Hinges

May 13, 2022

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

This morning I got a notification from Google photos from four years ago.  I tapped on it and it was a picture of my mom and dad sitting next to a small Layne.  I scrolled through the photos of that visit that seems like a lifetime ago.  It wasn’t a perfect visit.  It was awkward, but we could sit in the same room and at least on the surface, everything was okay.  

And then I watched as pictures and videos of joyous times scrolled past.  Austin with his chubby baby cheeks, Pepper in her tiny puppyhood, and then later as her body leaned out into adolescence.  Every moment was so beautiful and yet tinged with the pain of loss.  My boys are growing up.  Things will never be as they were.  Also the crushing feelings of inadequacy.  I should have loved them better!  I should have enjoyed those moments more!  If I had been someone else, something else…… I know it doesn’t make sense.  Even as the tears pour down my face, it doesn’t make sense.  It just hurts.

I hate depression.  I hate the self loathing.  I hate the negative self talk stream in my head.  I hate the fog that leeches the beauty away from my eyes.  I wish I could banish it.  Like Pandora in reverse, I could trap it away in a box.  But it never goes away forever.  I can come up for air sometimes.  Sometimes I actually feel good for a while.  I just have to remember that those times exist and will come back again.  

I just came off my period.  I didn’t bleed much but I had more flow than usual.  I also had abdominal pain, bloating, weight gain, and mood issues.  I also am still recovering from Covid.  I tested positive about a month ago. It was a mild case and although I haven’t had symptoms of the actual illness for a couple of weeks, I am still trying to dig myself out of a hole of housework and garden chores that have piled up.  Also, my oldest son has been taking all his end of the year AP exams and auditioning for marching band leadership so he hasn’t been doing his chores.  (Not that he was doing much before.)  Whenever I ask the other boys for help with his chores they get resentful and whiney.  

I wish I was someone who could stand up to my kids, be confident, and not wallow in self conscious indecision! I’m weak.  I know it.  And all I can do is wish things were different. Or do I? Can I shame myself into becoming that person? Can I force myself; to squeeze the last drop of physical and emotional energy to reshape myself into the assertive and powerful persona I desire?

As I reflect on that, I remember some thoughts I had a while back about how through therapy, I’ve come to see how little control we really have over our lives.  We are born to parents who are given the impossible task of nurturing us in a fallen world full of problems.  Those parents have scars from their own childhoods and they pass on the injuries to their children.  Like a blight in the garden, young and old, no one is spared.  This world is not a Garden of Eden full of fruit and flowers. It is a wilderness full of disease and decay.

That realization has given me compassion for myself, my parents, and all the other miserable hurting humans on this planet.  It has taken away the sting of my judgement.  I have set down the judge’s gavel to extend a hand of fellowship.  I know, even in this season of doubt when the mustard tree of faith goes limp in the hot sun, that a better being will come along who is worthy of that mantle.  As for me, I will be a friend to mankind.  

Just as important as that vital truth is its opposite.  I may not have much control over my life.  I may be a victim of a myriad of circumstances.  Still, I have more control over my life than anyone else does.  I have the power I need.  God has given me what I need to accomplish His purposes, I just have to figure out how.  Like a gate, the power is in the hinge.  The gate cannot control the weather, the soil, the material it is constructed of, or anything else, but it can swing open and shut.  It is small, but the hinge is key.

I am swimming today in an ocean of hormonal chaos.  I can’t change that cocktail, but I can choose to have faith in the Master who calmed the tempest.  This storm will pass.  The laundry will get done- or not.  The kids will finish out the school year.  There will be many messes and too much screen time this summer.  There will be imperfect family outings and many things broken.  I can choose to embrace broken things.  I can choose to see the beauty in myself and my imperfect life.  

I can choose to take the emotional energy I have and give myself a hug.  I visualized myself split into two beings.  One a mother, and one a sad young teenaged girl.  The girl was overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy in a changing body she didn’t understand.  The mother just sat next to her on the couch and cradled her head.  The mother couldn’t tell her that someday she would understand the strange cycle of physical and emotional changes of womanhood.  She couldn’t reassure her that it wouldn’t get worse and more difficult to manage.  She could only just sit with her; both of them conscious of the complexity and challenge of it all, but knowing that they weren’t alone.  

I’ve been embracing my inner teenager lately. As my oldest son enters his senior year, I am awash in memories of my own high school days. Life is too short to have boring hair. Teenagers understand that and so do I!
Ben and I raised some black swallowtail butterflies. Saturday I looked in the cage and saw that a butterfly had slipped out of his chrysalis and onto the floor. He was struggling in a wrinkled and mishappen tangle, his abdomen swollen with fluid that could not fill his wings. I picked him up and suspended him for many desperate moments as he made the transition to his new life as a butterfly. Here he is all ready to make his way in the world! As Mother Theresa would say, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

Beauty in Broken Places

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?

Kamila Varieva performs her short program in which she broke the record with her score. She is currently competing in the 2022 olympic winter games.

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.  

I got a set of mandala stencils that I’ve been playing with. I did this in Prisma colored pencils.

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.    

This mandala is also from a stencil. I am coloring it with Prisma colored pencils, gel pens, and Tombow brush markers.

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.

Drawn from stencil with gel pens and brush markers.

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.  

Codependency Virtue/Vices

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Today I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving and gratitude and creating the life I want to live. This month has been hard. My Kindergartener got sick and was home from school almost a whole week. Then I crashed on my bike and sustained some injuries. Then I got sick and was in bed for several days with fever, chills, a wicked sore throat, and the usual yuck of fall illnesses. Finally, I strained my ankle at the trampoline park. With all of this I have had a resurgence of depression symptoms including some pretty intense episodes of suicidal ideation. My counselor contracted pneumonia and has not been available. Naturally I was very unhappy when family-of-origin drama began.

At the beginning of this year I did a cut off with my parents. I have avoided writing on my blog about this for a couple of reasons. First, it is extremely painful and for those who have experienced it, you understand just how painful and why I wouldn’t want to post about it. Another reason is that I’ve been afraid of the backlash I might get from well meaning family members with little to no mental health experience. I thought that perhaps if I veiled some of my expressions in poetry that I might avoid some of the latter. Unfortunately, I have still managed to garner the backlash I tried to prevent.

As I have reflected on my blog’s purpose, I realize that I have been holding back useful information from my intended readers. My intended readers are those who have some experience with mental health or at least some desire to learn more, help loved ones, and build a more nurturing environment for our minds. My intended readers are familiar with phrases like “family of origin,” “childhood trauma,” “suicidal ideation,” and “recovery journey.” My intended readers understand that the world of mental health is complicated and that it is best to withhold judgement of those who suffer and their loved ones who suffer with them. My intended readers deserve more vulnerable and direct communications than my poetry posts this year.

This is not the first cutoff I have done with my parents, but this is the longest one. I tried to resume some limited contact with my mom around mother’s day, but we are back to no contact until after the holidays. Family of origin drama is just too much for me right now. I have to be there for my children for the next six weeks.

It’s hard to cope with the reality that you experienced serious trauma as a child. It is almost unbearable when those you love who hurt you so badly deny and minimize your experience, make excuses for themselves, and then shame you for the pain. I have been accused of being ungrateful, unforgiving, and cruel. Those minimizations and accusations hurt more than the original offense. I am comforted to think that the Savior knows the pain I feel. Perhaps he alone will ever truly understand. He whose piercing gaze fell upon the leper and resisted looking away will not fail to see me in my broken state. Like them, I cry out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This post is for those who, like me, who find that in their recovery journey, that they must limit contact with people they love. Love is not a purchased commodity. Those we love have not earned our love. In order for love to be real it must be freely given with no expectation of reciprocation. Sometimes we have built empathetic connections of love with people who continually hurt us and keep us from building a healthy and happy life. They sabotage our efforts, contradict our therapists, and pressure us to continue harmful behaviors. These relationships are unlikely to change unless the empathetic connection changes. Sometimes the relationship can’t continue without great harm to recovery.

Cut offs are so hard. We love the person. We want them to understand. We want them to see that they are hurting us and for it to matter to them. We want the unconditional love from them that we have been giving. Some people are just unable to give that kind of love. It’s okay to let go. Sometimes it’s important to let go. This is hard for people raised in codependency.

My family of origin has a lot of problems with codependency. I was raised to believe that I needed to be unselfish to be good. That belief system has driven me repeatedly into burnout. I am finally making some progress in rooting out those codependent virtue/vices and replacing them with healthier values.

Virtue/Vice One: I need to put others first. Selfish women don’t deserve love. I was taught that women feel fulfilled in the home taking care of their family. I was taught that good wives and mothers put their husband and children’s needs first, often go without and make sacrifices for their family. I thought that when I skipped meals, showers, personal growth opportunities, and social activities that I was being a good person. Over time, resent built up and motivation evaporated. I thought that my sacrifices would make me feel fulfilled and that my efforts would be reciprocated and rewarded. Instead it seemed that everyone became accustomed to my behavior and even felt entitled to it. The love I craved felt insufficient and it was. I wasn’t behaving virtuously, I was being codependent. I was expecting my husband and children’s love to sustain me and make up for my neglect of myself. It left everyone frustrated and resentful.

Now I understand that putting others first doesn’t make me a good person, it makes me a resentful person. I understand that I don’t have to earn love. My husband and children love me because they are empathetic and loving people. I love them because I am an empathetic and loving person. I don’t earn their love with my unselfish behavior. I model healthy self care for them and teach them to do the same. They aren’t responsible for my happiness and I am not responsible for theirs.

Codependency keeps us in unhealthy relationships for too long. It is a habit of thinking that shifts responsibility. “I am responsible for everything,” says one codependent person. “You are responsible for everything,” says the other. Because neither of those statements is true, no progress is made. Codependency is like a tug of war, two people waste time and energy pulling against one another and getting nowhere. It isn’t going to be enough to stop pulling. Its okay to put the rope down and walk away.

Virtue/Vice Two: It is unkind to distance myself from people who hurt me. Christ commanded me to love everyone which means I need to put my mental health at risk rather than set healthy boundaries. This is a classic codependent virtue/vice. Keeping toxic relationships and people in your life is not healthy. Proper self care requires you to keep yourself safe from harm. Sacrificing your safety to enable someone’s toxic behavior is not a virtue, its a codependent vice.

Virtue/Vice Three: Doing family cut-offs is cruel. Family relationships need to be preserved no matter how detrimental they are to your mental health. For many years I have kept family relationships in my life that have hurt my recovery. Some family members have repeatedly reinforced toxic narratives, minimized abusive behavior, and blamed victims. Because I believed in the sanctity of eternal families, I kept trying to change toxic family members.

The truth is, eternal families are healthy families. Each individual is accountable for their own behavior within the family system. Not every individual has equal power within the family system. The parents have the bulk of the power and the responsibility for the overall health of the system. Children within the system, even adult children, have little power to change the system. Eventually healthy adult children will outgrow an unhealthy family system. That’s not cruelty, that’s life. If you want an eternal family, you need a healthy family. If your family isn’t healthy, it won’t last anyway.

Habits of codependence are reinforced with practice. It takes two to tango in the dance of codependence and the steps are unconscious. I’ve had to surround myself with people who have healthy boundaries in order to begin to see my own codependent habits.

Unfortunately, that has restricted my circle of friends to a very small group. Churches sometimes teach codependence as a virtue. Women at church are especially proud of their codependence. It is the whited sepulchre of mental health sins. On the outside they are virtuous servants of mankind while inwardly they are seething with the sickly rot of resentment. From such stay far away!

When it comes to relationships, I’ve prioritized quality over quantity. I have also prioritized relationships I feel I have some power to influence. I’m not investing in relationships with people who are rigid, defensive, and self-righteous. The truth is, there are not a lot of mentally healthy people in this world. There are enough mentally healthy people, but you have to look for them. You might find them in unexpected places.

The holidays are a strange mix of emotions for me. Being in recovery isn’t easy, but I have enough faith to believe it will be worth it. My best to all of you who find yourselves in a complicated place this season. You aren’t alone. As I celebrate the birth of the Savior, my model of mental health and altruistic virtue, this month, I hope I can better emulate Him. I hope my words bring you light and hope and not despair.

The Axe and the Tree

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash
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 
Dripping down.

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.