, it feels like we're asking them to be patient in agony because it's only a "short" time. It doesn't feel short.  
I've come to the conclusion that meaning well is not enough. It does not give us free reign to perpetuate bad theology in efforts to comfort people, or more accurately, to comfort ourselves. Personally, I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. I do not believe everything that happens is God's will. I do not believe that everything that happens is part of God's plan. I do not believe that God takes babies out of their mother's arms because He's lonely in Heaven. That paints him as impatient, greedy, lonely, selfish and heartless.  I. Just. Don't.
Rather than believing that God is totally fine with tearing people's lives apart, I believe that God is wonderfully good. So much more good than we can possibly imagine or give him credit for. I believe that God is big enough to cover us in times of huge loss and small enough to whisper to our hearts a word of hope, the faith that things will get better some day. We can trust him with our pain. I believe that at the end of all things, whatever that looks like, we will be whole again. He is so good that even in the dark night of our souls, he is able to bring us comfort. He is able to show us grace. We find God in the friends who hold our hands and sob in our living room. He's in the neighbor who feeds us and the people who hold our crying babies. He is in the bills that are unexpectedly paid. Just because he helps us crawl out of the pit doesn't mean he threw us in there just so He could get accolades for getting us out. We don't have to draw that line. HE MADE THE WORLD. Do you think he has to resort to cheap tricks to get glory? If we don't praise Him, the rocks will cry out. He is worthy of praise. Period. Our personal circumstances do not change that. 
I think it's okay to admit that we don't know why terrible things happen. Maybe it's because the world is broken. Maybe it's because we're no different from anyone else and bad things happen to all people. Maybe there isn't a reason. To be honest, I'd rather admit that I honest to goodness DO NOT KNOW than to pretend that I do. Because one day, you wake up and realize that there aren't any reasons that are good enough to share without a postpartum mother with empty arms. There aren't. But we want a cause and an effect. We want to prevent bad things from happening to us and to the people we love. We want it to be true that if we behave well and believe a lot, the really scary stuff will pass us by. We want control. We want to be safe. And when something shatters our illusion of control, we try to contain it with bad theology even if it means hurting people in the process.
To be honest, I don't think we'll ever know why bad things happen to good people. I know God has power. And sometimes, we want him to stop bad things from happening and he doesn't. I don't know what to do with that. I really don't. We don't get to draw the lines we want to draw. And that is so hard. But that doesn't mean we don't have faith, words to comfort, or things we can do to help. If we must speak, how about something like: “You are loved. You matter. Your life matters. You are valuable. You are not alone. Your children matter. Your loss is huge. This is awful. I'm so, so sorry.” 
Don't try to tidy the mess. I know it's really uncomfortable to sit in that tension, whether it's our own or that of a dear friend. When you must come up for air, take a break by doing one of the previously stated things Americans do to check out. Because no one can stay present in grief all the time. And let's face it, sometimes those things help. But we're doing a disservice when we try to protect people from their own pain. Pull up a chair at the table and let it come. For it's the only way to live an honest life, to embrace your humanity, and to stop hurting the wounded warriors all around us.