Faith vs. Surrender

desertSince I wrote the middle-of-the-night-scare-your-family-and-friends blog titled I Wish, I have been thinking about it quite a bit.  Somehow it was extremely freeing to write from the depths of my soul like that.  I think to open up and let the hard stuff be seen was a big step for me.  I typically hold it all in and “just deal with it.”  I wrestle in silence. I hold on by my fingernails to my faith in which God is always working and things always work out.  But as I reread the blog, I am drawn to the last couple sentences, “Light always follows darkness.  I simply have to hold on until it does, but this time I am not holding on…I am letting go.”  These two sentences are the ones that caused my husband to jokingly rename this my suicide blog.

As I look at it again, I see how it caused many to think I was in that kind of desperate place, but I assure you suicide wasn’t on my mind.  It was surrender that was in my heart that night.  Holding on vs. letting go.  You see, I have held on for a long time.  That is what we are supposed to do as people of faith, right?  Hold on to God.  Hold on to his promises.  Have faith. Believe things will get better.  Say all the scriptures to remind myself of what I believe. However, in the wee hours of that morning it all seemed like a cop out.  A pretending. Not a genuine heartfelt belief, but a façade.  Just words I say to make myself feel better.  The essence of the blog was the wrestling between having faith and learning to surrender.

Sur =over    render=to give back.    Sur + render = to give back over.

The difference struck me so, that I had a conversation with God about it.

I will never leave or forsake you.

I feel forsaken.

I know you do.  That’s a lie.

I cannot drum up any faith that says otherwise.

It is not up to you to drum up faith.  It is a gift I give.

Do you take it back? It feels like you have taken my faith from me.

No, I don’t take it back, but it can go dormant for a season.

To me faith seems like an easy answer, a cop out.  Just have faith that things will be alright. But it doesn’t look to me like things will be alright at the moment.

It is one way to look for faith.  But there is another way…look at reality.  Not all the churchy answers, but the real-life problems.  They are hard and so many get stuck between the hard stuff and their beliefs.

Doesn’t faith ask me to deny what I feel?

Not true faith.  True faith rises up despite what you feel.  It is not manufactured by you.

Have I been manufacturing all these years?  Through all the trauma?

No.  You have been holding on, and now you have let go.  There is a difference.

Which way is better?

Neither.  There are seasons of both.  Holding on is trust in me.  Letting go is surrender.  Both are equally needed.  One feeds the other.  Faith is when you know that you know that you know.  Surrender is when you recognize you know nothing.  You stop trying to figure it all out.  Your mind disengages and you fall on your face.  You wait for me to do it, because you realize you cannot.

I know that much. I cannot go forward.  I don’t know anything.  But I don’t want to hold it against you anymore.  Forgive me for my tantrum?

Forgiven.  Of course, forgiven. Always forgiven.

Please show me.  I don’t even know what I need to know or see…I only know that you are the way to find it and that you will open it to me in time.

Now, after this dialogue with God, I find myself back in the Valley of Dry Bones…one of my favorite passages. Ezekiel 37:1-14.  I can so relate to those bones, just lying there dry with no life in them.  But this time, in the passage I see something new I haven’t noticed before.  Ezekiel has faith that whatever God says will come to pass. He might not even believe it himself “Oh Lord God, you know.”  I find it interesting he didn’t say, I know…yet he had the faith to hold onto God’s words and to speak them.  He had belief whatever he was told would come to pass.  A picture of holding on.

Then, there are the bones.  They lie there.  It is all they can do. No breath.  No way to stand.  Just dry desert, and sunbaked bones.  They are submitted to whatever happens because they have no ability in themselves to do anything differently.  A picture of letting go.  Surrender. To give yourself over.  To give up.   To cease resistance to an opponent and submit to their authority.  It is kind of hard to think of God as my opponent, but I resist his authority so often that I make him into one.  It is when I lie on my face in surrender that he can work most effectively in my life.  I give up my rights…to be angry…to be hurt…to be in charge…to defend myself.  All of it. He is much better at defending me than I am anyway.  I become a dry, lifeless, bone.  I wait for his breath, because I cannot even breathe without him, and until whispers over me, “Breathe, so you may live,” I am stuck.

I am in a season of surrender.  Face down, flat on the floor surrender.  I do not know anything about anything.  I do not know the future.  I do not know if I will be rescued or I if I will remain in the desert floor.   I do not know if I will lie here for a day or a year. It is entirely up to him.  All I know is I am here until he breathes on me, because I cannot breathe on my own.  I long for these words. “Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your grave, O My daughter, and brought you up from your grave. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own place. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,” says the Lord.’”

Until I hear his voice calling to me….I let go.  I give up.  I surrender.

Guest Blog: Hope is a Four-letter Word

friend or foe

As told by Bill Gunnin

Hope is a four-letter word.  Most people think of it as a positive word, a word that looks forward.  For me, with my head injury, it is a word that makes me sick.  A tormenting word, which never works out for me.  Most of the time the feeling I have is one of being heartsick.  Inside, I have so many thoughts and so many things I want to do.  I am about to explode with things I have to give, but I have nowhere to give them.  I am a unique person and I have talents and so much inside of me, but there seems to be no outlet for them.  People say these things to me, have words for me, and tell me how there are plenty of places for me to use my gifts. I gain so much hope because it stirs inside of me.  I am a visionary, but then nothing comes to pass and there is not fulfillment, so I get heartsick. It is a terrible cycle to live with over and over and over again.

I feel like God is calling me to great things but it feels impossible, because I don’t know what to do to get there. I see ahead, but the steps are invisible to me.  I have these limitations, which I am just now beginning to recognize.  I am limited.  I know God’s not limited, but I am.  It’s like wanting to be the president of a company right out of school.  I see the big things that need to be done, but I have no experience or ability to do them.  What I have to give is distinctive…there is no one else like me.  There is not someone I can follow.  What I see is unique and no one has gone there before.  So, I feel on my own to figure it out.  In order to get where I want to go you have to have experience, background, or education, in order for doors to open.  I feel I am 30 years too late.  I am finally trying to do what I should have done 30 years ago.  Find a career path, follow it to do something I want to do, but the last thirty years do not open the doors of where I want to go now.  On paper, I don’t look very good.  And there is frustration that most people don’t even understand me.  I don’t feel like I get any credit for any of my hard work in the jobs I have had.  It didn’t matter how hard I worked, or how productive I was, I was skipped over for advancement time and time again.  Part of my frustration is that I am unnoticed and I have a fear that I have left no impact where I have been.  So, I can’t help but second guess everything I have done in my past.  I have some regrets and I feel I have blown it and missed opportunities.  It makes it hard to see the opportunities that are available.  I still feel all alone in it.  Heartsick.

Everybody knows the verse in Proverbs 13:12. I have the first half of this verse memorized, but now I am looking at the second part that most people do not remember.  “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”  Hope and desire are linked.  Hope is related to what you desire, being accomplished.  The totality of man’s inner nature…the heart..is where the deepest innermost feelings reside. Different translations say it differently. The message says, “Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn life around.”  Or a longing fulfilled.  All I know is that there is no longing fulfilled and it seems there are very few good breaks that come my way regarding what I want to do.

What I do know is this…Hope deferred afflicts my soul…my heart.

So here I am again.  Looking for a job again, for what feels like the millionth time. It’s like now I am seeing things as brand new.  In some ways, I feel like a kid right out of college, with the world at my feet and so many directions. I can start fresh and begin again. Yet I have trouble with making decisions and finding directions…and I have this hope that has never been fulfilled, so I have trouble hoping. Hope is a bad word to me.  So instead of hoping, I feel like crying.  I have a desire, even, to cry it all out to release the burden of it.

Every single time, I get stirred up inside in my spirit man and a gift of faith or calling from deep within rises up.  But with the excitement, there is a shadow over it that knows this desire is strong, but I will go nowhere with it.  Hope feels like a trap to me.  It’s different from the wall that I cannot get over…instead it feels more like something hanging over me…like a roof or ceiling where the real me cannot be seen.  I am hidden under a cloud preventing others from seeing me and what I have that is good.

The one place I feel freedom is in worship.  Music lets me be myself…all broken, but with no limits. I love to worship.  But even in worship, especially in worship, I feel things rise up in me.  I hear songs, and I see what could be.  Good worship gives me no desire to be leading it…but I do have a desire to come along side and help others to develop and grow.  I have something to impart to others and I would love to help them move out in worship and songs.  I don’t want to be the one leading on the stage, I want to be the one supporting the one on the stage, and helping them find their gifts and move in them in order to draw people into the presence of God.  There are songs in me, but they can’t come out without others, and there are songs in them that cannot come out if they are alone.  It is a corporate thing. You have to feed the spirit, but all the other stuff in life sucks it out of me and leaves me feeling the desire, but hopeless to accomplish it.

 

Enchanted Moment

michelle-in-front-of-yonah

It was an enchanted moment…a gift.  And I nearly missed it.

My brand-new husband peeked out of the curtains of our honeymoon suite. “Shell, get up and come look at this. It’s a gift!”

I was snuggled deep into the covers. My eyes were shuttered closed and happy to be that way. After months of wedding planning and finally being officially man and wife, I was in need of a lazy morning to sleep in.

I mumbled, in my best new-wife-but-leave-me-alone voice, “What is it?”

“Just come look!” came the reply.

“Can’t you just tell me?”

“No.  You have to see it to believe it!”  Then he whisked the curtains open and blinding light shined into the room.  Shielding my eyes, I sat up and took in the view of a snow-covered mountain, just outside our window.

I sat straight up in the bed, “What?  Snow!? How in the world?”

“I told you, it’s a gift!” his excitement was barely contained.  “Get up.  Let’s go!”

Less than a week prior, we stood in Frost Chapel at Berry College in Georgia taking our wedding vows.  To say the temperature was sweltering is an understatement.  It was 1986 and it was one of the hottest July’s on record with the longest number of consecutive days without rainfall.  When planning a wedding in the winter I thought of heat, seeing as the chapel didn’t have air conditioning, but I figured a stone chapel would cool down by 7:30 in the evening.  I was wrong.  The triple digit temperature only served to turn the chapel into an oven.  This sparked a last-minute effort to create funeral fans with our names and wedding date on them to hand out to our guests, who were dripping wet before they even walked up the hill to the venue.

My dream had always been to marry in February and have a ski trip honeymoon, but I was a teacher.  I could take 3 personal days during the school year for a trip, or have the whole summer.  We chose the summer…in the 1980s…when long sleeved, high necked, old fashioned, Victorian wedding gowns were all the rage.  People still tell me that our wedding was the hottest they have ever been in their lives.  I tell them, no one was hotter that day than me!  Hair falling.  Make up melting. I have pictures of me and my attendants standing over fans, dresses unzipped and off the shoulders, trying not to get sweat rings under our arms!

Bill and I couldn’t get to the Canadian Rockies fast enough. Though skiing was out of the question, we knew it would be cooler there.  I packed my bridal trousseau of cotton slacks, summer sweaters, and canvas espadrilles, ready for a 70-degree honeymoon.  Awaking to snow was not in the plan, however, being southern born and bred we couldn’t pass up the chance to go out and play!  We went to the gift shop to buy sweatshirts and layered our thin windbreakers over them. Off we went, following a directional sign that said Mirror Lake.   I don’t think there where many other southerners at Lake Louise that day, because we had the trail to ourselves. Maybe they were just smarter than we were, but we didn’t care.  Young, in love, and surprised with the gift of snow in July, we embraced the moment fully. The flakes were coming down hard and thick.  They created a magical world unlike anything we had ever seen. Delicate masterpieces caught on my eyelashes.  We turned our faces upwards to catch them on our tongues. The pine branches bent with the weight of white wet fluff.  The mountainous views were in every direction as we climbed. It was breathtaking.

We arrived to discover how it came to be called Mirror Lake.  The reflection was stunning. It was an exact replica both right side up and upside down.  The heavy snowfall simply made it more like a postcard from another world.  What joy filled our hearts!  Just to be a witness to such beauty was beyond anything we could have imagined.  Then we saw another sign which said, Tea House with an arrow pointing to a continuation of the trail.  By this time, we were cold.  Our clothes even with the sweatshirts, were ill equipped for hiking in the snow.  My “cute” shoes were soaked through and without socks it became a problem, unless we kept moving.  We had no gloves, so our hands were in pockets.  The hoods of our windbreakers were up, but since they were not waterproof our hair was soaked as well.  The thought of a Tea House, some warm liquid enticed us to continue our climb.  Never mind that the sign had no mileage listed, or that we hadn’t seen another soul thus far.  It wasn’t long before we began to question our choice to continue, but each time we would wonder what was just around the next curve.  Each twist and turn brought us even more beautiful views.

When I wanted to turn back, Bill said “Just one more turn, then we’ll go back.”

Then, when he was ready to give it up I would say, “But we might be almost there. It can’t be much further.”

The sound of a waterfall in the distance gave us fuel to keep going.  The snow had stopped, and even if we never found the Tea House, the sight of a waterfall in such a majestic place would only make it more astonishing.  So, we climbed. As the rushing of the water increased so did our pace, mainly because we were cold, tired and wet.  We wanted to see it before we turned back.  When we saw the falls, we were once again overwhelmed with the gift of a snowy day.

In just a few more steps, the house came into view.  It was a thrill to almost be there.  It was still a bit of a climb, but the end was in sight…but so was the closed sign!  We were heartbroken. All that way, as beautiful as it was, and there was no hot tea waiting for us.  It dawned on us that we might actually be in trouble, as cold as we were.  We had depended on making it to a place to warm up, the sudden realization that we had to hike another 4.5 miles back down the trail without a rest was enough to bring tears to my eyes.  Bill wanted to continue to go up to the porch, look in the windows, and sit for a bit to overlook the glacier-fed Lake Agnes, which was the clearest water I had ever seen.  I made the case for turning back immediately, because to sit down when we were wet in the cold would not be wise.  He told me to stay put for a minute and he ran ahead to peek in the cabin perched on the lake between the mountains.  Much to his surprise when he looked inside there were people, who waved him in.

He cracked the door and said, “Can we come in just to warm up even though you are closed? We are cold.”

The man laughed and said, “I forgot to turn the sign around. We’re open.”

In minutes, our we shed our outer layers and put them by the stove.  We ordered hot tea, along with sandwiches on fresh baked still-warm bread.  I think it was the best meal I have ever had in my life.  Since we were totally unprepared for our hike, we were thirsty, and asked for water.  We were given a ladle to go down the to the lake and fill our cups with the clearest, best tasting water ever. We sat there looking out over the lake and snow-covered mountains amazed.  We were together, warm, dry, full of love for each other and grateful for our gift day.

Hannah at tea house

This week, our oldest is having a camping adventure through the Canadian Rockies.  She sent us this picture which is what triggered this blog.  Who would have thought 31 years ago, that our offspring would return to the same Tea House we stumbled into? In the pictures she sent us, she sits enjoying the food, the company of friends, and soaking in the same views we saw all those years ago at Lake Agnes.  It has served as a reminder of our beginnings and a snowy July day in an enchanted forest…that was a gift.

lake agnesfood at tea house

tea househannah in the mountians

The Brick Wall

brick wall

This is another in a series of guest blogs from my husband about what it is like to live with a Traumatic Brain Injury. (TBI)  I saw the sentence in bold written on a notepad.  I asked him to tell me more about it and this is what he said to me.  

The Brick Wall

As told by Bill Gunnin

“Often there are days I wake up and feel like I am standing in front of a very tall brick wall that extends across the horizon, and there is no way to scale it.” –Bill 

For some reason, it was a familiar feeling to think of this image.  I had an inspiration-ah-ha kind of moment where I was thinking about things more than normal.  I guess part of what brought clarity was I knew there was something I needed to do that day.  The pile of issues, job, ticket, money, getting with people about jobs, my dad, all the stuff going on right now in our lives, etc.… I had an overload moment.  I hit a wall.  Suddenly, I had this image of a long brick wall in my mind and the picture was so clear to me.  I have a wall in front of me, always.  In stressful situations it gets even worse, or seems bigger. I have to go somewhere, but I don’t know how.  I have a loss of confidence. The picture was clear of the wall, but other than that, I had no understanding of what it meant exactly.  It was broad general feelings.

There is nothing specific that made me feel this way I don’t think.  It is helplessness.  There is a sense I can’t go anywhere, because there’s nowhere to go to.  It’s an obstacle I can’t do anything about, and there is no way around it.  It doesn’t even occur to me there might be another path.  There is anger and frustration because there is nothing I can do about it. Put yourself in a situation where there is nothing you can do. You are helpless to help yourself.   Like in the movie we watched, where the pilot went down in the ocean but couldn’t get out of the plane.  It was over…there was nothing he could do. He kept trying, but there was no option for him, the only thing that could help him was something outside of himself.  He was powerless to his circumstances through no fault of his own.  For me, it translates to I can’t think.  I can’t develop a plan. There are no options for me.  I get angry and frustrated at myself.  The ideal me says, “How stupid, you have options. You are so stupid! Just do something!”  But then I don’t, I can’t. I get mad at myself, and hate it.  The wall is such that it doesn’t occur to me to climb it or go around it.  It is insurmountable.  That’s a very bad feeling.  It feels impossible.

Often when you talk about emotional things…the challenge, is in getting specific. It is hard.  Emotions are layered and general.  The emotions I am conscious of in the moment, are often not the root of the issue I am feeling.  They are a blurry thing.  Brain scientists say that emotions hinder higher level functions like logic, and analytical thinking.  When I am picking things apart or self-debriefing, becoming self-aware…such a hard thing for me, it is something I have had to work on over and over again…clear concrete facts are hard because the feelings that go with them are tricky.  Coming to conclusions about my feelings is hard to do without assistance.

Sitting at the table that morning, I wrote the sentence down about the wall.  It was the first time I recognized the feelings I have all the time, as something descriptive.  I’m having emotions and I cannot communicate them, but that image is worth 1000 words to me. It communicates them all.  It expresses the feelings I am unable to say with words.

It’s was a step.  I was just feeling frustrated, because our circumstances cannot remain the way they are.  I can’t just sit here.  I was thinking about letting you down, letting my family down.  How embarrassed I am.  How humiliating it is as to what my image of a man is…always working on things, finishing things, drive to succeed.  I should have that drive…and I do…but I can’t. I do want to, but sitting there that day in the kitchen, I couldn’t bring myself to make calls or do anything.  I am disgusted with myself.  If any of my children or people I know saw me like that…I would be so embarrassed.  I feel like everyone is going to find out the truth that I am a lazy butt.  What is my damn problem?

I hear everyone is self-critical sometimes.  I know that the thoughts I have go against what I believe.  I am loved by God.  I am forgiven.  I am a son, not a slave, etc…  But at the same time, I cannot be irresponsible.  I’m hurting, frustrated, anxious and then I think ‘How dare I even be this way?’ and yet I was submitting to it.  I cannot do what I want to do. Like that scripture says.  I guess maybe seeing that wall, extending across the horizon gave a visual to all the feelings I was having that day and all the other days.  We all interpret things according to our own background so, your wall and mine are different.  I finally saw it and it put a picture to how I feel.  It is not uncommon for me to have this bad self-talk,  and inability to process steps I need to take, it happens a lot.  I am conflicted internally most of the time.  In some ways when I saw that picture it relieved some of that pressure. Like a pressure valve released.  This wall is not something I contributed to and it is outside myself…but it is still there and an obstacle. I have to admit that I haven’t realized this, until this minute, as we are talking.   That picture of the wall took some pressure off.  I only wish I could remember the relief and hold onto it, because tomorrow it will start all over again.

A Word About Vulnerability

love

A word about vulnerability.  This word has been popping up in my comment threads recently as I have written about the hard place we are currently walking. (Thanks for the comments, btw.  It is nice to know people are reading and my words are not floating into a black hole somewhere. 🙂  )  Because of the frequency of the word showing itself, I decided to study its origins. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin root vulnerare which means “to wound.” Ability is simply defined as the “means to do something.”

Vulnerability = giving someone the means to wound you.

 Yikes, is it any wonder we avoid being vulnerable? It doesn’t sound too fun, and I can tell you from personal experience it isn’t, but it is necessary. Being seen, truly seen, is scary.  It is opening up the places inside yourself that even you avoid.  So much of what we do as humans is avoidance of letting others in.  There is fear we will not be loved or accepted.  There is shame that somehow, we don’t meet up.  Fear and shame partner together and feed our fears of rejection.  Our deepest need is to belong and be loved despite our shortcomings, and it seems life conspires against us in sharing that need. We keep hidden.  Our deepest fears thrive in the shadows.  Darkness conceals our shame, even to ourselves.  We self-protect in so many ways, using defenses to reduce the dissonance between who we are on the outside to the world and who we perceive ourselves to be on the inside. Hiding from ourselves and others reduces anxiety from the possibility of being wounded, but it does not assist us in meeting the deepest need for acceptance.  So, we wander around in life longing for acceptance, but at the same time pushing away the very thing that will bring us that connection.

Vulnerability.

Instead we opt for defense mechanisms like projection (blaming others), repression (denying our pain), regression (acting childlike), compartmentalization (pushing negative parts away), rationalization (defending our behavior), intellectualization (hiding behind logic), or any other number of defenses.  We are unaware that we are doing these things because they are deeply embedded in our subconscious, but they are the basis for much of our behavior and reactions to stressful situations. I have used all of these and more, and not in healthy ways either.

The one I use most is spiritualization (using spiritual things to deny reality).  I’m not sure that one is recognized in books or not, but I know how it works.  I hide behind the truth.  When something bad happens I say, ‘God is good all the time,’ even when I don’t think it’s true. Or I say ‘God always finishes what he starts,’ when I don’t see the end in sight.  Or ‘God is faithful,’ when it seems he is anything but.  My life verse says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I hide behind it every time something harmful happens to me.

I can feel you squirming as you read, but bear with me.  There is a difference between hiding behind the truth and holding onto it.  One is a defense mechanism, the other is being authentic.  One is a cover up, the other is simple faith.  Holding onto truth trusts that if I am honest and admit my doubts and fears, God is big enough to handle it. Here’s the thing, If I am not vulnerable with God, who can I be vulnerable with?  I have realized that I am using the shield of faith to protect myself from God.  I don’t let him past my scriptures and clichés, and if I don’t, he will not have the opportunity to heal my broken heart. I have to put down my shield, because in the intimate spaces with him I don’t need armor.  Armor is for battle against my enemy, not for the secret place with the lover of my soul.

I have to be vulnerable. I have to say, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t feel it.  I don’t believe you are for me right now.  Help my unbelief.’  I have to be real with my tears, and my confusion.  Sometimes I am not even sure he is safe and that’s about as honest as it gets.  However, I am willing to hold onto what I know in my head is true, even as I whisper to him what is in my heart. I have to be willing to let him show me himself, instead of projecting what I want him to be. Sharing deep things with God is risky, but here’s the rub, what if don’t share?  What if sharing the deep things, being my authentic real self, is the way to healing?

If that is true, then vulnerability is the path with God and with others.  Opening myself up and saying ‘I am not okay’ instead of ‘I am fine,’ is a huge step, but it makes people uncomfortable.  Sharing the dark places is not smiled upon in our culture.  We are expected to stand strong, push through, trust God, and have faith during our trials.  Vulnerability requires me to let go of those façades and be real.  Real is scary because of the possibility that rejection will follow.  The probability is high it will.  It is the risk of opening up and honestly saying what you feel when you are confused.  It is something that cannot be fixed with a few words from the Bible or an inspirational meme.  It requires time to find the courage to put down my armor in the presence of God and let him see me…the real me, unprotected and scared.

As I put these things down, and refuse to pretend all is well, I am finding some freedom.  A burden is lifted. I am not quite to hopeful yet, but there might be a spark beginning to glow.  As we revisit brain injury and look at how it affects us now, we are feeling relief of being known.  Each tiny step we take is beginning to crack the armor we have been carrying for years.  We are not hiding anymore.  Not from God.  Not from people.  We are finding the path of vulnerability to be narrow and overgrown, like walking through the jungle with a machete. Some days it is too thick to make much progress.  Others it seems to open up in front of us and invites us forward.  There is quicksand that bogs us down, and there are clear paths which seem straight, until they’re not.  We are walking through a journey and a process which, we are sharing as we go, in hopes of finding connection and belonging in the deep places… of vulnerability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Blog

17191794_10211972892381522_696044197707358754_oToday I have an important guest blogger, my husband Bill.  He has a story to tell that is important.  In fact, it is one of the things that has been swept under the rug at our house for years, as we have been in survival mode. It is where so much of our lives together have been formed. In this current season of unraveling and looking back to go forward, we have started to dissect some things from the past. We have decided not to suffer in silence any longer.  I cannot tell you how proud I am of this man, and how much love I have for him.  He is amazing and I thought it appropriate to share this first part of his perspective of how brain injury affects him, on our 31st anniversary.  This is taken from conversations we have had together while hiking, or sitting over coffee, or driving in the car.  It is the tip of the iceberg. We are thinking of compiling our experiences for a book, at some point in the future.  It is kind of random and raw at this point while we are processing.  He shares and I write it down for him so he can concentrate on expressing his experiences.  I can tell you this, marriage with a TBI has been a hard road, still is, but I have a heart bond with this man.  Most couples do not survive TBI, we understand why, but we also are deeply committed to be one of the couples who does.  If I had known 31 years ago on our wedding day, what was in store in a year’s time, I still would have married this man I love.  Happy Anniversary!  

 My Hidden Permanent Disability

as told by Bill Gunnin

How do you overcome a disability you cannot see? I wonder how many of my perceived character flaws are really a symptom of my TBI?  It’s been so long ago, but they say TBI is forever. What if my character is not flawed as I think it is, but my TBI has redefined my life? It is like a living nightmare to be unable to do things, but to have no idea why I cannot do them.  An invisible force prevents me, and it is as if I am boxing an unseen enemy who I cannot identify, and I cannot defeat.  It has the advantage over me because not only is it hidden to others, who only see outward appearances, it is imperceptible to me, from inside myself.

There is a long list of symptoms and I have many of them, but I don’t always know. I have to have someone else tell me. There used to be more, but these are the ones I still have trouble with sometimes:  Impulse control, memory, ability to attend, focus, brain hyperarousal, agitation, irritability, egocentrism, denial, selective obsession, depression, lack of motivation, social immaturity, social dependency, inability to make decisions, logorrhea (excessive talking), panic, anxiety, frustration, mental fatigue, impatience, being hypercritical, hopelessness, decrease of social interactions, disinhibition (loss of filter), intolerance, inflexibility, setting priorities, word retrieval, and decision making.

It’s embarrassing.  People think I am one way because they cannot see the injury.  I want to be the person they think I am, instead of who I actually am.  I am embarrassed of myself, within myself. When I talk about my deficits and a possible job, I think ‘who would want to hire someone who has all these deficits.’  I don’t want to talk about it.  I know I can do the job, at least I think I can, so why talk about possible limitations? But I may not be able to do what I think I can do.  I don’t know if I can or not, so should I say something and risk not getting the job at all?  It’s discouraging and depressing.  I have trouble making decisions.  I can’t direct myself to what needs to be done now and what needs to be done later, because of that sometimes I can’t do anything.

I’ve been told of deficits and I’ve read about them.  I am more aware of the ones that affect me, after they happen than when they are happening, any recognition I have about myself is all in retrospect. Just now, I realized something, but then I went to get paper to write it down and forgot it. I want to just be me, but I feel I am not acceptable as I am.

Impulse control. Delayed gratification. I cannot delay wanting something.  If I want a milkshake, I go get it.  In the early days after the accident, this happened in outbursts of anger or other feelings. I could not control my temper, or my tears.  I felt things and they just came out.  You don’t realize how much your brain helps you to be socially acceptable with your feelings by allowing you to hold them in or let them out appropriately.  It is not as much controlling emotions now for me, only when I am tired or overwhelmed, but I can hold them back better.  For me, it is more external things for comfort that I cannot seem to stop.  I guess it is what some people would call will power.  I lack that in some areas. For example, impulse control in conversation…I can’t hold back my thoughts, so I interrupt constantly, and even go in different directions in the conversation. I don’t know it though, not at the time. It requires review after the fact for me to see it. It frustrates my family, or people I am talking to for me to do it, but because I don’t say everything that comes into my head (believe it or not) I think I am doing well.  I don’t always see the frustration on someone’s face or pick up on social cues, so I just keep talking.  My kids will tell me, or my wife will nudge me under the table, but I don’t see it myself really.  So I think I have more control than I do.  Like right now, the music that is playing is bothering me while we are talking. I don’t want to hear a song where I recognize the melody, because it pulls my attention away from trying to talk about this with you. I just jumped off topic because of my external environment and my inability to filter it out. If I am in a loud place, like a crowded restaurant it is overwhelming to me. I will stop talking because I cannot keep up with all the stuff going on in there and carry on a conversation too.  It also tires me out, so when I leave there I need to go rest so my brain can calm down again.

Memories are a tricky thing. I don’t trust that I am remembering it correctly.  When I try to analyze things I can’t, especially under stress.  I get agitated when I have to deal with external stressors.  A lot of regret about not handling things well…after the fact. Or not being able to remember things that I know I should know.

Symptoms are sporadic and sometimes I can do things…other times I cannot.  I hate these problems.  They have no solutions.  It’s not clear cut…like needing hearing aids, or my knee is hurt, so I cannot walk. Those are direct and easy to understand at least. For me, sometimes I know the issues, and sometimes I can’t see them.  So much of it depends on external circumstances that are beyond my control, and it prevents me from showing what I can do.  For example, I had a job interview recently.  I was in the lobby filling out some short answer type questions where I had to write.  There was a baby in the room and there was some confusion as to who was keeping the baby between the two adults there, so one of them could leave. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was writing because of the distraction, but also because I was worried about the baby and the situation even long after they had solved the issue. It’s like it got stuck in my brain. They came and got me for my interview but my questions were not finished, which made me feel like I did something wrong. Employers don’t have any idea what it means to me to say, you can finish it later.  I went from the lobby, and my unfinished questions with my feelings of being inadequate, directly into a room with a panel of people asking me about how I would handle made up scenarios.  I thought the interview went great, but now looking back at it I can see I totally messed it up and my answers were not good because I could not think clearly. I talked too much, because I do that when I am stressed. When I interview they probably think I can’t handle stress.  They think about how those little things, like a baby in a room while writing affects them, not me.  I can handle a job, but I never get the chance to show it.

This transfers to other areas, it is easy for me to be critical of other people, but impossible for me to understand what pain they have from their own experiences.  People who are discriminated against for color, or religion, no one truly knows what they have been through in their lives.  I have the same type issue with my hidden disability…no one knows.  It’s invisible. Saying you understand is different than my gut level experiences with rejection.

I have compassion for people who are having trouble, like the elderly, or disabled people. My limitations have taught me patience and given me empathy. I like for the elderly to feel their own autonomy in the small things, like which trash bags they want or other things when they are shopping.  I could just pick some things, but I want them to feel they have some control over their lives still. Sometimes they are like children with an intellect.  I understand how that feels. I can guide while still letting people feel they are in control. I want to be someone who comes from where they are.  No assumptions on my part, instead I want to show empathy.  If they are angry and cranky, they don’t have evil intent, they are just frustrated.  Cranky old people are misunderstood, the problem is they are losing themselves and it makes them unhappy. I get that.  I say let them be who they are.  Interesting people.  I want someone to let me be who I am, too.   Nothing I can do can change what older people think or feel, and just because they are old, people nod and smile and understand them, give them patience.  I want people to give me that same kind of understanding.

The New Normal

humility“You will find a new normal.”  I have heard the phrase many times, and in fact, I have said it to others in trying circumstances. The new normal seems like a goal, a hidden place where all things line up once again.  However, what no one talks about is the strong longing for the old normal…before.  Before my arms ached for a baby who was alive.  Before my husband changed to a different person.  Before the scars from cancer marred my body. We all have our befores. Before death. Before disease. Before dysfunction. They are right, you do adapt to the new normal and learn to cope with losses.  With each loss, I learn to deal with a different reality than I previously had to consider.  But that doesn’t stop me from grieving the old normal.  I know people who have endured unimaginable losses.  Many of them have sent me notes as my last two raw blogs were published.  Some are dealing with diseases and the limitations they bring.  Some have lost children and have gaping holes in their hearts the size of the Grand Canyon.  Some have walked through divorce and are facing single parenthood, alone and scared.  Some have lost friendships that have ruptured their souls.  Others have loved ones who have died, or children who have turned their backs. Dysfunction has claimed families to the point there is no reconciliation.  Abusive behavior of a spouse, a sibling, or a parent has caused self-doubt and condemnation to rise up. And still, people say, “You will get used to the new normal.”

I want to spit on that phrase because it denies the truth of the loss.  It says, ‘just get used to it’ or the other common phrase ‘just get over it,’ as if it is ME who is the problem, not the circumstance.  The root of the finding the new normal is acceptance of whatever the loss is.  I have never been one to blindly accept things until have understanding, until I work through what a monumental loss means to me.  I used to ask why, but I long ago realized that is the wrong question, because it leads nowhere and has no answer.  It leads me around in circles, taunting me in my attempts to sleep and it puts all the reasons for calamity firmly in my court.  I didn’t DO something right.  If I had been better this horrible thing wouldn’t have happened to me.

Instead of why, a better question is what now?  What do I do now that my life is no longer normal?   I am an optimist…or I try to be.  I look for the silver lining because there always is one.  But sometimes I wonder in trying to look on the bright side all the time if I sweep too much under the rug.  In my effort to avoid being a victim of my circumstances, have I pushed the perceived pain away, or I have I simply denied it exists? The problem with burying the hard stuff is that it doesn’t really go away.  You end up, in a place like I am in now, where the rug is mountainous thus preventing movement. It is time to pull it back and examine the pieces I have swept under there so I can be truly rid of them rather than just pretending they aren’t there.

It is times like these where I can relate to the Children of Israel in the desert.  Going in circles is tiring.  It brings out the worst attitudes.  We look at the provision of God for them and think, ‘How could they not see God’s hand protecting and providing for them?  How could they complain against him in the midst of the miracle of manna? What whiners they were!’  Now I am the one in the desert who cannot see the promised land.  Now, I get it.  How long will I wander?  How long will the promises be withheld from me?  I gather manna daily.  I have for nearly 30 years.  I watch the cloud, the hand of God, cover me and I see the pillar of fire light my steps. I depend on him for everything because I have no other choice.  I worship him in the desert, but I also do not understand why I must stay here.  If I were Moses I would have beat the rock to death out of frustration.  I can so relate to why he didn’t do what God told him to do. I am sure it felt good to hit that stone, and once he got started he just couldn’t help himself.  Meanwhile, the cynicism of the people grew to the point that once they got to the land, the giants loomed larger than God. The daily hardships overshadowed the promise.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, it also clouds the eyes.  Hope becomes an enemy who never keeps a promise. The other shoe always drops, and the light just goes out internally as a means of self-protection. It hurts too badly to hope for a different normal.  The longing for milk and honey is overwhelming.  The loss of dreams never to be fulfilled is painful.  The dichotomy of those two is unbearable.  Instead, I find a “new normal” which denies my hurting heart expression.  I adapt.  I cope.  All while the mess under the rug gets bigger and bigger, until one day I am trapped in a room with a mountain that blocks my way out.  A day like today.  A day when life has to take a backseat to healing and where wholeness becomes a priority above all else.  A day when I decide to go retrieve hope from the old normal and bring it into the new.

In the Dirt

solitudeWhen I was a little girl, my dad used to take me on walks in the woods.  We would traipse around our property, sometimes not even on trails, just walking and seeing.  It wasn’t far, but to my little legs it seemed like miles and miles.  I learned a lot on these walks, not because he taught me exactly, but because I watched him.  I learned you can chew sourwood leaves in the fall, like gum.  I found out if you put your watermelon in a mountain spring it would be ice cold in time for the picnic the next day.  I realized to follow a stream provides water, as you walk through and underneath trees, which provide shade on hot summer days.  He taught me to be aware of snakes when I stepped over rocks and logs, and that not all snakes are poisonous.  He let me slide on a slick rock overhang into his arms over and over again.  Those lessons were learned through time together and shared experiences.

On the way back up the mountain, however, I was less likely to be enamored by the stroll through nature, because it had become a climb.  My little legs screamed to stop and my lungs agreed.  Dad used to carry me, but once I got too big for carrying, I had to stop and rest along the way.  I remember begging him to carry me, and I did not have the best of attitudes about it. I was tired and weary which translated into irritable, tearful, and cranky.

Fast forward to walks with my own children.  Going down the trail to a waterfall was all skipping and laughter.  Wading in the ice cold stream brought giggles.  Bill taught them about skipping rocks, and we picked wildflowers along the way.  Once we were at the bottom in the waterfall mist, their faces lit up at the magnificence and power of the water spilling down into the valley.  Then it was time for the climb back up. The trail was a switchback so there was steep incline followed by some more gradual slope, giving the illusion that it wasn’t exactly straight up.  However, little legs are not fooled by illusions.

Going into the second steep section the whining began, but there were four of them and only two of us.  They had all outgrown the baby backpack we had when they were little.  Carrying was not an option.  We encouraged, held their hands, and tried distraction techniques to get their minds off of the pain, “Was that a woodpecker over there on that tree?” or “Look at that beautiful orange flower.” To no avail.  By the next steep section, meltdown mode commenced for one of them.  No amount of, “we’re almost there” helped.  There was no consoling.  It was a sit-down-in-the-trail-refuse-to-go-any-further moment. Tears rolled down the face like the waterfall ran down the mountain and the frustration spilled out like a thunderstorm in the summer.

Desperate to keep the other three moving forward without incident (these types of outbursts can be extremely contagious in a family with four little ones), I moved on with the other three, while Bill waited for the first to cry himself out.  It was all that could be done.  He could not see the end of the hike was near.  He could not make his legs go any further.  He was weary and angry we wouldn’t carry him.  He was not climbing another inch.  Bill sat down in the trail next to him, while he flailed around in a full blown tantrum.  A father, just waiting, trying to soothe his child. In the midst of his tantrum, my son was not even aware that his father was sitting next to him in the dirt.  Once he became aware of it, he wanted nothing to do with him.  Every effort Bill made towards him was rejected out of anger.  It wasn’t until the patience of the father, sitting next to him, was evident that he finally relented and allowed a gentle calming hug.  Holding him, wiping the tears, quenching his thirst…not just for water, but for acceptance and understanding which only unconditional love can bring within the hard places.

Sometimes life is overwhelming.  Just like a child on an uphill climb, sometimes it feels impossible to continue.  It feels like God is not for me…and might even be against me…if he exists at all.  These dark nights of the soul are places where nothing is for sure.  All the neat and tidy spiritual explanations fall flat.  The heavens are brass, and my prayers blow silently away on the wind.  I am not the only one to ever experience this seemingly never ending dark place where brokenness is a companion.  I know others who walk here, who wonder and wait, and shake their fists at God at the same time they cry out to him.  I am a little girl who doesn’t want to walk one step further up this mountain I feel forced to climb. I want to yell and cry and kick and scream, “NO MORE!!” until I am carried, consoled, and soothed.  I realize that in order for peace to come, I have to allow my feelings to work themselves out. The volcano, which has been dormant for years, has erupted and it will release the built up pressure…once the explosion is over.

The complexities of emotions layered one on top of the over make it tricky to get to the root, which is the feeling that God has abandoned me.  What feels like a forever climb has left me in the dirt, wallowing around like a 2-year-old, unable to see my Father sitting next to me waiting.  Brokenness is a messy, ugly, dark place…but it is a real place.  People live here, not by their own choice, but by circumstances outside of their control.  That’s the rub with this place…there is no control here. Death, abuse, disease, rape, injury, loss, divorce, heartache…no one is immune from the pain of life. Life=loss. When my legs will no longer hold me up, I fall and cry out to God for rescue.

I am double minded, believing I am abandoned by him, while still receiving provision from his hand. I feel alone, despite his presence right next to me. I try to block him out since I no longer believe in him, only to find myself praying with desperate cries that he really exists.  I feel I cannot function, all while continuing to put one foot in front of the other. The dark night is a pretty mixed up place.  It is not depression, nor is it despair. It is more like losing the core of who I am, and questioning everything I have ever known…all while still knowing it.  Kinda.  I am rambling, in search of words and talking in circles.  Sorry about that.  One thing I know (maybe) is that when I am in one of these dark broken places I find out things…truths, that I might never grasp had I not sat down in the first place. So while I am groping around now, there will come a time (I hope) when my tears will be dried and my thirst will be quenched by the Father who sits next to me…in the dirt.

Explanation

michelle-in-front-of-yonahI probably never should have pushed the publish button at 3:00 a.m. I do not usually share these kinds of deep places…until after the fact.  My usual pattern is to pull away and sit in silence, waiting for the sun to come up and the lesson to make itself known.   But this time, I know that isolating myself is not healthy.  Hence, my lament last week went public. Don’t you hate it when people put vague but heart wrenching stuff out there, but never explain it?  I do.  It caused quite a stir and I learned two things from it.

  1. I have a multitude of people who love me. I did not intend to scare anyone with my post. (Bill called it my suicide note…I promise it was NOT.) I rarely publish the hard places publicly because of this very thing.  However, the calls and notes I received have brought a measure of healing along with the acknowledgement there are people I can call when I am in a painful place.
  2. There are many, many people who are hurting. Along with exposing my pain, I unknowingly exposed the pain of others who have/are walking in difficult places. They reached out with compassion, not trying to fix it for me, but just holding space to allow me to feel.  Only those who have walked in brokenness can fully grasp what it means to have someone who gets it. Thank you.

Grief is an odd companion.  There are stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  I have found, in my life, that these stages are not linear, rather they jump around like frogs in a rainstorm.  Just when I think I have found acceptance, tears reappear.  Or when I know I am no longer in denial, I find another area that has been hiding in the corners of my heart.  Recently, a confluence of circumstances triggered some pain I thought was long ago dealt with.  I would have said I had full acceptance of this loss, but in reality, I was in denial.  Funny how that works.

It seems going back is my way forward these days.  Unresolved pain, from the TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) days 29 years ago, is washing over me like the waves at the sea.  I walked the stormy beach last week in Fl. and watched waves crash over and over again like an aching metaphor of TBI life. The ancient pain festered and cried out reminders that there is still unfinished business of the heart back there which is effecting me, even now.  It is like an onion, that is peeled back one layer at a time until the core is all that is left, and like cutting an onion, the tears flow unchecked and uninvited.  Long past days of survival cry out to be heard from the depths where they have lived stuffed for years.  Loss unimaginable refuses to be relegated once again to the back burner, and so every event brings pain gushing forth to overflowing.  A movie rips the scab off of wounds currently tender.  A change in plans undoes me.  No one gets it.  I don’t even get it.  But I am in pieces, and all I know is that it is like beating my head against a wall over and over again. I want to curl up in the fetal position and cry for days.  All the prayers in the world cannot bring back what was lost to us on that day so many years ago.  All the cheerful-look-on-the-bright-side words cannot change what I am dealing with, even though I appreciate them and I wish they could.

Sarah Bessy, one of my favorite authors, put it this way,

“All of this has reminded me of how trauma sometimes sleeps in our souls, too. We can carry our trauma – whether it’s betrayal or hurt or abuse or loss or something else entirely – for a long time before it surfaces. Often it is when we feel we’re making progress that we discover reawakened old pain and then we have to deal with that now, too. I talk to a lot of people who have what we might call soul trauma. Sometimes they are so grateful to be alive that they feel it’s wrong to admit that they’re still hurt, that some days are harder than others, that they need help. They survived – the rest is details, right? But I’ve learned along with these brave souls that God is in the details.”

Soul trauma. It is a time for me to grieve the details.  A time to try to find the illusive acceptance which seems always just out of reach.  Somehow to let go of the shattered dreams, to stop trying to glue things together, and to recognize our lives are impaired. I cannot explain what it is like to see your barely recognizable husband tied to a hospital bed. I cannot describe days of bedside vigil praying that he would live only to wonder why I prayed that way, when he awakened as a strangely different person.  I cannot define the feeling of teaching him how to walk, eat, and dress himself again. No one can understand what it is like to live 30 years trying to regain your dreams, only to realize they are unattainable. The frustration, the heartache of watching the man you love, try so very hard to recover all that he lost, on one day, in one minute. Walking beside him for years and watching the struggle that is so very real every day. We have lived with the residual issues of a damaged frontal lobe from the day of the accident till now.  My charming, gregarious, fun-loving, hilarious husband is too wonderful for words, but he has some limitations.  TBI is a stealer of stability, and I hate it for that.  Jobs come and go, and because of the frequency of that fact, they are also hard for him to find.  There is no understanding of how many friends fall by the wayside, how many jobs slip through the fingers, how many attempts it takes to do the most basic things like making decisions, or remembering where you put your stuff.  Unless you have done so, you cannot know what it is like to live in a before and after world.

Nevertheless, there is a fierce love which does not give up.  It is deeply rooted in stubbornness and tenacity, and we have it…have always had it, through TBI, miscarriage, cancer, fire, illness/death of a parent, and surgeries.  Nothing bonds hearts together like shared trauma. Our relationship is like steel. But recently a straw broke my camel’s back and my brittle heart is fragile. The contrast between past and present is difficult to reconcile. I seem to have a foot in each. The NOW part of me struggles with a faltering faith that is shaken to the core. Going around the same jobless mountain, back in survival mode yet again. The PAST part of me knows that holding on to God is the only way through the tough stuff. The broken part of me sits down and cries, “Where are you God?”  The part who has walked through hellish times before knows he is never far.

I am like a child having a temper tantrum because I do not get what I want. The grief is in realizing I will not get it. Meanwhile, God waits quietly for me to cry myself out. All I know is that he might be waiting a while, because nearly 30 years of survival mode has pushed me to the brink. All the pent up, buried, painful grief I have silenced for years is demanding to be heard.  I have people who listen and guide me in these kind of times. My family has carried me so many times, we would not have survived without them. There are others who have walked along side us for years and know just what to say and how to pray.  I do not want it to sound as if I am not grateful for my life…I am.  I have been blessed beyond measure, I am just very tired.

I Wish

 

shafts of lightI wish I could tell you I am always strong, but that would be a lie.  I wish I could say that I never have doubts, or tears, or fear, but that would be untrue.  I wish I could say my heart is whole and healthy, but it’s not.  It has been pummeled more times than I can count.  Crushed beyond what I can bear and it has left me a pile of shattered pieces.  Shards that are painfully deep, like splinters which, if not removed, turn into a festering mess of bitterness and resentment.  My attempts to glue it all back together are woefully inadequate.  Instead of creating art, I cut myself and bleed.  Instead of molding wholeness, I simply keep rearranging the same old pieces into forms which highlight just how broken I am.  Until now my faith has held me together through the unending traumas of life, but this time I am not even sure there is a mustard seed left.  Brokenness is exhausting.  Trying to muster up belief that overshadows the depth of my pain is not possible.

So here is the truth, I am NOT a strong woman.  I am NOT full of faith.  Sometimes I don’t want to pray because it doesn’t seem to do any good.  Sometimes I just want to quit. This is a raw place I am in, but it is also a real place.  A place in which my weaknesses are front and center.  A place where God is silent and I am so very tired.  I know the clichés.  I can quote the scripture, but sometimes sackcloth and ashes is more appropriate.  Sometimes grief and loss are companions that will not let me go.  They sing me to sleep, only to wake me in the night.  They whisper to me what could have been, and abandonment chimes in to remind me that whatever I do, I do it alone.  The weight of such thoughts banishes sleep and pumps my heart in crazy rhythms.  My palms sweat and my breathing becomes shallow.  I find myself back where I have always been, holding on for dear life.  It is not pretty.  I am not holding it together very well.  I am searching for my secret place to no avail.  I am lost to it, groping in the dark, trying to find peace that eludes me.  Dare I pen such a place?  Dare I speak it aloud? Should I put it on paper? It is easier to pretend all is well and all will be well.  It is easier to say what I want to hear, that everything will be fine.  It will all somehow work out like it always does.  But underneath those pretentious thoughts I wonder if it is true.  Will it ever be true?

Hard places.  Deep waters.  Struggling to breathe.  Just to breathe.  Sinking beneath the waves.  I cannot even cry out.  I am silent with my tears…which are the only prayers I have at the moment.  No words.  Pressure that has been my companion for years rises in my throat and sits on my shoulders. This is my lament.  It is my burden.  I know the sun will come up eventually.   I have lived long enough to know it is true. Light always follows darkness.  I simply have to hold on until it does, but this time I am not holding on…I am letting go.