I did not intend for this blog to be a personal journal, but I find myself “back in the saddle again” so to speak working the process of recovery. I thought that it might be interesting to write about the process since so many people are processing their recoveries as well. In the beginning, I was hoping to write with a different voice. I wanted to speak about experiences as if I were flying above them, gazing down with a bird’s eye view enjoying the distance. It seems that this is no longer the case. I am in the thick of these experiences once again because certain memories are fresh and vibrant. For better or worse, I will not be soaring above the black-and-white terrain of distant and forgotten events. I will be trudging through the bloody muck and mire, but I do not mind the messiness this time around. I think it might be interesting to document the journey and perhaps create a roadmap.
I discussed the idea of brokenness in my last post, and, what do you know, I have read something about brokenness almost everyday since I wrote it. I have also had some rather long discussions with a dear friend about brokenness, but that isn’t the word that was used. The more common expressions used might be “messed up”, “screwed up”, or “fucked up”. It all means the same thing. Broken. Circumstances have arisen that have amplified feelings of brokenness in her life. This happens to all of us; regardless of our histories, we experience a betrayal, and we wonder if it’s our fault. We wonder if in some manner, we are just flawed, unlovable, or worthless.
Let me relate a story. Seven years ago I was flying high. I was attending a fantastic megachurch led by an internationally known and very dynamic pastor. I had a brand new baby. I ended my relationship with my abusive father. I was mentoring a young woman that I liked and admired. I was volunteering at a rehabilitation center that treated men for alcohol and substance abuse, and I was in a small group with about ten other people who all attended the same megachurch and volunteered at the same rehab facility. We met every Sunday afternoon. We sang meaningful songs together. We read meaningful books together. We prayed together, and we prayed for each other. We went out for ice cream together. My children loved every person in that small group as did I. It almost seemed magical to me. I felt accepted and cared for. I felt liked. I felt like I was part of something meaningful for the first time in my life. I was almost happy, but I still struggled. I have always struggled.
One April night, a spring thunderstorm rolled through our town, and a lightning bolt struck the roof of the house directly next to ours. It was about 3:30 AM. The loud crack and flash of light awakened everyone in the house, and I recall sitting up in bed waiting for the subsequent crash of a falling tree. I only heard silence so I relaxed and drifted back to sleep. Moments later, I heard banging on our front door, and I suddenly felt fear. Who on earth could be banging on our front door in the middle of the night, and why? As my husband got up to answer the door we both saw an orange glow shining through the accordion blinds at the end of the hallway. Fire. The neighbor’s roof was ablaze, and we were being evacuated.
The post-war homes in our neighborhood are very close together. The houses are so close, in fact, that it’s possible to pass a cup of sugar from house to house if both people lean out simultaneously. So imagine our horror as we stood on our front lawn while a northerly wind blew the blaze devouring our only recently deceased neighbor’s roof directly onto our own. In the end, it was a three-alarm fire, and it took over four hours to put out. Our neighbor’s house was razed, and it took over four months to repair the damage done to our home. The sudden midnight evacuation and the experience of witnessing the fire caused PTSD in my children, and it triggered a massive PTSD response in me as I already suffered from it. My mental state quickly degraded, and my ability to compartmentalize decreased. I lost my ability to cope.
I came to my small group, my faith community, a “broken” person. I was honest with them about my need for prayer and support. I told them that I was sinking. I told them that memories of past sexual abuse had come forward. I was vulnerable. I was naked before them. I wasn’t in a state to be anything else. They were horrified. I will never forget the expressions on their faces. They weren’t horrified by my experiences or my suffering. They were horrified by me. It was after that particular meeting that they began to shun me. The woman that I mentored was the daughter of my small group leader. She stopped returning my phone calls. She has, in fact, never spoken to me since that meeting. The leader of my small group changed our meeting venue after that meeting. He indicated that our children could no longer attend the meetings which meant that we could no longer attend. Many people in our small group also volunteered where I volunteered, and there was some very bad behavior displayed by some of these people. I walked away from the facility, the men, and the opportunity to teach there because of this behavior. All of these people attended my church. They shunned me there, too. Why? Stasi Eldredge puts it this way in her book Captivating: “You are too much, but you are not enough.” It is one of the deepest fears of every woman. I believe that another one of our deepest fears is that our truest identity will be discovered, and once known we will be rejected or hated. That is what happened to me in my small group. I came forward with the truth of my experience. I wept openly in front of people whom I trusted. Our group was called a “covenant group”. We had made promises to walk with each other through life’s best and worst experiences. We each told one another that we were trustworthy. I bought it. I believed it. I held them to their word. I showed them my deepest pain, and I was rejected and thrown out. My group leader actually closed the door in my face while I was crying. It was on his doorstep that I realized what was happening. I had shown them myself, my true self, and I was being rejected for it. In retrospect, I don’t know if one could call my emotional response a “nervous breakdown”, but the months that followed this experience were the darkest days of my life. I lost everything. My friends, my faith community, my sense of belonging and safety, and even my sense of identity. It was as if every cruel word ever spoken over my life had come to fruition in that experience. This is when I started the real work with a therapist. The long journey home as it were.
Why do I share this story? I share it because I have learned something about healing in the context of community. Healing cannot be done without it. It is impossible for us to work the process of recovery alone. It simply can’t be done. My “small group” story illustrates the power of community. If there was such power to harm in that community, how much power was there to heal?
A friend of mine has been told that she has to work her process alone. I assert that she does not. I assert that none of us has to go it alone. In John 11, John tells us that Jesus has three beloved friends–Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus is out and about with his disciples, and word is sent to him that Lazarus has died. Jesus’ intention at this moment is to return to Bethany and resurrect Lazarus. Jesus knew that Lazarus would die of his illness, but He also knew that God would empower Him to heal his body and spirit so that he would live again. When Jesus returned to Bethany, he found Martha there grieving and weeping. Mary remained in her house. Keep in mind, Mary knew that Jesus was there. She did not come out to meet Jesus. The first thing that Martha says to Jesus is, “My brother would not have died if you would have been here.” Such honesty. Such grief. Such disappointment. They believed that He was the Messiah. They sent word to Him that he was sick, and He chose to stay away. Martha and Mary were in such pain, and they were both so confused. I imagine Mary sitting in her house with other Jews who were trying to comfort her. What is going through her mind? “Jesus is out there now. Why didn’t He come four days ago when my brother was ill?” Jesus asks for Mary, and she does come to Jesus quickly. Do you know what she says? She says the same thing that her sister says–“My brother would have lived had you been here.” As Mary sinks to her feet weeping, John writes that Jesus becomes very troubled and weeps. Why do you think that Jesus weeps? He is going to resurrect Lazarus. He knows how this entire situation is going to end. Why would he cry? He is weeping because of the suffering of Mary, Martha, and the other Jews. In those moments, it doesn’t matter that Lazarus is about to live again because the grief and sadness, the torment and destruction that death brings is overwhelming. It should never be. He mourns and cries because they mourn and cry. This is one aspect of community. When you mourn and cry, another ought to mourn with you. There is comfort in being understood.
Jesus does find the tomb, and he asks Martha to remove the rock. This is the Middle East. A corpse has been in a sealed cave for four days. Naturally, Martha’s response is fitting–My Lord, there will be a smell. Jesus does not care. The rock is rolled out of the way, and Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” I think that Jesus is angry here. He is not angry at the people. I think he’s angry at the suffering, the anguish, the grief, and the mourning brought by the death of Lazarus. Lazarus does come out. John does not say exactly how Lazarus comes out, but he did not walk out because he was wrapped in burial clothes, and his face would have been covered. Did he army crawl? Did he hop? Was it a little of both? When he does emerge from the cave, Jesus instructs everyone around to remove the grave clothes. Lazarus’ body is healed from all decomposition. The man is alive and well.
I want to point out three things:
- God breathes life into us. He resurrects us. There is a divine aspect to the healing process.
- Death in all its forms–sexual violence, trauma, abuse, financial ruin, crumbling relationships, loss, mental illness, physical illness, suffering of all kinds, and pain of all kinds–stinks. It binds us much like grave clothes, and it smells bad. Other people are often offended by the “smell” of death on us. What these people don’t realize is that they stink, too.
- Jesus asked Martha, Mary, and the other witnesses to unbind Lazarus because he could not unbind himself. Jesus asks the same thing of us. This is why community is so vital to the healing process. I cannot remove my own bindings and neither can you. I need you, and you need me.
My community is much smaller seven years later, and I am much more cautious today. I am, however, an even stronger believer in the power of the shared journey. I cannot make your choices for you, but I can hold your hand, wrap my arm around you, weep with you, laugh with you, even rest with you on the path when you can’t walk anymore. This is the power of the healing community. This is what Jesus asked us to do for each other, and He knew that we would all carry offensive odors. He didn’t care.
If we are truly broken people, shattered by life experiences whatever they might be, then I believe that we are still beautiful people. If a dead, decomposing corpse can be resurrected and healed, then we can be restored, reintegrated, and reanimated.
I was on the North Shore of Lake Superior a few weeks ago. It is one of my favorite places. I like to look for lake glass, but on this visit I found something more extraordinary. I found the pieces of a geode smashed and broken by the pounding waves of the behemoth lake. They were scattered up and down the shore. I felt it was a small victory to find one crystal, but when I found a second, then a third, I felt exhilarated. It was my husband who found the largest piece, and he felt the proudest. He claimed that there had to be more when I found the first piece; he loves being right. This particular geode was amethyst quartz, and the pieces are truly beautiful.
As I held these pieces in my hand and gazed out upon Lake Superior, I felt like I was holding pieces of myself. My flashbacks had just begun two days before I left on this day trip. I had been shaky and nervous all day. I felt uncertain, scared, and weepy. I remember looking at these pieces of amethyst and thinking of my life. I felt shattered and beaten, too. The interesting thing about a geode is that it looks like a common rock until it is beaten and broken open. It is only then that the beautiful contents are revealed. These shards of quartz might be broken pieces, but each piece is unique, interesting, and lovely. Each angle created by a break reflects light and color differently. Each piece is unlike the other, and yet each piece is valuable by itself.
I don’t like feeling broken, but it is in my brokenness that I have found community. It is in the shattering of my life that I have found intimacy with God. There is beauty here. I understand grief, suffering, and torment. I can hold my friend’s hand when she needs it. I am truly able to walk the path of suffering with another person because I have learned to suffer. I am no longer offended by the smell of other people’s death and suffering. That’s the beauty of brokenness. Once you have been shattered and been shown compassion, then you can extend compassion to others. There is nothing offensive, messed up, screwed up, or fucked up about any of this. We are unique, strong, beautiful people bearing priceless gifts. Know this.