You can read part one here.
I am filled with gratitude for God’s freeing power and grace.
At the same time, I don’t want to gloss over how hard living into some of this liberation has been. The liberation that has come from my work to re-member my childhood, for example, came only after a dark time in which I felt anything but free. At the end of my second year of seminary, a discussion of sexual abuse hit me like a blow from behind. I felt a hot tingling sensation running through my limbs, my feet got very jumpy, and I had trouble taking a deep breath. I spent the rest of the day trying to stay present, trying to breathe and hoping I wouldn’t completely “lose it”. My physical symptoms stayed with me into the next week. For over a week I was very distracted and would occasionally feel a bolt of fear surge across my center. Finally I called my minister and asked to see him. I had known Dave well for over seven years and usually going to talk to Dave is one of my favorite things to do, but not so that day. My physical symptoms returned and I was aware of a strong desire to “forget” my appointment. As I walked up the stairs to his office, my legs were shaking. As I told him what had happened, I felt sick to my stomach. I heard myself blurt out, “I am tired of being blindsided by this thing, I want to go out and meet it head on.” Immediately a second voice in my head screamed, “What? What did you just say?”
Dave recommended a counselor at Presbyterian Counseling Services and I called to make an appointment. When Kay called me back, she asked me to explain what was going on and why I was looking to see someone. I was able to explain things to her without much physical discomfort. I told her I would like to see her the 5th of June as I would be out of town for the next three weeks. I said, “Now that I have this appointment, I am just going to bracket this whole thing and enjoy my trip.” Kay agreed this was a good plan and asked where I was going. “To France!” I answered happily. I hung up feeling very pleased with myself for having taken care of that difficult chore.
Two days later, as I packed for my trip, my symptoms returned worse than ever. What I had conveniently “forgotten” was that I was scheduled to spend four days at my mother’s home on the way to France. As that reality came into focus, my body just quit. It was as if my body said to me, “You can go on if you want, but I’m staying here.” I called Dave, hoping he could give me some tools to help in bracketing. When he called me back thirty minutes later, I was utterly miserable. I could hardly talk. As Dave later said, “I think this is beyond just giving you some tools!” I remember saying, “What am I going to do?” Dave said, “Maybe you don’t have to go on this trip.” I resisted and he suggested I say to myself that I didn’t have to go to Dallas. As I said it to myself, half of my symptoms disappeared. I was amazed. Dave said, “Your body is so wise. That is what I think is meant by ‘made in God’s image.’” We talked for a while longer. I remember two other things vividly: one, I remember how my anger at my mother was in my hands—that was what made me realize I couldn’t go to see her. Two, I remember that, at the end of the conversation, Dave said, “Your body is telling you that you can work on this now.” And the rest of my symptoms melted away. I repeated it to myself and was restored.
Thursday morning, we sent our girls off unaccompanied minor to their grandparents home, and, on Dave’s advice, I called Kay to try to see her at least once before I left for France. That Thursday was the hardest day I can remember. My symptoms had returned with a vengeance about thirty minutes after my phone conversation with Dave the day before. A huge hot weight settled in my stomach and I felt bands constricting my core, making breathing very difficult. I barely slept that Wednesday night. Thursday, I was scared and exhausted and so very uncomfortable. All my regular tricks to comfort myself—a warm bath, a cup of tea—were very little help at all. I called Dave every hour and a half as I waited for Kay to call me back. I remember just trying to swim through each hour, just get through one more hour. Kay called at noon and agreed to see me that evening at 5. I asked Dave if I could come and see him before that because I was afraid I would chicken out of my appointment. Finally the time arrived and I managed to get myself dressed and to drive to Dave’s office.
I remember two things strongly from that hour with Dave. One, I remember how far away my good life seemed to be. I wrote in my journal:
“Everything good and dear to me, all the joys and love of my life were far away. I had never imagined that anything could take from me my good life, so hard won, but this pain pushed it all far away—way beyond my reach. I could only vaguely remember it and, like a remembered childhood fairy tale, I did not believe it was true. After all, everyone knows fairy tales aren’t real.”
The second thing I remember is how much my body hurt. I knew that my discomfort was from the feelings and memories being stirred up inside of me, but the pain was so physical. I kept saying, “I can’t believe how much this hurts.”
From Dave’s I went to my appointment with Kay. I could barely make myself talk to Kay. But, as before, my body took the lead. My feet would not stop moving. Kay asked, “What are you trying to get away from?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Pain—it just makes the pain a little less.”
“Are you breathing?”
“NO! Breathing hurts! I don’t want to breathe.”
“Well, how about making the movement with your feet a little bigger?”
“That’s a bad idea.” I replied.
I was being stubborn. I told her so. Kay answered, “I bet being stubborn has served you really well.” I laughed and agreed it was so.
I knew Kay was right. I knew I needed to move and to breathe. I was terrified. I fought it and fought it and then I realized I was running out of time. I knew if I didn’t take her up on her offers I would definitely keep feeling this awful. Kay pushed gently one more time, so I got up and started to pace the room, trying to breathe. Then I was falling and screaming and terrified and hitting out.
That was the first of many, many times. Kay calls them “kinesthetic flashbacks.” They were not something I could think my way around or through. They were (and sometimes still are) in my body and do not readily express themselves in words. They are terrifying and painful and they are my guides. My body is wise, Dave says. This is what it means to be created in God’s image, he says. So I have had to learn to trust my body, to listen to my body, to learn from it. Sometimes, this way of communication seems far too painful and difficult.
“Why couldn’t my body just send a telegram?” I asked Dave.
When Dave said, “It is trite, but this is the only way through it.”
“But why?” I asked, “Why do I have to go through it? Can I speak to the Management? Surely we can come to some kind of accommodation. This can’t be the only way to get the results we need.”
But there is no better way.
My tradition tells me that I am created in God’s image, that embodiment is messy, but that God did not make a mistake when creating me. Our bodies may be messy, but they are also very wise. My tradition would further claim that our bodies are one of the myriad ways God speaks to us. In my home church we covenant every week: “to seek and respond to your word and will, made known and to be made known.” My tradition understands that although heeding God’s call can be terrifying, it is ultimately transforming. My tradition reminds me that Jesus called together companions for the journey as he began the ministry he heard God calling him to, and that I need not—nay, must not—go it alone. My tradition gives me many tools, many images, many understandings to help me see God working in my life, and to help me respond faithfully.
The sticking place for me is my childhood. I wanted so much to feel God’s presence, God’s love. But I did not. My tradition affirms that God does not cause the tragedy and trauma of the world, but indeed that God’s heart is the first to break. My tradition tells me that God was with me in the war zone of my childhood. But I did not know it, although I would have given anything to know it. Living now as I do—as I have done for over twenty years—held fast in God’s overwhelming love, I do not understand God’s felt absence long ago. I do not understand. As I remember my childhood, as I open myself again to the pain and terror and shame of those years, I look around for God. But I do not find what I seek.
I remember hating the poem “Footprints” when I was a child. I had no use for that message. Nor did the 23rd psalm speak to me. I needed the words at the end of the 44th psalm which Eugene Peterson translates:
Get up God! Are you going to sleep all day?
Wake up! Don’t you care what happens to us?
Why do you bury your face in the pillow?
Why pretend things are just fine with us?
And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt,
held down with a boot on our necks.
Get up and come to our rescue.
If you love us so much, Help us!