Memories, Meaning and Hope

The lack of fear I felt was a pleasant surprise when I sat down with members of my biological family last week. It’s not every day that a 51 year old person meets aunts and uncles for the first time. And it’s certainly not every day that it actually goes well. So I am exceedingly grateful.

Because I wasn’t in a hypervigilant state, which has been all too common in my previous interactions with other family members, I can actually remember what happened on Saturday at lunch; all the warm hugs and smiles, the stories shared, and the good food enjoyed. Thank God. It’s a memory that will be placed in the filing cabinet in my brain as a positive one. It will be a foundation of something good that can be built upon. 

Speaking of good memories, I learned in my trauma coaching class that our memories are stored in the seahorse shaped part of our brain called the hippocampus. According to the book Unbroken: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong: And Other Things You Need to Know to Take Back Your Life by MaryCatherine McDonald, PhD our normal integrated memory files contain three primary things: … a coherent narrative of the event, emotional content from that event, and a set of tags or labels that indicate what the event means to us.

It has been very helpful for me to understand how my brain works to store normal and traumatic memories. Because trauma responses are a part of my life, understanding these responses enables me to practice self care and not get lost in shame when I feel activated by a negative memory. I’m learning that good memories are an essential part of our ability to survive and thrive. They enable us to live and function in our daily lives with more confidence in ourselves, others and hope for what is ahead.

Traumatic memories, unlike our normal integrated memories, are not stored in an orderly fashion in the filing cabinet in our brains. They are stored as fragments and are imprinted into our memory because they play a critical role in keeping us safe.  These fragments of memories are disorganized throughout our hippocampus and resurface whenever there is a perceived threat. In my own experience, the tone of a person’s voice,  an expression on someone’s face, or similar circumstances, phrases, sounds or smells can bring up these fragments and cause my brain and body to kick into survival mode. Because our hippocampus is a part of the limbic system of our brains and plays a critical role in our survival responses, when these fragments resurface we can react as if a perceived threat is a real one.

It doesn’t matter how many times we tell ourselves that we need to put the past behind us and just move forward, we cannot just turn off our brain’s survival response system. And we shouldn’t want to either! What our brains are asking us to do is pay attention. Because when we pay attention, we are able to gain an understanding of where the threat is coming from and what we need to do about it. Until we pay attention, we get stuck in a loop of repeating painful cycles.

Until I gained an understanding of what was happening inside my brain when I was triggered, I was at the mercy of my trauma responses. I did whatever I needed to do to cope. I was stuck in an endless loop in my efforts to find relief.

Repeating a traumatic experience or relationship dynamic is a coping technique. All our coping is aimed at regulation, and some of it over time becomes maladaptive and destructive. Whether the result is healthy and productive or unhealthy and destructive, the goal of any coping mechanism is always integration and regulation. Unbroken, Macdonald 

Our brains really are hard wired to keep us safe. Sometimes to a fault.  

…our memory files don’t simply have narrative and emotional content, they also have meaning. If we have foundational life experiences that are abusive, it can mean one of only three things to our brain: there is something wrong with us, the world is terrible and all people are abusive, or the abusers simply did not love us. All these possibilities are tragic and heartbreaking, but the third is perhaps the worst—especially if the abusers were our parents. Unbroken, Macdonald 

I think the hardest thing about living with trauma are the messages that we tell ourselves about who we are and the purpose of our lives.  Because our memories are attached to our sense of meaning, it is far too easy to conclude that we are worthless and without hope. When we believe these things about ourselves we act accordingly. It is a vicious cycle. Sometimes we stay in the cycle because the devil we know is better than the one we don’t. 

Miraculously, it was hope that caused me to see that I was not bad and my life had a purpose. When the toxic pastor retired and a nontoxic pastor became my new boss, I started to see that I could do more than just survive. It was this desire to thrive that brought enough chaos into my destructive cycle and ultimately caused me to take action to stop the vicious cycle.

I don’t think we have any idea of the impact that we have on one another’s lives. Our kindness, compassion, and simply taking the time to listen to each other can literally change another person’s life. It was not the new pastor’s words that made a difference to me. I’d heard hundreds of “good” sermons that didn’t mean a damn thing, because the pastor who preached them behaved in ways that didn’t line up at all with his words. It was this new pastor’s decision to sit down across from me once a week and just ask me about my life. It was his willingness to listen and hold my pain in a safe space and trust me enough to share his own. He treated me like an equal. Not someone beneath him who needed to be told what to do. He became a good friend, and I will always be thankful for that, even though later he chose the system of abuse over me.

For the past decade I have been fighting like hell to survive and find hope in my day to day life. It’s been an uphill battle. But thank God for hope that keeps showing up in the faces of others who care. 

I know I’ve said it before, but I had no idea what was going to happen when I filled a tube with saliva until my mouth was bone dry and stuck it in the mail. The new possibilities and hope that have opened up have blown my mind. 

As much as I’d love to believe that my story will be one of those cheesy Hallmark movies that winds up with me sipping hot chocolate on a horse drawn carriage through the mountains in the snow, with jingle bells playing in the background(sorry, Cousin Eddie;), I know that nothing ever works out that perfectly. Hope is a scary thing especially when things haven’t worked out the way we thought that they would. Reminders of the things we fear most will bring up conflict that can send me reeling back into a Stephen King horror novel. These things will have to be worked through. But that’s what people who care about one another do, they listen and they work through. It is a process. And one that we are not powerless in. Every choice we make can change the course of our lives. Everytime we choose to be honest with ourselves and others we are making progress. 

The loving care of others really can be the wind beneath our wings when we are able to trust it. Trust won’t come easy but with time it will come. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself all the time that you need.  You matter. Your life has meaning and purpose. Don’t give up. There is always hope.

There are tools for hope, tools that remind you that even amidst all the wreckage, hope is still there—gritty and glinting, resilient and steadfast. This is not sunshine-and-rainbow hope. This is the kind of hope that drags itself back to its feet after being sucker punched, spits out a mouthful of blood, maybe a tooth, and keeps going despite its ringing ears and wobbly knees. This is the kind of hope that stands right next to you while you peer into the dark and roiling abyss, takes a deep breath, and says, “Okay. Now what?” Unbroken, Macdonald 

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 NLT

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Understanding and Forgiveness

“It’s not because we are broken. It’s because our understanding of trauma, and of our natural responses to it, is broken.” Unbroken: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong: And Other Things You Need to Know to Take Back Your Life MaryCatherine McDonald

A common symptom for those of us who suffer with PTSD is to avoid people, places and things that remind us of our trauma. Sometimes it is necessary to remove ourselves from the source of trauma in order to heal.  However, it is impossible to remove ourselves from everything that triggers a memory, because in order to do so we’d have to live in cave.

I learned a long time ago that shaming myself for the ways that I have dealt with trauma that comes back up is not helpful or healing. I have coped the best way that I have known how. Some of the ways have been necessary and helpful. Others not so much.  Recovery is a process and one that we need to give ourselves and others a lot of grace in. As Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better.”

After experiencing religious abuse and losing our church family, I spent five years relying mostly on my therapist and a few safe friends and coworkers who understood and helped me cope. I blocked and deleted a lot of friends and family on Facebook, because it was just too painful to see their faces. Looking back, I wish I could have communicated better with these friends and family about what I was dealing with, but I didn’t know how, so I’m trying to do better now.

On a recent episode of The Trauma Tapes, I heard a statistic that said veterans who suffer with PTSD and return from combat actually benefit as much or more from others who have not suffered in the same ways as they have, and who offer understanding despite their lack of it to their specific situation. I was surprised to hear this, because I believed, like many of us do, that on order to feel understood we need to be with others who have suffered in similar ways. It is encouraging for me to learn that this is not the case, because in my experience being a part of survivor groups who have suffered as a result of religious abuse and trauma has been really difficult for me. While I want to be present with others who have suffered in the same way, I find it difficult to because their trauma reminds me so much of my own and in the process I can get retraumatized. So please don’t ever underestimate the power of understanding in helping someone else survive life’s difficulties!

Sometimes navigating the world after trauma can feel like walking through a minefield and looking everywhere we can to avoid another explosion. It has been hard especially because when the wire gets tripped and there is an explosion I beat myself up.  The shame cycle that trauma survivors get in goes like this. Something happens or someone says something and there is a reminder of the pain of the past. Because traumatic memories are not stored in the parts of our brain that hold our regular memories, something as small as a smell, sound, expression on a person’s face or the tone of a voice can bring up a painful reminder. Sometimes we understand where it’s coming from, sometimes we don’t.  All of us have had these experiences at one point or another, because as humans none of us gets out of this world alive without some kind of trauma. However, for someone who has experienced prolonged trauma it is the messages that we tell ourselves about what happened to us that are the most difficult to deal with. When we are triggered, our brains and bodies go into survival mode. The executive functioning part of our brain decreases because all of our energy goes towards keeping us safe. As a trauma survivor, I have learned that when I get in this state that my biggest need is to be kind to myself.  I need to give myself permission to take a break, go sit somewhere by myself and take deep breaths, go on a walk, message a friend or just take out my phone and write what I am feeling.

In today’s world, it doesn’t feel safe to be weak and struggling with something like PTSD. We get a lot of messages that we need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, leave the past behind, and just suck it up.  In religious circles, it is not uncommon to hear when we share about what we are struggling with that we should JUST pray, forgive, and trust in the Lord. I’m not here to argue or make anyone feel bad. But what I am here to say is that reentry into normalcy after trauma is difficult especially when there is a lack of understanding.

As a trauma survivor, I also have a responsibility to keep my expectations of others realistic. I am in the minority living in the southern US when it comes to being a survivor of religious abuse. Most people find comfort in church, reading their Bibles, singing hymns and praying. Because these things offer so many people comfort, it is pretty common to receive encouragement from others that includes Bible verses and offers to pray.  This encouragement comes from a caring place and is not intended to cause harm.  As humans we want to help each other. We pull from the resources that we have available, and for many of us these are spiritual. One of the reasons I am writing this, is to let others know that my reactions to your offer to provide comfort is not personal. It is just something I have to work through and I am. I even attended a church service for the first time in a couple of years on Sunday without being triggered. So it is getting better!

As a trauma recovery coach and someone who has worked in mental health for several years in an administrative capacity, I have learned that sometimes communicating about our mental health needs is difficult to do. In many ways, it would be easier  to have a physical illness that others can see. When I suffered as a result of post partum depression, I felt guilty for not feeling happy about being a new mother. I even overheard someone at work say she doesn’t look happy about being a mom. Thankfully, at the time a friend came along and told me if I fell and broke my arm, I wouldn’t feel guilty, so I shouldn’t feel guilty about the hormonal changes after having a child that were causing me to be depressed. I never forgot what she said, because it gave me so much comfort.

Today, a lot of people are throwing around mental health diagnosises all over the internet. It’s easy to become jaded. It is also easy to get lost in what we are suffering from, especially when we think others don’t understand. There is a time and place for offering advice. Sometimes we need for others to tell us our pain is not who we are. Sometimes we need reminders that God still loves us and works everything together for the good. Sometimes we do need to let go, forgive and move on. But most of the time, we just need someone to listen and love us and recognize that healing is not a one size fits all for everyone. While we all have the same basic needs and similar struggles, we do not all need the same things in the same way, nor do we all heal at the same pace or in the same ways.

My adopted brother passed away a little over a year ago. He was 12 years older than me and was one of my heroes. He worked for over 30 years as a dispatcher at the local police and sheriff’s department. I loved Bobby so much. Even though he didn’t understand a lot of my choices, he and I could always sit and giggle together. And I miss that. He reached out to me when he knew he was dying of cancer.  He had noticed a knot just beneath his chin, but he didn’t go to the doctor quickly enough and by the time they found out it was cancer it was too late.  Thankfully, he sent me a message telling me what was going on a few weeks before he passed away and that he loved me. I tried to make arrangements to see him, but he was gone before I could.  Because of where his funeral was, I was unable to go. I wasn’t surprised, because I hadn’t been able to go to my mother’s or my mother-in-law’s funeral, because of where they were either. I was frozen in fear and shame and I have felt the crushing weight of overwhelming guilt because of this. My brother did not understand the choices I felt I had to make in order to protect myself from being further traumatized. As a policeman who dealt with dangerous situations daily, he just couldn’t see why driving into the town where we grew up was so hard. Didn’t I love my aunt and uncle enough to visit them when they were sick? One of our last phone conversations after my mother passed away resulted in me hanging up the phone on him. He didn’t understand why I couldn’t come to her funeral.  But thankfully he did forgive me.

It’s taken me a long time to forgive myself for the choices I have made to survive,too. But the more I understand about trauma and the effects that it has on our physical bodies and brains, it has become easier. With understanding is forgiveness, and that includes ourselves.  As I begin reentry into relationships with my biological family, you will probably see me posting more about mental health and trauma, because this is how I survive and cope in a healthy way. Maybe it’s messy, and maybe I shouldn’t say so much.  But it could be worse. A lot worse. I’ll gladly be a trainwreck on paper rather than in real life. While others may not understand all that I have and still continue to go through, there are many who do. If you don’t understand, that’s ok. I’m sure there are lots of things I don’t understand about you either. And that’s ok.  Maybe we can just sit and giggle together.

In a Mirror Dimly

When our connection to our parents is impaired in some way, the life force available to us can feel limited. We may feel blocked and constricted, or feel outside the flow of life, as if we’re swimming upstream against the current. Ultimately, we suffer and don’t know why.” Mark Wolyn, It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle

I don’t even know where to begin. So much has happened in a short period of time, and I don’t even know how to get the words out onto the page. Maybe this will make sense and flow. Maybe it’ll just be a bunch a random thoughts on a page. I don’t have a set goal in mind. I just know that I have to write.

There is a picture in my mind of my biological mother. She was so extremly happy to have me in her life again. There hadn’t been a day that had gone by that she hadn’t thought about me, she said. I didn’t want her to feel guilty for giving me up for adoption. I wanted her to know that I was ok. I believed her when she said giving me up for adoption was her only choice at the time. The last thing I ever wanted her to feel was guilty for giving me up. I can’t imagine how hard it was for her to hold me in her arms and take care of me for a few days. I don’t have any doubt that as a child my heart was torn apart when I was separated from this beautiful woman who gave me life.

Because I was a curious child who found my Christmas presents almost every year, it wasn’t a surprise when I ran across my original adoption papers in my parent’s bedroom. The only information my adopted parents had given me about my mother was that she was young and wanted me to have a better life than she was able to give me so she placed me up for adoption. When I unfolded the papers, I was shocked to see there was a different name than the one I had been given. I discovered I was born Dawn Marie. I could not believe that no one had ever given me this important piece of information about myself. I felt betrayed and decided at that time that I would find out more. A couple of years passed, and I became an adult. Life at home with my parents had always felt heavy. I didn’t understand all the reasons why, I just knew I wanted relief. My boyfriend, now my husband, agreed to help me find out more about my biological parents. He drove me to the public records office on or somewhere around my 19th birthday, because that was the age I had to be when the state would allow me to take a look at my birth records.

The whole day was so surreal.  In a New York minute everything can change, the lyrics from a Don Henley song played on an endless cycle inside my head.  I scribbled down the only information the clerk gave me, a name and an address where my biological mother had lived 19 years before.  I will go ahead and say I am impatient and determined, and I’m figuring out I have many ancestors to thank for that, so it wasn’t surprising at all to my boyfriend that I wanted to drive immediately to the address. I knew it was a shot in the dark that she would still be there, but we pulled out the map anyway and found our way there.

I am discovering that there are few coincidences in life. Everything feels like one big tapestry that is woven together to create something beautiful eventually. There just happened to be this precious blonde girl walking down the street directly in front of where my biological mother lived when she gave me up for adoption. We stopped, rolled down the window, and asked her if she knew my biological mother. When this little girl cried out, “That’s my aunt!” I knew I was only moments away from seeing the woman I’d wondered about my whole life.  She gave us her address, and as we pulled away I was shocked by the realization that that little girl was my cousin!  I’m happy to say that she’s just as precious and kind today as she was back then. Who needs biological brothers and sisters when you have cousins as awesome as mine!

My biological mother’s house was only a short distance away. When we knocked at her door, I had no idea what to expect. When I told her who I was, I thought she would faint. She managed to hold herself together and invite us in. In our brains, sometimes strange things happen when we get overwhelmed. I wish now that I could remember more about that day, but it is all a blur. What I do remember feeling was that my mother wanted me.

There’s so much pain around our story. My heart feels crushed everytime I remember our last phone conversation. She wanted me to meet her family at Christmas. I told her I was scared, because my adopted father would be upset if he knew I had connected with her again. She got upset. I got so distraught I hung up on her. I still remember how much I screamed and cried that day.

No truer words have ever been spoken than hurt people hurt people. It wasn’t what either of us set out to do. We were doing the best that we knew how with all of the conflicting emotions going on inside our heads. I never saw her or spoke to her again after that day. And it broke my heart. So much so that the only way I could deal with her memory was try to push her out of my mind. But she never, ever left my heart.

When I went on I typed in her name. I discovered that she still had brothers and sisters and looked them up. It was through one of her sister’s pages that I learned that she had passed away last December in her sleep. It took me a long time to find the courage to read about her life through her sibling’s pages. My mind went to worst case scenario, as it often does, and I assumed that they must hate me for making the decision not to have a relationship with her.

I don’t know know what thought actually made me order the DNA kit off As I spat large amounts of saliva in the test tube, I wondered what the hell was wrong with me. Hadn’t I learned what opening up cans of worms could do? I almost took the kit out of the mailbox, but I decided since I’d paid a hundred dollars for it that I would leave it alone. I also contemplated leaving my profile private where no one could find me.  Ultimately, I made up my mind if I got any hate mail that I’d cut off all contact. I know that all sounds so irrational, but when someone has experienced tremendous losses, there is nothing more frightening than hope, so it’s easier to expect the worst that way at least we won’t be surprised.

The DNA results didn’t come back for another couple of weeks. I was shocked to discover as I clicked on the ancestry map showing the results that I had cousins everywhere some as close as 20 miles away. And these were just the people who had done a DNA test. It is indeed a small world! I narrowed down the search to closer cousins and discovered that there were only three with public profiles on the map. The first one I clicked on was a cousin from Canada. When I saw his face, it’s hard to explain what I felt. Familiar is the closest word to describing it. But still I didn’t reach out even though I felt an urge to.
I have been afraid my whole life of connection. Its always just felt safer to take care of myself. When my parents screamed at one another, I pulled out my notebooks and wrote myself away to somewhere else. I worked hard to stuff my emotions in an effort to keep everyone else happy. I’ve learned quite a bit over the course of my lifetime about hiding from everyone else what has really been going on inside. It’s not surprising that I hid it from myself, too.

I know today that it was being separated from my biological parents that caused me to get down on my knees beside a toxic pastor and ask for a hug, because I was so desperate to feel a connection with someone. I had no idea what was missing in my life. And that’s a very vulnerable and dangerous place to be.

It took every bit of courage I had to start to open up to another man about the pain I felt inside, but this kind hearted cousin in another country let me know he had big shoulders to carry whatever I needed help with. I realized the more I messaged him how lonely I had been for my biological family. It scared me to death. I wondered if I was in another toxic relationship. I wondered what his motives were. But he just kept showing up telling me wild stories about my ancestors and his own life. It is only because he reached out to me that I now know what I was missing out on. And it was only because he was safe, that I allowed myself to trust someone again.

When we make the choice to trust others, we are really making the choice to trust ourselves. Abuse taught me that everything was my fault. It felt safer to lock myself away where I couldn’t hurt anyone else or myself again. I know today that my mother and I have way more in common than I wanted to admit. I was frightened of her because ultimately it was like looking into a mirror.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. I Corinthians 13:12

Love is the only thing that gives us the grace to look into the mirror and see ourselves as we truly are. After communicating with three aunts and one uncle and the same cousin who directed me to my biological mother that day so long ago, I was able to finally look in the mirror and see myself.  And somewhere in my face, I can see my beautiful biological mother smiling back at me.

Rest in peace, Dear Mother. All is well.

If you are an adopted child and are struggling with some of the same things, this video was particularly helpful for me:

Shame, Light and Purgatory

These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom the blackest darkness has been reserved forever.Jude 12-13

There’s a reason why they call shame toxic. Like an oil spill into the ocean, shame wraps itself around everything good and lovely in our lives, stunting our growth, and blocking out the light of the sun. The worst thing it does is give us poisonous messages about who we are, what we are capable of, and why we are here.

This morning I awakened remembering the sweet taste of a honeybun in my mouth. I was a little girl sitting on the sofa in my father’s house. Eating the sweet bread coated in cinnamon and heavy amounts of a thick sugar paste, was a part of what had become my Saturday morning routine that summer.  The memory of my fork digging into the warm goodness is pleasant.  I ate it straight off the fancy metal plate that read Give thanks to the Lord that I had warmed it up on in the toaster oven. I ate anticipating a bike ride to the store just up the road from his house. I loved spending time with my aunt who ran the store most of the time. We would go on and on talking about everything. When whatever fried breakfast meat she had cooked was done, I still remember it tasting better than anything else I’d ever had before. I’m so thankful for the time I got to spend with her. She encouraged me to be curious in a world where too often I was too afraid to speak or ask questions.

Scenes from horror movies felt like home when I was a teenager. In a world where I fought alongside the fictional characters the daily demon of darkness that threatened to steal our souls, these movies provided a strange comfort. What can a child do in abnormal circumstances other than normalize the abnormal?  Stephen King gave me more hope than anyone else at the time. He created a world where evil used a pandemic to almost completely wipe out everyone. But hidden in the cornfields was Mother Abigail, who visited a rag-tag band of survivors in their dreams, and called them to carry out their mission from God where they would take their stand against evil. The wonderful thing about fiction is that no matter how bad things get, in the good stories they usually work out. That’s why I love what Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  So I kept going throughout my childhood and my teenage years surviving on stories and movies that enabled me to face my demons and escape temorarily. Hoping that at some point the monsters would be slain and hell would end.

I just thought when I found my way to the church that hell had ended, but it had only just begun. Some of the things I believed about the church were just my way of trading a horror movie for a fairy tale. I believed the monsters were defeated and that we would live happily ever after. But then as winter neared, the dying leaves of autumn fell off the trees and winter finally came.  I  believed hope was lost until he showed up. He slipped into our lives unnoticed promising springtime rains and new growth.

When I was just a toddler, my mother said on vacations I ran away screaming from the ocean. I was so terrified I would not even stick my toe in. But when I got a little older, it was my favorite place in the whole world to be. I often dreamed about the ocean, and it became my safe place. Turned over on my side, with only a blanket to cover my shame, I imagined myself on the ocean being gently rocked back and forth. In the same room beside the door, there was a newspaper clipping of the Footprints poem hanging on the wall. Every time I entered or left the room where nightmares came true, there was a reminder that God was carrying my soul.

I wanted so much to believe that he was good even though I knew that Jesus told us not to trust what was in man. Because I know how easy it is to get swept away in an ocean of pain, even as I write this, I do not condemn. But there is no denying that the wild waves around him foamed up with toxic shame.

My soul has wandered in the darkness for too long seeking desperately for the light. I think I’m finally seeing it, but not in the place at all I expected to.  St. Catherine of Genoa said, “My deepest me is God.”  St. Catherine was an Italian saint and mystic who after realizing how much God loved her dedicated the rest of her life to serving others who were suffering. It’s interesting to note that St. Catherine did not believe in purgatory in the same way many others did. The sufferings of purgatory, she believed, are the manifestations of God’s love. She talked about life here on earth where “rust which is sin, covers souls, and … is burnt away by fire, the more it is consumed, the more the soul responds to God. … As the rust lessens and the soul is opened to the divine rays, happiness grows” (“Treatise on Purgatory,” St. Catherine of Genoa). Catherine reasoned that, except for heaven, there is no greater happiness than found in purgatory. While not dismissing the spiritual suffering, she saw purgatory as a place or condition we enter into knowing it will lead to God; it is a stepping stone to heaven.  Catherine of Genoa, Wikipedia

I love the words of Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.For a long time, I tried to cover up my cracks. Toxic shame whispered in my ear that I was broken and would never amount to anything. It said that if others saw how badly I was broken, they could never love me. But thank God, I saw the light shining through the cracks. 

I’ve been reading an astounding book by MaryCatherine McDonald, Ph.D. titled Unbroken: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong: And Other Things You Need to Know to Take Back Your Life, and it has helped me to understand that those of us who have suffered and survived trauma are not broken even though sometimes we feel like we are. Especially when we get activated by so many things. But we don’t need to shame ourselves for these responses, because every response is about survival because that’s what our bodies are designed to do; keep us alive. I read recently in another helpful book by Mark Wolyn It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle that when we resist looking at our woundings that we often protract the very pain we are trying to avoid

I read it took Leonard Cohen a decade to write Anthem. He was in a process just like St. Catherine of Genoa and the rest of us of trying to reconcile all that has happened in our lives. Sometimes it’s just too much to look at. But sometimes the light and love of God comes shining through. And what a relief when it finally does. I’ve come to the conclusion if this is purgatory, then I can’t wait for what is to come.


The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Ah, the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove, she will be caught again
Bought and sold, and bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah, and the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
They’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
But you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart
To love will come
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

Source: Musixmatch

Songwriters: Leonard Cohen

Anthem lyrics © Stranger Music Inc.

Adoption, DNA, and God’s Plan

A child looks to her mother for everything. Totally dependent on her for every need. What did I see when I looked at my mother’s face? Did she smile back at me? Or did I know even as I was in her womb that she was going to give me away? There has been this underlying fear of abandonment in my heart for as long as I can remember. Especially when I could tell that my adoptive parents were upset with me. They were upset a lot. Life was not kind to them. Nor had my adopted father been kind to me. I’ll never understand why he did what he did. I won’t even try. It is too harmful to revisit the parts of my story that my brain still won’t allow me to remember all of.

I think about the world we live in sometimes. So much of what we are bombarded with on TV and the news is not helpful or healing to our connections with one another. Our harsh judgments around anything sexual are especially detrimental. Even the church is obsessed. The first verses I remember coming to mind as a preteen exploring my own sexual identity were those concerning our bodies being a temple of the holy spirit and feeling ashamed. Even though sex is an important part of who we are as humans and creates a lasting bond with those whom we love, there are many other bonds that make up who we are.

Because I am adopted, I have spent a lot of time recently reading about familial bonds. The other day I came across an article about adopted children reconnecting with the families that gave them up for adoption. I learned that the same emotions that a baby feels for her mother which cause them to bond with her will often come up when we reconnect with long-lost family. Why do we need this bond? A lot of it is about survival. When I had cockatiels, I read that they eat and sleep together because being together allows them to look out for one another. I rehomed my cockatiel recently because she couldn’t stand to be without me and was driving me crazy chirping. The family I gave her to had other birds and more time for her. I got a picture of her the other day. Her new owner said she and her boyfriend cockatiel were menaces. I laughed. They looked happy and that made me feel happy.

I believe we humans are a flock, too. But the hurts in our lives have a way of driving us apart. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We are supposed to look out for one another and keep each other safe.  When we are isolated, we are vulnerable to attack. In our world right now, we so desperately need this message. Sometimes loneliness makes us desperate and we chirp a lot and drive one another crazy.

I recently reconnected with some of my biological family on It has been an emotional rollercoaster ride ever since I opened the first message from a cousin in Canada who started to tell me stories about family and ancestors I haven’t known anything about. It’s been one of the most helpful and healing things I’ve experienced in a long time, but it’s also scared the hell out of me. So many emotions. I’ve felt as if I might be drowning in the ocean of them just off the coast of Newfoundland where my ancestors are from. It’s been so absolutely overwhelming. But this experience has also been monumental in helping me to understand so much about why I was so vulnerable to being abused by a pastor several years ago. As flock beings, we need one another to feel safe. I did not feel safe with the family who adopted me.  Even though my mother, brother, aunts, and cousins treated me like I was one of them, my father’s abuse and being given up for adoption created a huge void that put me in a vulnerable place.

I found my biological parents for the first time when I was 19. My mother was so happy to have met me and wanted to pick up where we had left off. My biological father wanted me in his life as well. Even today it is hard to express everything that I felt reconnecting with them back then. I had lived most of my life in survival mode when I met them. Every alarm bell started to sound inside my brain. It felt like the house was on fire, and I needed to get out. Looking back, I think I wanted to make the choice to get out before they abandoned me. I didn’t think I would survive being rejected by the people who gave me life, so I walked away because at least that meant that I would never know if they could love me. Thankfully, I reconnected with my biological father a few years before he died. I didn’t connect with my biological mother, because she had let me know that her heart couldn’t take losing me again. She had asked that if I didn’t want a relationship to stay away. I was too confused to be committed, so I stayed away to protect us both. I learned after I joined that my biological mother passed away last December. It was too late for me to tell her I loved her. But I’ve had a deep sense lately that somehow she’s behind orchestrating the healing that has been happening inside my brain right now.  This might not make a lot of sense to those who are not struggling with attachment wounds, but I think this is important information for anyone who is suffering in similar ways. When I reconnected with my adopted father, my emotions were like a tidal wave. I didn’t want to leave his side ever again. He felt these emotions, too, so much so that his wife was afraid he was going to run away with me. I had no idea what to do with these emotions. It took me reconnecting with a cousin in Canada and being trauma informed, for the planetary stars to finally line up and for me to be able to comprehend what happened to me when I met my biological father, an abusive pastor, and my distant cousin. When our brains are missing those connections that we needed as a baby with our mother, our brains don’t stop looking for them. They are a big missing piece of what makes us whole as a human.  When a baby feels this attachment with her parents, it ensures that she stays close to them. She cries when she needs something. She smiles and waits for her parents to smile back. Her nervous system feels at peace when she’s given the assurance that she is loved and belongs. In a healthy bond, there’s never any doubt about where these emotions come from. It’s the love we feel for our parents. It’s one of the most beautiful and natural things in the world.

On The Trauma Tapes podcast recently, I heard a story about a soldier who was worn out and hungry and smelled another human being on fire. In the podcast, they shared how this soldier carried years of shame because when he smelled another human burning his mouth began to water. He was hungry and his brain interpreted the smell as meat. As absolutely unbelievable as that may sound, this was a normal response and not one that said anything about who he was. It was all about survival. When we are in survival mode all of energies move towards keeping us alive. The prefrontal cortex of our brains which enables us to make logical decisions is knocked offline when we feel we are in danger. Our bodies are made for survival and this was simply a normal reaction for someone who was starving to death. The soldier didn’t understand what happened and years after that experience he was still feeling shame for the hunger he felt.  Only when he understood that it was all about his body’s survival response, was he able to believe that he wasn’t a monster and be set free from the shame.

Attachment wounds can manifest themselves in similar ways. As adults sometimes starving for connection, there is an attraction that pulls us towards another person we sense a connection with. It’s the same part of the brain working that causes us to bond with a mate. Another layer of the complicated onion of my own life, is those of us with sexual abuse often times grow up with a belief about ourselves that there is something wrong with us. Sexual abuse sometimes becomes our identity and we live our lives waiting to bring out the worst in another person. It can also draw us towards dark connections that are bad for our soul. When we don’t understand the impact that abuse has had on our nervous system, we can carry dark toxic beliefs about ourselves that crush and smother our souls. Even today this is so hard to write about. But I am reminding myself that I never did anything to ask for the abuse from my adopted father or the others who abused me. Their behaviors were always about them and never about me. But what I believed about what they were doing was toxic. And caused me to believe that I was toxic, too. But here’s the thing, I wasn’t and I’m not today.  All I ever truly wanted was to be loved and bond with those who loved me. And that’s completely normal.

A beautiful memory has been restored to my brain since I reconnected with a cousin. The emotions I’ve had around my conversations with this relative have caused me to do what good mental health professionals have taught me, and that is honor these emotions and understand where they are coming from rather than resist them. The best time of my life was when I spent a few days with my biological father. We ate Cajun food, went to a basketball game, bowling and and even smoked a cigarette together. When I was with him, I knew it was where I was supposed to be. The days went by way too fast until it was finally time for us to drive back to my car an hour away. While we drove down the interstate together we listened to Barry Manilow. A love of his music was something we had in common. For years I have been too ashamed to talk about the emotions I felt for my biological father, when I laid my head on his lap and we cried together. Leaving him was the hardest thing I ever did. The love I felt for him was a tidal wave of glorious good. My connection with him caused a missing part of my soul to be filled. It was normal, natural and completely pure. But as I said before, we live in a sex obsessed culture where even the most beautiful things can become tarnished. When my biological father got back home a few hours late, his wife had her bags packed. She was so terrified of the bond he had with a young girl he barely knew that she thought he was going to run away with me.  Maybe that sounds crazy, but I understand why his wife would feel that way. A bond as strong as the one that was happening is a change that would be scary for anyone. But neither of us knew what to do with her reaction. My mind went to a dark place. I had always deep down believed I was broken, and that I brought out the worst in others. I didn’t even know what love was. I didn’t know the bond I felt for him was exactly what I’d needed since I was a baby removed from the ones who gave life to me. I spent 3 months in foster care before I went to live with my adopted parents. That’s a lot for a little nervous system to take in, especially when we are made for safety and belonging. I think the most important thing for me or any other adopted kid to remember is that none of this was ever something we had control over. It is something every human being needs.

I cried for the first time in a long time a couple of days ago when I realized the emotions I was feeling towards a complete stranger were normal under the circumstances. I was learning so much about my mother, my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins I never knew I had. I just happened to have a lot in common with this cousin that I met. A kind hearted empathetic soul who reached out to let me know where I came from.  The belonging that comes from having things in common with our families is something every child needs to know.

On a side note, I don’t know what’s ahead in my relationships with family that I didn’t grow up knowing. Lots of families reconnect after spending years separated by adoption and decide it’s more than they want to sort through. We all have our own lives now, and it might just be good enough for all of us to know that the other members of our flock are doing ok. I’m trying to take it as it comes and trust my Creator with what’s ahead.

For those of you who have been abused by a pastor, I want to say first and foremost, loud and clear, it was not your fault. You are not broken. You are not toxic. It was not supposed to be the way it was. There is no higher calling in life than  to care for God’s children, especially those widows and orphans who have big missing pieces in their lives where their loved ones used to be. It is normal and natural for us to want to bond with those who are called to help take care of our souls. There is nothing abnormal about it, unless the person giving the care is seeking to fill a void in their own life by taking advantage of you. Sigmund Freud called the compulsions of human beings seeking to fill voids in their lives in unhealthy ways demonic. I certainly believe that evil takes advantage of our desperation by planting all sorts of lies about our identities inside our minds. It also works to make twisted meanings of what is really happening that warp and distort the love of God. I am not wise enough to know all the ways these things happen, but I know I lost a lot of my soul when I formed a trauma bond with a dangerous man. I looked in the mirror and did not recognize who was looking back at me. It’s taken years of therapy, books, podcasts, sermons and working in mental health and being training as a trauma coach to finally see that there was never anything wrong with that girl in the mirror that the right kind of love couldn’t help. Thankfully, something inside of me never stopped me from looking for the answers to make me more whole. I like to believe that that something inside of me was the intricate strands of many ancestors who have suffered and survived, lived and loved and have driven me to do the same. 

Don’t give up on your pursuit for hope and healing. God and your ancestors are closer than you think. Also, if you struggle with these types of wounds, trauma informed therapy can make a big difference in giving help, healing and hope. ❤️

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