As I’ve progressed in my faith journey/crisis, I’ve pondered on what values I want to pass onto my children. Society is at a crisis point in values. Is it virtuous to wear a mask, or stand for freedom and go without? Is it virtuous to welcome refugees and desperate migrants into your nation, or to build walls to shut them out for the safety against those who would do us harm? Conflicting messages, laws and policies are shouted from leaders. “Defund the police!” “Build the Wall!” “Don’t tread on me!” This is a confusing time to live as an adult, let alone as a child. I have my work cut out for me in raising my children with a coherent value system.
As I’ve tried to orient myself and discover my core values, there are a few things I’ve learned. First, the value of a joyful life. I’ve lived poor and I’ve lived with money. I’ve lived in bad weather, and in good weather. I’ve lived in sickness and in health. I haven’t lived in joy very often.
I remember in my childhood, my Grandma Henrie’s apartment complex had a swimming pool. I looked forward to our visits to see her each year mostly because I got to go swimming. I would cling to an inflatable tube and spin in circles for hours. That exhilaration was something I looked forward to through all the months of snow and ice in Idaho. Now as an adult, I have a community swimming pool nearly in my backyard. It is so close, we can walk to it in less than five minutes. Yet for the four years I have had access to it, I have hardly ever used it. When I would take the kids swimming, I would usually stay in the shade on the side of the pool and watch them joyfully splash and play. Maybe I thought joyful living was supposed to be for kids.
I got an Apple Watch for my birthday this year, and one of the features it has is the ability to track swimming for exercise. This changed things for me. By the middle of the summer, I was going to the pool with the kids every day. I would swim laps while they played and I would get my exercise in. It was a little boring after a while, but it was refreshing and it was good for the kids. Austin would cling to my back as I plowed through the water. I taught him the strokes I was doing and he picked them up. It was beautiful to see him relax and learn to move in the water with confidence. Later, I watched a synchronized swimming routine in the Tokyo olympics. I read about artistic swimming. I watched videos on how to do a few moves. I ordered a swim cap and some nose plugs on Amazon.
I went from swimming laps in the pool for exercise, to doing somersaults, handstands, and all kinds of acrobatics in the water. It was fun! I remembered what it felt like to be a child and rejoice in the ability to move joyfully. I stretched and swam and spun in circles. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t felt for years. I felt awake after years of sleepy depression. It has been almost a month since I rediscovered the joy of swimming. I’ve been doing it every day. After my morning swim, I feel energized, and clear headed. I feel a rush of ideas about other joyful things I could do to fill up my days. Planting a new flower, making some delicious food, planning lunch with a friend, or doing some art; these ideas prance through my joyful mind and the anxieties of the pandemic and Afganistan crisis fade into the distance for a while. No matter how stressful the circumstances of my life are, a few moments of joyful, purposeful living can make those burdens easier to bear.
The value of joyful living is one I want to pass to my children. Rather than pack their schedules with classes, chores, and activities and then nag them all the time to practice and work harder, I want to instill in them the need for regular joyful living. I want them to find the thing that makes them feel alive. They don’t need to do it for a living or even become good at it. It isn’t the task or activity itself that matters, it’s how you feel when you do it. God said that men are that they might have joy. When we live joyfully, we fulfill our highest purpose. When we deny ourselves of joyful living, we deprive ourselves of a core need.
Another value I want to pass on to my children is the value of kindness. We live in a world full of people. There are millions of us interacting with one another on the roads, in the stores, and online. We are witnesses to thousands of deaths, births, sicknesses, failures and triumphs every day. It is easy to begin to believe that people are not valuable and that our lives have little meaning. Each act of kindness renews our faith that there is worth in the human soul. When our act of kindness blesses another person, we make an impact on the world. We matter. Even if the person we are kind to is most insignificant and the kind act imperceptibly small, it makes the world better.
The third value is introspection. It is so easy to see sin and folly without. It is much more difficult to see it within. Introspection is the often uncomfortable scrutinizing of our own selves. We get to see our flaws with razor precision when we introspect. When we are familiar with our own soul, its strengths and flaws, its twists and turns, its folds and flaps, we are less vulnerable to flattery, less desperate for affirmation, and more realistic with our expectations. This leads us to the final virtue. Compassion.
Anyone who has done much introspection knows that compassion is the only remedy to the pain of self knowledge. To see yourself accurately, you have to reckon with the painful reality of your own sins and fallen nature. If you have children, this pain is compounded with the knowledge that you have passed these things on to your posterity where they will likely repeat themselves in an eternal dance of despair through the following generations. Compassion is the ability to love fallen things; to see beauty in broken. Our children, our parents, our family, our friends; we are all broken and fallen things. We cut one another with our broken parts. We bleed because we are alive and we dare to love one another in spite of the risks. Compassionate eyes can look at this messy scene and see the beauty in it. We can love the participants without judgement and without shame; knowing that we are all in need of redemption. Somehow, all these things will work together for the benefit of all of us.
These four values are the core values I want to pass on to my children. I hope that I can teach them through example the benefits of living this way. I wrote a short parable I am planning to share with them tonight at dinner. Hopefully this will help instill in them the values I want them to learn.
The Joy of Thy Lord
“The baby is crying again!” he said with disgust. “What’s wrong with it now?”
“He just wants a little snuggle,” his mother said softly as she picked up the squalling child. “See, now he’s feeling better.”
Later, at play, “Mom, I stubbed my toe!” he screamed in pain.
“Here, let me kiss it better. Do you need some ice?” his mother replied.
“No, I’m a tough kid,” he said, rubbing the tears from his eyes. Somehow the kiss always made it feel a little better.
Later at school the child saw a boy teased and rejected, chased away from the others. “What’s wrong with him?” he thought. He remembered his mother and thought, maybe he just needs some love. And he invited him to play with him and his friends. The playground was a kinder place.
Many years later the boy sat trying to do his schoolwork as his younger siblings played loudly behind him. “Can’t you make them stop!” he roared to his mother.
“No, I can’t, and if I could I wouldn’t. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to concentrate, isn’t it? Try to be patient. They are young. They will learn to be quiet just as you have learned. Some things cannot be rushed,” she replied.
He went to a quiet place to finish his work. He thought angrily of how easily the other students seemed to complete their assignments. Why could he not learn this faster! Then he remembered his mother and he thought, “Be patient with yourself. You will learn it, just as they have learned it. Some things can’t be rushed.” He took a deep breath and started again. The bedroom was a kinder place.
Years later the boy came home to visit from college. He ate a full meal and packed up food for his small apartment pantry. “Thanks Mom! I’ve been SO hungry. I wish I could cook as good as you can!” he thought of the macaroni and cheese he had been eating for a week.
“It takes time to learn to provide for yourself. You will learn. There is always food waiting for you here until you do,” she said as she kissed him goodbye.
On the way home he saw a weather beaten man with a cardboard sign that said, “Hungry. Please help me.” He thought of his mother and wondered why this old man hadn’t learned to provide for himself. Sometimes these things can take time, he reasoned. He took some bread he had taken from his mother’s kitchen and gave it to the man. The neighborhood was a kinder place.
And so the boy became a man and he learned patience and love. He gave to those in need and he waited patiently as the Lord worked his miracles in the life of each person. And he knew God. And the world was a kinder place when he left it.
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things. I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Matthew 25:21
“I look forward to his smile every day!” she said with her characteristic sparkle in her eyes as I dropped off Austin this morning. “So do I,” I said subdued. And I remembered that I do look forward to his smile. Every day when I pick him up from preschool and recognition lights his eyes, when his brothers come home from school, when he sees that I made him a Nutella sandwich folded in half, when we get to his favorite page of the picture book. His smile. His excitement. His boundless energy and imagination. In a depression fogged mind, those moments are like a drug. They get me through. “Look at them,” she said lovingly. I saw those little four year olds sitting at their desks in her classroom. They are so beautiful. Everything good in the world seemed crammed into that little preschool class this morning. “This is the best job in the world,” she said. And she’s right. Caring for these little ones is the best job in the world. Austin is my sunshine and my joy. I walked out of the school with my heart a little lighter as I thought of my boy and my dog. Sweet Pepper would be waiting for me at home.
Yesterday, Pepper was sitting in my lap with her liquid eyes searching mine. She seems at times to have the wisdom of the universe in the depths of those eyes and I wonder if I’ve had it all wrong. If God isn’t above us but below us. Is God really in marble halls and stately throne rooms in the vast heavens? Or is he in the furry body of a rescue dog…….Perhaps both. Austin and I were talking about Jesus last night before bed. Pepper was curled up beside him. We had just read Owl Moon, so he was uncharacteristically calm. He said, “Did Jesus make us?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “And Pepper made Jesus.” I think he meant Jesus made Pepper, but the thought of Pepper being the creator of the Savior was intriguing. She looked at me again with those sagacious eyes and I could almost imagine her as queen of the universe.
And so the boy and the dog get me up in the morning. They give me a reason to get out of bed. My older sons have to fend for themselves. My ten year old came into my room ten minutes after his tardy bell had rung. His face was unruffled. “You’re late bud. Why aren’t you at school?” I asked. Realization dawned on his face and then it crumpled into despair. He has been tardy so much this year. I have screamed at and pleaded and punished both myself and him to fix the problem. Today I just hugged him and said, “It’s okay. Everyone is late sometimes. Just get to school. It will be okay.”
****Trigger warning; murder of children*****
Last night I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake after reading a story about a Pennsylvania husband and father who came home from work on Valentine’s Day to find his wife and six year old son murdered in his home. He was shot in the forehead, but not seriously injured. It wasn’t until later that he found out who had tried to kill him and who had destroyed his family. It was his one surviving teenage son who has now been charged.
This father had a good life. He had a wife he loved. She was in the middle of making his favorite meal for dinner when she was killed. He dropped the flowers he had bought for her on his way home when he was shot. The teenage son appeared to love his little brother dearly. What happened? There have been theories. Apparently the parents were racially prejudiced. Some find comfort in the thought that somehow something these people did caused this tragedy to occur. I find no such comfort because I know, as all of us do deep down, that tragedy can happen to any of us. The renowned doctor in China who tried to raise the warning about the coronavirus covid-19 died from it. Hundreds of people are dying because they chose the wrong cruise ship, they live in the wrong city, they boarded the wrong plane. It is estimated that 2% of those who contract the virus die. As I considered the 75,000 people who have contracted it. That is thousands of people. Thousands of families ripped apart and changed forever. Why? Because of the random cruelty of life.
At work Ben got a message from the IT department of American Airlines. An employee of theirs collapsed at his desk job. He was rushed to the emergency room where he died. His wife is due to give birth to their second child tomorrow. He has a three year old daughter. As I looked at the photo of their family, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. They were clearly Indian (from India). They looked to be in their twenties or early thirties; thin and fit with the wife very pregnant and a cute little girl with short dark hair. I have no idea how he died or why. I don’t know if they have family support or if he had some kind of insurance. Fortunately the American Airlines family has raised a considerable amount of money for them. Still, the story left me shocked and confused.
So last night my mind ruminated to a dark place. Exhausted and unable to rest, thoughts of despair overwhelmed me. I tried to pray. I tried to connect with God. There was no relief. There was no faith or hope. No future beyond the darkness surrounding me. I finally fell asleep and woke up late and exhausted.
And now I come to the keyboard to write again. To try to make sense of it all. I have a therapy appointment this afternoon, so hopefully Shama will be able to help me. On the surface, I’m doing really well. I’ve been organizing and cleaning. My house looks better than it has in a very long time. Old piles and projects that have been cluttering my ADHD life for literally years are now put away. New projects are arising with new positive energy. Still, it feels like I’m playing the part of Atlas carrying the world on my shoulders. I’m running the car on fumes and when it stops I put in a half gallon of gas so that I can drive another mile. I’m irritable and on edge. I’m one news story away from despair.
Breathe……and again……taking in the present moment. Life is a crucible, but God is good. He gives us moments- brief but sufficient, to refocus and recharge. All good things come from him. Nothing bad happens on this Earth but that he can turn it to good. Even when the Son of God was taken by men, humiliated, tortured, and murdered; God turned it to good. God can take the political rancor and polarization, the rank injustice and cruelty, the chaos and destruction, and turn it to good. And he will. The Savior said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” I used to think that was a strange thing. Why would the sad be blessed? I was taught that happiness was a virtue and it seemed a contradiction. It doesn’t anymore. If you are already happy in this world, why would you look for a better world? If you are happy on your own, why would you come to Christ for comfort? Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Blessed be the name of my merciful comfort, even Jesus Christ, Him who ransoms me from the darkness of my night. I will place my trust in thee and cast my burdens at thy feet. I will dare to hope another day.
Anger in. Self hatred, regret, despair. Why did I share? Why did I speak? I am broken and they are too. There is no point in expression. The fruit of it is judgement and gossip and pain. Stay hidden. Stay safe. Stay alone.
Why hope that someone will care? Why hope that someone will understand? Why hope that by sharing my broken, that someone else might not feel alone?
This life is darkness and despair. Expect the worst in others and yourself because then you won’t be disappointed.
But he didn’t hide. He shared. He spoke. He gave hope because he revealed himself. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoso believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life! There is hope in him.
So I will set anger on the table and look at it for a while. Anger in. Anger out. Broken relationships like shards of glass scattered on the table. I will wait as always…..on my face, at His feet.
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.
“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.
It was a beautiful day in September 2001. The sun beat down on the fragrant gardens of temple square, and I looked and felt radiant in my wedding dress. There had never been a finer looking man by my side. He was tall, handsome, strong, and righteous. We had made it to the temple having kept the law of chastity and we had a bright future ahead. It would be our happily ever after. As my face scanned the crowd, I saw him. My smile faded a little. Why did he have to be here? Why was this dark cloud of dread on the horizon of my day in the sun?
My father-in-law looked handsome. My sister even commented at how nice looking he was with his graying beard and sunglasses. Fit and trim in his tuxedo, he looked dashing even for a man in his late fifties. With elegant features and natural good looks, he blended nicely with the gathered crowd. His speech and manner seemed more refined than his brothers and sisters and other family who tended to be boisterous and rough around the edges. I knew he had been the only one of his many siblings to graduate from college. He had taught middle school for many years. Still, I much preferred his unpolished relatives to this man. I knew who he was.
Months before I had lain on a couch frozen with fear as I heard him verbally abusing his wife. He sounded like a monster. When I confronted my husband-to-be about the terrible things I had witnessed, he confided his family’s secrets to me. Some of them. His dad had a dark side. As he explained his dad to me, I felt a revulsion combined with heartrending sympathy. I wished I could unhear the jarring things that I had heard.
He said his father had been sexually victimized as a child. He had depression. He was unemployed and abusive to his wife. He had walked down the highway naked in an attempt to end his life. He had struggled with an addiction to masterbation on his mission that had caused self-esteem problems. It was later that I became aware of his more troubling history.
He had been caught peeping on his bishop’s daughter when his family lived in Vernal. Ben was just a baby then. They had left Vernal. Later he was found using mirrors to peep on women in the J.C. Penny dressing room in Logan. Peeping was something of an addiction with him, I was told. I marveled at the planning and premeditation that must have gone into such a plan. This was a dangerous man. But Ben insisted that all that was in the past and that his dad would never hurt me.
In the first year of our marriage, we went up to Cub River to visit Ben’s family almost every week. It began to interfere with my schooling because I didn’t have enough time to study. Ben’s mom and sisters were fun and kind and eager to build a good relationship with me. And then there was Ben’s dad, always on the periphery. He said very little, but his presence was large. I didn’t like him, and I made little secret about it. Mostly I ignored him.
When we got back from our honeymoon after the September 11th attacks, Ben’s dad gave us an impassioned speech in which he said that the United States deserved the attack because of the legalization of abortion. He insisted that Ben enlist in the army as soon as possible. He knew that this was the beginning of world war three and that enlisting was the only way to avoid the draft and being sent to the front lines, “where the stupid people are sent.” I felt a mixture of terror and dread and rage. My father-in-law was insane. Would my husband enlist? He had blamed my country for horrible terror attack and then implied that the only reason someone might fight on the front lines in war was because they were too stupid to game the system. Who says stuff like that? When we got into the car to leave the house, I said to Ben, “You aren’t going to enlist are you?” Ben said, “My dad doesn’t make my decisions for me. We will look into it. That’s what I told him I would do.” Ben eventually joined the ROTC.
At a family function, we were all seated at a large table. Ben’s extended family were all around and we were discussing something. I had a great love and respect for Ben’s dad’s mother and I asked her a question. Ben’s dad interrupted and answered it. I interrupted him and said, “Yes, but I asked her.” There was a very awkward silence. Later, Ben’s sister confronted me about the way I had treated her dad. I can’t remember what I said, but something about that I didn’t like the way he treats her mom. That set her off. She was livid at the disrespect. I was not allowed to have negative opinions about her dad. After discussing the situation with Ben and enduring many awkward hours, I finally decided to apologize to Ben’s dad and make nice. He apologized as well, and everything was okay again. Except I started getting sick whenever I went up to Cub River to visit.
It wasn’t intentional, although I’m sure it seemed like it was. We would make the drive up the canyon, turn onto the winding dirt roads, and park in front of the beautiful cabin with the fantastic mountain view, and I would find a bedroom to lie down while everyone socialized. Sometimes it was a headache. Many times I was sick to my stomach. I would sometimes vomit.
I tried to pretend that everything was okay, that everyone didn’t treat Ben’s mom like crap, that his dad wasn’t creepy and that this family wasn’t all wrong. Sometimes it would get easier. Then we would get a phone call from Ben’s mom.
She would call every couple of weeks and talk to Ben about what his dad had been doing. She and his dad seemed to have a weird connection. It seemed like she would know when he had been messing around sexually, and he would tell her what he had done. Sometimes she would tell the bishop, or she would have him tell the bishop; I’m not sure which. It was always a big crisis and then when she decided that he had repented, we were told to forgive and forget. I told Ben that was what abusers want you to do. Then they can keep hurting you.
One day Ben was on the phone with his mom. He was white and clearly devastated. He said, “How can we know that our wives are safe? What about our children?” I knew this was big. Ben told me that his youngest sister, who was fourteen, had her best friend over to spend the night. Ben’s dad had groped her. For a while, I just sat there in shock. I thought of that poor girl and her parents who had trusted the wrong family. I thought of the betrayal of a young girl by her father. This was her best friend. What else was this man capable of? I felt the shame of being in his family. I knew that what he had done was criminal, but I had no proof. I had heard the story from someone who heard the story from someone else. I knew I was supposed to forget what I had been told, but I never did. Later, when the sister got married, her best friend was in the wedding line. It was jarring to think that this was the girl my father-in-law had abused. She was so beautiful. One of the prettiest girls I had ever seen and she was standing in the wedding line only a stone’s throw from the man who groped her in her sleep. I wondered how he had managed to get away with it. The girl must not have known what happened. For a moment I wondered if I had remembered correctly. I checked back in my journal where I recorded what I had been told. The girl’s name was the same.
One of the most disturbing things I witnessed was at a birthday party for Ben’s dad. Ben’s mother had bought her husband a high powered telescope. I was appalled. I looked at Ben and there didn’t seem to be any concern in his eyes. Was I crazy? I knew they had said he had an addiction to peeping on women and no one bats an eye when he gets a high powered telescope for his birthday? To watch deer? I wanted to run down the mountain and tell every woman in the valley to pull her shutters. I felt so helpless.
When Ben and I moved to Texas, that meant that we had some good distance from Ben’s dad. It was only occasionally that we had to see them and gradually his hold over Ben receded. I was a little relieved that our first child was a son. Our second son came soon after. Even though they were boys, I still couldn’t quell my anxiety. I remember preparing for a trip to visit Ben’s family and I gathered my two toddler boys close and talked to them about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Ben saw what I was doing and became enraged at me. We both knew why I was doing it. He said, “You give them those talks every time we go and see my family and they are going to put it together!” I was hurt and angry. Did my children not matter? I didn’t even want to think about me. I didn’t matter either. What if I woke to find his hand in my shirt? What would happen? I knew that I would be expected to forgive and move on. If my children were victimized, I would be expected to do the same. I felt so unloved and afraid.
Eventually, after my third son was born and I was in therapy, I talked to my bishop about my anxiety about Ben’s dad and my children. I told him that my father-in-law had a sex addiction and a diagnosis of NPD. I suspected that he had victimized children in the past and was concerned that he would hurt my children or me. I told him that he was going through a second set of church authorized sex addiction recovery sessions, but that I had doubts they would be successful. He assured me that my concerns were valid. I also talked to my counselor and he encouraged me to take measures to protect my children. Still, I didn’t have the courage to do it until I prayed and knew it was the right thing to do.
First, I had to talk to Ben. It started out really badly. I told him that I no longer felt comfortable spending the night at his parent’s house or allowing his dad to have any time with our children without direct supervision from one of us. He was angry. He told me he should never have told me about his dad. He should have known that I wouldn’t understand. That hurt. I remember asking him some hard questions. What would he do if his dad victimized me? Did I matter to him? What would happen if he hurt one of our children? At first he denied that possibility, but I persisted. Did he think his dad was capable of sleeping with a prostitute, visiting strip clubs, or groping a teenager in his home? Did he really know I was safe? I’ll never forget the tortured expression on his face. He knew I was right to be concerned. There was a risk, and he knew, maybe better than I did, that no one mattered in his family except his dad. If one of us was hurt, his dad would not be held accountable. He agreed to the boundaries.
Second, I had to tell my mother-in-law we would not be staying with them. I insisted that we just loved Ben’s sister and wanted to stay with her. She insisted that Ben’s dad would be so disappointed if we didn’t stay. She lovingly asked if there was anything that was making me feel like not staying at their house. I knew that she knew why. I decided to tell her the sexual addiction was a problem. I wanted to prevent a bad situation. She insisted that if I didn’t stay with them, that his depression would get worse. I held my ground and she did too. Finally I said that the three incidents that caused me concern were, the peeping on the girl in Vernal, the J.C. Penny peeping, and the groping of the fourteen year old friend. Her tone changed instantly. “How did you hear about those things?!?” Then she pivoted, “Those things never happened,” she said emphatically. I said, “I would never make those things up. You told Ben those things and he told me. Do you think Ben made them up?” She changed tack. “I know that (he) would NEVER hurt you. I can promise you that! I have received revelation and I know that he would never hurt you or your boys.” I guess I was supposed to take comfort in her supernatural ability to know what her husband was capable of, but I knew she didn’t protect Joann’s friend, and I knew she couldn’t protect me or my boys.
I was at my parent’s house at the time of this conversation. I was devastated by how my valid concerns and efforts to protect my family had been received by someone I thought cared about me. Ben’s mom announced to everyone that Ben and I would no longer stay with Ben’s dad because of me. Ben’s dad called Ben and said, “Just let me know if I need to go away for a while so that you can stay at the house.” Some family members were very angry with me, but others were surprisingly sympathetic. I found out later that another sister-in-law had expressed similar concerns and set similar boundaries.
Ben went up to visit his family first, and I drove down to meet him later. His family seemed to go out of their way to be nice to him and treat him special. He assured me that everything was going to be fine and that no one was going to be mean to me. We ended up staying in a hotel which made everything a lot easier. It was awkward, but our new boundaries were respected and although they were challenged regularly in our yearly visits, we maintained them and our children were safe. I would have talks with the boys about sexual abuse before each visit and check with them after.
Ben’s dad would toy with me. He would go out and mingle with the grandkids when he knew I was visiting with other family members. I had to stay vigilant and always be aware of where he was. I would feel a jolt of panic if I saw him with the children. I would approach them and watch from a distance. Once he locked eyes with me and then took my son around a hill to where I couldn’t see them. I didn’t know if I should panic and make a scene. I was sure he was hurting my boy, but then a moment later, they were back. He did that with two of my boys that day ages 10 and 9. The first chance I got I asked both of the children directly, “Did your grandpa touch you?” They both said no. It was just a game for him. He wanted me to know that it didn’t matter how hard I tried to protect myself, that he was in control. He could have hurt them. He didn’t. My concerns were invalid.
He was a cunning abuser. His abuse of his wife was obvious, but he was subtle with everyone else. He was condescending and cruel to his wife, but she played her part so well that it almost seemed like she deserved it. It was almost impossible not to despise her. Aside from the victims of his sexual abuse, he was very indirect. He never said an unkind thing to me in all the years I was married to Ben. He used his enablers to keep me in line. The sister who dressed me down for disrespect, his wife who pressured me to put my children at risk; they were his flying monkeys doing his dirty work for him and all the while he could sit back and look like the innocent victim of my judgemental cruelty. He was very subtle and shrewd.
One day I overheard Ben and his mom discussing his dad’s latest plan to make money by making some kind of investment in Thailand. I knew that Thailand was the pedophile capital of the world and my stomach dropped. He was going to go there to victimize vulnerable children in a third world country! I decided to call his bishop and express my concerns. His bishop was aware of his plans and knew exactly why he wanted to go to that particular country. It was a relief to talk to someone who seemed to be as concerned about his behavior as I was. That bishop, as well as many others and a family counselor, tried to help his family and hold him accountable, but that was difficult to do. He had a superhuman ability to justify his behavior. Nothing was ever his fault and his web of enablers constantly fed his need to feel superior.
Still, I could tell his power over the family was fading over time. His two sons had encouraged their mother to leave him. When Ben’s grandpa died, his mom made the trip to be with her family for her father’s funeral. Ben’s dad was angry that he wasn’t getting her attention and he took his revenge by going to a strip club instead of being there to support his wife of over forty years bury her father. Her family was livid. Even her children were angry. He had been unworthy to attend the temple for years even missing the weddings of his children. He still tried to command religious authority, even insisting on making a speech before a baby blessing in which he was unworthy to take part in, but such displays only seemed to make him seem more pathetic. He still had a hold on several family members. Ben’s brother had joined the army after his mission. He didn’t go to college, choosing a career in sales instead. These things were in line with the values of his father. Ben’s sisters were likewise influenced, but they were putting time and energy into their own families. Ben’s dad’s constant demands on the time and energy of his wife made things difficult for them too. His assurances that this month he was going to start making his fortune in his network marketing business, started ringing hollow as grinding years of poverty passed. I saw several healthy signs that perhaps the iron grip of the abuser would not crush the family after all. There seemed to be more acceptance and empathy for me and other family members who stepped outside of the controlling grip of the web the abuser had woven.
Then Ben’s dad was diagnosed with stage four liver and colon cancer. I felt a wave of relief. He would be gone, and I could enjoy family gatherings without the stress of making sure he wasn’t going to hurt my kids! Everything was going to be okay. How wrong I was.
The cancer re-established his complete dominance over his family. He was no longer a weak and tantrum prone narcissist, he was now a cancer victim. This rapid transformation from abuser to victim was a frightening thing to observe. A narcissist is at his best when he is seen as a victim, so he relished his new role. He was intoxicated by the idea of beating the odds and overcoming the cancer. His family was elated when he told them he would repent and get his recommend renewed. He was going to be a new man, but first, he had chosen the most unconventional and expensive treatment plan available which would involve an extended stay at a health spa in Mexico. Ben’s siblings immediately began taking out loans to make it happen. He gave stirring speeches, and brought my own teenage son to tears. I was terrified at the power of his manipulations. I suddenly understood cult leaders and the power they had over their congregations. I was sure that Ben would fall for it and we would be sucked in financially. Fortunately, Ben and I agreed to limit our support to what we could handle in spite of incredible pressure from family members. They did make it happen. He had everything he wanted, but even so, he was going to die. He came back from Mexico, he “repented” of his sins (which sins he repented of are unclear) and had his temple recommend restored before he passed away. Now everything is forgiven and forgotten for good…….except no one is allowed to talk about what happened and the ways it has impacted our lives. At least not openly.
For a while, I hoped that now that he was gone, that we could talk about what he had done to us and how we could move forward and heal, but such openness about the past is not allowed with most family members. I have talked to Ben’s mom who has admitted that her husband was abusive. Unfortunately, she wants to think that the abuse was not that bad. Sometimes she assures me that she plans to have some family counseling sessions. Nothing comes of it. I suspect she is telling me what I want to hear. I sent a letter to one sister that I felt a close connection with. The letter was an explanation of my feelings about her dad and how I would never see him the way she does and if that is something we can agree to disagree about. I didn’t hear back from her. When I brought it up weeks later, it was really awkward. I broke the one rule in the family that is not forgivable; I refused the family narrative.
In a narcissistic family system, appearances are the only thing that matter. Looking good is essential. In order to feed the insatiable ego of the narcissist, even in death, he must be praised and felt sorry for and his perfect family must live out his narcissistic fantasies. The family narrative is that he lived a tragic and flawed life, but he has been redeemed. His spirit apparently appears in the temple from time to time according to some family members. The family narrative is that everyone has healed, except Ben and me. We were told that we project our own dysfunction onto them (My dysfunction in particular since I am the outsider). In spite of that, there is ample evidence of serious psychological dysfunction in almost every family member. The carnage is undeniable, but the victims are unable to see it and unwilling to confront the awful truth about the abuse that they suffered. As always, the victims don’t matter in a narcissistic system. They need to forgive and forget as soon as possible and then go back to playing their assigned roles. And the cycle of abuse repeats itself within the family. New abusers and new victims, but the same abusive patterns modeled and practiced for generations.
A year ago in therapy, I spent hours and hours writing letters to different members of Ben’s family. I was convinced that if I said the right things, that they would love and accept me, that they would understand that I was not to blame for the situation that their father created. If I just wrote convincingly enough, they would heal and we could be an eternal family. Eventually, after literally hundreds of type-written pages, I wept. I wept and wept and wept as I said goodbye to my husband’s family. I still love them, but they don’t love me and they probably never will. I can’t change them and I’ve finally accepted that. They want me to do the one thing I can’t do; deny my reality and trade it for theirs.
Last summer we visited Idaho. We didn’t see any members of Ben’s family. I don’t know when or if we will see them again. Even the thought of it makes me physically ill. The only people I allow into my life now are people who respect my boundaries. The only relationships I invest in are those that feel good and allow me to speak openly when they don’t. Life is too short to cultivate the other kind.
I still love them. They were a part of my life and my husband’s life and our shared history. They are valuable children of God who were abused by someone who should have loved and nurtured them. They were betrayed, manipulated, exploited, and lied to. The wounds in my relationship with them are just a fraction of the sad consequences of his terrible choices. I don’t blame them, but they aren’t safe for me. I love them too much and I feel too sorry for them, and I’m too eager to save them when it isn’t within my power to do so. In the end, God is the only one who can sort it out. They have their path and I have mine and those paths diverged. Thankfully, my husband continues to walk the path with me. We have plenty of problems in our little family, but we are honest and authentic and strive to meet the needs of our children rather than exploit them for our narcissistic supply.
Some may question why I call my husband’s father a predator. To me, a predator is a complex part of an ecosystem that is cunning and exploitative and I feel that word encapsulates my observations of him and the web of enablers that surrounded him in life. I don’t use the word predator to dehumanize him. On the contrary, I hope my account reveals the man behind the epithet. He was not a monster, he was human, but he was as dangerous as a monster. He was clever and manipulative and I indirectly enabled his behavior with my silence. I know that because I was never completely under the control of the family system, I was not privy to most of their secrets. In the beginning, they let me in on a few things, but I had a troubling habit of remembering them. I don’t think they ever really trusted me. I’ve always seen his abuse as an iceberg in which what I saw was a small fraction of the whole.
Once, Ben’s sister was in a custody dispute with an ex-husband over their two daughters. She called Ben in a very angry and defensive tone and demanded to know what he had told her ex. He confronted her with the fact that their dad had groped a teenager in their home. She said dismissively, “That is nothing. What do you know? What have you told him?” Ben said he had no idea what she was talking about and that he had said nothing. I have often thought about what we don’t know that would make the sexual assault of a minor child “nothing” in comparison? What was Ben’s sister so desperate to keep a secret from her ex-husband that would endanger her custody bid? How many victims did this man have? What is the shape of the iceberg beneath the surface?
I may never know. I was never meant to know. I was only meant to supply. I supplied my children, my facade of normalcy, my smiling face in family photos, and my silence. Until now. I am silent no more. All predators and their enablers have been given warning to stay away from me and everyone I love. I will expose you. I have no sympathy for you. I will not be manipulated or made to serve you. I will set boundaries with you, I will call law enforcement on you when you break the law, and I will report you to the church authorities. Enablers slander my reputation, but they know the truth even if they don’t want to look at it. The truth has a habit of resurfacing no matter how hard you want to deny it. I will never again be made to stay silent.
I went to linger longer today. For those who aren’t familiar with it, linger longer is a ward activity that involves staying after church for a potluck meal. Potluck meals are a pain when you have young children. You have to make sure they get something healthy to eat, that they are playing nicely, and that they don’t decide to go eat off other people’s plates…..or tip over the buffet table. As you socialize with people, you have to have part of your brain always monitoring your kiddos. Is that kid screaming mine? Or did he cause some other kid to scream? Is that my kid with the mountain of dessert on his plate? Then I’m always worried I’m going to zone out in the middle of a conversation and embarrass myself. With a big family, there is the problem of where to sit. We have large round tables that seat about ten people. With a family of six, we usually share a table with another family, but it can be tricky to make sure you don’t take too many seats or wind up with a couple of kids with no where to sit. That’s just awkward!
Anyway, when my depression/anxiety got bad a year ago, I told Ben absolutely not. Even when my sons would beg and cry, I said no way. Then when things deteriorated with the Relief Society, I didn’t know if I would ever go to a linger longer again. The smell of the food in the church house would make me feel ill. The fact that we actually made food and stayed the whole time and I didn’t panic and run to a classroom to breathe into a paper sack, is remarkable. I actually had a good time. I introduced myself to a family that moved in recently. I mingled. It was good! There was anxiety. I didn’t eat much. There were moments of awkward wandering, but it was overall a pleasant social gathering.
So I’ve done some hard things lately. I’ve started the school year. I’ve been tackling my procrastination list. I’ve been socializing more. I went to a pool party, helped clean a sister’s house twice, and went to a friend’s birthday lunch. Being more present with my ward family and more socially conscious has been a growing experience that has moments of discomfort, but overall it has been good.
I was thinking today about my last post about sisters posturing. Honestly, I’m not sure I didn’t participate in the posturing. As the sacrament was going around, I did some serious introspection. My mind was exploring the idea of female posturing and whether or not if I had participated in it. If I had, was it a sin. I decided that I didn’t think it was. Then I had a thought come into my mind that I think was inspiration. I’m going to try to explain it using a math metaphor.
So I was concerned about the possibility that I had engaged in the posturing I had observed at the cleaning activity. Then, if I had ignored my own participation in it and yet written about others engaging in it, that would have been quite rude and dishonest. But upon introspection, I couldn’t remember for sure whether I had or not. I know I didn’t engage with the sisters with authenticity. Instead, I kind of detached and tried to focus on the tile grout. The epiphany came when I realized that it didn’t matter whether I had postured or not. The fact that I was moving toward authenticity was what God cared about. This idea of movement or trajectory is what caught my mind and then I began to put the pieces together.
I stayed up late reading the scriptures. I can’t remember which chapter it was but it was Paul writing about the adoption of the Gentiles and how the Jews were the covenant people and that they were blessed and favored of the Lord, but then they lost that position and it was given to the gentiles. Paul’s style is very complex and analytical, but the spirit was with me and the meaning that the spirit was revealing to me was very clear. God doesn’t care where you are. He cares about your trajectory. Because he sees us not as a point in space, to use my mathematical metaphor, but from an eternal perspective, it is more like a line. Our past is one point on the line. Our present is another point. Our future, is the third point. God cares about what our trajectory is. Are we on a negative slope? If so, the Lord is not pleased. We need to repent. If our trajectory is positive, the Lord is pleased. Of course, we want to try to make the slope as steep as we can, but the crucial thing is, as God, he sees the slope; while as mortals we only see the present. We see the dot on grid. He sees the line.
When I look at the scriptural history through this metaphor, that chapter I read is very clear. Consider the Jews at the time of the Savior. They occupied a privileged place. They obeyed the law of Moses as they interpreted it. They looked forward to a Savior to deliver them from Rome and other political oppressors. They were imperfect, but compared to the gentiles, they were high on the graph. Then the Savior came to give them a higher law, to show them a better way, to invite them to change the trajectory of their spiritual growth. Instead of accepting this invitation, they rejected him and then killed him. This put their trajectory severely negative. The Savior put them beneath even Sodom and Gomorrah because although the Jews were superficially righteous, they were unwilling to change their trajectory. They insisted on rejecting the opportunity to repent and usher in new truth into their system. It is recorded in several places where the Savior marvels at the faith and obedience of certain gentiles he comes into contact with. Although he never taught in gentile cities or ministered outside of Judea, he understood that the time would come after he was rejected and murdered, that his gospel would be given to the gentiles where it would spread and grow, changing the spiritual landscape of the world.
As a personal application, I see myself having my emotional and spiritual ups and downs. I know where my dot is on the graph, but I also see my trajectory. I’m on a solidly positive slope. Did I posture in my interactions with the other women? Perhaps. Was I dishonest with myself and with them, hiding behind a mask of deception? Perhaps. It doesn’t really matter as long as my dot is moving toward authenticity. If it is, that is all that matters. I’m not going to attain perfection in a day. I’m going to fall short of the ideal that I am working toward, but I need not become discouraged or ashamed.
This is a big breakthrough for me in having compassion toward myself and others. It also helps me to understand the Savior’s interactions on this Earth. He didn’t see the harlot, the publican, the fisherman, the leper, the pharisee, etc; he saw their past, present, and future. The harlot’s dot was low on the graph and that was all the pharisee could see. The Savior saw her humility, her willingness to repent, her desire to improve her spiritual and emotional condition. He was impressed not by her position on the graph, but on the trajectory of her line. In contrast, the pharisee’s dot was high on the graph, but his pride and his treatment of the Savior put his trajectory in the negative, prompting the Savior to correct him.
I’ll use another example that has some political overtones, just to keep things interesting. Let’s consider those who come to our Southern border seeking asylum. They are low on the graph. Most of them have little to nothing in the way of personal possessions. As our President has so cruelly observed, they come from “sh*thole countries.” Still, the wise investor doesn’t look at companies that look sucessfulsuccessful in the present. The wise investors look to the future to see what the company’s potential is given a place in sufficient support and investment. When America is at her finest, she welcomes the refugee and the immigrant knowing that those who have the fortitude and determination to come to this land usually have the potential needed to be successful here. Their success has made America the greatest country in the world. By closing our doors to them, we deprive ourselves of their potential while also earning ourselves a rebuke from the Savior.
When the Savior teaches that the last shall be first and the first shall be last it always makes me think. He is perfectly fair and just. He is no respecter of persons. He sees me as a line, not a point. I hope that I can learn to see others that way as well. I hope that as I live my life that I can be the person who is a friend when the chips are down, a confidant when the truth is hard to share, a comfort to the one who is sitting in a dark place. If I can do those things, perhaps my Master will be pleased with me.
Today I helped a new sister clean her house before she moved in. I usually never do stuff like this, but I decided to today for several reasons. For one thing, this lady was assigned as one of my ministering sisters. Another thing, is I am trying to be supportive of the new Relief Society presidency. Another thing is, it’s good for me to serve and socialize even though it isn’t my favorite thing to do.
When I arrived, I saw familiar faces from church standing in a circle and chatting. I had just dropped off my baby with the sitter and was eager to get started, but I engaged a little in the small talk about the house. I thought it interesting to see how each sister chose a different part of the house to clean. I chose the tile grout. Why?
I like getting deep into the dirty parts in the foundation. A clean floor is a clean house to me. Other sisters wiped out cupboards or did other stuff. I didn’t really pay attention to them. I just focused on my job. As I listened to the other sisters talk, I thought about all the reasons I don’t fit in. I remember long ago my counselor talked to me about women and the way we compete with one another for status. Being thin, pretty, a good housekeeper, a devoted mother, having a wealthy husband, having a successful career…..these are all values that we compete in. Inevitably, I find myself feeling inadequate as others jockey for position within the female social framework. Why? I am reasonably thin, well educated, and otherwise successful. What makes me ashamed? It is self-knowledge.
Self-esteem has always been a tricky thing for me. You can’t esteem what you don’t understand and I don’t really know myself. This depressive episode has charted more territory in my self-discovery than ever before, but I don’t always like what I find. Self-discovery can be painful when I confront my own illusions, my motivations, my fears, and everything else that I prefer not to look at. Also, as I discover more about myself, I realize that who I am is not under my control nearly as much as I wanted to think it was. I am a product of forces like my community, my family, my genetics, my habits. These things are like concrete. At one time, they may have been flexible and moldable, but over the course of the forty years I have been alive, they have hardened into the shape of me. This shape I am still discovering, but one thing I am certain of: no amount of working out at the gym, reading to enrich my mind, or self-improvement effort is going to make me over into the person who can, with authenticity, present myself to others as anything but a deeply flawed person. I am convinced that the only way I want to live is with authenticity, so I don’t have much to say in superficial conversations that seem to involve posturing.
This is tricky territory I am wandering into. I don’t want to imply that I am judging and condemning other women for their posturing. I would just as soon condemn my dog for licking her bottom. It is what dogs do. As women, we posture and compete and jockey for position. It’s what we do. I just don’t do it and I never really understood why before, but today I think I made some progress. Sometimes I thought something was wrong with me and that was why I seemed disinterested, discouraged, or even annoyed during these social interactions. Now I see that what is right with me is what is wrong with me. My own self-knowledge of my flaws, coupled with my determination to live with authenticity, result in my overall disenchantment with superficial human interaction in general.
So what I thought in the past was social anxiety, seems to be to be something else. It is a tendency toward self preservation; a need to live authentically and be accepted for who I truly am, not for a projection I’d like others to think I am. So as I scrubbed the stains from the tile floor, I considered myself, in that space, being me, observing the other sisters around me, and seeing everything from this new perspective.
And then, I started thinking about the people who were not there–the previous owners of the home. Of course, they had foreclosed the house and left it in a sorry state, so no one was very complimentary of them. We were engaged in cleaning the grime of years that had accumulated in what had been their home. Then the thought occurred to me, that these faceless, nameless people had been in our ward. They were not members of the church, but they had lived in my ward boundaries and as such, they were technically in my ward family. They had struggled and suffered and lived out their days in my neighborhood and only now did I spare a thought for them. Why was I cleaning their house now, and not months or years before? Why was this family worthy of my help and the other wasn’t? Were they not just as loved by their Heavenly Father? At this moment, that family is probably moving into another home somewhere, but surely God is aware of them and loves them just as much as he loves me. Seeing myself within this picture of other divine children both on the covenant path and off it, helps me to understand my own place in this world and what he would have me do. I’m not the woman I wish I were, but perhaps I am who he needs me to be.
That is where grace comes in. I am not the woman I wish I were. Still, the Savior died for me. He loves me that much, so I can give myself a little grace. I can look into my dark places and give myself some forgiveness that I fall short. I can restrain the inner critic and unleash the inner nurturer and allow myself to be; to exist without judgement. There is no greater gift one person can give another; suspended judgement.
When something imperfect is allowed to exist, it reminds me of the plan of salvation and the wisdom of my God. He created this world, an anomaly within the cosmos, a temporal vaccuume in the fabric of eternity, a place where justice and perfection are suspended and sin and death are allowed to exist. This place, the training and testing place of the spirit sons and daughters of God, is a crucible of pain and growth. One of the hardest things to learn in life is to do as God has done. To suspend judgement. To allow our fellow men to make their choices and love them regardless of what those choices are and how they affect us is to approach the throne of God himself. That is what he has done. He suspends his judgment until the end. He has given us the hope of salvation through the sacrifice of his son. And he waits. He waits for us to find ourselves and one another in the mess that is this world. He waits for us to feel after him and remember ourselves; not the shallow images of our vain imaginations, but the God that lives within us. He waits. He waits for me.
Sometimes the pain is so deep it takes the breath from my body. It seems that whatever small event has happened has set off a chain reaction inside me, like the small squeeze of a hand, a single finger moving less than an inch, the small piece of metal on a gun giving way. And then my whole world changes. Everything that was light is darkness. Everything that was happy is misery. I assume this is what they mean when they say a person has been “triggered.”
I lay in bed this morning sincerely panicked. My three year old said, “Momma, you get me some breakfast.” How could I manage to get him cereal? I couldn’t even pull back the blankets on my bed! Worse, I didn’t know what to do to make myself feel better. Then the feelings of shame and despair compounded my problem sinking me ever deeper into my mattress.
I was able to convince myself to come and write. That gave me the glimmer of hope I needed to fuel my marathon journey out of the bed, to the kitchen to take my medicine, and then up the stairs. My thirteen year old was on his phone. When he saw me he expected a lecture, but he knew right away that I was not in a state to be that kind of parent. With a pleading in my voice I asked him to get some cereal for his baby brother. To my pleasant surprise, he jumped out of his chair and went downstairs immediately. God’s tender mercies!
So here I am at the computer desk, hoping to sort through why I have been triggered. Whenever this happens, my initial reaction is to denigrate myself and invalidate my feelings. My inner critic says, “This is no big deal. Stop being so sensitive! Stuff like this happens all the time. Let it roll off.” Behind these words is the primal fear of the loss of control that comes with the depth of emotion I am being subjected to. That terrified, bossy, controlling voice in my head cannot bare the fact that at my core, I am not in control of these emotions. They simply exist and I can no more control them than I can the weather or the shape of my nose.
So this is me giving a speech to my inner critic:
“Leave her alone. Let her feel her feelings. You have no right to decide whether she has a right to feel them. Calm your fear. The feelings will pass, as they always do. Surrender your need to control what doesn’t belong to you; the instrument that God has given you, the divine ability to feel emotion. This instrument does not belong to this world and cannot be suppressed by mortal will. Your fear clouds your understanding. She is in travail and will soon give birth to new insights and ideas. The process cannot be rushed or arrested.”
My trigger for today’s feelings of despair is betrayal. Betrayal triggers a complex set of memories that I have walled off from my consciousness. If my brain circuitry approaches those memories, it recoils in horror and veers away like a frightened animal. It is what might be called a “complex”; the memories and experiences I am unable to process because they are too painful. To cope, I avoid and deny their existence. Unfortunately, these memories are part of me and because they fester like a buried sliver causing pain and inflammation, they impact my emotional health even if I don’t know they are there.
I wish I knew how to heal myself– A pill, a bottle of oil, an internet article about the phases of the moon, or a hundred other coping strategies that seem to help others. The first step is understanding and I think that will be enough today. I have been triggered. Betrayal. That is enough. I have calmed my fearful inner critic and now I have freed enough emotional energy to get out of what I like to call “the vortex.” The vortex is the feedback loop that my brain gets caught in. Fear, shame, desperation, and paralysis swirl like water down a drain of misery.
So now I will ask for help, give myself compassion, eat, and continue to claw my way out of the pit. For those of you who read these words and see yourself in them, bless you! Keep fighting. You aren’t alone in struggling through the labyrinth of your mind and heart. Take my torch and use it to refresh yours. Together we can find our way through the darkness. Eventually, when I get out of crisis mode, I will work on processing the painful memories of betrayal that I stumbled upon this morning. Not now. The dog is scratching at the door. My boys need their mom. There are flowers in the garden, boo-boos to kiss, books to read, and life to be lived. There is joy as well as pain and I can and will go out and find it.
I found several black swallowtail caterpillars in my garden a few weeks ago. I raised them on rue until they were big and fat, then they made their chrysalises. The last three days they have been emerging. We had one on Sunday, one yesterday, and two today. We are waiting on one little chrysalis which will probably not last more than another day.
As I was getting my three year old ready to go to YMCA camp, I was rushing around the backyard when I saw a giant swallowtail. The black swallowtails are gorgeous and almost as big as your hand. The giant swallowtail makes them look small. They are as big as a bird. I drove to the YMCA musing on the significance of two black swallowtail butterflies AND the giant swallowtail. Could it be that God is/was sending me a message?
As though insect messengers were not enough, I turned onto my street on my way home, and there was a striking red Cardinal under my rose bush! I parked my car and went to investigate. The bird flew away, but I thought I saw another bird. Curious, I walked around the corner of my house and there were TWO Cardinals! A male and a female. In total, I had three cardinals visit my garden at the same time. I don’t even have any bird feeders to attract them!
This experience today reminded me of my first counselling session after I left the Sundance mental hospital. It was October 2012. I was reeling from the trauma I had experienced there, but also treasuring the sacred and beautiful bonds I had made with the other patients. It had taken all the courage I possessed to trust another counselor with my story. As I sat there trying to explain the unique twists and turns of my depression journey, she kept looking out the window behind me. She said, “There is a dove that has just landed on the fence outside. Doves are a symbol of hope and divine intervention.” That she would notice such a coincidence was not surprising to me. Her entire aura and her home where we were meeting spoke of a hippy, new-age, eclectic, artistic personality. I did find it unusual that she kept commenting on the birds.
After a few minutes, she said, “There’s another dove! It’s landed next to the first.” In total, I think there were four doves that came to her backyard that day during that first session. It never happened again that I know of. If it did, she didn’t mention it and I think she would have.
I have seen God’s hand working in my recovery. Small, quiet, little things that would be easily missed if I weren’t deliberately taking the time to see them and express gratitude. He is mindful of me and my pain. He understands it when no one else does. Every day I face the challenges, beat back the depression, and press forward.
I am growing. There is no stopping it now. It is as though I am a mighty oak sprouting from a sidewalk crack. The cement cannot encase me any longer. It is strong and exerts tremendous pressure, but I am getting stronger than the pressure. I can be patient. It is inevitable. The concrete will break. It must retreat because I must grow.
I won’t mourn the sidewalk. It isn’t bad, it’s just in the wrong place. For so long I’ve thought that it was I that was in the wrong place. Now I see that it was for his purposes that I sprouted where I did and faced the opposition I have faced.
What I have learned most this week on a deeper level than ever before, is that religious dogmatism and spirituality exist in opposition. Dogma is the human mind’s way of coping with God without spirituality. It is the lazy path. Dogma says, “I don’t have to know God personally, I can just listen to what someone else says about him, do what they say, and then I’ll be saved.” When you push dogma aside and approach the throne of God yourself, what will happen? Nothing? That would be devastating, but it gets worse. What if he did tell you something? What if he told you to leave your parents and your home, journey off into the wilderness, and spend a nomadic life searching for him? He said that to Abraham. What if he told you that everything you’d been taught was wrong? What if he told you to sell everything you have and follow Him? At different times in the scriptures God has said those very things to various people. Some obeyed like Peter and Paul. Some rebelled like Jonah and then repented afterward. Some walked away sorrowing, like the rich young man. There have been so many people who have lived on the Earth that have never asked God; never sought that intimate connection with him. No wonder! The dogmatic way is easier. So predictable. So tame and popular with everyone. You can even make money at it!
I have decided to take a different path. I want to know God myself. I want my questions answered, not just by a conference talk or even an ancient record of scripture. I want direct knowledge and understanding. I want spiritual gifts. I want things of value that the world doesn’t see and can’t understand, and won’t value. I don’t want position or honors of men or money, I want to please my God. In doing this, I will naturally have conflict with those who walk a more dogmatic path. That’s okay. I’m coming to expect that opposition and understand it better.
Along with resistance, I am also finding support. Support can come from unexpected places like the cardinals and the butterflies. I’ve found myself overwhelmed by gratitude when I get human angels who send me a card, give me a hug, or shoot me a message. The depression is still hard, and I still have burdens I carry, but I’m getting so much stronger.
I’m filled with gratitude today for the help my Savior has sent me from heavenly messages spoken and unspoken, winged and without wings. He lives! He loves us! He has not left us to live in this fallen world alone and without comfort. May His blessings and peace find you as well.