Responsibility in the wilderness

In my last blog, I ended with the realization that I was responsible for my own life. It didn’t matter what cards I’d been dealt: I was responsible for how I played them.

In victim mode, I’d frequently thrown up my hands in despair. It’s too much. I can’t do it all. I’m overwhelmed. There is never enough. Those words were my mantra, and I believed them.

There was some truth there: I had a lot to learn, and I had a lot to do to recover from my childhood. I needed to learn how to listen to my inner voice and limits. I needed to learn to manage money. I needed to learn how to find work that inspired me (and even to learn that that was relevant) and how to work at a job, even when things got tough. That meant learning communication and negotiation skills, as well as knowing when it was time to leave. I needed to learn how to make choices about housing and work and money, not out of desperation, but out of sustainability. I needed help with very real physical and psychological issues that came from abuse, neglect and not knowing how to eat well, exercise sanely, and get enough sleep. I didn’t know how to keep a neat house or even that it was important for me to care for myself by having one. I didn’t know how to negotiate the on-going relationship with my schizophrenic mother: I felt drawn toward helping her, toward trying to get her approval and simultaneously repelled by her and her on-going abuse and insanity. I didn’t know how to choose romantic partners or friends well.

Phew. That was a lot. And the truth of the matter is, it was beyond me to do alone. So how did responsibility fit with that?

If you’ve ever managed a project of any size, you know that a project often entails many people, working together toward a goal. A good project manager doesn’t do everything herself: she finds the right people to do the right aspects of the job, and she makes sure that things are on-track. Ultimately, she takes the brunt of the blame or the glory for the success for how the project turns out.

A life of recovery and healing is much the same: each of us is the project manager who takes the heat or the praise for the end result. We need to assess the scope of the project, and we need to call in the right people for the right tasks. We don’t need to do it all alone, but we instead need to learn what we can do by ourselves and what we really need help with. 

For me, that meant getting into treatment for an eating disorder shortly after my friend Judy said, “Lora, you’re responsible for your own life!” I needed professional help to get out of the pit of despair I was in. I had to stop moping around, hoping that someone would recognize that I needed help and come rescue me; I needed to fess up and ask directly for the help I needed.

I used my therapist, a mentor, wise friends, the internet, classes and books to learn skills. I used 12-step groups for compulsive bad behaviors that kept me from succeeding. Sometimes I had to pace myself: I didn’t always have the money or the time for everything I wanted to take on. I had to learn to trust that what I had was enough, for today. The more I trusted, the more I realized I got what I needed for the day. It might not be enough to fill the gaping hole of my emotional, physical and spiritual needs for all eternity; but it was enough, for today.

 

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Beyond Survival

Sometimes, in the wilderness times of life, the best we can do is survive. Just enough protection from the cold. Just enough food or water to get through a day. We put one foot in front of the other, not even thinking about the destination. The next step is all we can consider.

That’s how I learned to live as a child: my mother and I moved 50 times by the time I was 13. We paid bills on the first of the month, and by the second week of the month, we were scrambling for food and money to get us through until the next month’s “first.” If we couldn’t pay the rent, again, we moved. My mother often resorted to desperate actions to resolve the situations: steal, sell something, sell herself. It never occurred to me as a child that there was another way. 

As I got older, I always felt like I was behind the ball: financially, in careers, in relationships, I jumped in – and out – of situations, trying to find something that worked. I knew that strategy wasn’t working, but I could never get beyond the crisis of the moment to take a calm look at the circumstances and make good decisions instead of reflexive jumps from one thing to another. 

Whether we’re in a real-life wilderness of mountains and trees and wild animals, or we’re in the other real-life wilderness of trauma, loss and bewildering circumstances, survival is a paradox: in order to actually survive to see something beyond the wilderness, we have to get out of survival mode. 

Starving people will eat any food, just to get something in their stomachs. Emotionally starving people will grab onto the first person who shows them attention. Financially desperate people will leap at high-interest credit, or worse.

What works to gain perspective?

There is no simple answer, and I will start with the first one that began to change the direction of my desperate actions.

I was a new college graduate, and it was 1992. I was in a desperate place. Again. I felt suicidal: the structure of school life had ended (the only continuity I’d had to that point in my life); my eating disorder was completely out of control; I worked at an admin job I hated and that barely paid the bills. I’d started smoking to escape my stress (and, needless to say, that didn’t work very well). 

I sat in my friend Judy’s minivan outside her house one evening. I’d spent our evening hanging out, pouring out my story and my tears to her. She made suggestions and asked questions: could I look for another job? Refinance my car? Go to treatment for my eating disorder? I rebuffed every suggestion: I had so much overwhelm, I couldn’t do anything she suggested. I had reasons. I had excuses. I had tears.

Judy was an older, wise friend who had heard me before, and she was trying to help. Finally, in a moment of frustration, she blurted out, “Lora, you are responsible for your own life!”

Some “God moments” happen in church, when the skies part, angels sing, and the voice of God tells us what we need to hear. Some God moments happen in a minivan on a dark winter evening when God’s voice comes through a frustrated, middle-aged woman. 

I sobered up. On the spot. My tears dried on my face. She was right. I couldn’t do anything about the cards I’d been dealt, but they were in my hands. I had the responsibility of how to play them. 

It was the beginning of moving beyond survival and into living my life, wilderness or not.

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Juggling priorities

When I was a single parent (the first four years of Isaac’s life), juggling was both a metaphor and a hobby.

The hobby started when Isaac was almost two years old. He had awakened me (as usual) around 4:00 a.m. He had gone back to sleep around 8:30 for a nap, and I’d gone to work: turned on the computer and started troubleshooting for a tech company I worked for part-time.

Then he got up, and I was back to momming. He wanted some toy I knew was at the back of our hall closet. I tore through boxes and bags in my dazed search for this stupid toy. I was sleep-deprived, continually, at that point, and obsessive-compulsive cleaning and toy searches were how I spent a lot of our hang-out time together.

In this particular search, I unearthed the juggling balls. I wasn’t looking for them, but Isaac and I were both enthralled with my inept but determined efforts to juggle three balls simultaneously. Every time I dropped one, he yelled, “Ball!”

I revived my juggling practice, both for his entertainment, and because juggling seemed such an apt expression of my life at the time.

Juggling as a lifestyle emerged almost immediately after Isaac’s birth. I now had to care for my son (ball #1), my work (ball #2), and myself (ball #3). It was pretty clear to me then that I was ball #3.

I couldn’t drop Isaac. He was completely dependent upon me for everything. Ball #1 got number one care.

I couldn’t drop work. Work was what kept us going: home, food, transportation, healthcare. Ball #2 got second, but still high, priority.

Ball #3 was still pretty damn important, I have to acknowledge now. But sleep, eating at regular intervals and all the other seeming luxuries of self-care (which I blogged about last time) just had to come last.

Sometimes, I managed to keep all the balls in the air. In an effortless flow, they just happened. There wasn’t much margin for error, but I kept it going.

It also didn’t take much to drop one. A sick or teething baby meant everything else dropped. A work emergency meant I lost sleep or propped the baby in front of some entertaining toy, hoping he’d be happy for a few minutes. And sometimes, my emotional needs rose up so intensely, I had to deal with them. Sometimes, I had to write. It’s my bottom-line, can’t-live-without-it, outlet. I will admit that I sometimes missed work time in order to write in my journal. My own healing process and need to integrate an emerging insight needed my attention. I remember when Isaac was three months old, and I remembered what my aunt had told me: she first saw my mother hit me when I was that age. I needed to write when that came up, and as well as other memories and traumas. I also had to write sometimes because the fact was that Isaac was a happy, well-loved child. That dawning reality was something I also had to write about.

The Wilderness of Motherhood is the book that emerged from this time. It was the had-to-write-it spectacular juggling experience of these early years. I’m so glad I did. I’m so glad that I sometimes neglected work, sometimes got Isaac a babysitter, so that I could sometimes write. It saved my life and sanity. Sometimes, ball #3 needed to be cared for, too.

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Finding True North

How does a person rediscover her True Voice and inner compass when she has negated it for years, learned that it was a vulnerable and seemingly irrelevant Voice, and simply learned to ignore it?

Well, I don’t know about everyone else, but in my case it was a pretty ugly process.

In my childhood, my mother used my expressed feelings, flippant comments and even my carefully-chosen thoughts as weapons. In schizophrenic rants that often commenced in the middle of the night, she repeated things I said almost as a mantra. You want, you want, you want. All you ever do is want from me. I quickly learned not to say what I wanted. But even worse, I learned that even wanting itself was bad. It didn’t help to have a broken heart and wish for more nurturing; it was better simply to deny it.

When I was 13 and entered foster care, I lived with two very kind, sweet Christian families. I had become an evangelical Christian myself at that point, and I heard from many different sermons and Bible lessons that what I wanted was sinful. It didn’t matter what I wanted. What God wanted for me was the thing that mattered. This made perfect sense to me at the time, and no doubt (and in all fairness to the teachers I listened to at the time), I saw their message through the only lens I had at that time: the human heart is deceptive, needs to be surrendered entirely to God, and therefore, I didn’t have to listen to it. Again. Perfect. I thought of the worst thing I could possibly be when I grew up: a minister’s wife. That was something I couldn’t stomach. So moved on to the next worst thing: a missionary. Yup, I was pretty sure God wanted me to be a missionary. I seriously considered that option for several years of my teens and early 20s. 

However, the human heart has a way of beating its truth despite the clogged arteries feeding it. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. I found moments of beauty and joy in music and art and writing, but those things were mere luxuries, I thought. They weren’t saving the world from hell, and they just made me feel good. What point did that have, I wondered?

I wondered, too, why I ate entire boxes of cookies, trays of brownies, quarts of icecream in one sitting? Why did I stick my finger down my throat in such violent self-hatred? It all seemed quite mysterious to me.

Fast forward many years to becoming a single parent. I’d long-since dropped the evangelical belief system, and I no longer binged and stuck my finger down my throat. But remnants of the self-denial still clung to me. Now my reasons seemed just as valid, if different: I have a child to care for and to support. Listening to my heart’s needs will just take me down the path of financial ruin and self-indulgence. I don’t have time and energy for that stuffMaybe later.

I had continued, for the entirety of my 20s and most of my 30s, to work in situations that were uncomfortable to me. I dated men I didn’t feel good with. Surely, I was the problem, I thought. I took responsibility in my life for everyone and everything that didn’t work. If I could just contort myself enough, I could fix the problems in other people and in situations that were unworkable. It was the magical thinking of childhood, carried into adulthood. Surely, if I am good enough and say things the right way, my mother will love me and stop hurting me.

Parenting, while excruciatingly difficult, cast a spotlight on the dark, lonely place my heart inhabited.

Seeing my child and loving him awakened me to the child I had once been: I had deserved my mother’s love and care. I didn’t deserve abuse. My heart should have been cared for and heard. My mother’s abuse had not stemmed from my horrible heart: it had come from profound mental illness. I saw that message in my son’s sweet face, as if a written message from the finger of God.

Having so little left at the end of the day of parenting and working forced me to finally value my precious little self. I had nothing else to throw at emotionally unavailable men and work situations that sucked the life out of me. I actually grieved this for a while: I so badly wanted to run around and seek out empty wells for a sip of water. I just couldn’t do it. I was too tired at the end of any given day to do it any more.

Slowly, from a sad and lonely place, I started to see that the things that fed me, things like music, art, good friends, writing, and satisfying work were not luxuries. They were the very things that would put fuel in the tank of my personal and familial RV and keep it trucking. 

Eventually, after fingers down my throat, a bad marriage and subsequent divorce, jobs I couldn’t stand but did anyway, and lots of co-dependent contortions, I found my compass somewhere in the baggage of my self. I had a heart, and its needs stopped being inconveniences and dreams I acknowledged only when I slept. I have a heart, and I hear Her today. She has wonderful things to say.

 
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Authenticity in the wilderness

For Isaac’s first 16 months of life, we rented space from friends and lived with them. 

Amy and Rick had a 2-year-old daughter, Molly, and we shared some childcare (hugely helpful when the baby is sleeping and mom needs a walk, or when the baby is sick, and mom needs to run to the store), and household expenses and responsibilities. We all benefited from the arrangement.

I had yet to go through the “terrible twos” with Isaac, but I watched keenly to see how they parented in the thick of a difficult time. I took mental notes on how to respond to a child having a tantrum. I hadn’t seen it modeled before, or if I had, I wasn’t paying attention. I needed desperately to see it up close and personal, so that I wouldn’t do to Isaac what my mother had done to me as a child: scream, hit, and generally lose it.

One day, on our way out the door together, Amy and I watched as Molly threw herself on the floor, protesting the horrible fact that we were, um, going outside. I felt my own tension rise. We just wanted to leavefor Pete’s sake. Amy appeared calm. Serene, even. 

And then she spoke to me out of the side of her mouth, sotto voce, “I’m thinking things I can’t say right now.”

I felt a huge burden rise off my shoulders. Even Amy, who is so calm and kind to her unreasonable daughter, feels the tension. She just doesn’t act on it.

It was an aha moment. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone in my anger and frustration. I wasn’t a bad parent because I had ugly thoughts that were unspeakable to my child. I could still be a loving parent and not feel good on the inside.

Amy’s frank and authentic sharing over her own inner state made single parenting a lighter load that day.

When we’re in tough times, the last thing we need to hear is that our feelings aren’t valid. The last thing we need to here is, “Oh, just have a more positive attitude.”

We need to hear that someone else has been there, felt the blisters on their feet from the long trail, felt the sore muscles from the backpack. They may be walking gracefully and appear to have it all together, but when they turn back and say, “Damn. This is one hell of a trail, isn’t it?” we are validated. We are not alone. Sometimes that’s all we need to get through a rough patch.

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Tools for the wilderness

I began looking for tools for recovery from an eating disorder when I was 19. I learned from 12-step recovery groups to use the phone, group support systems, inspiring literature, journaling, the telephone and prayer. I later studied meditation and tai chi. I practiced authentic movement with others and alone. I got care from doctors and nutritionists, massage therapists and chiropractors. I learned to draw.

They were all good tools. I’m grateful for everyone of them. They changed my life.

However, first as a single person, and then as a new parent, I often had a very disjointed view of what those tools would do for me. Often, they felt like just one more thing I had to do in order to maintain my sanity. And they were often adding more stress to my life: great, one more day I didn’t meditate at all. Now I’ve blown it. They were tasks, and God knows, I didn’t need any more tasks on a list that was already too long to do in a day.

My big “aha” moment came first through practice, then through an analogy that seeded it home.

I don’t know how many years I struggled to make self-care a priority rather than an afterthought. But at some point, I came to believe that I would either need to absorb this lesson, or I would go to the grave addicted and disconnected from my son, and later, my husband, John. I would never learn what it was like to be present to the life I had – whether it was a wilderness time or a more civilized, peaceful time. That prospect broke my heart. 

I’d learned at my mother’s side that my feelings were irrelevant, at best. At worst, they were weapons others would use against me in my most vulnerable times. I learned to distrust my own heart and spirit: after all, it was telling me, as a child, that my mother was not safe. Who, as a child, can bear that knowledge and own it? I certainly couldn’t. 

So I learned to shut down my heart. I walled-off my spirit behind a mask. I controlled it, pushed it away, so I could be more functional.

And yet my awareness grew that I had a voice within that was crying to be heard and acknowledged. It had inspiring and lovely things to say to me. It was my calling and my purpose, and I knew instinctively that these practices I’d cobbled together helped me to hear it, in little bits. Listening to that inner voice grew from being a luxury I could not afford to being the air I breathe: I couldn’t live anymore without it.

Despite being a working mother, I began to use my tools again. I didn’t have the time, but I found I was so hungry for them that I couldn’t not use them and still stay free of addiction.

I began to surrender my death-grip on my feelings and my spirit and let it come through. I used my program tools more. I began to art journal, as well as to journal in writing. I wrote notes around the house to remind me to stop moving like a robot, and to let in what was so good and so lovely in my life. Connect, one said. Touch back in, said another.

And I did. And a fullness of spirit I hadn’t felt since I was a very young child began to emerge.

I woke up to realize that the simple tools I knew and began to use again were not just tasks on my list of things to do. They were not discrete events in my day to do, and then move on to the next. They were the repairmen of my disjointed self. They were not so much diagnosticians, telling me what was wrong, as I’d so often thought before. They were the down-and-dirty, fix-it men of my being. They not only told me when my heart was empty: they filled it. They not only told me when my heart was disconnected from my work: they brought my heart back into relationship with my work.

Sometimes, tools take a while to use. Drawing may take me an hour. Making a phone call may take five or ten minutes. But breathing and being aware of my breath can happen as I move through the day. Prayer can happen in a heartbeat of softening myself to something bigger than myself. I see my reminder to Connect as I wash dishes, and I don’t stop doing dishes: I just see the mountains outside my window, or look over at my husband or son and let in that life is so good.

What tools repair your heart? How do you reconnect the disjointed parts of yourself?

 

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Parenting as Wilderness

I met a lovely woman the other day. She had three children under the age of six, and one child on the way. I said, thinking I was being neutral, “You have your hands full.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” she replied firmly, with a smile. The conversation effectively shut down at that point.

I believed her. I also envied her.

Entering into parenthood was a wilderness place for me. Don’t get me wrong: from the moment I realized I was pregnant, I felt a bond with Isaac. I knew I wanted him. And I have loved him with a love I didn’t know existed before I’d given birth.

But I also had a boatload of baggage to deal with, fast.

My own mother was a single, schizophrenic woman with the ability to be tender and funny, as well as violent and arbitrary. I lived with her for 13 years, until some kind church folks we’d connected with in Sheboygan, Wisconsin intervened. I lived for the next five years in foster care. I had what a therapist eventually diagnosed as “complex PTSD.” Years of physical violence, poverty, rootlessness (we moved 50 times in our 13 years together) and chronic stress left me a lot to figure out, relearn and heal.

To say I lacked skills in parenting would be a massive understatement.

I also had no support from Isaac’s father. We were both surprised by this turn of events, and when he got hostile and accused me of trapping him into parenthood, I chose to cut ties (as was his request). I was going to be on my own with this new life, and I had to figure out quickly not only how to parent but how to support us financially. I also had the ideal of being as much of a stay-at-home mom as possible for his early years, so I would have to do some fancy footwork to make that financially feasible.

Wilderness places have serious risks and challenges. As a single parent, caring for Isaac in the first four years of his life was definitely one of mine.

For those mothers for whom nurturing and tapping into their inner resourcefulness are natural and comfortable, I applaud you. I’m so glad that there are mothers who don’t struggle as I did. I have learned from some of you personally and added tools to my parenting tool bag by observing you and talking with you.

For those mothers who struggled – or still struggle – I hope that both this blog and my book will give you hope and support. Even highly-resourced people have difficulties parenting well when the baby interrupts their sleep – again (and again and again); when work and a sick baby compete for their precious little energy and time; when their toddler tests a parent’s patience with defiance or the desire to “sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ one more time, Mommy,” fifty times. When we’re dealing with trauma ourselves, perhaps have never figured out how to parent ourselves, let alone another human being, parenting another human being whose future hinges on our ability to be present, loving and secure can be a seemingly insurmountable challenge. 

This blog, and my book, are for you and for those who love you and would like to know how to support you.

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