Sunday, January 14, 2024

Two Hands, Two Truths

Two days ago, in a text conversation with a dear friend, I said these words: “It is so hard to be there for a child when it is taking everything in you to hold yourself together.”

Those words I wrote stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away. 

I knew what I was talking about. I had been there myself. 

And then I realized: so had my mother. 

I have wrestled since 1977 with the effects of my parents’ divorce. While I have probably been more open about the loss of my father as a presence in my life, I have been less open about my mother. 

The reality is that when I lost my father that day, I lost my mother as well. 

At 14, I was on my own, emotionally, at least. 

I’ve spent the years since trying to process the fallout of these losses and the ways I was sucked into being the emotional caretaker for a mother who was stuck in grief. Who didn’t have the tools (or use what tools were available) to understand and process her own pain, much less care for a teenager. Much, much less care for a teenager dealing with demons of her own. 

For years I blamed my mother for so much. Why wouldn’t she seek help? Why wouldn’t she take antidepressants? Why wouldn’t she ever, ever apologize? Why couldn’t she see I could never fill that void in her life? 

Fast forward a few decades and I was there myself. A mother so devastated by circumstances beyond my control.. A mother absolutely paralyzed by my apparent failure that I was afraid and totally unable to parent my own teenage children. 

I got it. And getting it crushed me. And I was angry at the teenage me for needing my own mother. And I was angry at the adult me for blaming my mother for my pain. 

Fast forward another decade. 

“It is so hard to be there for a child when it is taking everything in you to hold yourself together.”

And I realize that it can be both. 

A mother can be totally so maxed out and flattened by life that she cannot be what she needs to be for her child. 

And a child can be devastated by that loss. 

And I can have compassion for both.

This isn’t a blame game. It is just reality in this pathetically broken world of ours. 

Just because a mother can’t be all she needs or wants to be for her child does not negate the impact of this on the child. 

And just because a child suffers in this way does not mean we cannot have compassion for a mother who is totally maxed out and may have no resources to draw on. 

I used to think that having compassion for my mother would totally minimize my own pain. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve heard over and over again that part of maturity, part of walking through grief, is being able to hold two often opposing truths at the same time. One truth does not negate the other. 

I learned a lot from my experience, and I have been dead set on doing so many things differently: taking antidepressants, engaging in therapy to heal from my own trauma, seeking honest conversations with my own children, apologizing out the wazoo for the many ways I failed them. Yet I now “get” just how hard it must have been for my mother. 

I have two hands. I can hold both her pain and mine. 

It is a strange but good place to be. 

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Whatever Is Mentionable Is Manageable

 "Whatever is mentionable is manageable."

These are the words Margaret McFarland spoke to Fred Rogers that stuck with him and served as a foundation for his work with children. She knew, he knew, that it is the secrets that eat us alive.
I know this, too.
I have been accused, over the years, of being too honest and too open. That I don't need to share everything I think or feel (I can assure you, I don't...seriously, if you only knew). I have wrestled with this. Do I share too much? I realize that in sharing uncomfortable things, I have lost the respect of many and lost the friendship of others.
Why do I share? Because whatever is mentionable is manageable. I don't always know who to share with so I just throw my words into the wind. And in this world of photoshop and aspirational lifestyle posts, I truly believe that someone else may need to see real people dealing with real issues in real life.
Somebody somewhere, but I may not know who, needs to feel so not alone. So I mention. I mention to manage the hard things in my own life. But I do so that somebody else may have the words or the camaraderie or the connection to be able to mention the hard things in theirs as well.
It is so often the silence that slays us.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Ode to 2023

 Being the more reflective type, I generally like to sit down at the end of the year and process all that has gone before. This past week was nothing short of a round robin of activity with a house full of people and I just didn’t have the quiet that I need to sit and think. So that which normally comes at the end of one year is, this time, coming at the beginning of another. This post could get long.

In some ways this past year just sucked. It was hard. Hard in so many ways. But anytime things are hard, there is a lot of learning going on. I don’t always see the learning at the time. But later, after the bleeding has stopped and the wound is starting to crust over a bit but is still oh, so tender to the touch, I catch a glimpse of understanding that I didn’t have before.
So…what did I learn this year?
I learned to see the fact that I am a Highly Sensitive Person as a strength and an asset, rather than a weakness and a liability. This was a challenge in a world (and especially a profession) that rewards the driven and ambitious. The fast-paced self promoters. Where your value is measured by the quantity of your work over your quality. This is a challenge in a world that scorns emotion and minimizes concerns. Where I am more likely to be accused of making a mountain out of a molehill than be believed, even when I warn that that chunk of ice may very well be the tip of an iceberg that can do catastrophic damage. It is a challenge in a world that doesn’t value or respect those who sit and process, ponder, and even grieve. But I am learning that we Highly Sensitive People are so important to the world. We are the nerve endings, without which communities and societies would damage themselves to no end.
I learned that the trajectory of life can change in an instant: one decision, one conversation, one diagnosis and the world is turned upside down and the future can get lost in the rubble. I learned that it can take time, sometimes a long time, to find a way forward. I learned that all plans and hopes and dreams must be held loosely. That sometimes muddling through and figuring it out as you go is the best you can do.
I learned that there is a huge difference between public pain and private pain and which one is harder.
I learned that reading 52 books in one year didn’t impress anybody, not even me, and it certainly won’t get back the education I threw away.
Most importantly of all, I learned to grieve. Early in the year I listened to a podcast by Adam Young about the importance of grieving. Then I read Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow. And I followed that Anderson Cooper’s podcast All There Is. What these people taught me is that grieving is absolutely essential for a fuller life. And that doesn’t just mean grieving the loss of someone through death. Grieving encompasses so much more. I learned that I needed to grieve.
-I grieved the loss of youth. The loss of the body I knew for years. One pleasing to the eye and free of pain.
-I grieved my vocation. The fact that for 21 years I have been in a profession that often highlights my weaknesses and disregards my strengths. It has been a struggle and the older I got, the more I looked back on what I’ve done with my life, the harder it got. What about all the areas of life where there are workers needed? Where I could make a difference? But I am here, one in several thousand all scrambling for the same pool of clients, trying to eke out a living. I struggled with this.
-I grieved the loss of dreams. I will never go back to school and get that advanced degree. I don’t have the time, the energy, the focus. I don’t have any idea how I would make use of such a thing. I can set it down and say goodbye.
-I grieved the things I never had. Relationships that didn’t exist, leaving a hole in my soul.
-I grieved for my daughter. The loss of the life she knew. The loss of energy and vitality and just being able to drink a cup of coffee without feeling sick. The loss of a future free from medical concerns and potential recurrence or secondary cancers. The loss of a normal life expectancy.
-I grieved the loss of a vision for the future and my place in it. This time last year I thought I had an idea of the near future and even further down the road. I thought I was seeing how God planned on using my gifts and all that I have learned through the years. That train derailed and went up in smoke. I’m afraid to take a peek down the road. I’m not even sure there is a road. I’m taking one tentative step at a time.
-I grieved the loss of trust…in important relationships, in community, in God. This year sent me back into a hole, like a wounded animal, just trying to survive. This year took away my words, the one way I seem able to connect to others.
All this grieving, you might think, would make me more sad. More of a Debbie Downer than I already am. But it hasn’t. It has brought relief. I’ve found that grieving actually feels like home to me. It is the one area where I don’t have to hide or pretend. For most of my life I was told to cheer up. Think positive thoughts. Be thankful for what I had. “At least you don’t….” Grieving is the one place where I can be honest about who I am and what I feel.
And yet our culture doesn’t allow it. We hardly allow it for the most public and obvious of losses, expecting the family of the dead to snap back and move on in record time. We certainly don’t allow it for all of the other, less visible, less acknowledged losses in life.
But our failure to grieve saps us of life. We spend so much time pushing it down, keeping the feral cat in the bag. We spend so much energy keeping our upper lip stiff as a steel beam and our heart as protected as Fort Knox that we don’t have anything left for being human.
Frances Weller says, “If we don’t address our grief, our hearts close. And our hearts don’t have the capacity then to register the suffering of the world.”
Grief doesn’t shut us down. It makes us more alive. Maybe now I am more alive.
I guess learning that was enough.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

On the 20th Anniversary of My Father's Death

 (Note: this is a post about my father. Well, his absence, his death. Over the years I’ve written a good bit about my father. Enough so that I’ve been accused of “not wanting to heal” and told to “just get over it and move on.” If you can’t read my words without rolling your eyes and wishing I would just toughen up and grow a pair, then move along. I’m not writing for you. If, on the other hand, you understand the complexity of life and relationships and loss and grief and don’t mind hearing the words of a sensitive soul as she processes an important anniversary, read on.)

It was 20 years ago today that it happened. I was crossing the front yard, returning from the grocery store, having gone on a road-trip-snack-finding mission in preparation for the next day when we were planning on heading south to Florida. We were pulling all four kids out of school in order to go on a press check near Tallahassee for my husband’s job, then on to Pensacola to see my dad. That was our plan. He was dying. This would be my goodbye to him. 

I crossed the front yard and standing on the steps was my husband. “Bonnie called. Your dad died.” Just typing those words brings tears to my eyes. Still. 

Something broke in me at that point. My dad was gone. But he had been gone. In some ways he had always been gone. 

But something about this, the finality of it, tore through me and tears that I had stored up for years, decades, broke loose. A Johnstown Flood of intense grief, sweeping through every valley and nook and cranny of me. 

Flashback. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving. We pull into the driveway after school and the garage that had, over the past couple of weeks, become a holding center for various pieces of furniture and boxes of possessions, was empty. He was gone. Gone. Gone. 

Gone. I couldn’t get past the word. I felt the word the way you feel hunger or cold or punch to the gut. Gone. it took my very breath away. 

I didn’t ever grieve him gone before. He wasn’t really. He was just across town, calling every so often to ask me how old I was and how was school. He wasn’t really gone because he would come and pick us up once a year, two or three days before Christmas, and take us out to eat. He wasn’t really gone because I would see him in articles in the newspaper or ads for his Dale Carnegie classes. 

He wasn’t really gone because he had never really been there. Or I had been so afraid of him when he was. It’s hard to remember now. That was so long ago. 

But gone. I didn’t really notice the impact for several years. But once I did…it was like a trap door had opened up and I had fallen through to this deep underground cavern, pregnant with emptiness. 

I realized that I had to grieve not just what I lost, but what I never had. 

You’d think by now it would be easier. It’s been 60 years since I was born. Forty-six years since he left. Twenty years since he died. And yet I feel the lack just as keenly as ever. The relationship that so many people take for granted, I cannot fathom. 

I cannot fathom being taught how to hit a ball or go fishing or play an instrument or work on a car. I cannot fathom intelligent conversation or shared silly songs. I cannot fathom shooting the breeze. I cannot fathom being valued and respected in any, any way by any man (other than my husband). 

For years I was told that God would be my Father. That he himself, he alone, would be able to fill whatever Grand Canyon of emotional and relational need that I had. But he didn’t. And just telling me that only put the burden on me with the message: “If you had a right relationship with God you wouldn’t feel this pain.” 

But I do. I still do. 

I suppose I always will. Last I checked, grief didn't have a timetable.  Not 20 or 46 or 60 years. Especially when you grieve not only what was lost, but what never was. 

Friday, January 13, 2023

On Body Image

This may be one of the most vulnerable posts I have ever made. It would be easy for me to say nothing. To keep this to myself. I have so much fear in exposing this part of myself. So much shame.
And yet…
What if I’m not the only one? What if somebody else needs to know they are not alone?
So here goes…
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but on New Year’s Day, without even thinking about it, I told my husband a handful of things that I would like to see happen by this time next year. These words flowed off my tongue like they were part of me, deep inside, and had been waiting for the right opportunity to come tumbling out.
This may sound silly to some of you but one of those goals is to be able to look at myself in the mirror… to look at my naked, changing body… and not recoil in shame. And I want to be able to go to a medical appointment and not dread having to stand on a scale. I want it not to matter.
Perhaps I run the risk of sounding either petty, vain, or deeply pathological. Please understand. I cannot remember a time in my life, from a tiny person on, when the size of a female’s body was not the most important thing about her. Having fat thighs was a fate worse than death. My mother was a perpetual dieter and I was privileged to follow in her footsteps. Some of you know that story. My teenage eating disorder dominates the landscape of my adolescent life.
Fast forward through my 20s, 30s, 40s. I recovered. I had babies. I learned to listen to my body and eat when I was hungry. I was given the gift of a small body whose metabolism responded well to whatever I wanted to eat (which has always been mostly healthy) and a reasonable, but not obsessive, amount of exercise.
But life does not allow you to cruise from start to finish without change. And that’s a good thing. We welcome that change when it comes with gain: of life experience and accrued wisdom and sometimes wealth. We are less enthusiastic when the changes of life come with loss: of beauty, of youth, of fitness.
I have struggled for a good many years in watching my body change. At first it was nothing short of alarm and despair. I remember looking down at my body a few years ago and I heard a voice in my head say, “But what else do I have to offer?” My value was still hogtied to my size. I was appalled that it still mattered so much.
But over time and with work I could find myself rolling with the punches. I would have periods of embracing my changing body. But most of the time I bounced back and forth between acceptance and suffocating shame. This past summer the shame got the best of me.
While at a family reunion, my children and I swam one mile (likely more with all of the zigging and zagging of swimming in a strong current) across a lake in Wisconsin. It was an absolute blast and a memory I will cherish forever. And yet all of the joy, the thrill of having accomplished something hard and doing it with the people I love the most, was sucked from me the minute I saw the photos and watched the video. The before and after: cheerful and dry and ready for adventure, each of us taking a running dive, and then our exhausted smiles on the dock on the other side. All of the good, all of the joy, it evaporated when I saw my body. This wasn’t the body I remembered having. This wasn’t what I bargained for. Not that there was anything wrong with my body. It just wasn’t me. Those weren’t my hips, my thighs, my arms. Still, after all those years, my identity was tied up in what I looked like. I felt like I had lost myself
Later that month I had an annual physical where I discovered I was indeed almost 10 pounds heavier than a few years before. The despair deepened. And I feared the change would never stop.
About the same time my daughter added me to her Y membership so that I can take our granddaughter. There I witnessed a steady parade of women obsessively, frantically working out. Many of these women appeared to be considerably older than I am and I found it impossible for me not to compare my body to theirs. And I knew that in order to have a body like theirs.. in order to be able to maintain a body that I would feel safe in, I would have to adopt a lifestyle and a mindset that would not be healthy for me. I know too many women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s who constantly worry about their weight or spend their days pursuing a degree of fitness that just seems exhausting. That is not a life I want to live.
Perhaps it was time to go back and open up the can of worms I had tried to slam shut so many years before.
I began listening to podcasts addressing eating disorders and I saw myself everywhere. Not in the eating behavior, as I have not dealt with food restriction or disordered eating for decades, but in the inner landscape. The shame so deep that it swallows you whole.The feelings of failure and never being enough. So I made a decision. I made it without even consulting my husband, which is unusual for me, especially when it is a decision concerning a major financial layout. I decided that perhaps it was time to see a therapist who specializes in body image work.
Back when I had an eating disorder in 1980 and 1981 nobody was a specialist on eating disorders and nobody knew what to do with them. In my adult life when I would see a therapist to deal with various issues, I was always working with somebody in order to address something else. I decided it was time to stare those demons in the face. And that is what I am doing now. And it is very good.
If you’re still reading this, I want you to know that this is about as vulnerable as it gets for me. I don’t want to admit that body image is still a struggle. Nobody in my generation talks about this (my therapist says that younger generations do). I don’t want to appear weak or pathetic. I don’t want those who knew me when I was starving myself to death and the weird kid in high school to think that I am still as lame as I was back then. I have a lot of shame in sharing this. But the reality is I don’t think I’m alone and struggling with this stage of life.
Some of you may be tempted to tell me I should be thankful for the body I have and I realize on an objective level that I am indeed very, very blessed with a small frame and a pretty decent metabolism.
Some people may fear that I don’t take the need to safeguard my health while aging seriously, Do not worry about that. I do.
For some of you the issue of body image and weight may seem incredibly vain and frivolous because you are dealing with life-threatening issues. I do not want to come across as vain or frivolous or shallow.
A woman’s relationship with her body is a very complex thing and some of us were taught from the time we drew our first breath that our size and our appearance was what mattered most. Some of us grew up with our brains developing with these messages as the very baseline of our being. Some of us knew that being small and pleasant to look at meant connection and approval. Sometimes those messages are so deep inside us that it can take six decades to get down to the bottom of it all.
Some of us have never been able to see ourselves as having value outside of our appearance. It is a tragedy of epic proportions.
I would like to ask two things:
1. If you are, like me, struggling to embrace who you are and to affirm your own dignity because your body does not meet a standard, please reach out to me or someone else. Shame grows, multiplies, explodes in secrecy and silence.
2. If you are someone who is driven to work out and eat only certain things in order to make your body what you want it to be even if it is in the name of “health,“ be very careful of the message you send. Teenage girls are not the only ones who struggle. Eating disorder relapse in midlife is very common. Everywhere we turn we are told to fight our bodies, to fight age, to hang on with every cell the little bit of youth we have left. We need less lecturing, not more.
It takes hard work to find out who you are apart from who you've always known yourself to be. It takes hard work to fight back the messages that define your value in your appearance or performance. It takes hard work to dig deep inside and find things of great worth that you can share with others.
Life itself is hard work. This stage of life can feel like a free fall. I’m working hard to find a soft place to land, one full of gentleness, kindness, and self-acceptance.


Thursday, October 20, 2022

Trauma and the Empathetic Witness

We all hear a lot about trauma these days. It seems to be a sort of buzz word, perhaps becoming so common as to lose its meaning. And yet we are hearing about trauma for a reason. Science is catching up to what so many of us know: that an event or series of events so painful and so profound can change us and even cripple us, sometimes for life. 

There are different kinds of trauma. There is what I've heard called the "big T" trauma: the natural disaster, horrific warfare, the unthinkable catastrophe that comes out of left field. That is what most people think of when they think of trauma. And those events certainly fit the bill. PTSD is very real. 

And yet there is a different kind of trauma. I've heard it called the "little t" trauma. Sometimes it is  developmental trauma. Sometimes it relational trauma. They call what follows complex-ptsd or c-ptsd. And complex it is.  

So why do some people cruise through hard events with nary a scratch and others wrestle with the intense mental and emotional and even physical pain and disability for years...or a lifetime? Especially when it comes to the "little t" trauma, what make trauma...well...trauma? 

"Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness." 

When I first read this quote from Peter Levine then it all made sense.  It is the "in the absence of an empathetic witness" that is, to me, the most crucial point. It certainly has been in my life. When I think of the hard things in my life, the most painful events by far, especially in my childhood, happened when I was utterly and completely alone. There was nobody to turn to. Absolutely nobody. Even now when I try to describe those times, the pain can take my breath away. 

I think that some types of family dysfunction are so much more damaging than others because some things are absolutely isolating. There is nobody to turn to. 

Let's look at the Adverse Childhood Experiences, the ten traumatic experiences measured the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Study, what do you have? 

-Abuse: verbal and emotional, physical, sexual

-Neglect: emotional, physical

-Separation or divorce of parents

-Domestic abuse of mother

-Mental illness of household member

-Substance abuse of household member

-Incarceration of household member

Abuse within the family is isolating. Neglect within a family is isolating. Nobody talks about it. If the abuse or neglect isn't physical, nobody even recognizes it as abuse. You are alone.

If there is a death in the family everybody comes running (unless it is a suicide, of course). If there is a divorce people turn the other way, or worse, point fingers. The child is left to navigate these waters of loss or change alone. 

Substance abuse within the family is a hush hush situation, especially among the tidier in society.

And then there are the horrific secrets of sexual abuse...
And if you get the courage to tell someone and are met with unbelief or blame, all hope of an empathetic witness is gone.

While all of this is tragic, the worst part is that the church can compound it all, by ignoring the wound, by not recognizing the intense internal injury, by minmizing the pain, or blaming it all on your sin, thus compounding the trauma and leaving you to believe that not even God is an empathetic witness.

Far too many of us have had the opposite reaction. When we disclose our stories we are met with the silence of disinterest, discomfort, disbelief, or disapproval. Or we are chastised, exhorted to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, lose the "victim mentality," and repent of our sin. There is no way to quantify the damage this response does. Not only is this a cruel response, it is a horrific representation of the character of God. 

I recently finished the book Trauma in the Pews by Janyne McConnaughey. For the first time I understood why church has been so hard for me. (I would recommend anybody and everybody who goes to church to read this book.) One of the things she points out is how absolutely essential it is for church to be a safe place to tell our stories, stories that perhaps never before had an empathetic witness. 

McConnaughey says:

The litmus test for trauma-responsive faith communities is how leaders and laypeople respond to the vulnerable sharing of trauma.  

So what can we do? We can listen to people as they share the hard, hard things in their lives. We can listen and learn. Listen and weep. Listen and connect. Listen and affirm. Listen and validate their pain. Listen and see. We can be a village of empathetic witnesses. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022


It never ceases to amaze me how drawn we are to measuring life by the numbers. Not just measuring life but measuring our quality of life. Measuring our success. Measuring our worth.

But quality and quantity are not the same thing. 

But we measure nonetheless. We are so drawn to it, sometimes helplessly so, like starving ants to a picnic full of sugary goodness. 

We look at the numbers, longing for them to validate our existence on the planet. Our worth in comparison to everyone else. Because we are convinced that we are not enough. 

So we measure.

The miles we run. 

The trails we hike.

The pounds we lift.

The pounds we weigh.

The number of wins.

The number of sales.

The number in our bank accounts.

The number of children we have.

Even the number of souls we save. 

Because we really do think that our worth can be defined by the numbers. 

And it is a lie from the pit of hell.