This firstborn daughter of mine has kept me on my toes from that moment in a London hostel when the nausea and the swelling finally began to register as meaningful. Somewhere between the first anniversary in Venice and the train ride through the Chunnel, I had lost track of dates, and when I discovered I was already six weeks into motherhood, I had to lie down. She was already pulling me along into a new universe of stretch marks and neonatologists and caring so fiercely for another person that I left the hospital one day after my C-section just so I could stroke her cheek through a maze of NICU tubes.
This firstborn daughter of mine has been the most gracious of guinea pigs to a mama caught unawares. She has blossomed despite parenting mistakes and loved me through my hardest times, times I desperately wish I could uproot from her history and replace with flowers and strawberries and the dark pink everything that makes her world go ‘round. She has taught me more about grace than I could ever learn from books, and she’s the one who reminded my atrophied feet how to dance.
This firstborn daughter of mine continually impresses me with her patience, her focus, her enthusiasm, and her inside/outside/radiating-from-every-pore kind of beauty… which makes phases like this latest one particularly mystifying. Over the last week, when faced with gentle but logical consequences (of which I’m a firm believer) for occasional misbehavior, she’s dissolved into a roiling sea of self-deprecation on the spot. “I’m a bad Natalie!” she sobs. “I can’t do anything right! I’m only bad, never good! Nobody will ever love me!” My protests to the contrary are dashed against unyielding angst. I find myself for the zillionth time having absolutely no idea how to navigate the hurdles of motherhood and worrying that my head will go on strike due to poor working conditions.
This firstborn daughter of mine is so much like me that I want to look away. There is something so agonizingly familiar behind her eyes that I can’t stop remembering how I spent so much of my own girlhood drowning in self-contempt. I too wanted to be good but believed myself incapable; I too felt in my core that I was fundamentally unlovable. I am absolutely dumbfounded, though, as to how Natalie picked up the same thoughts despite completely different parenting methods, completely different cultures, and completely different lifestyles. To my knowledge, no one has ever told Natalie that she is bad or worthless or incapable at anything. We have always drawn attention to the traits we love about her. I am bewildered, but there’s no time to brainstorm in a tempest.
This firstborn daughter of mine, her mirror-soul storming in my arms, is pulling me through old territory in a new light. I can’t tell her the things I used to hurl at myself in the dark—you’re hideous, you’re evil, you’re worthless—missiles targeted at my own insecurities with something like satisfaction. The only thing I know to do is to remind her of the truth, so I draw tear-rimmed eyes close and whisper it into the turmoil… and it finally begins to sound like truth when I admit that this firstborn daughter of mine isn’t the only little girl I’m comforting.
You are lovely, inside and out.
You are capable.
You are irreplaceable.
You are loved.
You are loved
You are loved.
I’ve been doing a bit of blog spring summer cleaning over the last few days—super-gluing links, spit-shining categories, that sort of thing—and I found myself reading back over the first two years’ worth of entries while gravity slowly condensed in the room. My God.
The summer we packed up our lives to move to Italy, my head was unstable territory. I had been juggling four part-time jobs which suited me not at all, my plans for graduate school had been shot down for the second time, and I had stopped writing… which meant I was no longer checked in to my own life. On top of this was the vast unknown of our future. I was in my second trimester of pregnancy with Sophie, and the delay in getting our Italian paperwork had left us literally homeless and living off the generosity of friends.
It was during one unsteady weekend curled up in the guest room of our friend’s house that I started this blog. I was desperate for the outlet, the perspective, the satisfaction, and the community, though I couldn’t have articulated those reasons at the time. Blogging still only registered as a hobby (I had no idea how much the blogosphere had changed since our first fling; Dooce was now a verb?!), but it got me writing and connecting with kindred spirits again, just in time for the greatest upheaval of my life.
We moved. I adjusted piecemeal to the new culture. I pined for friends and set up house and gave birth, and somewhere in the rock ‘n’ reel of it all, depression yawned up underneath like a sudden sinkhole. I’ve had melancholic tendencies my whole life, but nothing could have prepared me for the following year and a half. I never admitted here on my blog just how bad my depression was, but the utter hopelessness in mind still left its imprint on posts about frustration, insufficiency, and unrelenting exhaustion. My personal journal entries delved into far darker territory, and reading over them now recalls the pain so intensely that my lungs flail against its memory.
Have you seen those “depression hurts” commercials with the sad-faced people blankly going about their daily routines? I only wish my experience had been so serene. For an eternal year and a half, my mind was trapped inside a darkness that I couldn’t measure, couldn’t make sense of, couldn’t get enough of a grasp on to fight. I couldn’t describe it without sounding crazy, so I tried to pass it off as allergies, nutritional deficiencies, standard new mom tiredness, even weather-related gloom. (In retrospect, maybe my doctor would have helped me more if I hadn’t done such a good job playing down the crazy.) I didn’t know how to ask for help because I didn’t know what I needed except OUT, and I didn’t have the courage anyway to admit my problems to our new Italian friend-quaintances.
I knew the stigma of mental disorders as faux illnesses, socially unacceptable displays of weakness. I had judged people before for not being able to “get a grip” and even for seeking counseling. So I kept the darkness within the walls of our apartment and only wrote about it on the good days… days in which I could handle getting out of bed and putting on some makeup, maybe even taking the girls to the park for ten minutes. On the other days, the not so good ones, life pressed in from all sides with an impossible weight, and continuing to breathe was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I didn’t want to survive.
Yet I did. No matter how unbearable the panic of being, I couldn’t leave my daughters or husband bereft, and flickers of hope from here in the blogging community helped me keep that resolve on days when darkness started to win. Encouraging comments from kindred souls. Liz’s virtual hugs. Nino’s information on long-time post-partum depression (up until then, I had never heard of it lasting beyond six months). Jennifer’s honesty about her own time in the valley. Prayers from people who read between the lines and got what was going on. Together, they lit the way to my freedom.
And now, more than two years on the other side of endless night, I’d like to follow Jennifer’s lead and show you a photograph from the very worst stretch:
It was taken mere days before I started to get better, and it kills me knowing that the me in the photograph had no idea. I wish I could slip back through a shortcut in time and promise her that spring is already there, even if she can’t feel it yet. I want to tell her that in a few short weeks, she’ll be tossing sun-drenched hair out of her eyes and chasing those sweet little girls through streets full of stories. I want to assure her that she’ll laugh again and that her daughters will forget the tears. I want to show her the beauty masquerading as a demolition project, the grace dissolving her terror of motherhood, and the art whispering promises, and I want her to see this next photograph of an August afternoon two years later on that same red sofa:
There is hope.
It was prayer request time, the same way every other Sunday School class of my childhood had ended, and I was trying to think of something innocuous to say. The previous week after my dabble in hyperbole, my teacher had prayed earnestly that God would calm my fears of dying a gory, cancerous death from my head cold. The rest of the 7th grade girls had nearly hyperventilated with snickering. This morning though, they simply looked bored. I wished I could master the look too, but I suspected it required mascara and/or cleavage. Also, it’s pretty hard to look bored when your bangs are pointing skyward in defiance of your otherwise flat hair (and all known laws of fashion).
Leah, the femme fatale of the group, finally raised a manicured hand. “I’d like to ask for prayer for my little brother,” she purred. “He’s struggling with jealousy because my parents won’t let him wear jeans to church.” She rested her hand just so on her stonewashed flares and fixed me in a catty stare. The other girls followed suit.
I wanted to die. Even a gory, cancerous death via head cold would have been preferable to sitting there facing down the 7th Grade Girls Sunday School Coolness Squad. I knew as well as everyone in the room (excluding our oblivious teacher perhaps) that Leah’s prayer request was a work of artisanal malice handcrafted just for me, but how was I supposed to defend myself? I was, after all, wearing a dress.
The last dress I had seen on any of my contemporaries had been two years before, and it had been a chic little number with barely-there sleeves and tailored lines. My dress, on the other hand, was designed with shoplifters in mind. The skirt alone could have concealed a bin of foursquare balls, the sleeves already resembled 3-liter bottles, and let’s not underestimate the potential of a colonial-era collar billowing over a repressed chest. In that moment, I thought what I had thought a thousand times before with all the determination of an Uncool Kid who has no other recourse: When I grow up, I will NEVER wear dresses.
I haven’t quite stuck to my guns on this one. My husband’s suits hang in front of a handful of sequiny formals I wore in college (and should probably relinquish to the dress-up bin), and I invested in an unpretentious sweater dress before job interviews last winter. However, dresses for church? Well, here’s a typical Sunday morning scenario from pretty much my entire adult life:
I open up the closet whispering, I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.
I take out a dress reminding myself, This one is actually cool; normal people wear things like this.
I put on the cursed garment mumbling through gritted teeth, Lo, I will fear no dresses for I am now a grown woman.
I look in the mirror.
I throw the dress into the back of the closet and put on jeans.
Something’s been shifting for me lately though. Maybe it’s having enough birthdays under my belt that I finally feel more like a bona fide grown up and less like a ten-year-old in high heels. Maybe it’s accepting my girls’ absolute refusal to wear pants because skirts are so pretty, watch me twirl, wheeee! Maybe I finally have the magical amount of distance from that Sunday School room with the catty stares and the loathing of all things poofy. Whatever the reason may be, I spent my birthday money this year on something that would have shocked my 7th grade self—something whimsical, orange (really, is there any better color in the world?), and decidedly dress.
Folks, I wore it to church this morning…
…and I didn’t even cry.
The storm hits, and I have been too distracted to notice the boiling clouds or cobble together a shelter until it’s too late. I am drenched in a fury outside of anyone’s control, at the mercy of merciless elements. Unwelcome memories soak me to the bone. Doubts thunder, and anger illuminates my universe in stark flashes. It is simply too much. My feet give out from under me, and I let the torrent sweep me away.
In these times, I don’t know which way is up, much less whether or not God exists. All I can see is the pounding blackness of my immediate reality, and I start to think that disavowing religion altogether might keep the storms at bay.
But my soul doesn’t actually want a retreat; it wants a fight. It wants a shouting match with someone who can stand up in the force of all my turmoil. It wants a defense from the one I sometimes believe orchestrates the storms, and it wants to be convinced that I’m blaming the wrong things. It wants answers for now and answers for then and answers tucked into the pockets of my future. It wants a way of belief that validates my logic and my experiences, my ever-racing mind and my ever-tired heart.
Above all, it wants peace… and here in the darkness of cloud cover, the anchorless tumult, and the weary absence of intention, I catch an unexpected glimpse of it:
“May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors.”
(from Common Prayer)
I’ve written before about how my childhood springtimes in Texas failed to coax any drop of sentimentality out of me. In fact, I couldn’t understand why so many people went into raptures around the end of March. Our primary spring imports were mud and allergies, and the weather’s slow slide from warm to really warm hardly seemed worth rhapsodizing. (It’s entirely possible, of course, that I could have put more effort into noticing the seasonal beauty, but I was always loyal to autumn with its crackling leaf piles and nutty breezes.)
Here in Italy, however, this time of year is like personalized catnip. Only a flimsy fondness for decorum keeps me from rolling around in every patch of wild daisies I see, paws flying and propriety punch-drunk on sunshine. Not only have I stopped minding when others wax poetic about spring, I’ve started my own list of celebratory ballad topics:
- The sight of freshly washed socks tiptoeing on the line rather than slung over radiators to steam dry. (If any of you knows Journey’s song-writing team, you’re welcome to direct them here.)
- The scent of my favorite lemon perfume laced with memories of Sorrento and excitement over this Easter’s camping trip.
- The texture of damp earth, the elemental weight of seeds between finger and thumb, and the whisper-touch of newborn plants.
- The sound of the girls’ laughter spirited away by the open air, waltzing in windows and back out to whirl under their footsteps.
- The flavor of 2011’s first strawberries, sorbet for dessert, and cherry blossoms dished up on periwinkle breeze.
What about you? Does anything about this time of year stir you into a feline frenzy and/or inspire you to poeticize socks?
As you may have guessed, the last couple of days have been rough. I never know what might be a trigger until I’m rubbing my eyes on the other side of a long tunnel, emotions bloodshot, wondering what the hell happened. Thank goodness for work. I’ve heard distraction recommended as a coping strategy for PTSD sufferers, and it was actually a relief to have to get out the door early this morning and focus on teaching a class. It snapped my mental energies back to the here and now, and it always does my soul good to be around people and places who don’t remind me of anything. Later, an irrational translation client had me laughing (I apparently “ruined” the central Italian landscape with my un-poetic word choice and grammatical consistency; I guess it’s true that the pen is mightier than the real world?), so I think it’s safe to say I’m back to myself.
I often wonder how these episodes are going to end up affecting my girls. I worry that seeing me sad and struggling to cope will traumatize them, but at the same time, our conversations during the hard times are incredibly precious. The girls know that my sadness is only occasional and has nothing to do with them. They know their mom is human and fragile and willing to be honest with them about both. They also know love. They’re experts in it already, and their hugs and notes and daughterly concern add up to the most healing treatment plan I can imagine.
Thank you for your encouragement too. I always ricochet between feelings of stupidity and feelings of guilt whenever I let on that I might not be the picture of psychological perfection (might not, mind you). Authenticity will probably always be a struggle for me considering my background. However, Jennifer pointed out that naming something is powerful in lessening its hold, and I’d like to think that writing about it goes a step further—aims typeset floodlights into the shadow, illuminates the sniveling nightmare, and says I’m not afraid to expose you (even if I am). I’d also like to think that my honesty with the girls will help them flip the tables on their own fears one day, though hopefully with less neurotic two-stepping. More than anything, I’d like to think that my ability to write this today means that love is the one winning this struggle.
Sometimes PTSD steals my breath out from underneath and suspends me midair like a hooked fish, gasping for the oxygen that chokes me.
Sometimes PTSD steals into my dreams on tiptoe, so softly that I don’t realize I can ever wake up again.
Sometimes PTSD steals a conversation away from its original intent and plunges it headfirst into dark water—bottomless, surfaceless, directionless, hopeless.
Sometimes PTSD steals with bone-sharp fingers the joy from happy moments and plants new sets of memories with old pain.
Sometimes PTSD steals away for a week or a month, maybe even a few at a time, to let me get back to living in present-tense, but it often returns when I’m least prepared.
Sometimes PTSD steals glances at the liquor shelf or the medicine cabinet; they’re only brief glances, but I catch them all the same.
Sometimes PTSD steals over my body and paralyzes me from the waist down, the shoulders down, the brain down.
Sometimes PTSD steals a march on my logic and arrives at conclusions that circumvent reality now in favor of reality then.
Sometimes PTSD steals my heart from the ones who cherish it the most.
Always, PTSD steals.
[Impolite-but-apt vocabulary warning]
“It seems funny and horrible to think of Diana’s being married,” sighed Anne, hugging her knees and looking through the gap in the Haunted Wood to the light that was shining in Diana’s room.
“I don’t see what’s horrible about it, when she’s doing so well,” said Mrs. Lynde emphatically. “Fred Wright has a fine farm and he is a model young man.”
“He certainly isn’t the wild, dashing, wicked, young man Diana once wanted to marry,” smiled Anne. “Fred is extremely good.”
“That’s just what he ought to be. Would you want Diana to marry a wicked man? Or marry one yourself?”
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to marry anybody who was wicked, but I think I’d like it if he could be wicked and wouldn’t. Now, Fred is hopelessly good.”
(Anne of the Island)
When Daniel and I started dating, the only thing I wanted to do more than get swept off into our personal Happily Ever After was to break up with him.
It was for his sake, you see. I was a psychological disasterpiece back then (as opposed to the mere social casualty I am now). Though I no longer lived at home and had faced the pain of my childhood pen-first, my mind was still at the mercy of old dogma. The God I knew required sacrifice, so I worked when I should have been sleeping, skipped breakfast, and stumbled through crowded days feeling as valuable to the world as a wad of overchewed gum. I judged people as I had been judged with a persistent, needling criticism that made me want to rip out my own brain. My heart was deeply pitted, oozing dark secrets like tar, strewn with scar tissue like emotional speed bumps. Romance was the last thing I needed. Romance was the last thing I deserved.
It found me anyway. It came as friendship but quickly unfurled into something more, something sweet and affirming and scary as hell. Daniel’s kindness threatened my jagged defenses in a way that nothing had ever done before. I tottered on the verge of a thousand nervous breakdowns the first week and two thousand the second. Holding hands sent me into a panic. I was falling for him, yes… but I still wished he had stayed away. He was so good to me, so good, and I was convinced that my true self would be toxic for him.
I also looked down on him for it. I felt like his reservoir of experience was a puddle compared with my ocean; he had grown up happily whereas I had worshipped the divine bogeyman and dreamt with demons. I, the über-sheltered girl from an extremist conservative home, viewed him as naive. The more I loathed myself, the more I resented him for loving me, and I finally decided to come clean. Scaring him off early in the relationship would be a mercy, after all.
Only he wasn’t scared off. He wasn’t even scandalized. He didn’t crumble under the weight of my baggage, and he didn’t bat an eye when I brought up taboo topics. He was deep, strong, and anything but the “hopelessly good” featherweight I had pinned him as. Even neck-deep in the mess of myself, I wasn’t too much for him.
We will have been married eight years this summer, and when a friend asks about our story, I share the light-hearted details of how we met. However, our real love story started for me the moment I realized the kind, thoughtful, respectable man tenderly holding my hand could be wicked and wouldn’t.
~~ This is a public service announcement. Your regularly scheduled Highland Fling dramatization will return shortly. ~~
I’m a little unsure where to start explaining myself… if I even need to explain myself at all. I’m taking a step that tends to invite controversy; plus, I once told myself I’d never do it. On the other hand, it’s so normal these days that you might not even notice, so I suppose this explaining is mostly for my own benefit. Confused yet?
I began blogging in 2002 when only a handful of my friends had even heard of the term and Blogger logo t-shirts were cool. I wrote through my junior year of college, and blogging can take a lot of credit for my decision to switch to an English degree. I thrived on the creative outlet and daily feedback. Around the time I got married, though, my online persona no longer felt comfortable hanging out in real world. Figuring out how to be a fiancée and then a newlywed while still in college was challenging enough without putting the process on show and tell, so I killed my blog in an alleyway one dark night.
When I officially re-joined the blogosphere four years later after a springtime of reading her and her and her and her, the territory was unfamiliar. It seemed that everyone had a blog; even toddlers I once babysat had Xanga accounts (remember those days?). Women from across the world were converging on Chicago to meet friends in person for the first time, learn how to generate income on their sites, and pick up swag from companies eager to advertise to this powerful new demographic. I saw ads on Dooce’s site and initially thought Good for her! Later, I saw Keri Smith’s purposefully ad-free blog and thought Oh… good for her! At the time (and considering my readership base of approximately one and a half), the ethical side of the debate was more relevant to me than the lucrative side, and I preferred an uncluttered design anyway.
Lately, though, we’ve found ourselves looking for creative ways to make ends meet, and I’ve had trouble justifying this blog to myself. We can’t eat it, we can’t wear it, and it takes time and resources that could be spent elsewhere more effectively. However, I love writing here and reading your words in return. Through this, I am connected to a community across the globe that I am no more willing to abandon than I am the friends I see face-to-face, and the inspiration I find here is invaluable. I’m simply not ready to give this up.
That’s why I’m scooting over to make room for some advertising. I understand that this may not sit well with everyone, but if it means that I can post more regularly, comment more regularly, and remain part of the collective wonderfulness of us… well, I’d take a little controversy over another dark alleyway any day.
Since leaving home, I have struggled my way to forgiveness countless times. Each memory starts the struggle over again, so my mind has gotten pretty good at sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting “La la la, I’m not remembering this!” So why, in my effort to forgive and forget, am I bringing up the past I don’t even want to think about?
It’s for women like my mom who may not particularly want kids or have the ability to teach them well but who are being guilt-tripped into thinking that God wants them to birth and educate an unlimited procession of children.
It’s for men like my dad who take as gospel that God is giving them both the responsibility to control their children and a Get Out of Jail Free card to use whatever means necessary.
It’s for parents who think they are supposed to ignore the mental anguish of making their own babies suffer because souls are on the line.
It’s for sincere-hearted people who are told they are unworthy to interpret God’s influence on their lives and agree to let more charismatic people tell them what to believe.
It’s for children who feel in their heart of hearts that they should never have been born because that is the message imprinted every day on their bodies and minds.
I have gotten in touch with some of the other survivors to come out of the cult that influenced my childhood, and the behind-the-scenes truth could not be farther from the idyllic appearance that drew my parents in. It was much as you would expect knowing my story. There was rampant abuse perpetrated by church leaders and parents alike. Families were threatened, coerced, and manipulated into staying on the compound. People with illnesses or injuries were forbidden from seeking medical help. The families that looked so pristine at church meetings hurt each other horribly behind closed doors. The one that particularly inspired my parents recently escaped the group’s confines and fell to pieces on the other side; the parents are now divorced, the children that left with them are bitter, and the children and grandchildren that stayed behind have disowned the rest.
Another family that we had close ties with also crumbled. Their situation was not as extreme as ours, but they took the doctrine of isolation very seriously and crippled their children’s relationships outside the family. Their oldest daughter, now in her mid-twenties, is pregnant with her third child and going through her third divorce. She does not have custody of her other two children, and she wants nothing to do with her old home. One sibling has taken her side; the others look as lost in photos as her parents.
And my family? Before my parents finally abandoned their crusade against imperfection, one sibling attempted suicide multiple times. One became an expert manipulator and a bully. One acted out on friends with the same violence we encountered at home. One became an unapologetic atheist. One suffered from a compulsive stress-related disorder. A few developed learning disabilities. I had unrelenting nightmares. Holidays and special occasions were battlegrounds. To this day, we don’t discuss personal things, and we don’t bring up the past. We’re a far cry from the shiny, happy family my parents envisioned, and I understand all the more why God doesn’t use force to make us into better people: because it simply doesn’t work.
When Christians use the word “grace,” I don’t fully understand what they mean, but I know I experience it every day, both in my ability to wield it and in the gentle way God is centering my life around hope. I have to think that if my parents had encountered that kind of grace (or understood it for what it was), our family would be drastically different today… none of us condemned by impossible ideals, none of us trapped into violence, none of us terrified or broken by each other’s hands, none of us still living under the thumb of that old bully Shame. The scandalous truth is that perfection is a myth and that’s okay. I believe our capacities for kindness and understanding increase dramatically when we accept that, and it adds one more poignant hope to my list: that my family’s story is not yet finished.
Sparrows Flutter by Hillary McFarland
Why Good People Do Bad Things Inside a Cultish Church by Elizabeth Esther
To Those Who May Be Shocked, Disappointed, and Hurt by the News of My Apostasy by Vyckie Garrison
Barry’s Post by Barry Bishop
Patriarchy and Our Daughters by Taunya
In Which I Discuss the Unthinkable by Laurie M.
Christian Brainwashing? by Betsy Markman
Word Games by Lewis Wells
Christian Families on the Edge by Rachel D. Ramer
Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse by Eric M. Paździora
Moving On by Darcy
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (by Jesus)