The stranger in my eyes

“I hate myself,” she said matter-of-factly. It was righteous self-hatred she explained. She was a sinner, and so she scorned and hated her flesh. After all, the Bible says that even the good things we do are as dirty rags.

My pastor and his wife had invited me over after church to eat with two of their friends. I now sat across the table from them, emersed in an intense theological discussion. Usually a fairly quiet and passive person, such a debate was far from ordinary for me. But this felt too important to be silent.

I don’t remember exactly how we got to this point in the conversation, only that I’d mentioned self-hatred as something to be avoided. I had not expected the woman to respond with an argument in its favor.

I told her I couldn’t agree. “I don’t God ever wants us to hate ourselves,” I said. “Because I know where it leads.” And I told them this story.

When I was a child, I was taught that it is impossible to hate yourself. If you think you hate yourself, that only shows how much you actually love yourself.

The first time I heard this, I was thirteen and already deeply depressed. For a moment, I felt a flash of anger. I wanted to yell at someone, to lash out against the weight of yet more condemnation. But then the flash was over. In less than a second, I’d sunk into resignation. There was no point in fighting.

There was no way out.

And so, my self-hatred grew. My mind churned criticism until I felt beaten up from the inside out and then despised myself for feeling that way. Sometimes, in the isolation of my basement bedroom, the hateful words would come spewing out of me.

That’s what happened one night when I was sixteen.

I remember sitting on my hands on the edge of my bed, enumerating my many failures. I was a coward. I was selfish. I was a disappointment to God.

“I’m disgusted with you.” I hissed the words into the night.

I couldn’t keep still anymore. I began to pace the floor, spitting accusations at myself until the angry part of me, the part that hated, consumed the sad part of me. It was strong. Stronger than anything I’d ever felt before.

I turned, stomped toward my dresser, and hit my right wrist against its edge. Hard, harder, relishing the sting of it. The hatred was a force. It was alive, snapping like white-hot fire. I was no longer me. I was something “other,” something that needed to be punished.

I imagined myself hurt, killed even, and felt a strange kind of justice in that thought, as if only then would I have gotten what I truly deserved.

It was then that I looked up into the mirror. My reflection stared back at me, and it was as if I was looking at a stranger.

It was not me looking out of my eyes.

I let out a whimper and fell cowering to the floor. “God! Help me!” My voice was hoarse. All the self-hatred was gone. In its place was terror of what I’d seen, what I’d felt. I knew, suddenly, that all hatred was wrong, even if it was directed at oneself. And it wasn’t because it was secretly “self-love” as that teacher had claimed.

The hatred I had just experienced could not in any way, shape, or form ever be from God. God is love.

How had I forgotten that?

I cried, sitting with my knees pulled tightly to my chest. I promised God, promised myself, that I would never allow this to happen again.

“Take the hate away. Fill me with your love instead,” I repeated over and over. I decided that every time I felt anger at myself, I would repeat this prayer.

Outside, the light from my bedroom windows made rectangles that stretched across the lawn, banishing everything outside their edges into blackness. I flipped my light switch off, and immediately moonlight flooded everything.

I knelt at my window. I could see the feathery branches of the tree that marked where the lawn gave way to untamed grass. Beyond that, the wind rolled over the woods, swaying the trees so they looked as if they were one being. Above, stars softly ribboned the sky. And it seemed to me as if all of it was alive and singing.

That was the night I realized that it was good—and necessary—to fight the angry voice inside my head. For so long, I had internalized a false god who stared down in judgement and disgust. And always, when I pictured this god, I also pictured my ultra-spiritual father sleeping at the other end of the house. Undoubtedly, this god was pleased with him. But not with me.

The more I tried to satiate this god, the more self-loathing I felt. Even my pain was an affront to him.

So no, I don’t think God wants us to have some kind of “righteous self-hatred.” And I don’t think he condemns us for feeling that way either. I think he says, “Look in the mirror. This isn’t who I meant you to be.”

A Good Father

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Recently, my husband and I started the process of buying our first home. It freaked me out. Big time. So much money, so much responsibility, so many things to break and cost even more money… So, I asked God not to just shut the door if it was the wrong move, but to SLAM it in our faces. Instead, he opened the door even wider.

And his goodness stunned me. Again.

You see, like a lot of people, I never expected God to give me good things. Or, if he did, I expected him to snatch them away again the next second. Because that’s how my life has always gone. When I was a teenager I said that life is like drowning in the ocean. You get some breaths between the waves, but only enough to make sure you keep surviving—a cruel punishment.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized God wasn’t the one sending the waves. It was my dad. God was there, looking at me with compassion and love the whole time. He was waiting for the perfect moment to deliver me and show me all the goodness my dad had been keeping from me. He knew I needed to be ready to face the truth. He knew I needed to have the support of a loving husband. He knew he needed to work in my mom, sister, and brother’s hearts as well.

The whole time I was drowning, he was preparing me for freedom. And now, he is showing me what the Bible means when it calls him Father.

People say that a lot. When you have a toxic dad, they tell you to cling to God as your Father. The problem is, if all you have is a bad example, that’s pretty much impossible. You see God through the lens of the abuser’s manipulation. You try to be perfect so God won’t be disappointed. As many times as you hear he loves you, you still can’t believe it. Not really.

But now, for the first time, I’m starting to be able to see God as a good Father. Naming what happened to me gave me the ability to reject my dad’s lens. God isn’t on the side of the abuser. He doesn’t look like spiritual abuse says he does.

He actually has good in store for me, even though I never believed it.

“You have to forgive me!” And Other Lies

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I was having a conversation with my dad the other day (if someone yelling over you for an hour can be called a conversation), and he said that I need to forgive him. Otherwise, God won’t forgive me.

You see, to my dad, I haven’t forgiven him because I don’t trust him. To him, forgiveness means reconciliation and unconditional relationship. It means giving him license to hurt me over and over and over. And it doesn’t matter that there has been no true repentance (I’ll talk about that in another post). I’m supposed to forget and act like everything is okay when I am being psychologically pounded into the earth.

Literally, I felt like someone was sitting on my chest. I could barely move, my limbs were so heavy.

But no, I’m supposed to “forgive and forget.” Which, by the way, isn’t even in the Bible.

 

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And unfortunately, that’s the view that the church has taught.

They say that if he apologizes, you need to trust those words. You need to believe that he is a changed man even if everything in you screams it’s a lie. It doesn’t matter that abusers are master manipulators. It doesn’t matter that there has been no true repentance (I’ll write about that in another post).

They say you need to pray more, be more loving and kind. Then he’ll be convicted to change his abusive ways. I’ve got news for you: that makes abuse worse. Being more loving does not convict him. It tells him he is right—you are the one who needs to change because everything is your fault.

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But here’s the thing, I have forgiven my dad. But my forgiveness looks like acknowledging that his abuse is not okay and trusting God for justice in the situation. I’m not trying to punish him. I don’t wish any harm or pain upon him.

I forgive, but I don’t trust him. I forgive, but I will not condone his sin by allowing him to be cruel to me. I forgive, but there can be no reconciliation. Not while he’s abusive.

And that is okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Emotional Abuse Feels Like

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Am I crazy? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I ever express myself to him in a way he will understand? Maybe he’s right—I don’t know how to communicate…

These are the thoughts that swirl through your mind. Reality is a shifting surface, and every time you think you’ve grasped a corner of it, it is ripped away. He acts like you are crazy, and sometimes you almost wonder if he’s right. Other times, you feel the burn of injustice, and you get angry, you stand up for yourself. But by the end somehow you are apologizing to him again.

He’s a good guy, a godly man, you remind yourself. So why do I feel so terrible?

You don’t know what’s wrong, but you know that something is, so you wonder if he’s right—it’s you, your mother, your sister. He’s the victim of unreasonable, overly-sensitive, paranoid, controlling females.

You are always on-guard, always braced, waiting for the next mood swing. He is unpredictable, and so you try harder to read him, to anticipate his wants, to not set him off. If you could just be more sympathetic, he wouldn’t feel like you were ungrateful for how hard he works. If you could just be less “Type-A,” he wouldn’t feel like you are trying to control him. If you could just be less needy, he wouldn’t seem to despise you. If you could just be more enthralled with what he has to say, one day his attention tank will be filled up and he’ll have a little left over to give to you.

It doesn’t work.

You are trapped, but as hard as you try, you can’t see the ropes that bind you.

Photo by Mario Azzi on Unsplash

Breathe

I am driving when anxiety stirs in my stomach. It is small at first, and I think that it is just one of those random spurts that come and choke my heart for a second and then pass. But it grows. As the wipers swish away the rain, I find myself unable to breathe. Suddenly, I am terrified that my husband is going to die. He’s going die and I will be shredded into tiny bloody pieces by the force of his loss. I will never be able to tell him about my day again. I will never recover. Panic claws at my throat, and my chest aches like someone is sitting on it. My head feels like it’s floating, unbound from my body. There’s not enough oxygen.

A panic attack. I haven’t had one in a while, not since my doctor doubled my dose of antidepressant. God, don’t take him from me. Please don’t take him from me. I force myself to breathe—in four, hold five, out seven.

He will cover Josh with his feathers, and under his wings Josh will find refuge. We will not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness.

There was a time I didn’t know what the terms “general anxiety disorder” and “panic attack” meant. I just called the times when life got too much to handle “freaking out.” Several times. . . okay, many times I left class completely and utterly overwhelmed. I would practically run to a secluded spot outside and collapse to my knees in the dirt, hyperventilating, heart pounding, vision swimming because of a single homework assignment. I didn’t understand what was going on. . .  and neither did the people around me.

Once, a few months after I received my anxiety diagnosis, my RD sat me down with a cup of tea to challenge me to get ahold of my life. “You’re causing your friends to worry about you,” she said. “What can you do to manage your stress level?”

“I’m doing everything I can to manage my anxiety, but sometimes it just gets so intense it needs to come out. So I go somewhere by myself and freak out for a little.”

“But you shouldn’t ever need to freak out.” Those were her words.

Apparently, I should just decide to not have a panic attack. I should never be out of control. I should rewire my brain chemistry and hormones with a snap of my fingers.

If only it was that easy.

Four years later, I force my fingers to relax their grip on the steering wheel. Electricity is zapping through my ribcage, my head is faint, and my chest aches worse than ever, but I keep breathing. I am okay. The fear is not the truth. I am able to stay in the part of my brain that knows this. I have kept this attack from blowing out of control. This is not because I told myself I “shouldn’t need to freak out.” It’s because I educated myself about anxiety disorders and panic attacks. It’s because I told myself it was okay—I am not a bad person for not being able to stay under control. The anxiety, the panic attacks. . . they are not me.

But they are part of what has made me me. Whether I wanted them to or not.

So, as the rain coats the pavement, I don’t get angry at myself or discouraged that it happened again, I just breathe.

 

 

 

 

Dreaming Small

Dream Small

People say to dream big. But what if that’s too much to ask?

Don’t ask me to have grandiose plans for the future when I am just beginning to accept today. For nine years, the future has been an ominous cloud, a place for nightmares to come true. Dreaming big about the future isn’t an option for a lot of us.

So, instead I practice dreaming small. I stare out the window at the leaves reaching up to drink the rain. I make a cup of tea as I work. I cook dinner without dreading the endless cycle of sleep, wake up, work, sleep, die.

Small things, I’m beginning to believe, are attainable.

We put too much emphasis on the future, on having everything figured out. “It’s okay to dream small,” I want to shout. Just live in today. Just dream about tomorrow. This is what I would tell them, the people like me:

Dream of getting a good novel from the library. Dream of creating something beautiful out of paint or clay or beads. Dream of walking in nature, feeling God’s breath whisper through the tress. Dream of doing something—just one small thing—that you want to do just because you want to do it. Dream of saying no to the next person who steps across your boundaries. Dream of deciding to eat that chocolate muffin without any guilt. Dream of taking the one step that’s in front of you instead of worrying about the next 270.

Don’t be afraid to start small.

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Numbness

In the 3 minutes and 30 seconds it takes for my bagel to toast, I lie on the floor with my Bluetooth speaker sitting right above my ponytail. It plays Jewish Violin Music, the high notes like cold water, trickling over the top of my head to my fingertips. I close my eyes and only feel what the music tells me to feel:

Longing. So much longing.

Anguish so deep it darkens your soul but is still somehow beautiful.

And then the toaster oven dings and I eat and I write an essay about Deism, Concurrentism, Divine Compositionalism, and Occaisonalism. But outside the window, the row of skinny evergreen trees sway in the wind like a row of hooded monks in prayer.

Nightmares

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Wasps burrow into my ears,

sleek bodies wriggling deeper, scrambling legs

scraping the small hairs of my ear canal.

 

Wait, every cell alert,

for needle to venom my veins: black threads to strangle my mind,

damage the fragile structure forever.

I am irreparable.

 

I attempt to pick them out with tweezers

but they pluck apart – bits of abdomen and orange blood

mashed against my eardrum

but I know:

 

a stinger can release its venom even after the wasp’s death.