Doubt, Faith, Trauma

Faith in the Dark

 

Faith in the Dark“One last drink?” His gray eyes twinkled in the low light.  We were standing on a tree-lined path, shadows from the street lamp cast about us. I should have known to turn back—never trust a stranger friend; no one knows how it will end—but the summer air was warm and he was witty and kind. I felt safe walking beside him into the darkness.

His living room walls were lined with well-worn books. The built-in bookshelves were curved and painted white to match the rest of the apartment; I was comforted by their embrace. He gestured for me to take a seat on the leather couch, and as he left the room, I smiled. On the coffee table sat a thick, abridged copy of the OED.

He returned with two open bottles of beer and sat next to me, not too close. We chatted easily, comparing notes on favorite writers. He grabbed a book from one of the sturdy shelves and handed it to me.

“It’s a coming of age story.” I held the book in my hands, smoothing the faded cover. “Take it,” he grinned. “Borrow from my library.”

When he sat again, his long legs were just inches from mine. “Do you not like that kind of beer? You haven’t touched it.”

I glanced down at the bottle. “Just taking a breather.”

“I wish you had told me,” he said lightly. “I wouldn’t have opened it if I had known.”

I put the cool glass to my lips and took a few gulps. Warm. Dark.

There was a shift in his energy as he stood suddenly, moving past the lamp to the right of the couch, receding into the shadows beyond the bookshelves. I looked after him, and in the darkness, could see the faint outline of a bed.

It was dark when he raped me.

*

It’s strange and somewhat beautiful how our brains protect us from having to deal with trauma before we’re ready. I didn’t realize I was a rape survivor until two years ago, six years after I followed him down that tree-lined path, so romantic in the dim light of the street lamps. Until then I had categorized the event in my mind as something I had brought upon myself, a mistake, a terrible night that I should have been able to prevent. I should have been able to read the signs that something was about to go horribly wrong.

I had messed up.

So I asked for God’s forgiveness. Over and over and over again. It wasn’t the first time I had made a mistake with a man—I should have known better. I felt ashamed and broken.

I asked God to help me forgive this man who had so easily fooled me into believing he was someone special, a kindred soul.

I cried and I begged and I pleaded and received no relief, no restoration. So many tear-stained journal pages, so many prayers groaned out from the depths of my wasted heart, and nothing. No answer.

Fearful. Anxious. Uncertain. The faith that had held me through so many other difficult times suddenly seemed so thin.

And then one day, a few months after my counselor first said the word “rape,” a whisper came from somewhere deep inside me: maybe you need to forgive God.

A startling thought, but maybe it was true. Maybe this sick anxiety I felt about the world and my place in it had less to do with my own missteps and more to do with the fact that I felt unprotected and afraid.

Because truly: where was God that night?

*

Up until the night I was raped, I had felt God’s unwavering protection on my life. I felt it deep in my bones. It didn’t matter how low I found myself, I was convinced of his presence and his providence. The right worship song, the right Bible verse, the right amount of sunlight sparkling on the water, and I’d feel goosebumps prickling my skin, the cool rush of confidence that He is near.

When my father’s job moved us overseas before my freshman year of high school—and I was convinced my life was over—God was near.

When high school romance led to betrayal and binders full of bad poetry, God was near.

When I started college an ocean away from my family and could not remember who I was or wanted to be, God was near.

When the plane crashed into the twin towers and everything I thought I knew about my home country and my faith was thrown into question, God was near.

When I watched our family’s home go up in flames, God was near.

And on other nights, with other men, after drinks and too much flirtation, God was near.

In it, and afterwards, I would praise him and thank him for his unwavering protection.

I felt so blessed.

I never felt alone.

*

Once, as she led me through a guided prayer intended to offer healing, someone I love very dearly asked if I could go back to that dark room that night and imagine God there with me.

Where was God that night? 

As the tears streamed down my cheeks, I tried. But the image of Jesus, sitting on a chair in the corner of the room as the unthinkable occurred was too tragic. The only image I could conjure was a false Jesus: blonde, blue-eyed, sitting with a calm smile and folded hands.

It wasn’t right. That’s not the Jesus I had come to know.

I knew what I was supposed to say – he was there with me, he didn’t abandon me, he was there the whole time – but I couldn’t.

I just wept.

*

My son, an adventurous 18 month old, has been fighting for his independence since the day we met. Active, curious, he wanted to crawl before he could sit up. When he first started practicing his pull-ups on the living room coffee table the summer before he turned one, he fell often and with great frustration.

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to reprimand the floor that hit his diapered bum as he came toppling down that first time and looked to me with sad, anxious eyes. I guess I wanted him to understand I recognized his pain but also to make light of it somehow.

So instead of saying, “Oh, sweetie, good try. It’s okay. Get up. Try again,” I widened my eyes, shook my finger at the hardwood floor beneath him and said, “No, no, no, floor! Don’t you hurt my Jakey!”

He looked at me, confused at first. And then through teary eyes, he offered a smile.

From that day on, it became an inside joke between us. “No, no, no, table!” “No, no, no, block!” “No, no, no, Elmo!”

What I didn’t realize then was how seriously he was taking all of this. Now, whenever my exuberant little boy stubs a toe or trips or bumps an elbow, he is looking for something or someone to blame. “No, no, no!” he declares and looks to me to join him in the refrain.

I guess I realized in that moment, as I watched him topple over, I wouldn’t always be able to catch him, no matter how close I might be. But I wanted him to know I felt the pain right along with him – that I didn’t think it was okay that he was hurting.

There have been times I have watched him from a distance as he runs so fast and far from me, caught up in the delight of the air and the sun and the freedom of being alive, and I know it is only moments before he stumbles and scrapes the palms of his hands. I know it, yet I can’t stop it. When I hear his wailing and I see his tears, my heart breaks and it is almost more than I can bear.

But the worst moment is when I reach him and he looks at me with fear and frustration and anger and it’s almost as if I can see the accusation in his tender brown eyes.

Why weren’t you there? Why didn’t you stop this from happening?

All I can do is open my arms to him, comfort him, and tend to his wounds.

And I can pray that as he grows in understanding, he’ll know the depths of my love for him, even when I’m nowhere in sight.

*

I can’t give a straight answer about where God was the night I followed my heart, full speed, down that concrete path in the lamplight. I can’t tell you his thoughts as my innocent trust in his provision was taken from me, my heart bruised, body battered.

I can’t tell you where God’s will ended and my will began. I can’t tell you if that matters.

But I can choose to believe his heart was breaking as he watched his daughter experience pain.

I can choose to believe he was near.

And I still choose to believe that his arms are open, ready to tend to my wounds and offer me the comfort of his love, both in the light of day and the darkness of night.

Even when I can’t feel it.

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

I just read Addie Zierman’s new memoir, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, in less than 48 hours. Her honesty, vulnerability, and gorgeous writing have inspired me once again. In celebration of her book release, this post will be linked to her #NightDriving synchroblog. Visit her website for more info

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Faith, Grace

I Can’t Live on Bread Alone

open-book-981405_960_720This week I reworked an old post from October 2013, which was shared on All In this morning. May it bring you hope, as it did for me, as I recalled the events of that fall.

I am a bibliophile. I could spend all day in a bookstore, leafing through pages, inhaling that sweet aroma, running my fingers over their spines. My bedside table gathers more words than I can read in a month (or even a year), and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I have a confession: as much as I love books, and as much as I love Jesus, I don’t always love picking up my Bible.

There was a time this hesitation made sense because I felt intimidated by both its prose and poetry; I worried I wouldn’t understand what Jesus said should be so clear. But that’s no longer the case. Last week, as I was studying and reflecting on the power of scripture, I was reminded of when God surprised me by opening my eyes just two and a half years ago.

*

Our books are still in boxes.

It is October. We moved into our house in July.

Usually, when I set up a new living space, my books are the first to be unpacked. I like to touch each one, pause; if there’s time, I open a few of the pages and read a few lines. Meditate on words once read, underlined, starred, recalling back to a younger self who read with passion and curiosity.

I married a man with as many, if not more, books as I have in my possession. The fact that some are duplicates is a private confirmation to me of our perfect synchronization. Thus we are the Curletts of Many Books and at the moment these treasures are still in boxes, sitting in the corner of our basement.

One book in one of those boxes is my Ryrie Study Bible, which I’ve had since sophomore year of college, when I decided my faith needed to be my own. Lately I’ve been craving the word, and Googling each verse in question hasn’t been cutting it. My husband’s Bible is worn; crammed with pencils, notes, and memorabilia; it is held together tightly by a rubber band. I love his Bible, but at a distance.

Rather than open every one of the twenty boxes in our basement to find my collegiate companion, I instead went to Amazon and purchased a thin line ESV Bible. I imagined myself tucking it into a purse or a suitcase, something toteable. Perfect. When I read the description I realized that there would be no notes, no cross-references, no footnote exegesis. I worried a bit that I wouldn’t be able to follow these words without the guidance of scholars. (I know, I know. Martin Luther and all that. But you know, sometimes I need a little help.)

But . . .ever since that Bible made it to my doorstep? My hungry soul has been eating it up. Chapter by chapter. Number by number. Epistle by epistle. It feels comfortable, friendly. It makes sense to me. I am understanding its words in a way I never have before. There is clarity and an understanding that has never been present with me as I’ve read the Word of God.

Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but I have to be honest: I am surprised. This prayer thing? It works. Sure, in certain denominations and certain pulpits, pastors and ministers pray that the Holy Spirit will illuminate the Word of God. But how many times do we do that and experience . . . nothing? I would venture a guess that most of you reading this know what I’m talking about (or perhaps just as likely, you really have *no idea* what I’m talking about and the idea of asking the Spirit of God to help us do anything sounds a little weird and woo-woo. I don’t blame you. It’s bizarre, right? Nonsensical).

But here’s the thing: I asked him to help me, and he has been helping me. Honest truth.

How did this come to be? Well, a couple of weeks ago I had an ugly cry episode (definitely not the first!) where I professed from the very depths of my being that I believe in who he is and what he is capable of doing – namely, changing me. But this time I also specifically asked him to open up my eyes and ears and heart to the truth of his Word.

And guess what? He’s been doing it. He is true to his Word. It feels like a fog has been lifted. And it’s rocking my world.

I don’t know what to make of all of this, other than to laugh through my tears. Cathartic is the word that comes to mind. I feel compelled to laugh, to share, to write. I have a new confidence I’ve never, ever experienced before.

Could it be possible that the Lord has known, since before the creation of this world, that it would take me until October of my 32nd year to fully experience the truth of his promises? That it would take me this long to study the clues along the way?

I go down to the basement and open a box. It is strewn with gifts. Brennan Manning. Frederick Buechner. Madeline L’Engle. The words in their books affirm what God has been teaching me:

You’re forgiven. You’re called. You’re a creator.

And now: the questions remain, “What do I create?” and, “Am I worthy of the task to which I am called?”

Something is brewing. Something is being knit together. And my Father, who purchased my life with the sacrifice of his Son, clothes me in righteousness and undeserved reward.

He is with me.

*

In three short months, movers will arrive to once again pack our belongings—including our precious books—and send them to our new home, miles away. This time, as I gather clothes and toiletries and the supplies we’ll need in the in-between, I’ll make sure my Bible stays right where I want it: within arm’s reach. Because I know as I continue to pour my heart out onto the page, I will need his words of hope and truth and grace to fill me up time and time again.

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Faith, Grace, Trauma

Treasure Where the Home Fire Burns

Eleven years ago today my family watched a fire destroy our home. I wrote this piece a few years later and today I share it in honor of the lessons God began to teach me as I watched the flames wreck a house so full of memories. 

Mom and I are sitting in the den when the alarm sounds. We are tense, tired. It’s been quite a year for our family.

Stunned silence passes between us. Surely there is a mistake. But the crackling, the popping, the blackened sheets of wood and plaster that cascade past the window and into the pool can’t be denied.

My brother strides down the stairs, phone held to his ear. “Yes. Our house is on fire.”

He repeats our address and we calmly fall into line, one after the other. I grab the dog. I have forgotten to put on my shoes.

Once outside, Mom turns and runs. Back inside the house.

My brother and I stand on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac, waiting. I am barefoot on the concrete, which would be hot this time of year if it wasn’t for the strange windstorm sweeping across Texas. My toes are cold.

My eyes are fixed on the orange tongue that is lapping at our roof. I always thought fire was red, but it’s not – it’s taking on the color of whatever it touches, like a chameleon, or a dragon. Sulfur, smoke, and freshly mowed grass mingle in the air.

Mom reappears, my handbag clutched to her chest. Breathing heavily, she hands me my bag.

“Thank God, Mom.” I reach out, touch her shoulder.

“You needed your keys. Go move the car.”

My CR-V is a few yards from the house, but the fire is only on the roof. Surely the wind will die, the fire will stop. I shiver.

“The fire won’t reach the car, Mom,” I say. “Can’t we leave it?”

Mom blinks. “Give me the keys.” As she runs to the car I feel something like shame.

When she returns, the car safely moved to the end of the street, she hands me the keys.

As their weight hits my palm, I consider bolting to the Honda, my own coffee-scented, bumper-sticker-slapped haven. I could roll the windows down, blast country radio, high-tail it out of there in five-minutes flat.

Instead, I follow Mom to the house next door. The fire truck pulls up about the same time I realize that after five years of sharing a curb, this is the first time I have officially met these neighbors. It feels absurd to knock on their door and ask for shelter, but no more absurd than the windstorm and the flames.

I use their phone to call my father.

“Dad? You need to come home.”

When I hang up I return to the couch where my mom and brother hover with hollow eyes. Our neighbor has gone to the kitchen to fetch some iced tea. Mom coughs and covers her mouth. She has been in bed for the last week with the flu.

As she removes her hand from her face, her eyes rest on her left hand. “My rings,” she whispers.

Her fingers are naked. She tells me that when she crawled into bed last week she removed all of her jewelry, including her diamond-studded wedding ring and sapphire-rimmed anniversary ring, neither of which I have ever seen her without.

She coughs again – wait, no. She is sobbing. “My rings!”

I reach out, touch her, see the touch of gray under her warm chocolate eyes. I think of the naïve, youthful face beaming from sepia-tone photos, the memories of a girl from the Mojave Desert, dressed in lace as she stood beside my side-burned father.

“Oh, Mom,” I gasp. “Your wedding photos.”

She looks up. “All of our photos.”

I need to escape. Out on my neighbors’ lawn the wind blows ash and heat upon my face. The flame has continued to grow, despite the firefighters’ efforts. The spray from the fire hoses, like the sword of a heroic yet all-too-human prince, seems no match for the dragon, who is devouring our treasures.

Photographic memories and memories of photos intertwine in my mind. Do I remember the kindness in my great grandpa’s eyes, his hands encircling my waist as I perched upon the back of that great dappled horse? Or just the faded photo of his sun-wrinkled, winking smile, cowboy hat and dirty overalls? Without the photos, will I forget?

I think, well, at least I have my journals – oh no. My throat constricts as I imagine the upstairs closet, my trove of childhood treasures, now consumed. My scrapbooks of photos, carefully organized and pasted with stickers and bits of ribbon; my dog-eared, underlined, well-loved books; these riches are all secondary to the boxes of journals, the diaries and notebooks and steno pads that hold in their bindings the story of my life.

Prickling heat rises up my back to my neck and my face as the question why resounds around and within me. Before me, the flame that rises is quiet and slow-moving. I stare into the core of it, pensive and still. The flame seems to change as my vision blurs and flickers, my eyes unblinking, my feet firmly planted in the soil.

It is then I see a vision of a mighty hand, holding the flame, controlling the flame, and beckoning my soul to quiet itself in its presence. The fire, in this moment, seems central not only to my life story, but to the universe.

Love. There is love. A whisper through my mind. Stuff. It’s just stuff. My shoulders, as high as my earlobes, begin to slowly descend, neck relaxing, knots loosening. At what point did the object become the treasure? Could this great flame be like the forest fire that scours the remains of life along its decaying floor? Like the soil in such forests, replenished with nutrients after a necessary evil, could our hearts and our souls be renewed?

I turn from the flame. Dad should be here soon. My family is safe. I should go to them.

*

A few days later, the phone rings at my apartment. It’s Mom.

“You are never going to believe this.”

She tells me that when the first firefighter emerged from the damp, sooty ruins, he approached her with outstretched hands. “We tried to grab anything that seemed might be important,” he said.

“Erin,” Mom barely whispers, “Do you know what he saw, and saved from the wreckage? My wedding rings. The wedding album. And a box of your journals.”

Goosebumps prickle my arms. Having let go, having given in, we are rewarded by the very treasures which we most feared to lose. I wonder: is this what a miracle looks like? Could this be grace? The air seems charged with magic.

I am still in awe a few days later when Dad takes me back to the site to walk through the house. For closure, he says.

After further investigation, my father and the firefighters have discovered more buried treasure: salvaged photo albums, letters, china. My legs are shaking as I climb the crumbling stairs. How was this foundation not destroyed? Up in my room, my guitar lies blackened in the corner, grinning toothlessly. Rubble blocks the path to my closet of childhood treasures, and the wind whistles through the cracks in the brick walls, fingering remnants of paper and ribbon and twine. Yet there is something more. Dad comes up behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder.

“Dad, do you see?”

Shards of glass by the thousands, a myriad of colors, dust the fallen ceiling fan, the throw pillows, the floor. Christmas ornaments, shattered, have fallen through the attic and fill the space with an ethereal light. Rainbows dance on the soot-charred walls, pinpricks of hope in a desolate space. It is magic. It is grace.

Among the wreckage and the ruins of my family’s memories and mistakes, I feel like I am standing on sacred ground.

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Faith, Mamahood

Naked and Ashamed

water-767211_960_720As I anticipate birthing my second son in just a few short months, I recall a vivid experience I had just a couple of weeks before going into labor with my first. It was otherworldly and practically unbelievable. Terrifying and hopeful. But that’s the God I believe in: wild and full of grace.

My breath comes short. My shoulders heave. My body is a sob. The shower is hot, as hot as I can stand. Steam envelopes my nakedness. I am naked and ashamed.

I look at my belly, rounded, obscuring the view of my toes. I rub my hands along the curves of my new body, along my stretched stomach, my heavy breasts, my rounded hips, my aching back.

This body, so foreign to me in its peaks and valleys, so voluptuous, so striking – I can’t hide. When I leave the safety of this shower, this room, this house, all eyes are on me. Everyone watches. They want to look at me, really look at me. They want to touch me.

My breath is shorter, faster.

In a few short weeks, strangers’ hands will reach inside this body, inside the searing pain and extract an alien being—the alien being I’m told is my son—from between my bare legs. It is unfathomable. This love that I feel for this unknown child is unfathomable. This fear, that I will tear in two and never be the same, is unfathomable.

The white tiles on the wall to my left seem closer than they were before. I reach out my left hand and place it against the cool ceramic. I can’t stop thinking about childbirth, the unknown, the pain, the rending of skin, the veil torn between myself and the rest of humanity. Between living for myself and living for another. There is no going back. Fear hangs heavy about me, dripping down the sides of the shower, clinging to the droplets of water on my bare skin, seeping in from the outside.

I’ve read books on childbirth, on how to breathe through the pain, on how to train your mind to relax your body. The hours I’ve spent meditating and breathing and listening to self-hypnosis cues have set me up with peaceful, productive images to call upon from memory at a moment’s notice: a crystalline mountain lake, a rose blooming between my thighs.

But I know better.

It doesn’t matter how well I prepare my mind. My body has tales to tell, secrets. My mind and body were disconnected many years ago, severed by the unwelcome touch, the unwelcome violence enacted upon this skin, upon these breasts, these hips; on me, in me.

I squeeze my eyes shut, salty tears washed clean by the shower spray. My body is a minefield. What will set it off? The hands of a well-meaning midwife? The pain of what should be an empowering natural birth? Or worse: the paralysis of pain medication intended to relax, to soothe?

The water is still running hot as I wrap my arms around my chest, grabbing each shoulder blade and squeezing as tightly as I can. I was made to do this, I think. My body, this woman’s body. Designed for new life. I am caught between this courageous thought and the fear of total destruction.

He could destroy me, this child. Through the trauma of birth. This boy could be the traumas of all traumas, enough to finally wipe my beautiful, tender soul off the face of the earth. A final disconnection from all that is holy and true. I cannot seem to pull myself out from under this despair.

But then a thought: I am a new creation.

My breath catches, eyes open wide. Instant warmth radiates from the core of my belly, from the secret quiet place where my son dwells in darkness. Goosebumps prickle my skin.

I am not alone.

“Do not fear, for I am with you,” I whisper into the spray, into the heavens.

He will see me through this birth.

What if it is true? What if the very presence of God is here now, waiting for me to fall into his arms, naked and unashamed?

Something in me shatters. A guttural cry like the mourning of Eve. And then—like a miracle, like grace—I barely, just barely—feel arms. Strong arms. Wrapped around me.

I look at my belly, rounded, obscuring the view of my toes. I rub my hands along the curves of my belly, for perhaps the first time feeling like I have permission to touch myself in such a way, to touch myself with love. The love that is not just for me. It is for the tiny baby floating in my womb, curled up tight and sucking his fingers, I imagine, like my husband and I saw on the sonogram.

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Faith, Grace

Friendship For All Seasons

girl-690614_960_720I walked through the chilly evening dark and got into the car without a diaper bag. I turned on music that I like – which at this point is anything that’s not songs from Sesame Street – and I headed out to visit a friend and watch The Bachelor. As the pregnant mom of a toddler, this felt like the ultimate luxury.

The night was glorious—we sampled chunks of orange-infused dark chocolate and snuggled in cozy blankets on her soft brown leather couch and giggled at the ridiculousness of the show. During commercial breaks we chatted about life.

She updated me on her job and life in her new house. I updated her on pregnancy and toddlerhood. Our lives, each busy and all-consuming, are in such different seasons right now, and for that I am grateful. To me, her perspective is as refreshing as the cool quiet of the night, as welcome as the absence of Cheerios stuck to the couch.

The funny thing is, this friend and I only recently connected for the first time over coffee a couple of weeks back. We’ve seen each other at church, we have mutual friends, and we’ve always talked about getting together, but as often happens, life has gotten in the way.

When she learned we are moving away in just a matter of months (can it really be less than half a year?), she told me she didn’t care; she wanted to get to know me anyway and it was about time we got coffee.

What a gift. It’s a radical, beautiful, irrational thing, to invest in a person right before you part ways.

It’s easy for me to start to fear the move, to begin to grieve for the friendships I’ll be losing before they’re even lost to me (I hate to say the word “lost,” because in this age of Facebook and Facetime people aren’t really lost, but it still takes a lot of time and understanding to keep friendships afloat once you no longer live close by).

It’s easy for me to start distancing myself from those I care about, those I’ve invested in and who have invested in me, thinking Why does it even matter? We’re moving soon anyway. It’s easy to instead reach out to friends who don’t live here, to remind myself that, as difficult as it can be, time and distance don’t have to end friendships. And perhaps to convince myself that if the friendships I have made here don’t stand the test of time (many will), at least I have others in my corner, however far away they may be.

So then why does it also feel easy to let someone else in, even this late in the game?

I’ve been thinking about Jesus, how he was often a stranger in a strange land. He didn’t settle down and build a community around himself and build relationships that were tied to a particular place. He had a purpose and a mission and he lived it out in the places he was called. Along the way, he made deep, meaningful connections with others by simply seeing them, hearing them, and loving them in a way that showed how much he valued each one.

“Love your neighbor,” he said. And when your neighborhood is constantly changing, it becomes especially clear that the word “neighbor” means whoever is currently nearby.

In this way, my new friend has loved me like Jesus. It may not seem that profound, but it is, kind of. She sought me out; she made me feel loved and welcomed me into her home. We haven’t solved any of the world’s problems (yet) but we have started to share a little of our hearts (and our opinions about over-produced reality television). We’ve shared laughter (and chocolate). It’s such a simple thing, really, to reach out to someone and make them feel seen. Perhaps not an easy thing—in fact, it’s quite brave—but a simple thing, nonetheless. I want to be that kind of friend to others, no matter where I live and no matter how long my stay.

Because in the end, it’s in the experience of this kind of love, and this kind of community, that God reminds us of who he is: a God who sees, a God who values, a God who longs for relationship. Made in his image, it’s no wonder we crave the things he offers so generously.

So tonight, as my new friend and I meet once more and giggle together—this time on my Cheerio-covered couch—I will remember who sent her and who he is calling me to be, no matter the season.

Originally appeared on All In

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Faith, Mamahood

I Want to Forgive

The sonographer sat my chair upright and told me we were finished. The doctor would be right in to discuss the pictures she had just taken during the twenty-week anatomy scan of our second child, another baby boy. As she turned to leave, she paused. “Wait.”

She studied the scans she held in her hands and seemed to change her mind. She looked at me blankly. “Actually, I need you to remove your clothes. I couldn’t get a good read of your cervix. I need to get a better look.”

Remove my clothes. Look at my cervix. She had to do an internal exam.

My throat went dry, my eyes wide. I looked to my husband, panicked, wanting him to help me, to pull me out of the spiral of anxiety into which I had suddenly plummeted. The room was silent. “You have to do an internal exam?” I asked. I needed her to confirm that’s what she meant.

Her response was annoyed, harried. “Yes, of course. You’re okay with that, right?”

No. No, I was not okay with that. She wanted to shove a probe inside me and she was acting like it was no big deal. Have some respect, woman.

I told her no, I’d rather she didn’t and then asked if I had a choice.  No, she said, not really.

Well, then.

She didn’t understand. In the dim light she didn’t see the blood rush out of my cheeks. She didn’t see the hairs rising on my neck or the goosebumps on my arms. She didn’t hear the quickened thrum of my heart in my chest.

She didn’t understand.

How could she? How could she know that the mere suggestion of an internal exam felt like a violation? How could she know that my body went on high alert as though it were about to be used without consent?

She couldn’t. She couldn’t know that my mind went to a different place, a dark place, where I believe the lie that I don’t have a say over the protection of my own body. How can you, if you’ve never been there?

I left that day full of grief and anger and frustration—a day that was supposed to be one of celebration and joy. Why had she been so cold? Could she not sense even a hint of my anxiety? Where was her compassion?

She was just doing her job. Maybe she was having an off day. You can’t blame her for being oblivious.

These are the thoughts I used to comfort myself as I tried to calm down and focus on the good news: the baby growing inside my belly was healthy and strong.

But the joy that would quietly bubble up was stifled by the heavy darkness that hung around me. Maybe a better woman would be able to let something like this slide, but I’m about as pensive as they come. I kept thinking: Another boy. Boys, who take advantage and ruin your self-image and put you in a place just like this, so you’re left dissociating from a normal medical examination because the memories are a nightmare.

The anger within me had been sparked by the sonographer but this all-consuming fire had nothing to do with her. I was angry at the men who had assaulted me. I was angry with men—all men.

Why would God make me the mother of two boys?

An illogical train of thought, perhaps, but a powerful one.

My husband held me as I cried.

Later that afternoon, I went to my son when he woke from his nap. Sleepy and snuggly, he rubbed his eyes and smiled. “Mama!” I held him close and smelled his sweet baby skin. My son. My boy. My sweet firstborn who loves his mama unconditionally, who is innocent and untouched by the world.

How can I hold such bitterness in my heart when these warm brown eyes are so full of love and expectation? How can I hang on to such hatred when his daddy has proved time and time again to be true and tender and kind?

I leaned into their love for the rest of the day.

The intensity of emotion I succumbed to that afternoon could not be trusted. I’m learning that slowly, again and again. I know that I must learn to identify triggers for what they are—triggers, not actual threats to my safety. I want learn how to dive into my emotions and then let them pass over me like a wave.

And I want to forgive.

I want to forgive the hands that betrayed my trust.

I want to forgive those who use careless words that trigger me.

I want to forgive myself for carrying these hurts for so long.

I want to forgive for the sake of my sons.

And I will try. Day after day I will practice gratitude for where I am and what I have and lean into the love around me. I will continue ask God to give me the strength to leave the past behind. Because walking in freedom is the only way I want to live.

Originally appeared on the Good Mother Project

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Doubt, Faith, Identity

How Do I Want to Show Up in the World?

IMG_5063-EFFECTSLast week I came back from a week at a summer camp for women. Talk about a situation ready to send you right back into your junior high insecurities: a bunch of women sleeping in the woods, swarmed by mosquitoes, constantly sweating in the moist North Carolina air. We shared our cabins with mice. We shared our showers with spiders. We logged fewer hours sleeping than I normally do at home with my teething baby.

It was the kind of environment just uncomfortable enough to let others see glimpses of your heart.

My heart? It was insecure. Lonely. Needy. Afraid. Longing for my own bed and my husband’s reassuring arms.

This was the first time I’d been away from my 10-month old son for more than 24 hours. I’d already been gone for two days and I had five more to go. Without his tiny body hugged to mine, I hardly knew who I was. What would I talk about? The exhaustion I embody and the extra pounds I carry seem more acceptable somehow when I am carrying him in front of my soft belly. Without him I felt exposed.

I was bombarded by self-doubt the minute I drove up to camp: Will anyone want to sit with me at dinner? Will I make friends? Will I be fun enough? Will people think I’m boring and wonder why I’m even here?

All my giftings that made me excited to be a camp counselor—my capacity for compassion, my ability to listen, my leaning toward grace—were darkened with shadow. All I could think about was how quiet I can be, how slow I am to make friends, how I will always choose quiet time over an afternoon of lawn games. In short: I began to wonder why I was even there.

Thankfully, the women attending camp were big-hearted women seeking joy and love and truth, women who speak and live with grace. Women who desire to show up fearlessly, exactly as they are, leaning into the beauty of who they were created to be. Each woman I spoke with radiated warmth and gratitude. Each woman had a ready smile.

As I journaled on our first morning there, I realized the problem wasn’t with camp, it was with me. These feelings of inadequacy weren’t bubbling up only because it was the first time I was away from my son or because I was losing sleep to the song of the cicadas. My feelings of unease were very familiar: I spend so much time and energy wondering and worrying about what other people think, about which parts of myself I should show them to make them feel more comfortable, that I hardly remember the design of creation. I hardly remember I am made in God’s image, reflecting his glory in a unique blend of the many facets of his character.

Rather than wasting time and energy focusing on how I fall short or fail, I wanted to lean in towards the person God created me to be.

So I challenged myself to ruminate on the following:

How do I want to show up in the world? How do I want to be remembered?

From that moment on, each time I began to feel the pinch of doubt or the rush of fear, I stopped, took a breath and asked myself how I wanted to show up in the moment. Would I let destructive patterns of self-protection keep me from engaging with others? Or would I trust that God had equipped me with all I would need?

I asked myself how I wanted to be remembered. When I was honest with myself I knew it wouldn’t be for winning any games or making people laugh or telling a moving story in front of the whole camp. But maybe I could be remembered for the connections I made with others, for being vulnerable in my cabin, for making others feel safe to share the truth of their own stories.

So that’s how I showed up: a little quiet, a little awkward, a little scared. But I showed up anyway. And the conversations I had with the women who crossed my path were some of the most heartfelt I’ve had in a very long time.

Maybe this is who God created me to be.

Maybe that is enough.

How do you want to show up today? How do you want to be remembered?

This post originally appeared on All In

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Mamahood

I Roared My Little Lion Out

IMG_5483I crouched in the hospital bathtub, wearing nothing but my sports bra. I’ve always been the girl who would rather contort herself in a bathroom stall than go bare in the women’s locker room, but my nakedness was nothing compared to the pain. The idea of laboring in the tub with my loving husband nearby had seemed luxurious and comforting, even a little glamorous. In reality it was small, cramped . . and crowded. Four sets of eyes watched me as I bore down on another contraction, waiting on me to make a decision about the epidural. Anxious, afraid, I was uncertain: as a survivor of sexual assault, I had mixed feelings about numbing the pain.

My waters had broken 12 hours before. 7 pm, at home, on my toilet, as I peed.  Nothing glamorous about that. No contractions. Just a strange, slow trickle.Could this be it? It felt so anticlimactic after months of panicked anticipation. Normally this wouldn’t mean much; normally a woman could take her time in the comfort of her own home. But I had tested positive for Strep B and needed to get to the hospital for a round of antibiotics. On top of that, the amniotic fluid was tinged with green, indicating there was a chance my son was in danger of breathing in meconium. There was a risk that he would not be able to cry or breathe on his own.

I found comfort in small blessings: my midwife, by my side throughout my anxious prenatal journey, happened to be on call that night; my overworked husband had the night off. I held on to these gifts as a brusque night nurse interrogated me and then told us my plan to try an unmedicated birth was unrealistic. At 10pm I still hadn’t had a contraction. The presence of meconium and its threat to my son meant I’d be on Pitocin by midnight.

Time moved slowly and the ache was guttural. My body moved in response to the pain and with every roll of my hips and stretch of my back I felt more rooted to the earth than I had ever been before. There was something primal brewing within me, a timeless song. But against the rhythm of that ancient melody was a frantic thrumming, an offbeat syncopation beating in my brain: No! Not yet! He will tear you apart! No amount of breathing made me feel safe enough to let go.

By 6am, hunched over in lukewarm water, I wanted to quit. I wanted my baby more, but I didn’t know how I’d ever get through the pain.My body craved expansion, but my brain threatened to shut it down. I tried to encourage myself. Remember the half marathon you ran? Remember how you thought you’d never make those last three miles? I recalled twisting my ankle at mile 10, falling to the ground and picking myself up in tears and humiliation. I can’t do this, I had thought. It’s too hard. I finished that race, though, and I would finish this one, too.

But I was beginning to think I’d need a little help. I looked at my husband, embarrassed and a bit ashamed. “I think I need the epidural,” I whispered.

At 7am there was a shift change. My trusted midwife, who had acted more like a doula than her job required, would be going home and I’d be put into the care of a woman I had never met. The new midwife had a quiet, calm demeanor. She was older and exuded a sense of motherly wisdom. I knew in my core I would be safe in her hands.

But when she said she needed to check my cervix, my stomach plummeted. I willed my body to relax, but that was hard to do with a clenched jaw and rigid limbs. Does she know my history? As she examined me with her fingers, another contraction enveloped me and I almost lifted off the table. “You’re 7cm,” she said. She put her hand on my thigh in a gesture of comfort but it was more than I could bear.“Let’s get you back into the tub.” She wanted me to continue without the epidural?

Fear, dressed as fury, thundered out of me. “NO! I need everyone to stop telling me what to do,” I was shaking. “Please don’t touch me.”

I was met only with kindness. She took her hand away gently. “Of course. This is your birth.” She stepped aside.

It takes time to get an anesthesiologist in the room. Even though anxiety began to loosen its grip on my brain, the contractions just continued to get deeper and stronger. I didn’t realize at the time I had already entered into transition.

The anesthesiologist was kind, and I didn’t care about the big needle he wielded. I just wanted the pain to subside so I could stop feeling so afraid. As the drug began its work, I lay my head back on the pillow and for the first time since my waters broke I felt calm, centered, confident.

The midwife came to check on me. “You made the right decision,” she told me, her eyes filled with warmth. “Now your body can relax and do what it was made to do.”

I felt like I was floating, my mind separate from my body. I welcomed the warm ease it brought me, and I allowed myself to sink deeper into the bed, relishing the feeling of cotton against my skin.

About thirty minutes after the epidural began its drip, a slow ache began on the right side of my abdomen. Within minutes the ache had become a pulsing burn: the contractions were stronger than ever. Panic returned. What if they couldn’t fix it? What if I had sacrificed my desire for a medication-free delivery only to feel the pain? What have I done? The anesthesiologist returned and placed the needle in a different spot. My left leg became so numb I couldn’t lift it from the bed. The pain in my right side subsided but was still present.

I rested for a little while and when they returned, I was fully dilated.

So we began. The early afternoon light filtered in through the blinds and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I met my son face to face. A NICU team appeared with their tools, waiting quietly by the door. The midwife reassured me: “Just in case.”

The pain was still there. Muted, but present. I hated it and loved it at the same time. Birthing a child is supposed to be painful, and there was a part of me that was thankful for the slow, intense burn that reminded me my son was ready to enter the world. The pain would guide me. I was ready.

I opened my mouth and roared my little lion out.

My furry little cub, filthy but otherwise healthy and strong, opened up his lungs and roared right back.

This post originally appeared on the Good Mother Project.

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Faith, Grace, Identity, Mamahood

Survivor Mama: New Life after Sexual Assault

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source: eran jayne photography

Today I am seven years a survivor. So grateful to the Good Mother Project for publishing this piece yesterday. It’s time to use my voice again. It’s time to speak the truth. 

When I got pregnant, I didn’t realize I was a rape survivor.

Mere hours after my son was conceived,  I sat in our counselor’s office with my husband, gripping his hand tightly and holding my breath as she said the word: rape. It was rape. She was referring to an event that had happened six years before, something I had miscategorized in my mind. I had told my husband a bit about that night, but I had only shared vague details:  it was always “the night I regret,” “a huge mistake,” “taking advantage.” But: Rape? We had never used that word.

I wasn’t sure what to do with this new information. My entire world as I knew it, as I had constructed it around me, was changed. I had endured violence of the most vulnerable kind and my brain had protected me from the knowledge of it. For six years. Six whole years I had been living in a haze of despair, uncertain of its cause. Now I knew it wasn’t anything I had done, and yet somehow I still felt responsible. I read the books, I repeated the words (it’s not my fault). Still, a sense of shame and feeling of filth lingered, like cigarette smoke you can’t get out of your favorite sweater.

Two weeks later, two little blue lines showed up on a pregnancy test. The baby my husband and I had been praying for.

I was ecstatic. I was terrified.

I spent the first three months of pregnancy curled up on our couch in the fetal position. Despite the standard exhaustion and consistent nausea, my physical symptoms weren’t bad. But mentally and emotionally, I was a wreck.

The anxiety that built up within my quickly changing body manifested in ways I could easily blame on pregnancy: hiding in my house, watching Netflix for hours, ignoring phone calls from friends and family. I felt like I was too full of emotion—filled to the brim—and any additional stress would send me over the edge. How could I have normal, happy conversations with people about my pregnancy when I had such a dark secret lurking beneath it all?  I thought about it much more than I wanted to, but I didn’t know how to stop, or who I could talk to. No one wants to hear you say you’ve been raped. Especially when you’re supposed to be joy personified, bursting with excitement about your unborn child.

When I did have the emotional energy to speak with loved ones, I was truthful about my excitement and fear (who isn’t afraid of childbirth?), but I never felt as though I was being completely honest.  As someone who generally wears her heart on her sleeve, this was exhausting and painful.  So, I spent most of my free time in full-on hibernation mode. My one goal was to incubate my growing child, protecting the precious, innocent life still unknown to me. I built myself a cozy little nest of blankets and books and read everything I could about preparing for birth.

Close to the end of my second trimester I finally got up the courage to see a prenatal therapist. She was calm and nurturing and made me feel safe. Still, it took weeks of therapy before I was finally ready to tell her exactly what had happened to me the summer of 2008. With great kindness, she listened to me, validated me, and also helped me admit to myself that one month before the rape, I had been sexually assaulted.

So there I was, very pregnant, very hormonal, very emotional, preparing for birth, and also trying to come to terms with the fact that I had been violently violated not once but twice—and I hadn’t let myself recognize the truth.

Any shred of security I once felt was lost to me. Suddenly everything and everyone seemed a threat to my safety. Trust was a dirty word. It didn’t help that at the time, our neighborhood was experiencing a wave of break-ins and burglary, and my rock of a husband, working long, hard shifts as a medical resident, was hardly home. My sleep, fitful and hard to come by, became punctuated with horrific nightmares.

It seemed impossible to escape the reality that I lived in a violent, terrible, evil world where women are raped (and children are molested and teens get addicted and men are tortured, and so on). And I was bringing a baby into this world. How could I protect him—how could I be a good mother—if I couldn’t even protect myself?

Yet I smiled for pictures. Shared my growing bump online. Dressed up for baby showers. I clung desperately to whatever joy I could find.

As my due date approached, the anxiety I felt around childbirth was palpable. I practiced self-hypnosis, imagery-based meditation, breathing, prayer—anything I could think of, and it still wasn’t enough. I was terrified that in the midst of labor I would be triggered; routine pelvic exams were difficult enough. Pain could be a trigger. Medication could be a trigger. Mentally, I could shut down. And even if I wasn’t triggered? This baby could rip me in two. He could destroy this body, already used and battered and worn. I could die. He could die. There was no way to know how labor would go or how I would respond.

I was completely vulnerable.

In the end, it was this very vulnerability that made room for the hope that saved me.

Interspersed with my fear and anxiety was the shimmering hope of redemption: my body, my story could be made new again. I thought about the strange and almost supernatural timing of my son’s conception: could it be a coincidence that in the hours I was first recognizing the truth of my past, he was being knit together in my womb? I began to meditate on the feeling of release I experienced when I learned I was a survivor: the way my shoulders dropped, as if letting go of a heavy weight; the way my entire body warmed as though melting away years of falsehood. The new life inside me was a promise of what lay beyond the empty devastation caused by acts of violence so very long ago. This new life, my son, was created out of joy and laughter and the love I shared with my husband.  

God began to feel very present to me, even amid my pain and fear. I felt very certain he had a hand in the timing of my pregnancy, that he was preparing my heart to be a mother as he led me through the hard truth about my past. The strange co-mingling of revelation and gestation began to feel like a gift. In my final weeks of pregnancy, a steady confidence began to build within me. Somehow, I knew I would survive birth and deliver a beautiful, healthy child.

God would get me through it. He had gotten me through much worse. I knew he would, not only for me, but for my son. Despite my fears, the sun seemed to shine a little more brightly, the air began to feel a little more crisp. The colors of early autumn seeped their way through my skin and stirred up my soul, reminding me of the beauty and goodness and light that can keep the darkness at bay. I was reminded of all I wanted to offer my son: the adventures we would take, the stories we would tell, the love we would share.

Today, my son is almost 10 months old, a sweet, active little boy with a mischievous grin. After all my worrying and wondering, he came into the world with relative ease. Oh, there was pain. And there was fear. I had to battle anxiety throughout the entire process. But I did it. I made it through. And in the end, I held the most precious gift.

So, why tell this story now? Why share something so private, so painful, so raw? I write these words because I know I’m not the only woman who has felt broken, used, and afraid. I share my story because I am confident that the evil of this world will not have the final say. I am speaking out because I want to be a witness to the beauty that has risen from the ashes of my life. I am reaching out in sisterhood to other survivors to say you are not alone.

jakeI’m telling this story because I want to teach my son by example. I don’t want him to live in fear or feel the need to hide from his past.

This journey of mine isn’t over. I still have days I’m overcome with anxiety, faced with the certainty that no matter what precautions I take, there’s only so much I can do to protect my child from harm. Each day is a practice in trusting and letting go.

Each day is a practice of faith.

Someday, I will tell my son about the half marathon I walked with him at eight months pregnant. I will tell him about the heat that beat down on me as I walked, feet swollen but heart bursting, through the brilliant beauty of Stanley Park. I will tell him how I thought of him the whole time, how I wanted to show him his mother was strong.

I will tell him how he taught me to be brave.

This post originally appeared on the Good Mother Project.

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Faith, Mamahood

My 2 a.m. Friend, or The Day I Thought I’d Lost My Son

FullSizeRender (5)One minute we were lounging on the picnic blanket in our backyard. Jacob was happily chewing on a toy and I was happily snapping pics of him as he rolled back and forth, wiggling his toes in the air. The next minute, I noticed he had a piece of grass sticking out of his mouth, and as I reached to remove it, he began to gag.

I picked him up, set him on my lap and looked at his little face as my heart stopped. Is he choking? He’s not breathing. He quickly drew in a breath of air. Sweet relief. And then his stomach tightened, he began to cough and then vomited right down the front of my shirt, onto my pants, onto himself. I held out a hand to catch the rest of the vomit—which just kept coming. I thought it was strange that a single blade of grass would cause such an intense reaction, but I wasn’t overly concerned. Babies get sick sometimes, and everything seemed pretty normal. I picked up my son and our soiled blanket and took him inside for a bath.

I had barely made it through the back door before he began to gag and heave once again. This time, it was definitely not normal. Jacob’s face turned bright red and he began to cry a terrible cry, a sound I have never heard before. He kept heaving. I looked at his handsome little face contorted in discomfort and fear. He looked to me for reassurance, but I was so panicked I couldn’t breathe.

No, no, no… My brain was on an anxious repeat loop. My baby is going to die. Maybe there was fertilizer on that grass. My baby is going to die because I don’t know the number for Poison Control.

911, do I need to call 911? My husband, at work, did not have cell service. I was completely alone, completely responsible.

Jacob got sick again. I ran into the bathroom and held him over the sink. I saw a thin trickle of blood. I was overcome with a feeling of despair. Is this it? Is this how quickly the life of a child can end?

“No, no, no…this isn’t happening…” I heard myself say, as one hand gripped my puking son and the other shakily searched my phone for the number of Lauren, a friend and fellow first-time mama who lives across the street. She picked up on the second ring. I’m a text-only kind of girl, so she knew something was up.

Lauren is a practical, no-nonsense kind of woman, wise and cool-headed. I knew she would talk me down if I was crazy and would tell me to get to the ER if she thought that was what I needed to do. And I knew she would pray—something I just could not bring myself to do.

My words hardly came out for the hyperventilating. Lauren, who was on the road, sitting in Seattle traffic, listened patiently and calmly encouraged me to keep talking.

She listened. She let me tell her I was scared. She let me tell her I was worried I had somehow let my child get poisoned from sucking on a piece of grass. She let me sob in fear and desperation. She did all of this with grace even as her own baby sobbed in her back seat.

She told me she thought Jacob sounded okay, from what she could hear. She told me I should trust my gut, and if I’d feel better driving him to the hospital, I should absolutely do that. But she also said she thought it would be all right for me to wait it out a couple of hours.

She talked me down off the ledge (and let me tell you, if you’ve never been on the solo-parenting-postpartum-anxiety-first-time-mama ledge, it is pretty freaking high.)

By the time I got off the phone, Jacob was calming down. I cuddled him close as I ran a cool bath. Within minutes, he was playing and splashing as if nothing had happened at all. He was fine. He was going to be okay. I sobbed again, out of relief. Out of exhaustion. Out of gratitude.

Once he was dried, fed, and calmly sleeping in his crib, I texted Lauren to tell her he was all right, to thank her, and to apologize for being such a nut job on the phone. Despite the very real fear I had experienced, I felt pretty embarrassed. Had I blown the whole thing out of proportion?

Her words in response brought me to tears again: “Don’t worry about perception, friend! You did the right thing. You had insight, you reached out, you weighed your options, you acted. You nailed it, truly! You are a great mom. You proved it again today.”

Her words were like a balm. It was exactly what I needed to hear.preggoladies

In the two years we’ve known each other, Lauren and I have shared thousands of late-night texts and emails offering prayer and words of encouragement, but on this particular day, she proved to me again how important it is to truly invest in each other’s lives. She reminded me how crucial it is to surround ourselves with people who are unafraid of the messy, vulnerable parts of our stories and ourselves, who will let us feel whatever it is we are feeling and then calmly offer guidance when we need help.

For an introvert with a love-hate relationship with community, this lesson can be hard won. Sometimes it comes in the form of an eight-month-old baby projectile vomiting, forcing you to pick up the phone and cry out for help.

In the end, Jacob was fine. I still don’t know what caused him to get sick that day – it could have been the heat, it could have been something he ate. I’d like to say I’d never wish that kind of discomfort or fear on him again, but I’m not sure I can. If vulnerable situations teach him how to reach out to others, to rely on friends like Lauren in times of need—and learn how to be that kind of friend himself—then I believe the discomfort might be worth it in the end.

This post originally appeared on the Discovery Community Church blog, All In

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