Life, Death, and Pizza

Poem by Nayyirah Waheed


Tonight I ate pizza for dinner.

It isn’t often, but whenever I do, I remember this girl that I was in eating disorder treatment with. She was there for anorexia and bulimia, and she discharged halfway through my stay. She seemed to be in a really good place.

I found out later through mutual friends that two weeks after she discharged, she attempted suicide.

She slit her wrists after eating three pieces of pizza.

Notice I didn’t say “because” she ate the pizza. She didn’t try to kill herself over that. If you’ll forgive the metaphor, the pizza was just the trigger on an already loaded gun- a girl with a deadly psychiatric disease in a crisis state.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. At 20%,  that means 1 in 5 of us die. Many of those deaths are suicides. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, and eating disorders “not otherwise specified” (aka OSFED) are all deadly, cunning, terrifyingly insidious diseases that need comprehensive treatment to combat. A custom combination of physical medicine, psychiatric medicine, nutritional care, psychological counseling, life skills, and spiritual care (among other treatment options) is essential for helping people get into solid, lasting recovery. With proper treatment, that mortality rate drops to 4%.

As I ate pizza for dinner tonight, I reflected on a time when dying because I ate too much of the “wrong” food seemed reasonable. I remembered a time when that girl’s decision made some sense to me.

And I thanked God for the fact that it no longer does. 

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 

Matthew 6:25

“Arise”: A Poem For Everyone With a #metoo Story

This recent social media campaign of so many survivors coming forward to tell their stories and acknowledge that they have been affected by sexual violence has had me thinking a lot about empowerment.

I believe so strongly in the empowerment that comes from sharing the truth, from using one’s voice to overcome the silence that surrounds issues like sexual violence. I believe in the healing power of unburdening ourselves of these truths. I believe in the power that comes from so many people raising their hands at once to say, “Yes. This is real. It happened to me. And we need to do better.”

In my own journey, I have been wrestling a bit with an energy I have felt building recently: this sudden surge of confidence, boldness, strength, and conviction that has made me feel more personally and spiritually empowered than I ever have in my life. This energy is so new, and is still a bit unwieldy for me. How does a person who spent the majority of her life being victimized, violated, and disempowered suddenly manage feeling strong, capable, and full of a courageous energy that makes her want to shriek with joy? I really don’t know yet. It’s going to take practice. I will have to train myself to channel this energy into constructive, creative pathways because I am vulnerable to this energy becoming destructive. 

This latest poem was inspired by my own journey into standing in personal and spiritual empowerment after being destroyed by the actions of others. So this is for everyone who has ever felt destroyed, then found a way to go on. No matter how dark it seems, remember that there is always a spark left inside you.

And it only takes one spark to start a fire.

“Arise”

From the start

Every spark

Ground to ashes

Until I thought

I had nothing left

But that wisp of smoke

That was my ghost

And the body

That lay burned

And bereft

What I found

As I rose

From the ashes

Is that I am

A phoenix

Aflame

A fierce

Burning light

That blazes

So bright

I cannot be

Snuffed out

Again

I fought

For the right

To be

Full of light

After the depths

Of darkness

I dwelled in

God’s shining

Through me and

All around me

I’m unleashing

The power

I held in

May this flame always

Be used

To warm

Not to burn

To help others

Find their light too

What I now know

Is I’m ready

To show

I wasn’t

Extinguished

By you


© Sarah Ann Henderson 2017


Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. 

Hebrews 12: 28-29 

Ripping Down the Walls: Our Stories Are What Heal Us (Part 3)

The walls we build around us to keep out sadness, also keeps out joy

In my final post, I’d like to address my fellow sufferers of mental illness and chronic physical illness.

So to begin with, it sucks being a patient, and knowing that you have to be one for the foreseeable future– and let’s be real, for most of us it will be the rest of our lives– that just. Plain. Sucks.

It is, however, what it is. So I decided to accept the reality of my life– the fact that there are certain things I will not be able to do, and certain things I will need have help to do, and certain things I will have to do to maintain stability that other people don’t– and not be bitter about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t get pissed off and frustrated at times with the limitations my mental and physical illnesses place on my life. It just means I don’t live there.

Also, it’s not all limitations. My illnesses grant me certain skills and abilities other people do not have, too. I have a depth of compassion for people that I would not if I didn’t deal with these issues. I have an extraordinary level of creativity and intelligence, and when I write I have a deep well of emotional experience to draw from. I will be a better nurse because I’ve been a patient and a better priest because of the deep spiritual work I’ve done to heal and the faith that sustains me through these trials. I will be able to spot mental illness in my patients that come in for physical problems before other nurses. These are all useful and valuable things.

I inherited bipolar from my father, who inherited it from his mother. It’s a family legacy. It became a crisis when I was fourteen. At that point I had my first major depressive episode. By fifteen I was cutting myself every day, my anorexia, which had begun at age nine, and my bulimia, which had just started, were in full bloom, and I was abusing prescription drugs (that I got from my father, actually. He was a surgeon.) The day I had planned to commit suicide a teacher found my sliced up arms, informed my mother, and I was admitted to my first psychiatric unit. It was the first of many. My bipolar was not correctly diagnosed until I was twenty-one, which is typical; it takes on average six years for bipolar to be correctly identified and treated. Due to other co-morbid issues– the complex PTSD, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, etc– it took another six years before I was stable on medication.

I have been on some type of psychiatric medication non-stop since I was fourteen. Times when I have tried to go off of it have resulted in suicidal depression, panic, mania, and even psychosis. Going off of medication is simply not an option for me; my brain needs it to function. I am absolutely willing to put up with taking twenty pills a day, dealing with side effects, and seeing a psychiatrist 2-4 times a year if it means I stay functional and sane. Without question and without hesitation. Even though this is one reason that I can never be pregnant. I value my sanity that much.

It’s a terrible thing to be afraid of your own mind, but I have been, and I don’t want to be again. So I will do whatever I have to to remain stable.

Medication alone is not a cure. It is a tool that works in combination with therapy, good nutrition, enough sleep, healthy social interaction, and other forms of self-care; it’s an individual process depending on your illness and your needs. Do not let anyone tell you that “medication is toxic” or it will hurt you or convince you to get off of it because it makes them uncomfortable. Fuck that noise. This is your life and if it works for you, then use it. At the same time, don’t let anyone force meds on you if you feel they don’t work for you. They’re not for everyone. Again, it depends on your diagnosis. Don’t let your diagnostic labels become who you are. You are not bipolar or depression. You have bipolar or depression. You are a person separate from your illness. Don’t get too comfortable in inpatient treatment, ever. It too, is just a tool. If you take meds, I suggest you get a medication organizer and fill it once a week to keep you on track. It may also be helpful to keep a journal to track your symptoms. When you see your doctor, go over it with him/her. Have a list of people to call when you need help for specific things; I have a list that’s like, “when I need a pep talk,” “when I need a listening ear,” “when I need unconditional love,” “when I needs spiritual support,” “when I need immediate help.” I have those people and their phone numbers in my cell phone in a special file. And for God’s sake: if you are feeling suicidal, do not mess around. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Counselors are available there twenty-four hours a day to help you if you are in crisis. (Also available at National Suicide Prevention Lifeline where you can chat online with counselors.)

Mental illness does not have to run your life. As long as you take care of yourself, it can be manageable.

Physical chronic illness is similar. It takes diligent self-care to manage. I’m doing so much better in this area thanks to being on Plexus. My pain levels have gone dramatically down and my energy has gone dramatically up. I’m able to focus to get things done. A lot of the side effects I had from my psychiatric medication– bloating, constipation, brain fog, etc– have been completely resolved by the Plexus products I take. It’s really remarkable and like nothing else I’ve ever found. So if you have an autoimmune disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, or are trying to manage the side effects of psychiatric medication, I highly recommend you give Plexus a try or at least check it out. (You can do so here.)

This isn’t a Plexus ad, however, so let me say that managing chronic illness also involves making sure, like with everything else, that you are well-nourished, well-hydrated, well-rested, and taking all prescribed medications. Taking care of your stress is a huge factor for managing chronic physical illness as well. Get therapy or pastoral counseling. Have a spiritual practice that you do regularly. Have distractions available for when you have bad pain days; for me that means cuddling with my cat and watching netflix, cuddling with my cat and reading a novel, cuddling with my cat and doing a crossword, and maybe cuddling with my cat. If you need to and it’s possible to, take a day to stay home and rest. Never feel guilty about saying “no.” You only have this one body, and your body has some special needs. It has limits that you needs to respect, or you’ll end up paying for it by getting sick or being in extra pain. It’s easier to prevent pain/illness than to treat it later so keep that in mind, and really weigh what the cost is to your health before you make a commitment to a certain activity. I have often over-committed myself and then needed to scale back. It’s a learning process. But no one will respect your health boundaries if you don’t respect them yourself first. So make sure you do.

I hope this series has been helpful to some of you. I hope I’ve been able to impart some wisdom from my experiences and give some hope to people dealing with the same issues I have. Have compassion for yourselves and each other. Healing is possible.

 

The Lord protects and preserves them—
The Lord sustains them on their sickbed
    and restores them from their bed of illness.

 I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord;
    heal me!”

Psalm 41:2-4

 

Ripping Down the Walls: Our Stories Are What Heal Us (Part 2)

The walls we build around us to keep out sadness, also keeps out joy

 

With this post I’d like to speak to my friends who are suffering with eating disorders and self-harm.

I personally believe eating disorders are fundamentally one disease with different manifestations. Whether you binge, binge-purge, restrict, or some other combination of eating disordered behaviors, to my mind it all comes down to a core belief that you don’t deserve to live. It’s a distortion of self, a lack of self-worth so profound that you literally do not believe you deserve to exist. It’s an inversion of the survival instinct, the one that wants to preserve your life; instead, it tells you that the way to psychologically survive is to physically die. And whatever method your brain chooses to go about that, the instinct is the same: destroy the body to save the mind.

There is only one way that I have found to heal from an eating disorder, and that is to reverse this instinct. To do that, you have to discover why you don’t feel you deserve to exist, what drives that belief, and tell that belief to go fuck itself. Because it’s just wrong. You have to recognize your fundamental worth as a human being, and really get that you deserve every good thing that every other human deserves, simply because you exist.

This is basic stuff that most people are born with, but a lot of people with eating disorders just aren’t. I wasn’t. And my trauma reinforced those ideas that I shouldn’t exist and I was unworthy. A great deal of people with eating disorders have trauma in their pasts.

Here’s some practical stuff for early recovery: Set reasonable goals. Don’t worry about it when you fail to reach them sometimes, when you fuck up, because fucking up is part of recovery. Do not let anyone tell you that one slip is the same thing as a relapse because it is not. If you throw up once, or skip one meal, or over eat, that is not the same thing as a relapse. A relapse is losing twenty pounds because you’re spending five hours a day at the gym or bingeing and purging ten times a day for a month. There is a difference. Slips are part of recovery. Relapse can be part of recovery too. Never give up hope. Never give up. Don’t worry about some of the little stuff they nag you about in residential treatment. For instance, I was always getting nagged about eating the vegetables in my soup in a certain order. Who cares? I ate it, right? I still do this. I do not have an eating disorder anymore, so let’s just file that one under “eccentricity” not “disordered.” The important thing is that you’re doing what you’re supposed to. Don’t worry about the knuckle-headed stuff. It’s picking your battles. If you’re one to isolate, be sure you see people once a day. If you’re a workaholic, be sure to take time for yourself. Remember that self-care comes first during the early stages of recovery, that you have to protect your recovery at all costs, and that is not selfish. It is survival. Find a spiritual practice that sustains you and do it once a day. Pray, meditate, talk to the trees, whatever. Just connect with something greater than yourself. Always be in contact with your team. Go to therapy, see your dietitian, see your doctor. And of course, when you feel lost, go back to the basics: make sure that you are drinking enough, eating enough, taking your meds, getting enough sleep, breathing deeply. Basic, life-sustaining activity. Those things come naturally to most people, but not necessarily to us. So it’s good to check in.

For my friends suffering from self-harm. So many of the same issues with eating disorders cross over into self-harm. I began hurting myself because I had bipolar that was undiagnosed and untreated, and I was so indescribably depressed that I literally couldn’t feel anymore. It was like living in a mass of black plasma that oozed around me, choking off my access to life and light. So I cut myself. A lot. I burned myself a few times, but I preferred cutting because, I don’t know…it just made sense to me. Later on I would also hit myself with blunt objects, to the point of breaking bones. This is very similar to the instinct I mentioned with eating disorders: destroy the body to save the mind. A great deal of people who self-harm have trauma. For me, self-harm served many purposes: recognizing that I was still alive when I felt dead in depression; punishing myself when I felt shame and guilt for bingeing and purging; soothing emotional pain; grounding and calming myself when I was panicking; forcing myself back to the present when I was in a flashback of being raped/tortured. So you can imagine, something that was so useful was extremely hard to give up. Self-harm also has an addictive quality, a physical high that comes from the endorphins that rush to your brain when you’re injured. It can be as difficult to give up as drugs for some people. I harmed myself off and on from the age of 14 until I was 29.

The only way you can give up self-harm is if you find something to replace it. You have to find a way to soothe yourself that does not involve hurting yourself. Doing that is similar to the process with eating disorder recovery; you have to reverse that part of your brain that says pain is pleasurable and preferable to what most people consider actual pleasure. It takes literally rewiring your brain, which is actually not as hard as it sounds. There is a technique or therapy model called ACT- acceptance and commitment therapy- that helped me a great deal. Just google it. You’ll go long periods of time without harming and then lapse, and that’s ok. It happens. Never be ashamed of your scars. Scars are not just reminders of wounds they are symbols of the healing of those wounds. Wear shorts and tank tops, go to the pool, live your life. If people don’t get it, educate them. If people ask, be honest. Say yeah, I used to cut myself but I’m better now. Every time you do, you’re taking away some of the stigma.

If you remember nothing else, the most important factor in healing from an eating disorder and/or self-harm is compassion. You must have endless amounts of compassion for yourself. This is the hardest thing you may ever do, and when you fall down, give yourself grace. Get up, move on, no grudges. Learn from it and do better. Have as much compassion for yourself as you would if your best friend were trying to heal from a deadly illness. Treat yourself with the same level of love and respect. You deserve nothing less.

Part 3 will address my friends who manage mental health issues and chronic health issues.

 

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41:10

 

 

Ripping Down the Walls: Our Stories Are What Heal Us (Part 1)

The walls we build around us to keep out sadness, also keeps out joy

 

A couple of days ago, my BFF Deede wrote this incredible facebook post, and I asked her to let me share it here as a beginning for this post:

“How many of my friends have been to jail?
I have – and that’s a scary answer to give.
I’m not perfect, I’ve come from a rocky past and I’ve worked really hard to change my life.
There were some very low points in my life, and while I’m not proud of them, those were my choices – and I learned from them.
I’m willing to speak about those moments – to let others know they’re not alone. When we talk about these things, the walls built up around a person’s vulnerability are ripped away – and it’s scary; but that allows room for healing.

I actually love the fact that I have come from such a dark place.
I’ve turned my past into a lesson.
I’ve done a lot of self work in the past years, and one thing that has always stuck with me? How important it is to share our experience, strength and hope.

Every single person on the face of the planet has demons they have to battle.
There is no shame in battling your demons – but what if I battled the same demon you are currently fighting, and I didn’t give you my fighting tips?

It would be like holding the antidote to your poison in my pocket, and not saying anything – and I just can’t do that.”

This made me think about my own rocky past; the dark places I have been, the low points to which I’ve descended. This made me remember the poor choices I’ve made and the demons I’ve fought.

It also made me remember how hard I have worked to change my life, how I’ve turned my past into a lesson. How important it is to share our experience, strength and hope. And most of all, why I speak about these things: as Deede said, “to let others know they’re not alone. When we talk about these things, the walls built up around a person’s vulnerability are ripped away – and it’s scary; but that allows room for healing.”

Like my friend, I actually love that I’ve come from such a dark place. And like her, I believe that to keep to myself the ways that I’ve fought, survived, and healed would be, in her beautiful words, “like holding the antidote to your poison in my pocket, and not saying anything – and I just can’t do that.”

I just can’t do that.

 

To preface, you need to know that I’ve had many trials in my life. You probably know most of them. A childhood of violence: watching my mother as a battered woman, being verbally/emotionally abused and physically and sexually tortured by my father from 3-9, being sexually abused by my gymnastics coach from 8-12, being raped by a stranger at 16, nearly date raped at 19, sexually assaulted by a professor at 21. Other trauma: several serious car wrecks, a surgery at 23 where my chest was cracked open, I lost part of my lung, died in surgery, and was in a coma. Mental health issues: Bipolar, anorexia, bulimia, complex PTSD, self-harm, drug abuse, suicide attempts (several serious), executive dysfunction. Physical health issues: too numerous to name, but mainly autoimmune disease (x3), heart arrhythmia, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, chronic pain and fatigue, etc, etc.

As I dispassionately type this list I realize no one should have to live with this much pain. I also realize that I did, and I am, and I’m doing ok. More than ok.

For my brothers and sisters who are suffering from trauma: I can tell you that there is hope. I can tell you that it does not have to feel like this forever. It takes being willing to forge a new relationship with your trauma in order to learn to live with it. It takes being willing to see things from new perspectives and have enormous compassion for yourself and others. It takes recognizing your own inherent worth, and really, really getting that whatever happened was not your fault. Healing is letting go of the idea that you could have done anything different, that you could have changed the outcome of your trauma. You couldn’t. You didn’t. It happened the way it happened and healing is letting it be. It is grieving your trauma: what happened, what you lost because of what happened, what should have happened, what you did to survive, what you lost because of what you did to survive. It is acknowledging your anger while knowing that you can’t live angry. It is loving yourself for being courageous enough to face this at all. It is letting go of shame, guilt, blame, and fear. Healing is remembering your trauma and feeling peace.

Tomorrow I’d like to say a word to my fellow fighters of mental illness, self-harm, and eating disorders. For now, I hope this is helpful to some of you.

 

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
    and burst their bonds apart.
 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wondrous works to the children of man!

Psalm 107:13-16

The Mother’s Memorial

IMAG1890

I don’t know how to write about this, which is why I have to write about it. I write to process, I write to grieve, I write to get through things. I write to feel less alone, and so others will feel less alone. Initially, I wasn’t going to write about it, because it felt like a really personal thing. But I feel like it’s part of my testimony, of how God works in my everyday life. Some people don’t believe in that, but it is absolutely true for me.

I had this idea, a while ago, to have a memorial service for…I’m still not sure. For the children I’ll never have? For my loss of the ability to be a biological mother? For my hopes and dreams of biological motherhood? For the things that prevent me from being a biological mother? I think it was all of that and more. (I specify “biological” mother because I still hope to adopt in the future.)

The reasons I wanted this memorial service were many: to acknowledge the grief, to physically manifest that, to have someone else acknowledge that grief with me, to make it real and help me move past it. Humans need ceremony, rites, and rituals to move through the pivotal events in our lives, positive and painful. It’s why we have weddings and funerals and baptisms and birthdays. We need those occasions to acknowledge that a change has happened in our lives, and we need our community to acknowledge that with us.

There is not, however, any kind of ceremony, rite, or ritual (at least in our culture) for a community to acknowledge a woman who has lost her ability to have children. Women are expected to grieve that on their own, and often, we don’t even talk about it. The few support groups that exist are for women with infertility who are desperately trying to conceive. That isn’t me. What I wanted was support for the process of accepting, healing, and moving on from the loss of fertility– and there was simply no one talking about that. So I decided to create that for myself, and I chose to do it with a memorial service. I asked my priest, Beth+, to help me do this.

At first, I wanted complete control over the whole thing. I even wrote a liturgy and a service leaflet based on the funeral liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. I found quotes from Scripture and hymns, I made it exactly how I wanted it. I hand-painted a tiny box, which, now that I think of it, is the size of a uterus (about the size of a fist). In it, I had written and folded up several little notes, each of them with something I would be losing. I decided I wanted to bury it under an angel statue in the prayer garden at my church. I had it all arranged in my head.

God, however, in His wisdom, made scheduling my version of this service impossible for several weeks. And as those weeks went by, I felt less and less inclined to do it my way. I felt less and less attached to my version of this event, and I felt like I wanted to give up control of this whole thing. This, as it turned out, was the best thing that could’ve happened, because if I’d had it my way, it would not have been nearly as meaningful.

Beth+ and I discussed this service beforehand, and I let her know that I wanted to hand it over to her. We scheduled it for the following Monday, and I spent the weekend praying about it. The main thing I prayed for was to be present. I’m very adept at shutting down uncomfortable feelings when they show up and I knew I just wanted to be present to whatever I experienced in the moment as we went through this. I also decided to invite a dear friend of mine who was going through a hysterectomy that Tuesday. She was feeling similar feelings of loss, and I felt it would be important for her too.

The night before, I wrote a letter. It was addressed to my Children Who Weren’t Meant to Be, from their One-to-Be Mother. It was hard to write, but I’m so glad I did. Strangely, in another one of God’s timing things, I had run out of my birth control a few days earlier and was having terrible cramps. I’m usually on continuous birth control and don’t have a period at all, so this was unusual. But I realized that this was actually a good thing. I kind of wanted to feel my uterus right then. I wanted to be able to feel it contracting, like it was laboring through it’s own emptiness and grief.

On Monday, I came into Beth’s+ office and she asked if I was ready. I showed her the box and the letter, so she could figure out where to include it in the service. When we went into the Nave, she arranged three chairs around the Mary altar we have in the corner, with a kneeler in the middle. As we sat down, before Beth+ even began talking, tears were rolling down my cheeks.

Beth+ talked about how she wanted this to be a special liturgy, just for me, one that had never been done before and would never be done again. She talked about Mary and Her pregnancy, how She may have had more children or lost children, how She walked with me through this. Beth+ had me kneel, and she anointed my forehead with oil. She had my friend put one had where my uterus is, and one hand on my back. Beth+ had one hand on my head and one hand on my hands and she prayed: for the Holy Spirit to heal the places in me that felt broken, the places in me that felt damaged; for those places to be filled with light and love; that she and my friend, as my sisters, were there with me, to walk with me through this loss. Then Beth+ asked me something unexpected, which was probably the most painful part of the whole thing: did I name any of the babies that I couldn’t have? I did. I said those names out loud, and we prayed for them. When I got up, we prayed for my friend the same way, with my hand on her uterus, and Beth+ anointing her with oil. Then we lit candles. Beth+ read the letter I wrote for me, because I couldn’t get through it. She held my hand the whole time. After that, we went outside. I hadn’t told her that I had picked a place under the angel statue, but that’s where she went. We buried the little box and the letter along with it. We commended it to the earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We sang a hymn that my friend had picked out, and Beth+blessed the ground and us.

It was a beautiful service, and Beth+did it perfectly.

After everything, I sat in the church for quite a while. I knelt at the Mary altar, I sat in a pew, I sat in front of the main altar on the floor near the tabernacle, and cried. And cried.

And cried.

Sometimes when I need comfort or guidance, I’ll say a prayer and flip to a random page in the Bible to see what direction God might give through His word. As I sat in the pew, this is what I saw, and I laughed through my tears:

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,” another will be called by the name of Jacob, yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,” and adopt the name of Israel. Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

God is with me, I need not be afraid. As someone once said to me, “Whether or not you have children, you are fertile.” There are many ways to give life to the world. I will figure out what my way is, at some point.

Right now I’m just grateful, for the opportunity I had to do this, a friend who did it with me, and a priest who treated it with such reverence, sensitivity, and importance. The way Beth+ treated this loss, always with such seriousness, gave it a validity that I needed to stop minimizing and denying the grief I really felt. It helped give me permission to open up to those feelings and be honest about them. I’m so thankful for that. And it makes me so thankful that I am in a church that ordains women, because a male priest, no matter how sensitive, just could not have helped me through this in the same way.

This was not a silver bullet, and I still have things to work through, but it did help me immensely. As painful as it was, it was equally healing.

For that, I can’t be anything but grateful.

 

 

Poems for PTSD Awareness Month

June is PTSD Awareness Month, so all throughout June I will be posting poetry I’ve written related to that topic, several in a post. I hope you find them eye-opening, informative, inspiring, and hopeful. Thank you for reading.

Content Warning: Sexual Assault/Rape, Violent Language

3/10/14

 

Try to Remember

 

She asks me to remember

And I try, reluctantly

She asks questions for which I have no answers

No answers

Not even God has satisfied the curiosity here

 

Think back

 

When the young were meant to be innocent

And the cared-for not meant to be doing the caring

What did you daydream about?

Were you allowed to dream at all?

 

When you danced and twirled like the girl in your music box

When you lived two lives side by side

How did you manage your plentiful secrets?

How did you weave your lies?

 

When you lost your body so you could lose yourself

When you turned the pain inside out

What did you grab at the end of your rope?

Who introduced the concept of hope?

 

Think back for me, she said

These things

Are still important

 

© 2014 Sarah Ann Henderson

 

2/16/14

 

And Then

 

And then

 

I am hurtled slo-mo down the rabbit hole

My brain decides down is up, safe is dangerous

I am snowblind to comfort

 

Trauma is a form of time travel

An emotional Tardis

Triggers spin me back without warning

 

And then

 

I awake to find that I’m drowning

Disappointed in my brain for falling into this trap again

Though I understand the cause

 

It takes weeks to sort out

To stem the tide of trauma

To see the signs and symptoms

To get myself in line

 

And then

 

I may have a space of “normal”

Where no triggers happen to lurk

I get used to feeling ok

 

And then

 

© 2014 Sarah Ann Henderson

 

9/1/16

 

Beyond This

 

With your hand over my face

You told me to keep my whore mouth shut

 

With a gun to my head

You told me no one would listen

 

With a knife to my throat

You reminded me that it wouldn’t matter if I talked

 

Because I was nothing

Because I was no one

And my words were worthless

 

You didn’t need weapons to terrify me into deathly silence

Just the look in your eyes was enough to do that

A black beyond black

 

Yet they gleamed when I cried

When I bled

When I begged

 

Evil enjoys cruelty for cruelty’s sake

 

Pretty soon I went quiet

Not wanting to give you the satisfaction

At that you became more violent

And I, more silent

 

Until you were essentially raping a corpse

My soul having long fled the scene

 

By the time you had sunk to torture,

I was existing in a tomb of silence

 

I kept your secret so well and so long

That I eventually kept it from myself

 

Wrapped in so many layers of terror and shame

Of guilt and disgust

Degradation and pain

This secret stayed secret

 

It took unlearning every word you ever said to me

Every lie your evil tongue spat

To unwrap those layers and speak the truth:

I never deserved any of that

 

I was an innocent child

Completely blameless

Every bit of that shame belongs to you

 

I won’t carry that now

I won’t die or stay silent

Your secret is no longer my burden

 

You called me slut, whore, worthless, unloveable

But all that is meaningless now

Because God calls me His:

Daughter, beloved

What you should have called me but chose not to

 

I’m beyond that now

Whatever evil facilitated your sadism belongs to you alone

I will not hate myself for being your child

 

And I will forgive you

Not because you deserve it

But because I do

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2016

 

 

 

Being In My Body: PTSD and Exercise

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Gym selfie: no makeup, no filter, no problem!

Today I went to the gym for the first time since last August. It was good. I did twenty minutes of cardio (walking on an incline on the treadmill) and some core strength exercises. I’m starting small.

Exercise is an issue for me for a number of reasons. A former eating disorder is obviously one of them. My chronic pain is another. One that I don’t really talk about, though, is my PTSD.

The way that PTSD makes exercise difficult for me is a little difficult to explain. I suppose first I have to explain something about how I survived my original trauma.

One of the most common survival mechanisms in sexual and physical abuse is called dissociation. Dissociation occurs along a spectrum, but in its most simplistic terms, it’s a way for the mind to kind of separate itself from the body during a trauma so that it’s not experiencing it. For example, a good portion of my traumatic memories are remembered not from my perspective as I was there, but as if I were viewing them from above. This is one aspect of dissociation; the sensation as if one were floating outside one’s body. Another aspect, for me, is feeling detached from my body, even now. I’d say that, in order to function with the level of pain I live with, I have to live at about 2% dissociation all the time. I keep things pretty cognitive, focus on what’s going on in my mind and keep my body an afterthought. It’s the only way I can get up and do the stuff I have to do without taking major painkillers or crying some days.

As a trauma victim, I grew up dissociating from my body. I had to, to survive. As an anorexic, I dissociated from my body in order not to feel hunger or pain as I starved and abused myself. When I cut and beat myself, I was again dissociating from my body. I avoided touch. I abused pills. I did everything I could to basically not even have a body. 

As I’ve grown and healed, I have become better friends with my body. Even so, I have a hard time feeling present in it. When I decided to start exercising again I had some significant anxiety, and when I really explored that I realized that some of it was because I didn’t want to feel my body.

Exercising means moving, feeling, existing in the physical presence of yourself. I fear doing this because when I’m in my body, I open myself up to the presence of the traumas that still live in it. Being in my body makes me aware of my physical self, the self that was beaten, raped, choked, tortured. My body holds so many memories, and when I’m really in it I’m vulnerable to feeling those things. When it comes to PTSD, body memories are really the fucking worst. It’s not seeing what happened, it’s feeling what happened; as if his hands are still on you, as if he’s still forcing himself inside you, as if you still can’t breathe, in this moment.

The worst.

In the past, I have literally tried to rid myself of even having a body through starvation and self-mutilation. I’ll never do that again, but my connection to my body is still not what I’d like it to be. I think being grounded and comfortable in your body is something you have to learn as a child. It’s something I never had the chance to learn; after all, I was only three when the sexual abuse began. When you start dissociating from yourself at that young of an age, it probably takes a lifetime to build the connections that never formed. I’m continuing to try, through therapy and energy work, and now, through physical exercise. I hope that by being more present in my body more often, I can begin to heal the disconnect that’s still the norm. I hope that I can process that trauma energy out, so I no longer have to feel like the ghosts of the past are haunting my body.

Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.

Mark 5:38

 

 

Understanding Grief: Love With Nowhere to Go

grief-is-just-love-with-no-place-to-go

I can’t seem to find a reliable source for the author of this quote. But it’s the best explanation I’ve found for the type of grief that I’ve been experiencing around the loss of my ability to have a child.

I was sitting in therapy the other day and I was frustrated. I was saying how I didn’t understand why this “grief process” was taking so long. How I didn’t understand, didn’t anticipate, that my grief over not being able to become pregnant and have a child would be so intense. And why it had only seemed to be since that last ultrasound the previous March that I have felt this way.

It’s not like I didn’t have some understanding that infertility was a possibility for me. I’m not an idiot. I’ve been on psychiatric medication since I was 14. I was diagnosed with my first autoimmune disorder seven years ago, and PCOS six years ago. I was told about the scarring from repeated sexual trauma when I was 25. I knew all of those things could affect my chances to get pregnant and have a healthy baby at some point in my life, but I wasn’t putting it all together. I thought I still had options. I thought there was still some chance.

The truth is, I know why it’s only been since March 11, 2016 that I’ve felt this way. It’s because that’s when I put it all together. That’s when all my options were taken away. That’s when I was told that there was, essentially, no chance, unless I wanted to risk both my life and the life of any fetus I tried to carry. That’s when whatever little hope I had was crushed.

And so the grief really began. The loss that had been, up to that point, only theoretical, became an actual, tangible loss. A death. One I was not prepared to mourn.

The strength of this grief and the length of time is has gone on has confused me, frustrated me, angered me, and generally been a stumbling block in my healing. I understood that there would be grief but why was there so much? For a long time I felt like I didn’t have the right, didn’t deserve to mourn so much about a loss that, for the first few months, I still had to convince myself was a real thing. I told myself that I was mourning “imaginary children” and that was “stupid.” Disparaging and minimizing the truth was a defense against the pain I was feeling, just a another stop on the way to acceptance. I had to have multiple people tell me that this was real. That I had the right to feel what I felt. That it made sense.

Six months after that ob-gyn appointment, two dear friends of mine lost their three-year-old child to a drowning accident. And suddenly, my grief seemed like the stupidest thing on earth, because this mother had lost a real child. Her living, breathing child whom she had carried and birthed and held and known and played with and taught and fed and rocked and loved beyond measure, had died. I mourned for her child, mourned for her. I stopped mourning for myself because I felt unimaginably dumb doing so.

I’ve never said this to her before, but I know she’ll understand if she reads this.

I had to get past the idea that there was some comparison to be made. I had to understand that we are two separate people with two separate stories, and we each have the right to grieve our own losses. I had to get past the idea that there’s like, some scarcity of grief out there, and that if I grieved while she did I’d be taking up too much of the supply.

There’s plenty to go around.

I finally really understood this two months ago when I went to a Lenten discussion on grief with a few people from church. Why they chose to do this in a loud,  hamburgers-and-beer place was beyond me but I found myself leaving the discussion to sit outside at a picnic table and cry. A woman I know, who had also lost a child, came and sat down next to me. This woman had lost her fourteen-year-old daughter to a rare disease just three years ago. Without a word, she sat down next to me and opened her arms. I fell onto her shoulder and sobbed. She told me something I hadn’t known: that since she had been very young, she thought that she couldn’t have children, so she understood my pain. When she got pregnant with her daughter, it was a total shock.

Something about the fact that this woma who had lost her real, living child, was willing to sit down and be in my pain with me over not being able to have any was extraordinary. It was one of the most generous acts of grace I’ve ever seen. She validated my grief with hers. She validated it by being a mother who had arguably been though much worse and still was willing to comfort me. I can’t thank her enough for that.

I remember continuing to cry after they left, in my car, for an hour. I drove around, eventually ending up at the St. Mary’s church grounds. I walked the prayer path, stumbling in the dark, not seeing the irony of the metaphor at the time. I went home, because I had to. And I felt something shift.

The very next day, because this is how God works, I saw the image at the top of this piece on Facebook. It hit me like a ton of bricks: The reason my grief is so intense is because I am feeling all the mother’s love I ever wanted to give to all the children I ever wanted to have, all at once– except there are no children to receive it. So this love has nowhere to go but straight back into me, where it sits like stagnant water, a swamp full of care-taking and nurturing and hand-holding and playing and teaching and mothering. 

I’m a mother, but I will never be a mother.

That’s why it hurts so much, and is taking so long.

 

And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Job 1:21

How I See You: A Poem About a Shift In Perspective

Joan of Arc for you. Elizabeth I for me. 😉

 

I wrote this poem today, after talking to someone who knows me probably better than anyone else on the planet. I was telling her how I felt so down right now, how after all that’s happened in the past year my spirit felt crushed with grief. And well, she had some words for me about that. 

Thank you for loving, supporting, and guiding me, and sometimes giving me a total shift in perspective! You are a light in my life and I’m so grateful for you. So grateful. Love you.

5/17/17

 

How I See You

 

I sit here, nursing my spirit

As I feel it, bruised by so many blows

I sense that it’s crushed, but a wise woman tells me:

You’re not crushed,

You’re a fucking hero

I see you burning so brightly

I see you strong and fighting

Yes, you’ve been beaten, but no, dear, not crushed

Your spirit is nothing if not shining

You’ve run a gauntlet of pain

You’ve been honest and vulnerable

You’ve faced grief and trauma

And forgiven the unforgiveable

Only heroes do that

Only heroes come back

Only heroes keep fighting

Only heroes know how

To use the gifts of darkness to move forward

To find those gifts in the first place

I see you stronger than ever

On the cusp of something great

Remember that you’ve done more than you ever thought possible

And you’ve got a whole new life to create

 

For Krista

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2017

 

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.

Psalm 34: 18-19

Let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread…for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.

Deuteronomy 20: 3-4