How finding my authentic self transformed my writing – and my life

 

Today I welcome my good friend James Prescott to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. He is incredibly honest about his own journey, which also gives real insight into the struggle with authenticity that writers can have, especially when chasing after recognition. Thank you James for your honesty!

Authentic.

It’s a word which gets banded around a lot nowadays. Indeed, it’s been used so much that now it’s become a word associated with jargon, with anyone using it in relation to themselves, often being labelled as inauthentic.

But authenticity is needed more than ever.

LOSING INTEGRITY

As a writer, with the saturation of platform building, the urgent need for all authors to ‘brand’, and build a following, and marketing intruding into the writing world more and more, a writer I need to keep my eyes open to any lack of integrity and honesty in my work.

But there was a time when I lost my authenticity – as a writer, and as a result, as a person. And it came from this need to please, this desperation for success, for followers.

I had been writing for a while, and enjoyed blogging. I toyed with wanting more, but had never pushed for it. Then I did a writing course which challenged me to step up, be more professional, and to write an e-book, a manifesto, and make it public.

 

The promise, the guarantee which was dangled out in front of me, was lots of people subscribing to my blog, and ultimately a book contract. Given I had no followers at the time, it was beyond anything I could imagine.

And it triggered my then fragile ego, and gave it life. In time, I began to lose my soul. My writing lost focus, lost its truth. I was more focused on good graphics, comments and titles than great blog posts – and I didn’t even know what my voice really was.

I look back at that time disappointed in myself. I was more concerned with numbers, with stats, than creating great, honest work. And I’d lost myself in the process too. The whole image I was giving to the world, I knew wasn’t true. This impacted every single area of my life.

When I lost my authenticity, I almost didn’t know who I was anymore.

I was wearing a mask, not even knowing who I was underneath.

TAKING ACTION

And once good friends confirmed this to me, I had to take action. It couldn’t go on this way. So I made an ultimately life-changing decision.

I decided to stop writing publicly. For as long as it took for me to find my voice.

For as long as it took to find my integrity.

For as long as it took to find myself again.

So I wrote for myself on a private blog, every day for 15 minutes. Free-writing. No agenda, no plan, no structure, no editing. As time went on, it was something I began to look forward to. It saved me so much energy I’d used worrying about promoting work, or publishing blog posts.

Slowly, but surely, I began to notice many of these posts were all pointing to a particular direction. Similar themes were emerging. Themes around creativity, identity, calling, and being true to yourself. What it meant to be an authentic writer.

Suddenly, words were pouring out of me. I wrote about 10 ‘proper’ blog posts in a short space of time, all unpublished of course. It became the most creative, most enjoyable period I’ve had as a writer.

And I felt more alive, more myself than I’d ever felt in my life.

I felt like me again. In fact, I knew I’d connected with my true self.

RECONNECTED

When the time came to publish publicly again, I was reluctant. But I now knew I had something worthwhile to share. And I was going to share it, not for anyone else, but for me. Because it was who I was.

This material poured out into an e-book. I launched and promoted it, not expecting anything back and not even needing any major response anymore. I didn’t care. And strangely, it ended up being my most successful piece of work.

But the point of it all was – I was myself again. I’d connected with my true self. I’d taken off the mask and found who I really was.

And that’s what being authentic is all about. It’s about connecting with your truest self. Having integrity in how you live your life.

When you find that, it impacts every area of your life. Work. Faith. Relationships. Health.

So today, have the courage to take off your masks and be who you truly are. Tell the truth of your story.

From my experience, you’ll never have any cause to regret it.

James Prescott is a writer, podcaster and writing coach from Sutton, near London. He is the author of numerous books including Dance Of The Writer – The Beginners Guide To Authentic Writing, and Mosaic Of Grace. He has written for the Huffington Post and is a ‘Top Writer’ on creativity and writing on Medium, as well as hosting the weekly Poema Podcast. You can access all his work at jamesprescott.co.uk and follow him on Twitter at @JamesPrescott77

The long and winding road

I am delighted to welcome Fiona Lloyd, author of the intensely honest, moving and funny The Diary of a (Trying to be Holy) Mum to my blog. I had the pleasure of proofreading it, and can thoroughly recommend it. Here, she explains how writing has always been a part of her life – and details the journey towards becoming a published author…

I was 10 when I self-published my first book: a dozen or so of my own poems (written out in my best handwriting), with pencilled illustrations and a cover purloined from an old calendar. I was immensely proud of myself.

Fast-forward a few years into my teens, and I had titles in my head for several more books. Some even made it onto paper, although I never seemed to get much beyond the first page. As I grew up, my dreams faded: I got a sensible job (in teaching), and settled down to married life followed by – at a respectable interval – three children.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that the idea of writing began to niggle at me again. I started work on a non-fiction book, aimed at helping people to grow closer to God, but my prose was stilted and formal, and relied far too heavily on quotes from other books I had read.

Then one afternoon, while doing the school run, the phrase ‘the day it all went wrong’ drifted into my head. This triggered off all sorts of questions in my mind. Who was talking? What had happened to make it such a bad day? And what were the consequences? Gradually, the character of a flustered mum, trying to do her best (but often failing) formed in my head.

WRITING FROM EXPERIENCE

As a young mum, I frequently felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of looking after three small children (much as I loved them). It appeared as if everyone else knew exactly what to do: I thought I was the only one whose toddler had tantrums in the supermarket, and whose children who refused to eat more than one variety of vegetable. If I tried to set time aside to pray, it was pretty much guaranteed that I would be snoring 30 seconds later. Worse still, there always seemed to be plenty of people around to tell me I wasn’t doing it right.

By the time I got to child number three, I was older and maybe a little wiser. I could see that other mums often struggled with similar issues, leaving them lonely and discouraged. My book started to take shape, inspired by the things I knew that I and others had wrestled with. I hoped that if it ever got to the stage of being read by other young mums it would help them feel less isolated.

GAINING CONFIDENCE IN THE WRITING PROCESS

By now, I had plenty of ideas in my head, but lacked confidence to develop them into a full narrative. I tackled other (shorter) writing projects, with varying degrees of success. I joined the Association of Christian Writers, finding valuable advice and supportive friendships. Still – after several years – my words petered out around the 5,000 mark: I found I spent more time editing the work I’d already done than adding new material.

What eventually got things moving was my decision to take part in NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in November 2014. I knew I was unlikely to hit their proposed target of 50,000 words in a month…but I did manage 20,000. I was delighted: I was also reinvigorated. I knew I needed a more defined story-arc, so I spent my work commutes having lengthy conversations with my protagonist, Becky, about what was going on in her life. My word count crept steadily up until August 2015, when – after much reworking and tea-drinking – my first draft was completed.

SUBMITTING MY WORK TO A PUBLISHER

One of the advantages of having spent such a long time on it was that I knew (from conversations with other writers) that several rewrites would be required before it was ready to go off to a publisher. I quite enjoy a bit of nit-picking, so I spent many happy hours deleting unnecessary or over-used words – ‘just’, ‘actually’ and ‘but’ were popular culprits. Over the next year I tweaked and re-tweaked. A few kind friends read the manuscript for me, resulting in yet more amendments. Even after I’d incorporated their suggestions, I agonised about whether I’d really got it to the point where it was ready for submission.

This raised another issue: where to send it? I’d written a clearly Christian work of fiction – because I wanted to encourage Christian mums – only to discover that there are very few publishers taking on such books nowadays. I wondered about going down the self-publishing route – and I have friends who’ve done this very successfully – but I wasn’t sure I felt able to take on such a huge task.

It was through a writing friend that I found out about Instant Apostle, a small – but growing – Christian publishing company. At the time, they’d just taken on a second novel from her, and she knew that they were looking to publish some more overtly Christian books. I did some last-minute fine-tuning, dithered for a few weeks, prayed like mad, and finally sent off my first three chapters plus synopsis to Instant Apostle.

BEING ENCOURAGED

A few weeks later, an email pinged into my in-box: they liked what they’d seen – could I send the rest of the manuscript? Could I? Could I?? I’d pressed ‘send’ almost before I’d finished reading the email. This time, the wait was much shorter. On 17 May 2017, I received a phone call: Instant Apostle wanted to publish my book! I’ve been very pleased with the support they’ve given me, and I think the finished product – now entitled The Diary of a (Trying to be Holy) Mum – looks amazing. I’m trying to keep both feet on the floor, and my prayer is still very much that young mums (and others) will be encouraged by it.

So, I’ll leave the closing thoughts to another friend who has just read the book.

‘It’s so reassuring,’ she told me, ‘to know that I’m not the only one who struggles.’

I can’t ask for more than that.

Fiona Lloyd is vice-chair of the Association of Christian Writers, and is married with three grown-up children. Her first novel, The Diary of a (trying to be holy) Mum, is being published by Instant Apostle on 18 January 2018. Fiona has also had short stories published in Woman Alive and Writers’ News, and has written articles for Christian Writer and Together Magazine. Fiona works part-time as a music teacher, and is a member of the worship-leading team at her local church. You can find her on Twitter: @FionaJLloyd & @FionaLloyd16

 

Mask-wearing, role-playing and being myself

Today I welcome Peter Martin to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. He talks candidly about how, when he first started working, he tried to copy those he admired, and also about when it is and isn’t appropriate to wear a mask…

When I fell off the conveyor belt that is education I graduated with a degree in Youth and Community work but at the age of 23 had little life experience to complement it. I found myself quickly in a part-time role where I was in front of groups of young people leading group work programmes focusing on personal development. It was sink or swim time!

As a graduate I weaved together all my experiences of role models and taught myself to mimic them. I remember thinking of Mr Farrell in our church who when he felt the need to issue a command spoke like he was about to go through you. Yet he was popular with us as everyone knew the boundaries and knew he was in charge. It was no surprise then that when I started to work within a juvenile detention centre in Dublin I would occasionally ask myself: ‘what would Mr Farrell do’? As I got my answer I would put a mask on, role-play, and, much to my surprise, it worked!

Fast forward a few years and a few different posts and I found myself in management. As I sat at the board table was the real me the upper half of my body that spoke with authority and fairness or was it my lower half that trembled?

I currently hold the post of youth and children’s coordinator for a local church. I am now frequently before our youth and children and I’m funny, loud, energetic, warm and often mischievous. However as someone who suffers from chronic fatigue and who is no stranger to anxiety am I being me, have I been authentic or am I just wearing a mask?

The answer is I am being both, as opposed to either-or. Sometimes it’s appropriate to wear a mask and sometimes it isn’t. The important thing is to know who you are. To know when you should wear a mask and when you shouldn’t. Be aware that these are traitorous waters full of the dangerous temptations of believing your own hype.

 TRYING TO COPY SOMEONE ELSE

One of my heroes can be found in the Youth For Christ (YFC) institution that is John Duncan (JD) an old colleague of mine. This man has held local, national and international posts and exceled at them all. He has energy to burn and vision and creativity to give away by the truck load.

In the early days of our working relationship as we grafted shoulder to shoulder I tried to copy his persona and to keep up with his unbelievable pace. This was a BIG mistake as I quickly wore out and the grumpy dog in me that surfaces when tired all too often came to the surface. Worse than that, Youth For Christ didn’t need a second JD!

As it turned out what they needed was someone to come behind the visionary and after the dust settled to gently put in place a plan to achieve the vision. The relief I felt as I dropped the duplicate JD mask, and found my own role, was incredible. I was startled to realise that what YFC needed and why the Lord wanted me in this post was to be me, not him.

NOT ALWAYS A BLACK AND WHITE ISSUE

Experience teaches me that there are times when wearing a mask is a necessity and there are times when it is clearly not and can even be dangerous. I guess as with many things in life the main question is around why you would want to wear a mask.

You are called to be the best you can be and, while you do that, you are also asked to process and deal with what’s not good within you. To deliver that with an accurate self-awareness is real authenticity and should be nurtured.

 

Peter Martin lives on the Ards peninsula of County Down, Northern Ireland. He is married with two dogs – Cuba, a big friendly German Shepherd, and Lola, a busy Border Terrier who thinks she runs the house – and may just be right! Peter has his own blog, which can be found at www.mcfinkle.com

Embracing the broken

I am delighted to welcome Liz Carter to my blog, as she continues the ‘Unmasked: stories of authenticity’ series. This will be the last post before I take a little break for the holidays – but will be continuing with this series in the New Year. Liz is incredibly honest here and I resonated with a  lot of what she shared, including the pressure felt as a pastor’s wife and also feeling the need to learn to lament well…

‘How do you feel now?’

I stand there, my head bowed, my body stiff as I contain the pain raging inside. What do I say?

‘Are you feeling better?’

I bite down on my lip. ‘A little, yes, thank you.’

But inside I am berating myself. That’s not true, is it? I don’t feel a little better at all. If anything, I feel worse, the pain made somehow more obvious by the prayer. I feel just that bit smaller, that bit more invisible, the real me hiding behind the reality that once again, I am not healed. Once again, I have let somebody down, someone who wanted to pray with me, to see me set free from the pain which holds me in fierce bonds.

You see, this is my mask. This is the face I put on. It’s the face I have put on all my life, growing up with a degenerative lung disease. And it’s the face I sometimes put on with God, too.

It’s the ‘I’m fine’ face. It’s the words I say when folk ask me if I am better yet, the smile I smile when people tell me I look so well. It’s the false mask of pretence; a way to escape being too real, because sometimes it’s just too hard. Too exhausting to reveal my inner self with all its pain and loneliness, enclosed in a body which keeps me caged from the world for so much of the time. So instead of sharing my unmasked self, I nod. I smile. I’m fine, thank you.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to hide my feelings. Growing up with this disease meant that I had to put a mask on every day, to face the world, to be a person who deserved a place in the world. If I took my mask off, I thought I was showing that I wasn’t good enough, after all. That I was too weak and helpless. Too pathetic to be of use, because my body always let me down. The easiest way was to hide the fact that I was in pain. To pretend that all was well.

I started doing this in church, as well. I thought that people didn’t want to hear that I had another infection or felt too exhausted to go out of my house or that pleurisy was racking me yet again. I thought that I wasn’t displaying God’s power at work in my life if I was sick. I thought people wanted to hear bright and positive stuff.

But I was wrong.

People long to see authenticity

They yearn to see people being more honest, more open about their struggles. And when I share what I am really feeling, how I am struggling, then that brings me to a better place, as well. A place where I don’t have to pretend, anymore, a place where I don’t have to be lonely in my pain, because others have taken some of it and held it along with me.

Unmasking is scary. It’s risky. It doesn’t always go down so well, either. There have been the times I’ve tried to be more real with folk and they haven’t wanted to know. The shutters have come down, the glances over my shoulder more marked, the barriers erected. The platitudes start: ‘I’m sure you’ll be better soon.’ ‘You just need a bit of fresh air/exercise/aloe vera.’ Some people don’t want to be faced with the reality of my pain.

But there are actually far fewer of these people than I once told myself. Once upon a time, I felt I could only be open with my closest friends and family. Now, I’ve found that saying how I really feel can open conversations in the most wonderful way. I was talking to a lovely lady the other day – I don’t know her very well, so was all ready to say ‘fine, thanks,’ when the question came. But I caught myself, and told her that I was feeling fairly broken, actually, and that this year had been really bad for me, with multiple infections and a hospital admission. Instead of the conversation continuing on the superficial level it had started with, it got deep quickly, because this lady was released to speak about stuff going on for her, too. My decision to be real meant a much more profound connection. A healing conversation.

The perfect parson’s wife

I’m especially aware of this as a vicar’s wife. Perhaps there’s a script running somewhere in my mind telling me what a vicar’s wife should look like and act like, something which says that a vicar’s wife is always impeccably presented, and coolly calm and confident. I couldn’t possibly show folk who I really am, because that wouldn’t be appropriate.

I know that script is really a load of rubbish. It’s an archaic leftover of old novels I’ve read featuring distant and collected parson’s wives (we’re talking Austen and Bronte here.) It’s nothing like the reality of living life with honesty and integrity – which leads to messiness.

But messy is good. Messy is important, and real. Standing in coffee time after church with tears running down my cheeks means an unmasking which gives others permission to give of themselves, too. It means a sharing of lives marred with brokenness, an honesty about suffering which still crushes us, an authenticity about those times we just don’t get it.

Because a life lived with God does not mean a life lived without pain. And if we can learn to be honest about the pain then we can reach out to each other so much more. We can listen to one another and make the world a less lonely place, even if for only a moment or two. We can reach out and catch hold of the work of the Spirit among us as God brings healing through our willingness to open ourselves up. Even when it hurts.

We’re allowed to shout at God

I’ve had to go through a journey of being real with God, as well as with others. I got too good at pretending that everything was fine. That I didn’t mind when others were healed and I wasn’t, that I was good with it, that it was okay because I wanted those people to be happy. I told God that I was fine with my sick body if that was who I was supposed to be. I plastered a grin on my face and carried on.

Some of this was authentic. I found joy in worship, and felt that I had come to a place of acceptance of where I was. I’d lived with it forever, after all, so had known no other way, so perhaps it was easier for me than for others who suddenly get sick or become disabled. God was so much more than my feelings, and I found that I could take hold of contentment in God’s presence rather than in my circumstances.

But in all of this, I forgot to actually acknowledge my feelings.

I forgot that it is important to tell God how we feel.

I forgot about lament.

The Bible is an incredible model of how to be authentic. Right through all the books, we see broken people responding to God from out of their brokenness. We see people shouting at God, moaning, weeping, screaming. We see people battering their fists into God’s chest.

We even see Jesus in the deepest grief, sweating drops of blood as He asks God to take this great burden away from him. We see in Jesus’ desperation the most profound authenticity, an honesty not afraid to express His fears and His pain, while always saying Yet not my will. Yet not my will, but yours be done. Jesus had no need to put on a mask before His Father, no need to say that He was fine thank you, that He was really okay with what He knew He had to do.

Because He really wasn’t okay. He was sweating blood.

In the psalms, the writers so often share their brokenness in the most raw words, ragged and haunting poetry which expresses their pain. How long, O Lord, how long?… Why, my soul, are you so downcast?… Do not hide your face from me! The writers don’t hold back from God, because they know that God can take their grief and their shame, their agony and their hatred. They give us a model for how we can be genuine in our prayers. How we can share the depths of our hearts with God, even when those depths are so very dark, because there is no darkness that cannot be lit up with God’s dazzling light. Those psalmists always move on from laying out their brokenness to trusting in God, even when things look bleak. And it’s in their active decisions to remember God’s work in their life and to praise God anyway that they find their healing, that they find their mourning turned to dancing and their lives lifted from the pit.

Their unmasking leads to their healing.

This is my experience, too. Pretending does nothing, before God and before people, because pretending leads to superficiality, and there is little point to that. Honesty – even in all its raw brutality – does so much more. It lays bare truth and its vulnerability speaks to battered hearts and crushed lives.

‘Are you feeling better, now?’ the person praying asks of me.

I begin to speak, but stop myself for a second.

‘I’m still in pain. So much pain. Why can’t God take my pain away?’

And we weep together. We weep in the waiting and in the brokenness, but our weeping is seasoned with hope, the hope we both know, the reason we keep on asking.

The hope that will never let us go.

Liz lives in Shropshire with her Rev. other half and two teens. She loves writing more than most other things and blogs here. Her Bible study book about Beauty and the Beast is available here or you can get an e-copy for free on her blog. Liz’s first book is about contentment living in a broken world and will be published by IVP in 2018.

Post-natal depression unmasked

Wow. I am constantly being overwhelmed by the honesty and vulnerability shown by those who have agreed to guest blog for my Unmasked: stories of authenticity series. Today, Helen Hodgson bravely shares about the horror of experiencing postnatal depression. Having experienced it myself I resonate with the power and truth behind her words. Thank you Helen for sharing so openly. I’m sure Helen joins me in praying that her post helps anyone reading who is suffering from postnatal depression. Please know that you are not alone…

‘Can’t you just smile and put your worries to the back of your mind?’

‘Maybe you should just drag yourself out of bed and you will feel better.’

‘You just need to enjoy them while they’re young – the time flies by so fast!’

‘You’re just tired. Everything will be better when you have some sleep.’

‘Just pray more. That should do the trick.’

‘Haven’t you got enough faith?’

‘It’s a choice, surely?’

Post-natal depression is still so misunderstood and such a taboo, particularly in church circles. My unmasking involves not simply writing about my experiences, but including some photographs that now send shivers down my spine. Pictures explain more than words ever could. My memories from this time are patchy at best and raw at their worse.

Just over 16 years ago, my beautiful boy was born after a traumatic emergency Caesarean and my first words on seeing him were ‘is that mine?’ This baby was like an alien to me and I was already a disappointment. I’d wanted a water birth. Instead, I had a general anaesthetic while they tore this child from my body. I didn’t meet him until I had come round from surgery. I’d had expectations of being the kind of mother that you read about in Enid Blyton books. This wasn’t part of my plan.

No amount of antenatal classes or well-meaning advice could have prepared me for the weeks and months of utter darkness that followed.

Post-natal depression took over as irrational and scarily angry thoughts swirled through my mind. I resented the intrusion of this screaming baby who never slept. I cared for his daily needs but I didn’t feel this mythical surge of love for him I was meant to feel. I watched other new mums cooing over their babies and felt jealous. Instead of nursery rhymes, I sung songs of destruction over him and thought about how to escape. I was so very lonely. I couldn’t connect with my baby and I couldn’t connect with other new mums who seemed so in love with their little ones.

Popping to the shops became a nightmare.

‘Isn’t he just a joy!’ An older lady cooed over him

I was horrified. I couldn’t understand how someone could even feel that way.

‘No.’ I replied. ‘He’s a monster.’

She quickly moved away from me as all I could think about was how this child had ruined my life.

Some days I raged and cried. Some days I numbly got on with the tasks in hand. I knew I had already failed and he was only months old. I was never going to be the mum he needed, so what was the point in trying? Actually, he would be better off without me.

Being part of a church only intensified my feelings of isolation and guilt. Well-meaning people gave me platitudes and I stood by as other mothers seemed to do a far better job than me. I watched them smiling and laughing and wondered why I couldn’t feel any connection with my child. I didn’t know where God was. I knew that I believed He was good and that He loved me. But I was failing Him too. He’d given me this son but I wasn’t able to nurture him the way I knew I was supposed to.

Support came from my health visitor and a few friends, but cups of tea and putting on brave smiles never removed the emptiness, anger, guilt and sense of failure I felt.

It was only after a dramatic sleepless night where my anger spilled over onto my precious baby that my kind and patient husband marched me to the GP. I was prescribed anti-depressants and counselling. By that point I was so numb and so desperate that I followed like a sheep.

And slowly, slowly, over time, the days began to be less dark. I discovered I could find joy in small things again. I could sing songs of hope and faith over him. I began to fall in love with my little boy. And, instead of finding me rocking in a dark corner after his return from work, my faithful husband would see I had made the tea or hung the washing out.

I began to heal.

Post-natal depression was my illness.

It wasn’t a choice.

It wasn’t simply tiredness (although sleep deprivation certainly didn’t help).

It wasn’t difficulty adjusting.

It wasn’t a lack of faith.

It wasn’t laziness.

It wasn’t failure.

And there is hope.

My boy, now 16, stands taller than me. His grin makes my heart melt inside. He sleeps – for too long sometimes! We share ‘in jokes’ and laugh together a lot. We talk about the deep stuff. He hugs me with his long gangly arms and buys me chocolate at just the right moments. Despite my feelings of failure and regret over his first few years, our ever-growing relationship is one of joy and trust. I’m so glad to be his mum.

And that surge of love isn’t mythical anymore. It happens everyday.

Helen is Co-Founder of Hope at Home, a freelance writer and youth worker.  She’s wife to one active husband and mum to three even more active young men.  She also loves running, squelching through mud in her wellies and reading her book in front of a fire.

 

Unmasked: removing the mask of self-reliance

I am thrilled to welcome Anita Kelly to my guest blog series, Unmasked: stories of authenticity. She shares with great honesty and openness about life with a son with high-functioning ASD, but also delves much further back to explore where her sense of having to ‘have everything together’ for everyone came from…

Over the past year or so, God has been challenging me about taking off my mask of emotional deception. Since July, when one of our sons was diagnosed with autism, we have been coming to terms with what that means for us as a family and working through a rollercoaster of emotions.

While reading The Emotionally Healthy Woman by Geri Scazzero, God started to point out my true emotions about my situation and church, particularly around my relationships with other Christians and where I was getting my sense of affirmation from rather than looking to God first. I started to be honest about my negative emotions about myself and look more to God to hear what He said about who I am and His unconditional love for me. The verse from Ephesians 3:18 started to take on more meaning for me: ‘I pray that you may be able to grasp how high, and how wide and how long and how deep is the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.’

FACING THE HARD TIMES HONESTLY

Coming to terms with emotions around the fact that we have a high-functioning ASD son has been difficult and painful at times. Even more so has been taking off my ‘I am capable and strong in my own strength’ mask and being honest with myself and others about the negative impact of this situation on our family life when we were in crisis.

It was only when the paramedics were talking to us about being very clear with the other medical professionals about how we were feeling that I realised I had to face how rough I felt. Even at church I struggled to be real with some people because I wasn’t sure how they would react or I simply didn’t want to be judged. Unless you have been through a similar experience, it’s very difficult to empathise and understand another person’s situation. Certain people were quick to tell me to stop being so down and that I should have more joy. You can’t summon up these emotions at will, no matter how hard you try in your own strength!

The one thing I can say is that I’m beginning to rest in the knowledge of God’s love and acceptance and reject any false beliefs that I need to be anything other than myself. There is an unexplainable, mysterious peace in being in that place with God, not striving or driven to prove myself. It’s a new place, but one that I continue to delight in!

RECOGNISING FALSE BELIEFS

The lesson I have been learning through these hard times is that I can be real about how I feel emotionally with those I love and trust, including God, my loving, heavenly Father. Growing up in a non-Christian family, where I cared for everyone else’s needs and ignored my own, had a damaging effect on my self-esteem and sense of identity.

I picked up the unsaid rule that: ‘I must please others’ and found myself losing sight of myself under the weight of others’ perceived demands and expectations of me, especially as a carer to my mum. Coming from a family where nothing but hard work and the need to succeed were the bottom line, I threw myself into everything I did: music exams, Duke of Edinburgh awards and my university degree.

I believed that if I excelled at what I did then I was okay and people would love and accept me. The truth is that I’m loved and accepted by the One who created me and knew me before the beginning of time. In my teens and early twenties I struggled to know this truth outside of my intellect. I looked for love in the wrong places, hoping that a romantic relationship would fill that ‘God-shaped hole’. It never did and I found myself lost in anxiety and fear of others’ approval, constantly striving to be the perfect woman, glossing over my weakness, unable to admit my failures. This pressure to perform was the mask I chose to wear, denying my sadness, anger and fear.

A LIFE-CHANGING VISION

Things started to change while I was on retreat in Wales a few years ago. God showed me a vision of a solid marble throne, representing Him as the Rock. He told me He wanted me to sit on this as a princess in His Kingdom, and that He chose to put His crown on my head. I was really gobsmacked by this as I still didn’t believe I deserved this in my heart. I had to make the choice to receive His identity for me as His precious daughter and reject the lie that what I did made me worthy of His love.

I am still on this journey of receiving and accepting my true identity in Christ, allowing the masks of self-reliance and independence to fall to the ground, shattered. In their place, I choose to accept my new identity, clothed in Christ’s royal robes of righteousness, pleasing and acceptable to Him. All because of His body broken and His blood poured out on the cross for me. There’s nothing I can do to gain His love – today I can simply receive it as a gift.

All I can say is that God remains faithful to us, despite our weaknesses and failings. In our pain and suffering He holds us close and says: ‘No matter what happens, I AM here with you, loving you and cheering you on every step of the way!  I will never leave you nor forsake you.’

Are there any masks of self-reliance that God is showing you that you need to surrender to Him?

Anita Kelly grew up in the home counties of the UK, becoming a Christian aged 12 in her home church, before studying for a BSc (Hons) Environmental Sciences degree at UEA, Norwich. After graduating, she moved to London, where she has worked in environmental administration, for non-government and public sector organisations and the financial sector, before moving into education. Her home church is St. Peter’s Church, Harrow, where she has worshipped for nearly 20 years. She met her husband through the local church and since then has also gained an MA from Kings College London, in environmental politics.

Anita now writes a blog, Hope in the Wilderness, sharing insight from her Christian faith and practical advice for overcoming mental-health issues, reflecting on God’s view of us and our true identity in Him. She is also writing her first book, an autobiography about God’s healing in her life while battling anxiety and depression. Being creative, she has recently rediscovered watercolour painting alongside her writing as an expressive outlet.

Poppy Denby: the truth-seeker

I am delighted to welcome Fiona Veitch Smith to my blog today. Author of the fabulous Poppy Denby Investigates series, she talks here about her third book, The Death Beat, as well as fake news and the need for good journalism.

At the launch party of the new book in my Poppy Denby Investigates series I was interviewed by a former broadcast journalist from ITV. She referred to the central character of my novels – a reporter for a London newspaper in the 1920s – as a ‘truth-seeker’. I was delighted that that was how she perceived Poppy.

She then asked me if I was trying to say anything about journalism and whether or not I felt the profession had been discredited. I said that I was most definitely trying to say something and I hoped my books were a celebration of the best of journalism as a key component of a well-functioning democracy. The journalistic profession at its best is a seeker of truth, an exposer of falsehood and an upholder of justice.

THE TRUTH WILL SET US FREE

The host of this blog, Claire Musters, has just released a book called Taking Off the Mask, that challenges us to live authentic, truthful lives. That’s what the best journalism helps us as a society to do – it takes off the mask of institutional falsehood. I haven’t been living under a rock for the last couple of decades, and am well aware of the self-inflicted image-destruction journalism has undergone, from the death of Princess Diana, to the phone tapping of Millie Dowler, to the obsession with celebrity culture. However, that side of the profession has always been there – even in Poppy Denby’s day. But alongside it is, and always has been, a dogged determination to hold those in power to account, to expose corruption and to help live out the God-inspired teaching that truth will set us free. That is why I became a journalist. And that is why I have written Poppy Denby the way I have.

In the fourth book in the series, which I’m currently writing, the rival newspaper to the Daily Globe – the London Courier – is an example of the worst kind of journalism: printing false, distorted, sensational news. But Poppy and her colleagues seek to work to a higher standard. They don’t always get it right, and the question of whether the ends justify the means is always an open one, but their underlining ethos is that they will not stop until the truth is revealed.

THE FAKE NEWS ERA

So where does this leave me and my books in the age of ‘Fake News’? In planning The Death Beat, I decided Poppy and her boss Rollo would work on The New York Times long before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate and started spouting his politically charged ‘fake news’ accusations at every media outlet that didn’t present him in a good light. The ‘failing New York Times’ (in his words) has been one of his most vocal opponents. As a young journalism student I was raised on a steady diet of New York Times articles as prime examples of excellent reportage and design. So for me it was an honour to send my heroine there for three months.

Fake News does exist. It’s when people deliberately make up unverified and unsubstantiated stories and distribute them (mainly through social media) to undermine or stir up trouble. Writers of fake news are employed by shady propaganda farms, not mainstream media outlets. Although I realise too that the mainstream media is not squeaky clean, we must be careful not to tar all journalists with the same brush. Fake news is not the same as news with a political or social bias. Unfortunately the public struggles to tell the difference and now anything they don’t like or agree with is labelled and discredited as ‘fake news’. This is a very unhealthy place for us to be. The way forward from here is far bigger than this little blog post, but I hope that my books might at least help to remind people why we need journalists – even if we don’t like what they have to say.

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series. Book 1, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger 2016. Book 2, The Kill Fee, was a finalist in the Forword Book Review mystery of the year, 2017, and book 3, The Death Beat is out now. Fiona has worked as both a practising journalist and as a lecturer in journalism. Found out more about her series at www.poppydenby.com

 

Umasked: the complexities of being a chosen child

I am delighted to welcome Philippa Linton to my website today, as she guests for the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. Philippa is incredibly open and vulnerable about her journey as an adopted child…

I often watch Long Lost Family. It’s a good TV programme, done with sensitivity and respect. Any one of those stories could be mine.

I grew up knowing I was adopted. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know. My very favourite bedtime story as a small child was my mother telling me how she and Daddy had gone to a special house of babies and had picked me out especially. (I never wondered what became of the other babies.)

I even knew my original name, the one I was given by my birth mother (the correct term to use, not ‘real’ mother or ‘natural’ mother). This was unusual for my era (I was born in 1962), because adoption was very much a closed affair. Many adoptees from that time would not have known their original names.

The shadows appear

I had a (mostly) happy childhood, apart from some difficulties at school. I belonged to a large, loving, affectionate family. But there were shadows. When I was about eight years old, we were out on one of our family walks in a park, and suddenly, out of the blue, I asked my mother: ‘If my mummy saw me now, would she recognise me?’ My mother can’t remember how she responded to this (and neither can I) but, knowing her, she would have given a kind and wise reply. My question must have jolted her though.

The shadows also arose in dreams. I had occasional nightmares about being abandoned – in one dream, I was left stranded on the pavement, staring after my adoptive mother as she got in her car and drove away from me without a backward glance.

This terrible dream was not a comment on my relationship with my adoptive mother. She was – and is – a good, loving mother. The nightmare brought to the surface a fear I couldn’t express, indeed was hardly aware of – a deep fear of rejection and abandonment that the strong bond with my adoptive family couldn’t entirely heal. There was an empty space inside me. Certainly a God-shaped space, and also a ‘mother’-shaped space – and a ‘father-shaped’ space. My kind, funny, wise adoptive father was absolutely everything a father should be, but that space was still there.

My birth parents felt no more real than ghosts. It was impossible to believe that somewhere out there in the world were two people who had been responsible for bringing me into existence. Sometimes I would gaze into the mirror and wonder where my features came from – my light brown hair, my blue-grey eyes, the shape of my face. Whose genes had I inherited? Where had I come from? Who was I? Unanswerable questions. I shoved them to the back of my mind.

Finding faith

When I was fourteen, I became a Christian. I discovered Psalm 139, which spoke to me of a God who loves like a father. At the same time, my dad asked if I would like to see my adoption file. It contained my adoption certificate, and a series of letters from the secretary of the society that had processed the adoption. Those letters contained a precious quote from my birth mother, who said she knew she had done the right thing and that I would have everything in life I should have. (In later years, I learned to read between the lines of that letter: girls in her situation were expected to say that kind of thing as they gave up their precious babies.)

This was a big moment though. My birth mum had stepped forward from the shadows into the light. She was real. She was out there somewhere. But it would be a very long time before I felt ready to search for her.

The years went by. Something began to shift as I entered my early thirties. I hadn’t found a life-partner, and it looked as if I might never have children. I would be leaving no genetic trace of myself on this earth. As a Christian, this didn’t haunt me as much as it might have done – we believe in building an eternal legacy, not a purely earth-bound one. But the persistent vague feeling of emptiness, restlessness, the sense of something missing, was even more powerful than the desire to experience pregnancy and have children of my own.

Reaching a life-changing decision

In autumn 1996, my life changed. I watched a documentary on Channel 4 called Love Child, about four women who’d had to give up their babies for adoption in the 1960s. Despite the changing social attitudes of the sexual revolution, up until the late 1960s girls who got pregnant out of wedlock were still treated with great harshness. I had always been angry on behalf of that generation of women – I was incensed by the hypocrisy that would punish a woman for getting pregnant and yet at the same time refuse to condemn the man who had got her in that state. (I did come to understand that not every birth father of that generation was a callous seducer. Some young birth fathers were absolutely devastated that their children were given up for adoption – but, like their unmarried girlfriends, they were given no choice in the matter.)

I began watching that programme with no thought of tracing. I wanted to watch it because I’d never seen anything told from the birth parents’ point of view before. As the closing credits rolled, I had reached a life-changing decision. I decided to apply for a copy of my birth certificate and to search for my birth mother, which would also mean meeting with a social worker so she could access my birth records on my behalf. Once I’d made up my mind to begin this journey, there was no stopping me. I was 34 and knew that I had the emotional and spiritual maturity to cope with whatever I uncovered on my search. An inner voice was urging me, ‘You’ve got to do it now. Now. Do it NOW.’

I’m so glad I listened to that inner voice. The quest proved surprisingly easy in the end, thanks to a couple of extraordinary breakthroughs and the support of three fabulous social workers. To cut a long story short, I finally met my birth mother in October 1997, exactly a year after I set the wheels in motion. And I looked just like her.

A secure identity

We knew each other for thirteen years. Sadly, she died in 2010. I wish that we’d had longer. But I am so glad I searched. I had put her mind at rest: her lost daughter had at last found her. I also gained a wonderful new family, and remain in touch with them. I embrace my bonds by nurture and nature equally.

When I found my birth mum, something in me clicked into place. I felt more whole and secure in my identity. I celebrate being an adoptee, a chosen child much loved and cherished. It’s not my adoption I have an issue with – I love my adoptive family dearly and regard adoption as a blessing. It’s the relinquishment that is the issue, the ‘primal wound’ that results when you separate a child from his or her birth mother – for whatever reason, even if it’s a good reason (if the parent is abusive, for example). That primal wounding will haunt the adoptee all their days. Adoption is still a blessing. But the shadows have to be faced realistically, with eyes wide open.

I don’t want to suggest that reunions are a magical answer to a life-long struggle with rejection and identity. For non-adopted people, these stories of reunion between mother and child are romantic. I understand that, and indeed embrace it. But reunions are also complex. My story had a happy ending. But I know too that sometimes the parent doesn’t wish to be found, usually because facing the past is just too painful for them – especially if they were shamed and treated cruelly at the time. And sometimes it’s the adopted person who pulls away from the birth parent yearning for their lost child. There are also adoptees whose adoptions were a disaster – and when they trace their birth parents, that doesn’t work out either. My heart aches for them. I also ache for the children left stranded in the care system. No social worker, no matter how caring and professional, can be an adequate substitute for the lack of parents.

Making myself vulnerable

So what has the adoptee’s search for identity and origins got to do with wearing masks?

Writing this piece has made me feel shy about ‘unmasking’. It has made me open up about my inner feelings, which is risky, and that’s a good thing. Emotions hurt. Love hurts. Rejection hurts, so it feels safer to place yourself in a position where you can’t be rejected. There can still be a lost little girl inside me, despite the successful reunion, despite all the love and support I’ve had in my life, despite the inner healing that finding my identity in Christ brought.

And also – making myself really vulnerable here – I still wonder if my ambiguous attitude to a life-long singleness (I’ve had a couple of intense romances but nothing long-term ever developed) is connected to a deep fear that no man would ever be interested in me? If the man responsible for my conception had never shown an interest in me (this was always my assumption and it turned out to be correct), why would any other man? I know I mustn’t give into such a negative belief, and know I must forgive the shadowy man who fathered me.

It is these verses in particular that speak strength and healing to me:

‘Even though my father and mother have left me, Adonai will care for me.’
(Psalm 27:10, Complete Jewish Bible)

‘The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ (Romans 8:15, NIV)

And of course Psalm 139:

13For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Philippa Linton is a Lay Reader in a local Anglican church.  Her day job is working for the Education & Learning Department of the United Reformed Church.  She likes creative writing, going to the cinema and cats.

 

Umasked: fuelled by misunderstanding; removed through love

It is such a pleasure to welcome Vicki Cottingham to my guest blog series Unmasked: stories of authenticity today. With courage and vulnerability she shares how difficult it was to remove her mask due to ill health and misunderstandings.

I am very familiar with mask wearing. I became ill with M.E. (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) over twenty years ago. I also suffer with chronic migraines and depression. In the beginning it was particularly hard to adjust to. Whenever I prepared to meet with anyone I would make sure that my mask was firmly in place.

People in my life, such as family, friends and church, knew I was living with this long-term illness, but I didn’t like to talk about it. If anyone asked how I was, rather than be honest with them and tell them ‘I’m really struggling, I’m depressed and my poor health is getting to me’, I would tell them that I was fine thank you and then quickly change the subject. I would paste a smile on my face while inside I was an emotional mess.

I was afraid of being judged, afraid that people would think I was just being lazy, or a hypochondriac, or making a fuss about nothing, because everyone gets tired, and everyone has aches and pains, don’t they?

Being misunderstood

I was afraid of people’s misunderstanding, because being misunderstood just felt so painful. For me, being misunderstood was actually one of the hardest things to cope with when struggling with an unseen illness. Before my diagnosis, I remember my GP telling me all I needed was to get out in the fresh air, and go for a walk on the Downs. As if that would be the solution to whatever was ailing me.

When asked how I was, there were some people who weren’t really prepared for an honest answer. They were just going through the formalities of asking how I was. After all, that’s what we do, don’t we? We politely ask someone how they are today and expect the response to be ‘Fine, thank you’. The truth was, I was far from fine, but didn’t feel able to share what my life was really like. I couldn’t face dealing with people’s misunderstanding of me and my illness.

People would say to me how well I looked and then ask me how I was. I didn’t then feel able to say that actually I felt really ill that day, that it had been hard to get to church that morning and that I would need to rest for the remainder of the day as a result. Because I was so hurt by misunderstanding I resolved to keep my mask on to avoid being hurt any more. I thought it was better to keep the truth to myself, and so I hid behind the mask that I had perfected.

Now that I can see things more clearly, I realise that it wasn’t others’ fault that they didn’t understand what M.E. was and how it affected me, because at that time very little was known or understood of the illness. I also know that none of these people intentionally set out to cause me pain. I was overly sensitive as a result of the illness and was also struggling to come to terms with it myself.

Impossible to maintain the mask

I feared being vulnerable and letting people see the real me. What if I broke down and cried in front of them? What would they think of me? I felt I had to pretend I had it all together. It was all pretence and the mask was my protection.

I found that wearing this mask for any length of time was hard work. It took a lot of energy. Energy I didn’t really have and so I felt drained by trying so hard to keep it from slipping. It was impossible to maintain and was certainly not a healthy way for me to live.

In my season of mask wearing, while I was distant with others, my relationship with God grew stronger and deeper. Over time he enabled me to remove my mask.

What helped me to take off my mask

There were two things in particular that helped me to remove my mask and be real. First, was my relationship with God. When it feels like everything has been taken away from you, all you are left with is God, and God came to mean everything to me. He reassured me of His unconditional love for me time and time again and, because He loves and accepts me I have no fear of His rejection, His displeasure or His judgement. It says in 1 John 4:10–18 (NLT):

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins… We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.  God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect… Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear.  

God created me deliberately and so He knows and understands the real me. I can be completely honest with Him; I don’t need to hide who I am, how I’m really feeling or pretend that I have no problems or struggles. As Psalm 139:1–4 (NLT) says:

 O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.

It is very freeing and liberating when we realise that with God there really is no need to pretend to be something we are not, that we can be who we really are: ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ John 8:32 (NLT).

The other thing that helped me was having real, intimate friendships with others. I said how some people just didn’t understand what I was going through. But there were others who stood by me and offered me friendship, even when they didn’t fully understand. They have given me practical help, have listened to me as I’ve explained how I’m really feeling and the struggles I’m having, and they have prayed for and with me. They have shown me that they really care about me. They have given me love and acceptance. I found that there was no need for me to wear a mask when I was with them. I was able to be real and honest with them.

Over the years I have learnt the value of these friendships and God has blessed me with some great friends. These genuine, intimate friendships take time to develop – they don’t happen overnight, but they are definitely worth investing in.

In these friendships we: ‘Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honouring each other’ Romans 12:10 (NLT). These friendships mirror the relationship we have with God. In John 15:12 (NLT) Jesus says, ‘This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you’.

Giving permission to others

I have found that when I am real with others it also gives them the freedom to be real with me. It’s something we all need – to be free to be who God created us to be. In this kind of environment, we feel safe to be ourselves, rather than pretend to be something that we are not. We can share our struggles, our fears, our sins, our problems etc., and know that we are loved and accepted. It’s in this kind of environment that we can all have the confidence and security to remove our masks and be real with each other.

Vicki Cottingham lives in the South East of England with her husband and two teenage children. She has a love for God’s Word, studying it and sharing it with others through the written and spoken word.  Her joy of writing led her to writing a regular devotional blog called Hope for Today.

 

Unmasked: The battle of the masks

I am delighted to welcome Amanda to my guest blog slot ‘Unmasked: stories of authenticity’ this week. She bravely shares the reasons for her mask-wearing, and her battle to take them off.

We so often hear ‘I went through this’ stories, as people are often willing to get up on stage and talk about their suffering when it’s over. They’re happy to talk about what God taught them and how they can now see He was working.

I think suffering is a bit like childbirth, once it’s over we forget how bad it was. When we hear these stories people often don’t describe the depths of their despair. When I hear these stories I feel left out; I start to wonder why God hasn’t fixed me yet. I feel like I’ve failed for not having gotten through it yet.

I know that I am not the only one who feels like this, I have met many people in the Church that are continuing to struggle and find these stories hopeful and painful at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, we need these testimonies; they show God’s power and give us hope, but I do feel that churches want happy-ending stories. Why? Because nobody likes to suffer!

None of us want to face the reality that we will all suffer; we are frightened of it, which is natural. But when a church only has happy-ending stories it can cause members to put on a mask, because they feel they’re not valid or useful because they’re not better – or can’t say what God has shown them.

I have been sharing my stories with my friends and other people in church. As I have been doing this I’ve seen amazing things happen; other people have come to me with their stories, knowing I won’t judge them. Even though I’m not fixed and I’m fighting to get better, God is using me and my story. Groups that I have been part of have gone from being very academic to being very honest, life-sharing groups. I wanted to write this guest post today to encourage people that by removing their masks it allows others to take theirs off too.

HOW I STARTED WEARING MASKS

I have discovered that my personal masks are ‘I’m fine’ (along with ‘I can cope’) and ‘no one wants to know what goes on in my life’. These were backed up by an internal message early on, telling me that I couldn’t trust anyone.

I first started wearing these masks when I was 11. I had been raped as a child and blocked out the memories – until they were triggered when I was 11. I started having nightmares; I tried to tell my family, but they told me ‘not to be stupid, it didn’t happen’. I knew that it had, but I couldn’t tell anyone, as I didn’t want a big fall out, and I had forgiven the person. The person was young; they knew what they were doing, but they didn’t understand the consequences.

I knew if I talked about it at school, Child Protection would kick in, so I didn’t talk about it again until I was 18. Unfortunately, I had two more experiences where I was sexually assaulted as a young adult. This combination of events made it very hard for me to trust anyone. The first counsellor I saw told me I must have made it up, as it’s not possible for a child to be raped! Needless to say, I didn’t see her again.

As a child, I learned that people liked me when I was cheerful, so I always put on a brave face. And then people praised me for putting on a brave face during difficult things, so I decided this was a good thing to do. I did this to the point that I numbed out all negative feelings, in order to be the positive person everyone wanted me to be. Unfortunately, this took its toll; I started self-harming, developed severe panic attacks and became depressed.

While I was at university I did find some helpful friends and counsellors. Even though none of them made me better, each time I talked about what I had been through a symptom would fall away. So I learned that talking helped, even though it went against what I believed I should do.

LEARNING TO BE MORE OPEN

I desperately didn’t want people to think I was weak and couldn’t cope. I thought they wouldn’t want to know the negative stuff about me. Because when I did start to tell more friends, I had some horrible reactions – where friends walked away from me and said very hurtful things. But I also had some amazing reactions; people who showed me love and stuck by me despite what I’d told them. These people went a long way to challenging those deeply held internal beliefs of mine.

I am now at a point where I can talk about what I have been through more openly, and, when I do so, many people appreciate it and come back with their own stories. This is a huge privilege, because I know how hard it is to be honest and vulnerable.

I have recently been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is really helpful in understanding my symptoms and enabling me to get the right help. I have an absolutely amazing, patient psychologist who has started Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) with me. It is hard, but I can see how it works. I am making more and more links between the past and the present, which enables me to then question my deeply held beliefs.

For example, when I think ‘no one wants to know’, I can now ask myself, ‘is this true’? I have learned over time that people do want to know. I am beginning to understand that, while it will make them sad, it’s the event that makes them sad not me. People do know and are still standing by me.

CONTINUING MY JOURNEY

I have realised that my family didn’t want to know because they couldn’t handle it; it wasn’t that they couldn’t handle me. I still have a long way to go. When I’m with my psychologist, all of my masks have to come off. I still fight it, because it’s horrible being vulnerable, but equally I want people to see who I truly am and I know she can only help me if I’m open with her.

With friends I can take it a bit slower. I still often revert back to my ‘I can cope’ mask because I’m scared of losing respect, but actually I’ve found I get more respect when I’m honest. People ask me how I am and I say ‘I’m fine’ without realising it, including when I go to the doctor because I’m ill! I don’t know I’ve said it.

I am learning to be more honest with my friends, partly because I believe they will see God working in me as I go through suffering, rather than waiting to tell them about what happened afterwards. With my family I have to keep these masks on, as most of them don’t know what has happened to me. But now, when I go back and put these masks back on, they feel heavy – and I feel stressed, on edge and exhausted. I can’t wait to get back to my friends and husband, as I can be honest with them.

My masks protected me for a while, but then they made me ill. I’m still in the process of learning how to take off these masks, but I have a massive hope that I will overcome what I have been through. I believe I will recover and be stronger, and I also constantly pray that God will use my story, when and where appropriate. The simple message I have clung onto is that ‘God is with me’. He has whispered that into my ears so many times over the years.