Do Awesome Broken

Yesterday when I woke up I had a bit of a revelation.

I’m going to have days when I want not to live any more, and I’m going to have them for the rest of my life.

I am broken.

This is as good as I get. I need to stop waiting for the time when I’m good enough, fixed, have all my ducks in a row, before I give myself permission to fully inhabit my life.

Don’t get me wrong. I know I still have a lot to learn. I realise fully there is a lot of growth ahead for me; spiritually, personally and intellectually. But yesterday when I woke up, I felt as though the world was collapsing in on me. In my head I was trapped, felt incredibly frustrated and like every single less-than I’ve ever had thrown at me had finally fruited into a toxic, bitter lump of rotten garbage right in the middle of my guts. I felt like if I was going to go through another – yes another, because I’ve been having these horrible, violent episodes of writhing self-hatred mixed with absolute panic my whole life – then I was ready to die, and to make it a quick one.

Surprised? Shocked I have suicidal thoughts from time to time? I can pinpoint the actual days in my life with almost filmic clarity when I considered ending my life, if life meant keeping on having these horrible days inside a hurricane inside my head. I remember one episode I had sitting on a step outside my house sobbing, my two month old baby inside, trying to stay closer to the ground after considering whether throwing myself off the upstairs balcony would kill me outright, or just make me hurt even more. I remember a time curled up in a ball in the corner of my bedroom, in the dark, having just screamed at my teenage daughter for half an hour over God knows what, just a few weeks after my husband left to go to rehab, and when it became clear I would have to divorce him, because he didn’t even have the strength or presence of mind to argue through our differences any more. I wondered if I had enough pills in the house to do it.  I remember waking from a terrible dream I had when I was halfway through radiotherapy, and staying in a hostel in Sydney 400kms away from my family, surrounded by people dying of cancer, a dream where dying was as easy as letting go, as going to sleep, as stopping swimming up and down a pool and tumble turning at the ends, lap after lap after lap, and just sinking to the bottom, and knowing if I just gave up now, nobody would blame me, and there would be peace, stillness, safety. It could all just stop.

But I did not those three times. Or any of the others. Stop, that is. I did not really want to stop living. But I did feel like I wanted to not be alive any more.

For a great many people, being alive is being in pain. It is being alone in a hundred ways, even if there are people all around, and those people like and need you. It is feeling like you are not enough, do not belong, will never stop hurting. For me, being alive is accepting I have days where my head spins and I feel incapable of anything, where the expectations of simply existing in this society with these rules and limitations is impossible for me, because I can’t do it. That’s really what’s at the bottom of it all – *this* is what’s expected, and I cannot do it. Not that I could if I tried, and I can’t try. Not that I am missing information and could do what is expected if I had that information. Not that someone is oppressing me or abusing me or preventing me. But that I can’t do it. That I am not made for the world I am born into, and expected to function in, and succeed in. That I am broken, less than, displaced, dysfunctional, alien. And I cannot do anything about it.

Sometimes for me, being alive is being confused, and feeling less than, incurable and completely fucked up inside my head. And it feels as though I will be stuck there and never able to get out, that the day which begins like this will not end, ever.

I know an awful lot of people don’t understand why suicide happens. I understand how it happens.

But anyway, all this is not my revelation.

My revelation is in all probability, unless I choose to be sedated my whole life, this is something I will always experience from time to time. This, I understand on days like this, will not make it easier when it happens, but it will make it acceptable. To me. Probably not to certain others. But I can accept it as part of me, even if I cannot see through it when it is happening.

Like a great many things in my life, like cancer, like my marriage breaking up, like loss, rejection and pain, my episodes of madness simply must be survived.

My revelation is I cannot live my life as if being broken is something I must fix before I can go the awesome places I want to go, and do the awesome things I want to do. I must do the awesome broken.

I must accept I am broken, and may never be whole and healed in the ways which would make every day of my life joy-filled, successful and productive. I must work with the fact I am not going to be complete, or get totally fixed up, and I cannot afford to wait until I am before I give myself permission to be great.

I am mostly great now, and that is enough. The small proportion of fucked-up-edness I have is not sufficient justification for me to not do all the things, go all the places, love all the people, speak all the words, and write all the books. In fact, my bad days, however bad they are, may not be used as a weapon against myself, or a procrastination. They may not. I withdraw whatever permission I gave myself which allowed that to happen.

I sat there yesterday in the middle of my mini-breakdown and I withdrew permission to give up, or step down. No, I said to myself, this time you are not going to walk away from your life, from everything you’re in the middle of. This does not prove all the things people have said or done to you are true. This proves nothing. This is a hard day. These are unhelpful thoughts. You are close to giving up. But guess what? This time, you’re standing. You will do the awesome broken. Because awesome is all that’s left for you now. You tried everything else. It’s do awesome broken, or die now, one way or another. What’s it going to be I said?

Do awesome broken.

Atta girl.

Have a great day, friends.
Jo xxxx

Petulant Conversations With God #1

*Petulant Conversations With God*

Me. “God, I am extremely stressed out. Don’t feel good. I think I’ll have a nervous breakdown today. Go to hospital. Lay about in a catatonic state for a while. That sounds like something I could do at the moment.”

God. “Really.”

Me. “Yes, REALLY. This is hard, this living-close-to-the-edge stuff. I’m really STRESSED OUT. I think I’m going mad. Like, crazy-mad. I want to go over the edge instead of just mincing about. I’m halfway crazy as it is. Who does this kind of weird stuff? Who does this? Yep. Right. Over. The Edge. Then maybe I’ll get some rest.”

God. “Rightio.”

Me.”Yep, I really NEED A REST.”

God. “From what? You don’t have a job.”

Me. “Oh, that’s it, rub it in. And you wonder why people blame you for the whole ‘religion slash god slash guilt trip’ stuff.”

God. “I don’t wonder. So, tell me, what would it be like if you had a nervous breakdown? How would life be different?”

Me. “Well, I wouldn’t have to worry about – you know – stuff. Money, and … stuff. About what might happen further down the track.”

God. “Right.”

Me. “I mean, I could just lie around. Only do what I need to do right now, the next thing in front of me. When you have a nervous breakdown that’s about all you can cope with, I think.”

God. “Okay.”

Me. “I could just live in the moment. Just do the next most important thing, like “I need a sandwich.” or “I need to wash the dog.” and no one would blame me, because that’s about all I could deal with.”

God. “Right.”

Me. “Because people who are over the edge get to live like that, and nobody expects anything more than that from them, and I think I’d like to be able to be like that. Just living moment to moment.”

“Right. So, lets see … to live moment to moment, and not look too far into the future, and not worry about what might happen down the track, to let perhaps things just take their course, to just do the next thing in front of you, you need to give yourself a nervous breakdown.”

Me.”Um …yes?”

God. “____”

Me. “You were saying?”

God. “.”

Things For Christians Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer

No matter what I say, or how gently I try to say it, I know this post is just bound to come over as super-critical and hyper-mean towards Christians – or should I say, fellow Christians, because I am one. Maybe it’s because I’m one I’ve heard so many of the things I’m about to list said to people, who have not just cancer, but many other chronic and acute medical conditions, disabilities or other physical and mental issues as well. I do know whenever I bring up the issue of “things not to say” in the cancer context, or any other context for that matter, folks do tend to become quite defensive about it, and I can understand why.

“We’re only trying to help.”

image credit: iStockphoto


“It’s the thought that counts.”

“Never meant to cause harm.”

I know, we know, the person with the cancer/mental illness/child with a disability fully appreciates, this is true. In fact, the sincere well-wishes on the part of the person saying the thing in question might be the only part of the whole interaction which is “true”. Many of the things we find ourselves uttering to a person with a health issue may certainly not be true  – or theologically accurate, or evidence based, or helpful.

Sorry to be so blunt. I’m not trying to be abrasive, really, I’m not. I’m trying to be honest. Some of the standard things we church people say to others when they’re sick are simply wrong, or in bad taste, and at worst, can cause real hurt and confusion.

Things Not To Say To Someone In Your Church Who Has Cancer

“God is in control.” “This must be His will.” “Everything happens for a reason.”

When I had cancer, I spent a lot of time thinking about this concept many Christians have of God being in control of everything. I thought about what this meant for me and my family, if my dying of cancer was “His will.” I tried very hard to get my head around what possible reasoning He could have for the things I was going through, for my husband losing the wife of his youth, for my four children growing up without their mother. In the end, it didn’t help me to think about these things, or to think of God in this way. When I prayed for God to show me “what I was supposed to to” in my cancer experience to please Him, when I read the book of Job and tried to draw parallels between myself and the heroes of the Bible, when I tried very hard to arrange the events in my cancer experience into some kind of sensible order others might draw “inspiration and encouragement” from, I just felt very, very tired.

When I asked God where He was in cancer, He always just said “Here.”

“You’ll have an amazing testimony when this is all over.” “God arranged this, and has someone for you to witness to.”

Suggestions that God sets certain pretty terrible life circumstances in play in order for us to work out how exactly they are to be interpreted, after which we are expected to then reinterpret them for others is a particularly exquisite kind of torturous homework Christians seem to like to set each other. Sometimes our job isn’t to witness to everyone else in the cancer ward. God doesn’t get mad if we just lay there being sick, whiny and frightened.

Folks asked me to come and share my “testimony” after I got better, but I soon learned they didn’t want to know how scared and messed up I was after the cancer went away, and how anxious I was it might come back. Quite the opposite.

“Just pray and God will heal you.” “If you have enough faith, you won’t need chemotherapy.”

You can think this is true, and possible, if you like. You can even believe it with all your heart if you like. You can even think it and believe it and have cancer and give it a try all at the same time if you like. Myself, I’ve seen people who didn’t believe in God get better, and people who refused to do anything about their disease other than pray die from cancer. Personally, I had chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, everything else they offered me, and I prayed and thanked God for all of it. You can believe what you like, and also theorise about faith and cancer, and hold your own lofty ideals about what you’d do if you had cancer concerning faith/prayer etc, all you want. But you do not get to say anything about those theories to someone who actually has cancer. No, you do not. I cannot stress this enough.

“You must have sin in your life.”

I’ve done a lot of checking, and so far the only universally common precursor I’ve found for having cancer is possession of a human body.

 – Want to know what to say?

Things To Say To Someone In Your Church Who Has Cancer

“We’ve organised dinners to be delivered to your house for the next three months. Please tell us what you like to eat, and we promise we won’t bring lasagne more than once a week.”

“This sucks.”

“Me too.”

“I’m here.”

“What do you need?”

“What do your kids/partner/parents need?”

“I’ll come clean your house every Monday until you tell me to stop.”

“If you need someone to manage the information the way you’d like it managed, tell me what you’d like people to know, and have them call me.”

“This isn’t your fault.”

“I’m praying for you.”

*****

My book Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer is available here.

If you’re located along the east coast of Australia, I’d be happy to come and share tactfully but honestly with your congregation or ministry team about –

How to talk about cancer and other chronic illnesses

– What it’s really like to experience cancer as a Christian, and what your church can do to make it easier

Call me or send me an invite. For those locations I can’t get to right now, perhaps read this blog post in your next church/ministry leaders meeting. Seriously, you guys and girls need to know this stuff. Cancer affects one in two people in the population, and realistically, this means people in your church as well. Take leadership on this issue, and help your congregants really help each other.

And please use the comments section below to leave your suggestions and tell us about your own experiences – love to hear them!

JO 🙂

 

 

How Much Abundant Life Do We Christians Really Need?

The following piece is taken from my new e-book, God, You Can Take My Mental Illness – Just Not The Part Where You Speak To Me, now out on Amazon for Kindle.

*****

I have a new job. I am now a mental health rehabilitation support worker. You can tell I’m pretty proud. This new job entails my going out to visit people with a mental illness, usually people who have a formal diagnosis of schizophrenia. All the clients we support have been hospitalized or institutionalized at some point, usually quite recently before they sign on to our service. Our role as a support agency is to basically visit the clients in their homes and assist them in what we call ADL’s – activities of daily living. This might be things like making their bed, doing the washing, cleaning the kitchen and bathroom and taking out the garbage. Disorganization can be a major problem for people with a schizophrenia diagnosis, and this can be a real problem when it comes to maintaining a tenancy, as most of the clients live in accommodation rented through a government agency. They have to stop themselves descending into squalor, or they may lose their home and be taken back to hospital. The support worker role also involves making sure the client is showering on a daily basis, exercising and eating healthy foods, and wearing clean clothes. Physical health is a major issue for people with a schizophrenia diagnosis. The anti-psychotic medication they are obliged to take has several side effects, one of which is morbid obesity. This inadvertent massive weight gain, combined with several other factors, delivers a virtual plethora of medical health issues. Aside from the schizophrenia, if you had to deal with half of what these folks have to deal with, you’d need a support worker too.

I love the job – it’s different every day. The best part is hearing from the clients about their aspirations, about what they hope the future holds for them, as opposed to what others aspirations for them are. Others have lots of aspirations for them. The clinical services have them, their families have them and yes, we have them too. Some of our aspirations for them are realistic, but some sadly are not. For some reason, our unrealistic aspirations for them are called as-yet unattained goals. Their own unrealistic aspirations for themselves are called delusions.

For privacy reasons, I can’t tell you very much about the clients, or divulge in any detail the things they say to me, but I can tell you that their own hopes for the future, as opposed to clinical services’, center mainly around things like keeping their independence in the community and staying out of hospital, on maintaining any physical health they have, owning a pet or getting their drivers license back. Dignity. That pretty much sums up what they want. Just like a ‘normal’ person.

I’ve been wondering lately just exactly what ‘normal’ really is. I’ve concluded in my own head that society is pretty much just a silent consensus of the majority to a particular way of seeing things. It’s one great, big happy, mental illness we’ve all agreed to live with, henceforth to be known as ‘normal’. Anyone with a divergent way of thinking is seen as ‘a little different’, and anyone with any halfway grandiose ideas may be considered insane, or perhaps become the despotic dictator over some country somewhere.

Before I started this job, I wasn’t aware for the most part of a whole sector of society living their lives in a way I might have considered to not be much of a life at all. There are people in our community, maybe living right next door to you or I, for whom getting out of bed and being able to get back into it at the end of the day will be cause of much pride and self-satisfaction today.

And here’s something else I’ve been thinking about. The folks who are faced with the just going to be getting out of bed and back in it today kind of problems are something very closely resembling the folks I’ve thought would really benefit from church, at least as I’ve known it. I’ve been imagining that these sorts of folks were the reason for church in the first place – so that those with less of a life could exchange their basic, rudimentary existences for the life of the Christian promise – The Abundant Life. You know the one – the life of lots, the life of much, the life of many. The busy life, the full life, the blessed and bouncing, brimming-with-blessedness life. The life so full we can’t help ourselves but just be bubbling up all over the place life. The life so big our arms can’t hold it, and our eyes can’t take it all in. The life so jam-packed with everything God has for us that we are just be run off our feet living it out. Phew, makes me tired just thinking about it.

I have believed that this is the life God wants us to have. And here we have been, chasing it all this time, wondering when it was coming, hoping it would be soon, talking to our friends about it, writing it on our prayer lists, speaking it into being, petitioning and pining away for it, longing for our Abundant life to someday arrive on our doorstep so we can start really living, as opposed to whatever it is we’re doing now. Maybe this year! Maybe this week! Maybe today! Maybe right here in this church service! I just can’t wait for my Abundant life to come! God is so good! Come, come!

Consider this.

If we, as Christians, have had the where-with-all to get up, put clean clothes on, get into our car, which we own, without help, and legally drive that car to church, and then walk upright into church, sit down unassisted, clap our two hands together in time to the music whilst appreciating the noise as being music and responding appropriately to it, if we can see the preacher from where we are sitting, hear him clearly, and understand everything he says, interacting with the folks around us without dribbling on them or punching them in the face, and after all this get up and go home to our house…..perhaps, just perhaps, we are a little bit more “abundant” than we might have thought?

I went to church last Sunday morning, and, as usual, I saw a lot of very happy people. We were all dressed nicely, everyone was freshly bathed and all of us were on our best behavior. No one swore or hit anyone else. No one got sick on the back of the person in front of them. No one came in naked, and no one went up to anyone else to ask for food or a smoke. No one had to be carried in. No one fitted or had to be taken to hospital. No one had been in an earthquake or a flood or had their house burn down since we last saw them. And despite all this, we all stood up at the end and asked God to bless us. We, who are so blessed, asked God for more of the same, thank you very much.

So where were the ones with the dirty clothes, the unwashed, the ones who hadn’t had their breakfast? Where were the hitters and the spitters, the sick and the infirm, the ones with no driver’s license, no car and no money for a bus ticket? Where were the ones who just had their anti-psychotic medication yesterday, or their chemotherapy last Tuesday? Where were the ones who didn’t remember they had a washing machine to do their laundry in, and who wore the same underwear all week? Where were the earthquake survivors, the flood victims and the homeless? Maybe they were there with us, but if they were, they were very well disguised as something else.

As us.

If we have the means, and the capacity, to get ourselves along to church in the first place, then just maybe church is not meant for the likes of us. Maybe church isn’t meant for people who are abundant already. Maybe we ought to get out and make some room. Come to think of it, most of the Christians I know probably don’t need any more abundance. After all, how much abundance does one Christian actually need?

I think we in this self-obsessed, materialistic society have become so accustomed to believing we are in lack, always praying and petitioning for more than we already have now, that we fail to perceive our own present state of abject prosperity. We are blessed, people. Not only do we live under the grace of God, we also have financial, psychosocial and material abundance far above the realistic aspirations of most of the rest of the world, and probably beyond many in our own communities. What is it that we hope church, and God, and Christianity, will do for us, more than what we already have and are?

Perhaps we could draw on both our church, and our faith, more deeply to help us become 1) grateful and then 2) content. Oh, and maybe even 3) aware of and interested in facilitating blessing and abundance for others who perhaps aren’t quite as blessed and abundant as we already are. I believe that individuals possessed by, and a movement made up of, people in possession of these three particular qualities could be considered abundant indeed. How much abundance does a Christian actually need? Enough to become inspired, and mobilized, to facilitate abundance for others, in ways that matter. And not just for eternity. For the here, and for the now.

*****

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The Poor You Will Always Have With You

From Burial To Banqueting Table

A while ago, a man I considered to be quite wise at the time said to me “People change, but not that much.” I didn’t know quite what to make of that, probably because the person who said it was actually our pastor. Maybe he was a bit jaded. Maybe it was time for a new job. In any case, I didn’t believe him. I think people can change, in fact, I know they can. Maybe we need to invite our old pastor around to our place house for dinner one of these days.  He needs to see what God has done at my house.

Last Tuesday night, my husband Ben and I had guests for dinner. Fourteen people sat around our table and ate my lamb roast, including the two of us. A minor miracle occurred that night, but I think only I, and perhaps our children, really noticed it.  What happened was that Ben was present for the meal the whole time.  Of course, you’d have to know what it was like before to understand how this is different. Before, we didn’t invite folks over to our house for dinner. There was no point. If people came to visit, Ben would say hello, then remain present for about one minute and forty-five seconds after that before disappearing. I don’t know how he managed to convince himself that nobody notices when the host goes MIA, but then I’m not sure he ever considered his absences conspicuous to others. The fact is, regardless of if we had two people over, or twenty, Ben would always be a no show at his own dinner party.

You see, as far as social situations were concerned, Ben was a supreme master of the duck and weave. His avoidance of people and acute need to be alone was different from those occasions where he was simply busy, like in the shed fixing something, washing the car or going for a walk to get the newspapers. Our family had a pet name for it– skulking. Where’s dad? Skulking. Oh. I think the way Ben saw it, he was only out of the room for a few minutes. The problem was that he was only out of the room for a few minutes, twenty or more times a day – for about twenty years.

When Ben was skulking, he wasn’t just out of the room, on a special mission, or even busy. He wasn’t writing a thesis or building an ark in the back yard. He was hiding. From us. From everyone. And it hurt. When the person you’re married to can’t hang out with his wife and his kids and your friends and both your parents for any length of time without having to leave and be alone for a while, it’s difficult not to be offended. For a long time I thought it was my fault. Ben’s anti-social behaviour confirmed my own deep suspicion that I was just too much. I came to the sad conclusion my personality was so overwhelming that it made other people unable to function normally in society anymore. So I did what many women do when they blame themselves for their husbands’ faults – I covered for him. And when that grew tiresome – because explaining to guests that your husband has something very important to do out in the back yard while you are all sitting in his living room does grow tiresome – I just stopped inviting people over anymore.

While the hiding was a problem, it was never the problem, and while it wasn’t me that broke Ben, Ben was broken just the same. I understand now that when people are broken like Ben was and they feel they ought to be able to fix what’s wrong and put it all right but they just can’t, they do whatever it takes to feel safe. Often, they do what Ben did and they hide, in all kinds of places, and use all kinds of things to hide behind. Some people don’t physically hide like Ben did, but they are hiding all right. They hide behind their work, their possessions and positions, their success, and they even hide behind failure.

Far better men than Ben have been hiders. Adam, the very first man on the planet, was a hider.[1] As skulkers go, in my opinion, Adam wasn’t particularly good at it. I can say this because I’ve lived with a real pro. Adam gave in way too early for starters – he was only in those bushes for ten minutes, tops. I hate to brag, but Ben had far more stamina that that. And what’s with Adam taking an accomplice along for the skulk? Pros never take an accomplice. Any crime they committed may be a shared experience, but shame is always a solo venture. I suspect Adam was really only playing possum – I think Adam kind of wanted to be found.

While long-term hiding requires a lot of staying power, it can get kind of boring. While Ben was hiding, he found that smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol really helped to keep his hands busy. These also conveniently helped him to forget exactly how many hours a day he was actually spending skulking. I had my suspicions Ben skulked at work too, because whenever I rang to talk to him, nobody could ever find him. But I think it was the day I opened up some boxes under the house and hundreds of empty beer bottles fell out I realised I might have underestimated exactly how much of his life both his skulking, and the habits that kept him occupied while he was doing it, were consuming.

I didn’t understand for a long time exactly what Ben was so ashamed of, even after I worked out Ben was hiding. Ben is not and never has been a really bad man. He hasn’t been in any trouble with the police, or been unfaithful in our marriage. He is a gentle, patient father and has a quiet disposition. Ben’s wrongdoings are certainly no worse than any other simple mans, springing as they do from the common natural weaknesses and shortcomings of all human beings.  But I’ve come to understand that shame is not logical. It’s not circumstantial. Shame is not even natural. Shame wasn’t there at the beginning, when God created people. I mean they walked around without clothes for goodness sake. Shame was learned. Shame was a mutation. Shame was human invention, and it filled the place where something else used to be.

Relationship.

I imagine the first garden, its two occupants living in complete intimacy with each other and their creator. So guileless was the communion between the two humans they had nothing but their different skins to separate them. But then they did something they were told not to do by someone that loved them. Afterwards, the first thing they did was to go and make clothes to put on top of their skin. Don’t look at me. Then, forgetting that He had always been able to see them, they realised that not only could they be seen by each other, the creator could see them too. When they heard the creator coming, they hid behind some bushes. What’s happened to us? they asked themselves, we never worried about being seen before. 

The thing is, when the creator found out what they did, He didn’t demand they take off their clothes again, in fact, he turned around and made them both some better ones.

Ben – my sweet, gentle Ben – was not a bad person, but something inside him didn’t want to be seen. He thinks it started when he was very young. For the longest time Ben believed that God was a violent, iron-fisted Father, quick to anger and slow to forgive, particularly a very naughty boy like he was. After many years of just trying to stay out of God’s way, he found a way to hide that worked, and after a while he forgot what it was ever like to walk in the light.

When I became ill with cancer in 2003, Ben floundered with feelings of helplessness and depression, without any way to draw on the grace, strength and comfort from God or me he so desperately needed. He thought God was up there waggling his head, telling him to harden up and get a backbone. Ashamed of his inability to protect his family from harm, and from the consequences of his weakness in its aftermath, he pulled even further inside himself. If God had come calling “where are you?” Ben couldn’t have heard Him, because he was ensconced under the house with a cigarette and a six-pack of beer, medicating his despair.

After a few more years, things really fell to pieces. He lost his business, leaving us tens of thousands of dollars in debt. We had to leave town so Ben could get a new job. He became more disenfranchised from our children, the elder three of whom were now in their teens. The resentment between the two of us grew and festered between like a tumour. The last skerrick of Bens’ belief in himself disintegrated the same time as his desire to stay married to me. Desperate to save his life, I sent Ben away. By now, I was the only one of us with enough self-esteem left to survive being seen as the bad guy that broke up our marriage. Thank God, at that time a place in a Christian rehabilitation centre came up before Ben totally disintegrated.

In rehab, Ben learned to stay both literally and emotionally in the room with his shame, now compounded by the collapse of our family and the loss of everything he had and had been. All of the structures and devices he had created to keep himself safe were broken and useless. In that place of absolute vulnerability, Ben found his father God running towards him with His arms outstretched.

Finally, my boy, I’ve found you.

Since then, I have seen my husband rise up from a long sleep of self-hate and humiliation and sit up to God’s banqueting table. He is making a right pig of himself, I can tell you. The compassion I see in my husbands’ eyes these days, as he tells me about his wish to help the people God brings across his path, makes me fall back in wonder. How God can take a man who emptied himself out in self-disgust and fill him again with such goodness and compassion is beyond my comprehension.

Change is possible, I know it. I’ve seen shame, fear and guilt stunt a human soul into a crooked shadow of its former self, and then I saw that same human being raised up from the dead. Shame is fruitless, pointless in fact, particularly the shame we inflict upon each other. It’s only mercy that brings the withered ones stumbling forth for healing. The enemy wants us bound in the dark, wrapped in the rags of our self-loathing, but God wants us free in the light where He and the entire world can see us for who we really are.

I want to tell you, if you love someone that is dead while they live, don’t give up hope. People can change – more than you can even dream of. I thought Ben was gone forever, but I was wrong. He came back. Now I know Ben doesn’t like it when I brag about him, but I just can’t help myself. I doubt that anyone present for dinner on Tuesday night would have any real idea why I was gazing at Ben in wonder as he carved the lamb and cracked the jokes. There, I thought to myself, thanks to the grace of God, goes my husband – the most amazing man I have ever known.

*****

An excerpt from my new book God, You Can Take My Mental Illness, Just Not the Part Where You Speak To Me, now out on Amazon for Kindle.

*****


[1] Genesis 3:8 – 10

 

Something Magnificent

Feb. 18th, 1989 – our wedding day.

I was 20, Ben was 19. Our baby son Beau-Daniel was 8 months old.

It’s been twenty-three years since that day.

Three more children came to stay. And then one more, who didn’t.

There was a cancer diagnosis, and six months of treatment.

There has been mental illness, depression, alcoholism. And there has been redemption and recovery.

There has been financial ruin. Financial restoration.

There were twelve months where we were split up. Divorce papers filled out and ready. Then there was forgiveness and reconciliation.

For better, and for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health.

If this marriage is all I have to show for myself at the end of my life, I can be satisfied I was part of something very, very magnificent.

Happy anniversary Ben. xxx

 

A Semblance Of Dignity

My cousins husband tweeted a link to this article this morning.

Daily Nation – Twin Towers Jumpers That Americans Will Not Talk About

Very challenging and confronting, and perhaps one of the issues which is sidelined when discussions come up around the World Trade Centre attacks.

The most saddening part for me about what occurred here, is that many people cannot accept the possibility that their loved ones were responsible for their own death because suicide is considered by them a grave sin, which means their loved one will go to hell.

For me, this brings up some issues which perhaps need to be discussed. Particularly by Christians. It’s the erroneousness of our position on issues such as suicide that cause untold intolerable and unnecessary pain and confusion for those who must deal with the fallout. Stigma. Fear. Shame. Just to name a few.

Think about it.

What if someone told you that according to their religion, your loved one was going to die in an eternal lake of fire because they refused to die at the hands of terrorists, instead opting for a demise of their own choosing? Imagine yourself at the top of a burning skyscraper, looking out at what you believe for all intents and purposes looks like the end of the world – what would you do? What do you think God would have you do?

*****

I am a mental health support worker. Yesterday, I could hear one of my clients in her home next door to my office as she battled her “voices”. The “mother” voice was berating her with savage verbal abuses, against which my client was defending herself in a most vehement fashion. There was swearing. There were threats. There was volume. It was very, very disturbing. After about an hour, the client came to the office door to ask for a cigarette from her supply. Once she was settled outside with her smoke, I approached her quietly to ask if she was okay, and if there was anything I could do for her. “Please, just back off and go away. I can’t deal with talking to you right now.” She wasn’t being theatrical – this was no reverse-attention seeking. She had the cement-hard look in her eyes of someone who had just emerged from the middle of a huge trauma. My voice was one more in the mix she simply could not tolerate. I left her to her repose. As I locked myself back into the office, I wondered what it would be like to have your mind be your own adversity, and how she manages to survive this daily trauma. I can imagine that if it were me fighting against those voices, I would consider any hell I might be in danger of fairly meaningless in light of the very likely relief suicide might provide me.

It’s probably much easier to believe that someone who kills themselves will go to to hell if the person doing the killing and dying isn’t you. But what if being extinct is actually more tolerable than the hell you’re in right now?

*****

 

The whole argument rests on one premise – suicide is a sin. There appears to be no real Biblical support for this, although some will argue that the commandment not to murder covers killing oneself. Odds on, the folks who adhere to this erroneous belief haven’t had to face anything that would make them question it. I believe the fallacy that suicide in a sin probably was borne in medieval times, when people in positions of power wanted to stop the plebeian masses taking their own lives before they had a chance to subject them to an inquisition.

It is, after all, a matter of power. Who has the power of life, and of death? We say God does, but we do too. People have the power to abduct and strangle, rape and subjugate, hijack and terrorise. We can fly a plane into a building and God either made us do it, or is powerless to prevent us, depending which side you’re on. For those people at the top of the WTC that day, I believe they probably thought the world was coming to an end, or at the very least, they were acutely cognizant of their own imminent and unavoidable demise. Is it a sin to take the power to kill you away from your enemy? Is it a sin to not want to die a victim of someone else’s stupidity, evil or madness? Is it a sin to choose the manner of your death?

We act as if death were avoidable. We act as if the only good death one can have is the unplanned, tragic, victim death, or the prolonged, painful, protracted kind. There is such a thing as a good death. Way before we came to worship the vain and gratuitous sustenance of human life, regardless of how awful that life has become, people died every day and it was perfectly all right, perfectly sad, perfectly awful and perfectly tragic – but it was perfectly natural.

Death is a sanctity. Let’s not pretend that God wrings His hands as we do because we die – He does not – in fact, we who claim to believe God exists must die before we ever realise that elusive Kingdom we prattle on so much about. I like to believe He is saddened by the perpetration of evil and angered by men’s attempts to extinguish each other. But I simply cannot believe that God would reject outright the soul who chooses to impose a semblance of dignity upon their own death, when often the fact they even consider this an option means that dignity was probably utterly unattainable in life.

 

 

And Then Jesus Said, “Thank You For My Socks.”

I’ve started a new job with a different mental health organisation in the past couple of weeks. I still work with mentally ill folks, but now, rather than just visiting outreach clients, I am working in a 24 hour facility with some folks that have a dual diagnosis. This means they have schizophrenia and something else as well, like ADHD, autism, or an intellectual disability. Talk about your busy day, and that’s just for the clients themselves.

The new role is intense – more intense than my last role, and that one was pretty intense. Schizophrenia is an asshole, and people who have to live with it are like a displaced tribe of refugees from another dimension. It’s like they’ve arrived alone and without luggage from somewhere where nobody lives indoors, everyone has an organ that secretes nicotine into the bloodstream 24/7 and you have to carry demons with you everywhere nestled in the folds of your ears. When you are helping someone with schizophrenia, you do a lot of housework, can spend vast amounts of time avoiding inhaling the pall of cigarette smoke that often surrounds them, and you wrestle constantly with someone you can neither hear nor see, and absolutely cannot acknowledge, for their attention. It’s not so much annoying as it is completely heartbreaking, and enraging. I want to smash schizophrenia in the head, but it’s already got what I want to give it.

I believe I’m “supposed” to be doing this job. I haven’t any idea how I’ve ended up doing it – I have no qualifications or experience but applied anyway – all I can say is that it just “feels right.” I’ve managed to bluff my way into both organisations with vicarious talk of my ability to think on my feet and how I’m great with people, although I’ve not told them any of what I shared with you in my last post, so if you could keep that just between us, I’d certainly appreciate it. I have, however, shared in my job interviews how I think maybe my personal experience being married to someone who has been both an addict and mentally ill might have put me in some good stead. As it turns out with many of our clients, any addictions they have and a mental illness diagnosis are pretty much the least of their problems – that’s just their normal. It’s the plethora of social, health and financial issues that really does them in. And that’s where we come in.

There have been three specific times since I started when God has clearly shown me  I am here to learn. I say this at a very high risk of coming over all super-spiritual, I know. However, I’ve learned something about myself and being employed – that if I get to a point in a job where I think that God’s never going to talk to me about why I’m doing it, I always just stop doing it. I’ve  found He generally comes through sooner or later, and I’ve never have to stop doing the thing simply because I’ve gotten bored waiting for Him. Sometimes, I get pissed off by work politics, or lose interest in the actual job, though, and leave. This is so why I’m not a pastor.

So, as I was saying – there has been of late three times.

One. I’m visiting a particular client for the first time. She is a young woman, about thirty, a striking and formidable figure physically, and spiritually. When I’m with this client, I never ever feel in control – It’s as though she is tolerating me, allowing me to be involved with her, patronising me because I can serve her wants and needs. And I’m totally okay with that. Truth be known, I’m in awe of her. This first time I get to be in her flat, I am looking around the place cautiously, because with a person who has schizophrenia, you never know if what you are seeing is what they are seeing. The clients kitchen table is covered with various objects and plant cuttings in assorted containers, and several hand drawn pictures of animals and tribal figures are stuck to the wall behind it. A small dish holds four, huge ripe plums. “I guess this is your table.” Wrong. “That”, says the client “is my shrine. And that”, she indicates to where I am standing in front of her shrine “is where I pray. Every day I kneel right there and I pray and give thanks to God. I thank Him for everything in this world and who I am, and tell him how great I think He is.” A shiver goes down my spine. And I am betting God listens, too. I suddenly have this urge to take off my shoes, because I am convinced that where I am standing is absolutely the holiest place in the whole world, right at that moment.

Two. I’m chatting with a new client and we realise, to our amusement and surprise, we share a birthdate. Same day, month, year. I ask her where she grew up, what she used to do for fun, what music she likes. We sunbaked on the same patch of sand, bought our Alpines 25’s from the same corner shop, roller skated at the same rink. Both married since we were nineteen. Four kids, all around the same ages. Spooky. It’s not lost on us. As we drive along listening to Cyndi Lauper up loud with the windows wound down, I know we’re both thinking of that saying about God’s grace, the one that says but for it, there go I. It’s a stupid saying. After all, which one of us ended up with none?

Three. Tonight, I am helping an elderly male client get ready for bed. He’s toothless, incontinent and absolutely gorgeous. I reckon he was once a street fighter – his nose is squashy and flat like an old mandarin, and he has part of an ear missing. I’ve shepherded him from the shower and wrestled him into jammies, beanie and dressing gown, and I’m kneeling on the floor pulling his socks onto his knobbly feet. Suddenly, as he gently rests his foot in my hand, I am reminded of Jesus washing his disciples feet, and of the time when He said ‘I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Jesus said to me, “Hey – it’s me.” Wow, cool. Oh, and then He said “Thank you for my socks.”

I love my job. I think I am well-suited, in just so many ways.

Lost Unto This World

You will not be able to do anything, whether or not you’ve been called, requested, conscripted, drafted, recruited, employed, compelled or fallen in to it, if your heart has not been moved in understanding what love has to do with it. It can be a dry, stupid, pointless task, but if your heart knows the family you love will eat tonight and sleep in shelter because you do this task, you will do it with passion. It may be uncomfortable, inconvenient, challenging, harder than anything you’ve ever done before or so close to the bone it brings you to tears every time, but if you see love going forward in you and in others because you do this thing, you won’t mind one bit. Your heart will tell you when something is for you, and when it does, you won’t care whether anyone else thinks it’s worth doing. You’ll be more alive than you’ve ever been doing that thing, knowing that the whole world is celebrating your having found what you were born for, and the whole world is better because you’ve been brave enough to do it.

*****

In January this year, Ben and I decided to move to Newcastle, about 400km away from the country town we’d lived in for several years. My greatest concern, over resettling the kids, was the fact I didn’t have a job to go to. I hadn’t actually worked a job for months, and certainly not a full time job for years. My most recent meaningful work experience had been in cancer supportive care, and I’d been facilitating a cancer support group as a volunteer for about a year. I had to start looking for a job – we would not be able to live off one income in Newcastle.

I started scanning job websites. And I started talking to God about it.

I’ll do whatever you want me to do.

Help people.

Okay. I can do that.

No jobs in any of the cancer organisations pending or forthcoming. Dang. I found lots of openings for case managers and support workers in youth, aged care and disabilities. The only drawback was that all required a qualification in social work. And I don’t have one.

I was still wondering what on earth I’d do for a job, when serendipitously I won two tickets on a competition website to see Emmylou Harris in Sydney. Amazing! More so because I’m not the hugest fan she’s ever had – I know she is a music legend but hardly knew any of her songs. But entering the competition was an inspiration – I knew my entry was good (it was one of those 25 words or less deals) but winning was a huge surprise. It felt meant-to-be. Excitedly, in the middle of packing up our house and freaking out because neither Ben nor I had jobs in Newcastle yet, I organised our weekend trip to Sydney to see Emmylou.

I suspected it was a divine arrangement, but I had no idea for what end.

Before we went to collect our tickets at the theatre, Ben and I found a small cafe on a corner a block or so away, directly opposite Sydney Town Hall. As we ordered our dinner and waited for our meal, we country folk watched as the big city happenings went on outside the window of the cafe. I became distracted by a young man begging near a statue of Queen Victoria just a few metres from where we were sitting. He was tall, slim, aged in his early twenties perhaps, and dressed in the ubiquitous army jacket and long, dirty pants. I was most fascinated by his hair; long, wild, curly, unkempt, ginger coloured hair, which, at the back, was flattened into a shiny, greasy dreadlocked panel which hung down his back past his shoulder blades, like a flap of thick, hairy leather. He was begging on the run; he never stopped moving or talking, walking up to people without seeing them, yattering unintelligibly as he approached with hands opened in front of him, veering away if they didn’t offer him anything from their pockets. He had no malice, nor appreciation in his expression. Whatever was going on behind those bright, unseeing eyes was locked inside his own head. He seemed both a child, and at the same time an old man. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It was like there was no one else in the whole of Sydney that evening, no one but him.

I had to stop myself from visibly weeping. I felt so moved for him. Such a young man – what was his story? Where were his parents right now? He couldn’t be much older than our eighteen year old son. I thought of Levi, and thanked God I knew where he was right now, and that he was okay. I wondered if this boys mother knew he was here. The thought that she might know and could do nothing about it offered me scant comfort, as did the thought perhaps she hadn’t seen him like this, did not have any idea where her boy was right now.

So what was his story? Clearly he was not a well boy, perhaps schizophrenic. He’d also been homeless a while by the look of his clothes and his hair. That was months and months of dreadlocked hair hanging down his back. Was he mentally ill? How long had he been living this way, begging on the streets?

I found it hard to enjoy the meal. I decided I’d try to offer him something when we left, but just before dusk, just before we paid our bill, I glanced out and saw him pick up his backpack from the foot of the statue and make his way down the busy city street. Perhaps to a mens refuge, perhaps to a park to find shelter. We lost sight of him amongst the crowds. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for his safety and salvation. Salvation is a word we Christians over-use, a word few in this self-sufficient society really understand. Seeing this young man helped me remember there are still people who need saving.

We had prime seats at the State Theatre in Sydney, in the stalls just a dozen or so rows from the front. We were both so excited we were almost jumping up and down. When Emmylou appeared, it was like an angel had descended, her near-white hair like a halo. She seemed both small and magnificent to me; I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I needed to savour every delicious, exciting moment of it.

At one point, Ben and I turned to each other to look at each others eyes; I wanted to see if he was crying too, and he was – I could see he was feeling just what I was feeling. This was more than a musical experience – it was a spiritual one. Her songs were so simple and yet so deep, the stories so heartfelt. All undergirded by our awe of her legend. We’d never heard most of the songs before, and yet we felt like we already knew them all, word for word, line by line. Truth is truly universal.

And then I heard a song, one I’d never heard before, which changed me right there and then in my crimson faux velvet chair, forever. The first few lines pulled me forward in my seat, where I sat on the edge of my seat and held my breath for the remainder of the song. And I cried.

The words that captured my soul…..

“I was once some mother’s darlin’
Some daddy’s little girl
More precious than the ruby
More cherished than the pearl
My heart was full of mercy
And my forehead full of curl
Now I am nothing and am lost unto this world
I am lost unto this world…”

And the tears fell down my face.

“They herded me like cattle
Cut me down like corn
Took me from my babies
Before they could be born
You can blame it on the famine
You can blame it on the war
You can blame it on the devil
It don’t matter anymore
I am lost unto this world…

I was tortured in the desert
I was raped out on the plain
I was murdered by the high way
And my cries went up in vain
My blood is on the mountain
My blood is on the sand
My blood runs in the river
That now washes through their hands
I am lost unto this world…
Can I get no witness this unholy tale to tell?
Was God the only one there watching
And weeping as l fell?
O you among the living
Will you remember me at all?
Will you write my name out
With a single finger scrawl?
Across a broken window
In some long forgotten wall
That goes stretching out forever
Where the tears of heaven fall
I am lost unto this world…”

Oh my God. My God, I knew who she was singing about. I’d just seen a mothers son, just a few hours before, one of these children, lost unto the world. I wanted to sob out loud. My heart, my emotions, my mind just swept over with sorrow and anger and compassion. Lord! This is not a song of the past…this is a song of here and now. This is a song about orphans of this world, the lost, the disenfranchised, the ill, the homeless, the divorced, the rejected, the lonely, the alone.

We’d seen and lived with some of them, Ben and I, through the rehab where Ben had been for six months for treatment for alcoholism. Men lost to their families, men lost to their mothers and their fathers, men no longer husbands and sons and daddies because of their pain and their wounds, pain and wounds that dragged them to bars and to brothels, compelled them to spend the money that should have supported their families on booze and cigarettes and drugs. Broken men who broke their wives and broke their children. Empty women, wounded and hurt almost beyond repair, forgiveness a luxury given up for survival. And my husband had been one of those men, and I’d been one of those wives, and my children were some of those orphans. But for God’s grace. And here we sat, saved and restored and healed, remembering the ones we’d seen in the years before, and the one we’d seen moments ago, knowing that this was their song, this was their prayer. Our song. Our prayer.

On the train home, Ben and I could hardly speak for the weariness and joy we felt. “I think we just got us some churchin’.” Ben said, and I agreed.

A few days later, I found a job advertised for a mental health rehabilitation support worker in Newcastle. They wanted, so they said, not someone necessarily with a qualification, but “a certain type of person”. A person with compassion, a people person. I knew I was that person. I applied. And I got the job.

I truly believe that all the busted up stuff in our lives can be the foundation of what God has in mind for us. I now work every day with people whose lives have been railroaded and sometimes wrecked by mental illness, drugs and alcohol, and by the resulting relationships breakdowns and isolation. Sometimes, I leave their homes and drive away smiling, sometimes crying. It’s so hard. But I love it so much. What threatened to break me as a woman, a wife, mother and as a human, has become the platform on which I stand to strengthen and support and speak to others. I was diagnosed with a mental illness ten years ago, and I still don’t know how I have been able to progress through my life to this point with that as part of my life, let alone get through cancer, Ben’s alcoholism and our separation, whilst bringing up four children at the same time. Don’t know. You may say the things you’ve been through are evidence there is no God – people say this to me often – but I look at my life and I know the things I’ve been though would have broken me into a million pieces if not for God. I have no choice now. To deny Him is to deny my past, the miracles, everything I am and I stand for. He may not be understandable, but He is, nonetheless.

When I doubt I’m in the right place doing the thing I’m meant to be doing, I find myself stumbling across Emmylou’s song, and remembering that evening, and that young man. I couldn’t help him – but he helped me. He’ll never know that, and it diminishes the gravity and tragedy of his situation for me to say that’s the reason I saw him that evening. He was not helped, at least not be me, but I was helped to understand that I can make a difference, if I listen, and I obey that prompting. I am not one for just following my feelings everywhere they lead me, but sometimes what they say doesn’t just tell you about you – they tell you about something outside of yourself you need to pay attention to. Sometimes our feelings show us what hurts us, not so we can avoid it, but so we can run to where others hurt for the same reason.

Thanks Emmylou. And to that young man, where ever you may be, I pray you may find….home.

That none should be lost unto this world.