Behind Closed Doors

10 years ago, my mom passed away in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Mom was one of those people who you couldn’t help but love because she had so much love and compassion for others. She had a faith that I can only aspire to. If you needed someone to pray for you, she’s the one you’d ask. Her sense of humor was something else, and her laugh was positively infectious. She was a strong woman, and had a stubborn streak that seems to be rather genetic. Mom was also in an abusive relationship.

I came across a book in this past year: Healing From Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas. I picked it up because it’s one of the rare resources I’ve found written by a Christian that deals with the aftermath of psychological abuse. I had to keep putting the book down and walking away because things the author mentioned were exactly the sort of things I saw play out in my mom’s relationship. I’d feel sick to my stomach and wonder, “How could I not see this for what it was before now?”

I was one of those foolish people who used to say things like, “Why don’t they just leave?” or, “Why don’t they just cut ties with them?” when hearing about someone in an abusive relationship. It’s funny the things that you get used to, the things you can explain away, and the behavior you make excuses for when you’re in the middle of it. The irony is, while I was judging all of those people who insisted on maintaining a relationship with someone who was mistreating them horribly, I couldn’t see the truth of my mom’s relationship, or the abusive one I spent decades in. Actually, it wasn’t until after the abuser cut ties with me a few years back that I started to see things clearly.

When someone asked me, “Why didn’t you, your mom, or your sister say anything?” I struggled to explain. The short answer is: I didn’t realize that there was anything wrong with what was going on. When you grow up in a certain environment, you just think it’s normal. But it’s more complicated than that. I was afraid to say anything because I’d been conditioned to be afraid of saying anything. I felt too embarrassed and ashamed to speak up. I believed that it was my fault — that it wasn’t really abuse, and so I felt guilty for being upset and angry about it. I know that all of this sounds crazy from the perspective of normal, healthy relationships, but psychological abuse is insidious. The stuff you end up believing is crazy, and on some level you know it’s crazy, but you can’t shake that deep belief that all of those lies are true.

So why write about any of this? I can’t change what my mom went through. I can’t change what I went through. Why say anything?

First, because I want to tell people that sometimes the person being abused does not fit any of the stereotypes. Sometimes it’s the strong, independent, outgoing person who’s being abused. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, and those closed doors are in every neighborhood and demographic. Sometimes the abuser is the person who’s in some sort of church leadership position. The kind of person who fills in when the pastor is on vacation and leads Bible studies. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. Appearances can be very deceiving, and abusers can be very good at projecting a good front. The scary part is how good they are at getting the people they are abusing to help them put up a good front. We can’t assume because everything looks OK on the outside, that everything is OK.

Second, because telling our stories is a powerful thing. I’ve heard some truly awful stories, but sometimes those stories had remarkable things that came after all of the awful. Stories where people not only survived the abuse and survived getting out of the relationship, but stories of people who are healthier, stronger, and have a deeper faith than ever. It can take a really, really long time — many years — but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Those stories give me something to hold onto, something to look forward to.

I can’t change Mom’s story or my own and edit out the ugly parts, much as I might wish to. What I can do, is hold tight to my faith just like she did. By the grace of God, I’m going to get to the other side of this, even if it takes years.

Note: If you’re in an abusive relationship, or are dealing with the aftermath of one, please take care of yourself and stay safe. If you need to make arrangements for your own safety, or seek professional help for your mental and physical health, then please do get the help that you need.

Is Routine Maintenance Really Necessary?

Self-care is a trending thing. Just check Instagram. There’s something of a counter to that in the soul-care trend going around in certain Christian circles. In any case, there are widely varying opinions on the whole idea.

I look at it like car maintenance. I’ve gotta change the oil routinely or my engine will eventually be toast. Getting a new set of tires is an expensive must-do, but I’m not going very far on treadless tires. If I don’t replace worn out breaks, I’m not going to be able to stop when I need to. Windshield wipers don’t last forever, and I have to buy new ones from time to time if I want to see well enough to drive safely in bad weather.

It’s not just our cars either. Homes need maintaining. Businesses need tending. Everything in life requires some kind of upkeep, including you.

The Christian response to the self-care craze has been to dub it soul-care and shroud it in spirituality. Part of caring for yourself does include caring for your soul, but we’re not just our soul. To disregard physical and mental health in favor of focusing only on the soul skates a bit too close to Gnosticism for my comfort.

Self care gets something of a bad rap because the stuff that gets tagged on social media tends to be things like manicures, expensive coffee, new clothes, and the like. The reason behind that is because a photo of a multivitamin, or someone having their teeth cleaned isn’t quite as aesthetic! There are definitely days when taking care of myself means getting out the good tea and brewing a cup to get me through a particularly long afternoon. (Sometimes it even includes breaking out the chocolate stash.) Self care is buying and armful of greek yogurt at the grocery store because it’s the only way I can consistently make sure I eat breakfast. It’s keeping a bottle of vitamins on my desk so I don’t forget to take one in the morning. It’s making time to read and learn new things to exercise my mind. It’s journaling my prayers to grow spiritually and keep my mental health in a good place. It’s doing stretches and sitting on a yoga ball to keep my back, joints, and muscles working better. It’s clearing off my desk on Friday so that I don’t forget to do important things. At it’s core, self care is stewarding the body, mind, and soul that you’ve been given to the best of your abilities.

How many times have you heard of someone who neglected their own health until it deteriorated to the point where they have no choice but to make changes? It absolutely happens. I’ve landed myself in the ER because I didn’t pay enough attention to my health. I know of women who’ve done the same thing and ended up with something far worse than an inconvenient ER visit. There’s nothing holy or spiritual about neglecting ourselves to the point of harm.

Instead of denouncing self-care as inherently selfish, or trying to spiritualize it by calling it soul-care, maybe we can focus on modeling a healthy level of taking care of ourselves for our kids. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our daughters never had to feel guilty about doing the things they need to do to stay healthy in every way?

Do Not Fear…

Earlier this year, I had surgery. I’ve mentioned a bit about my hysterectomy, but for the most part, my blog has been pretty quiet this summer while I recover. Now I’d like to share with you a bit about the day of my surgery. Not the technical details, rather how God gave me comfort and reassurance through a rather remarkable meeting.

IMG_2691[1]It’s not surprising that I was terribly nervous in the days leading up to my surgery date. When I asked for prayers on social media, a Facebook friend posted the reference Isaiah 41:10 & 13. The first verse I’m very familiar with, as it’s the verse that Mom wrote in the front of every Bible that she ever gave me. (Did Mom know me or what?) But I couldn’t remember what verse 13 said, so I looked it up.

“Do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you; I will help you;
I will hold on to you with My righteous right hand…

For I, Yahweh your God,
hold your right hand
and say to you: Do not fear,
I will help you.”

Isaiah 41:10 & 13 HCSB

When I read that verse, I nearly cried. The picture of God holding my hand and telling me not to be afraid because He would help me was exactly what I needed.

I repeated those verses to myself as I sat in the pre-op waiting room on the day of my hysterectomy. The nurse that came out and called my name looked familiar, and when she introduced herself I recognized her name right away. Turns out that she knew my grandparents from one of the churches that Grandpa had preached at. We chatted a bit about my grandparents and how they were doing as she helped prepare me for surgery. Seeing a familiar face calmed my nerves, and I’m convinced that it was just one more way that God was showing me that He would be with me through it all.

Eventually, I was wheeled into the operating room, and just before I fell asleep one of the nurses squeezed my hand and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of you.” It reminded me so much of Isaiah 41:13, that the verse was the last thing on my mind as I drifted off.

My surgery went well. Recovery took a bit longer than I would have liked, but thankfully, was free of complications.

What I’ll always remember about the day that I had surgery is how God showed me that He really will be there beside me every step of the way.

Knowing Is Half the Battle

“I’ll be honest with you. This family history is very ugly.”

It was something of a wake-up call when the doctor said that to me. I knew there was a lot of cancer on both sides of my family. Some of them were diagnosed as young as in their 30s. But until that day, it had never hit me how unusual that was. In the back of my mind I knew that I was probably at a little higher risk for certain cancers, but it had not occurred to me how serious that risk potentially was.

The doctor strongly recommended genetic screening for gene mutations related to hereditary cancers, including the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that have been recently receiving media attention due to their link to breast and ovarian cancer. I knew that a couple of my relatives had tested positive for some of these mutations. My husband and I agreed that the test was a prudent thing to have done, despite the cost.

Less than a week later, I met with the genetic counselor to go over my family history of cancer. She too expressed surprise by just how prevalent cancer was in my family tree and remarked that she’d never seen a list quite that long before. I was sent downstairs to the lab to have my blood drawn and then returned the sample to the doctor’s office to be sent off to Myriad labs in Utah for testing.

And then I waited. I can’t tell you how nerve-wracking the wait was! We were most concerned about the BRCA mutations since there is so much breast and ovarian cancer in my family history. I’ve seen people I love struggle through surgery and treatments for both of those cancers. It scared me just how dramatically those tiny gene mutations could increase my own risk of facing those diseases. Admittedly, a positive result does not guarantee that you’ll end up with cancer, just as a negative result doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never be diagnosed with cancer. It does tip the statistics quite a bit though.

IMG_2369[1]When my results finally came in, I was surprised and relieved that I tested negative for all of the gene mutations that they checked for. The genetic counselor was just as surprised! I still have a slightly increased risk based on my family medical history, but it’s much lower than it could have been.

Do I regret having the testing done now that it came back negative? Not at all! The genetic screening for cancer-related gene mutations is not a test that everyone needs by any means, but I more than fit the screening guidelines for someone at risk of these mutations. I have information now that I didn’t have before. That will help me and my doctor decide what screenings I should have and when I should have them.

If you’re wondering whether you should consider the genetic screening for the mutations linked to hereditary cancer, please talk to your doctor. It’s like the line from those old G.I. Joe PSAs from the Saturday morning cartoons, “Knowing is half the battle.”