Remember Who You Are: A Post For the New Year

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Tonight is the last night of 2017. Even though it’s an arbitrary date in a calendar that humans made up, we still use this time to set new intentions, make new plans, and create new goals. At the beginning of another year, there always seems to be pressure to make yourself better, to do better than you did in the past.  However, in focusing so much on the future and how things could be better, I think we miss out on a lot.

I think we miss the chance to appreciate where we’ve been. The past contains important lessons, and a view of our journey. We need to take a moment to stop, and just honor our path to the place we are now.

To much focus on how things can get better leads us to forgetting how blessed we are in the present. This is a big one for me. For most of my life, whenever I set a goal, I didn’t do it to improve– I did it to become worthy. Losing weight (even when I didn’t need to) was to become worthy. Working was to become worthy. Going to school was to become worthy.

The problem with trying to achieve goals to make up for feeling like a defective human as opposed to wanting to achieve a goal for its own sake is that the former will always, always, set you up to fail. Because there is no accomplishment on this earth that can make you feel like enough until you accept that you are God’s creation, holy and beloved, and that nothing can take that intrinsic worth away from you. There is no amount of pounds lost or miles run or money made, no grades high enough or enough good deeds done to equal what you already have right there in your heart, if you’d only recognize it: the beauty of the light of Christ that shines through the darkest depths.

I started college when I was 17. I’m 34, and I only now graduated. Why? Because I only now accepted that I am a whole, healed human being who deserves to be happy, who deserves to graduate and accomplish my dreams. I never graduated before, not because I wasn’t smart enough or because I couldn’t handle the work but because I was afraid of being happy. I honestly didn’t believe I deserved that. So I tanked the play, for nearly twenty years.

Before you set a new goal, make a new plan, or dream a new dream this year, do yourself a favor: stop. Take a few minutes. Look back on 2017 and appreciate how far you’ve come, how hard you had to work to get here. Honor your journey and all the lessons contained therein. Think about your goal and why you chose it. Are you trying to better something in your life for the sake of making it better? Or are you trying to make up for a lack of self-worth? Check in with God, and pray on your goal. You’re going to need His help to accomplish it anyway. Ask Him to be with you as you walk this this new path. Ask Him to heal any places in you that still feel unworthy; to remind you of His promises, His love.

Setting goals and making plans are good things. Keep your heart centered in the right place, and may God lead you to where you’re meant to be in this coming year.

 

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: 

The old has gone, the new is here!

2 Corinthians 5:17

 

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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

More Than Numbers

Body Composition Activity 2.2

The above document is an assignment from the “physical fitness and wellness” course that I’m being required to take in order to graduate. In it, I’m being asked to calculate my BMI, body fat %, “fat weight” (could there be a more triggering phrase?), lean body mass %, waist circumference, and more ridiculous numbers that are not even a reliable indicator of health.

Basically, I am being asked to calculate all the numbers that I used to obsess about when I was anorexic.

So I used to have this scale. I took it from my parents’ bathroom when I was around 11. I had this scale for over twenty years. I saw every number on this scale from somewhere in the 150s to somewhere in the 50s. I watched my body magically grow and shrink like Alice after eating a truffle and drinking a potion. I watched my body as it marched towards death and grew into life and back and forth until my final ascent into recovery. I watched those numbers like some mad mathematician, calculating my worth, if I deserved love, or even life. Those ridiculous numbers determined everything about me. They were me.

Until I realized they weren’t.

The last time I saw that scale was ten years ago, when I threw it off the balcony of my apartment onto the concrete of the parking lot below, and I watched it smash into a hundred pieces.

Am I happy with my weight right now? Not particularly. But the danger that lies in attempting to manipulate it from where it has naturally settled it too high for me to risk doing anything about it. Maybe that will change in the future. I don’t know. What I do know is that those numbers no longer make up who I am. I don’t even think about them. My body is more than numbers. My life is so much greater than that. I have a big, beautiful, wonderful life, and it has nothing to do with how much I weigh, or my body fat percentage, or how many calories I eat in a day. It has nothing to do with that because no matter what those numbers are I am deeply loved by God, my family, my friends, and my church. Being thin felt nice, but it was lonely as hell and painful and small, and so destructive and unhealthy.

Love is so much better than being thin, y’all. So. Much. Better.

My body isn’t perfect, but what the hell is. I’d rather be happy than a size zero. And as for this assignment, I’m fighting for an alternate assignment, as I’ve fought for other alternate assignments. My health and recovery are more important than any class.

 

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 10:31

The Struggle is Real: Accepting, Not Overcoming, Infertility

“There is a unique pain that comes from preparing your heart for a child that never comes.” -David Platt text

When you hear that a woman is “struggling with infertility,” what do you think? Do you think of a woman desperately trying to get pregnant? Someone timing her ovulation, taking hormone injections, freezing her embryos?

This is one picture of a woman struggling with infertility. There is another picture: Me.

I am not desperately trying to become pregnant. I will never try to become pregnant, because pregnancy is too dangerous for me. Struggling with infertility is not always about pregnancy. Struggling with infertility is also about the grief that comes from knowing that you can’t even try. That pregnancy is simply not an option. My struggle with infertility is not an attempt to overcome it. My struggle with infertility is my attempt to accept it. 

How many other women are in this part of the struggle? How many other women silently try to grieve their way through without any support? Why is there no support system for women who can’t try, can’t fight it, who have to simply accept that having children naturally will not happen?

Believe me, when you go looking for “infertility support” every single resource is focused on getting pregnant or adopting. I have not found a single one that simply says, “Yes, you are grieving the loss of your ability to have children naturally. We’re here to help you accept that and move forward.” I don’t know why that doesn’t seem to be available. If you find a resource like that, please let me know.

While I do hold on to the idea of adoption someday, that does not, in any way, mitigate the grief that comes from knowing I can never have children of my own. I wish that I could have what other mothers have with their children: getting to learn about them from inside my body, to feel their energy and get a sense of who they are from the way they move, kick, and flutter. I wish I could know what other women talk about when they describe that overwhelming love, that primal heart-to-heart connection they have with their biological children.  I don’t know what kind of love I’ll experience as a mother to a child not born of my body, but I know it will be different. Not less, but different. I don’t believe that a genetic connection is a guarantee of love, nor that a lack of one means less love. I know that isn’t true. I know that from how much I love my Godson, and he isn’t even mine. But I do wonder what it would have felt like to hold my baby moments after they came into this world, to tell them that I’m their mom, and have them look into my eyes with recognition. To know that I will love them forever.

That will not happen.

It’s a loss, and it’s real, and I will let myself grieve it.

 

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

 

 

Living Water

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“Are you ok?”

“Is your family safe?”

“Did you get any water?”

When I went to church this morning- our first full Eucharist since hurricane Harvey- I was bombarded by those same three questions everywhere I went. Most of us knew how the others were, thanks to social media. But some of us hadn’t seen each other since before the storm, and all the questions were about the water.

The water. This storm has changed the way I feel about water. I used to love rain, and maybe one day I will again, but right now the thought of rain just sounds threatening and terrible. I never understood the awesome, destructive force that water could be until I drove through a river that was usually a street, until I saw the highways of my city turned into seas, until my friends’ and neighbors’ homes were all but washed away. Until I saw water flood the house where my priest lives for the second time in less than 18 months. Water not only took homes, it took treasured belongings, people’s pets, and even some people’s lives. It took the life of my friends’ son a little less than a year ago, when he drowned in a swimming pool.

 

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It’s difficult to see water this way. It’s difficult to feel that the one substance that all of creation counts on to survive has somehow become a force that’s destroying life. Right now, water feels toxic. It feels almost animalistic, like a living thing with a mind of its own, attacking the people of my community, my city, my state.

What brings me back from that fearful place is the reminded of what water means to us as Christians, and especially as Episcopalians. To us, water is living; it is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. It is what baptizes us into our lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ. We are washed in water then sealed and marked with oil as Christ’s own forever. During Eucharist every Sunday, some water is poured into the wine before it is given to the people. I’ve heard several explanations for this: 1) the water and wine together represent the water and blood that poured from Jesus’ side during the Crucifixion, 2) the water represents Christ’s humanity and the wine His divinity so the mixing of the two is us witnessing his human transformation, 3) the water represents us, the people, and the wine represents Christ, and the mixing symbolizes how we can never be separated. My personal favorite is #3, but those all make sense. The point is that water has a very central place in our liturgy, a very central place in Scripture, a very central place in life. It is the most life-giving substance on earth, both biologically and spiritually, and yet here it is, in hurricane form, causing so much devastation. So much pain. So much loss.

Living-Water

For everyone I know who has been terrorized by water in the last week, my prayer for you is that as you find your new normal, and you work to repair what you can, and as we, your community, help you do so, that you would remember the waters of your baptism. The waters that washed you clean of sin and grafted your hearts onto Christ’s own for eternity. May you feel the healing powers of water: of a hot shower, a good cup of tea. May we remember that everything that has within it the power to destroy, also has within it the power to create.

Together, may we create a brighter future beyond the storm.

 

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And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

Matthew 10:42

 

 

 

 

We Must: A Hurricane Poem

21106756_10155282314234342_7874135219911076783_n“Be Someone” sign in Downtown Houston

 

We Must

 

The sun

Is out

But the storm

Is not over

We must keep watch

With those

Who work

Or weep

This night

We must keep hold

Of those things

Most important

And learn to grieve

What is not

What is lost

To take joy

In what is left

We must have hope

And believe

Not just in God

But in each other

Compassion

Is salvation

And love

Will dry the tears

The earth has cried

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2017

 

For all those affected by Hurricane Harvey

 

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
    the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
 May the Lord give strength to his people!
    May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Psalm 29:10-11

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

Loving My Body: How Trauma Stole That From Me and How I’m Reclaiming It

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Yesterday, I shared this photo collage on Instagram with the following message:

“What would happen if you allowed yourself to love your body? Not as it could be 10 lbs from now, not as it was 10 years ago, but as it is right now, today. What would you do of you didn’t care what other people thought of your body? What would happen of you embraced with compassion everything your body has been through: all the traumas, the scars, the tattoos, the marks that tell its story. How much more space and time would you have if you weren’t worried about how your body looked to others?

Imagine being free from caring what anyone thinks about your body, and instead living in it with love, honoring it as the precious vehicle that houses your mind and your spirit. Imagine fully accepting where you are, so if you want to make a healthy change you can move from a place of empowerment. Imagine knowing that you can have peace within your body.

I invite you to think about those questions, and look back at your own photos. Stop editing, cropping, filtering. Be as you are. And imagine where you can go from there.”

This was also shared on Facebook, and a friend encouraged me to expand on this and share it here on my blog. So here you are!

Each of the above photos represent an important moment when I gave up self-consciousness and judgment and let myself live in my body with love.

In the first image, I am being Confirmed in the Episcopal Church. The guys next to me is our Bishop Suffragan, the one who actually confirmed me. For the non-Episcopalians out there, Confirmation is like taking a repeat of the promises made for you at your Baptism, only now taking them intentionally for yourself as an adult. We call it our Baptismal Covenant. Anyway, this was a big moment for me, and I was incredibly excited and happy. I was being Confirmed on St. Mary’s Day, which is our patron saint’s (the Virgin Mary’s) feast day, and sort of like a parish festival. For a couple of weeks leading up to this, I was searching for a nice dress and was having shit luck, because I hated how I looked in everything. Finally I settled on the purple one I’m wearing in the photo (thanks, Dress Barn). The great thing was, during the service and the ceremony and reception, I forgot all about the damn dress and how I looked. I was filled with the Holy Spirit and was just happy and thrilled to be a Confirmed member of my church.

In the second photo, I am sitting by our community pool. I’m wearing a swimsuit for the first time since I was 16; in the photo I am 32. This was a big moment for obvious reasons. I experienced a lot of trauma in our swimming pool growing up; my father molested me in the pool a lot. I became very frightened of them, and of water in general. I never wore a swimsuit because the anorexia told me I looked like a humpback whale in every single one. But last summer, I decided to just fucking get over it. I’d lived just blocks away from this pool for nearly ten years, and I was going to fucking go and swim like a person who lives in Houston in the summer. I wore a basic black tank suit and felt a little uncomfortable but whatever. I swam! And people saw me! And I didn’t shrivel in shame under their judgmental gazes! Big moment.

The third photo is a picture of my left side, three weeks post-surgery. I was 23 years old and had managed to develop a rare pneumonia that led to doctors needing to crack open my chest and remove part of my left lung. The other scars are from chest tubes. That surgery was an extremely traumatic experience, as it all happened very fast, and I nearly died four different times. (Actually, I did die once, in surgery, when my heart stopped for over a minute.) This photo was taken just after I had the last of my chest tubes removed. I still have the scars, of course, but they and this photo remind me just how much a body can survive. I developed a lot of respect and affection for my body after this experience.

The fourth photo is of me and my brother Bryan’s family. His wife Cristina, my other sister, and their kids Caleb and Abby. I was 25, and I was visiting them in Austin. I felt really fat during this whole trip. But in this moment I was just a sister and an aunt, being with my family.

The middle photo is of me at the gym, about a week ago. First time since last summer, huge deal!

The next photo is of me and part of my nursing school class. I was 29, and even though I was struggling with my eating disorder then, I have to say, when I had my scrubs and stethoscope and badge on, the last thing I thought about was how my body looked. I felt a sense of purpose and pride in the work I was doing and the skills I was learning that couldn’t be touched by my disease. I still feel that way every time I wear scrubs.

The lower left photo is of the last tattoo I got. It’s called the Miraculous Medal of the Virgin Mary. Each of my tattoos represents Mary: this, a blue rose, and a gold and blue Fleur-de-Lis. I plan to get more tattoos. For me, they are a way of taking my body back. My whole life, people marked it without my permission: rapists, surgeons, even me when I cut myself. I don’t consider myself-harm scars to be consensual, because they are born purely of trauma. I live with other’s marks on my body, but tattoos are a way to reclaim markings, and make my own. Make conscious choices about what story I want to tell with my body; what’s meaningful to me, and leave positive markings alongside the negative ones. This is an act of body love.

The bottom middle picture is of me being silly at our church Halloween fest.I came as a feminist cat; my shirt says “Cats Against Catcalling.” This was a moment of pure whimsy where I didn’t care what I looked like or if I was being foolish and I was just having fun.

The last photo is of me serving as a worship leader and Eucharistic minister at the Great Vigil of Easter this year. I was in a cassock and wearing a cross that belonged to my grandmother. It was my first time serving in a large service where we wear vestments and everything, and I was a bit nervous. But as soon as I put that cassock on, I felt something like awe; like nothing was important but being in the moment and loving what I was doing. I felt filled with the Holy Spirit and so privileged and honored to be part of this holy service. I just felt love.

These photos represent my growth over the years as I have come to love and trust my body more than I distance myself from it and distrust it. When you grow up abused, trauma teaches you that the one place you are not safe is in your body. Why? Because the body can be attacked. The body is what’s weak and vulnerable. In your mind, you can go elsewhere, but your body is stuck in the situation, left to be battered, raped, choked, tortured. When you return to it mentally you find it bleeding or bruised, physical evidence of its weakness. So you separate from your body. You dissociate your mind and your soul from it in order to stay protected so that when your body, which cannot escape, is being abused, at least your mind is safe.

You grow up deliberately trying to erase your body’s existence. Anorexia is pretty efficient at this, but cutting and beating yourself make their point, too. It never occurs to you that this is abnormal or a problem. It never occurs to you that one of the reasons you’re being revictimized is because you are so disconnected from your body’s basic instincts that you can’t determine a dangerous person from a safe one. It never occurs to you that hating and destroying your body means that you’re also hating and destroying your mind and your soul, because your body is not just a part of you, it is you.

Trauma, especially in early childhood, damages or destroys the basic trust and love we have in our physical existence. It delvers the clear message that the physical world is not safe and therefore the body is not safe. That loss of innate trust disturbs basic concepts of survival such as, do I deserve to live? Do I deserve to have good things? Do I deserve to be loved?

Do I have the right to even be here?

I still struggle with that question sometimes. Do I have the right to exist? To take up space, to need things, to be loved, to ask for help? Losing that innate trust in your body makes you question things such as, am I worthy of a decent home, of food, of sleep, of self-care? And often leads to guilt and/or shame when you receive what you believe is “too much.” But depending on where you are in your healing, “too much” could mean a 20 minute nap, or a tablespoon of fat free yogurt instead of a teaspoon (that’s a real example from my life).

Healing requires answering those questions with the reality that grounds you in truth: You are worthy. You are loved. You deserve good things. You have the right to be here. Everyone should know that simply by virtue of the fact that they were born and they are a child of God that they have the right to be here, to be loved, to have good things. Not everyone does.

Relearning those concepts and loving my body again go hand-in-hand. Because as I recognize my right to be here, I feel my body become more present in the world. As I recognize my right to have food, shelter, sleep, and other things, I am able to take better care of my body and develop respect for its needs, as opposed to contempt. As I recognize that I am worthy to be loved, I feel less of the need to control what other people think of my body and instead focus on developing my self, and on receiving love that is offered.

I still have a lot of healing to do. But like I said in the beginning, I invite you to look back at your photos. Ask yourself some of these questions. Stop editing your body out of your life, because you’re editing yourself. And you have the right to be seen– to have your whole self be seen.

 

I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

Philippians 1:19-20