It has been so long since I’ve had the courage to write again! I only wrote four posts last year. There is a part of me that longs for the comfortable days of hiding before I was open with my story and my pain. I have to remind myself that honesty is a virtue and that pain is a universal human experience. It is only as we share our pain that we can find the strength to overcome it.
Last year was a year of tremendous growth for me. I’ve been going to therapy every week and sometimes even twice a week. My life is working for the most part and I have what I need. My circle is very small and everyone in it understands mental health. That has been so important. It turns out that quantity isn’t as important as quality in my relationships. I no longer use social media regularly. I’ve found the benefits of it are not enough to justify the trouble it causes me.
Unfortunately, over the past couple of years I have developed some kind of chronic illness. I suspect that the stress of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the political upheaval has overwhelmed my body. I am going to many doctors to try to figure out what my jumbled collection of symptoms means, but in the meantime I am finding ways to cope. Healthy food, regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and lower levels of stress tend to help reduce my symptoms. There are some treatments that are helping me to function almost as well as I did before I got sick, so that is a blessing! Depression and anxiety live in the body as well as the brain and age compounds the damage.
I feel very good today, so I am grateful that! I hope to post some valuable content on my blog regularly again. I’ve spent much time ruminating about the benefits and drawbacks of making a mental health recovery public. There are benefits. I hope that my readers have learned some helpful information about mental wellness and how to live a more conscious and honest life. I hope I have modeled openness, introspection, and compassion. There are also drawbacks. Honesty can be painful and relationships built on lies are broken upon it. It isn’t the honesty that is to blame but the lies. But the lies are so beautiful! And the truth is an ugly duckling.
I hope the New Year finds you all well and warm. If you chose to join me on another year of self-discovery, let’s buckle up and get ready for the ride.
I watched Kamila Varieva skate last night. There is something different about her. The announcers see it and struggle to describe it. It isn’t that she’s an excellent athlete, artist, and performer. It is all those things, but there is a secret ingredient that is impossible to define. I have watched hundreds of skaters perform, but Varieva is different. I’ve turned it over and over in my mind. Why?
I can only think she has tapped into something inside herself; a divine spark or a secret knowledge about who she is and what her purpose is. She is able to express on the ice something that every person on the planet longs for whether they know it or not. She is her authentic self. Without excuse, without deception, without holding anything back; she bares her soul for the world to see.
Everyone knows she has dedicated her life to skating. She lives and breathes it. It is almost as though she is some kind of ice creature who was born with skates on her feet and sleeps on a bed of snow. She reveals herself without shame to be judged. She is the product of Russian discipline, intellect, and skill. I try to imagine what her life as been.
I had a childhood friend who was a German exchange student. She was a beautiful dancer with long blonde hair. Once we talked about ballet. She told me her grandmother was a professional ballerina in Hitler’s Germany and she even danced for Hitler once. She explained how difficult the life of a dancer is in Germany because of the pressure. She said her grandmother’s feet were badly deformed and she had a lot of problems with them as she aged. My friend had no desire to become a professional dancer. She told me stories about Russian dancers. I remember her look of fear as her gentle accented voice said, “Very few dancers can survive in a Russian school.”
I assume Kamila Varieva is not a ballet dancer, but she dances like one. What has she survived in her young life? Is she like the widows in the Marvel Universe; a slave to forces beyond her control? Life is complicated and I can only imagine what her life has been and what it will be ten or twenty years from now. I do know that her skating has inspired me. I know that somehow, she has taken the life she was given and made something incredibly beautiful that communicates with me across the miles and miles between us; across language and national barriers; beyond culture or race. She showed me what is possible when you dare to find yourself. She has done this because of, or perhaps in spite of, the life she was given and the choices she has made.
Sometimes my life feels meaningless. Living in the city has a soul sucking effect on me. I am just another person in the line, another face in the crowd, another car on the endless conveyor belt of the metroplex machine. And yet, I exist. In this broken world, I can gather up the pieces of my broken self and make something beautiful, something inspiring, something authentic and vulnerable and original. I can follow the example of that Russian child of fifteen and dare to express the hope that beauty and love and joy are possible.
In the past two years of this endless pandemic, we have all suffered mentally. I have been so fortunate to have a counselor to talk to every week even though I can’t see her in person. In the past six years she has been more than a counselor, she has been a friend. In spite of the incredible difficulties I have faced, I have thrived. I feel strong as I find solutions to problems and build a better life for myself.
Last week I was hit by various triggers. Like Jack-in-the-Box toys, they all seemed to pop the weasel at the same time. I did my art. I allowed myself to feel those feelings I had tucked away because I wasn’t able to process them at the time. I felt the sadness, the fear, and the anger, and then I spilled them onto the pages of my journal. Funny thing about Jack-in-the-Box, he can only be triggered if you shut him in the box. If you open the lid, and let him out on your terms, he loses his power. It takes so much courage to face your triggers. It’s worth it. The feelings aren’t as scary as you think they are. Just like Jack.
Today as I did my SuperNatural Oculus Quest workout, sweat was pouring down my face and into my mouth. I could feel aching muscles as I hit each target. I remembered Varieva’s grace under enormous pressure, I remembered her falling on the ice after an impossible quad. She pushed herself past the limit of any woman ever to skate in the olympics. And she fell. She got back up and finished her performance. She wasn’t perfect. She was still world class; she broke the world record; she was inspiring. I hope she knows somehow that her fall doesn’t define her. I hope she will learn the lesson it has taken me a lifetime to learn; that perfection is an illusion. It limits you. No one and nothing in the world is perfect. We can only dare to dance beneath the bar of perfection, and maybe touch it. Briefly. Perfection isn’t the goal. It isn’t the destination. It can be part of the journey, but God requires us to dance by faith; the faith that grace and beauty can live in broken places and in broken people.
When I took off the headset at the end of my workout, I had to blink. It wasn’t real. It felt so real! I thought of the miracle of VR. I hit targets in China, Scotland, and a dozen other places I didn’t recognize. Some I couldn’t even pronounce, but I felt like I was there. I interacted with a coach I’ve never met. I thought of the science and technology that made such an experience possible. People can do such incredible things! God has made us a little below the angels. He waits for us to find ourselves. We are the greatest gift he has given us and if we unlock the potential within, we will amaze ourselves with the majesty of his creation.
Because there are so many people on this planet, it is easy to forget the worth of a soul. Infinite. The value of infinite things is a constant. It doesn’t matter if there are billions of people on this planet, each person is still of infinite value. Each person, no matter their circumstances or their choices, is touched by the finger of God. If we want to know God, we can find him by understanding his creation. The self.
Thanks for taking this journey with me as I find myself. Let us join our faith together, take on discouragement and fear, lift ourselves up to dance on this mortal stage, and if we fail, we can pick ourselves up and try again. The rewards are worth the effort.
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
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.
I have started noticing a new feeling sprouting up inside of me. It isn’t compelled by moral coaxing or willed into being, it has just appeared in my heart. I am quite happy to see it again. It has been a while.
Today I am forty-one years old. It was 107 years ago today that my Grandma Eva was born, so happy birthday to her and to me. I am grateful. I’m grateful to be her granddaughter, I’m grateful for my life, I’m grateful for my parents and the childhood I had. I’m grateful for my experiences, good and bad, and they way they have shaped my life. I feel gratitude.
Today I sat in my backyard hammock with my ten year old son and we watched the blue jays dance around in the Crepe Myrtle trees. He’s a beautiful boy and I am so blessed. Today he made a special effort to do many nice things for me for my birthday. He got a special cube of ice that he had frozen into a sphere. He put it in a cup with some water and gave it to me while I was in the garden working.
I decided today that instead of hoping that my boys would read my mind and do things for me, I told them several ways they could show me today that they love me. I still had to clean up messes and break up fights, but I noticed when my boys and Ben did things to please me and I nurtured those feelings of gratitude until I felt like a warm fire was glowing inside.
I have a good life. It isn’t the life that I wish I had. It is the life God chose for me because I needed to experience the things I did to shape me into who I am. Once I became conscious of how broken I am and how broken my family is, I became very discouraged. All the narcissistic ideas I had constructed about my own superiority and my family’s superiority were in shambles and I felt so exposed and horrid. That consciousness is what I’ve been defending myself against for so long. The reality of my own fallen state is so humiliating and embarrassing! But after a while I’ve gotten used to looking at myself in the mirror and seeing reality looking back at me. It isn’t so hard to do anymore.
This spring Ben and I started a worm farm. The worms are doing pretty well and we were able to make our first batch of compost tea this weekend. Compost is a great metaphor for recovery. You start out with a whole load of crap. It’s stinky garbage that you would normally throw out with the trash; carrot peelings, rotten fruit, cantaloupe seeds, moldy bread, leftover baked potato, rotting leaves, shredded paper. You add some bedding material, add some worms, and a few months later you have worm poop.
The inexperienced gardener may not appreciate worm poop, or castings as they call them. The other day I opened up my worm bin and I saw that the cantaloupe seeds I had added a couple of days before had sprouted in the castings. I put some worm castings in my garden not knowing that there were marigold seeds in the soil. A week later I had hundreds of seedlings. Worm castings are the magic sauce of gardening. You can use them in your garden strait, or you can soak a cup in a five gallon bucket of water and aerate for 24 hours. The liquid fertilizer that results will transform your soil with beneficial microbes and nutrients. Put it on your plants and watch the magic happen!
In recovery you take all the crappy feelings you have and everything bad that’s ever happened to you. You look at it, you cut it into little pieces, you process it, and then you put it in the worm bin. You understand that it’s yucky, it’s stinky, and most people would put it far away from them and try to forget about it. But after a while, all that awful stinky stuff is digested by the worms and broken down into earthy, beautiful castings that you can use to reach your goals.
When the seeds of hope and gratitude start sprouting in your castings, you know you’re on the right track. The stink of anger and resentment fade and are replaced with the fragrant smell of flowers and fresh fruit and vegetables as you begin to harvest the fruits of your emotional processing.
And some people will never understand it. They look at mental health and worm bins with the same ignorant suspicion. That’s okay. Their choice to stay stuck doesn’t have to be yours. And you can still love them and you can still live with gratitude knowing that the potential for growing all the good things of life is within you.
So, I’m still sick, and the kids are still home from school, and I’m still estranged from my parents, but I’m full of hope for a bright and happy future. It will be a future that I choose, guided by the spirit that lives and grows inside me, nurtured by the fruits of my emotional health. Blessed be the name of the Lord!
I was supposed to be completing my work. Pages of numbers scrawled in careless handwriting stared at me like a ravenous beast. Every day I would labor over the numbers, but it was never enough. I was behind again. I had my notebook and my textbook in my lap, my back slouched against the wall of the school hallway. It was awkward, but less because of practice. Day in and day out, recess after recess I would work on my missing assignments. Day in and day out, I would be sent out to the hallway while the class graded papers that I had yet to complete. Classes of students would file past, single file. If I thought about it, my cheeks would burn with shame, but I didn’t think about it. That just made it harder to handle. If everyone in Sugar City didn’t know I was a loser, they didn’t have their eyes open. I was in the hall more than anyone else in the fifth grade. I was in study hall so much that even when I went out to recess, the other kids already had their groups of friends. I was a loser and everyone knew it. Even when I walked across the stage to get my diploma wearing my high honors tassel on my square hat. Even when I graduated from college. I’ve worked my whole life to try and overcome that gnawing feeling of inadequacy that haunts me from those early days sitting in the halls, wishing I could disappear.
I read the book, Lord of the Flies, with my teenage son this week. He was assigned to read the book for school. It’s an incredibly disturbing book and I’m glad that I was able to help my son to process the horror of it. I wish someone had helped me to deal with the book when I had to read it as a teen. The level of savagery that the author portrayed has burned itself into my brain. It teaches important things about cruelty and the capacity of good people to do terrible things; the beast that lives within each of us is real and we need to understand it, even if it’s uncomfortable. As a mother of boys, the book is particularly disturbing because it is perceptive. It is unsurprising that the author was a teacher of boys. He knows them well, like I do. There have been many times when I have seen the savage instincts of my sons flare up and I have thought, “They wouldn’t survive a week on their own. They would murder each other within days.” They aren’t bad boys, but they are never too far from doing some very bad things. It takes constant nurturing and guidance to keep the flame of empathy and compassion alive. Like the boys in the book keep the fire alive, I have to constantly tend it. Hopefully they will learn to light their own inner fires of compassion and empathy. In a world where the lights of compassion are being snuffed out, I hope I am successful. For some boys, compassion comes easily. For them, a culture of cruelty too often encouraged and tolerated by adults can be the most damaging. That boy was Simon in the book.
I relate to Ralph, and his struggle to bare the burden of responsible leadership. I relate to Piggy and his asthma that keeps him from contributing in traditional ways. But most of all, I relate to Simon. Simon, the awkward introvert who keeps trying to say the thing that everyone most needs to hear, but he can’t quite get the words out. Simon, who craves the approval and love of Ralph so he tries to hide what everyone can see; that he is different and wrong and broken. Simon, the bravest and best of the boys on the island who was also the most vulnerable and lonely. Simon, the betrayed and abandoned, who loved the survivors enough to face the beast alone. He was the only one who knew the real danger that the camp faced and he died trying to tell them. The beast is not what you think it is. The monster you fear is within you. Within us.
In a culture of cruelty, I don’t want to be popular and cool. I don’t want to fit in. I would rather be Simon. I know what suffering feels like and I want a world where we have less of it. None of it. The beast is not in the other party. It isn’t in another country. It isn’t in another faith community. It isn’t in another generation. The beast is in you. It is in me. We can choose to climb the mountain. We can face the fear and discomfort of self-discovery. We can face our friends and share what we have learned whether they are in a place to hear it or not. I believe in the power of planting seeds. I like to think that before Simon was murdered by the boys he loved that he was gathering seeds on the island and planting them. He was the kind of person who plants seeds.
It’s interesting to think of how the Lord of the Flies might have been different if Ralph had valued Simon. What if he had listened to him? What if he had relied on him instead of on Jack? Perhaps a group of young boys would inevitably create chaos and cruelty. Perhaps a group of fallen adult people are doomed to do only marginally better on this island cut off from our God. Still, I think it is possible for the Simons in our society to speak out more often, even when we do it imperfectly. I think the Ralphs in our society can listen to us more. If we do, we could change the story of the world.
Motherhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. No one wants me to get it right more than I do, but the reality is, there is no social consensus about what good mothering looks like in the real world. I do the best I can, but I know I fall short each day.
Today after I took my three year old in for a doctor’s appointment, I decided to take him shopping with me at Sam’s Club. Usually I don’t go shopping with my kids. I spend too much and it’s exhausting! Today it just had to be done, so I lugged him along. Leaving the store, I pushed the cart while calling for him to stay nearby in the busy parking lot. When I got the cart settled so it wouldn’t roll away, I tried to get him into his carseat. He cried and arched his back. He wanted a drink. I told him I would get him one after I buckled him in. He continued to fight me, so I gave in and handed him the cup. He looked at me murderously. He wanted to get it HIMSELF. I walked away in frustration to return the cart. I jogged through the parking lot, hoping that he had stayed in his seat. When I got back, I buckled him in listening to him lecture me about how frustrated he was at me. I asked him what he wanted and he said, “A drink.” I gave him the cup and insisted he say thank you.
I finally got him down for his nap and after I left he turned over the bookcase and the changing table in his room. He does this frequently when he is overtired. I was mad, but relieved he wasn’t hurt. I want the behavior to stop. It’s dangerous makes a huge mess. What do I do?
I stayed in the doorway seething, and I said, “Austin, when you do this, I feel angry. It makes me want to hit you. I want you to take a rest and when you wake up we will talk about it.” I shut the door and sat down exhausted. I still have a kitchen stuffed with groceries from Sam’s Club. I’ve got to try to get the ambition to put them away.
I found out my sister-in-law sent an email to my husband a year ago. For a long time, she and I were allies and confidants against the predatory system. After the predator died a couple of years ago, she switched sides. She went on the attack in the email. She tried to make a case to Ben that I am an abuser with a serious gaming addiction. She knows that I have depression and that I’m trying to manage it. She’s had depression herself, but her criticism showed no empathy for my situation. Words stand out to me that cut like knives. She said all the things my inner critic says about me; that I’m no good, selfish, and a bad mother. I know in my mind that she’s a narcissist and that what she said is about her and not me, but it still hurts. She’s a part of the abusive system of his family. I’m the scapegoat and the truth teller. I’m the empathetic depressed person who is vulnerable enough to try to get help. That makes me weak to her and an easy target to criticize. I blocked her on my phone and unfriended her on Facebook. I don’t need people like that in my life. I listen to my counselor not the flying monkeys of an abusive system of narcissists.
Ben wouldn’t share the details with me about the email all this time because he was worried about the effect it would have on my depression. I understand why he did what he did, but I wish I had known how toxic she was. I let her have dinner at my house last month. I have a really hard time with feelings of betrayal, and I’m trying to process that. It also makes me wonder what other family members have been saying to him about me behind my back.
Tomorrow morning I can go talk to my counselor about all this, but in the meantime, I’m just trying to make it through the day. I prayed to the Lord to give me comfort and help me know what I can do to be a better mom. He comforted me saying that men and women in this world look on the outward appearance, but that his gaze penetrates into the heart and soul of a person. His judgement is just and he says my heart is pure before him.
So I can take comfort in that. The self that I am learning to love and accept doesn’t have the polish of a narcissistic projection. That’s okay because she is real and God sees her heart. There are some that look at me and judge me as flawed and unworthy. That’s okay. What they think of me is on them. It’s their business. I’m working to surround myself with people who will love and value me, especially my Savior. His love and acceptance is all I need.
For more info on flying monkeys in narcissistic abuse, here are some links.
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.
I read an article about Eminem online. I never liked him before today. I guess I judged him because of his foul language and some of the stuff in the headlines about him many years ago. Like so many things about my past self, I am starting to question my old judgement, look closer at others that I have dismissed in the past.
I will never be a regular listener of Eminem’s music. That’s okay. But I can see him, and I can see those who find solace and support in his words. He released an album called “Recovery” after battling with a severe addiction to various pills. I listened to the song, “Not Afraid.” I made a conscious effort to ignore the profanity (warning, it’s explicit) and focus instead on the message of the song. By the end, I was able to see a man, very rough around the edges, determined to improve his life for this children; to become his best self.
I can understand why, for many people, this song would feed their spirit and give them courage to fight their own addictions. It is inspiring to me. Ideally, the addict would be able to come to church and get that support from people they know and love who could lead them to the Savior and their healing path. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, they don’t feel comfortable coming. Look at Eminem in this video. Imagine him walking in and sitting on your row in sacrament meeting. Imagine him getting up in fast and testimony meeting and saying the things he says in this video. And yet, for an addict, Eminem’s rough message of hope and redemption and support is just what many of our members who struggle with these issues need to hear and don’t hear at church. “I’ll walk this path with you, come take my hand, you’re not alone,” he says. The foul language and angry tone are messy and ugly, but so is addiction and the damage it causes to individuals and families. His expression of that ugly through foul language is cathartic for him and for others who struggle including me. It is paradoxical. Through expressing the ugly, we release it and it ceases to control us.
When I was admitted to the Sundance Mental Inpatient facility six years ago, I had an experience with a young man. He was barely twenty or so. I was in my mid thirties. We were in group therapy and he shared his story. He had been addicted to various drugs since he was in gradeschool. He went to the doctor because he was having some health problems. He was told that if he didn’t make drastic changes to his lifestyle that he would die. His liver, heart, and kidneys were in terrible shape. He was just a kid, but his organs were like an old man. He cried as he revealed the desperation he felt. He wanted to live. He said his recovery wasn’t even a choice because if he didn’t overcome his addiction he would die. My heart went out to this boy.
I wanted to connect with him and some of the other group members who had shown some vulnerability. I told about my story of my perfectionism and how my best efforts were never enough even though I got good grades and graduated from college. I was trying to communicate that in my own way, I was as desperate as this young man to escape the demons that brought me to that hospital. Unfortunately, he judged me.
With hatred in his eyes he said, “I don’t know why we have to have these classes with the “depression people.” I still don’t know exactly how he saw me or why exactly he was so hostile, but I was confused and desperate to clarify myself. I apologized for talking about my good grades. I said, I don’t think I’m any better than anyone in this room. I have my demons and you have yours. The therapist tried to salvage the situation. She explained that the underlying reasons people become addicted and stay addicted to substances is because they are often trying to cope with emotional problems. That the “addiction people,” and the “depression people,” are really the same. I tried to talk to this boy at different times, but he actively avoided me. At times I saw him talking to another “addiction person” and glaring at me menacingly. Everyone else at the center loved me. I loved them right back. I listened to their stories and I told them about the Savior and his healing power. I found myself wishing that church felt more like that hospital. It was truly a healing place.
I count myself fortunate that I haven’t become ensnared with substance addiction. I have my coping strategies that are unhealthy and harmful, but none that have destroyed my mind or body for which I am grateful. The Word of Wisdom, which is a chapter in our book of scripture that was written by the Prophet Joseph Smith, teaches about harmful addictive substances and some basic principles for healthy living. Because of this chapter in the Doctrine and Covenants and our willingness to live it, me, my parents, my siblings, and my grandparents have all avoided addictions to drugs and alcohol in spite of serious emotional trauma in their lives that easily could have led to it.
For those who have not been so fortunate, I reach out to you. We are not so different. I don’t completely understand the challenges you face. I won’t assume that I know what you are going through, or dish out a whole bunch of advice. I just want you to know that not everyone like me is judging you. You aren’t alone in your struggles. I’ve had a couple of friends who have gone through rehab and 12 step programs. I celebrate with them in their successes. I want them to know that even if they don’t trust me to confide in me when they relapse, that I am there for them at those times too.
I’ve been studying Carl Jung for a while. He was actually instrumental in founding Alcoholics Anonymous. He worked with many addicts, but found that there was little he could do for them. He met with a man named William Wilson about his severe alcohol addiction. He basically told him that his ailment was spiritual and that the only healing path for him was going to take the shape of a religious conversion. He and his drinking buddy who was in the process of undergoing such a religious conversion to treat his own alcoholism, founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Their twelve step program is designed to guide alcoholics on a spiritual recovery journey. They credit the insights of Carl Jung as a major influence on their program. It is difficult to fathom the good that AA has done for millions of addicts and their families around the world.
“His craving for alcohol was the equivalent of … the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed … as the union with God……….the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted by a real religious insight (involving a personal and meaningful relationship with God)…… Alcohol in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.” (Fight spirit with spirit)
I have a dream of a day when people can speak openly in church about their struggles with addiction or the addictions of a loved one; that as Christians, we can suspend judgement, mourn with those that mourn, and help addicts and their families bare these crushing burdens. Families are warped and disfigured by addictions that are hidden. When addictions are seen and appropriate support given, healing is inevitable. When addictions are hidden and support withheld, the addiction cycle will continue to poison families for generations. I sense, as Jung did, that some of our most spiritually gifted people are chained by addictions; that if they were set free, we would see His power greatly magnified in them.
I send a prayer up for my young friend at Sundance. His hatred and hostility were born of his pain. I hope his rehab was successful. I hope that whatever his healing path looks like, that it leads to the Savior. I know that the Savior understands as I never will, the suffering that he has experienced in his life. I know that the Savior knows how to help him to find peace and happiness and a life he can be proud of. Blessed be the name of Him who is Mighty to Save!!