Journey through anguish to freedom

the-sower

The Sower, by Vincent VanGogh

Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
~Psalm 126

I’ve been reading Sabbatical Journey by Henri Nouwen, his journal from the last year of his life. Of course Henri doesn’t know it is his last year of life as he is writing, and many of his thoughts are for his future plans. He was only sixty-five, my parents’ age. It’s hard sometimes to read his thoughts about the future, his plans for ministry and writing. The journal goes through August, 1996, and he died of a heart attack in September that same year.

Eight years before he wrote this journal Nouwen suffered a period of intense depression and spiritual struggle which he wrote about in another book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. Mark gave me this book about eight years ago when I was going through my own period of depression and struggle, and reading about Nouwen’s experience, and the wisdom he gleaned, helped carry me through my own anguished journey. It feels significant to me to be reading Sabbatical Journey (also given to me by Mark) eight years after The Inner Voice of Love, just as Nouwen wrote it eight years later.

img_2037Last night I came to this paragraph in the journal, about a visit from Nouwen’s dear friend Nathan. It was written in July, 1996, two months before Nouwen’s death:

In the early evening Nathan and I had a nice dinner. At one point we talked about the anxiety that had been plaguing me during the last few months. I felt somewhat embarrassed and ashamed to put my inner burden on my best friend, but, in the end, I am glad I did. Nathan told me that he found it hard, not so much to listen to my pain, but to realize that I had walked with it so long without sharing it. I explained that it had not been possible for me to talk about such things on the telephone, and he understood. That was a comfort for me. I sometimes wonder how I am going to survive emotionally.

I read this, curled up on my quiet couch on a winter evening, hands wrapped around a hot cup of tea. Nouwen’s time of depression eight years prior to writing that lasted for about six months. My own, eight years ago, lasted longer — two years, perhaps, with another three or four before I was well out of it, and another year or two before I left the community that had been such a mix of security and trauma, comfort and conflict.

Nouwen wrote his journal with the intention of publishing it. He was going to do the editing himself, but after he died his friend Susan took on the task. After I read that paragraph last night, I set down the book and picked up my own journal. I feel I share so much with Nouwen — the inner struggle, a long-time experience living in community, good friends to walk through my life with me, and the desire and calling to write down my experience to give to others. Nouwen wrote around forty books in his life, books full of such wisdom and healing, such intimacy with God and striving to live a life of love and service. His writing helped me and so many others move through anguish to freedom. Yet even at the end, two months before his death, he wrote that stark, honest sentence: “I sometimes wonder how I am going to survive emotionally.”

I imagine him, curled up on his own couch, journal in hand. He had so much insight, so much wisdom to give to us. But in the end, his greatest gift was his honesty and vulnerability. We all desire healing and strength, but when the apostle Paul begged God for his own thorn in the flesh to be taken away, God did not heal him, but said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Here, let us be willing to be weak in front of each other. Let us teach each other out of what we do not know as well as what we do. Let us learn to value each others’ weakness as well as strength. Let us say to each other that we find it hard, not to listen to each others’ pain, but to realize that we had walked with it so long without sharing it.

Love,
Jessica

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The color of the lake

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Once the lake was its own color, one that even the oldest animals have forgotten and people never named, neither blue nor green nor silver. But as she gazed upon the sky she grew jealous and thought to herself that she was low and weak and plain, while the sky was high and fierce and lovely. So the lake turned herself into a mirror and learned to imitate every cloud and color of the sky.

Then people came into the world and the animals never told them that the lake had changed, so the people thought this was the way of the world. But all the while the lake was unhappy, beautiful as it was, and missed its own color but was not brave enough to turn back. And then one day, the people came to the lake to fill their water jars, and found that the water was gone, the lake was gone, and in its place real clouds and sky filled the lake basin. Then the youngest child bent to drink and would have fallen away had not his mother snatched him back at the last moment.

No one ever found out where the lake had gone. But the sky, who had loved the lake’s imitation of her so much that she had accepted the flattery without ever returning it, was lonely. So every now and then, on days that sway from rain to sun and back again, you can catch a glimpse of the lake in the sky, just for a moment — that certain color neither blue nor green nor silver.

~ Jessica Faith Kantrowitz

It’s been a rough summer here. My friend and housemate, Mark, and I were searching for a third housemate, I was job hunting, and the migraines were particularly bad. I’m not sure if it was the heat or stress or what, but the migraines haven’t been this bad in several years. I went for several long bike rides, but I got an awful headache after each one. There’s this weird phenomenon, which I’ve written about before, where I blame myself for the migraines, even though logically it doesn’t make sense. But I always have this feeling that I should have done something differently, should have slept more or less, eaten something different, exercised more — I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint it. It occurred to me the other day that it might somehow be connected with the guilt and shame I’ve always felt about eating and weight, that there was something wrong with me and I had only myself to blame. Ironically, the migraines make it impossible to exercise obsessively, something I’ve definitely done in the past. So even though I exercise as much as I can, and push myself to the point of a terrible headache, I still feel this vague sense of blame all the time. Mark keeps telling me, as I go over all the things I maybe could have done to prevent this latest migraine, that they seem to come no matter what I do or don’t do. So why do I blame myself? Does anyone else do that?

So anyway, the migraines have been bad, and I’ve been feeling burnt out in general. The other day I was having a particularly hard day — my car had been towed, I had a migraine, it was miserably hot and humid for the nth day this summer, and I’d just had a couple of the kind of random, awkward interactions that make me want even more to not have to leave the house. I was feeling exactly whatever the opposite of centered is — off balance, on edge, on the verge of breaking down — when I walked into Target and almost straight into a woman who I’d had a really difficult relationship with several years ago. She was looking the other way, so I had a couple of seconds to decide what to do. She was poised and put together, standing straight and tall, her blonde hair pulled into a casual ponytail, make up carefully applied and somehow not smeared with sweat like mine was. I knew if she saw me she would be smiley and confident. If she was thrown off by running into me she wouldn’t show it.

I wanted so much to be confident, too. Or, rather, I wanted my type of confidence to be as visible as her type. I wanted my outward demeanor to reflect the growth and healing I’d experienced in the several years since we’d last seen each other. These have been such years of peace and strength for me, and I wanted that strength to be enough to carry me in that situation. But it wasn’t enough, and I could feel it. So I turned, quickly, before she could see me, and walked out of the store.

Afterwards I felt so discouraged. When was I ever going to really heal? When was I going to be strong? But I realized that, actually, making the decision to walk out of a situation that felt unsafe to me was a strength. Choosing to spend my time and energy in ways that are life-giving and with people who build me up is wisdom and confidence. It just looks different than I wanted it to look.

I’ve been trying to write about this here, to share these thoughts with you, but I haven’t quite been able to figure out how to express them. But I wrote that fable about the lake a couple of days ago, and that contains some of what I wanted to say. So I’ll just leave you with this for now: You have your own color, your own beauty, strength, and gifts, and the world needs them. The world doesn’t need you to try to be beautiful and strong the way that other people are beautiful and strong. It needs your own particular, specific way of being. And sometimes — often, maybe — your particular strength and beauty come from the things that seem to you like weaknesses or flaws. That’s not a glitch in the system, that’s the way the system was designed. Your weakness is part of your strength. Your flaws are what make you uniquely beautiful. You will heal and grow, but that growth and healing will not make you someone else, it will make you more yourself — and that was the plan all along.

Love,
Jessica

 

 

 

On banishing shame, or how I found and ate three day old rice under my covers and woke up the next day free

Photo by OzRocky

Photo by OzRocky

Sometimes I eat a late night snack in my bed. I used to have much bigger binges late at night, sometimes eating the equivalent of an additional one or two meals. The best thing for my body, for my sleep rhythms, for my emotional well-being, is not to snack after 9pm. I sleep better when I don’t, and I wake up feeling somehow clearer, less foggy, not retaining water from the salt of last night’s snack. Sometimes I manage not to late-night-snack, but often I don’t. I have gotten really good at not keeping things in the house that lend themselves to mindless snacking — chips, candy, salty things, big bags of things. So when the urge does come I can only eat what I have — an apple or a single-serving yogurt. That’s all well and good, but when I’m tired and medicated (I take my migraine meds a couple of hours before bed) sometimes I still manage to overeat. Even bread can be a temptation. I crave something I can put in my mouth, bite after bite. I crave the dopamine stimulation of salt, the busy-ness of my hand going back and forth from the bag to my mouth.

Some nights I still eat too much. But as I’ve written before, it’s not overeating that perpetuates eating disorders. It’s shame. Do you remember my three rules of eating? Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, forgive yourself when you don’t? That last one, forgive yourself when you don’t, is the absolute most important. If you forgive yourself, that day is over, that binge is over, and you get to wake up a normal human being on a normal day. You can feed yourself a healthy breakfast, plan a healthy lunch and dinner, enjoy the taste of the food, the nice full feeling in your stomach, and the energy the food gives you. That night you might overeat, or you might just eat an apple, or even just go to bed with no snack at all.

If you don’t forgive yourself you wake up, not just foggy and bloated, but angry and in caloric debt. You try to force yourself to eat smaller meals, you punish yourself with bitter thoughts; you furrow your brow at your reflection in the mirror. You don’t feed yourself lovingly throughout the day, so when you get to the night you are hungry. You dislike yourself. Guess what makes you feel better while at the same time validating your self-castigation? Half a loaf of that raisin bread you were saving for breakfast. Shame begets shame. Forgiveness begets healing.

I have gotten really good at forgiving myself. I think that is the only reason that the 50+ pounds I lost a few years ago has stayed off. Sure, I could probably lose another 30 by breaking my rules, by not eating when I’m hungry, by turning my shame into the fuel to beat my body into submission. I’ve done that before, and it works, for a little while. But then the weight comes back, and, like the demon in Jesus’ obscure parable in Matthew 12, it brings back seven of its friends with it. Better to welcome the one demon you have, gently allow it space in your life without giving it control over anything. And maybe you will find that that demon was just you all along — wonderful, imperfect, adorable, multi-faceted, dearly loved you.

Something funny happened this past weekend, that showed me just how far I’ve come and just how good at forgiving myself. I went away for the weekend, and got back Monday afternoon. I didn’t have the energy to cook dinner, but I remembered that I had some leftover rice and planned to eat that with frozen veggies. But when dinner time came, I couldn’t find the rice anywhere. It wasn’t on my shelf in the fridge, or my housemates’ shelves. I asked Mark twice if he had eaten it, and he denied it. Then I remembered that Friday night I’d had the late night snacking urge. Nervously I pulled back the covers of my bed, and found it there: A Pyrex container of rice. It had been in my bed the whole weekend.

>Five years ago I would have felt that sick feeling of shame in my gut. I would have immediately begun spiraling into hateful thoughts towards myself. I would have thought that the rice represented a deep, secret, fatal flaw, that it confirmed that I was abnormal and broken. What kind of person loses rice in their bed? What was wrong with me? In an effort to purge and punish myself I would have thrown the rice into the garbage disposal and eaten only veggies for dinner. Three hours later, hungry and full of shame, I would probably have overeaten again, salt and sugar, something bad for me.

Do you know what I did this time? I laughed. I told Mark where I’d found it, thereby depriving the shame of oxygen and snuffing it out. Secrecy is oxygen to shame, did you know that? And I checked that the rice was still good (it was!) and heated it up with veggies and I ate it. I was hungry, so I ate good, healthy food, and I ate until I was full. I forgave myself, and I fed myself.

Friends, forgive yourselves. Feed yourselves. You are good and whole and loved. Yesterday is over, it does not get to make demands on us today. Go to sleep forgiven and whole, wake up to a new day, and feed yourself.

*****

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atomsstories

Love,
Jessica

Say it Survivor — Today is the day!

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Mary, Officer Paul and Laura. January 18, 2015

Today is the day! In January, Officer Paul wrote down the story of my friends Laura and Mary’s abuse. Here is a little bit of Laura’s incredible essay, He Wrote it Down, which went viral:

We were ushered into a conference room, where a young officer came in to talk to us. He handles all of their sexual assault and rape cases. He introduced himself, sat down and proceeded to ask us questions about what happened. Names, addresses, dates. I called my sister, Aimee, and put her on speakerphone. We were all crying.

Aimee, I said, He’s writing it down.

He wrote it down.

We said, This happened to us, and he listened. He WROTE IT DOWN.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Since then they have been working hard to bring that same hope and healing to others. You guys, I’m so excited and proud of them that I almost can’t breathe. Look what they’ve done:

First, they have an article in the October issue of Boston Magazine. I drove all over my neighborhood yesterday looking for it but all the stores near me still had September’s issue. Come on, stores, seriously. September is so last month. I’m going out again in a little bit to look again. If you find it, will you let me know, here or on my Facebook page? You can also read it online, here.

Second, they are unveiling their new website, Say it Survivor, which features gorgeous videos of Mary and Laura sharing their story and their mission statement. Here’s a little bit of what they’re doing:

The thing is, our stories only have that power if we decide to give it to them.  They only wield that power if we keep them hidden inside, if we decide that our truths are so awful that they must be kept in the dark.  If we attach shame to them.  If we decide that they are UNSPEAKABLE.

Here’s the good news- and there is good news.  Shame cannot survive having a light shined on it.  Shame cannot survive being spoken aloud.  Shame requires a host, and it can’t survive if you don’t feed it.

Say it, Survivor was born when two cousins, abused in childhood by the same predator, decided to plant their feet firmly inside their stories and say them out loud. They wrote them down. They sent them out into the world.

Go read more and watch the videos at their website! www.sayitsurvivor.com

When He Wrote it Down went viral (spurred on by shares by Glennon Doyle Melton and Jen Hatmaker), so many people wrote to Laura and Mary, sharing their own stories, saying “me too, me too.” Laura wrote down the first name of everyone who wrote to her, bearing witness to their stories. And through that sharing and bearing witness, healing began to happen, and community was formed. So Mary and Laura asked, How can we widen this circle, and bring this healing to more survivors? And, knowing the power of writing down their own story, they created a writing workshop to help other survivors write theirs. The first one is November 14th, in Westford, Massachusetts. You can register here. And Mary and Laura will be traveling, speaking their story, speaking out for other survivors, and for change in perceptions and legislation that will prevent abuse from happening and make reporting it easier and more effective when it does. If you want to bring them to your town to speak, you can find more information and contact them here.

Me with Mary and Laura at Old South Church, waiting to hear our friend Glennon speak

Me with Mary and Laura at Old South Church, waiting to hear our friend Glennon speak

I am so darned proud of my friends. Look at them. Warriors.

And I am proud of all of you, too, who have stories of childhood abuse. You have been through hell but you survived. You are here. You are stronger than you know. I pray that you would find community and find the words to tell your story.

So much love,

Jessica