Today I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving and gratitude and creating the life I want to live. This month has been hard. My Kindergartener got sick and was home from school almost a whole week. Then I crashed on my bike and sustained some injuries. Then I got sick and was in bed for several days with fever, chills, a wicked sore throat, and the usual yuck of fall illnesses. Finally, I strained my ankle at the trampoline park. With all of this I have had a resurgence of depression symptoms including some pretty intense episodes of suicidal ideation. My counselor contracted pneumonia and has not been available. Naturally I was very unhappy when family-of-origin drama began.
At the beginning of this year I did a cut off with my parents. I have avoided writing on my blog about this for a couple of reasons. First, it is extremely painful and for those who have experienced it, you understand just how painful and why I wouldn’t want to post about it. Another reason is that I’ve been afraid of the backlash I might get from well meaning family members with little to no mental health experience. I thought that perhaps if I veiled some of my expressions in poetry that I might avoid some of the latter. Unfortunately, I have still managed to garner the backlash I tried to prevent.
As I have reflected on my blog’s purpose, I realize that I have been holding back useful information from my intended readers. My intended readers are those who have some experience with mental health or at least some desire to learn more, help loved ones, and build a more nurturing environment for our minds. My intended readers are familiar with phrases like “family of origin,” “childhood trauma,” “suicidal ideation,” and “recovery journey.” My intended readers understand that the world of mental health is complicated and that it is best to withhold judgement of those who suffer and their loved ones who suffer with them. My intended readers deserve more vulnerable and direct communications than my poetry posts this year.
This is not the first cutoff I have done with my parents, but this is the longest one. I tried to resume some limited contact with my mom around mother’s day, but we are back to no contact until after the holidays. Family of origin drama is just too much for me right now. I have to be there for my children for the next six weeks.
It’s hard to cope with the reality that you experienced serious trauma as a child. It is almost unbearable when those you love who hurt you so badly deny and minimize your experience, make excuses for themselves, and then shame you for the pain. I have been accused of being ungrateful, unforgiving, and cruel. Those minimizations and accusations hurt more than the original offense. I am comforted to think that the Savior knows the pain I feel. Perhaps he alone will ever truly understand. He whose piercing gaze fell upon the leper and resisted looking away will not fail to see me in my broken state. Like them, I cry out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
This post is for those who, like me, who find that in their recovery journey, that they must limit contact with people they love. Love is not a purchased commodity. Those we love have not earned our love. In order for love to be real it must be freely given with no expectation of reciprocation. Sometimes we have built empathetic connections of love with people who continually hurt us and keep us from building a healthy and happy life. They sabotage our efforts, contradict our therapists, and pressure us to continue harmful behaviors. These relationships are unlikely to change unless the empathetic connection changes. Sometimes the relationship can’t continue without great harm to recovery.
Cut offs are so hard. We love the person. We want them to understand. We want them to see that they are hurting us and for it to matter to them. We want the unconditional love from them that we have been giving. Some people are just unable to give that kind of love. It’s okay to let go. Sometimes it’s important to let go. This is hard for people raised in codependency.
My family of origin has a lot of problems with codependency. I was raised to believe that I needed to be unselfish to be good. That belief system has driven me repeatedly into burnout. I am finally making some progress in rooting out those codependent virtue/vices and replacing them with healthier values.
Virtue/Vice One: I need to put others first. Selfish women don’t deserve love. I was taught that women feel fulfilled in the home taking care of their family. I was taught that good wives and mothers put their husband and children’s needs first, often go without and make sacrifices for their family. I thought that when I skipped meals, showers, personal growth opportunities, and social activities that I was being a good person. Over time, resent built up and motivation evaporated. I thought that my sacrifices would make me feel fulfilled and that my efforts would be reciprocated and rewarded. Instead it seemed that everyone became accustomed to my behavior and even felt entitled to it. The love I craved felt insufficient and it was. I wasn’t behaving virtuously, I was being codependent. I was expecting my husband and children’s love to sustain me and make up for my neglect of myself. It left everyone frustrated and resentful.
Now I understand that putting others first doesn’t make me a good person, it makes me a resentful person. I understand that I don’t have to earn love. My husband and children love me because they are empathetic and loving people. I love them because I am an empathetic and loving person. I don’t earn their love with my unselfish behavior. I model healthy self care for them and teach them to do the same. They aren’t responsible for my happiness and I am not responsible for theirs.
Codependency keeps us in unhealthy relationships for too long. It is a habit of thinking that shifts responsibility. “I am responsible for everything,” says one codependent person. “You are responsible for everything,” says the other. Because neither of those statements is true, no progress is made. Codependency is like a tug of war, two people waste time and energy pulling against one another and getting nowhere. It isn’t going to be enough to stop pulling. Its okay to put the rope down and walk away.
Virtue/Vice Two: It is unkind to distance myself from people who hurt me. Christ commanded me to love everyone which means I need to put my mental health at risk rather than set healthy boundaries. This is a classic codependent virtue/vice. Keeping toxic relationships and people in your life is not healthy. Proper self care requires you to keep yourself safe from harm. Sacrificing your safety to enable someone’s toxic behavior is not a virtue, its a codependent vice.
Virtue/Vice Three: Doing family cut-offs is cruel. Family relationships need to be preserved no matter how detrimental they are to your mental health. For many years I have kept family relationships in my life that have hurt my recovery. Some family members have repeatedly reinforced toxic narratives, minimized abusive behavior, and blamed victims. Because I believed in the sanctity of eternal families, I kept trying to change toxic family members.
The truth is, eternal families are healthy families. Each individual is accountable for their own behavior within the family system. Not every individual has equal power within the family system. The parents have the bulk of the power and the responsibility for the overall health of the system. Children within the system, even adult children, have little power to change the system. Eventually healthy adult children will outgrow an unhealthy family system. That’s not cruelty, that’s life. If you want an eternal family, you need a healthy family. If your family isn’t healthy, it won’t last anyway.
Habits of codependence are reinforced with practice. It takes two to tango in the dance of codependence and the steps are unconscious. I’ve had to surround myself with people who have healthy boundaries in order to begin to see my own codependent habits.
Unfortunately, that has restricted my circle of friends to a very small group. Churches sometimes teach codependence as a virtue. Women at church are especially proud of their codependence. It is the whited sepulchre of mental health sins. On the outside they are virtuous servants of mankind while inwardly they are seething with the sickly rot of resentment. From such stay far away!
When it comes to relationships, I’ve prioritized quality over quantity. I have also prioritized relationships I feel I have some power to influence. I’m not investing in relationships with people who are rigid, defensive, and self-righteous. The truth is, there are not a lot of mentally healthy people in this world. There are enough mentally healthy people, but you have to look for them. You might find them in unexpected places.
The holidays are a strange mix of emotions for me. Being in recovery isn’t easy, but I have enough faith to believe it will be worth it. My best to all of you who find yourselves in a complicated place this season. You aren’t alone. As I celebrate the birth of the Savior, my model of mental health and altruistic virtue, this month, I hope I can better emulate Him. I hope my words bring you light and hope and not despair.
The axe forgets. Only the tree remembers.
You had an ideal childhood.
We played games
We went on vacations
We loved you
Those things are all true
But you don’t remember
Feeling your throat in your mouth
As each smash of your hand
Reverberated through my body.
Afraid to run.
Afraid to breathe.
Seeing stars come into my eyes
Terror mixed with shame
You don’t remember the thrill of fear
Travelling up my spine
When I heard the door open,
And I knew you were home.
The rush to hide.
To make myself small.
You were fear personified
And I ran from you.
Like a child runs from
A monster in the closet.
You don’t remember
That desperate need to please
To be good enough
To earn your love
Like a famished beast
It consumed joy and peace of mind
In the womb
Before it could be felt.
Or maybe you do remember
But you want to forget
The memories of your own small self
You defend the ones who hurt you.
You side with them.
They still have the power
And you are still trying to earn their love.
The axe forgets, but the tree remembers.
Can the axe remember that it was once a tree?
Long ago before it became a brittle and dead thing
Designed to destroy its children,
It was green, and it swayed in the wind,
As it flowed through the branches.
Can the axe remember?
Let’s write a different story.
Let’s change the ending.
The powerful can remember
The pain of their choices
On those they forget.
Let’s give the future fertilizer,
And put the axe in the shed.
A timeout for a while.
Let's dig a hole in the Earth
And in that soft soil,
We can grow some seedlings.
And they won’t fear the axe.
And they won’t remember
What they don’t have to forget.
The axe can remember
And the tree can forget.
Making some bad art today,
As seems to be my artist way,
To see the ugly broken me
And learn to love the flaws I see.
There is no other way I guess,
To silence the critic in my chest,
To bring the broken to the page
And release my inner sage
I find the beauty in growing things
In perfect hope that time will bring,
The beauty that I hope to find
Reminds me that I’m blind
To beauty He wants me to see,
The ugly and the broken me.
And find my artist way,
Making some bad art today
Cold and hard
Silent and still
My heart raging
My throat bursting
My shoulders constricting.
“YOU DID THIS!”
The echoes reverberate
Off the empty chairs
They stand accused
With no defense
“YOU DID THIS!”
The sound blossoms
Across the generations
Like the ripples of a fetid pool
A pool they made
And I had to live in.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And there was nothing I could do
To help you
To protect myself
Powerless, alone, silent, still.
“YOU DID THIS!”
Tears stick in unfocused eyes
As blood drips down my face
At pain unfelt
At justice denied.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And I paid the price
For your mistake
The sacrificial lamb
“YOU DID THIS!”
But I won’t become you.
They won’t atone for our sins.
I won’t curse the future
To justify the past.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And it isn’t my fault.
I can walk away
From the darkness
Into a rebirth
A new beginning
One of the biggest reasons I started blogging was because I wanted to learn to accept my mental health condition. I had been hiding it for so long behind a mask of normalcy that I had split myself into two people. One version of myself did her best to seem normal, embraced the values of perfection I had been conditioned to persevere toward, and tried not to get in the way of others around me. The other version of myself understood that the world around me and the value system I had been conditioned to accept was fundamentally flawed; that life was messy and hard and full of complex realities. This second version of myself kept wanting to assert herself and push the other, more compliant version, aside. These two sides of me seemed to always be in conflict. On the outside, I was a good Mormon mom who cared for her children, went to church every week, didn’t cause problems, and did what she had been taught. On the inside, I was full of doubts, fears, and building resentment.
This blog was a way for me to give voice to my hidden version of myself; the self that is broken and needs the Savior. The blog became a place I could be proud of my suffering and rejoice in the ways it leads me back to Him who is Mighty to Save. Why then have I struggled these past months to post?
My mental health recovery path has been full of difficulties, but the greatest one has been acceptance. Each time I take my medication, each time I can’t get out of bed, each time I finish another counseling session, each time I fall short, I remember my broken. It is so hard to see the beauty in it! I wish I could be whole and healthy and normal. I wish I wasn’t faced with the reality of my broken mind every day, but that is the life I’ve been given.
There is also so much beauty. I went to the STEM Academy meet the designer night last night. My second son started high school this year. He proudly led us to his various classes and introduced us to his teachers. He’s an excellent student with exceptional teachers who will help him achieve his potential. He’s taking his first AP class, so he will already start earning college credits. His older brother is in the top band as a Junior and is also college bound. My third son is thriving in his STEM Academy. My youngest loves kindergarten. In spite of my failings and flaws, my boys are growing and learning and off to a good start in life.
No one has a perfect life. We all struggle mentally and emotionally. Death, disappointment, illness, and accident visit everyone. It’s messy and hard and unfair and complicated; but every life is known to God. He suspends his judgment until the end of our lives. In the meantime, he asks only one thing of us; that we be honest with ourselves and others; that we confess and forsake our sins and follow the Savior. Why is that so hard for me?
Why am I so tempted to live a lie? Why am I so determined to put on a mask of conformity to please other people instead of an authentic image that pleases God? Why am I afraid to post on my blog? Why am I afraid of the judgement of those who don’t yet understand? We are broken! Not just me. We are all broken. That makes us all equals. I need not cower in shame.
Yet shame is what I feel and I can’t make the shame go away. And so I wander. I’ve left churches and temples made with hands and return to Eden; to the garden. I feel a pull to plants, animals, water, and soil right now. The last two months have been intense. Lots of joy, lots of sadness, lots of change. Bombs, pandemic, deaths, injustice, man’s inhumanity to man……it takes its toll. Every day I’m reminded that this world isn’t safe. The world is not a safe place.
We have a butterfly garden we started four years ago. The first year, we couldn’t keep enough milkweed in the garden! The monarchs laid so many eggs, I could hardly keep up. We released something like 32 monarchs that summer. Every day we would release the butterflies to fly away to Mexico for the winter. It was so amazing. For the past three years, we have grown milkweed and it has had nothing but aphids. This summer as the months passed, I thought that this year again, the monarchs would miss us. I was wrong.
We started getting eggs the second week of August. Lots of them. We also found little caterpillars everywhere. We scooped them up and put them in our crates and enclosures. We didn’t have enough. We bought more crates. There were more caterpillars. We gave some to friends. We drove along the freeway to find milkweed growing in the wild because we were running low in the garden. Twice a day we would clean out the cages and check on our babies. We had over fifty!
Once we brought in a leaf that had predatory eggs on it that we didn’t see. A caterpillar ate the eggs and got sick. It split open to reveal the larvae that had killed it. Even with all our precautions, our caterpillars were not safe. We started washing every leaf before putting it in a crate. We felt relief every time a caterpillar would make its silk button and “J hang” because that meant one less caterpillar would be eating and pooping. The chrysalids began piling up.
Occasionally we would lose a caterpillar to “the black death” which is assumed to be some kind of bacterial infection. We would remind ourselves that of all the monarch eggs that are laid each year only about five percent survive to adulthood. Our efforts were dramatically improving the odds of success for our little friends.
The day we had our first butterfly eclose, or emerge, from chrysalis was magical. It is a miraculous thing to behold. The chrysalis begins to darken. There are no signs of life, and black is usually synonymous with death. If you look carefully, you can see the muted orange of the wings concealed behind the membrane, but even knowing this is normal, it looks eerie. Then the chrysalis splits and the animal within unfolds. At first it looks misshapen and wrinkled, but within ten minutes, the enormous wings flatten out and the transformation is complete.
The second day of school after dropping Austin off for Kindergarten, I took pictures and videos of these animals as they made this miraculous transformation. I don’t believe that this experience has happened by accident. I know that God sent the butterflies. I know that he knew that I needed them. He knew. He cared. He sent his winged messengers. The world isn’t safe! The caterpillars know that. The butterflies know that. The Afganis know that. The marines who died in the bombing knew that. Their families know that. There is a 100% chance that each one of us will die. Eventually this world will take our remains back into itself and we will decay and crumble into nothing. That is our fate. And yet, today we live. Today He loves us. Today He sent His butterflies to me. He also sent me a dream.
I dreamed I was witnessing a wartorn group of refugees leaving their homes and traveling together in families. But instead of people, they were monarch caterpillars. There were large ones, presumably parents, and there were small ones that clung to the backs of the larger ones. What did this dream mean? I feel that the caterpillars were Afgan refugees. The dream made them into caterpillars because to me, the monarch caterpillar is full of beauty and potential. God sees the refugees as full of beauty and potential too. The world won’t understand. They will see the mess and the work of caring for them; the protection they will need and the space they will require. God sees those things, but also the beauty that comes when his miracle transforms them.
God works his will in large and small ways. He sees the refugee and he knows the beggar in his need. He never will forget his people and his hand will never be stayed. His majesty will transform the Earth and the inhabitants will rejoice. I will live each day and pray that I can be the person he wants me to be. I will serve where he calls me to serve. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
I am broken and blessed. I can live authentically and honestly, embracing the redeemed person I am, unfettered by the sins of the past. I am broken, just as those who came before we were broken, but the present brings opportunities for renewal and rebirth. Our God is a God of transformations and redemptions, so I rejoice in my broken and I rejoice that my sins have brought me to Christ who heals me; not in the way I want to be healed, but in his wisdom he leaves the scars. I rejoice in my scars and refuse to hide them. They make me His and I rejoice that I am His. Fearfully and wonderfully made.
Parenting is a marathon. It feels great while you’re doing it, it pushes you to the mental and physical brink, and there is a let down when you stop. Of course, I’ve never run a marathon, but that’s what I imagine it’s like. This morning I got ready to send my son to summer camp for a week. As his car drove away, Pepper and I walked into an empty house. The remains of last night’s chicken nuggets and butterfly shrimp littered the kitchen counter. Baskets of laundry seemed to me to sit pondering in the silence; wondering where their owners had disappeared to.
My mind has been ruminating endlessly the past few weeks. Wesley is constantly on the computer playing Minecraft and the computer is my preferred writing place. Rather than fighting him for the computer, I’ve taken the path of least resistance. Instead of siphoning off my thoughts Dumbledore style, they are crammed in my head screaming for release. Now he’s gone and I have a few hours to myself, I’ll see what comes out.
This morning in my quiet room with only sweet Pepper there to receive my love and nurturing, I sat on my bed and looked at her gorgeous soft, shiny coat. It’s black, but I’ve learned from drawing it that there are places that are white and light grey. That’s what makes it look shiny. Things are always more complicated than they seem. The human brain, always aching for simplicity, wants to see Pepper’s fur as a single color. It is black. It isn’t midnight, moon grey, scintillating silver, or morning fog. That’s too complicated. Black and tan. She’s a chihuahua mix. But she isn’t. She’s a mutt with bloodlines that are uniquely hers; an angel crafted through time and given by God to me to comfort me in my blackest midnight. But it isn’t just black. Life is like that. It isn’t black and white.
But I understand that if I had lived a different life, I wouldn’t see the complexity either. And I would relish the simplicity. Nature is always yearning for simplicity, stasis, harmony, balance. Rivers take the smoothest and easiest path. The brain craves rest. Thinking takes energy. Seeing is work. And yet I think. And yet, I see.
And for that I will never rest. I will run the marathon. So today I paused in my frenzy of thought and prayed. It has been a long time. Sometimes it’s easier to feel the guilt and push it away than actually do the thing that will put the guilt to rest for good. Praying felt good. God reminded me that I’m not such a bad person as my brain likes to tell me I am.
My brain likes to insist that my good intentions pave my road to hell. Every glass of milk I give my child is half empty, not half full. My efforts are never enough. It is like the God in my head is a version of my teenaged son with a gift for ferreting out my every flaw and hypocritical act. The real God sees me different. And in that quiet moment, I remember that He isn’t the demanding perfectionist my brain likes to think He is. My heart poured out to Him all my shortcomings and failings and He calmed that storm with a simple thought. “Do you think I need your efforts, my child? Don’t you remember that I am the one with the loaves and the fishes? I am everything you need.”
But I need a functional government and a church community. I need assurances that my children are going to grow up to be competent adults. I need money in my bank account and friends to affirm me. I need. I need. I need. I need to understand it all right now!!
But I don’t need. I don’t need anything but Him. He leads my soul to the still water. He soothes the wounds the world has given me; the wounds I give myself. And He heals me. And I remember what I forgot. He is everything I need.
And yet we understand Him so imperfectly. We imagine Him to be a simplistic version of our own creation. We remake his image like a child with a crude crayon on brown recycled paper. We hold it up as the true God of Israel and then the sheep stray. We forget that He is not our toy soldier. He is not our mascot to be remade at our convenience. The human mind could study Him for a lifetime and never unlock His secrets. He is not of this world and no human mind can comprehend Him.
How Great is Our God? How Great is Our God? How Great, How Great is Our God?!? Tongue cannot tell, nor heart can frame. Yet we rise from the dust of our creation. We reach for Him and He reaches down to us. For a moment, He opens my eyes to see; I am more than this world. I was born for a better world. My heart is comforted in my uncomfortable; I will never fit here because I belong with Him. He and I know that and it is enough.
I grabbed the empty wrapper in frustration. “Where did it go! It was just here!” Wesley’s bony form was hovered over the Arby’s sandwich. After over a week of the flu, he had become even more thin and for a moment I was encouraged that he had finally taken the sandwich I had offered him repeatedly. Then Layne and Wesley locked eyes. I groaned audibly. This was another one of their food fights.
All Christmas break they had been fighting over food. Once Layne made waffles and refused to give any to Wesley. Layne insisted there was not enough for Wesley to have one. Wesley insisted that he was starving to death and needed to have a big stack. Meanwhile I was trying to get Layne to share while frantically mixing up and cooking more waffles. Ten minutes later, everyone was gone from the table as I ate my small waffle. I had traded with Wesley who was indignant that he had gotten the smallest one. I had added a second waffle to his plate, hoping that he was as famished as he claimed to be. He wasn’t. His two waffles sat abandoned on his plate. I think he ate one bite. The food wasn’t the point. It was the fight. It is always about the fight.
So Wesley had turned his nose up at the sandwich I had offered him, and I had offered it to Layne. When Layne came down to get the sandwich, Wesley had taken it for himself. But was not eating it. He didn’t actually want the sandwich. It was about the fight. So of course my offer to cut the sandwich in half was met with hysteria by both boys, each insisting that they had claim to the entire thing. I was supposed to choose. There was supposed to be a winner and a loser. That was the point of the entire exercise.
I had been fighting panic all day. It was the dreaded companion I didn’t want but could not be rid of. Ben had been helping me limp through the day, taking breaks, planning, and writing. The food fight was the last straw. I felt the panic take over as I shouted at them. “I can’t make you get along! I can’t make you be kind to one another! I can’t make you be happy! I can’t do it.”
That led to the major meltdown. Finances were tight, the car needed repairs, the washer was on the blink. We had just replaced the T.V. and the vacuum. They had both gone out unexpectedly. I hadn’t made anything for dinner and Ben and I were late getting off on our date. If we didn’t leave soon, we would get back late, then I would get to bed late, and then we would be late to 9:00 AM church.
A new year comes with serious challenges for me mentally. I fall back into old perfectionistic patterns. “This year,” I say intensely, “This year I will do it! I will finally take my life back. I will get the trains running ontime. I will make everyone happy, keep everyone happily progressing along the straight and narrow path, be organized and disciplined, and get it right.” Then the days of January pass one by one and I find that I am still the disorganized mess I have always been. The clutter of last year still remains in piles around the house. The energy drains from me as I realize that nothing has changed. And it never will change; not the way I want it to.
Stuff will break, money will be tight, the boys will fight, and we will be late. Panic will come and I will shout and cry and pull my hair. We will pull out of the driveway for church at 9:00 and slip into sacrament meeting after the sacrament. We will try and fail and try again and nothing will be perfect- except when it is. And those moments will be brief and glorious.
Today sacrament meeting was one of those glorious moments. Every testimony seemed to speak to my soul. Each member who spoke seemed to share a piece of themselves with me and my loneliness lifted. I felt a real spiritual connection with each person and with God. I talked to friends. I gave and received hugs. I met my new Primary class! Each little face seemed to be a new adventure; a new soul to find and bring to the Savior.
One little boy came into sacrament meeting with his Mom and three little siblings. I didn’t recognize her. She was by herself and was even more late than we were. Her curly hair and dark skin reminded me of my Tedford children. They weren’t at church this week and I was sad for that. Seeing this woman and her little ones gave me hope and joy. I was so happy when I found out that little boy is in my primary class!
And so I begin another year. Another year of battling crippling anxiety and debilitating depression. Another year of alarming headlines and unhinged tweets. Another year of political campaigns and disinformation campaigns. Another year of wars and rumors of wars as we march into an uncertain and ominous future.
And yet as I write this today, this moment, I feel peace. Satan is real. The pain is real. The diseases are real. The chaos and fear are real. But so is He. And he is Mighty to Save! I am enough because of his grace. I can face this year and this decade, and whatever is left after that with hope and optimism only because I know He will be there to walk the road with me.
Last night I was trying to make a gum paste cake topper for my four year old boy’s cake. It had been a difficult day and the cake topper had been broken about ten different times. Once, Austin ate one of its legs and a chunk out of its face. The resulting instability of figure caused additional damage. My teenager tried to move it and that didn’t go well. Then he tried to fix it and that went even worse.
I HAD TO MAKE THIS CAKE TOPPER WORK! Who makes a My Little Pony cake topper for her son’s birthday party? To have it turn out lame was not an option. Imperfect? Yes. Lame? No. All my older boys and Ben were like, “You are going to make him a girl cake???” I was so MAD!! I am not making him a GIRL CAKE. I am making him a cake of a character he loves who happens to be female. She is also fast and can fly and has a spunky personality and maybe he will marry someone like that someday. I LOVE the fact that he relates to female characters and admires them! Someday I hope he can take that and build a relationship or relationships with his female coworkers and spouse that is devoid of the toxic sexism that saturates our society!! This was not about a cake. It was a STATEMENT. And it was not working.
I would fix the wing and then the tail would fall off. And then I would fix the tail, and the wing would fall off again along with part of the mane. I screamed and cursed and cried and sat on the floor trying to resist the urge to pull out my hair. Then I would look at Ben and get mad again because he had suggested days ago, in a loving and concerned way, “Are you sure you want to make this cake? You don’t have to do this.” He knew I would be a mess! And I was mad at him for knowing that I would be a mess. He was right and that made me mad at him. And mad at myself. And mad at the stupid sugar pony that would not come together.
“I’m here for you Bridgette. Whatever you need,” Ben said in his calm and steady way. That made me feel guilty. He even sat on the floor with me and put his arm around me. How can he be so patient and loving to me when I’m so beastly? Wesley wanted to help me so bad. He brought me a pillow from my bed. “Here Mom. You can punch it and it will make you feel better. Or you can just lay on it…..” Everyone was walking around on eggshells trying to avoid triggering my rage. I hate it when I make people feel like that. Then I hate myself and it makes it worse.
Austin ran around the house naked with his foam sword in his hand. He had peed his pants for the second time and no one had bothered to dress him again. Peroidically he would yell about, “stupid cake!!! Stupid, dumb cake!!” He slashed his sword dramatically as he stomped around with an angry expression, clearly imitating me. He wasn’t distressed, just mirroring the frustration he could sense in me. I laughed in spite of myself. My other boys tried to get him to stop saying it and I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m not taking it personally.” I welcomed the comic relief!
Ben found a recipe online for edible glue. He got the ingredients and mixed them up for me. It worked like a charm. I set the troublesome topper on the cake and then piped a border around the bottom. Wesley and I worked together to make rainbows and clouds to go around it. It was beautiful! It wasn’t a “girl cake” but it did have a female pony who has earned the love and respect of my tiny warrior.
And he did get a complete set of My Little Pony figurines for his birthday. He knows all of them by name. He sleeps with them next to his bed. He did get a glorious Twilight Sparkle Pony complete with glittery wings and tiara, much to the chagrin of his dad. I think Wesley kind of likes it though. I even saw Layne messing with her wings. It stands out as the first and only “girl toy” we have had in our house, so it is something of a novelty. He also got eight foam swords, two shields, and a set of bow and arrows.
Austin loved the cake. He and Wesley kept spinning it around on my cake turner to see it from every angle. Even I was happy with it and even though I see all of its flaws, I can appreciate it for what it is; a symbol of love and devotion of a mother to her little boy. A mother who respects her son’s individuality even if it goes against some of the social norms we have built around what it is to be a boy.
Austin is probably my most masculine child. He seemed to have been born with weapon of some kind in his hand. He is naturally strong and sturdy and ready to do battle with anyone and everyone. And yet, he is drawn to strong female characters like Owlette and Rainbow Dash. I don’t understand why, but I love that about him. It’s part of what makes him interesting and different. It also makes me feel fiercely protective of him. I want him to be able to think and feel the way he wants to. I don’t want to send him to school and have conformity beaten into him.
I remember one day Wesley came home from Kindergarten crying. I asked him what was wrong and he said he was coloring a picture with a pink crayon and was told by the other kids that he couldn’t use a pink crayon because it was a “girl color.” The momma bear anger flared in me. I hugged my boy and dried his tears and explained to him that there are no girl or boy colors, that every color is important and that no one is ever allowed to keep him from using a color. We teach those kinds of toxic concepts to our children and then they force them upon one another. When will we learn?
But this post isn’t supposed to be a lecture. I’m not trying to set myself up as the perfect parent who is going to judge everyone who doesn’t do as I do. Lord knows I’m not a perfect parent. I do wish that we had a society where it was more okay to be different. There are important laws and standards that must be upheld, but there are many ways we can relax and allow boys to color outside the lines with pink crayons and sparkles. There is so much beautiful variety to the people of this world! Can we let that be okay? Maybe not in school, maybe not in church, but as long as I’m the mom, we can do it at home.
****I found out today that there is a movement of men and boys who resonate with My Little Pony. The newest remake of this popular series is much less oriented to little girls. It has a wide appeal to many different people. Men and boys who have felt a strong affinity for the series call themselves “Bronies” and meet up online and at conventions. There is are a couple of documentaries about the phenomenon. For more information, check out
And I was able to watch a really good one here for free
“You clearly have Trump Derangement Syndrome!” Its a common diagnosis thrown out by Trump supporters. I was diagnosed with it today by someone who obviously considers himself qualified to hand out fictitious mental disorders on social media.
It didn’t hurt my feelings because the sting wore off long ago, although I was surprised by source of the attack who was promptly unfriended. There has been a lot of political drama in my life the last couple of days. I have been feverishly unfriending those who refuse to take the time to understand the feelings I experience and expect me to always behave myself when they say ignorant things. I am only human and although I have my fair share of human frailties, I refuse to tolerate those who too often criticize me in my pain, and fail to provide respect, comfort, and understanding.
My mind continues to go back to the idea of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” It is a classic example of gaslighting. First, elect a mercurial and abrasive man to the highest office of the land. Make sure he is incompetent and divisive and fires anyone around him who might tell him anything he doesn’t want to hear. Then, when people get upset and point out problems, say that they are deranged and hate him, thus blaming them for the problem you have created.
Trump Derangement Syndrome is not a real disorder. It is a way of marginalizing a group of people with the stigma of a mental health disorder. Such a practice is commonplace, but wrong. Mental health disorders do not make people without sense or reason in the vast majority of cases. They should not be used to discredit someone, especially when the disorder referred to doesn’t exist. Qualified mental health professionals use diagnoses to understand a patient and guide treatment options, not discredit and dismiss them.
There is obviously something very wrong in America right now. We are imploding rapidly. Our allies, the Kurds, are being slaughtered as we speak. Our President styles himself a king calling the impeachment inquiry “unconstitutional” although his behavior has made it inevitable that he would be impeached, as the only remedy we have for removing a lawless President. This whole thing causes me immense distress. I have pondered long on our current situation and I keep coming back to Carl Jung. His book The Undiscovered Self, Jung hypothesizes about the challenges of our time. I’ve found a lot of wise insights in that book.
In short, he believes that the biggest threat to mankind is the submission of the individual to the collective– a kind of enmeshing where everyone is to blame and no one is to blame for everything. Factions (Republicans and Democrats) can project blame onto other factions while refusing to do introspection and take responsibility for doing the work of societal change and improvement. Gradually the state replaces the individual and eliminates religion, or makes religion into creed, which is state sponsored religion. Rather than bringing the individual to God, creeds use religious manipulation to subjugate the people. The best defense against this enmeshing, according to Jung, is genuine connection to God; real spiritual and individual wellness of individuals.
Jung lived during the two world wars and had a chance to observe and analyse Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini and, even better, the people they ruled. He gave a fascinating interview with H.R. Knickerbocker that you can access here. Be warned, he makes some rather rude generalizations about Coastal Americans and others. Also, some have considered his comments on Hitler to be too flattering. Some NeoNazis use Jung’s words to justify and explain their continued fascination and even worship of him. Jung, for his part, did all he could to stop the spread of totalitarian governments during his lifetime and his words seem eerily canny and applicable today.
The strange behavior of Trump and his supporters has been the source of much distress to the nation and the world. There are reasons for it, but I am unqualified to fully diagnose the problem. Still, it is increasingly hard to make the argument that there isn’t something strange going on in the subconscious minds of those who have created the Trumpian nightmare we are living through.
George Conway wrote a piece for The Atlantic that I thought was excellent in describing the unenviable position we find ourselves with a President who openly displays the textbook description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Worse, he seems better at disordering everyone else’s life than he does his own, although one could argue he does both. It is called Unfit for Office.
Mental health is being increasingly discussed and recognized as the vital subject it is. The General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had several talks that touched on it. Mental wellness and spiritual wellness are two sides of the same coin. I pray that we can embrace the mental health resources we have to help us solve our nation’s problems, heal our divisions, and create a true Zion society where each of us is free to grow and develop into the individuals God created us to be.
I just finished watching, “Abducted in Plain Sight,” the documentary about Jan Broberg’s abuse by Robert Berchtold, the pedophile who kidnapped and brainwashed her as a teenage girl. The Broberg’s and the Berchtold’s were families actively involved in their LDS ward. Berchtold’s predatory behavior, as documented in the show, was enabled on many levels within the community. Social structures such as parents, church leadership, and law enforcement were ill equipped to confront Berchtold’s behavior. Although I believe we are much better now at protecting our children from pedophiles, this documentary is an important glimpse at our vulnerabilities and how a predator was able to exploit them. If you haven’t watched it, it’s currently on Netflix.
There are a few things that stood out to me. First, the total honesty of the Brobergs in their interviews was remarkable. The honest account of everything that happened, including their shockingly bad judgement, had the ring of truth to it even though it was incredibly bizarre. So bizarre, it defies rational comprehension, and yet who would make it up? The homosexual blackmail, the seduction of the mom, the multiple abductions of the girl, the bribing of the Mexican guard, the abysmal failure of the justice system to protect the public and this poor girl from her abuser, combine to make an unforgettable story. If it were fiction, I would think it too improbable to gain a wide audience.
I want to explore the ways that Robert Berchtold was able to manipulate the social structure of the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints to enable him in his crimes. He was a master manipulator who, as most predators do, was able to create a culture of silence through shaming his victims, hide behind a convincing facade of charisma, and finally twist the sympathies of victims and authority figures in his favor by casting himself as a victim.
First, he used shame as a tool to create a culture of silence. He seduced both of Jan’s parents and in doing so, he was able to blackmail them and dull their moral sensibilities. He had them so concerned about their own sins that they couldn’t see that he was orchestrating it all for his own ends. If they did see it, they felt powerless to fight it because he had fooled so many other people. He felt no guilt or remorse. He walked into the church building each week, took the sacrament, looked other members in the eye, while committing the blackest of sins. Predators sin with no remorse. They shame others while being themselves free of it. They entrap others in sin and then control them with guilt and threats. These are good people and often children who are manipulated, shamed, and lied to. They are kept in a haze of emotional exhaustion that keeps them from seeing what should be obvious. The problem is, it isn’t obvious, because predators are often incredibly skilled at living a double life and putting up a convincing facade that often includes societal status and money. That leads me to the second point.
Second, Robert Berchtold was able to use a facade of charm and financial success to mask the demon within. Members of the church are vulnerable to manipulation from flattering men who appear successful at business. There is something about the LDS culture that my seminary teacher observed many years ago. He mentioned it in class and I’ve never forgotten it. He said that many people see riches as evidence of God’s favor. We see someone who is wealthy and charismatic as righteous because he has success in the world. He said that you hear people in church mention that their money is a blessing from God. He argued that riches are no more a mark of righteousness now than they were at the time of the Savior. The reason I remember this point was because I was raised in the church and had never questioned that idea. “Of course,” I thought, “If you’re righteous God is going to give you money and success.” The dissonance of that seminary lesson has stayed with me, but over time I have found myself in firm agreement with my seminary teacher. In fact, I have often seen men who have power and influence, money and status, who have shown themselves to be predators both inside and outside of the church.
For anyone who is in doubt about the tendency of LDS culture to be vulnerable to the “money equals righteousness” fallacy, look at the fraud statistics. We are far more prone to involve ourselves in get rich quick schemes like network marketing, real estate schemes, ponzi schemes, or other high risk investments. Summer sales jobs are extremely common within our membership where promises of easy money are tossed out casually when the reality is often quite different. The Brobergs were good, simple, naive people who were vulnerable to the charismatic manipulations of a man who was nothing like them. Robert Berchtold was suave, seductive, an accomplished liar, and had most, if not all, of the church congregation and surrounding community convinced he was a good guy. Even after he abducted Jan and took her to Mexico, the church community was supportive of him. Why? Because they were victimized too. If a member of the church comes to us with a charismatic smile, a high profile calling, a good job, and a few flattering words, we are like putty in their hands. They victimize us and we are unprepared to defend ourselves. That is part of the reason Utah has the highest rate of financial fraud in the United States.
There was an article published in the Deseret News last April called, “Does Utah deserve the title of ‘fraud capital of the United States’?” It explains the reasons we as members are vulnerable to financial predators, but I suspect the same things could be said about our vulnerability to sexual predators. Thankfully, there is now a dedicated regional U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission office for Utah to combat fraud. It is the only state that has one. Hopefully that will help curb the trend. The state lawmakers have also stepped up creating a white collar crime offender registry similar to a sex offender registry to help inform and protect potential victims. As members, we can’t afford to be so naive as we have been in the past. It is time we started being as wise as serpents and not just harmless as doves.
The third point I wanted to make was how Robert Berchtold was able to manipulate the sympathy of those around him. He convinced Jan’s parents that part of his therapy for his pedophilia was to lay next to their daughter in bed alone with her. They thought by giving him access to their child that they were helping him recover. They were so consumed with fear and guilt that they felt obligated to sacrifice and do the “right thing.” Like Abraham offering up his son as a sacrifice, they were offering up their daughter to atone for their mistakes. I am convinced that the Brobergs not only allowed Berchtold’s abuse out of coercion, I believe they thought they were redeeming themselves. They were being charitable by allowing him to do this. This was AFTER he had abducted her and taken her to Mexico. I would find such manipulation to be unbelievable if I had not witnessed it with a predator and his victims in my own life. Skilled manipulators are able to convince their victims that they are the victims and that by enabling the abuse, you are doing a noble thing. If you call out their lies, you become the bad guy.
The manipulation of Jan was horrifyingly fantastic. He used the conditioning that we use with our children in the church to his advantage. He convinced her to believe a religious-like narrative in which her obedience to her omniscient alien parents would secure the safety of humanity. Her disobedience would bring calamity and destruction to her family. Children have an exaggerated view of their own power and are vulnerable to this kind of ego-centric narrative. By convincing her of this religious narrative, he made her into something of a cult member. Now, her parents were not only battling their own shame and their own sexual attractions, they were also battling their daughter who was as obsessed with being with Berchtold as he was with being with her. I can’t be certain, but I don’t think any of the Brobergs were aware of how other members of the family were being victimized until Jan was much older and no longer the object of Berchtold’s obsession. A culture of silence ensured that Berchtold was able to continue his abuse by isolating his victims.
So how can we, as members of the church, guard ourselves against these kinds of predators? First, we can say no to shame. There is no sin that is worth hiding. Christ has suffered for all of it. Confess it, forsake it, and give it over to Christ. The Savior can’t save us from the sins we hide. The scriptures say, “There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man.” We all sin. Let’s be real about it and deal with it rather than obsess about what other people will think if they know. Predators take the mistakes people make, sometimes mistakes that they set them up to make, and use them as blackmail. If enough church members say no to shame and embrace the reality of the Savior’s atonement, those threats lose their power. The forgiveness of the Savior is empowering to victims. It allows us to regain our confidence and emotional strength which we can use to fight the abuse.
Second, we can learn the lesson my seminary teacher taught me all those years ago. Money and charm do not equal righteousness. Yes, most members with high callings have good jobs and nice stuff. It’s easy to think that the trappings of Earthly success are the mark of God’s favor. This becomes a kind of materialist faith in which God is a banker doling out material blessings to the faithful. The truth is, callings, money, jobs, and all the rest are what people see. God looks on the heart. None of that means anything to the Lord. There are plenty of our members hiding in high places in the church community who have black hearts. They can be doctor’s, lawyers, judges, church officials, and politicians. Sometimes they are brought to justice in this life and sometimes they aren’t. As disciples of Christ we need to start seeing one another as He does and not as the world does. If we do, we won’t be as easily deceived.
Third, we can talk to our kids about predators. We can tell them that it is never okay for an adult or anyone to touch them sexually. We can warn them of people who might use the church or other religious ideas to manipulate and victimize them. Before we can talk to our kids about predators, we have to be willing to accept their existence ourselves. The Brobergs seem like stupid people for believing the lies they were told. In truth, the only reason they believed Berchtold’s lies was because they wanted to believe them so badly. They wanted to believe that LDS men who go to church and have wives and families are good people who can be trusted with children. We cling to the illusions we want to have about the world and the dangers we are surrounded with. We don’t want to believe that evil exists and that it can take the shape of something that appears harmless and wholesome on the outside. We want to believe the false reality we believed before the evidence showed something else. If that means ignoring, minimizing, or denying that evidence, we will do it. Anyone can be a victim.
I’ve seen people manipulated by predators. I’ve seen entire family systems under the control of predators. It happens. I’ve been manipulated by them too. I’ve felt the guilt and shame of being a part of an enabling system; trapped in a false reality where good is evil and evil is good. Speaking lies is required; speaking truth is blaspheme. A culture of secrecy and silence keeps us from being agents of change to make our society better. As the world becomes more wicked and our national social fabric unravels, abuse will become more widespread. The internet makes the whole world a stalking ground for the predators of the world. We need to arm ourselves against the evils of our time. We need to say no to shame, no to materialistic religion, and no to a culture of silence that feeds the illusion that it doesn’t happen in our church.
When I was being manipulated by a predatory system, I knowingly put my children at risk. I allowed the predator access to my little boys because I was shamed into thinking that if I put up boundaries to protect them, that I would be hurting the predator’s recovery from depression. It was hard to open up about the situation. I felt like I couldn’t even write the truth in a private journal. I couldn’t even pray about it out loud. I wished I could just forget the things I had seen, heard and been told, but they kept intruding into my thoughts. The truth would not be denied. I broke the culture of silence. I talked to my bishop and my therapist. I prayed and pleaded to know what to do. The answer was unanimous. I was to protect my children. I did. I put up boundaries. When questioned by enabling family members, I was rejected. They denied telling me things I knew they had told me. It was implied that I was fabricating stories I would have never made up and wanted to forget. Even then, I desperately wanted to preserve a relationship with them. I stuck to the boundaries I had set, and to my knowledge, my boys were not harmed. I and they were lucky. I’ve overcome the need I felt to keep the secrets of the predatory system I was a part of. I don’t need to protect their secrets anymore. If any members of it read this, I suspect they will have no doubt of the identity of the predator. If they choose to read my next post in the series, there will be no doubt. They may be angry at me for tarnishing his memory, and that’s okay. I am done with playing this part.
He was a lifelong active member of the church who held many callings. He taught elementary school in two different states. He married in the temple and had six children. He also sexually victimized women and girls for decades. I don’t think anyone outside his immediate family knew the truth, and we were all shamed and manipulated into silence. We were told he was not responsible for his acts and that he had repented, and yet the behavior continued. If we did not forgive and forget each new offense, we were hurting his recovery from depression. We were judgmental and unforgiving. He wasn’t on any sex offender registries and had no criminal record. He was smart and careful and was the most manipulative person I have ever met. They are out there. We need to be honest with ourselves and others about the reality of their existence. We need to be aware of the grooming behaviors that predators use. We need to be vigilant and refuse to ignore the warning signs. It can happen and it does happen in our churches and in our families.
I bring my personal story of a family predator into the discussion, not to speak ill of the dead-he is deceased- or pass judgement on him. I leave that in the capable hands of my Savior. I bring my personal experience in to show empathy to those who are victimized by predators. Some watched this movie and had disdain and revulsion toward Jan’s parents. I don’t. I disagree with the choices they made, but I understand why they made them because I lived in a social system that was controlled by a manipulative narcissist. I’ve seen first hand how it works and why it works. We rely on the people around us to give us a sense of what truth is. If what we see is drastically different than what those around us seem to see, we question our own perception. It is only as I have cultivated a relationship with my Savior and consulted with mental health professionals that I have found the confidence to challenge the social systems around me. Even then, it takes tremendous courage. Even as I write this, I have to remind myself that I am not obligated to keep the family secrets. The denial is still strong with many members of the family and they can choose to live in it, but they don’t get to write my story or keep me from telling it.
As I live my life, I am amazed when I find victims who are strong enough to tell their stories for the benefit of others. Jan’s resilience and strength is incredible to witness. My favorite part is at the end when she confronts her abuser in court. He tries to imply that she is motivated by book sales and fame. She tells him coldly that she is motivated by the desire to expose predators like him to the world. She has become a powerful advocate for child victims because she and her family had the courage to face the truth about themselves and what happened to them. In some ways, her parents have had to have even more courage because their experience is less likely to elicit sympathy and more likely to elicit judgement and condemnation. Their willingness to submit to that judgement rather than lie to themselves and others about what they did has made Jan’s recovery and the family’s recovery much more complete. Secrets and lies destroy. The truth, even when it is uncomfortable, sets us free.
The only way we can destroy the evil among us is if we talk about it. I hope my words help to shine a light on a problem that we face within our membership. As we confront evil with courage and honesty, as the Brobergs did, the Savior can heal us and those we love. His grace is sufficient for us! His angels stand ready to assist us as we take the steps necessary to purge the church of the evils of abuse. A culture of silence polishes and shines the outside of the cup while allowing filth to grow and fester within. Christ wants us to be better. Let us roll up our sleeves and commit ourselves to battling the abusers in our midst and purge their behavior from among us. Let us clean and sterilize the cup on the inside. That is what the Savior would have us do.