THAT ONE TIME WHEN I DIDN’T DIE

I love TED Talks! As in anyone-who-says-they-enjoy-TED Talks-is-automatically-my-new-best-friend kind of love. And, no, the poor souls never see it coming. This morning, this 16-minute talk showed up in Twitter and I’ve been excited to share it all day long!!

The title reminded me of my friend who celebrated his first birthday after surviving necrotizing faciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) as his I Didn’t Die birthday. And it reminded me of so many of my fellow survivors in the Aortic Dissection Support Group on Facebook. I hadn’t expected to hear so many of my own thoughts come out of someone else’s mouth.

On the other hand, I wasn’t surprised that someone else had those thoughts. Suleika Jaouad gave voice to an idea that I’ve been pondering. In the years since I survived my ascending aortic dissection, I have noticed that I have as much in common with cancer survivors as I do with dissection survivors. I also have a lot in common with people who have dealt with break-ups, being relieved of job responsibilities and the key to the employee entrance, financial losses, etc. You can add whatever you want to the list.

These are the 9 things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. You are not alone. Everyone has either already endured a struggle or will eventually endure a struggle. No one finishes without at least one, and some people should probably just get their own punch card.
  2. Any loss is still a loss, any pain is still pain, and no one else gets to determine how big, bad or scary your struggle is.
  3. More often than not, you weren’t asked if it was okay with you. No, you didn’t get a vote. Yes, you get to clean up the collateral damage.
  4. Surviving wasn’t necessarily a matter of being a warrior. Let’s face it – it’s intuitive for us to do what we can to not die, and everyone around us from family to physicians is doing everything to help us survive. That being said, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to work your guts out getting to the other side.
  5. These things can change you in ways you may not be able to articulate. In fact, you may not want to share your thoughts at the risk of sounding ungrateful, because…
  6. Your new life might suck. (I’m no angel, but this blog hardly seems the right place for a word that may offend some. So I apologize for any offense, but maintain that this is the most appropriate inappropriate word I can think of.) But honestly, “new normal” is a phrase only used when the change in your life is no picnic, right?
  7. You are not the only one who went through it and came out on the other side a changed person. Your friends and family (and even your coworkers) are now the friends and family (and coworkers) of the person who survived. They have a “new normal” to adjust to as well.
  8. Your recovery doesn’t have to be pretty or polished to be progress.
  9. Finally, the biggest lie you may ever believe is that you’re the only one. Your story, statistics and survival may certainly be unique, but…See #1 again.

That’s it. That’s all I have right now. No confetti, pep talk or words of wisdom to end this post. But while you’re here, feel free to share something you think might help someone else not feel quite so alone.

Oh, you are so loved!

OK…FALSE ALARM!

OK. You know what? I think I just needed a nap, a hug, and some good friends!

norman rockwellOnce again, God gave me a crash course in assurance. Most of my lessons are like this because I think God has this tiny window of opportunity before I change my mind. Seriously, I’m like that kid – you know the one – who gets to the edge of the diving board and is too scared to jump but they can’t really go back to the stairs either so they just stand there hoping the world will open up and swallow them whole but it doesn’t so they go ahead and jump with the conviction that they’re about to drown to death but when they don’t die they figure death would have been better than being embarrassed. Yeah, I’m like that kid.

Shortly after I called the wahh-mbulance the other day, I opened an email from Morgan Harper Nichols. Unlike most of the subscriptions I get emails from, she’s gone to the trouble of personalizing her emails with the recipient’s first name. And that means I saw this as the subject line before I even opened the email: You’re not alone LaRonda.

I know. Right?

Of course, as nice as it was, all I could think was, ‘Maybe you’re not alone, but I’m pretty sure I am.’

I was wrong. So very wrong. Because I’m lazy, I’ve cut  and pasted the rest of Morgan’s message:

When you find yourself in a new place, and you are trying find your footing, may you never feel that you have to navigate it alone. Consider it a blessing that there are other people in this world that you can learn from, even if you are not able to speak to them directly.

You may not be able to be as open to your boss or a colleague as you would like to, or you may not be able to seek wise counsel from family members like you wish you could, but that does not mean you have reached the limit on who you can look to or reach out to.

And it’s okay if “reaching out” takes you out of comfort zone. That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. The moment you take the step to ask a question or express a need that you have is a bold rejection of the lie that you were meant to do this alone. It does not make you needy. It does not make you weak.

So don’t be so hard on yourself. If you feel that reaching out makes you vulnerable, it does…and it has also made you strong. You were never meant to be in this alone. And the more you begin taking steps to live out this truth, the more you will begin to see just how much it makes a difference in you.

May this be the week you begin to practice stepping out of your comfort zone just a little bit more. May you begin to open your heart to possibility that vulnerability takes courage and the willingness to accept that you have no idea what is going to happen. Be honest about what you are thinking and feeling this week. Be honest with yourself. Be mindful of the moments where you feel tempted to shut down or withdraw or give up. And it’s okay to have these moments and being able to acknowledge them is a huge step in working through them.

Sincerely,
Morgan Harper Nichols

Yesterday, I went to church and was surrounded by amazing people who had not only had their faith tested and strengthened, but are in the midst of a trial right now. It’s foolishness to think your problems are more insurmountable than someone else’s. I don’t think I’m struggling with how bad I think things are. I know there are painful things that I can’t imagine having to go through, and my heart breaks for anyone carrying such a load.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about painful things that can never change until we’re Home. Two people in our church family have lost their spouse this year. Another woman had her leg amputated. A young woman I once worked with lost her five-month old boy to SIDS. People don’t return to life. A limb isn’t going to grow back. I can eventually pay off debt or purchase another car. I can even arrange things to compensate for the changes in me since my open-heart surgery. And I’ll eventually learn how to work with one good arm and one permanently dislocated arm. It won’t always be easy, but it can be done.

However, some things do not change. There are some things that I can’t fix, and that makes me feel powerless and vulnerable. (That was harder to say than you might think.)

I’ve spent most of my life garnering as much control as I could because I was the only person I could count on to not hurt me. (And, honestly, I’ve probably been crueler to myself than anyone else has ever been.)

So right now, I need help to carry things, to cook, to do my job. I have to ask for help when I need it. Here’s what can happen:

  • Someone will gladly help me.
  • Someone will help me but not exactly the way I would have done it – which, of course, is the right way.
  • Someone will help me and then hold it over me when they need to leverage it for guilt.
  • Someone will say ‘No.’

That gives me a 50% chance be being hurt. And a 100% chance that I won’t ask for help until I’m desperate.

Fortunately, God has put people in my life who are as persistent as they are kind. Fortunately, God has infinite patience with me as he teaches me that it’s okay to ask for and accept help. And that I can be secure that if I reach out my hand, there will be someone there to hold it.

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Sometimes, I just have to be brave enough to jump and trust that there are lifeguards who won’t let me drown. Yeah…pretty sure.

WELCOME TO THE PITY PARTY!

hello my name isCome on in! Sign the list with your name and your particular angst. The comfort food is over there. You’ll be hearing songs like “Sad Songs” by Elton John, Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle”,  Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”. Dolly Parton will sing about Joleen while Kenny Rogers cries about Lucille leaving him – with four hungry children and a crop in the field no less! Don’t hear your favorite? The DJ is taking requests. Sinead O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”? Sorry, no. Just…no. So grab a box of tissues and we’ll get this party started!

I’ve never liked the phrase, “Get over it.” I think it’s dismissive and, quite frankly, insensitive. OK, I suppose there are some things you can “get over” – like your McDonald’s fries not being hot enough or having someone take the last doughnut in the break room. Although those can be really disheartening.

But cold fries and an empty doughnut box aren’t the same as losing your job, losing your home, or having a spouse ask for a divorce. Of course, everyone knows that you don’t tell someone who’s suffered losses like that to “get over it,” do they? No.

No, they say kinder things like, “It was God’s will” or “Something better will come along.” Which I believe may seem a smidge more sensitive (especially if you squeeze God into it), but they’re no less dismissive.

silent cryingI think there’s a pretty long list of things we shouldn’t be expected to get over because we need to get through it. The psalm doesn’t say, “Though I take the bridge over the valley of the shadow of death….” It tells us that we can trust in God is as we walk through it.

I have never been much of a hostess because, frankly, it terrifies me to have people in my home. I used to think it was because I thought my housekeeping wasn’t good enough (which it’s not) or that I wouldn’t know what to do with them once they’re actually in my house. I’m beginning to suspect that it was too intimate for me.

For the most part, I’ve kept my home life separate from my life at work or church. Not that people at work or church never knew about my home life. (They wish!) I think I’ve used my home as a sort of dressing room in which I prepare before a performance and in which I can remove the makeup and costume after a performance.

I can tell those of you who don’t know me that I had a painful childhood. I can tell those of you who think you know me that I cried myself to sleep most nights as my mother laughed with my younger brother in her room down the hall, without me. (Yes, I suspect it was unhealthy.) There were nights I laid very still in my bed as I listened to her go down the stairs because her hatred was so palpable that I was prepared for her to return with a knife. I learned to watch for the slightest change in her voice or face to alert me to a change in her mood.

I lived with my own particular brand of unhealthy until the day before my 21st birthday. Now, I’d like to say that I moved in with a friend or another student at college or even a boyfriend, but I didn’t. Until today, the closest I could come to explaining what I did was to say I ran away from home. I took absolutely nothing with me except my purse, my car and the clothes I was wearing; and I didn’t have a plan.

tiredToday, I realize that what I truly did was escape. That was the only way I could have left. Running away would suggest some degree of rebellion or emotion. I was simply tired. Those of you who have been in a similar relationship know what I mean.

The whole thing didn’t turn out as well as I’d have liked, and within a year I spent a couple of weeks in the local state hospital. (Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, really. Looking back on it as a mother and a woman who’s worked full-time for a few decades, I’ve often thought it has the trappings of a nice vacation. Your meals are prepared for you, the dishes are washed by someone else, you get to choose who your visitors are, you get your own room, make crafts, watch TV, get pretty good meds, have a captive audience with whom to share what’s on your mind, and meet the most interesting people. Not altogether bad – with the proper perspective.)

But I digress!

I’ve had an unpleasant life that left its mark, but not all marks are bad. For example, five years ago, I had an emergency open-heart surgery. Against most odds, I survived. The scar down the middle of my chest is a reminder to me of all the things I still get to enjoy – my husband, my daughters, warm showers in the morning and a comfortable bed at night and wonderful, compassionate friends.

Our scars show that we survived something. What I survived may not be anything like what you survived. But we all have scars, if not on our body then in our spirit.

strengthI don’t necessarily believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s far too simplistic. In fact, I think there’s much more to it than that, because honestly, what doesn’t kill you can really beat the hell out of you and leave you for dead sometimes.

But this much I know. I’m a damn sight stronger than I think I am. I’ve had the air knocked out of me often enough, and have wanted to quit often enough. I’ve wanted to stay down for the count plenty of times, but I’ve always gotten back up again…eventually. And I didn’t get back up because of any clever motivational sayings like “Fall seven times, get up eight” either. If it were that easy, any one of my therapists would have just handed me a book full of quotes.

No, I’ve gotten back up – slowly, confused, disoriented and exhausted – because that’s what people do when they choose to not take their own life. They get back up, take a shower, brush their hair, put on some clean clothes and  leave the house again to go to work or get groceries.

I’ve been angry, confused and frustrated a lot lately. There’s plenty to be angry, confused and frustrated about – money, health, a roof that leaks, a car that’s so badly bashed that it probably shouldn’t be driven, yet still takes up room in our driveway. And what I can’t figure out is why? And when does my family get a break?

weakness to godIf what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, my family – and yours – would be a bad-ass team.

You know what I think? I think God uses these trials to bring us closer to him. Do I think He gives us these trials? Sometimes, and I’ll make a case for that another day. But for the most part, I don’t think He has to. There are enough trials as a result of our own poor judgment, from the natural progression of time, from the acts of others or from Satan, that God doesn’t need help.

That doesn’t mean he he’s not interested in taking advantage of the opportunity those trials create. I think God uses those times in our lives for two primary purposes: to invite us to let him tend to our wounds, heal us, comfort us. He wants to be the one to restore us to the person he intended for us to be when he knit us together in our albeit mentally unhealthy, broken mother’s womb. In doing so, he demonstrates his sovereign power to the world.

God doesn’t give us trials because he knows how strong we are. There is no carnival game in Heaven in which we sling a huge hammer and try to ring a bell to test our strength just so God can determine how much crap we get in life. You’re not like the teacher my oldest daughter had who was so good with challenging children that he ended up with six in his class one year.

I am not that strong! I just don’t have anything better to do but to keep getting up every morning and doing my thing. But I’ve wallowed long enough, I think. You know what they say about sitting in a dirty diaper. It might stink, but it’s warm and it’s yours.

surrenderSitting in a dirty diaper is not fitting behavior for anyone, much less a child of God. His word says that it’s in our weakness that his strength is demonstrated. I’m not entirely clear about how that happens, but I think it’s time try to give God my weakness and quit carrying it around like a worn out, tear-stained teddy bear that’s served its purpose.

Your trials  – whatever the source – should serve to allow God to show the world how strong he is. If he allows more than we can carry, it’s so we can ask him to carry it for us, because his yoke is light.

So feel free to linger at the pity party a bit longer if you like. The food is really good and the DJ gets paid no matter how long he’s here! But when you leave, put your nametag in the trash – you know, the one that says “Hello, my name is defeat” and be sure to take one that says “I am a child of the one true King!”

C’mon! It’s time to get moving along!

 

Did the Grinch Steal Your Christmas?

I usually start out the holiday season (the no-I’m-not trying-to-be-politically-correct – from-Thanksgiving-to-New Year “holiday season”) like this:

elfI want the house to look festive. I want to bake cookies and make candy. I want to watch all the classic Christmas movies from A Christmas Story to Die Hard while I’m curled up on the couch with my family, a warm blanket and a big bowl of popcorn. I want to play Christmas music from Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Wizards in Winter to the Muppet’s’ unique take on The Twelve Days of Christmas or (my personal favorite) Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey. I want to write the coolest Christmas letter to our family and friends, and get it mailed early!

But my Christmas letter turns into a New Year letter. If I hear Harry Belafonte sing Twelve Days of Christmas one more time, I’ll scream. (Actually, If I have to hear anyone stretch out “five go-old rings” through seven verses, I’ll scream!) My husband and I are too tired to stay up for a movie, and I’ve barely seen my daughter since the beginning of school break. The cookies and candy? Well…I’ve got the ingredients but got lost on Pinterest looking for the right recipe. And the house? Not bad, but the spare room is full of boxes – at least the ones that got into the room. One of the cats is using a partially-emptied tote for a bed and an unfinished wreath rests against the table by my chair. The cats seem to enjoy the way the fake needles massage their coats as they walk through the middle of it.

I am not Martha Stewart.

I think I love the idea of Christmas; but to be completely honest, Christmas really, really stresses me out! My husband and I have yet to go into the season with any money set aside for gifts, and John and I have gone through 21 Christmases with very different ideas on how much we should spend. And gift-giving of any sort gives me anxiety because I could never buy the right thing for my mother. (It’s okay – I’ve talked to my therapist about it.) I’m confident that most people probably have someone like that in their family; and if they don’t think they do, then they’re probably that person.

One year, I thought I had it nailed! My mother told me she would like one of two books – Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne: My Life as a Woman or the newest book from Robert Schuller. I chose Robert Schuller’s book because I thought it would be inspirational. When she opened it, she was quiet for a bit, then she set it aside without a word.

“Did I get the right one?” I asked.

“It’s fine.”

“You said you wanted that one or the one by Roseanne Barr, right? Is there something wrong with it?”

“Well, I wanted Roseanne’s book.”

No “thank you” at all. I’d failed again. That sort of track record leaves you a little anxious about getting anyone the “perfect” gift.

I am not Santa, either!

grinch and maxAll of the “forced festivity” is enough to turn a girl into a Grinch! You’re buying things for people you wouldn’t ordinarily buy something for – Secret Santa’s, the mail carrier, the paper carrier, the woman who does your hair! How much is enough? How much is too much? If you get it on sale, does the original price count or does the sale price count? Are you re-gifting something  to the person who gave it to you last year? Does it count if it’s handmade? Do the bag and card count as part of the price or not? What happens when you get a “surprise” gift and (naturally) have to find a gift of equal value to reciprocate? What on Earth made anyone actually think you liked ceramic turtles?! (Well, you’re a bona fide collector now, Sweetie! You’re welcome.) Your kids – bless their little hearts – understand that you can’t afford the latest electronic doo-hickey. They’ll just ask Santa for it. Fine! Maybe Santa can pay for the new tires we need for the car, too!

There are three groups of people my shriveled Grinch heart really goes out to:

  • The introverts who are expected to spend all their free time in the foreseeable future in the company of extroverts.
  • The hostesses who end up stuck in the kitchen cleaning up after a big family feast that took two days to prepare and 20 minutes to consume!
  • Those who are trying to work their way through the holidays while bearing true substantial loss of a family member. (This is a special group that has a place in my heart like no other and deserves the dignity of being mentioned but not included in an honestly superficial rant like this.)

Is this really what Christmas is all about?

first christmasNo. No, it’s not. We know this going into Christmas, don’t we? Cognitively, we know it’s about the fulfilled promise of God and the baby in the manger. Even the folks who only go to church for Easter, Christmas and the occasional baptism or wedding know what Christmas is really about!

But we fall for the guilt, pressure and commercialism every year, don’t we? No one wants to be left out during a gift exchange, even if we don’t need another thing and probably won’t score anything all that special anyway. Is it any wonder we end up at least a little disappointed when we go into Christmas feeling like Elf and finish feeling like the Grinch. The version of the holidays that we buy into has the potential to rob us of our joy.

For me, the worst part is that I let it happen. I could set a monetary limit and stick to it. I could tell my friends and coworkers that I prefer to not participate in group gift exchanges because I don’t want to take on more debt. I could budget my time the same way by carefully choosing which get-togethers I prefer to attend, then balance them with the time I need to be alone with my family at home. At least my generation is beginning to appreciate the freedom of slow cookers and ready-made dishes that allow us time to spend with the ones we love – or are at least related to. Stressful food preparation no longer defines our womanhood. Much.

Christmas is about God offering “tidings of comfort and joy”, and here I am worn out and bitter. It’s about hope, but I’m freaking out about how much debt we’re accumulating. It’s about peace, and I’m cranky. It’s about liberation, and I feel trapped by social constructs. It’s about pardon, and I feel indebted. It’s about inclusion, and I hear story after story of family strife.

wreath crownChristmas is about eternal matters that cannot be measured or limited, and my focus is on resources that are finite and exhaustible – time, money and energy. I allow these things to take priority in my life while I struggle to keep alive a now, very small corner of my faith.

Who knows? Maybe next year I’ll find some balance that will allow me to enjoy the best of the holidays. Bless all of you who come alive and are in your element during the holidays! Personally, I’m relieved that Christmas only comes once a year. It comes and it goes. But the Kingdom on which the birth of Christ is built is with me all year long.  Now, that is a gift worth keeping!