Ann, My Blind Roommate

Ann was my blind roommate.  Not blind.  Just set-up.  You know, like a blind date. I think I might have met her once, for about a minute in some cafeteria in Upper State New York a summer before, but that story is for another time.  Other than that, I’m sure we were complete strangers.  Her sister Barbara was a friend of mine (still is!).  I’d been to Barb’s apartment before and remember thinking ‘wow, how amazing to live in such a nice place’.  It was a second story flat set back off the street, above a shaded grassy patch and home to a large tree or two (ok, I’m not a details person).  The apartment was just across the street from the Walla Walla College campus where I attended.  If you could have seen the apartment I was “wow-ing’, you’d chuckle, but for a college kid who had lived in some motley places, you’d understand.  One spring day while I was visiting Barb at her apartment she asked me if I’d like to live there, and room with her sister Ann the following year.  Barb was leaving/graduating, and Ann needed a roommate.  Barbara was one of those people super easy to be around – and I imagined her sister to be the same, so took the chance and said I’d do it.  With no small amount of anxiety, I agreed, knowing sisters can be as different as night and day.

What I don’t think I told Barbara was that I was holding my breath – hoping everything would work out.  Not just regarding Ann, but due to my own situation.  Although I wanted to live in a normal apartment with a pre-arranged roommate, and make plans for the year ahead, my actual life never looked like that.  Every quarter I’d find myself sitting in the financial aid office an hour or two waiting my turn, hoping and praying that Cassie or Doug  – the two persons managing the financial aid office – would pull out of a hat some random grant or loan, making it possible for me to attend college yet one more Quarter.  Every nickel I made working on grounds, vacuuming the halls of the girls dorm, and all other income went to paying for college.  I didn’t make enough to afford it, so every Quarter they let me in felt like a giant miracle from God.  Housing and roommates came last.  

Over the summer, I remember looking at my things, a few ratty Norman Rockwell pictures torn out of a calendar for the walls, some black-bottomed pans, a thinned cotton bedspread but white and cheerful enough, no dresser but a mattress for the floor, … I wondered how Barbara’s sister would feel about moving in with Miss Nobody. 

For no particular reason Cassy or Doug, I don’t remember which, decided they had the money for me to attend, and that I’d be fine in that nice apartment, and so there I was unpacking my few well worn things when Ann arrived.  I don’t remember our first words, or even remember when she arrived, but one of the first sweet things she said to me was exclaiming how much she loved the (thumbtacked) Norman Rockwell pictures on the wall.  I couldn’t believe it.  She could enjoy simple unconventional ways of decorating, of being, and could find beauty all over the place in things that didn’t cost a dime.  The relief nearly suffocated me.  To be accepted is one thing, but to be enjoyed as is, now that’s another.

The blind roommate turned out to be a very good one.  Not only did she not care one bit about my worn out things, she enjoyed my ability to make something out of nothing in the kitchen.  I enjoyed her ability to read a recipe and bake.  She was adventurous, was willing to do crazy things like camp out last minute on some country church grounds (because it sat beside a river).  I think the sprinklers came on, and she was a good sport about that too.   

Ann loved having friends over, and was quite the host.  Because of her, our apartment was filled to overflowing with friends and friends of friends and a few others.  Engineering guys from across the street would smell the chili in the crock pot and meander across the road, up the stairs to see what’s cooking.  Students whose parents had been missionaries – Ann had grown up in Bangladesh.  Her former classmates from a college in England she’d attended.  Ole friends from Blue Mountain Academy in Pennsylvania.  I added my collection of grounds worker pals, class mates, a few friends from Mount Ellis (Bozeman, Montana)….  Between the two of us, our apartment was a preverbal zoo!

Ann was an unusual mix of fun and studious.  I struggled with college, good grades did not come easy for me.  I had to read and re-read anything I took in.  I had already decided that I couldn’t have fun and do well in college at the same time.  This was due to that fact that the students I’d known up to this point were either fun or or did well in school, but never both.  Not Ann.  She knew how to shift gears from fun times to getting things done, and back to fun again – as needed.  I was inspired.  Ann did need less sleep then I, but she was always respectful about her sleepyhead roommate and studied late into the night without disturbing my rest.  Ann was also more tidy than I, and was just gracious as I struggled to keep things up, as we had to – we had company morning to night. 

The year I met my husband and fell in love, I was rooming with Ann.  She listen to all my star eye’d feelings months on end.  We listened to each other.  She was gracious when the guy I was in love with reciprocated.  Didn’t matter what the challenge in life was, when things were going well for me, and not for her, she was gracious.  That’s a great word for Ann.  Gracious.  Just a gracious and dear friend. 

Thirty some years have passed.  Ann is more dear to me then before.  She has been the best auntie to our kids, though not a blood aunt.  She’s been in our lives a couple times a year their entire lives.  Although she eventually moved to Cambodia, she flies in to see her folks, sisters and brother and comes to see us – and often.  Which means the kids have years of memories with Auntie Ann. 

I would have never picked Ann out myself.  We are as optimist as two persons can be.  She has traveled all over the world her entire life.  I’ve been nowhere other than the US, Canada, Hawaii and Tijuana, but mostly stay home.  Book learning comes easy to her.  She flies through books and tests well.  I struggle to get through part of a book.  I test poorly.  She likes numbers.  I like words.  Not true.  She likes words too… and reads more books in a year than I will in a lifetime.  She bakes.  I dump cook.  She is single.  I’m married with four kid.  She is a saver.  I’m a squanderer.  She reads music.  I play by ear.  She’s Adventist.  I’m not. 

How does one choose a roommate?  Although Ann and I are as as different as wind and sea, the things that matter most we have in common.  Ann gets how much I love God, how much I hate pretension, how much I value simple hospitality, how much I love vulnerability and authenticity.  We both love to grow our spirits and shrink the ever-toxic “self”.  We both love family and friends, love something from nothing, both love learning and exploring new ideas, love color, love to laugh, love a spontaneous adventure.  I have a memory of one of my very grown up kids being talked into a shopping cart by Auntie Ann, her pushing said child speed of light through a parking lot, both howling with laughter.  

My blind roommate.  I think I was the blind one.  Would never have thought she’d consider a friendship with me as she was traveled, smart and capable.  You know, I’ve never seen my face, and you haven’t seen yours.  Only a reflection.  If the reflectant is warped, all that is seen is a twisted view of ourselves.  That makes each-other that very important mirror.  Ann has been one of the kindest mirrors I’ve ever looked into.  A mirror that smiles at my burnt attempts at soup.  Listens when I’m miserable and self-centered.  Is able to separate her own opinions from her heart – a heart that cares for me more than cares to be right or have the last word.  

Ann

The wind and sea.

Which one are you?

Which one is me?

My blind roommate.

A kindly mirror.

Thank you gracious friend

I see.

 

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Make Room For Feeling

Lately, I’ve noticed a lack of elbow room for feelings.  No open spaces left for a feeling to show up.  For if one appears, quick as a flash there’s a fuss and a shunning.  ‘So and so has it much worse’, my mind tells me.  Along with your lips.  “You could have so much more to worry about”.  “Grow up”, I say to myself.  Round and round my thoughts and your words chase the feelings that arrive until they find a deep hole in which to dive underground.  And before I know it, they are gone. 

One unexpected day arrives on scene the drive to stuff my face with food.  The fixation to pull at my hair. The need to buy too much, cook too much, Facebook too much, drive too fast, rage at my kids.  And I wonder, suddenly after months of not needing my horrid coping behaviors, why they have surfaced again.  I wonder why I’m blowing up in situations that normally wouldn’t anger me.  I act in ways that aren’t ‘me’.  And I forget to connect the dots back to the feeling that tried to join the conversation of my life.  I neglected to notice that I would not have it!  I forget I would not care or listen or lovingly respond to the feelings that God put in my body to help me cope with the realities of life.  And so I viciously attempt to stamp out the annoying coping habit I don’t want, and the embarrassing reaction has been caused by denying an inborn healthy coping mechanism called my feelings. 

Feelings help me know if I’m catching fire.  If I’m freezing solid.  They help me know if blood is being cut off from a limb.  Feelings let me know dust has made it’s way onto my eye.  Reminds me when I need sleep.  If my teeth need flossing.  Feelings also allow me to notice when I’m being disrespected.  When I’ve said ‘yes’ too many times.  When I’m being used. 

Feelings are not popular.  The catch-phrase ‘too sensitive’ exists because feeling a thing is deemed as a character flaw.  Allowing myself to notice a feeling and say out loud that I feel sad, fearful, anxious is to agree to being branded as ‘moody, thin-skinned, touchy, immature’, you get the idea. 

Life hands us a two-edged sword, really.  Expects us not to feel, and also expects us not to react.  Only problem, when I don’t notice my feelings and respectfully address the red flags that feelings wave in my face, when I shove underground these warning signals, the body takes over. No longer my frontal lobe in charge, physical reactivity takes the place of choices.  And who wants that?  I can either decide to take charge of me or let my reflexive, my reactive self take the place of my choices.   

Not only are reactions caused by ignoring my feelings, at times so are my conditions.  Conditions such as depression and anxiety.  Clients often sign up for treatment to ‘fix’ depression or anxiety.  They don’t realize that it’s an end-stage condition.  Much like diabetes is deemed the problem rather than an end-stage condition that points to the myriad of problems ignored before diabetes came into full bloom.  The goal is to address little things that cause the end stage.  And one of the simplest fixes is to stop ignoring and being ashamed of feelings.  Treat feelings for what they are.  Mighty helpers.  They tell us the truth about the situation.  And as we give attention to them and address them, we become stronger. 

I can hear the ‘You are what you think’ critics now.  What about all those feelings that are not accurate?  First rule of thumb.  Feelings are not right or wrong.  There are only wrong actions for dealing with that feeling.  A feeling is neutral.  Decisions about that feeling and the actions taken are not.  Many actions (responses) way over the top are triggers to shame about that feeling.  Once there is no shame for a feeling, it can be rightly and empathetically dealt with.  And the adult me can make the decision for how to respond.  As long as there is shame, the responder is functioning in a fight, flight or freeze state. 

Make way, I say, for feelings. They are the first responders to a healthier me.    

Early Betrayal and Marriage Prayer

Stepping into crust of snow, I walk into the stinging white beside a man keeping pace, together faces pink with low temperatures.  He is alone this day.  His Marriage, like the crunch under our feet, is on especially rough surfaces.  We walk and talk.  A long time I listen. 

And then respond. 

I tell him about the early stages of betrayal. 

The small shifts in attitude that occur before a heart of stone takes shape. 

The betrayal of another – the pull away. 

The secret thoughts that say to self “I can do better”, “I shouldn’t have to put up with this crap”. 

“She says that to me all the time,” he says to me.   “And so do we all,” I reply.  The past 35 minutes have been descriptions of all the ways she is no good and impossible.   He hears me. 

The story is the same for all the couples I work with, and for my own life.  Unique scenarios, with the same deterioration of love. 

The toxic seed of heart that abandons the other while still sitting beside her. 

While still holding his hand. 

Which is why she says she can’t trust him

…says he feels unsafe around her

the loneliness 

feeling invisible

–hated. 

The heart feels abandoned, even when words and actions of the other acts the part of a husband, plays the role of the wife.  A heart betrays the loved one – in exchange for ‘my rights’. 

We talk about how much easier it is to see another persons rot than our own. That even in marriages looking quite put together we indulge in betrayal thoughts dozens of times a day. 

I ask “Do you pray together?” This couple attends a Bible study and support group, attends church.  They are believers.  The type who walk the walk.  Christians who want God’s will, who weep at the kindness of the Lord.  And I ask if they pray together.  “No, we don’t,” he says.  “How would we do that?”  And I pause.  No one has ever asked me what marriage prayer looks like.  And as we move ahead a step and then another, I hope my words match the stirring at the core of me.

Then I laugh.  I catch the puzzled look out the corner of my eye.  “I know a lot about what not to do.”  Prayers can’t be used to blast the other person.  “Dear Lord, I pray that you help my husband to not be such an absolute selfish narcissistic jerk”.  The sad eyes wrinkle into a smile.  “A prayer like that will ruin prayer for the two of you.”  I know, from experience. 

Doing the opposite works better.  “Lord, I am selfish.  I’m blind to the garbage in me.  I can only mostly see (my spouse’s name) faults clearly, and not my own very well.  I pray that you show me how to love _______ ( put your spouse’s name here).  Help me see how I hurt (him/her).  Give me clues for making (his/her) life a joyful one.  Life here is short.  Let me be a blessing for the days (he/she) has left.  Let me be a warm place for (him/her) to come to.  Please forgive me for harming this person I love so much.   I’m not good at love, we are so different.  I pray this all in Jesus name, amen.” 

We walk in silence.  He understands.  I encourage him to not use this prayer script, but to pray from his heart with her near him, and plead for God to give him what it takes to love his wife.  Its hard to do when the other person feels like an enemy, but it works. 

The reason my adored husband and I are still together is that we pray.  We would have strangled each other if we hadn’t continued to pray.  We are just naturally too dysfunctional, selfish and warped to follow simple directions for making changes.  God has had to change us one prayer at a time.  We don’t pray just right all the time, either.  Sometimes we break all the rules for praying and harm each other in our petitions to God.. .especially me.  But we move back towards each other and God.  It’s our only consistent healing habit that has saved us from ourselves. 

It’s easy to betray. 

The heart finds ways to reject the one who knows too much about me.

The reason the subject of betrayal belongs with marriage prayer is that betrayal,

even at its earliest stage

is the invisible aggressor that destroys love

and prayer is what stitches love back together  

God is the one who kindly reminds us of all the ways we harm the other and shows us again how to love, even when the other person is unlovable. Especially when the other person is unlovable.  White underfoot, we move beyond despair toward God love.  To the only thing that stops betrayal and brings us together again.   

Broken Safe Heart

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Beautifully Broken.  A testimony shared in word and book form.  The story of Elisa Morgan, former president of MOPS International.  The telling of a teenage daughter pregnant, the shame of the thing, of the realization that we are all a mess, and this is a truth.  A friend and I ventured from home to attend the “I Am Loved, One Strand” Event featuring Elisa.  An evening of challenge to a church crammed packed with ladies.  Will I hide my brokenness, or will I take the risk and be a mess, for Jesus Sake.  As the evening hours came to a close, half dozen pastors and elders waited up front to offer a prayer for anyone who could use it.  Just as I Am keeping time, verse after verse and out of the hundreds of women attending, no one came forward.  Verses repeated.  Still no one.  Then a couple of the pastors facilitating the event came forward to be prayed for. As if to say “This is how it’s done”. 

We had been dismissed, the church mostly emptied, a few pray-ers still at post when I asked my friend if she wanted to go together for prayer.  Pray for our marriages.  For our kids. For our own personal struggles.  My friend is no ordinary friend.  She is one of those heroes who lives her faith despite depth of pain.  Sunday mornings, despite hostility at doing so, dresses herself and her children and slips off to church alone, shaking inside but holding it together, always holding it together.  The only Christian in her family.  A mentally unstable husband who swings from kind to damaging.  Having to scoop up children and leave her home for days, fly away, until the storm passes.  She is a mother who is doing everything she can to give her kids what they need, her husband what he needs, works full time, is a loving adult daughter of aging parents, a loving friend to me and many others.  All this amidst a blast that comes and goes, sometimes nearly crashed upon the rocks, when once again God comes through, and she holds steady again. 

We have so much in common, her and I, and you too, I’m guessing.  Our lives are full and beautiful and messy and painful.  We have the unexpected that tares at us.  Every time the calm comes, on it’s heels is destruction.  Willing again and again to be a mess for Jesus sake, as it would be so much easier to pretend all is well, easier to dust ourselves of the messes that disrupt our hoped for lives, but we’ve decided to refuse to give up.  And there we were, she and I doing the very thing the evening had lauded.  Praying not for the superficial, but for what needed praying for. 

Pastor woman, kind eyes, nice prayers she offers up.  The flowing kind of prayers, until tears flow from depths of those she prayed for.  Immediately friend and I feel the change.  Pastor Woman holds steady cold eyes on the one with tears and steps back.  Starts lecturing.  Shrouded in Christian-ese, she with smile and sneer eyes, she offers up a lecture of indignant setting straight.  Arrogance and irritation.  Distance.  Rejection.  Parental eyes.  As real as if she had said the words, “We don’t do messy here.”  

Shame, it hit hard.  Feeling sick.  Needing to find a hiding place, a bathroom, tears they showered pant-leg beneath the eyes.  And as shame flooded in, I remembered words I had heard hours before in a training I had attended.  Fight, flight and freeze occurs when comfort has not been extended.  Fight, flight, freeze.  The body’s reaction to not trusting.  An unsafe place to be a mess. 

The church is realizing how important authenticity is, and vulnerability.  Elisa Morgan has written “Beautifully Broken”.  Ann Voskamp’s latest book reiterates the same idea in “The Broken Way”.  Brene Brown has written extensively about vulnerability and authenticity, and about becoming a wholehearted person.  And many are speaking out on these issues, including God.  The Holy Bible is packed with raw stories of real people.  And still the church isn’t prepared for what it’s asking for. 

We better not ask for real if we have not done the due diligence of placing front and center only those who have done their own raw and messy work.  If my healthy vulnerability frightens you, as culturally Christian as I am, you won’t at all be comfortable with folks with a criminal record, an abortion never spoken of, same sex attraction shame, cut scars that run deep behind long sleeves, a porn addiction, shoplifting, the pain of life as a stripper, hidden heroine, purging, on the run.  Christian servants are not prepared unless we have intentionally peered into the toxic morass of our own less than lovely lives.  The grace of Jesus administered to shame makes worthy and safe my ears to hear your wound, and your secrets.  Professional pretenders have no place at the front line of the body of Christ.  This interaction was uncomfortable for me, but I’m not harmed.  I’m surrounded by healthy people who give me all the love and support I need.  Someone else might not have what I have.  One considering Christianity.  One who has risk it all to try once again to reach for Jesus.   

Jesus says:

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

Of course we don’t want pastors and leaders functioning as out-of-control messes.  This pastor offering prayer has either never come face to face with her own lacking, or had experienced the discomfort of letting a judgmental person in on her own disgrace, which is why she reacted the way she did to ours.  How can a pastor be honest with themselves and others when we marginalize them for owning their weaknesses?  Pastors are human beings.  They have a past, a present.  Arrogant Saul was only safe to serve when struck down by Jesus, made blind and dependent, and a mess.  Peter was only safe when he faced the ugliness and rejection of his distancing behavior.  We are only safe when we see who we are, and let God’s Grace pick us up again.  A pastor able to admit and speak about his or her own messiness becomes safe to love another.  And not before. 

I’ve written on this topic more than once, and will continue to write on it.  The front lines call for the real deal.  No pretenders.  Our Christian Culture must stop rewarding leaders and pastors for pretending, and punishing for honesty.  The route from death to life is across a cravat that separates Hateland of Pretend from The Loveland of Known.  From the Hiding, fight, flight and freeze (Adam, where are you?) place to a place of being seen, loved and forgiven.  Christians can’t stand on both grounds. Authenticity is attractive to the hurting who don’t know Jesus, because isn’t this what we all want most of all?  To be known AND loved.  We can’t pretend to be authentic as a way of extending a hand.  The call for authenticity has already been sent out.  Front line Christian’s, time is now to step across.  

Refrigerators and the Presidential Election.

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I’ve decided that this election is all about refrigerators.  Those homely green things that would have run 1000 years had we let them.  Eternal living fridges, faithful cooling machines still cooling our milk and sandwiches, had we, the homeowners, not rejected them for something more chic.  A demand for bells and whistles in exchange for units that would never leak, shoot ice cross the floor, rot through flimsy non-stainless steel exterior walls, taking chunks of pretend metal with it.   Have you been shopping for a fridge, a microwave or dishwasher lately?  I’m guessing in the past 5 years, you have.  My point exactly. There is no good reason an appliance should last less than 50 years or 100.  And now they last, what?!  A grand total of 10 years if we pay a maintenance man to keep fussing with them!! 

There was a time when reliability was more important than appearance.  When a person’s ‘name’ or company name was protected by solid workmanship.  Refrigerators are but one way our world cares more about the ‘cool’ factor, more about making an impression, taking up a place of position in the kitchen then it does function.  Let’s see, there is the lovely expensive blouse perchance at Nordstrom’s, a blouse I can’t do without.  One wash later, limp and faded, it should be tossed, but still takes up space because, after all, it use to be so lovely.  No conscience about the choice of fabric.  No name to uphold.  Books with a catchy title by a well known author, and inside the book, 7 ways to do such and such, a nice format and lacking anything of creativity and depth.  The can opener that looks the part and can’t do the job after a couple months.  An fine looking brand new all wheel drive in my favorite color, and along with the name, an expectation that the head on the engine has to be reworked routinely.  Seriously?!

We complain bitterly about the election this year, and about the lack of good choices in whom to vote for, but our options match who we have become.  T.V., radio, movies, music, books, art, the news, housing architecture, we have thrown out beauty, form, substance and have replaced it with a shell, one that appears to have some of the elements of something that once was.  What seems to be most important to us now is not goodness, but persons who act like they belong on a reality show.  We love the angry, loud, crass, shallow, dishonest, we idolize bullies, we devalue human life, both the old and young, people different from ourselves, we crave brazen show-off’s and have no respect for the quiet spirit of a green fridge.  The person that has few frills, no scandals, does their job, holds respect for those they answer to, (we are all under someone whether we scrub toilets, play football or serve ‘we the people’), does not see themselves as ‘the living end’, a person who uses power granted to them with humility, and uses it toward the achievement of peace, with the maturity to use force as a last resort.   

I can’t march over and change up the election process this year, grab a couple brats by the scruff of the neck and put them in time out awhile, bringing in two kind hearted, honest candidates.  But I can ask myself, what am I doing to perpetuate power and flashy?  What about me likes to hear a radio money man lip off at an ‘idiot’?  Likes to see wrongdoers put in their place in a disrespectful way?  What if we all move through our homes and cars, our entertainment, our faith, our parenting styles, through our lives and take to tossing everything lacking substance?  This election season will come and go.  We might forget what we’ve done to cause what happens this November.  The regrets on death bed are mostly about love.  Life is too short to be about power games and show.  What if the rest of my life I became the best green fridge I can be, and support all green fridges around me?  That’s what I’ll do.  This November I’m going green.

Billboard Hiding

Sitting on a bench alongside my friend in a sundown park, people, they are everywhere and we watch.  Watch the milling about, the comings and goings.  A group of boys silently step out of the overgrowth, walking slower than boys going any place at all, more silent than any collection of guys together on any August evening. And without a billboard announcing drug sales and drug use, 7 boys let the entire park in on what they’d been up to.  Hiding. 

I know this hiding.  Our kids start young.  Round eyes watch through soft blond lashes, little arms tight behind back.  I peek round the little hider.  Melted blobs of green, yellow, orange, red.  Warmed M&M’s concealed behind brown smudged lips and chubby fists.  It’s hard not to laugh just a little.  It’s cute at 3.  Not so cute thereafter. 

What if boys and girls of all ages came right out and stated:

“I use drugs and sell it to my friends.”

“I sneak your credit card number and use it intermittently so you won’t notice”

“I prefer porn to people”

“I cheat on my taxes”

“I live in more of a house than I can afford so you will think I’m important”

Honest, and still not helpful enough.  I’m thinking it’s not the lie that feels so worth hiding.  It’s the action.  And why, with all the variety of ways to think about life, with a wide range of taste in popsicle flavors do people choose to hide and lie about certain behaviors rather than just say “I’m grape, you’re strawberry”?  Maybe lying is used for avoiding trouble.  The law doesn’t support kids snorting coke in bushes.  Doesn’t support streakers.  The baby doesn’t want M&M’s taken away. 

And still, at times we hide because we don’t like and don’t approve of the way WE act, and don’t want anyone who isn’t doing what we are doing to see us act the way we act. 

Shame is a thing of the eyes.

It’s eyes catching the action of another person’s shame.  Eyes seeing bottle downed.  Eyes watching as item is lifted.  Eyes that make pretese hiding so ridicules.  We think no one can see our pretense, and then we parade it out for all.  Never knowing.

What do I hate about my own actions?  What do I think I hide from you – that indecent piece of me I’d rather die than let you see?  The hiding I do is a waste.  I’m not hidden.  I’m announced.  The knowledge of good and evil.  The garden gift we all share.  To see the shame of another, no matter how much we try to conceal. 

Let my eyes be used for loving, no matter another’s shame I see.  Let my own eyes notice my own shame – with purpose in mind.  Let me allow kind eyes to peer into who I am, those healing eyes of knowing and loving anyway.

  

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.  Genesis 3:7

Jesus looked at him and loved him.  Mark 10:21.

The Stocks of Face-Saving

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Clipboard under my arm I approach the door.  “Knock, Knock” I say aloud, pulling back the curtain and moving into the room toward the patient, I rub slimy germ busting formula into my already chapped hands.  There in the bed, blanket, standard white pulled tight under unshaven chin, blond and balding, he waits his turn. 

Eyes turn shyly toward me, embarrassed.  “Are you the social worker?” he mumbles.  “Ya, that’s me” I say.  He adjusts his long legs into a sitting position on the gurney, wraps the blanket around his knees as we proceed.  At first glance I decide this guy is from the world of the arts; sensitive and starving.  Working through the preliminaries, the myriad of questions, I learn he’s a musician, he’s hardly making it financially, and the silent flow of tears tells more.

He’d been a good kid from a good family, grew up in the Midwest, complete with loving mom and dad, brothers, grandparents, Uncles, Aunties, Cousins.  “I’m the only one, really” he says in answer to my asking him questions regarding the family history of chemical dependency.  Says he got “into some trouble” 10 years ago, but after treatment and a half way house, went about setting straight his life.  He found a girl to love and marry, they had a baby a couple years ago.  He says the marriage is over now.  “We grew apart, I guess.”

He tells me last night he overdosed on drugs he’s never touched in his life, others he’d been terribly addicted to 10 years prior, plus a handful of a friend’s old prescriptions for sleeping, some for anxiety, and added with that a handful of pain pills that were the cause of all his problems in the first place.  He can’t say for sure that he was trying to kill himself or not “I don’t really know what I was thinking” he says mopping up the stream of silent tears.  All he can tell me is that after being “clean” a long time, he’s an addicted mess again.

He says that four years ago he hurt his back. His doctor gave him prescriptions for Percocet and oxycontin.  Two years into the medicines his back didn’t hurt anymore, instead everything else hurt – vicious and demanding hurt – every time he tried to ditch the meds.  He told me at my request the step by step process he had gone through trying stopping “the pills”.  Now he’s up to “30…. no 60 dollars worth every morning to even stand upright…I can hardly get to work and make it through the day.”  

His hands shake as they fist the blanket in his lap.  “I can’t miss a day without my body shutting down.  I can hardly walk, I can’t live without it.  Everything’s wrong.  I have diarrhea, I sweat, I chill, Haven’t eaten for three days.  I can’t sleepI can’t fucking go on like this.  OK, I AM suicidal.  Ya,I was last night too”. 

Unstoppable tears shame him as he works through the details of his situation.  Of all the hurt he moves through in this sterol over-lit room with this total stranger asking him to recount hard things to admit even to himself, the rawest of all relates to his adored 2 year old daughter.  Little is spoken.  What he does say is that since the divorce, he gets to see her a couple hours a week.  “It’s my fault.  I can’t have her anymore then that, not her Moms… I’m barely getting to work.  I drop the ball for the pills.”

You might think me a bit sadistic, but in my spirit I’m having a party for this young mans despair.  Down the hall in Exam 3 in spit hood, four pointed to the gurney, thrashing and growling is a guy I’ve seen before.  The last time I saw him, a couple years before, he’d been in much the same situation as the man sitting before me, but without the vulnerable truth telling of the dozens of ways his life was an utter disaster.  Everyone else was the reason he was in the ER that night.  He hadn’t cried in shame that he couldn’t be a dad to his kids, keep a job, function as a husband.  So instead of the humiliating process of admitting he was a mess, surrendering to the process of detox and treatment – allowing others to help – instead of that humiliation, his small and terrified six year old son got to be the one tonight to call 911 telling the operator he thought his daddy was dying.  Now the boys daddy is trapped like a wild animal after assaulting two of our staff in a drug craze, trapped until the Haldol kicks in.  I wish sometimes that all my patients could be an invisible mouse on my clip board, following me around from room to room. 

As my thoughts return to the young man before me, he and I work the details and challenges through, one tangle at a time.  It becomes clear that regardless of why, after a great childhood, he took a wrong turn, that what matters now is he’s ready to do all the painful parts of taking a right turn. He still has a great family.  Yes, they are sad and shocked to received a call from us 3 a.m. with news he had overdosed in a suicidal attempt , that he has been hiding this addiction for 4 years.  He is the one to make the phone call and openly tell them the whole mess he’s been hiding.  Yet they are there, more than willing, from 8 states away, to buy the ticket he needs home, to willing to set limits in ways that will help him heal, to join him, not in an enabling way, but from a place of strength, as he surrenders to the process of a new beginning.

I stop by his room just before he is discharged.  “Just came in to tell you I’m happy for your new beginning. Take Care” are the words I say,… but inside what I’m REALLY saying is “God, like the rest of ’em, right turn or no, great family or not, please stick with this guy.  He won’t make it without you.”

“The Truth Will Set You Free” John 8:32

Amelia