You know how sometimes life just converges on you in such a way that you have to face something uncomfortable that you would rather just avoid? Yep, me too. I have been struggling with chronic pain for the past few months. My right forearm started with painful, hard lumps under the skin. Initially, I thought it was infected lymph nodes. After numerous scans to rule out deep vein thrombosis and more cancer, I was diagnosed four weeks ago with fibrosis in my arm. Having lymph nodes removed during my cancer surgery meant the remaining nodes were overworked and could not transport waste materials and toxins out of my body. Well, apparently, my lymph nodes decided to go on full-out strike and the icky stuff collected in hard bumps under my skin. I’ve been undergoing occupational therapy to manually clear the waste materials out of the lymph nodes. I will continue to do lymphatic self-massage on my arm for the rest of my life. It is a good time. (Insert sarcastic voice please)
At the same time, I was diagnosed with arthritis in my neck, likely caused by my motorcycle crash ten years ago. But the pain has continued to intensify as the weeks have gone on and my wife has lobbied under her breath for me to check in with my oncologist. This may be due to the whining about pain that has become the background noise in our home. The oncologist responded that a bone scan was indicated. My response was to literally write back and say, “Are you sure?”
Here is where things get funky. As this process is unfolding, I am working in my own psychotherapy on my feelings about being a heart patient as a young toddler. Facing the emotional imprint that I am a disappointment to my parents slides right into the grooves of the physical pain I am experiencing in the present. Cue the soap opera soundtrack. That’s right. I’m feeling as though I am a disappointment today. A problematic, demanding patient. My oncologist responds to my query with “any time you have bone related pain for more than two weeks you need a bone scan” with his initials. Boom. I stare at the email for a few moments. The pain has been for months and now I feel a different kind of difficult. I am irresponsible and negligent and numerous other pejorative terms running through my mind.
I have put myself in this emotional stranglehold many times on my journey with cancer. Wanting to be the good little Julie and feeling as though I have fallen short. Not because I have. But because that is how I experience myself. Some might want to be angry with my parents. I, on the other hand, feel nothing but deep compassion for them. A brand-new infant and the news that their precocious middle child’s life expectancy just dwindled down to a few years. Trips to Mayo clinic. Experimental procedures. And all of their own emotional stuff added to the mix. My heart feels heavy for them, and for me.
So, what is the takeaway from this emotional quagmire? It’s this: We all do the best we can. We all feel as though we fall short. We all keep trying. It is the way of life. It does not say anything about us. Except that we are human, taking our own path on this earth, one step in front of the other.
I want to support other writers who desire the opportunity to start a blog of their own. To that end, I have invited people I know to be a guest blogger on this site and begin their experience with you, my dear readers. This guest blogger is Meg Larkin, who is a craniosacral therapist and life coach. Her vulnerability and authenticity inspire me and I hope you find inspiration from her as well.
I had a client on my table today. She has been in a funk and has been having trouble just getting out of bed. She is depressed. When we explored why she was struggling so, she said that she hasn’t been to work for a few days. One day she didn’t even call in. She was playing with her daughter, and she could barely stay awake. A friend called her to do something and she made up an excuse, so she didn’t have to go. She was exhausted both physically, and emotionally. She was empty. Then, she started crying because she let so many people down, her boss, her friends, her family. When we made a list of all the people she let down, she named everyone in her life, except, herself. She had been so busy trying to make sure everyone got a piece of her that she had nothing left. Empty. When she was crying, I cried with her. My body remembers those days, months, years, when my life was all about making sure everybody got what they wanted. I was so proud, I didn’t even have to ask, I assessed what you needed and took on the task to see to it you got it. It has taken me years of on again, off again therapy and some health issues to realize how empty I had left me. I thought that’s what made me a good person. No, I thought that was what I HAD to do to be worthy, to be deserving of love. If I worked hard enough to see to it you were happy, maybe even felt love, I could feel that love too. Yes, I do good in my life. I raised three amazing daughters, I have a Craniosacral Therapy practice and a Life Coaching practice that I enjoy, and I’m good at what I do. I accomplished this after I made sure my family and friends were cared for. And then, just in case I fell a bit short of the “you deserve to be loved” line, I do volunteer work. Now, all these things are great and have served me well. The unanswered question here is however: Do I feel deserving? Do I feel loved? Have I done enough to be able to know I am enough? My answer: It was only after I sat alone, doing nothing, having nothing, being nothing to anyone that I am coming to know I am loved. Not because you love me, or my friends, not because I’m good at my work, but because, I was always loved. I was always enough.
So, what can I offer my client? My truth. I can tell her that I did everything she is doing because I was taught that’s what makes you a good person. I can tell her that while I was doing everything for my daughters, I was not teaching them the most important lesson in life. I was not teaching them how to put themselves at the top of their list. They had no doubts about my love for them, but do they question their own love of self? Do they know that they are worthy? Do they know they don’t have to do or be anyone but themselves? As two people traveling this road, my client and I can learn together. We are love. We are loved. We are enough!
It human to let those around us down from time to time. It’s human to let ourselves down from time to time. I encourage you to be in touch with these truths. More so, I encourage you to check within, see how you are treating yourself. It’s not always easy. Old habits, old ideas will come back to challenge you. Be courageous, be vulnerable, be honest…Where are you on your list? Who are you letting down?
You humble me. You come into my office week after week and you let your most vulnerable self be seen by me. But this last week you unsettled me. Looking inside yourself, you plucked out the most undesirable part of you and compared it to the most desirable part of me. And then, I literally felt a dark shadow enter the room and I saw your shame mirrored in the expression on your face.
As I left my office afterwards, I still felt humbled. But I also felt a deep sadness that you compared yourself to me and saw yourself as lacking. And I wanted to counteract the shame by sharing mine. I wanted to tell you all the ways in which I have lived with my own regrets. I wanted to tell you about the times I continued in behavior over and over and over even though I knew it was wrong for me. I wanted to tell you all my shameful behavior, my addictions that still sit silently within me, waiting for recovery to slip away. I wanted to tell you all the ways in which I have hurt others, especially those I love the most. I wanted to share all the times my faith in God grew dim and I wondered where he was in all the pain I was suffering. But sharing that with you would have only eased your shame slightly.
This process cannot be about you comparing yourself to me and finding us equals, even though we always have been. It calls on each of us to look outside and see that every human being on this planet has a trail of regrets, emotional pain, and moments where faith has left our periphery. Ron Potter-Efron called this accepting that we are flawed people in a flawed world.
When we do that, we see that our sense of global defectiveness is not about us, but about what it means to be human.
When we can embrace this sense of shared humanity, we can accept our past, instead of fighting against something we have no power to change.
When we let go of that struggle and lean into acceptance, we can get curious about how we want today to look.
I love you. I love what we share together in the quiet intimacy of my office. I often wish you could see yourself through my eyes instead of the distorted filter of shame. But today, I am going to just sit with the wonder of our time together, bask in the humility of sharing your path, and wish you peace in this amazing journey we call life.
Pushing the grocery cart loaded with weekend essentials, I race for the shortest checkout line. I am pretty sure this means I will be standing there for a long time. (It took me a few decades, but I finally figured out that the shortest checkout line is the line everybody else has abandoned because it is too slow.) As I’m waiting for my turn to unload the various items in my cart, I recognize the person in front of me. After exchanging initial greetings, she asks me how I am. I say I’m hanging in there and she replies, “well, at least you’re vertical. That’s good.”
Mmm… I wonder if that is how I feel about life. Don’t misunderstand, I am grateful for being alive. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I felt unsure I would survive a year and here I sit reflecting at my computer eight and a half years later. But is being vertical good enough? I reflect frequently that every day that passes moves me one day closer to my physical death. I wonder, how am I doing with the time I have been given, each one a tender drop of moisture in the vastness of the ocean? Do I pay attention to it? Is the drop nurturance offered to a parched world? Or does it seem insignificant against the backdrop of such an immense body of water? I desire that my life represents kindness, compassion, and my relationship with God. It sits in sharp contrast to the jarring, clanging noise of today’s environment of hatred, aggression, and destruction. So, does it even matter that I long to live a life that is more than vertical?
Last Saturday when I went to feed the hungry and homeless, one woman smiled shyly and said, “I hoped you were coming today.” I have offered meals to this person for months and for much of the time, she has refused. In the beginning, she looked at me with wariness, and the deep fatigue of someone who resides on the streets. Life had taught her that people will harm you if given a chance. But today, there is a Mona Lisa smile on her worn and weathered face and she says thank you. That drop of water drenched my soul. But that drop of water did not happen without all the others, the times she averted her eyes from me and shook her head no. Those drops of water are intrinsically tied to this day of the quiet thank you.
Yes, I want to live a life that is more than vertical. I want to live a life of meaning. But sometimes we need to value those moments that do not appear to be meaningful. For every drop in the ocean matters sometime. Those moments are all connected to each other. Just as we are. One to the other.
I feel as though I have been absent from my blog for awhile. Time and energy, a precious commodity in my life, have been in short supply lately. I may not know all of you, my dear readers. But not writing feels like neglect of our relationship, as though I have not nurtured our connection. And so, I thought I would give a snapshot of what is going through my mind these days…
Life is ironic. Okay, I know, I know. That is not a news flash. Everyone on the planet knows life is ironic. But I have been a witness to the ironies of life quite a bit these days. I preached Sunday on recognizing Christ in those who trouble or wound us. I shared the story of my daughter, Brie and the horrific attack she suffered at the hands of two of her clients one year ago today. I told of my anger and rage toward her attackers for wounding my child, the child I referred to in my sermon as “my snuggly baby, my caring spirit, my chemo buddy, my cheerleader, and sometimes my warden.” It has been and will continue to be a process for me to see the attackers as children of God. It is particularly difficult on the days Brie is struggling and I can not do anything to stem her waves of pain, frustration, and anxiety. But I call upon myself to do so because God offers this to me in my less-than-stellar moments; when I am hurtful to others, when I am self centered, when I am not who I am called to be. Wondering where the irony is? When I take on this process, I feel myself becoming more peaceful. Its not my goal or even in my mind. It is simply an unexpected, serendipitous by-product of the process.
In the same way, I am in the process of letting go of some relationships in my life that are no longer healthy for me. The irony? Closing one door really does open others. As I feel myself release something I have been clutching unto, I open myself up to others. I am showing up, being more authentic and (gulp!) vulnerable. Moving away from relationships that were not emotionally safe for brave living has been a loss, but also a wonderful find.
Final irony for today… sometimes one choice can be motivated by two opposite experiences. A client in my therapy practice recognized her choice to take care of others was motivated by abundance and conversely, deprivation. She offered up her happiness to people she loved because she had an abundance of love to give. But she also carried a deep fear of being abandoned, which originated from a place of deprivation. Her gift of love was genuine, but had a shadow of “don’t leave me”. Two conflicting sources of motivation resulted in the same behavior. Isn’t it ironic and aren’t people wonderfully complex?
Life is ironic. My own brokenness has led to healing. My own quiet and reflection has led to writing books and blog posts. Facing my own death has brought me a life i would have never dreamed about. Carrying the heavy burdens of life has taught me to be light. Being of the world has strengthened my relationship with God. Letting go has allowed me to embrace. Life is hard. But it is good.
We will talk again soon.
Note: If you are interested in hearing all of my sermon, it is posted on the Facebook page of GPS Faith Community.
This week the news media announced the suicide deaths of two young people who survived the tragic Parkland, Florida shooting. Many surmised that the sticky web of trauma, depression, and survivor guilt had caught them in despair so deep these young people only saw one way out. Death. I understood that process. Even in my short time volunteering with students and staff at NIU following their tragic school shooting, I saw the haunted expressions of trauma, depression, and survivor guilt.
If you look up survivor guilt in a google search, you will find articles about those who survive trauma and hear the question of “Why not me?” Or statements that begin with “If only…” It is a natural process of wanting to understand why heartbreak comes to some and others escape its clutches. But it torments the soul of those who can’t come to some place of comprehension or understanding. It torments the soul of those who feel driven to create meaning or purpose out of what feels like an empty, aching loss.
I have experienced dark moments of dancing with the demons of survivor guilt. My regular readers know that I lost a dear friend, Delayne, to the same kind of breast cancer I have. Same cancer. Same treatment. Totally different outcomes. I have agonized over why I am still here and she is not. She was an amazing person, who touched the lives of so many people with her spirit and her kindness. She lived her faith with a heart of compassion and you felt it simply by being in her presence. When I would question “why?’ out loud, people would come up with the rather simplistic argument that I had things to accomplish yet. Instantly, my mind resisted this concept. I know the world needed so much more of Delayne than it received. I also do not believe that God works like that. I can not see God picking and choosing who gets to survive like a grand conveyor belt, where the lucky cancer patients are plucked by Him to safety. I believe God loved Delayne and I equally. I believe He delighted in our friendship and walked with us through the agony of our cancer. I believe the God that loves us, does not operate a conveyer belt.
There was a time after Delayne’s death that I sought to create meaning out of her it by making my life count in some amazing, technicolor way. It was a pressure too great for me to bear. I could not, nor will I ever, live a life that can make meaning out of Delayne’s loss. She loved and was loved by so many people. I waited in line for three hours at her visitation to speak to her family. Three hours standing in community with those who carried Delayne in their heart. You see, at the core of my survivor guilt was grief. The deep heart wrenching loss of someone who touched my life. Even as I write this, I can’t stop the tears from falling.
I wrote in my first book, I’d Rather Love Life Than Hate Cancer, that I don’t ask God to protect me from suffering. I simply ask that He walk with me through those dark times. Grieving for Delayne will forever be one of those times. I may never have answers to the question of why and I accept that I probably never will. But I have grief. That painful emotion that is the price we pay for loving one another. And resting beside the grief, I have gratitude. Gratitude that I was ever lucky enough to know and love my dear friend, Delayne.
I really, really hate that moment when I meet someone new and they ask me what I do for a living. While I know it is part of the “getting to know you” dance, it calls on me to disclose that I am a therapist. Some of them appear fascinated with gory details about the wreckage of people’s lives, especially when they find out I specialize in the field of trauma therapy. Others appear to find the profession distasteful, as though the very mention of the field leaves a bad taste in their mouth. I fear, I am a deep disappointment to individuals in both of those groups. I am not willing to share tales of therapy for others to be entertained or even worse, to assure themselves they are not “that bad…” I am also not willing to belittle a profession that I value.
It is amusing to see people’s reaction when I share I see quite a few counselors and therapists in my practice. I see the confusion float across their face before they school themselves. Their struggle with why a therapist would need to see another therapist is evident in their expression and the brave ones actually verbalize their thoughts. Others suddenly elevate my skills, as though I am a star amount the elite. My skills and knowledge must be amazing if other therapists choose me. I am rarely able to maintain my composure at this and often chuckle out loud at their assumptions.
So the truth is… therapy is a sacred place where I am honored and humbled to connect and care for all of my clients. It is a place where the wounds of the past and the pain of today meet unconditional love and compassion, and sometimes moments of caring silence. Therapy is a sacred place where people come to let their masks slip away and they can be their most authentic selves. Therapy is a sacred place where people can explore parts of self they want to cling to, let go of, or bring into their life. Therapy can be messy, heart wrenching, and ultimately healing. Therapy is a sacred place because it is grounded in faith, in ourself and each other, and many times in God. Therapy is a sacred place because while I bring my eight years of academic preparation and decades of professional experience, the most powerful thing I bring to this place is me. Not a perfected facade of me. I bring the real deal. The woman who loves deeply, thinks deeply, takes risks, misses the mark, falls on her face in the mud is the one who shows up in my therapy office. The woman who loves life and loves my clients. The woman who gets scared and feels shame. The woman who breathes deeply and grieves deeply. The woman my clients see is not a star, just another human being on a journey that remains unclear to me. And yet, every step I take on this journey is an adventure.
Why do therapists go to therapy? Because they are complicated human beings with their own history of pain and joy etched on their hearts. They go to therapy because they believe in this sacred place where they can peek inside of their soul and explore this amazing adventure called life. They go to therapy because they need to breathe and understand. And breathe again. They need a witness to their own sacred process so they can be that for those who enter their sacred space. My witness is named Deb and I dedicate this blog post to her for all the ways she has created a sacred space for me to simply be me. Thank you seem like fallen words upon a page when I reflect on the gratitude I feel for our time together. But because this writer has no greater prose, I simply say, Thank you.
Spring can be a time of awakening and reflection. For those of the Christian faith, like myself, it is a time of waiting as we focus on the last forty days of Christ’s life. Jan Richardson wrote this blessing in poetry, titled Rend Your Heart. It to spoke to me, deeply influenced by my previous post about brokenness and wholeness. My dear readers, I hope you can lean into the discomfort, and the comfort, the blessing offers.
“If I didn’t know what it hurt like to be broken Then how would I know what it feels like to be whole.”
I heard those words on the radio during my commute home from the office tonight. The reflection that followed was multidimensional. I thought about my weekend trip to Dallas, Texas to celebrate the birthday of my daughter, Amber. Memories of roaring laughter, shared smiles, and an emotionally difficult conversation floated through my mind and I smiled contently. Now one would imagine that an emotionally difficult conversation would not cause a mother to smile. But I did. Because we could have this raw dialogue and know that we love each other unconditionally. We could be vulnerable and feel safe. This was not always the case for us. There was a time in our adult to adult relationship where we struggled with feeling safe enough to share our thoughts and feelings and judiciously avoided any kind of emotional discussions. It was painful. And scary. It felt like our relationship was broken and I think a piece of me felt broken inside. But the song spoke to me. If we had not gone through that dark period in our relationship, I would not appreciate this time of closeness and connection. I would not feel this deep well of contentment as the result of an emotionally difficult conversation and still feel whole. And connected. And loving. And loved.
I also reflected on someone in my life who feels a little broken right now. I wondered to myself, “Will this time of brokenness allow her to feel more whole some day?” And I thought about my own experience of brokenness from cancer. Today was another CT scan day. It took five attempts by three nurses to start the IV and knowing this is in part caused by the chemo makes me feel broken and defective. I also wonder will it show that my kidney cancer is still at bay or will it indicate that I may face another round of surgery or treatment?
The hard part is that none of these questions can be answered in this moment, or probably the next. The song lyrics speak to the idea of perspective. When we begin to experience wholeness, we begin to fully understand our brokenness. When we adjust the lens through which we see things to widen the picture, we get a clearer view. I have taught perspective to the multitude of graduate students and therapists I have clinically supervised during my career. But tonight, I saw it taking shape in my own life. Seeing the pain of the past made me grateful for the healing and strength in my relationship with Amber. And it made me aware that while I and those I care about may be experiencing brokenness in this moment, it is not stagnant. It is a flowing piece in my experience of wholeness.
So, my dear readers, how can you widen your lens? How can you use perspective in your own broken experiences? Stand back. Take in the picture that is uniquely you. Embrace your handiwork.
It happens every year in February. “I hate Valentine’s Day” is heard from the person sitting across from me, on the couch in my office. It is often followed by a litany of reasons, often related to the loneliness of being single or memories of a lost love that continues to haunt them. I know that this focus has been encouraged by the media and marketing groups that make Valentine’s Day circle around romantic love or sexual intimacy. Its origin was the Roman celebration of spring. Later on, the day was named Valentine’s Day in honor of two Christian martyrs, named Valentine, who were put to death on that day. Some of the mythology of Valentine’s Day is around the pairing of couples by the mythological figure, Cupid.
Since the beginning, the meaning of Valentine’s Day is murky at best. I decided long ago to craft my own meaning and dedicate the day to loving people. Since that day, Valentine’s Day has become my favorite holiday. Carefully handmade greeting cards will be sent to my two daughters and my cousins. Brandi will also receive a handmade card with a love letter inside. I often challenge my clients to ask how they can show love on Valentines instead of hating it. Is there an elderly neighbor who might appreciate a muffin and cup of steaming tea delivered to their doorstep? Instead of buying chocolates, can you go to the pet store and purchase dog or cat food for those animals in the shelter? Is there an old friend you have lost touch with who might appreciate contact, even if it is through instant messenger? Can you spend time in prayer or meditation for someone you love who is experiencing the dark times of life? How can you express your love for a person (not necessarily romantic), love for God, love for the earth, or love for life?
As I was thinking about writing this post, my first Valentine showed up in a text message. A sweet friend sent a link to a song that spoke to her of me. I was touched, tearfully wiping away the tears running down my face, touched. Some of the lyrics follow:
BRAVE AND KIND by SIRSY
One for strength Two for joy Three for better days
All that I Counted on Seems so far away
So here I stand On foreign ground Trying not to sway
With nothing left to lose but everything
DARE ME TO TRY TO MAKE ME WHOLE AND I WILL FIGHT I WILL TRY TO BE BRAVE AND KIND
One for hope Two for grace Three for chancing it
All that I counted on I took for granted
With this scar I am found I am branded
With everything to lose This is nothing
DARE ME TO TRY TO MAKE ME WHOLE AND I WILL FIGHT I WILL TRY TO BE BRAVE AND KIND
I am blood I am bones But I am not afraid
The words are amazing and speak to me. (Except, sometimes I am afraid.) To have someone see you, really see you, and how you are trying to live your life. That is LOVE. Deeper, richer, more powerful than silky lingerie and roses. That is the “I’m with you in the trenches” kind of love. What makes it so eloquent is that this friend has only come into my life in the past year. And the song’s writer, a friend of my friend, created the lyrics during her second bout with breast cancer. We all have the power to touch others with love and to be touched by love. All of us.
And so, my dear readers, may you find that love. May you offer it to others. May it reach back around to find you again. And again. Happy Valentine’s Day.