(One of) My Bravest Day(s)

(TW: the following post references trauma, depression, anxiety, C-PTSD, and suicide.)

A school picture, I believe, of my grandmother

I never met my grandmother on my mom’s side, and I’ve already lived almost four years longer than she did. I’ve actually never met any relatives on my mom’s side, save for those I shared space with when we traveled to Washington, D.C. when I was a kid for her dad’s funeral. My mom’s dad is a whole other story. For now, though, let me tell you the little I’ve been able to glean about my grandmother. Having done some ancestry work and knowing what little I knew about my mom’s story as I grew up, I know that my grandmother Josephine’s ethnicity was 100% Jewish. That, by the way, makes me Jewish, since (as I understand it) in Judaism one’s “Jewishness” is passed down through the mother. For the record, I’ve done my own DNA work, and I am:

Knowing this is empowering…and tragic, as I never knew anyone from this Jewish (and German, through my mom’s dad) side of the family except my mother. I did inherit some really cool old pictures that maybe I’ll write about some time, but I don’t know anything about anyone in those pictures, nor do I recognize anyone in them aside from my grandparents. Ironically, on my dad’s side of the family I had much more contact with the extended family (my dad’s siblings and their families mostly), but I have almost no pictures of any of them. It’s like I have to choose- pictures or (however fraught) relationship. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both?

Cars Crash

All that aside, let’s get back to my grandmother and eventually why I’m writing about her. I believe her parents emigrated from Russia or at least Eastern Europe. I also know there was quite a bit of trauma in her life. Obviously being Jewish with parents who may have fled Russia/Eastern Europe means there is much epigenetic trauma simply in her body (and likewise, in mine), but she had her share of it in her own life as well. For example, I found this old newspaper clipping detailing a car crash (pay attention to that theme) she was involved in as a kid with her family:

This happened when she was 11. Can you imagine going over a 40 foot embankment in your car in the age before widespread use of seatbelts? I wanted to visualize what such a crash might have looked like, and the internet has no shortage of pictures of car crashes “off a 40 foot embankment,” often involving death, like this one:

Image Credit here

To The Third and Fourth Generation

I can only guess the whole family suffered from PTSD ever since this dramatic, traumatic event. Rounding out the picture of trauma in my grandmother’s life, it’s important to know that my grandmother, a full-blooded Jew, married my grandfather, a German Catholic, right in the middle of WWII, in March 1942. Their marriage represented a microcosm of the Holocaust, to put it crudely, and from what I know of their marriage, it played out predictably. My grandfather Emil was known to be brilliant, a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who worked on codebreaking I believe, who then transitioned into the CIA for decades (there were many people from “the agency” at his funeral). He was also an alcoholic and, in my very limited understanding, an “angry drunk.” So there was much trauma also in their marriage, and my mother was traumatized from a very young age as well. Her story is heartbreaking, but is a tale to tell in full at another time. I do, though, actually have my mom’s story in her own words, written for an application for some program at church she applied to one time. She says:

  • “Severe abuse to my mother and myself by my drunken father was quite traumatic.”
  • “…my mother never slept in the same bed as my father after I was conceived.”
  • “There was constant fighting and drinking by my parents.”
  • “I was raised to be…perfect…”
  • She talks of hiding in the “…closet to get away from the screaming and violence.”

So then, the way my mom told their story, her mother was apparently so traumatized and depressed that she killed herself by driving into a pole or something like it at speed. That’s what I remember anyway. In that autobiography I quote above, she simply says that “my mother committed suicide.” As an adult I got access to my grandmothers’ death certificate, shown below. What’s unavoidably true is that as a traumatic car crash survivor as a child, she later died in a car crash at the age of 42. Her death certificate says her car “left surface of road for 200 feet” and then “came back on road and struck another car.” It also says it was a “rainy night” and “roads (were) slippery.” The death certificate has three boxes that can be checked including “accident” and “suicide.” According to the death certificate it was an accident, not suicide.

Questions are still begged, though. What was she doing driving alone that night in apparently adverse conditions? What was her frame of mind? Was she distracted? It certainly wouldn’t have been by a phone. Was she distraught or crying? God alone knows. Perhaps more to the point- why did my mom believe so wholeheartedly it was suicide and always tell the tale that way in the few times she ever did? Storytelling is powerful for many reasons, and memory is a tricky thing. What I know for sure is that my mother and grandmother were severely traumatized, and my grandmother died alone right in the middle of all that ongoing trauma.

‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

Numbers 14:18

I don’t want to read too much into the verse from Numbers above, especially by attributing any cause to God, but certainly there’s intergenerational trauma at work in my family history, as you can see above in my grandmothers’ life, and below in my mother’s and mine.

Another Questionable Death

My mother died herself almost 23 years ago (notably she died the day after Kirsten’s dad did; so there’s a little trauma in my marriage right there). Regrettably, my mother herself was very abusive. She never drank, but didn’t need alcohol to be volatile and angry, to yell and curse and demean, to control and manipulate and be codependent. No alcohol was needed for me to be parentified at a young age. This article sums up my experience of being parentified quite well. I read it with a litany of “aha’s” going off in my head over and over again. The article includes this bit that was particularly insightful about my own experience:

In her book For Your Own Good Swiss psychologist Alice Miller coined the term ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ to describe a mental control device some families use to maintain a position of power and to normalize a dysfunctional dynamic. ‘Poisonous Pedagogy’ consists of a list of doctrines that are passed on from generation to generation. Here are some of them:

-Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
-Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
-Obedience makes a child strong.
-The body is something dirty and disgusting.
-Strong feelings are harmful.
-Parents are always right.
-Parents are creatures free from drive and guilt.
-Duty produces love.
-A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
-A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
-Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.
-A pretence of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
-The way you behave is more important than the way you really feel.
-Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.

-(For Your Own Good, pp 59−60)

Notably, my mother again was someone who always believed that her mother killed herself, and as I grew up my mother was frequently suicidal. She took a number of medications and was in poor physical health most of her life, and her preferred method of attempting suicide was always with pills. More often than not her threats were “empty,” but she made actual attempts often enough that you never knew when she might finally follow through. This brings us to the manner of her own death. In the lead-up to her death much attention was being given to the end of my father-in-law’s battle with brain cancer, until suddenly my own dad found my mom unresponsive, foaming at the mouth, having taken too much I believe of her pain medication. That’s what landed her in the hospital where she eventually died. I’ve asked those who were there at the time about this (this happened in Texas where I grew up, while I was in Minnesota at the time), and they’ve said that they don’t think it was suicide because she “didn’t empty the bottle” of meds like she had before (including one time, I believe, when she had to be hospitalized and have her stomach pumped). But it seems awfully like her own mother’s death in many ways- a death of a severely traumatized and depressed person under somewhat questionable circumstances, and in my mother’s case, someone who had unquestionably attempted suicide before.

It Takes a Village…to Break a Cycle

So why am I writing about all this at the end of May, as Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close? I think I’ve fairly frequently written about my own battle with depression, anxiety, and finally Complex PTSD. I’ve done counseling throughout my adult life, and finally over the past two years I’ve done a lot of work with EMDR. The possibility that my brain’s neuroplasticity might help me rewrite those mental pathways that keep me constantly “triggerable,” hyper-vigilant, and prone to emotional flashbacks gives me some hope that I can lessen the impact of generational trauma on my own wife and children, but I must confess that whether because of the pandemic or because of some other reason, I’ve found my progress lately halted, and my symptoms more severe. I’m always a poor sleeper and always anxious, but my depression over the past 6 weeks or so has been particularly worse, to the point where I’ve wrestled with (especially) “dark thoughts.” Yes, that’s code for suicidal ideation. It’s really, really hard to admit this about myself, and now to do so publicly, but there it is. I don’t think I ever really had a viable plan, but I’ve struggled with it nonetheless.

So here’s the supposedly brave part. Various counselors over the years have wondered with me about taking medication for mental health, and I’ve always resisted it. My trauma drives me to seek control of whatever I can in a threatening world that could erupt into pain at a moment’s notice. It’s why I don’t drink, not only because there’s a legacy of alcoholism in my family, but also because the thought of not being in full control of my actions is terribly anxiety producing, never mind that my traumatized brain frequently causes me to react to things in a way that I never would have consciously chosen. Believing that mental health meds “mess with my brain” thus has always caused me to say no to them. After my last bout with an intense episode of depression and those “dark thoughts,” though, I finally talked to Kirsten and my counselor about it, and agreed to try medicine to “even me out.”

It’s still early days, but I can report so far that I notice a difference. The way I’ve described it is that before I was at the bottom of the ocean, with all that weight and pressure bearing down on me all the time, ready to crush me. It was hard to move, hard to breathe, hard to do anything. Now, I’m not out of the water and don’t know that I ever will be, but I’ve gained some depth. I’m moving upward. The weight and pressure are still there, but they’re less intense. One of the meds helps me sleep, which is welcome relief too. Am I truly brave? I don’t know. But thanks be to God, science has given us more tools than my grandmother or even mother had available. No amount of medication will undo chronic trauma or make childhood (or adult) adversity go away, but it can help with the effects while full healing is sought. And thanks be to God that she is a “great physician,” who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” My healing is still happening, Lord willing, and I trust that God will “complete the good work” begun in me someday. I like the NRSV version of that verse I just alluded to from Phillippians 1:6, which says that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Like so much of the New Testament, the intended audience is plural. It’s written to us, the church. The good work to be done in me is good work to be done in you too. It’s our work, together. Like the end of that old Aboriginal saying I keep quoting, if you “believe that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” Amen.

If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, go here: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

For mental health resources, go here: https://nami.org/Home

Always Tired, Never at Rest

DICK CRAFT VIA GETTY IMAGES
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, is a research-backed type of therapy people use for trauma and anxiety. Image credit here.

I had intended for my next post to be about chapter 1 of Romans Disarmed. That post is still percolating in my brain somewhere, but I’m writing instead about my latest adventure in EMDR, the trauma therapy I’ve recently restarted in earnest, though now I’m doing it remotely. Trauma therapy, perhaps like all therapy, is interesting no doubt for many reasons, but one of them is just how repetitive it seems to be: “Really, we’re talking about this again?” “How is it even possible that I’m still dealing with that, all these years later, and after all the work I thought I’d done?”

Scorekeeping Produces a Loser

My most recent session was informed by how triggered I got this past weekend. It’s an age-old dance in my life and marriage, my struggle to live into my best self as a full and equal partner to my longsuffering spouse regarding how we divvy up our many household responsibilities. We try not to keep score, but I suspect she and I both know if we did I would lose, handily. It’s not that I don’t pitch in (and here’s where I would recite all the things I do do in a mostly conscious effort to balance the ledger, but you probably don’t want to read that, and I don’t want to write it). The fact is I could work from dawn to dusk on innumerable projects that better our life together as a family, and it would matter not a whit for one unavoidable reason- my wife has specifically asked me to share equally in certain household tasks as best I can- and obviously the “right” thing to do is to say yes, mean it, and follow through.

So why can’t I seem to consistently do this, two-and-a-half decades in? Of course, again, it’s not about the work. What often happens is I’ll often avoid those very specific tasks by instead taking on big projects that everyone benefits from, including my wife. Those projects often (but not always) involve more work, at least in the short run. And I’m keenly aware of our patriarchal and chauvinistic society and the ways that I continue to benefit from it; so I certainly don’t want or mean to perpetuate those stereotypes in my home, nor model it for my boys. No, there’s clearly something else going on. The truth is that these again very specific household duties invariably produce in me emotional flashbacks to the trauma of my youth. The mere thought of them can send my heart racing and make me flighty, and those thoughts- those neural pathways- are well-entrenched and hard to avoid.

That is, of course, the work of EMDR- not avoiding per se those entrenched, maladaptive pathways, but feeling what needs to be felt about the original trauma so that the brain scarring might heal, and then building some new pathways, a “workaround” to the damaged tracks that were laid. At least that’s how I understand EMDR these days. I have some vague memory of how my mother related to me over these very same household tasks when I was a kid: demanding that I do them from a young age while never lifting a finger to do any of it herself and then micro-managing, controlling, and second-guessing me every step of the way, eventually resorting to rage and screaming at me when invariably I didn’t get it right.

It’s funny (or not); I just said “right.” I’m right-handed, and here’s what virtual EMDR looks like these days. Instead of sitting in my clinician’s office with paddles in my hands that alternately buzz to stimulate each side of my brain (how EMDR works, and my preferred method for doing it- the paddles, I mean), I hear a “buzz” in my headphones during our virtual session as I sit with my arms crossed over my chest and alternately pat each arm, synced to the audible buzz. Today we were processing the time around my own conception, and I noticed along the way that the pattern with which I was patting my arms just felt wrong. I knew instinctively that I wasn’t doing it right, and ironically the “problem” was that I had starting patting my arm with my left hand and then was alternating from there. I stopped and started over with my right hand first, and it was better. Now, your guess as to what this means is as good as mine, but this was mine: I needed to start with my right hand because part of my entrenched trauma response is a perpetual effort to get everything “right.” It was simply too dangerous in the home of my youth to get something wrong, and I carry that felt sense of potential danger lurking behind every mistake around with me to this day, every minute of every day.

A Tiring Story

That wasn’t even the big revelation for today, though. Today’s big revelation was a feeling: resentment. It used to be that I could tell my story with all of its trauma and all the drama and get some sense of relief from doing so, some validation for my resilience and survival. For a while though, now, that has no longer been the case. Mostly now my story just makes me tired. I’m tired of hearing myself talk about it, tired of looking for external validation from every new person to hear it, tired of having to carry it around. It’s probably no coincidence that I’m tired generally– always tired, bone-crushingly so, but almost never restful. I do suffer from Complex PTSD after all. Take, for example, the graph of my sleep last night from my sleep app:

My sleep last night. I’m tired today.

Now, I will admit that not every night is quite as bad as last night, but a night like this is not unheard of. Sometimes there’s a lot more green indicating restful sleep, but usually with frequent yellow restless interludes showing that rest just doesn’t seem to be very sustainable for me.

So during my most recent EMDR session when I became aware that I was feeling resentful about my own story, the story I was born into, I described myself moving from feeling “clenched” to feeling collapsed. At the time of my conception and ever since, there is a (metaphorical, maybe) sense in which I’ve always been clenched, knowing that pain is coming, and doing my best to endure it, to survive. So apparently I resent being born into trauma, and knowing that my very existence is evidence of the trauma of others. I’ve recounted elsewhere on this blog about my parents marrying very shortly after my dad’s first wife died, and my mother being a trauma survivor in her own right, having endured even worse trauma than she inflicted on me, and how her entrance into my dad’s existing family (in which he had three kids already) utterly devastated that family and sent the lives of my half-siblings on trajectories that they would not have chosen for themselves, certainly. Objectively, of course their lives would have been better had their mom lived, and if she had, I would not exist. I’ve known and wrestled with that for some time. In my most recent EMDR session, though, I realized that (shocker!) I have a feeling about this (aside from longstanding guilt)- I resent it. It probably makes me angry too, but I think the resentment is deeper. Realizing this, I felt a little less clinched, and moved to collapse from all the effort. Fatigue washed over me yet again, and I’m sitting with it today.

Plan to Fail

This being the season of Advent, an Advent unlike any other in my living memory at least, and one in which Circle of Hope is leaning into lament as an alternative to despair, I’m tempted to end on a hopeful note. I realized the other day that lament is a move toward hope, while despair is a move in the other direction. I’m not sure if I can make that move just yet, but I suppose it’s good that (with some therapeutic help) at least I came up with a plan for the next time I’m confronted with the need to engage in common household duties that sustain our life together and make me a good partner in it. In short, I plan to fail. I know with the wisdom of experience that I’m going to get it “wrong.” I’ll feel agitated. I may be tempted to metaphorically if not literally run. That’s okay. Feelings are just…feelings. They’re weather on the mountain. They’ll pass. I’ll try to build in some time to freak out about what I know I need to do, and I’ll try to do it quietly, and once I’m done, I’ll get to work. That’s the plan, anyway.

In Memoriam

My dad’s body at his viewing. He died nine years ago today.

So, let’s just get this out of the way. Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death nine years ago. So, I’m feeling all the feels. He died just a couple months shy of what would have been his 79th birthday, and likewise just a couple months shy of the birth of my youngest son, Nathan. I’ve always described them as ships passing in the night.

As I’ve written recently and for a while, my relationship with my dad was complicated. Here’s what I said about him in that recent post:

As warm and loving and kind and perpetually self-sacrificial as he could be, he was very enmeshed of course in my mother’s emotional field, ever her enabler. I’ve often lamented his awareness of my mother’s abuse and the daily trauma she inflicted, really on everyone, and that his response was not to actually “rescue” me, especially as a young child, by removing me from the situation, sadly through divorce. Instead, his response was to daily “lay down his life” by trying to shield me from as much of her abuse as he could. Of course, this was not a terribly effectual strategy in terms of reducing harm.

It did, however, make him pretty saintly in my eyes as a child. He was, after all, warm and loving to me (when my mother would allow such expression), and he tried to protect me, in his own ill-advised way. It made him look like a rescuer, of course, and it constantly motivated me to in turn try to rescue him by constantly monitoring my mother’s emotional status and doing whatever I could to prevent the next angry outburst. I’ve been rescuing ever since.

Hurt People, Hurt People, Sometimes by “Rescuing”

Of course, in his case I actually did have a couple of opportunities to actually “rescue” him. I should mention that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the “middle class” here in the U.S. I should also mention that my story is pretty complicated; there’s just a whole lot of trauma. I guess I should back up and give you the extremely abbreviated version. My dad had three much older kids through his first wife, Mary Lou, who died. So my youngest sibling is 17 years older than I am. He married my mom not years, not months, but a few short weeks after Mary Lou died. Though she had been sick for a while before she died, it’s not believed that there was an affair or anything like that. More likely, to speak in the trauma language I might use now, my dad was “in the back of his brain” when he married my mom- grieving, lonely, etc. It’s also true that my mom had been so very traumatized in her childhood and lived in the back of her brain all her life to such an extent that she pressured him- “If you love me, you won’t wait to marry me.” I probably digress at this point, but needless to say my childhood was…complex.

So the first time I “rescued” my dad was around the time I started seminary twenty years ago. I mentioned above that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the U.S. middle class, which meant that most of my growing up years, from about the age of 12 or so on, I lived in a trailer park. My parents had owned a home, but largely through “back of the brain” financial decisions driven by my mom, they went through bankruptcy and lost it. Anyway, they had a friend that helped them get a single-wide mobile home, and that’s where we lived from that point on. Again, there’s a whole lot that happened between getting that trailer and where we pick up the story twenty years ago, but by that time (twenty years ago) my mom had died and every single one of my three older siblings had gone through trauma of their own and had moved in with my dad in that trailer. My same age niece was there too, and her twin boys. So my niece and her twin boys had the largest bedroom in the trailer, two of my siblings had two other (very small) bedrooms, one sibling slept on the couch, and my dad had a small bed in the living room. And you know what? My dad wouldn’t have had it any other way. No doubt he saw himself as something of a “rescuer” too. He needed to be needed, no doubt, and defended their situation by describing the financial disaster that would happen if any one of them tried to move out or extricate themselves from the mutual aid they participated in.

Jesus Followers Strive for Being Inter-dependent, not Independent or Co-dependent.

So there’s a real tension here. The norm around the world and through much of human history is for multiple generations to live under one roof and support one another. It’s only the myth of the “American dream” and capitalism that glorifies single family homes as the ideal that all should aspire to, judging anyone a failure at “adulting” if they don’t “make it” in this way. As a Jesus follower, I reject this. Mutuality is to be encouraged; community is good. As members of the household of God, we look forward to living in our father’s house together, where there are many rooms, (not “mansions”). Likewise, when you live as a community under one roof, the work that is required to build and maintain healthy relationships is the hard work of growing up that many of us never get to, especially in the U.S. This is true whether your household is made up of members of your family of origin or is instead made up of brothers and sisters in the family of God (sometimes the two categories overlap, I know). Kirsten and I have tried our hands at “intentional community” with others not from our families of origin a few times, and each time we learned just how much we still have to learn, how much growing up we have yet to do. That too is another story. I suppose the crux of the matter is whether or not your household and the mutuality it represents is one in which there are healthy relationships or not. Inter-dependency, especially with Jesus at the center of it, is to be encouraged. Co-dependency is not.

And in my humble opinion, co-dependency was the web that held the relationships together in that trailer of my youth full of seven people twenty years ago. And it was taking a toll on my dad’s health. He didn’t know it yet, but he was dying when we asked him to come live with us as I started seminary. He did, and my first year of seminary was marked by two major surgeries that my dad endured and months of being bedridden in our seminary apartment in between. I was, of course, the only seminarian living on campus with my wife…and father. His health improved, and he quickly moved back to the trailer in TX, having spent less than two years with us. I wonder, of course, was this “rescue” necessary? Who knows? He said later that he had already made a doctor’s appointment in Texas (where he lived and where I grew up) when we intervened. I don’t know if he would have gotten all the medical care he needed there. I don’t know if his living situation would have been conducive to the recovery he needed.

Jesus is Our Only Real Rescuer, but Following Him Doesn’t Mean Sitting on the Sidelines, Keeping Our Hands Clean.

What I do know is that he lived more than a decade longer than he would have if nothing had happened. And I know that after that decade passed, his living situation in that trailer, with all those people, was not a good or dignified one in which to finally die. When his health began to take another turn for the worse again in 2010, I took time off from work and drove down to TX with my oldest son, Sam, then about 6. This is what I found:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now, please hear me when I say that I don’t offer the above voyeuristically, as some sort of poverty porn. This is part of the story I’m telling, part of my story. Perhaps by seeing the pictures you can see what compelled me to act. You might argue with how we acted, but love compelled some sort of movement, again. A decade prior we asked my dad to come live with us to get the medical care he needed. This time around, we later learned, he was already well on his way to dying again and past the point of a cross country move himself. So, we moved back to TX for about a year-and-a-half to be with him and find him a more dignified way and space in which to die. That’s another long story, but in the end we were able to help move everyone, all seven of them, out of the trailer and into a rental house. My dad still didn’t exactly wind up with a bedroom, but did have a small room in which eventually a hospice bed could be placed, and in which he died on this date in 2011.

His death took longer than expected. We moved early in 2010, expecting it would come soon. It took, obviously, more than a year, and the last few months were rough. There was a stint in a palliative care unit and talk of institutional hospice before home hospice was settled on. My siblings weren’t hearing the same information I was from the doctors. I made it my business to be very informed, and so when the hospice conversation began, my siblings weren’t on board. They accused me of trying to kill him. There was a brief relational cutoff then, but it was probably less than a week before they finally heard and understood what I already knew, that the end was (relatively) near. They apologized, but the damage was done. Even then, his actual death process was still slow. By the end he was leaking fluid out of his vessels and had swelled up, unrecognizable. I can’t remember the last conversation we actually had in which he responded. Finally, the day came and I got “the call.” He waited for me, and I was able to be there as he breathed his last, along with my siblings of course. His was the second death I had witnessed; there has since been another.

Even writing about it now and trying to remember the sequence of events and how I felt, it’s all a jumble. I know grieving takes time and is never “done.” Like so many things, it’s not terribly linear. Today, I’m feeling it.

As I’ve said, though, my dad was a complicated guy, as was our relationship. Part of the complication was just how loving he could be. He was known as a “friend to children and animals.” My dad made a ton of mistakes and enabled the trauma that I’m haunted by every day now. I’m making my own mistakes now, no doubt. But love wins, doesn’t it? Look at the pictures below, taken from our time together in that year + before he died. It’s love I see in them. The love of Christ that knits the universe together has a long arc, and this is how I want to remember my dad, full of that love, and sharing it as best he could.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

My Pandemic Playlist Drew Me Into the Silent Land, Where I Found My Life Again

The Ocean of My Soul

Circle of Hope Audio Art‘s second album, Patiently Impatient, has been a gift for growing that keeps on giving. Another song from this album, “Come Rescue Me,” was featured in my last post, and I’ve called Patiently Impatient my “pandemic playlist.” I think the whole album is worth a (repeated) listen. It features a variety of musical styles and is sung in multiple languages in typical Circle of Hope fashion, since one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs is that: “We are ‘world Christians,’ members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love.” Here are the lyrics from “Ocean,” embedded above:

Jesu, guidance. Now I know what love is

Compass, Kindness, all that I need in You

 

I will sit in silence and contemplate the things I don’t know

As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul

the ocean of my soul, the ocean of my soul

 

Jesu, lightness, now I know what life is

Center, Likeness, all that I see is You

 

I will sing in silence and contemplate the things I can’t know

As You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul

Here are the notes from Circle of Hope for this song included on the Bandcamp site for the album (linked above):

Sometimes hymns and songs can be so personal to the writer that most people singing it do not connect with the sentimentality or content. Declarative passages about what the writer felt like or what they are promising to do can be a stretch to connect with. While this piece has that personal touch and describes a journey, see if you can latch on to the imagery of learning about life and love from Jesus. What does this personal connection inspire you to consider in that prayerful space?

The imagery does indeed evoke a prayerful space. I’m reminded of the book that I also referenced in my last post, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. Laird suggests that it is through prayerful silence- the Christian practice of contemplation- that we truly meet God. Or, perhaps better put, silence is the space in which our unbroken connection to God is revealed as the “ground of our being.” It is through silence that we remember ourselves as a “branch on the vine, a ray of God’s own light.” Here’s that helpful page again from Laird’s book:

From Martin Laird’s classic on Christian contemplation, Into the Silent Land, page 140

Laird says that we can’t not be silent, that it “is naturally present.” As I’ve come to understand it, silence is the space in which noise appears- the noise of our thoughts, feelings, intentions, desires, and distractions. But the space, the silence, is always there.

In that Silent Land, a great vastness opens up. The Circle of Hope song above describes it as “the ocean of my soul” in which God swims. There is something primal, elemental about this space in which we are always connected to God if only we can slow down and still our minds and hearts enough to know it again. I’m reminded of Paul’s writing in Colossians 1:15-23:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[a] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

My Body Keeps the Score. Spoiler Alert- Love Has An Insurmountable Lead

So it is in Jesus that all things were created and all things hold together, and in the Silent Land we re-member this as we are re-collected. I’ve talked before about how our bodies “keep the score.” Our bodies have a memory; they store trauma, trauma that our minds may not even remember. But our bodies know, and for some of us it is a lifelong journey to seek healing of this trauma in our body’s deep memory. Yet though our bodies remember pain and trauma, they also remember love and light. God declared his creation “good,” and our bodies know this too, and knew this first. So our bodies have an even deeper memory that knows, as Circle of Hope sings in “Come Rescue Me” (also from Patiently Impatient and referenced in my last post), that “you are the light, life to these bones.” In the Silent Land our minds become quiet so that our bones can tell us this.

The Circle of Hope song at the top again says that “You swim in silence, the ocean of my soul.” I suspect Jesus may have been speaking of something like this in John 14:5-21:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know[a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[b] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

In the Silent Land our bones remember that it is in Jesus that they have life, that they hold together. Likewise, just as Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him, so too through the Holy Spirit is Jesus in us, swimming in silence, in the ocean of our soul.

This ever present unity with God at the very core of who we are enlivens us to see Jesus in one another and to live like Jesus did. Again, going back to “Come Rescue Me:”

For all who cry out, “Show me the way!”

I’ve seen Your Love, mighty to save.

Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and the life he gives enables us not only to live like him, but to die like him, for the way of Jesus is of course a way that leads to the cross- and beyond it- to new, resurrected life.

In These Dark Times, the Fire Shut Up In My Bones…Is Love

These are dark times, or at least the darkness is a little more obvious to most of us now. I only have to look at Facebook or turn on the news to be reminded of this. Some will focus on the darkness and feel the need to tell prophetic truth to the powers-that-be, calling them to account for their sin. This is holy and often thankless work. But I, too, feel a “fire shut up in my bones” which I cannot contain. What moves me these days…is hope. In my family we talk a fair bit about following Jesus these days. I’ve said for a long while that if Jesus doesn’t absolutely change one’s life; if following him isn’t an act of devotion given to this One whose love has indeed proven mighty to save, than it’s not worth it. How could it be? Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?! Jesus calls us to be meek, merciful, and pure in heart. He calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He calls us to give to those who ask of us and pray for (and gather, I dare say) only enough bread for today, trusting God for what we need for tomorrow. Jesus calls us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, and to not be anxious about any of it. According to Jesus, this- this teaching– is the narrow gate that few can enter. And putting this teaching into practice is the house built on rock that can withstand the storms of life. In these stormy days, “look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers said. They are the ones living Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and they give me hope.

They give me hope that the Jesus Way is possible. It’s possible when we take time to enter the Silent Land, where we remember who and whose we are. In silence, the ocean of our soul, we are in Christ and Christ is in us. In the Silent Land we can plumb the depths of God’s great love for us, and it will invariably overflow into love of neighbor and help for those who are suffering. And somehow, mysteriously, by entering the Deep Memory of the Silent Land my brokenness and trauma are healed as I participate in the healing of others. My healing is terribly important, because “hurt people, hurt people.” So I must pursue it. But how do I find it? How do I find my (healed) life? The Jesus Way provides a clue, perhaps. Jesus enters our suffering and suffers with us even to the point of death. So following Jesus means that we too are called and sent to love others in this co-suffering way. We are invited, really, to lose (give up) our life. And that’s how we find it.

As the Son Goes, So Goes the Father

Do you remember that scene from one of the all-time best movies, ever, The Matrix?

The dialogue goes:

Trinity: I know why you’re here, Neo. I know what you’ve been doing… why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why night after night, you sit by your computer. You’re looking for him. I know because I was once looking for the same thing. And when he found me, he told me I wasn’t really looking for him. I was looking for an answer. It’s the question that drives us, Neo. It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.

Neo: What is the Matrix?

Trinity: The answer is out there, Neo, and it’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.

The question has been driving me too, but I didn’t dare believe that the answer was not only out there, but looking for me and ready to find me, if only I wanted it to. What is the Matrix? It is, after all, a system of control, a way of ordering the world. Everything that happens to me is mediated by and through the Matrix. So what is it, exactly? What is this “operating system” that so fundamentally shapes who and what I am? Why do I hardly sleep, and just who or what am I looking for night after night?

I think, because I was finally open to the answer finding me I suppose, my “matrix,” my operating system… is Autism. I’m an adult with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Those in the know, know that with the advent of the DSM-V previous “autistic” designations like Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s Syndrome have been folded into “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” This is somewhat controversial in the Autism community and I can see positives and negatives to it. That said, the DSM-V hasn’t been fully implemented yet; so clinicians are still using PDD-NOS and Asperger’s. I consider that a good thing. PDD-NOS has the lowest threshold for receiving a diagnosis of being “on the (Autism) spectrum,” and that’s the diagnosis I was preliminarily given last night. Yes, I know it’s an insurance formality, but I fully expect that we’ll eventually move to an Asperger’s diagnosis (while we still can).

This is an enormous relief. I’ve received numerous diagnoses before, like Depression, Anxiety, and most recently, (complex) PTSD. I still think there’s something to all of those, especially the last one, in no small part because I was terribly (emotionally) abused as a child. So, I get to deal with that too. Nonetheless, horrific as my upbringing was, it never quite fully accounted for what makes me, well, me, for what goes on in my head every day, for the effort it takes to get out of bed and make my way in the world. I’ve long felt so, terribly, exhausted, to the point that my fear and anxiety about getting a fatal disease was so unbearable in part because I suspected that my fight was gone, that when death came, I would welcome the opportunity to rest.

But why? Why so tired? Why is facing the world every day (still) so hard? Why am I so regimented? Why do I seek such order in my world, constantly arranging and rearranging things to make them “just so?” Why am I such a categorical thinker, constantly assigning things, people, thoughts, numbers, letters, and shapes to categories, systematizing all that I encounter? Why do I prefer certain things, and to such extremes? It’s not just that they have sentimental value; it’s as if they’re a part of me, and I feel violated when others use, touch, or even look at them? Why am I so verbose? Why do I feel such a need to provide extensive context for every little pronouncement, and why do I make pronouncements, going on at length about topics of interest so that it’s hard for others to get a word in edge-wise? Why do I struggle to make friends? Sure, I have people that care about me, even some lifelong “friends,” but they are few in number, and I can tell that being my friend is hard for them (hey, I can tell, that’s something for someone on the spectrum). Why do I get into unwanted conflicts as often as I do, usually because of some misunderstanding (on my part)? Why do people tell me I’m “just making things harder for myself?” Why do I find it so hard to start tasks, even work related high-stakes tasks that my and my family’s livelihood depends on, and yet can stay up all night pursuing a topic of interest? Why am I so “all or nothing” about everything? Why do I have such tunnel vision sometimes? Why, indeed.

In short, I now believe that the answer that I’ve finally allowed to find me is simply that, as I said above, I’m an adult with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. There, it’s out there. As I also said above, I’ve flirted with other diagnoses before like depression (for many, many years), anxiety, even PTSD. Yes, I know I got excited at one point too about the PTSD diagnosis, thinking that it might finally help explain me (to myself). Obviously, that proved not to (fully) be the case. That’s kind of the point, though. Ironically, as a Special Education professional in a school whose mission is to serve students with Asperger’s Syndrome, I often tell parents about the “pre-Autism cocktail,” the many (sometimes competing and some of which may be co-morbid) diagnoses that kids will often get saddled with in an attempt to explain their behavior, when all along there could be a single underlying factor that accounts for everything, like Autism. Somehow, though, I failed to see that in play for myself.

What finally brought me to it, sadly, is the likelihood that Samuel, my almost nine year old son, will have an ASD diagnosis very soon. As we deal with more evidence every day that this best explains what we’re seeing in Samuel, I did my homework on Autism (Autism! Which I deal with at work Every. Single. Day.) again, and realized that it probably best explains me too.  So let’s explore my questions above and relate them to the DSM-V criteria, which is similar to what’s in the DSM-IV, I believe. The black text below is from the DSM-V. The red text is how I believe it applies to me (or not).

Autism Spectrum Disorder        299.00 (F84.0)

Diagnostic Criteria

A.   Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):

1.    Deficitis in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

I’ve been told that I maintain a flat or serious affect. I certainly can smile and do, but it’s largely calculated on my part. I’ve been told that I’m very “intense.” In hindsight I know I initiate friendships awkwardly, often with lengthy emails seeking to “explain” me and where I’m coming from, perhaps in the desperate hope that if only people really knew and understood me, they’d love me, accept me for who I am, and want to be around me.

2.    Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

This is a skill I was forced to develop from a very young age. My mother was a severe emotional abuser, and I’ve been told that “empathy is the gift of emotional abuse.” I had to learn to read her unpredictable moods, or face “hellish” consequences. Yet, again in hindsight, I realize I still don’t do this all that well, and certainly not naturally. I’m often replaying interactions in my mind, trying to parse their meaning and predict consequences. Ask my wife. I’m often asking if I’m okay, and I no longer think it’s just because I’m desperately fragile and insecure. I think it’s because while in some intellectual corner of my being I know what approval looks like on a face, it usually doesn’t sink in. I don’t get it. I think it’s approval, or love, or affection, or caring or understanding or whatever, but how do I know for sure? I don’t. It’s a mystery.

3.    Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

I find myself frustrated with most friendships. I consider myself very conscientious in making the effort to build relationship (following learned social “rules?”), but do not usually feel that effort is reciprocated to nearly the same degree. I’m also told that I tend to “overcommunicate,” which I do because I’m aware of the dangers that any effort to communicate is fraught with. Hence, I want to remove as many variables as possible that might lead to misunderstanding. I want to provide context and give multiple opportunities to derive the intended meaning, much like I’m doing at this very second. Friendship is hard for me, though I desperately want it, and I guess I understand now that that’s because I (am “wired to”) make it hard.

Specify current severity: Level 1?

   Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

B.   Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):

1.    Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).

I have a lifelong stuttering problem, particularly when nervous. It’s changed over the past 10 years or so to what looks and feels like a vocal “tic” when stressed, nervous, tired, etc. I used to think my stuttering problem came from my mother, perhaps, and that I was so nervous in social situations because I knew I would stutter, terribly, and therefore knew that I would be bullied, terribly. I wonder now, though, if the nervousness and stuttering aren’t just indications of how different my brain is. I wonder if my social awkwardness, my struggle to relate to others didn’t precede all of this, and certainly the stuttering was related to it and exacerbated it, but there was something much deeper going on. I tend to bounce my knee or foot in what I’ve been told is excessive fashion. Due to high anxiety related to disease or illness, I’ve been told I use hand sanitizer to excess, when appropriate and often when not. I also use sanitizing wipes to, for example, clean pens that others have used. As a kid I used to get in trouble for cleaning up too much. My dad, for example, would complain that he couldn’t read the just arrived newspaper because I’d already cleaned it up.

2.    Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).

I have a high proclivity for change avoidance/resistance. I loathe change (especially “big” change) so much that when, in my calculus, it seems unavoidable, I’ll rush to make it happen in often inappropriate ways. I do not like having routines disturbed. When plans suddenly change, there is an automatic and unavoidable impulse to resist, protest, etc. Once this passes, I’m able to embrace whatever change I’m being subjected to. I’ve tried to explain this to my wife, Kirsten, that when she suggests a change to our “plan,” for the day, for the week, for household routines, for our life together, she should just brace for what (in hindsight again) is a little meltdown. I’ll protest and complain even if I ultimately like what she wants to do. I can’t help it. Speaking of plans, I rely on them, to extreme. I’m constantly asking Kirsten “what the plan is” for weekends, etc. If friends want to do something, I send email queries trying to nail down the plan weeks in advance, because I NEED TO KNOW. I’m sure I drive everyone crazy. Also, I have to be right. All the time. I know I make mistakes and get things wrong, and I can own up to those, but when it happens it feels like a violation to my very soul. If the rule is one that I’ve created, adopted, or adhered to, IT MUST BE OBEYED.

3.    Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).

I wasn’t sure where to put this. I have what might be viewed as an unusual interest in multiples of 10. I’ll sub-consciously notice numbers in the environment, like “1535,” and begin adding the individual digits to make them come out as multiples of 10. So, in the example above, 1+5=6, +3=9; moving in the opposite direction +5 and +1 again = 15, plus the unused 5 at the end of the string = 20, a nice round multiple of 10. I do the same thing with letters. I take each single span of a letter and equate it with “1,” then add the spans of various letters in a word to also equal multiples of 10. So, take a common word in the environment like “shop.” S’ are easy as there are five “spans” or parts of the S (a straight parallel line at the top moving from right to left, a downward line, another parallel line moving from left to right, another downward line, and a final fifth parallel line moving right to left). The spans of the “h” add up to 3, “o’s” usually add up to 4, and “p’s usually add up 4 as well. So I’d take 5 from the s, 3 from the h, 4 from the 0, and 4 from the p to give me 16; then I’d probably use the p again to bring it to 20. I typically do this without thinking. I wasn’t even aware of it, I don’t think, until a few years ago, perhaps when I was working out the pattern of a word or number with my finger on my wife’s back. She was laying down with her head in my lap, watching a movie. She brought it to my attention by asking what I was “writing.”

I may perseverate regarding health due to high anxiety concerning, and in relation to, apocalyptic scenarios. I have google alerts set for flu (generally), bird flu (specifically), and the new Middle Eastern Coronavirus. I have a section on my Google News page dedicated to apocalyptic scenarios, including and especially those related to zombies. I can “catastrophize” at a moment’s notice. How badly things could go- and how quickly- is something I’m always aware of.

4.    Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

I pride myself on having “very good hearing.” I often hear things that others may not. I also have a keen sense of smell, and admittedly like to smell (most) things, except vinegar. I CAN’T STAND the smell of vinegar. I’m highly alert to the slightest whiff of it, which makes me want to flee the country. Kirsten says I startle easily, and I do. I have a visceral reaction to sudden loud sounds, which are almost a personal offense, whether intended or not. I used to think this was a PTSD thing. I now know it’s something more. 

Specify current severity: Level 2

   Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

C.   Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life). I’ve dealt with much of this since childhood, with childhood emotional abuse as an exacerbating factor.

This was a problem, diagnosis-wise. Honestly, my upbringing was so terrible that I really don’t remember much of it, and really don’t want to (I did remember the cleaning up thing referenced above, though). With both parents dead and few family friends, I had to reach out to my youngest (but still much older) half-sibling, with whom historically I’ve had a good relationship, in no small part because she was thrust into a caregiving role for me in my earliest years (it’s a long story). So, I asked her. Here is the message we exchanged.

I said:

I’ll just go ahead and put this out there. So, Samuel is on the verge of an Autism diagnosis. I don’t know how much you know about it, but his would be of the Asperger’s variety (which technically isn’t an official diagnosis anymore, but that’s beside the point). If you don’t know much about it, you can find out via this link. Going through this with him has led to some (further) hard self-reflection on my part and the realization that Asperger’s probably best describes me too. For the diagnosis to really “stick,” though, the autistic traits (or some of them, or leanings toward them) would have had to be present by age 3. You’re one of the only people around still that knew me at 3. I know of course that my mom’s abuse was a major exacerbating factor, and how much all of this is nature versus how much all of it is nurture is anyone’s guess. That said, the point in all this is that I want to ask you what you remember about me as a young child. I recall being described by Evette as a “little Spock” (showing little emotion over my very rough home life, which would be very “Aspy,” by the way), but what else can you recall about me then? You often talk about my fascination with trains (like Samuel) and that I would stop and mimic the train signal/crossing guard sound. Did I have other “quirks?” Unusual habits or “rules” I seemed to follow? A need to organize or systematize or clean up things? Odd speech or motor movements? Preoccupation with things that most kids wouldn’t be preoccupied with, or preoccupation with things that other kids would be but to an unusually great degree? Sensory issues (aversion to- or, conversely, preoccupation with- lights, sounds, the feel of things, etc.)? Please tell me what you remember. I need to know. Thanks. 

She said:
You showed several things. Look at your baby pics. You did not laugh freely or with abandon like other kids. It used to take us forever to get a smile out of you. My heart cries everytime I think about it. You were facinated with lights. Besides sitting in front of the Christmas tree for extended periods , you did other stuff. One year Dad got you a Train for your birthday. It had lights and sirens. You would stand transfixed and shake your hands (bold text added) at it. You talked well and quickly but you often repeated yourself and would not look us in the eye. You had seperation anxiety when I went to the restroom ,like you knew you were in danger. So I talked to you through the door or let you in. I loved being there for you. One of my most painfull memories Was having to let you go. Praying Sam is fine ! hugging you right now ! 
As I said to my wife in an email after getting this last night, “So I guess that’s it, then.” The DSM-V continues:

D.   Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning. Coping with daily life, including with many stressors in daily life, is becoming increasingly difficult.

This, I guess, is why we’re “here,” as this is definitely the case. All of the effort I put in every day to make it in the world, to “pass” as Neurotypical (NT) and even as a professional, is resulting in greatly diminishing returns. I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. It’s not working (like I want it to or think it should).

E.    These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.

Nope. I’m pretty smart (I skipped two elementary grades, for example). If Asperger’s was still an available diagnosis (which apparently it is), I suspect I’d be a good candidate.

So, in summary, “the Matrix has me.” Now what?

Toby

Toby Ziegler is my favorite West Wing character. Kirsten and I came to the show late, but once we started watching it on DVD, we couldn’t stop. Of course, we like the politics, but the show was critically acclaimed, and for good reason. Like all good shows, it’s character driven, and quite literally well played. I like Toby because he’s smart and he’s a writer. He’s also a bit of a cynic, which means that like many cynics, he’s a failed idealist. He’s also very, very sad. Obviously I identify with all of these traits, and so with Toby. I’m thinking of Toby today.

The actor who played Toby wondered (at first) what made him so sad. This element of mystery, this monumental gap in the character’s back story, intrigues me. I think I still wonder this about myself. On the one hand, I “know” what drives my melancholy, but the source of it is an (almost) objective, remote fact. It isn’t felt, or remembered, and that’s (mostly) how I like it.  Of course, what’s great about Toby is that he’s a pretty functional guy, being a power player in the White House and all. His relationships are a mess, but he manages to hold down (for a long while) an important job which he uses to change the world for the better, or at least he desperately tries. This is one of the (I’m sure) many areas where I fear Toby and I differ. I don’t feel very functional these days, and I haven’t for a while…and I’m not sure that I’m changing the world much for the better. Some may try to dissuade me of this last fact, but I remain unconvinced.

Naturally, I have some idea of what I need to do. Therapy could help, some, but I’ve been down that road many times. Perhaps I haven’t ventured down it far enough to see the results I might hope for, but it’s not like I haven’t tried it. I know medication might help, but I don’t just suffer from depression, I suffer from anxiety too, and one of the things I’m anxious about is, you guessed it, medication. So that really isn’t an option for me, and I know, I know; that may be all the more reason to give it a try, but in a word, NO. It’s interesting too as I write this that somehow it’s easy to talk about depression and anxiety, but a bit more daunting to discuss the umbrella diagnosis that they’re likely symptomatic of- (Complex) PTSD. I’m just throwing that out there. It’s an observation; I don’t intend to do anything with it. Nonetheless, what I “need” to do is quit thinking about myself, be grateful for my family and our privilege as rich white Westerners, and start pitching in to help those who don’t enjoy such privilege.

I know I need to do this, and yet it’s so, so, so, so very hard. It’s not that I don’t want to help or even (so much) that I don’t know how, though the latter plays a role. It’s that it’s hard to get out of bed every morning. It’s hard to care for myself in even the most basic ways (quite simply, I’m not). My meniscus tear and the resultant inability to run for a long while has certainly played a part, but before I couldn’t run, I didn’t, and that’s the bigger sin.

In the meantime, there are lots of situational factors that exacerbate my depression and anxiety. Of course, I’m keenly aware of the increasing likelihood that the next pandemic may be on the horizon whether from bird flu or novel coronavirus or something unknown, but none of that will matter much if the world is mired in WWIII, perhaps started by a N. Korean blunder; or if the weight of consumeristic crony capitalism finally leads us to global economic collapse after all. On a more personal level, as we continue to struggle with the economic hardship resulting from our sojourn in TX and a sudden need for full-time daycare, I’ve been reminded that debt collectors don’t care if you’re depressed or that it’s better not to get their calls while at work or that you have philosophical hang-ups with the mere existence of their industry, let alone how they conduct their business. But I suppose I digress.

I keep talking about how tired I am. I’m tired of telling my story, tired of struggling with my weight, tired of depression and anxiety. I’m tired of trying to build community, tired of wanting to try to follow Jesus, in community, but feeling unable to. I’m tired of being angry at “the church” and even God for lots of really good reasons, and I’m tired of being tired. I’m tired of waiting for something to happen, for my life to really “start” in some way. I’ve passed a lot of the big adult milestones. I got married almost seventeen years ago. My mom died. My father-in-law died. I went to seminary, and my dad moved in. We moved into my mother-in-law’s house, with my dad, in an effort to help them both (obviously, that didn’t last long). We had a child, and bought a house. My mother-in-law moved in with us (that didn’t last all that long either). We moved to TX, temporarily, to watch my dad slowly die. We had another child. I’ve been a part of a couple of great church communities (and many more that sadly were not so great). I’ve done lots of higher education. I’ve had a grown-up job with the potential to be meaningful for (off and on) seven years. What, in the world, could I possibly be waiting for?

Much to Lose

I’m glad to say that I’m still reeling tonight from the renewed conviction that I’m not living the life I should be after my encounter with Jen Hatmaker’s prophetic writing, life, and witness. I’ve known that there is a deep disconnect between the life I’m called to live and the life I actually do live for many years, of course, and have taken various halting steps at trying to rectify this situation, only to fail each time- sometimes spectacularly- and all too often from lack of really trying. So this is what I said over on Jen Hatmaker’s blog in response to this post:

Jen,

Thank you for these powerful words and for your prophetic witness. I’ve long been grateful for the realization that “prophesy” is much more about truth-telling than it is about foretelling, because I, for one, need to hear that truth- over and over and over again. I’m a native Texan, and when I tell my story I talk about the fact that when I finally got out (of Texas) at 18 (I had to; my family of origin was “Christian,” but also very abusive) and went away to a small “Christian” liberal arts college in New England, I was shocked to discover that “God is not a white, anglo-saxon Protestant (male) who lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, and spends the rest of his time pursuing the American dream like everybody else.” I had the privilege while in college of doing a program then known as Kingdomworks (it morphed some time ago into Mission Year). During my Kingdomworks summer I lived in an inner-city church (building) in Philly with a bunch of other college students, where we ran a day camp, Sunday school, and youth group, hoping to empower that congregation to reach its neighborhood through the kids in ways they couldn’t otherwise. I heard shortly after completing my summer, and have known well ever since, that while whatever we did for those kids that summer was well and good in its own right, the point of it all was as much about reaching me as it was about reaching them. I’m glad, sort of, to say that it worked, sort of, and therein lies (part of) my problem. More about that perhaps later, but suffice it to say I’ve spent the better part of the past 17 years (wow! 17 years!) trying to recreate that experience.

Again, when I tell my story I talk about the fact that it was during that summer that I was able to build a bridge (and no, I didn’t really build that) between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there- in the world. That bridge compelled me to traverse it, to go over it again and again and again, hoping to do something, to reach somebody, to touch somebody, to make a difference in some way come hell or high water. Later on, I was shocked and utterly distressed to find that this “bridge” could be traveled in both directions, that it was possible for my encounter with the suffering other to take me right back to my own personal suffering in ways that were near (and remain so to this day) debilitating. That doesn’t free of my 1%er status, my white male USAmerican privilege and all the responsibilities that pertain thereto, but it makes it damn hard to get out of my own way long enough to be of any good to anyone else.

Along the way, I got married and had kids and have settled into a modest house in a working-class ‘burb (can you hear the apology? the guilt?) where I spend my days in a charter school working with ADHD and Asperger’s kids. I’ve got massive debt thanks to the mortgage and the credit cards and the mortgage-sized student loans courtesy of a short-circuited seminary excursion and a few semesters afterwards as first an MSW student and then a Master’s in Counseling student. Now, we struggle to pay all the bills and raise our seven and one year old boys and deal with opposite work schedules and the like, all the while pining for more- not more stuff (though awfully we probably pine for that too)- but more…more. More community, more purpose (Rick Warren, go away. I’m not talking about or to you;), more sacrifice and tears and love and life and reasons to get up in the morning. We lived in Philly for a while and “knew” Shane Claiborne before he was SHANE CLAIBORNE!!!!!!! We love The Simple Way and Rutba House and all the communities like them, and we were even part of our own little “intentional Christian community” for a little while before it blew up in our faces, perhaps because of our application of a lit match to the large stick of relational dynamite we were all sitting on. We know that the Church is a people, not a place and that following Jesus and taking up our crosses means willfully choosing the instrument of our own death. Yet we stubbornly refuse to do it. We take two steps forward and then eighteen steps back. We make risky, bold faithful moves and then run away with our tail between our legs as soon as we get inevitably hurt in the process. We know that the life we long for, that Jesus calls us to, is one decidedly different from the American dream, that Jesus’ dream looks like nothing like it, and we know; we know, we know, we know, we know, that this life of radical discipleship we were made for is so utterly hard in this rich white, USAmerican context that we can not hope to succeed in even small ways if we undertake it alone. So we long- still- for community, for co-conspirators, but we have struggled mightily to find them where we live now in Northeast Ohio, and it’s taken a big swig of humility and almost-trust to believe that if it really is God behind all this somehow, then surely he must be at work in somebody other than us, right? Surely the community we’re called to participate in- one that is willing to take risks to help one another love and serve our neighbors both right in front of us and around the world- surely such a community is one that God is already creating, that already exists in some fashion, right? RIGHT?!

I know I can’t blame others for my failure to follow Jesus the way I know I should, and I certainly don’t want to. Yet as I think you may well know, “opting out” of the American dream is hard. It takes partners. More than anything, perhaps, it takes imagination and courage, and I find myself in short supply of both. As it stands, I feel utterly trapped. Trapped in a way of life that perpetuates the consumer machine. Trapped in the jobs necessary to pay the bills. Trapped in my own short-circuited (lack of) faith. It really is a lack these days. I have friends who have stopped following Jesus for lots of REALLY good reasons, and every day I’m tempted to join them. Some of them have quit because of a lack of belief in God, and I get that; I really, really do. In fact, I almost envy them. I’d love to just give up, to look at all the problems in the Bible and in the world and finally throw in the towel. But I can’t. I can’t because quite simply I’m too angry. I can’t claim disbelief in someone who makes me SO. COMPLETELY. LIVID. I’m mad at God for what happened to me and my family when I was a kid. I’m mad because of my mother’s abuse and my father’s allowing it to happen because “the Bible said” he couldn’t get divorced. I’m mad because of the kids dying on the streets of Philadelphia and in Haiti and everyplace in between. I’m mad because all this anger once fueled me to overachieve, to get good grades and be a better friend and worker and “church”goer and the like, and I’m mad because I’ve been mad so long that I’m worn out. I’m tired of being mad. I’m tired of trying to make a difference and failing. No, scratch that. I’m tired of trying to try to make a difference and then quitting when I lack the imagination or courage or community or resources to actually do it. C.S. Lewis wrote something along the lines of, I think in The Screwtape Letters, that the real danger to the devil wasn’t those who followed Jesus (I’m paraphrasing) because they believed; rather it was those couldn’t quite believe anymore (again, paraphrasing) and yet followed/obeyed anyway. That brings some small comfort, but I don’t know how long I can go on like this, struggling to think about trying to follow despite all the pain and anger and good reasons not to rattling around in my head, heart, and soul. I’d love to give away seven things a day for a month and reduce our clothes and consumption and carbon footprint and everything else. More than that, I’d love for my life to matter, for it to be “burned up in a holy flame” in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but again, I feel so utterly stuck, lost, faithless, and (aside from my wife and kids) alone. A wise pastor, responding to inklings of all this in me many years ago, said that it’s better to do something, anything, and perhaps fail spectacularly, trusting God to work it all out, than to be mired in inaction because of fear of making a mistake. I’d like to think though that I’m not afraid of making a mistake anymore. Perhaps I’m afraid of succeeding. I’m afraid that the bills and job and house and the rest will keep me from living the life I’m called to. In any case, I find your story and the life you’re struggling to live inspiring and prophetic. I wish there were more folks like you and yours around here.

Sorry for the rant.

Jen was good enough to reply to my comment, and while I’m so utterly grateful for her gracious response, I’m also even a bit more chastened, because what she told me, in part, was this: “I believe you have exactly identified the reasons why the camel cannot fit through the eye of the needle. Brother, I am stopping to pray for you this morning. And for me. And for all of us who want to live a holy, meaningful life but have come to understand the cost.” So I can not help but feel like the rich young ruler, and rightly so. I know well what it would cost to follow Jesus as I ought, and am given great pause. Complicating factors, however, is that it’s not (only) that I’m unwilling, it’s also that I’m nearly incapable, for rich though I am, I am deeply indebted to much, much richer rulers, and maybe that’s part of why I’m so angry. I’m pissed off that I have to ask “By your leave….” of USBank and Huntington and HSBC in order to leave my boat and become a fisher of people.

More than that, though, I’m just…angry. I’m angry for lots of reasons, many of which are related to my recent C-PTSD diagnosis, but there are some not insignificant and entirely adaptive reasons to be angry too. I’m angry at suffering and the sin that causes it. I’m angry at those who sit idly by allowing it to happen, and I’m angry at myself for being one of them more often than not. God, help me. God, help us all.

Whistling Into The Wind

I’m not sure why I bother with this. Why do I write? I know I have a blog reader or two, but historically my blogging is too inconsistent to maintain an audience, which only begs the question of why I would have an audience in the first place. A few friends and/or family members have checked in over the years, but beyond that I know I’m just spewing my thoughts into the void, whistling into the wind. Why? What purpose does it serve? I know that said purpose is mostly self-serving. The self-reflection that writing affords has given me insight, and that surely counts for something, but I could do that just as well, and probably better, by keeping a private journal. Why, then, do I blog? I suspect that this, like so many other things, can be tied to my C-PTSD. I know now that C-PTSD sufferers often have issues with attachment and feel an intense need to be known, loved, and accepted. I certainly do. As Pete Walker, whose tireless work in the area of C-PTSD has suddenly become an invaluable resource to me, says: “When a child is consistently abandoned, her developing superego eventually assumes totalitarian control of her psyche and carcinogenically morphs into a toxic Inner Critic. She is then driven to desperately seek connection and acceptance through the numerous processes of perfectionism and endangerment.” Walker writes a lot about childhood emotional abandonment as a function of the experience of many adult C-PTSD sufferers.

Of course my mother didn’t just emotionally abandon me; she emotionally abused me, but while I’ve always thought of my father as being loving, I’ve also spoken of having not one, but TWO unreliable parents. I’ve described my dad as being unreliable because so much (that is, all) of his energy went into dealing with my mom- responding to her impossible needs or tantrums and all the while trying to shield me from the worst of her abuse while steadfastly refusing to take the only real logical or effective step available, that is, to remove me from the abusive environment. Any attempt on his part to spend meaningful time with me when he wasn’t exhausted or otherwise occupied by dealing with her was instantly met with some action on her part that would thwart his investment in me. She simply couldn’t allow any show of love that wasn’t directed at her, and couldn’t receive the ones that were. All of that, then, is simply to say that my mother emotionally abused/abandoned me, but my father emotionally abandoned me too. My mother might have had a lot to do with it, but my dad still made plenty of choices along the way. Hence, I can relate to that “desperate seeking of connection and acceptance through…numerous processes of perfectionism and endangerment.” Look, I’m doing it now.

In my case, I experience that desperate need for connection and acceptance in part through a desire to be known as someone who has been through everything I’ve been through. I’ve spoken before about the cathartic release I used to get from telling my story. Like any drug, that effect has waned over time, and the repeated traumas in my life that led to my C-PTSD diagnosis have made for a story that I now grow weary of telling, let alone living. Still, part of me still so very desperately wants to be known, to be accepted and validated as a resilient survivor. Sadly, I know now, or at least think I do, that I want this so badly in part because I believe I can never be “good enough,” though maybe I would be if my efforts just to survive were known. It’s why the old Keith Green song with the lyrics, “My son, my son, why are you striving? You can’t add one thing to what’s been done for you…” have always been so meaningful for me, because I’m ALWAYS striving, always trying to add to what’s been done for me in the hope that some day I might be good enough, good enough to be, to exist, to live in my own skin and in the world without having to justify my presence.

“Justify my presence…” As I wrote those words, I wondered, “What good am I?” “Why am I here?” “What right do I have to be here?” All of these are questions that haunt me, that drive so much of what I do. Lately I would say that I’m not much good at all, that I have little right to be here, that my presence serves little purpose. Oh, sure, I know I have a wife and sons that love me and need me, that depend on me for so many things, but then again I don’t really “know” it, and I wonder if even that would be enough if I did, especially since I’m currently so spectacularly failing to be the good father and husband I want and need to be (ah, the perfectionism of a C-PTSD sufferer). I’m equally failing to be the kind of employee, or runner, or citizen, or homeowner, or friend, or family member, or- God forbid- (ha!) “Christian” I know I need to be too, and I can give you legitimate, concrete reasons for each and every one of those assertions. I struggle to get enough sleep or sleep too much. I respond to my fourteen-month-old’s waking up at least eight times last night with anger, not the love I want and need to give (and so risk perpetuating the cycle of abuse I’m mired in). Speaking of anger, it sits there, boiling, just under the surface of my daily experience, ready to explode at the nearest driver who tries to pass me or coffee shop barista who grabs my nearly-filled-up-over-more-than-a-year’s-time frequent drinker card and summarily throws it out because it’s now expired. I’m not just angry, though. I’m stuck, inextricably mired in this pattern of not taking care of myself, not brushing and flossing as often as I should, again not sleeping or sleeping too much, not preparing my lunch or getting up on time for work, not running every day, eating terribly and overmuch, not reaching out and cultivating the relationships I know I need, etc.

The daily discipline of simply doing what I know I need to do every day feels so completely and impossibly overwhelming and unattainable that I am loathe to even try. If I was living the life I should be I would get up each day no later than 4 am. I would spend half an hour doing Daily (morning) Prayer from the Common Prayer book I so appreciate. I would then do my sit-ups and push-ups and then run at least 3 miles, all by 5:30 or so. That leaves time to eat, shower, make sure Samuel is ready for school, and then be on my way. At work I would be focused and perfectly caught up with everything, which right now during the “Special Ed crunch” is a nearly impossible task in and of itself. I would come home on time each day having already run and ready to assist Kirsten with whatever is needed, including making sure she can get out the door on time for work on any given evening without feeling harried or rushed. After she’s gone, I’d do the dishes faithfully every night since she so faithfully cooks such wonderfully healthy and often vegan and organic meals for us every single night. I’d likewise clean up around the house and care for the boys, perhaps taking Samuel to running practice if it’s a Tuesday or Thursday. I’d get the kids in bed making sure I faithfully read to Nathan so that he becomes as advanced a reader as Samuel is, not to mention singing and otherwise bonding with Nathan and getting him in bed. Then I’d do evening prayer with Samuel and go through his routine including the therapeutic stretching he needs for his Cerebral Palsy and practicing tying his shoes, etc. Only then could I turn to whatever work I’ve brought home with me and too often leave in the car. After that I should turn to whatever tasks are left undone (filing things, keeping up with bills, yard work, etc.) around the house before getting in at least a solid 90 minutes of reading and writing before going to bed. And I ought to go to bed by 10 if I intend to get up at 4 and start all over.

Now, look. I know most people could give a similar list of all their responsibilities and it would be equally- if not much more- overwhelming. Some of this is a function of the kind of lives we lead in our society. I wouldn’t dare to think I’m overly special in this way. I’m merely trying to relate my experience of my own life and describe why I currently find it debilitatingly daunting. The fact is I’m struggling to do a bare minimum of that stuff and I continue to feel desperately abandoned. As I thought/said when my Dad finally died, “Well, now I guess I really am alone.” I had always suspected I was, after all. One part of me “knows” that I’m not, but I guess this just gives credence to my diagnosis. What to do with it all is the task I’m confronted with now. I just wish it didn’t feel like yet another task. I’ve got too many of those as it is.

What It Looks Like

Brushing my teeth. Eating right and running every day. Shaving every day. Communicating (anything of importance)- with almost anyone, but especially with God, and especially through prayer or song. Paying bills on time (also for financial reasons, though). In general, managing the every-day-ness of my life. In light of my recent C-PTSD diagnosis, these are the things that I’ve noticed are a constant challenge to me, a daily struggle. This is what my C-PTSD “looks like.” I startle easily, find lots of noise oppressive, and am loathe to reveal anything unscripted about myself. I have a humiliating (to me) vocal/verbal tic that increases in frequency based on fatigue and stress (especially the stress of having to speak to others publicly), and I’m always fatigued and stressed and my job requires me to meet with others publicly on a daily basis. I’m perfectionistic, hypercritical of myself (and too often others), hypervigilant, and I catastrophize (and have anxiety about) almost everything. I know more about the new SARS-like virus and the newly emerged variant flu strains than many CDC workers. I’m likewise aware of most of the scenarios by which our society could come crumbling down, including rogue nuclear detonations, cyber or EMP attacks, and the looming global crises in our food, energy, and financial systems. I struggle to maintain relationships, and usually feel abandoned when they wane or fail (as I expect them inexorably to do). I stay up late, wake up often, and get up early until the fatigue is too much and then I cycle into going to bed early, getting up late, etc. I’m irritable and pessimistic. I swing between extremes and am told I’m an “all or nothing” kind of guy.

 

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.