Embracing the Good

I realize today there are millions of people in this country in pain, because they won’t experience a Norman Rockwell painting Thanksgiving. And even if their day looks like a Rockwell on the outside, on the inside they may feel like they are living in a Dante illustration of hell. 

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:9

There is a memory that my mind does not know how to let go of. I am kneeling beside the pastor of my former church. His arms are wrapped tightly around me as I hug him.

Even though this happened over five years ago, and what followed this hug was a spiritually abusive relationship, my mind does not know how to let go of this moment that changed my life in ways I will never completely comprehend.

Last week as I was talking to a new friend at work about my struggles to let go of my traumatic past, she shared with me about her own abuse history. She said for a long time her abuse was all that she knew how to talk about. She said that she had one friend who reminded her that she was talking about her abuse again. She was grateful for this friend, because she realized that her mind for some reason did not want to let go of her trauma and she knew that she still had some work to do around it.

As I listened to her talk, I realized that I, too, struggle to let go of my own trauma. I want to let go but I don’t know how.

Sometimes when I hear people talking about letting go of the past, I feel condemned. It sounds like it’s an easy choice to make and one that I am too stubborn to make. When I feel condemned, it just causes me to cling more tightly to my past and all the reasons why I don’t know how to let go.

My friend sharing vulnerably about her own struggle to let go gave me a different perspective. Since she is someone who has suffered in similar ways, I do not feel condemned. Rather I feel empathy for what she went through and admiration that she has been able to move forward. In her, I see someone who is determined to embrace the good in her life.

As I write this, it becomes clear to me that in order to let go of the past we have to find something else good to grab hold of.

Over the past few years, our family has been in a process of healing. Our therapist told us early on that it could take this long. I had hoped when I heard this that I would be further along than I am now. I have come a long way, and I am grateful. However, I think my expectation was that the past would be in the past and not still be coming up in conversations as much.

I think one of the biggest obstacles we face as trauma survivors, is not letting abuse become our only story. I say only story, because I believe that telling others about our abuse history can provide healing and hope to others, especially when we can tell it without getting lost in it. Abuse will always be a part of my story, but lately God has been communicating to me that it is not my only story.

Working in mental health care, I have met so many people who have had every reason to live out the rest of their lives trapped in their own traumatic story. The stories I’ve seen and heard have caused me to question everything I believe about life and faith. I wonder how can anyone can possibly ever escape the hellish nightmare that they have survived. I spoke with a woman a few days ago about a lifetime of abuse she suffered. Her words were hurried as she spoke about her history barely taking a breath. So much pain. Yet, she held onto her faith and hope for dear life. As she left with her two young children following closely behind, I was so glad that she knew her story was about more than abuse. I was glad that she was fighting for herself and her family so that they could live a better story.

I have also met people who never learn how to live another story. Sadly, they live and die never escaping the prison of all the wrong that was done to them. Their pain is an endless flow of acid that eats away at the hope of everyone around them. This statement causes me to think of my adopted father who retold his abusive story over and over again throughout my childhood. He didn’t have any friends. He was angry at his family. The only thing that made him happy was his cats and buying something else. I wonder did he simply choose to stay trapped in his abuse story or if he just simply never found the key to get out? Did he look for the key? Weren’t his children enough reason to at least try and find it?

Today is Thanksgiving. We have an abundance of good food in the refrigerator to prepare. We will travel south to cook and eat with our children. Our small family of five will gather around the table to talk and eat too much. There will be so much good to be thankful for. However, as childhood trauma survivors, both my husband and I will struggle to enjoy it. This is a difficult thing for me to confess. How can I not possibly see all the good that I have? How is it that I am not overflowing with Thanksgiving that our family is still together after all that we have been through? As I said earlier in this post, beating myself up for not being able to let go of the past only sends me into a spiral of guilt that causes me to get more lost in my past. I realize today there are millions of people in this country in pain, because they won’t experience a Norman Rockwell painting Thanksgiving. And even if their day looks like a Rockwell on the outside, on the inside they may feel like they are living in a Dante illustration of hell. The expectations that our culture places on our holiday season is a reminder to many of us of the family that we did not have. The sad reality is that hospitals will fill up with people who are battling suicidal thoughts and those suffering with mental illness will struggle more. The holidays are hard for me is a confession I have heard several times over the past few weeks. Their courage to speak honestly with me has given me the courage to speak up, too.

I believe the reason that the scene in a pastor’s office over five years ago plays over and over in my mind, is that in this moment with him I believed that I was safe, that I belonged, and that I was loved by him and by God. This was the one thing that I had longed for my entire life, and I experienced it in that moment. Before I realized it was abusive, I was able to grab hold of something good and trust that it was good for me. My mind experienced life and hope for the very first time. Before I met him, I did not trust that anyone could ever love me. But when I believed that he cared, I was able to allow myself to believe that there was something good in life to hold onto. The hardest thing for me to do now is to forgive myself for trusting someone who would betray me in the worst possible ways. Recently, I watched a Netflix show on cults. A scene flashed on the screen from Jonestown of the thousands of people who trusted Jim Jones and as a result wound up dead. As I heard more about their stories, I realized that they, too, had just wanted to feel accepted, loved and safe but they, like me, trusted in the wrong person.

I think the biggest question that I am asking myself today is how can I let go of the betrayal and grab hold of something better? How can I let go of the fear of something else bad happening and embrace the good that is right in front of me?

Let life happen is the answer that echoes in my mind. Be present in the here and now. Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves without expectations, without condemnation, and with acceptance that you are in a healing process.

Embrace the good that you know is good. Trust those who have proven to be trustworthy and faithful in your life. Pay attention to things your feelings. If something doesn’t feel right it’s ok to walk away.

.. whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things...

I realized reading this that God inspired Paul to write this not so that we would use it to condemn ourselves or others with because we are struggling to move past the bad things that have happened to us. Rather, God wrote it because He cares about our mental health. He knows how desperately we need to be able to see these things in a broken world filled with pain.

This is grace.

And a goodness that I can embrace, hold on to and trust in.

He will never abandon us or betray us.

If today is a hard day for you, please know that it’s ok. Don’t allow the expectations of others to overwhelm you. Just be who you are and where you are in your healing process and know that God meets you where you are.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or are in a crisis, please reach out for help. You are not alone. There are people who care and want to help. Here is the number of people who can help.

Call 1-800-273-8255 or text to 741741.

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