Confessions of a Recovering Smugaholic

smug 1

I have become aware in recent times of what I can only call an indulgent sense of smugness. Some of it manifests itself in a self-satisfied Cheshire cat-like enjoyment of my nice house, nice family and cosily heated car seats. Some of it manifests itself in the sort of attitude displayed by the old guy that reminds any complainers that he used to have to get up at 3am to walk 20 miles to school, barefoot in the snow through bear-infested woods. It shows itself in the form of my firmly tied tubes smirking at people recounting the torment of sleepless newborn nights. It’s the little piece of me that is in danger of giving out slightly patronising relationship advice from the warmth of my happy marriage.

All-in-all it’s really pretty ugly. I had always put it in the category of pride up until now – and while that still may be a part of it, I have become more convinced that for many of us, smugness is the cushion on which rests the still traumatised parts of a past experience. An emotional and mental barrier between where we’re at and where we once were. An illusion of being protected from ever having to return to that place or those feelings.

You see, when I consider it, I am most prone to smugness in areas where I have come through a significant struggle. The nightmare of having a severely-refluxy newborn that won’t stop screaming, the many years of singleness that were so desperately unwanted, the intense work of dealing through my inner mess – my bitter acquaintance with these things has resulted in an almost ironic mingling of compassion and smugness towards others facing similar issues. Which only goes to show, that there is a measure of brokenness evident.

For me, there are two main reasons to be aware of smugsville. The first of which is that it is terribly unkind to others. You know that feeling when people are patronising, dismissive, or know-it-all about a situation you are facing – it’s the very worst! Our smugness leads us to assumptions about others’ experiences and blocks us from truly being present and compassionate. And secondly, it’s an indicator that there’s likely some part of me that is needing a bit of TLC.

When we encounter a traumatic event (which doesn’t need to be ‘traumatic’ by any objective scale – it’s all in how our minds perceive it), our brains often segregate the traumatised part behind a wall in order to help keep us functional. While this is super handy to keep living life, there comes a time, usually once the trauma is well behind us, when the injured part of us can start to be disruptive to healthy living. In order to experience wholeness, the wounded part of ourselves needs to be integrated back into our lives.

Put it this way, the part of us that has experienced trauma is locked up in a cell so it’s not able to incapacitate us by running rampant through our minds. But, eventually, it will start to make its presence known. At that point, we have a choice. We can smother the tin-cup-on-the-jail-bars noise with a big pillow of smugness and rest our weary bones on top of it. OR, we can undergo the often-painstaking process of integrating our injured cellmate back into the society of our life. How we go about that will differ based on varying factors – including the severity of our trauma, other stuff going on in our lives, and past experience of working through mental and emotional issues. We may simply need awareness and a few moments of reflection or journaling – or we may need to get help from someone qualified to walk the journey with us.

I don’t want to be a smuggerton any more – the only cushion I want others to experience with me is a soft place for them to rest their stories for a bit.

Love you friends,

Deb

She’s Really Let Herself Go…

goldfish jumping out of the water

It was a couple of years ago that I first wrote on the subject of body image, and it’s time for another go-round. It’s been on my mind a lot lately. Since that time, my weight has fluctuated with the different migraine meds I’ve tried. I monitored it weekly or so by dragging my scales out of their not-so-hidden hiding place in the garage, almost guiltily jumping on the scale in a furtive fashion, and dealing with the emotional aftermath of my new number. Until, finally, a couple of months ago I decided I was over it. The scales had a hold of me that I was just done with. So, I bit the bullet and frog-marched them out the wheely bin. Good riddance. Or so I thought…you see, because I know where my parents’-in-law keep their scales…and one of my good friends also has a scale in her bathroom…and there’s one at my local pharmacy… so…

It is for this very reason that I realised I needed to make a more full-scale assault on this sense of needing to fit into society’s ideal of fit, healthy, beautiful, acceptable, or whatever you want to call it. It’s super sneaky. It’s ALWAYS in our faces. Always. So, forgive me if you feel like my words are a wee bit strong here today, I intend NO offense, but I need them to be strong to stave off the onslaught of shame that keeps trying to infiltrate into my world.

You see, once I got rid of my scales, there was a period of time when I was in the middle of transitioning migraine preventatives, and I could tell my body was changing, but because of lack of said scales, I couldn’t actually tell if it was getting bigger or smaller. But my health was much improved and I felt, surely, my body was beginning to reflect this. Until I ferreted out a secret-squirrel scale at someone’s house, and to my horror, I had packed on several kilos in a matter of a couple of weeks. What I experienced at this time was nothing more than a whirlwind of shame and despair. I expected to gain weight during pregnancy, then while breastfeeding, then on different migraine preventatives, but now, while eating gluten and sugar free whole foods, exercising six days a week, and generally in much better health? Nope. But it turns out that my new med, which is doing wonders for my head, is a weight-gain drug for me. Hooray.

I was chatting with one of my friends at this time, and said something to her that unwittingly set me on the warpath against the shame; “The problem is not that I’ve put on a few pounds – the problem is that I live in a society that says that that’s not okay.” Bingo. So I started to find some resources that would give me ammo for the battle. Firstly, I watched Taryn Brumfitt’s excellent doco ‘Embrace’ (on Netflix here in the US, but I don’t think in NZ as of yet…but you should find it somehow!! It’s SO GOOD), and listened to a body positivity podcast featuring Jes Baker, who is an advocate for body liberation, and a super onto-it chick.

What I have learned over this time, is that to simply start to love my body is great, but in essence, it’s simply trying to stretch the rules of acceptability in order to make myself fit. It’s changing the rules of the game so that I still feel okay playing it. It’s a wider (literally 😉) margin for the same old tactic of seeking belonging, approval and validity by external measures. Instead, I’m taking myself out of the race. Those rules can’t apply if you’re not in the game. My body is so useful in getting me around in this life, and for this, I am so grateful. But, it does not represent my value as a person. Not one little bit. So, whether it’s toned and slim and sleek, or a wee bit wobbly around the edges (or a lot wobbly), it makes NO difference to the way God has called me to live.

(As a slight aside here, I know that the old ‘but you’ve got to be healthy’ thing comes into play for a lot of people here. And I agree that health is essential. But I also agree, that it’s none of your business. My health is between me, my doctor and my conscience – which, btw, is totally clear.)

We’ve all heard the completely hideous phrase, “She’s really let herself go!” Well, it’s time to redeem it. I really am learning to let myself go – away from unkind, ungodly, media-perpetuated rules that tell me that how I look is the measure of my worth. I’m letting myself off the hook to spend my limited time, energy and money on things that bring life, love, wholeness and the Kingdom of God into this world.

Will you join me in letting in yourself go?

Love you friends,

Deb

The Tree of Life

the-tree-of-life-hd_

I have been aware of a nagging sense of discontent in my soul of late. I think it’s probably been there for ages, but as the fog of chronic illness lifts, I am better able to see it. It’s a longing for my life to be different; more full, more productive, more exciting, more fun. I miss my old life when I was younger, was firmly entrenched in a solid crew of friends, and had more invites to events than I cared to attend. Yet, if I am honest with myself, I remember that there was a nagging (sometimes raging) discontent in those times also; I wanted to be married, to own a house and live in America(!). In fact, if I am even more honest with myself, I will come to the conclusion that what I think I need is the free time, energy, health and social status of my younger years, coupled with the current blessings of marriage, family, our own home and a decent education. I want the very best bits of each stage of my life to converge into the present. I want these things because my heart, mind, soul and brain has been tricked into thinking that that is what they need to be content.

When I am in a grotty patch of migraines, I feel strangely more content; resigned to the fact that I can only just barely keep my head above water trying to live and keep two little dudes alive. When my treatment kicks in, the discontent starts squirming and making its presence known. I know that I won’t just be stumbling from day-to-day, waiting until I can stumble into a dark room with an ice-pack on my head. I am aware that I could attend events, I could work a productive job, I could get fitter, I could become more social, and attractive, and popular, and successful. My health would allow me the chance to chase after the things that I so regularly pursue to provide what I think I need for joy and contentment.

Fill in the blank, my life would be more complete/joyous/full if only __________ (I was married/married to someone else/single, I owned a home/boat/car/full head of hair, I was skinnier/stronger/healthier/smarter/prettier/funnier/more popular, I was understood/appreciated/valued, I had a best friend/10,000 followers on Instagram/naturally long and full eyelashes/the magical ability to eat hot chips without gaining weight, I had kids/did not have kids, I had more responsibility/more adventure and less responsibility…).

Unfortunately, when we chase after any of the above and more to fulfil our lives, it’s like sitting down to a meal of lollipops…immediately gratifying and very appealing, but ultimately leaves you with an emptiness within and a longing for something more. The world around us is endlessly whispering to us and enticing us to find life in a million different ways. We get addicted to the sweetness and instant gratification of receiving life from anything other than God, but we end up chasing the proverbial dangling carrot.

I recently listened to an excellent sermon by Tim Keller on the wounded spirit (you can find it on YouTube). In it, he parallels the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden with the Cross on which Jesus died. He suggests that the Tree of Life, which is cut off to us by deciding to live life on our own terms, becomes fully accessible to us through the sacrifice of Jesus. That is SUCH good news!! Do you know what this meant to me? On the one hand, it is clear that I am going to have to do some work diverting my thoughts away from the ways I habitually seek contentment, but on the other hand, it gives me GREAT joy!! Because it means that the longings I have within do not need to remain going unmet, my discontent can be fulfilled, I can eat from the Tree of Life. Jesus can, and wants to be, my everything. I can give up the exhausting, relentless and ultimately fruitless pursuit of the intangible. Now, that is great hope indeed!

 

Bless you friends,

Deb xx

The Coolest Nun You’ll Ever Meet

Vintage-Holland-Mold-Praying-Singing-Nun-Figurines

I was thinking about writing the third part in ‘The Journey of Freedom,’ but as I thought about what I wanted to write, so much of it came back to one person. A nun. Her name is not Sister Mary Clarence unfortunately (I used to pull Judah’s onesies ‘til they stopped over his wee head and say, “Sister Mary Clarence, is that you?” It was the BEST game), but her name is Sister Marie (pronounced Ma-rie). I met her in 2012 when she became my counselling supervisor in Christchurch. She was roughly 70, always wore a woolly cardy, and was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met.

I don’t know about you, but I have always found nuns absolutely fascinating. I feel like I have so many questions about the monastic life, especially regarding habits…like, are they super uncomfy?!. I never really got to ask Sister Marie these questions, not because I think she would’ve minded, but because she was such a consummate professional, and we were there to talk about me, not her.

The order she belongs to is one that is specifically devoted to serving the poor in the local community. She started her professional career as a teacher, and then re-trained as a counsellor in transactional analysis. She worked out of the Salvation Army in the lowest socio-economic suburb in the city and would ask between $5-$20 an hour as a donation. One of the things that I loved about her, is that in order to preserve people’s dignity, she would hand her clients a plain brown envelope to put their donation in; no-one ever need feel embarrassed if they could only afford $5.

It was Sister Marie that helped me get a handle on anxiety. I had experienced several episodes that were like constant mild panic attacks that would last for sometimes weeks at a stretch. My breathing was shallow, I felt dizzy, and unable to come down off the edge. It was horrible. Sister Marie helped me to understand that anxiety was the culmination of years of feelings that I had not allowed to be felt; left to their own devices, they banded together and took my attention by force. She taught me that if I stopped pushing anxiety away, and instead, stopped and listened to what it was trying to say, it would no longer need to arrest my daily life.

Sister Marie also taught me that in order to face the terrifying abyss of inner pain, I only needed to tip-toe up to the therapeutic window, take a peek, and tiptoe away again. With a trusted guide, the trips to the therapeutic window became less scary, and eventually, the carnage I witnessed became less and less alarming, and I could begin to make peace with it.

One of the biggest lessons I learnt from Sister Marie was one of her favourite mantras, “The only way through the pain, is through the pain.” It carried weight when she said it; the weight of someone who is qualified to say such a thing because they speak from experience. She told me that when she started her counselling training, she committed thoroughly to working through her own issues, aware that she could only lead people as far as she herself was willing to go.

But more than what she taught me, it was who she was that left such an impression. Up until that time, any notable moments on my healing journey were reasonably dramatic…punctuated by loads of emotion and quite instant tangible results. The journey I took with Sister Marie wasn’t like that. It was slow, and steady, and peaceful. Much like Sister Marie herself. I have never met anyone more grounded, secure and unflappable. She was very kind, but I also got the impression that she could be faced with the scariest, meanest person in the world, and not back down an inch. It was as if through a lifetime of silence, liturgy, devotion and surrender, she had discovered who she was and what she was called to do. There were no qualms, no ‘what ifs’, and no striving to climb the ladders of success, self-promotion or chasing ‘something out there’. She was completely settled within herself.

Those many mornings spent in her sparse, yet cosy, office were a game-changer for me. Sister Marie, in her humility, groundedness, kindness, and honesty, allowed me to see that the while the flash-bang of emotional healing is wonderful and a such a gift, the long-game of quiet, consistent plodding in a healthy direction is just as necessary. I want to be like Sister Marie when I grow up.

 

Much love,

Deb xx

A Journey of Freedom – Part II; Gollum

Gollum

I have to smirk; a few people commented on my tricky trickery in leaving you all hanging at the end of my last post. I have a confession to make: it wasn’t intentional. I’m not that clever. I just didn’t want to bore you all to tears, so I decided to stop writing. However, for those of you waiting with bated breath, here is part two. (Those of you waiting with bad breath? I can’t help you there…).

Gollum.

As mentioned in my first post, the voice of ‘the dread’ finally got so intrusive that I could no longer ignore it. Whether it became that way because my life was increasingly contrasted with my deep longing to be free, or because it was yelling louder and louder, I do not know. Or possibly because I had started to make some concerted efforts on a journey of freedom, the lid of the can had started to give way and the proverbial clat of worms started emerging. (On a side note, did you know that there are four possible collective nouns for worms? Bed, bunch, clat, and clew. Drop that into the convo next time you want to impress someone. You’re welcome).

The beginning of this journey mainly consisted of spending a lot of time lying on my bedroom floor, arms splayed, listening to Christian music of some variety and bawling my eyes out. It wasn’t sophisticated or cognitive. There was something about opening my soul to that of the Spirit of God that I think allowed a lot of unidentified grief to be aired. I cried and cried. And then I cried some more. For years, actually. I cried in my room, in church services, on altar calls, in prayer times…you name it, there I was, knee deep in tissues, and with the worst panda-eyes you ever did see. (One would think if I was going to cry for half my life, I would have at least worked out my mascara game). It was deep, painful, and therapeutic. It was also unquantifiable. I’ll never be able to measure what those times did in my heart, but I know for sure that they were essential to my journey of freedom, and that I would never have been able to move forward if they hadn’t have happened.

These encounters created a fog-clearing effect; it was necessary for the smoke to lift so I could see in sharper focus what was behind it. And what lay behind it terrified me; a Gollum-like creature that had the power to torment me. It was so hideous, yet it was hiding inside me. It seemed almost demonic, yet, much like Gollum, once I got to know it, I realised it wasn’t what I initially thought. In fact, given some vitamin D and a good hearty breakfast, it could even be called cute. It wasn’t scary, it was scared. It was a fractured part of my personality, a small Deb, that having experienced a frightening childhood experience, had hidden in a cave, and stayed in there, scared stiff, yelling to big Deb until she finally got my attention.

I was well into the 20-year journey of freedom before ‘the dread’ could finally carry another name. Nowadays I think of her as ‘little Deb’, and far from being my tormentor, she is someone I have come to care for. As you can well imagine, it wasn’t an easy, fun or straight road to get to that place. In fact, it was one of those things that if I knew what it was going to be like at the outset? I’m not sure I would have had the guts to take the journey. But I really, really needed to. And I’m really, really glad I did.

If you’re still reading by Part III, I’ll share a little of how I managed to make friends with my captor.

Much love,

Deb x

A Journey of Freedom – Part I; The Beginning

Bird

For those that know me, emotional wholeness is something I am extremely passionate about. It’s what led me to study counselling, and something that I could discuss ad nauseum – even at 11pm when exhausted from a long day. Just ask Caleb. He loves it. One would think that I would for sure have blogged about it by now…but I haven’t. It may seem surprising, but it’s a topic so dear to my heart that I couldn’t do it justice in one pithy blog, and no-one wants to read an 11-page diatribe on the subject, so I’ve demurred until now. I’ve decided to write a wee mini-series about the subject. I want to share a bit of my story, in the hopes that may be of some help or encouragement to some of you.

In the Beginning

By most standards, I had a pretty good childhood. There was no significant trauma, my parents loved us and each other, there was always a roof over our head and healthy food (read, not nearly enough treats), I had a good education, friends, and a church family. But I was always plagued by what I guess I can only describe as a feeling of unease; ‘the dread’. It’s like there was this cavern deep within me that sent unsettling and frightening echoes into the atmosphere of my life from time to time; a small, very scared, dark voice. From a really young age I can remember thinking, “I want to be free”. I just didn’t know what from.

‘The dread’ impacted more than I realised at the time. Probably the most obvious impact, was that I found it intolerable to experience solitude. I loved my alone time, but I always had to be reading, listening to music, watching something, playing a computer game or sleeping. I slept a lot. If I allowed myself to be undistracted, ‘the dread’ would start to beg for my attention, and it was way too freaky to focus on, so I had to stay busy. I remember my dad once saying that I was too future driven. I now know that it was because the present was too painful, and my constant hope was that the next conference, camp, holiday, project, outing, opportunity or potential relationship might hold the key to freedom.

I say ‘potential’ relationship, because ‘the dread’ impacted that area of my life too. I always had a crush on some poor probably not-so unsuspecting guy. I cringe now to think about how intense I was with those crushes, my wee heart was right out there on my sleeve, and deep down I was looking for something to soothe the disquiet within. The cruel irony, is that the odd time that someone began to return the interest in any way, I ran for the hills, freaked out of my tree. ‘The dread’ badly wanted attention and affection, but it couldn’t handle either.

My life was far from a social failure, but even though I had what many would consider an enviable circle of genuinely amazing friends, I was plagued by the feeling that I was never really ‘in’. On top of this, I would experience these super unfortunate bouts of blushing. Not the rosy, sweet, feminine, pinch-your-cheeks sort of glow. Oh no. This was the ugly sort of mottled scarlet that started somewhere at the base of the neck and spread with horrifying rapidness to my whole head. The sort of fire-engine red that has people asking if you’re okay and getting ready to seek medical attention on your behalf. I hated it. So. Much. I knew deep-down that I was a confident person, and it killed me that I had to leave conversations, or stop speaking out loud in class when I felt it happening.

I really wasn’t sure how to get free from this stuff. I just knew that my life was not peaceful, and that somewhere in the recesses of my soul, was a small, caged girl. She felt powerless, unlovely, alone and invisible. She was trying to get my attention, but it was too unbearable to listen, so I ignored her, until she got so distressed that I could no longer avoid it.

I’ll continue the story soon.

Deb xx