Monday, September 19, 2016

Let's Talk About Faith Part 16: Conclusion

Previously on Let's Talk About Faith:  Introduction / Pre-Church / Confirmation / Saved / Jump / Healing / Mission / Prayer / TheOnly / Work / Leadership / Bible Study / Mental Health I / Mental Health II / Mental Health III /

Talking about faith for the past few months has been difficult, cathartic and necessary.  In order to change how people with disabilities are received in a church or other faith-based environment, I felt I had to open up and share the reality of what my experience in church has been like.  And while there have been glimpses of acceptance and opportunities to be a part of things, it has mostly been painful.

Nearly a decade after setting foot in a church, speaking about Christianity feels a bit like ripping a band-aid off a gaping wound.  I feel vulnerable and judged.  I feel unsafe and out of place.  While I understand that not all churches are places where we, with disabilities are singled out, that has been my experience.

So, what do I believe in now?

[Image is: a black and white closeup shot of me smiling.]


FAITH IN THE UNIVERSE:

My beliefs have expanded since attending The Edge.  I no longer feel constrained by the narrow world-view that church preached.  While I feel oppressed by what the Bible says about my community, and I feel objectified by God, I believe in the universe.  I believe in putting out positive energy.  I don’t know if I believe in God the way a typical Christian might because my experience of God has been very different, and He does not conjure a sense of security in me.

I don’t believe the universe is an accident.  I don’t believe people are an accident.  I believe disabled people are meant to be here.  We have a right to live our lives, to draw breath, to exist in this space and to human rights and dignities that everyone in the majority possesses.

I believe that even when we die, we are not gone.  I believe that we leave traces of ourselves behind.  Echoes of our presence.  I believe that spirits can linger here long after death and I take comfort in that.

Today, if you ask me to pray for you, I will not deny you that.  I will appeal to Him for you because it is what you need.  I know what it is like to have something you are not comfortable with pushed on you, and I won’t do that.  I promise.  I still have friends who are Christians, who I love and respect, and we understand that faith is a tricky subject, so we take care when discussing it together.

FAITH IN LOVE:

One of the greatest things that has come from writing this faith series is the opportunity it provided for me to reconnect with Pastor Sarah.

We had not been in touch in twenty years, but while I was writing about my confirmation experience, I tried again to look her up.  This time, I found her.

She said, “I was just thinking about you!” as if no time at all had passed.  She has read this series and left vital comments which let me know that she, as a pastor, does not condone the negative things I experienced.  She has reminded me to trust my own heart and wisdom, even above those who respect me completely.

She has reminded me there are people in churches who hold places in authority who do love us as we are and don’t want to change us.

FAITH IN MYSELF:

While faith is defined by believing in something you cannot see, I truly believe one of the greatest things I have developed in these ensuing years is a faith in myself.  For many years I refused to see myself as disabled.  I refused to say the word disabled, or even speak about the way my body was different.

Away from the constant message in the church that I must change this fundamental part of me, I have been able to accept my CP as an inextricable part of me.  I have friends with it as well as other disabilities.  I have community.  We affirm all of each other.  We are there for each other.

I don’t need to be healed to be whole.  In fact, if I ever were healed, I wouldn’t be whole.  I would always feel like something were missing.  Apart from the church, I am able to breathe in the truth, and know that I am enough.

Rachel Scott once wrote, “Create in me, the church, so that wherever I go, I will find sanctuary.”  Instead of seeking out acceptance from people in a building, I am creating sanctuary within myself, so I will always have access to a space that is both sacred and safe.

***

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Let's Talk About Faith Part 15: Mental Health III

Previously on Let's Talk About Faith:  Introduction / Pre-Church / Confirmation / Saved / Jump / Healing / Mission / Prayer / TheOnly / Work / Leadership / Bible Study / Mental Health I / Mental Health II /

By the summer of 2006, I was starting to come to church less and less.  Tara had already stopped going, and over time, the pull to be accepted faded and I found that I was attending church more out of obligation than desire.

My mental health issues remained.  While I was able to successfully resist the impulse to self harm, I still dealt with anxiety and my trauma could still be reawakened with the right trigger, even in the summer months.

That’s what happened one night in early June, as the young adults gathered for a Bible study on the book of Revelation in the basement of The Edge.

FAITH AND FREAKING OUT:

Studying The End Times (as the church called the end of the world, detailed in the book of Revelation) was the very last thing I wanted to do.  Tara had attended a few meetings with the young adults and we had all voted for what subjects we wanted to learn about.  Tara and I voted to study God and the attributes of a father.  Everyone else voted to study how God would destroy the world and every person who didn’t believe in Him in the last days.

For a person with anxiety, linked to a precarious sense of safety in the world, the idea that God would come back and be super mad at everyone who didn’t do every single thing He commanded sounded absolutely terrifying.

Part of this study (and the book of Revelation) details that before the end of the world happens there will be lots of different signs of things to come.  Everything from severe weather patterns to scary leaders who convince people to trust them but turn out to be evil.  In fact, everything in the news was something that The Edge attributed to God’s judgment and preparing for The End Times.

I don’t remember the specific purpose, but I know we watched a video on this evening.  This video depicted real little kids with guns in other countries and an actual honest-to-God execution caught on tape.  It was the execution that did me in and I knew I couldn’t watch anymore.  I was totally horrified.  Even though I couldn’t leave to go home myself, I went outside and walked around, feeling totally freaked out.  I couldn’t understand how anyone could watch something like that and remain calm.

After a while, a friend, Vanessa, came out and found me. She asked if I was okay.  I told her I wasn’t.

“That video...I just can’t even deal with it.  I have anxiety already and I just couldn’t stay there and keep watching.”  As with anything that sparked anxiety, my feelings about almost losing my sister were raw again as that was the most unsafe I had ever felt.  I opened up a bit about it and we talked for a while.  I shared a lot, and could not seem to stop talking about how afraid the video made me.

Just like that, everyone started coming out of the church.

“Who are you getting a ride with?  Liam?” Vanessa asked.

“Yeah.” I answered.

“Okay.  Just hang out here.  I’m gonna go talk to him.”

“Don’t make a big deal out of it.  I’ve dealt with this forever and he’s probably sick of it,” I cautioned her.

“Don’t worry.  I won’t.  I just think he should know.  You don’t want to drive all the way home with him not knowing, right?”

“No.”  I agreed.  “You’re right.  I don’t.”

FAITH AND STANDING ALONE:

“So, Vanessa told me you’re upset…” Liam began as soon as he was behind the wheel.

“I am.”

“Just because of the movie, or what?”

“That movie was ridiculous.  I can’t believe you guys even stayed for it.”  Liam was quiet, listening as he drove.  “It made me remember everything with Tara…”  I admitted.  “I got really anxious and it made me remember being anxious then.”

“Don’t you think it’s about time you let this go and got free of it once and for all?” he asked.

His comment had a familiar ring to it.  I remembered him urging me in a similar manner, to just get over a close friend’s death.  This was no easier to take.  Still, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Clearly he had never experienced mental health issues like these, or to this degree.

“I feel like letting go and getting free is like denying that anything ever happened.  It’s like saying that nothing was ever lost,” I said, thinking of our family and how we now had less of a sense of security and confidence in our health.

Liam’s response was swift and sharp: “That’s a lie from the pit of hell!”

I was stunned into silence.  He had never raised his voice at me before.  Eventually, I tried again, quietly holding my ground:  “Well, it feels true for me.  Seriously, why can’t you just be here for me?  How hard is that?  To just be my friend.  I just need support right now, not a lecture.  I just don’t feel like you’re being here for me.”

“I’ve always been here for you, Tonia.  Do you know how much I pray for you?”

“And I appreciate that, but I mean as a person.  As a friend.  I need you to be here for me without trying to fix me.”

“I refuse to stand with you under these lies you’re believing!”

“I’m not asking you to stand with me under any lies!  I’m just asking you to stand with me!” I insisted, feeling profoundly misunderstood.

“Well, how long do I have to do that before you’ll take the next step and get healed?”

His words stung like a slap.  Friends didn’t issue ultimatums for friends who were too slow to heal from life-changing trauma.  His words shook me, as I realized that even though he had really backed off on talking to me about physical healing, he didn’t see how it was equally harmful to push me into the idea of getting healed of other things.

“You know the idea of healing scares me.  You were there for that whole thing at the conference.”

“Well, I’m not suggesting you do that again.  Just that you, you know, move on.”

“I am dealing with this,” I said quietly, “at my own pace.  I think I am getting better, but slowly, and in private.  I know I’m not as affected today as I was when it happened.  But it’s as if it doesn’t count for you unless it’s the way you want it.  In public.  In front of people. With loud praying.  When you know I’m not comfortable with that.”

“This isn’t just going to go away…” he cautioned.

“No, it isn’t.” I agreed.  “Honestly, it feels like you only want to be my friend when I do what you want me to do.  When I was coming to church regularly and going to all the events and really involved, you loved hanging out.  Now, we barely see each other.  It’s like you’re only happy to be around me when I’m doing the exact same thing you are.  I feel like a project to you.  First, the goal was to get me saved, and then that happened and the next goal was physical healing.  That didn’t happen, but it just keeps going on like that.  The less I play along the less you like being around me.”

“Is that really what you think of me?” Liam asked, hurt.

“It’s how you’re acting.  You don’t want to be around us anymore.  And you just asked me how long you had to stand with me before I got healed.  What am I supposed to think, Liam?”

I felt embarrassed, ashamed and selfish.  I felt like I should have kept my fear and anxiety to myself and just dealt with it on my own.

After that, I came back to church even less frequently.  It was this conversation that allowed me to see finally that The Edge was not a good place for me.

FAITH AND A WAKE-UP CALL:

Less than a year later, in the spring of 2007, some friends I had worked with at Still Waters Bible Camp were in town, and asked if they could come to church with me.  I had not attended The Edge in a long time, but I was still open to going as long as someone offered to drive me.

It was a weird collision of separate worlds.  Camp was a place I felt almost wholly accepted and church was a place where I felt the complete opposite.  Still, I was excited to introduce my camp friends (including Charlie) to my church friends.  They met Liam and Vanessa.

In the sanctuary, Charlie began making quiet comments about the nature of his chronic illness.  Dry one-liners.  (“You know, church would be such a great place to die.”)  I knew he meant what he said.  I also knew he often coped with humor.  So, we laughed.

Worship was great, as always.  There was not a sermon, but testimony-sharing.  But the thing I remember most vividly was the puppet show put on for the kids.  I had never seen anything like it at The Edge, as the children were usually excused immediately after worship to go to children’s church, which was held downstairs.

On that day, things were different.  There was a children’s program, featuring two puppets - Heart and Brain.  After church, my friends mocked the puppet show good-naturedly (but relentlessly), and collected dated tracts from outside the sanctuary on everything from the evils of rock music to why it was wrong to be Catholic.  They saw the funny side of these things.  Later, we went to lunch.

It was a nice day.  I had no idea that this particular day was the last time I would be at The Edge.

[Image is: Me and Tara, out to eat, after attending The Edge for the last time.]


FAITH AND PROTECTION:

In truth, it has taken years to articulate precisely why it was that attending with these friends was essentially the final straw for me.  There had certainly been other times.  Worse things had happened to me within those church walls and outside them while encouraged by friends from The Edge.

I think, though, it was seeing the church through other eyes that made the difference.  My friends from Still Waters were sarcastic and dry-humored, but honest to boot.  They were not afraid to call out the absolutely ridiculous things they were seeing.

More than that, though, it was occupying the space with Charlie.  It was hearing a dear friend speak about wanting to die in a church and knowing that no one at The Edge would ever be there for someone like him, in the serious moments of his life.  In the dark moments.  In the moments where his faith was not in question, but they would make him believe it was.

They would want him to believe harder when all of us who loved Charlie knew he believed deeply and fully.  His faith was not the problem.  The problem was if people around him ever treated Charlie as they had treated me, I would hate it.  I felt protective of my friend, and for the first time, strong enough to protect myself.

I was able to free myself once and for all from The Edge.

***

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Let's Talk About Speechless 1x01 "P-I-PILOT"

I have been holding my breath and have been cautiously optimistic about the new ABC comedy series, Speechless.  (Tune in on Wednesday, September 21st at 7:30 CST to see the premiere!)  It happens that the first episode is also currently free on Amazon and Hulu, so if you have either of those, and have no self-control, like me, feel free to check it out sooner!

If you do not want to be spoiled about the content of the premiere, stop reading now.

In the opening scene, we meet Maya DiMeo (played by the fabulous Minnie Driver.)  Mom is a big fan of 50% off breakfast coupons and MUST make a 10-minute-drive in 3 minutes.  She drives an impressively large and beat up van.  Jimmy DiMeo cautions his wife to evade construction zones and hilariously hands her a cup of hazelnut coffee.  He has one of his own and they both sip as she drives.  We see tween to young teenage children in the back seat.  The boy, Ray, is not excited by Mom's adventurous driving skills but daughter, Dylan, is just as feisty as her mom is and yells at people on the way.

They make it on time and pull into an accessible parking spot, only to be yelled at by a lady about their apparent lack of a "handicapped placard."  (Think this never happens in real life?  Check out Let's Talk About Accommodation-Policing.)  Maya unfolds a ramp from the back of the van and out wheels the fabulous Micah Fowler, who plays oldest son, JJ.  (Micah, like his character, also has CP!  Hooray, authentic representation!)  Mom gives Yelling Lady the what-for and then calls two kids out for gawking and laughing.  "These," she says, waving her arms, "need a bit of a tune-up.  But he's all there upstairs and he has a thing about staring.

JJ then gives them "the finger."  (Actually, he gives them "four fingers" but you try isolating fine motor movements with CP and see how easy it is.)  Mom says it's a "work in progress."  The family is all surrounding him, all have their arms crossed, ready to take on the world.  All of them have his back.  It is a beautiful thing.

Next, we see JJ and Ray in a...rather rundown looking house.  (Calling it a fixer-upper would be generous.  JJ and Ray talk about how bad it sucks and Ray gets blamed for JJ's comment.  JJ denies having said it - his face a picture of innocence - and Ray calls him a bully.  It is a nice, human moment, where the kid with CP can be (and is) a jerk sometimes, and picks on his brother, and not only the angel people THINK he is.

We find out that Mom has decided to move the family because she has found the perfect school situation for JJ.  But this is the kids' sixth school in two years.  And the house is a dump.  Dad is pretty proud of his house hunting AND money saving skills.  (Not mad about the legit depiction, if a bit exaggerated, of just how hard it is to make everything work financially when disability is added to the mix.)  In fact, we see all three kids sharing a bedroom (which I remember doing at one point!)

Sidenote: I love all of the natural inclusion of adaptive equipment here: JJ has a giant letterboard on his bedroom wall which he can use his light to point to and talk to his siblings.  We see that he seems to enjoy picking on Ray, and Ray doesn't like it.

{Image is: a dark background with several adjectives on it, some in yellow, some in white, all in ALL CAPS.}


Dad is dialed into something being up with Ray and they have bonding time watching the cars careen out of the steep driveways.   Ray says "That's glorious" and tells his dad he doesn't want to move.  Dad hears him out and Ray insists, about their plan, "I get to be right and you get to be lazy!  Our two favorite things!"  Hahahaha!  I love their dynamic and I love that Dad is paying attention to the fact that not all is right with Ray.

The next day, Mom and JJ go to some center for disabilities and he gets paired up with his new voice.  JJ is not a fan of Mom's jokes about how "He is 16 now, it's time his voice changed."  When he shakes his head and voices his disapproval, Mom says it means he is laughing, but JJ makes it clear that he is not amused.  JJ asks if his new voice is cool, and then meets the most over-the-top, trying-to-be-cool cookie-cutter woman there is.  She has caught up on all the lingo and read the Urban Dictionary.  She wants to call JJ J-Tizzy.  JJ looks horrified, and Mom cautions, "Oh, don't do that..."

Now, they are all ready for school.  They meet the principal - all about inclusivity fairs and sea slugs - and then Mom inquires about the wheelchair ramp.  The kids are seen using the ramp at the back of the school, which is obviously meant for trash pickup.  The principal insists it's appropriate access, and not just a garbage ramp.  Mom says it's a "garbage and my son ramp."  And then she gives a crash course on basic human dignity.  Mom tests the principal on how well she can identify the difference between trash and people.  Meanwhile, Kenneth, who seems to be a groundskeeper, unassumingly drops the C word and Mom would like it deemed hate speech.  (Kenneth says as the sole black person, the irony of being called intolerant is not lost on him, but being a member of one minority group does not preclude you from having harmful attitudes about someone in another minority group.)

My favorite scene is JJ getting a legitimate standing ovation for coming into class.  (Think this is over the top?  I once had a teacher who said, "Make way for the princess!" whenever I entered her class.)  JJ's teacher instantly freaks out when he realizes that (oh my gosh!) JJ can't stand up!  "THE STANDING OVATION IS INSENSITIVE!" he screams and all the kids sit down.  (Do I have an example for this?  You bet.  High school Humanities, our zany teacher has all of us stand up to pretend to be archaic statues.  Her eyes fall on me, still in my desk, and she says with a look of discomfort and mild alarm says, "Tonia, you don't have to.")  They have the student with the Deaf cousin present JJ with a JJ for President banner.  JJ asks why he would want him to be president as no one here even knows him.  "You're an inspiration!" the kid says and JJ is in the middle of cursing him out when Disney Princess Voice Lady bails on interpreting and instead says, "He's honored and he'll think about it!" and JJ is NOT happy.

Next time we see JJ, the family is eating dinner.  Disney Princess would like to leave but Dad is adamant that they have her until 6 PM.  She shares that JJ has decided she sounds like a fairy godmother and has asked that she turn several students into pumpkins.  JJ then picks on Ray some more and Fairy Godmother interprets and then asks JJ if his comments are necessary.  Then, she refuses to say "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" while Mom and Ray are fighting because "it won't add anything to the conversation!"  But Dad is there and solid in his insistence that it will, and in saying so, is insisting that Fairy Godmother do her job and not pick and choose what she will interpret for JJ and what she won't, and I love that.

Dad drives JJ and Dylan to the school fair, and he says he needs one of them to stay with the van, and asks what might be a good division of labor.  JJ gives him the finger.  (SO would not have flown in my house.  CP or not we did NOT give Dad the finger.)  Kenneth finds JJ waiting with the van and recognizes him from Mom's ramp rant.  He addresses JJ and JJ immediately notes that he sounds cool and asks if he wants a job.  Kenneth calls him Blindside Jr. and asks if he is hiring.  JJ asks if he wants to try it out and tests Kenneth on interpreting.  Kenneth not only does the job but responds to his statements.  Then he asks about taking some liberties with "Stop leaning on my wheelchair!" and JJ is all about it.

JJ and Kenneth find Ray trapped on a ride at the fair by some bullies.  JJ says that Ray needs help and tells Kenneth they should fight the bullies.  Kenneth asks how many JJ plans to take.  But JJ has an idea.  He calls everybody to the stage and tells them he is running for student body president.  JJ's teacher who was all freaked out about the standing ovation being insensitive yells that "THIS IS SUCH AN OPEN-MINDED COMMUNITY!"  JJ and Kenneth exchange a look and Kenneth says, "You should see them on Black History Month."

Sea Slug Principal is so glad they are staying and Mom immediately tells her none of rides at the fair are accessible.  (Go, Mom!)  Then, everybody takes a turn on the ride Ray was on.  Mom and Dylan rant together.  Dad would like to stay on the ride for a week to get some quiet.  Mom rides again with Ray, surprised that her kid who is scared of heights would go again.  JJ and Kenneth ride together and Kenneth interprets when JJ screams in fright.

Overall, I really liked the show.  I burst out laughing several times.  What resonated most for me were the scenes with JJ.  Him assimilating to school and coping with new (and awkward) aides.  I hope to see more consistent focus on him, rather than just a scene here and there.  I'd like to see him navigate school, friends, teachers and relationships.  The focus is on Ray a lot for this and I would love to see JJ as more than comic relief.

I loved all the times we saw JJ out of his chair, and doing actual real human things like picking on his brother, and helping him out when he was in trouble.

Can't wait to see this when it airs for real!

Have you seen the pilot episode of Speechless?  What did you think?




***

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Monday, September 5, 2016

Let's Talk About Faith Part 14: Mental Health II

Previously on Let's Talk About Faith:  Introduction / Pre-Church / Confirmation / Saved / Jump / Healing / Mission / Prayer / TheOnly / Work / Leadership / Bible Study / Mental Health I /

Listen to the audio version here

I was known as “the smiley new student with Cerebral Palsy” when I was nine years old.  Even though that year was terrible.  Even though I often felt awful about myself. It had become expected.  Adults always told me, “You have such a positive attitude,” with an air of awe and sadness.

On one hand, my life was the only one I had ever known, and I was living mine just as everyone else was living theirs.  (None of the other kids got complimented for a content disposition, though.)  At the same time, no one knew just how much my smile hid, as I coped with a barrage of ableism.  I beamed kindness constantly because it put others at ease.  A pleasant expression could engage people.  It also absolved them, as I had a habit of grinning reflexively when my feelings were hurt.

At age ten, I self-injured for the first time after a major surgery, and a second time when I was thirteen.  I didn’t understand why I was doing these things.  Only years later, as an adult did I realize that I used self-injury as a means of controlling the pain I felt - both physical and emotional.

During the summer of 2001 through to the winter of 2002, I struggled with what was commonly perceived as the “sin” of self-harming.  I rarely let myself consider just how much church itself played a role in fostering the feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, despair, and self-loathing that would eventually cause me to injure myself as an adult.

DOUBTING FAITH:

Six months after the healing conference, I took part in an outreach at a local park.   It was just the kind of thing I usually enjoyed.  But I started to feel the fingers of depression trying to pull me back down.  I began to doubt.

What if everything I’ve come to believe isn’t true, and nothing is really out there?

What if God isn’t real?  

These thoughts were crushing for me, particularly after being paraded around and berated for not having enough faith.  I had held onto the belief that, even if I did not possess the faith to be healed on earth, my healing would come in heaven.  Doubting God meant also doubting the existence of heaven.

It meant that I would be stuck in a body that was an affront to God.  Trapped within an eternally anguished mind.

I would never be whole.

I would never have peace.

I self-injured that night, and my anxiety was temporarily allayed by physical pain.  I also had tangible proof of my pain, so I could not smile it away.

I wore shirts that exposed my injuries to church, but no one noticed.  I had silently hoped they would, while dreading it at the same time.

Instead, I confessed what I had done by email.  For a week, I was too ashamed to look anybody in the eye and admit what I had done.  I confessed it as a sort of dual-sin, where the real secret was not that I had injured myself intentionally, but that I was doubting my faith.

I was not greeted with anything resembling understanding.  I was told by a fellow believer in no uncertain terms that I would go to hell if I didn’t believe in Jesus.  He also demanded to know where I thought Daniel - the friend I had recently lost to terminal illness - was if heaven didn't exist.  These reactions only served to increase my sadness and hopelessness tenfold.

After a week, I told Tara, and to my chagrin, she told Liam.  We had been hanging out late at his house with a group of friends, watching a movie.  I was still very much in the grips of depression, anxiety and shame.  When he gave us a ride home at around two in the morning, I realized what I was in for.  I realized he knew.

I didn’t feel relieved.  I felt ganged up on.  I resented Tara for telling him (even though, had the situation been reversed, I would have done the exact same thing).  Liam was deeply concerned, but, I thought, missed the point of absolutely everything:

“So, Tara told me what happened…” he ventured cautiously.  “Does this mean you want to die?”

“No,” I answered feeling more misunderstood than ever.  “It’s not like that.  It’s...like a distraction.  I got overwhelmed,” I confessed in a quiet monotone.  “It helped in a weird way, so that I wasn’t thinking about how bad I hurt emotionally.”

“You know, there’s a verse that talks about how our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. That we don’t belong to ourselves but to God.  It means that God doesn’t want you to do that to yourself.  He made you.  You are His good work, and by disrespecting your body, you’re disrespecting Him.”

“Well, I’m not even sure if God’s real, so…” I admitted, feeling empty.

Liam prayed for me, but I remained unmoved emotionally, and eventually he sang a worship song.  It was just the three of us in his truck, parked in our parents’ driveway at 3 AM.  The song didn’t cure me, but it did make me sure God was still around.  And I was able to go forward, resolving not to sin again.

Three months later, I wrote:

Dear God,
I’ve been wondering a lot about heaven.  What it’s like.  What we’ll do there.  Everything.  The Bible says in the last days, everything You made will be destroyed and a new heaven and a new earth will be made…  [It] says everyone will get a new body... I’ve always wondered if anyone will recognize me without CP?

My desperation to be healed stemmed not from self-hatred, but from a loathing that was taught in part within church walls.  In my heart, I knew Cerebral Palsy was an intrinsic part of me.  To separate me from it might make me socially acceptable, but it would also make me unrecognizable, even to myself.

It was for this reason, I often felt there was a battle raging inside me.  Did I forfeit this specific piece of my identity in the name of faith?  Was losing myself worth the price of a heavenly transformation I was not even sure I wanted?

Could I be me - with CP - and be loved anyway?

FAITH AND BAPTISM:

Eleven months later, I again found my life in turmoil.  Personal issues, losses, and not knowing how to deal with how I felt about my disability all added up, and I relapsed.

After the second time, I made a serious effort to attempt to understand why I was doing what I was doing.  For the first time, I looked into things I could do when I was feeling triggered.  Simply promising myself that I would not do it again was not working - it was obviously more complicated than that.  So, I made lists of alternative coping strategies and kept them close at hand.

I also made a decision that seems strange to me today, especially as a way to cope with the anxiety that led me to self-harm: I chose to get baptized.

Liam had been encouraging me to do this for awhile.  He said it was a way for me to start fresh.  A way to be delivered, once and for all, of my anxiety.

“We were baptized already, when we were two hours old,” I explained.  “Because weren’t expected to survive.”

“That wasn’t your choice, though.  That was your parents’ choice.  This would be different because it would be another way for you to recommit yourself to God.  To be cleansed of the past and all the things that hold you back.”

I thought about his offer, and a year to the day after I had hurt myself at age 20, I made the decision that I wanted to be baptized.  To do this, I had exactly one meeting with one of the pastors on The Edge’s rotating staff - Pastor Paul .  This was someone I had never spoken to before.  The meeting was quite somber, as he led me through Bible verses and explained the gravity of the choice I was making.  I never felt comfortable or confident enough to explain why I was doing what I was doing.  I thought that was best to remain between God and me.  By now another month had passed, and I was feeling more anxious with each passing day.

My new anxiety?

What if I drowned?

To me, this was not an unfounded fear.  At The Edge, they believed in fully submerging a person in a giant tank of water at the front of the church.  It was the approximate size and depth of a hot tub.  I have never been able to swim, and the idea of someone holding my head under water, even for a second, was terrifying.

The following day, I came to church, with my bathing suit on underneath my decidedly less fancy church clothes, and a set to change into after those I was wearing became soaked.

I gawked at the giant tank, wondering how on in the world I would even get in it.  There was no railing, just steps going incrementally higher.  The water was too deep for my crutches to even be useful (plus I didn’t want them rusting).

Pastor Mark was on duty that day.  I had only ever exchanged greetings with him - and this day was no different.  There was no discussion about consent or logistics.  When the time came for my baptism, he picked me up bodily and lifted me into the tank.

I was mortified.

I had no time to dwell over that, though, because after a few words were exchanged, I felt myself being guided backward and then my head being pushed down.  As I desperately held my breath, I heard Pastor Mark say, “We need to get it all the way in there!” while forcing my head down.

It, not you.  Even while receiving this sacred rite, I was dehumanized.

 I had a moment of panic thinking my worst fear was about to come true.

Needless to say, I survived.

I wrote an email to several close friends afterward.  It reads in part: I also want to take this opportunity to apologize to every single one of you.  Because I realize that not only did my decision to self-injure hurt all of you, but the decision in and of itself was an extremely selfish one to make.

All these months, I had longed for transformation.  I had repeatedly gotten the message that as I was, I was not enough.  In truth, that email in its entirety sounds nothing at all like me.  It sounds an awful lot like Liam, though.  He was charismatic and well-liked.  Liam was more than enough all by himself.  Without even knowing it, I had lost myself in the hope of being embraced.  I had traded myself for the hope of peace.

I experienced that peace for mere days, but self-loathing remained a loyal and unyielding companion.

FAITH AND THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP:

Days after my baptism, I returned to college.  I again felt isolated, having no community of any kind.  Still, I did not relapse until I came home for the holiday break in December.  By then, I had been depressed for six months, and my reason for harming myself changed.  It was not about self-medicating my anxiety - it was about self-punishment.

I felt I deserved to be mistreated because of my disability.  I was assaulted daily with ableist words and actions.  And my gut instinct when someone hurt me was to reaffirm that hurt by turning it on myself.

I actually carried the object I had used to self-injure with me for a whole day afterward.  I didn’t use it, but in some unhealthy way, it helped me feel secure.  Like I was armed.  Even though I was arming myself against me.

Days later, Sally called and invited me over to her house.  We ended up talking, and I told her what I had done.

Sally asked to see where I had injured myself, and she gave it a kiss.  She prayed for me, and cried for me while I sat on her couch, feeling numb.

“I know you’re really against this, but I do think you should talk to someone,” she said gently, holding my hand.

“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.  I can’t drive, so I have no way to get there.  I wouldn’t know where to go.  I have to go back to school soon.  I have no job.  I have no money.  And even if I had money, it would show up on something at my parents’ house, because I’m still on their insurance.  If they see anything about it, they’ll want to know why I got help...and I just can’t talk to them about this.  I’m such a disappointment already…”

“I’ll drive you.  I know where you can go.  I’ll pay for it,” Sally said honestly, tears shining in her eyes.

“No, I can’t ask you to do that…” I said.

“You’re not asking.  I’m offering.  Honestly, I can see you’re overwhelmed, and I’m telling you I can take care of everything.  I can even stay with you in the room while you talk to someone, if you want.  All you have to do is say yes.”

It took some more convincing, but Sally kept her word and found me an appointment two weeks later.  In the meantime, even though she was going to TheOnly conference several states away, she called me to check in.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m okay…  Honestly, I keep thinking that the time I was at your house was a dream.  It feels too good to be true.”

Sally laughed gently.  “Well, I’m pretty sure it’s not a dream.  I was there, too.”

“What if….” I ventured warily.  “What if it happens again?”

“Then, I’ll be there for you.  You won’t be alone.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

FAITH AND FOLLOW THROUGH:

A week into 2003, my appointment was looming.  My return to college was also mere days away, and I kept thinking something was going to happen to cause these plans to fall through.  To me, the possibility of help felt as fragile as a house of cards.  I did not want to put too much faith in it working out, but it was literally the only glimmer of hope I had.

That night, Sally showed up, and I left my parents’ house.  But from the moment I got into her car, my panic started to show itself.

“I don’t know if I can do this.  Maybe it was a bad idea.  I’ll probably be okay back at school, you know?  It’s not bad there.”

My mind was conjuring all kinds of scary images: a sterile, white room that smelled like coffee and antiseptic.  A clinical voice.  That voice telling me there was something really wrong with me.  That voice telling me they could help me, but only via some painful procedure.  That voice telling me I was beyond help.

Sally just listened.  Then she said, “You can do this, and I’m going to be right with you.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling short of breath.  “Yeah, but I still don’t know.”  The idea of sharing my personal struggles with someone whose job I thought it was to listen and judge them sounded beyond terrifying.

Sally took my hand in one of hers, and held it while she drove.  She talked to me some more and stayed very calm.  We listened to music and then we stopped at a Dairy Queen on the way, as we had extra time, and I didn’t even want to order anything, my anxiety was so rampant.  While I normally enjoyed the chocolate chip cookie dough or mocha chip Blizzard, that time I stuck with the standby I always ordered as a little girl: a small vanilla ice cream cone.

I barely tasted it.

The closer we got, the more panicked I felt.  I walked inside and waited with Sally in the waiting room.  I had brought recent pictures to share with her, and I remember we looked at these while the minutes ticked by.

When we finally were invited back into the office, I was beyond relieved to see that it looked not like a doctor’s office but like a living room, carpeted and comfortably furnished with couches and chairs.  The counselor (who was a Christian) reminded me of my grandmother.  These things made it exponentially easier for me.

While I sat across from the counselor, Sally sat unobtrusively in a chair by the wall.  In fact, she never spoke a word at all, but it was beyond comforting to have her there with me.  I filled out a piece of paper, checking boxes next to anxiety and depression, to indicate what I needed help with that evening.

Then, I talked with the counselor.  I opened up with her about my trauma and she listened.  She asked how I had dealt with what had happened, and I told her about the anxiety and depression.  How the depression in particular made me feel like nothing I did would ever be enough, and that coupled with the anxiety, it made me want to hurt myself.

“Not to, like, die or anything - just to cope,” I reassured her.

She nodded.  “That makes sense.”

“Oh.  It does?”

“Yes,” she said.

We spoke some more, and at the end of the session, she prepared to pray with me.  “I have some holy oil here that I can anoint you with if you’d like,” she offered, showing me the tiny jar.

“...You can if you want,” I told her, not wanting to offend this woman who had helped me so much just by listening.  Just by telling me my struggles made sense, instead of reaffirming the reactions I had already gotten inferring that injuring myself was outlandish, sinful or selfish.

“I think it’s best…” the counselor said quietly, “that I respect your hesitance.”

I blinked, surprised that she picked up on my apprehension and backed off, instead of plunging ahead, as those at The Edge were known to do.

Afterward, Sally was about to burst in the car on the way to drop me off:

“Wow.  I’m so proud of you.”

I squinted at her.  “Why?”

“Because you just talked to her.  You were calm.  You opened up.  You were really composed and you answered all her questions.  It’s not easy to do.”

“I felt bad for you, just sitting by the wall the whole time.  You weren’t bored, were you?”

“No way!  It was so cool to just be a fly on the wall and observe.”

As we parked, I took the time to look her in the eye.  “I don’t know if I’ve said this, or if I ever can say it enough, but thank you.  No one has ever done anything like this for me before, and I really, really needed it.  I think, just hearing somebody in a professional setting tell me I wasn’t overreacting really helped.  Somebody listening to me, like what I said mattered.  It was like I mattered, and I didn’t deserve all the hurt I’ve gone through...well, it’s just made a big difference.”

“You don’t deserve it.  I’m glad to help.  I’m glad I could be there.”

“Thank you.”

“You don’t need to keep thanking me.”

“Yes, I do.”

FAITH TO MOVE FORWARD:

It’s been nearly fourteen years since that night.  And it hasn’t been easy.  There have been multiple times over the years where I have encountered triggers that caused an impulse in me to self-harm.  (Particularly during church youth group when a graphic video was shown of someone injuring themselves and the aftermath the next morning.  There was no warning about the content of this video.)

Many things have helped me cope in the ensuing years, and though none of them were learned in the church, I feel they are worth sharing.  The summer after April comforted me through the onset of my anniversary reaction, I bought a PTSD workbook and began to face what happened for the first time.  In the front of the book, it had a place for names and phone numbers for “safe people” to contact in the event that I was triggered by the material in the workbook.

While I never used the safe people while going through the workbook, I did transfer the concept to my recovery for self-harm.  I started speaking to specific people and asking them if they would mind if I called them to tell them when I was triggered.  I have not needed these people frequently - perhaps once every couple of years - but I do reach out to them.  They change as my needs and friendships change.

I also read a book about children who had experienced abuse and trauma.  While the book was not particularly well-written, one excerpt stayed with me.  In it, the author spoke about a child in therapeutic care who was visiting her family for the weekend.  On that visit, the child told her mom that she was having thoughts about hurting a sibling.  The little girl’s mother panicked and called the therapist, who explained that the little girl had been taught to verbalize her unhealthy thoughts.  If the child verbalized them, she would not act them out.  Secrecy was where the damaging behavior could thrive, and without it, she was a much healthier person.

Though my situation was very different, I internalized that passage of the book and made it work for me.  Today, I contact my safe people to tell them I am triggered and admit to any other unhealthy behavior linked to self-harming, even if I have not hurt myself.  These things help to keep me safe.

I share this because self-harm is not widely discussed or understood.  I think it’s important to share the real issues I faced while attending church.

Countless people have offered to pray for my physical healing, heedless of the message it sent:

That I was broken, worthless and incomplete.

While many people in the faith community made a negative impact, Sally stepped up to help me. This set me on the path of healing that I can proudly say I am still on today.

You may never know what long-term effects your actions will have on those around you.

If a loved one opens up to you and shares that they have self-harmed, you being there for them just may make all the difference.

And if you have struggled with self-harm, know that you are not alone.

There is hope.

Self harm for me, was about many things, but mainly, it was about control.  I craved having control over when, where, and for how long I experienced pain, so it was no longer a random onslaught.  So it was predictable.  So I could say "enough" when it got to be too much.

Today, I know that I exert just as much control over my pain by choosing not to hurt myself.  By being vigilant about my triggers, I am being smart and taking care of myself.  Every time I offset that urge for a second, or a minute, I am in control.  By reaching out to someone, by being honest, I reaffirm that I am worth loving, and that I do not deserve the abuse that I experienced.

While I will always struggle with these impulses, it's what I do with them that matters.

[Image is: My arm with the word LOVE, flowers and a heart drawn on it.  Participating in a To Write Love on Her Arms event in 2010, which raises awareness about self-injury.]


***

My enemy lives
Within me
Along with my strength
To fight it.
If I can keep 
Perspective
Everything will
Be all right.
If I never think I
Beat it.
If I remember
I have the power,
All will help
Me in deciding
Not to hurt
Instead of
Hurting. 

written January 30, 2010

***

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Let's Talk About Faith Part 13: Mental Health I

Previously on Let's Talk About Faith:  Introduction / Pre-Church / Confirmation / Saved / Jump / Healing / Mission / Prayer / TheOnly / Work / Leadership / Bible Study /

Listen to the audio version here

What first led me through the doors of The Edge in late 1999 was an array of mental health issues.  I was dealing anxiety, depression and PTSD simultaneously, and I was looking for relief and release.  I could not continue walking around like a zombie after experiencing a major trauma at the age of 16.

At 18, I certainly didn’t have the wherewithal to determine what would help me, so I jumped at the very first opportunity.  Something that seemed like it might offer a solution.  In a way, I was lucky it was church and not something more overtly destructive.

FAITH AND GRIEF:

I first spoke to Daniel around the time I started attending The Edge.  We became close friends very quickly, and he opened up to me about what it was like to live with a terminal illness.  Mere months later, he was gone.  I had known he was dying - that he would die - but I had not expected it to happen so fast.

I thought we would have more time.

Though, we did have the gift of saying goodbye, no one is ever ready to lose a 15-year-old.  I certainly wasn’t.

I grieved deeply and missed him terribly.  For a time, going to church helped me cope.

Daniel had believed in God, and he was always asking me questions about the Bible.  “Define innocence,” he demanded when he read a certain passage that struck a nerve.  With almost no experience in church and the internet in its infancy, I did what any self-respecting teenager of the times would - I looked up the word in the dictionary.  (I was able to tell Daniel that what the Bible said about innocence was actually true...based on what I had read in the dictionary…)

I was supported through my grief for a time by people at church.  But after some months passed, I stopped finding a soft place to fall with them.

I had my first falling-out with Liam over why, around the eight-month anniversary of Daniel’s death, I was still so down about it.

“So, how’s it going?” he asked that day on the way to church.

“It’s going okay,” I told him.

“Just okay.  What’s up?”

Well, it was just eight months since Daniel...so that was hard…”

“But he was saved, right?  He was a Christian?” Liam asked.

“Yeah, he was.”

“So...I get being sad a little bit, but he’s in heaven now.  Which means he’s doing awesome, and he’s not sick...and I don’t think he’d want you moping around, you know?”

“He was my best friend, and he’s not here anymore.  That’s not exactly moping around.”

“I know...it’s just…  Don’t you think you should be moving on?”

Liam’s words stung.  It was the first time I had been truly hurt by him.  By his insistence that I should move through loss in accordance with his timeline.  Because Jesus existed.  Because of heaven.  Instead of being sad that Daniel was not alive, church rhetoric said I should feel happy for Daniel because he was free now.  That feeling sad was selfish.

So while I still felt the loss, I spoke about it less and less.

FAITH AND ANXIETY:

I remember the exact moment that anxiety entered my life, because the feeling was entirely unfamiliar to me.  In high school, as the nurse explained the particulars of my sister’s symptoms and that she had been rushed to the hospital, I felt terror rising in me for the first time.

I also developed social anxiety at church activities due to feeling “like an outcast.”  I believe now that this was strongly related to my living with CP and that no one else in the church understood what that was like.  Unfortunately, the commonly held belief at The Edge was that anxiety was a choice, and like “prolonged” grief, it was selfish.

After the healing conference in early 2001, I found my already shaky self-confidence to be nonexistent.  My faith had been publicly proven insufficient, so I hesitated to say anything in church or Bible study.  My prayers had been deemed ineffectual.  Hence, any pressure to pray aloud - to put my impotent faith on display - caused me to be consumed by panic.

I remember one instance when Liam decided we had to tackle my anxiety head-on.  It was just the two of us at his house after church.  We were having lunch, and he asked me to say grace.

Praying aloud was something I never fully got used to.  I was a private person - much more comfortable praying to God silently, or writing my prayers down.  But praying aloud was the thing to do within this church.  (And, by extension, when spending time with its parishioners.)  It was believed that words had more weight when spoken aloud.  Private in-your-head prayers were weaker.

Liam, waited expectantly for me to thank God (verbally) for our food.  He waited.  And waited.

“I can’t.”  I finally said.

“What do you mean?  It’s just you and me and God.”

“I know.  But the words won’t come.  I’m not comfortable.”

“It’s okay.  Just try again.”

Again, he closed his eyes and waited.

I took a breath, which caught just shy of words.  And another.  And another.

Finally, I opened my eyes, defeated.

“This is serious,” Liam said, nodding.  “We’ve got to get you past this, so I’m going to pray for you, okay?”

“Okay…”

So he prayed, and I sat there feeling inadequate.  What was wrong with me that I couldn’t even pray out loud?  When he finished, Liam prompted me again to pray.  This time, I did.  But it was not a relief, and the words did not come easily or smoothly.  My voice tensed up.  I was stilted, awkward and breathless.  But Liam was satisfied.

As usual, it had not mattered how I felt in that moment, just that I ignored my fear and did what God (or, more aptly, Liam) wanted me to do.

FAITH AND DEPRESSION:

Depression was something I had lived with on and off since elementary school.  I was generally a happy child until I turned nine years old and both my teachers (in the classroom and in gym class) were horribly ableist.  Nine months with these teachers destroyed my self-esteem.  Just a little girl, I felt sure that because my teachers were treating me badly and they were adults, what they were saying must have been true.  I could not dream of challenging adults in authority over me to change their behavior because the imbalance of power was so severe.  Six months later, when I was ten, I had major surgery on both legs.  A subsequent surgery followed when I was eleven.

I felt profoundly powerless and broken.

One child’s get-well message to me said: I can’t wait for you to be able to walk like everyone else.

Even at ten years old, I knew she didn’t understand CP.  I knew I was not going to recover in the way that most kids did when they came to school wearing a cast after they were injured.

In sixth grade, though, an older student on my bus recovered from a surgery that I thought was similar to mine.  I watched him progress from a wheelchair, to crutches, to requiring no adaptive equipment at all.  Though his gait was obviously different, he was able to walk independently.

Because of this, I held onto the dream of walking without crutches for the next two years.  When it was clear that this was not possible, my self-esteem took another hit.  This kid appeared to have CP, and he could walk by himself.  Clearly, I was not trying hard enough.

While I didn’t talk about my depression much as an adult, it obviously existed.  After the awful experience at the healing and deliverance conference, Tara, Liam and I sat down and discussed several personal issues.

These were things we had kept private, for fear that Liam would just not get it.  But they were affecting our lives and our friendship.  So, we opened up.  Liam listened and then asked, “What can I do?”

“Just be here,” we said.

“Is there anything else I can do?  I just hate that you guys are going through these things.”

We thanked him but said that there really was not anything he could do.

Sometime later, he brought up the conversation again, as we were still struggling.  “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you guys told me.  And I really want to help.  So, I was wondering if you both wanted to come over tonight.  My mom said she’d be there.  We could pray for you guys.  It wouldn’t be a big deal.  Just us.”

Tara and I exchanged glances.  It sounded awkward at best, but we were in need of something.  Nothing had helped so far, and we were still so new to faith and prayer.  We agreed.

That night, we came over.  Liam and his mom were there.  The energy felt beyond strange. Like both Liam and his mother were horribly uncomfortable.  We were already nervous having shared so many personal details with Liam (and by extension, his mother).  Both seemed ill-at-ease, and much less relaxed in our presence than times previous.

We were with them for a few hours, and I don’t remember a single prayer being said.  We just sat around awkwardly.  They eventually read some Bible passages aloud.

It felt like they were absolutely out of their depth.  Like we had been right to keep our personal business to ourselves, because no one in the church knew how to handle it.

Their silence communicated that they could not receive us with compassion.  That they were overwhelmed by our real problems.  That our sadness was just too great for them.

Within the church, depression indicated a lack of faith. The cure?  Renewed devotion to God.  Like all other mental health issues, depression was not viewed as a medical condition, but a spiritual one.

FAITH AND TRIGGERS:

From the time I first started attending The Edge, the autumn months meant my anniversary-reaction to trauma would ramp up.  I began to feel anxious all the time.  This journal entry from September of 2004, describes some of what I went through:

Apparently, I'm still a freak. Always gotta wait for September or so to see if the anxiety and crap is still an issue and let's see... Yup. Still is.

It just sucks to deal with so much of the same stuff. This is year seven. I don't know how much longer it'll be an issue. But I pray to God it ends soon. 

I mean, what is this? Do I not trust God enough? Is there something I'm not doing? Do I just have to wait for God to deliver me? I'm clueless here, and I'm so tired of this! Please, just can't it be done? Can't I enjoy fall and winter, and Christmas without this feeling in my gut, that I'm gonna lose it all in a matter of seconds? 

And then there's the answer I always get. The advice. That I kind of want, but more than anything I just want someone to listen. To be willing to hear me, and see my pain and not turn away.

It didn’t take long for people at church to tire of the repeated trauma-reaction every fall and winter, when nothing traumatic was actually happening.  Many suggested counseling, which in hindsight, was likely something I needed.  However, at the time, it only served to increase my already sky-rocketing anxiety.

There's nothing to fear, and yet I'm fearful, I wrote.  Everything is okay, and yet I'm expecting it all to give way...for my world to just spontaneously combust.

I guess it's just really upsetting that I can't get past this. That somewhere, I know that things are fine, and yet my body doesn't get it. 

I struggled with the idea of letting go of the trauma itself.  I had a difficult time remembering my life before it happened, and as such, the idea that I might be healed and delivered from it was frightening.  I had no memory of a trauma-free life, as those memories were in hiding.  So, living without the trauma felt like floating into a white hot void.

Simultaneously, I felt that if I loosened my hold the experience, I was at risk of being blindsided again.  I couldn’t cope with that, so I held on tight instead.

Needless to say, my reality was not always readily embraced by my peers in church.  However, there were a couple of people who kept me safe and allowed me to finally begin to heal.

[Me and Tara seated side by side, smiling.  Winter of 2004.]


In December of 2004, I was out to eat with friends.  One (who I’ll call Maggie) was someone I had been able to open up to about my difficulties in the colder months.  I even confided one of my biggest triggers: the scent of a real Christmas tree.  (The year of the trauma was the last my family had a real Christmas tree.  In the years since, we have put up the artificial kind.  The smell is just too evocative.)

We were eating - enjoying our food and each other’s company - when Maggie extended an invitation to come over to her house after lunch.

“That’ll be awesome,” I said.  “It’ll be so nice to hang out.”

Moments passed and a look of concern crossed Maggie’s face.  “Oh crap.”

“What?” I asked.

“I have a Christmas tree.”

All of my friends at this point in my life were Christians.  As such, I assumed that of course Maggie would have a Christmas tree.  I was thinking of fun, not trauma at this point, so the reference went right over my head.  “And?” I asked.

“And...I have a Christmas tree,” Maggie persisted, staring hard at me, but not giving my private struggles away to the table at large.

“Oh…” I replied, as realization dawned.  “You mean a real one.”

She nodded, apologetic.

“I think I’m gonna skip it then.  Thanks for telling me.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

FAITH AND TRAUMA:

The following summer, I was working at Still Waters Bible Camp for a third year.  It was August, and for the past few days, I had been distracted by the knowledge that the weather was gradually changing.  The mornings were getting colder.  As my trauma occurred during a particularly mild winter, these subtle shifts were more than enough to awaken my PTSD.

One morning as I walked to devotions, the air had a particular bite to it that I only associated with awful memories.  My only solace was that it was a Thursday, which meant we would be connecting and praying with our prayer partners.

I took comfort in knowing my prayer partner, a co-worker I’ll call April, had proven to be nothing if not reliable when I needed her.  Earlier that week, during a rare break, I had sought her out because I was struggling and needed some backup prayers.

“Hey, are you busy?” I had asked, because her face clearly said she was.  But her response has always stayed with me.

“Not if you need me right now,” she said, and invited me into her cabin.

When I sat down beside her that Thursday, she saw that something was not right immediately.

“What’s wrong, T?” she asked, using a nickname only she had for me.  Compassion showed clearly in her eyes.

“You know how I told you I was struggling earlier this week with anxiety?”

“Yeah, of course,” she said, totally dialed in.

“And you remember about what happened to my sister?  How that’s still really hard for me?”

“Yeah, I do,” she nodded.

“Well, every time the weather starts to get colder, it’s like…my body and mind get triggered and I start remembering all the horrible feelings I had when that happened.  This doesn’t just happen once or last for a day, it lasts for months out of the year, every single year.  It’s been eight years, and I’m still not over it.”  My voice cracked, and tears came as I choked out, “I don’t want to live like this anymore…  I can’t…”

There were no words for a moment like this, and thankfully, April knew this.  She didn’t use prayer like a Magic 8 Ball to cure me of my fear and trauma, minimizing the depth of what I had experienced.  Instead, she just held me and said, “Oh, T…”

She just was there.

She just listened.

She just held me while I fell apart.

It was the first time in nearly a decade I felt truly affirmed, heard, and allowed to grieve what had happened.  It was the first time someone in the faith community did not push me to get over it.  It was the first time that my reaction to the scariest hours of my life was treated as though it was legitimate.

I needed that.

I truly believe that this moment helped me turn a corner and begin to heal.

FAITH AND A MESSAGE FOR YOU:

Today, I know even more deeply that reactions like Maggie’s and April’s are incredibly rare.  While I had to sift through many examples of how people in the faith community could not handle my mental health issues, Maggie and April’s understanding were two of three examples over eight years when my friends were there for me in this regard.

I wish I had understood that grief has no timeline.  And that anxiety, depression and PTSD were not things I was choosing, as my church so often reiterated..  I wish I had known that they were legitimate reactions to personal trauma and years of spiritual abuse.

My reactions to these things were not my fault, and they should not have been treated like choices I was making to actively live in sin.  If you are reading this, and it’s striking a chord, know that your disability and/or your mental health issues are not your fault either.

Our reactions are legitimate.  Our feelings about our experiences matter.

We matter.

We matter.

We matter.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Let's Talk About Faith Part 12: Bible Study

Previously on Let's Talk About Faith: Introduction / Pre-Church / Confirmation / Saved / Jump / Healing / Mission / Prayer / TheOnly / Work / Leadership /

All throughout my years in church as an adult, I had experience with Bible study.  I attended one on my community college campus as a part of the Christian Student Organization.  I even led one once, with help from Liam.

More often, though, I was a part of young adult Bible study as a part of church at The Edge.  Usually, these meetings consisted of praying for a long time, studying scripture and then hanging out late into the evening.

[Waiting for a ride to Bible study, 2003.]

FAITH WITHOUT SECURITY:

It was after I left college that Bible study started to feel more difficult for me.  At the time, I could not pinpoint why being there sparked so much anxiety in me.  I only knew that one-on-one I felt secure, acknowledged and calm.  But put me in a group of ten or so people, and I shut down.  There were always people I did not know as well as others.  I felt I could not trust and open up to them.  So I stayed very quiet.  

The result of my withdrawing meant that no one spoke to me, and I felt overlooked and like I did not matter.  These feelings began in earnest after the healing conference in 2001.  Friends didn’t get my silence.  To be honest, I didn’t either.  I dismissed myself as a slacker for the times I skipped when my anxiety around them became too severe, and called my own struggles “dumb” and “sad.”  

As with other endeavors in or around church, I always did better if I felt I belonged and was welcomed and valued in that space.  While I felt safe around a few people at our Bible study, there were others I just didn’t feel secure around.

One instance after church, I think, gives a compelling example:

Liam had given me a ride to church that morning, as usual.  While he was busy before church started, I found a friend to visit with, who also attended our Bible study.

“Are you feeling social today?” I asked her.  “Do you want to do something with me?”

“No…  I have to clean and do laundry.”

“Oh, okay.  You’ve gotta be an adult sometimes, right?” I joked.

“Actually, if you can find a whole bunch of people to go out to lunch with, I’ll do that.”

“Oh…” I said, her words stinging and the implication clear: hanging out with me alone was not preferable.  

It hurt to be rejected, but I had dealt with this kind of thing my whole life, so I tried not to let it affect me too much.

Afterward, Liam had misplaced his car keys, and had to call his best friend (I’ll call him Judah) for a ride home.  Liam had gotten in the car, which held Judah, his wife, and Lisa.  I was last.  

I had handed one crutch into the car to Liam and pulled back just enough to catch my balance with one crutch when Judah floored the gas and peeled away.  The back door of the car remained wide open.  

I stood there, stunned, and well-aware of just how close I had come to being dragged or run over.  When Judah backed up seconds later, he had a careless wide smile on his face.  “I’m sorry,” he apologized, sounding anything but apologetic.  “I thought you were in already.  I thought I heard the door close.”

Judah’s wife asked if I was okay but no one addressed what Judah had done, or the fact that he continued to drive recklessly all the way home, seemingly showing off for the car full of people.

FAITH WITHOUT RESPECT:

Around 2004, our large Bible study broke off into smaller groups, in hopes of fostering a greater connection and honesty within each group.  My small group consisted of a good friend, and two other girls.  One, Eliza, gave me a ride after my experience receiving unwanted prayer and being interrogated about my failure to use the elevator.  

“So, he basically stared me down the whole time.  It was really uncomfortable.”

“Why would you be uncomfortable?  He was just being nice,” she insisted.

“But it wasn’t nice.  He was, like, mad at me for walking past him.  It was rude.”

“Well, I think you’re just being paranoid,” she said dismissively.

Even though the conversation obviously was not going well, I persisted, wanting nothing more than to be understood.  I shared about how being prayed for intimidated and scared me.  I shared that I disliked the assumption that I must want prayer, even though I no longer went forward, consented, or indicated I wanted it in any way.

“...And I get that I’m being hypocritical.  I hate being viewed as a condition to fix, but I also really dislike even associating with others with disabilities at all because of the way we are lumped together and treated like we are inferior.”

“I think you’re settling," Eliza said firmly.

“I can see how you’d think that I was lacking something, because of where you’re coming from, but--”

“No, I’m not talking about physically.  I’m talking about emotions.”

“How can I ‘settle’ emotionally?” I asked, confused.

“You know what I mean….” Eliza insisted, like I was being willfully obtuse.

“No, I really don’t.  Church is still kind of new for me.  So some things I still just don’t get.  I honestly don’t understand how I can ‘settle’ emotionally.  Like, what does that mean?”

“It’s like…  You don’t want to change.  You like things to be just the way they are.  They could be different.  Physically, emotionally, whatever, you know?  But your sinful thinking is going to hold you back every time.  Until you decide you want to live differently, things are going to just continue this way.”

“I didn’t choose this, though,” I insisted.

“You said before you don’t even like associating with people who have disabilities.  The power to change it has always been in your hands.  God is big enough.  He could do it.  But you won’t let Him.”

“I told you already, I had a horrible experience getting prayer for healing.”

“I think that’s just an excuse.”

“It’s not, though.”

“You’re going to do what you want to do, obviously, and that’s fine.  It’s your choice, but I know what you really said.  I know the truth.  Even if you don’t want to admit it.”

The whole conversation was beyond bizarre, and every time I spoke, Eliza was intent on looking for inconsistencies in what I was saying to prove I wasn’t being honest with her.  It ended on her terms, too, with her trying to get me to discount everything I said, and believing - still - that I was lying about all of it.

I spent the rest of the night feeling incredibly ashamed whenever I had to get up and walk anywhere.  I knew Eliza was there, watching, and thinking that I could be healed if I wanted to, but I just liked “settling.”  

We spent the rest of the evening filling out spiritual questionnaires at a restaurant while Eliza and another group member discussed their own personal struggles, actively supporting each other, while I was battling my own demons and they seemed not to care.

Three years later, in 2007, our small group had morphed again, and was meeting at my apartment.  Eliza was the only original member still there.  She and the rest were speaking honestly about how their weeks were.  I knew they didn’t want to know the first thing about what I dealt with - Eliza had proven that much in years past.  So I stuck with surface information, never delving too deep.

While we were still in a circle on the floor, Eliza spoke up, unprompted: “You guys want to know what my biggest dream is?  What I pray for more than anything else?”

The rest nodded eagerly.

“I really pray that God gives me cancer, so He can show how faithful He is by healing me.”

While the others spoke about how “awesome” her dream was and agreed, I attempted to close my mouth, which had dropped open in shock.  Besides the fact that I knew people who had lost family members to cancer and the very idea that she would “want” it seemed beyond disrespectful...here I was, sitting across the small circle, with my less-than-perfect body.

I knew what she thought of me.  She had made no secret of it.  

That was the last time I allowed Bible study to be held in my home.

FAITH FADING:

Today, it makes perfect sense to me that I had heightened anxiety in these group settings.  What does it matter if three people fully accept you if there are three more who really don’t value you at all?  What does it matter if you can’t actually count on the three people who accept you to call out the ones who don’t for their egregious endangerment and disrespect?

Does anyone there really respect or value you at all?

That was the question that circled in my head during most Bible studies.  I was there, but I felt invisible ninety percent of the time.  I watched everyone else support each other, but often I did not feel that love and support myself.  

My reality as a young woman with a disability just didn’t match their reality.  And some felt I was choosing a life disabled rather than embracing a life healed and whole, due to a lack of faith.  

As I write this, I am realizing that even though no one overtly asked to pray for my healing, they still were preoccupied by my lack of it.  

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