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.

 

Unmasked: letting go of anxiety

 

To celebrate the launch of my book, Taking Off the Mask, and to continue to promote authentic community here I have started a blogging series called Unmasked: stories of authenticity. I am inviting guest bloggers to write about their own experiences of God calling them to be more authentic. I am delighted to welcome Tiffany Montgomery as the first blogger. She has a very powerful story – and I am blown away and humbled by how God has used my book as part of the process (I didn’t know that until I read her review and this post once she submitted it.) Thank you Tiffany for sharing so openly and honestly…

My two Little Blessings share a room in our home. It has to be the messiest place on the planet! Whenever I am missing something (a hairbrush, my favorite flats, the cute sweater I bought last week) I know where I have to go to find it. And inevitably, as I search the room I get hotter and hotter about the mess.  Can you relate?

As I get angry they begin their excuses. “Mom, I was about to put that away.” “Mom, A did that, not me.” And on they go digging themselves a hole there is no getting out of. I give them an ultimatum, “Clean this room or lose your screen time for the rest of the week!”

Can I be honest with you? I hate when they clean that room. It gets so much worse before it gets clean. The mess spills into the hallway. I have to referee bickering and step in to teach them new cleaning things…it is hard work.

Has God ever called you to clean up something in your spiritual life in the same way? Here’s how He called me to start removing my mask…

I am the controller, the peacemaker, the fixer, the go-to gal to co-ordinate a new ministry, the jack of all trades when life gets crazy, etc. Those are some of the names my mask might carry.

Is it wrong to wear my mask?

Well I can’t really say. It’s what has worked to keep me ‘safe’ in life. Comfortable in life. Un-noticed as I suffer.

You see I suffer from anxiety. My doctor calls it ‘High Functioning Anxiety’, which sounds like I am a very capable person. In reality I was just setting myself up to fall apart hard.

That’s what I am doing in life right now… falling apart.

I’ve had an anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of it was at age eight sitting nearly hyperventilating in a closet – hiding.

My anxiety is not the result of a chemical imbalance or neurological issue, but from the trauma of my past.

The past is not something I can change.

I just celebrated my birthday in the midst of a year of running from God about my anxiety. You see, He has been relentlessly calling me to dig deeper and find true healing all year. It started in March at a women’s retreat. He began to reveal the deep wounds that I cover up with my mask.

Deep wounds never stay covered for long.

My wounds are as deep as they are wide and I have been trying to run from them for so many years… and for the most part I have succeeded. But God said dig deeper. Did I?  Nope, I ran.

Have you ever tried to run from God?

Let me tell you it doesn’t work well. He has been so patient with me…because I am scared. He’s good that way. Never pressing faster or farther than He knows I can handle.

‘But it’s time,’ I’ve heard Him whisper over and over again.

Hope

When I was a young woman, trying to make sense of a distorted, warped life, I knew nothing except trauma and Jesus. I don’t even remember when the word came to me, but it is in every journal since I was 15. Hope.

  • Hope that God would miraculously heal all the broken warped pieces of my life, heart and body.
  • Hope that I could sleep through the night without the nightmares.
  • Hope that no one would ever pry deep enough to see the wounds and pain that live deeply inside of me.
  • Hope that I could live a normal life and be happy one day.

Joy

In my twenties God gave me another word. You see I never found happy. Happy always seemed to be so far out of reach. Even with doctors and medicine, counselors and Bible studies I always had the anxiety.

I always had a smile too… but it was a mask. My smile was rarely heart deep.

I made a friend in college who had a serious health issue – yet always seemed happy.

He explained to me that he was not ‘happy’ at all, he was actually in pain daily. What he had was joy.  He knew Jesus and embraced the Holy Spirit in a way I’ve never seen before. He focused on God’s love when days were hard and it filled him with joy.

I was in pain every day. Sleepless every night. Fearful of the trauma that wounded my past.  I took his advice and began to read the Bible like a woman with an addiction. When I could not sleep I poured through the psalms. When anxiety became crippling I memorized verses. I found joy.

For years I have clung to hope and joy like a lighthouse.

But I still wear my mask.

I cling to hope and joy while I hide behind my mask. Why? Fear. Some fear that is based in reality. People in my past who knew my condition and the cause of it were hurtful. I have had to learn how to forgive and move past.

I’d love to share the pathway I found to truly forgiving the pain, abuse and betrayal that stole so many years of my life. I was stuck, unwilling to forgive.  I had to learn to release people, so I could walk in freedom! My story is available in a free download here.

But I still keep my mask on to prevent a repeat of that pain.

Brave

In March I heard God calling to take the mask off. I have run for months all the while pursuing the last thing God called me to. In October as I journaled through my birthday and this year’s work I heard a new word. I had to be brave because God has a new work for my life. He gave me Isaiah 43 to hold onto as He worked through it all.

‘Bravely take off the mask.’

God has said that to me so many times this year! When Claire mentioned her book I was just eager to help a friend and learn about publishing a book. Honestly it was just something on my list to do because I plan to publish a study in 2018 and I have so much to learn. It didn’t even register to me what the book was about until I sat down to read last month.

As I sat fuzzy socked at Starbucks I began to inwardly cry. The words began to fly off the pages as my journal filled with quotes and resources to help me in this journey. God put the right resource in my hands to find practical steps for taking off this mask and moving from hoping to healing.

To get healing from my anxiety I have to be willing to let everything fall apart. Since reading the book I have begun to step back from leadership in almost every area…because the attacks will get worse before they get better. I have found time to go back into counseling because I have to let myself remember the horrors of my past. I needed courage to let God into those broken pieces to begin healing them.

‘Without a mask on…everyone will see.’  ‘I am so scared’ I pray over and over to God.

Taking off the mask

I don’t know where you are in your story. Are you hurting? Have you dealt with things that are still unhealed?  Claire’s authenticity has given me the courage to bravely begin taking off my mask and seek help.

Brave.  Such a small word. But God is gracious enough to give such inspiration to underscore that work in my life. He will do the same for you if you let Him.

I know it feels scary. But I also know that the messiest room can be cleaned. It will certainly get messier still in the process, but when you pull everything out into the light you can identify it and put the pieces back where they really belong. You may even find things you didn’t know were hidden in the mess. Just like I found my lost hairbrush 😉

in HIM

Tiffany

Tiffany Montgomery is a Jesus lover, wife, mother, blogger and homeschooling gal who is passionate about equipping and encouraging wives and mothers in Biblical discipleship! Find out more about her at http://hopejoyinchrist.com or connect on Facebook or Pinterest.

A malignant motivator

I am delighted to welcome Lucy Mills onto my blog today. Her book, Undivided Heart, was published last week and I received my copy today – I’m so looking forward to reading it! As part of her blog tour, she has provided a guest post that really resonates with me, because it covers a subject I include in my own book, Taking Off the Mask, which is out on Friday!

Our culture is obsessed with looking a certain way – whether this is physical appearance, or appearing to be successful. But this obsession also strays into the spiritual. We can get enamoured with ideas of not just being but looking like a ‘good Christian’ (whatever that is), or coming across ‘right’ in the way we live. When life throws up inconvenient challenges, as it inevitably does, we hiccup. Sometimes we go on the defence, entrenching ourselves. Other times we go on the attack, criticising others for the ‘specks’ in their eyes while ignoring the planks in our own. Neither reaction helps us. We end up missing out on a deeper encounter with the divine because we’re so busy with trying to look good.

This need for approval – this desire to be liked – can become a malignant motivator in our lives. Our sense of worth becomes so contingent upon it that we work to live in a way that gets us liked. We bury how we really feel in the attempt to put on a show of ‘likeableness’.

She waits to see
if you will like her
She needs to know
that you will like her
She cannot bear it
if you don’t like her

We may not even be conscious of it; the motive has become so pervasive in us that we act on almost automatically. And isn’t it easy, in an age where ‘likes’ can be counted?

But something inside us worries, because we know that this façade is not who we are. We may ignore this niggle. As well as hiding from others, we can hide from ourselves. But we can’t hide from God.

All our strutting, all our dabbing on of Christian-coloured concealer, all that sucking in of our spiritual tummies – it doesn’t fool God one jot.

And it doesn’t address the issue that what we think of as being a ‘good Christian’ or saying/doing the ‘right things’ may not be in tune with God’s priorities anyway. Have we made small things into huge issues and then dismissed the important stuff amid nit-picking at the unimportant? Instead of gracious, we come across as judgemental. Instead of loving, we come across as arrogant and proud.

God uses the weak. The messy. The people not wearing make-up.

God uses you – and God uses me – in our weakness and our frailty, in our foolishness and vulnerability.

God sees us and God loves us. That is our great motivator, as we blossom in the assurance of what has been done for us, realising how much value is given to us as children of God.

Undivided Heart: Finding Meaning and Motivation in Christ explores the things that shape us, drive us and define us, asking where our true identity lies and how this is reflected in our lives.  Find out more (including where to buy) at www.lucy-mills.com/undivided-heart

 

Hearing God

Tania Harris - cream - author preferred - large jpgI am delighted that Tania Harris has agreed to guest blog on my site. A pastor, speaker and author she is also the founder of God Conversations, a global ministry that equips people to recognise and respond to God’s voice. She has recently released a book that is also called God ConversationsTania is an ordained minister with the Australian Christian Churches and Hillsong is her church home in Sydney, Australia.

 

 

Waiting for God to speak out loud? Think again…

I’ve always wanted to hear the audible voice of God. I imagined it booming forth, sending tremors through my body and swallowing me up in a mystical cloud, leaving me with no doubt where it came from. In fact, when I first started learning to hear God’s voice, this is what I expected. But sadly the booming voice never came. Yes, I’ve heard the voice of God many times, but it has never come out loud.

Perhaps you’ve had the same expectation – and perhaps the same outcome. Part of the reason we expect God to speak out loud is due to the assumptions we make when reading the Bible. We read; ‘And God said…’ and we liken it to a friend talking with us across the table. But a closer look at Scripture reveals this to be a misplaced understanding. Hearing God’s voice should be understood more as a spiritual experience than a physical one.

 A spiritual voice

When Jesus preached his sermons, he often closed with the line; ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’ (eg. Mark 4:9,23, Luke 8:8). The reason Jesus spoke in parables was to differentiate between those who had open hearts and those who didn’t. This shows us that hearing God’s message wasn’t primarily a physical experience – after all, His audiences heard His words, yet many still wandered away. As Jesus said, ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’ (Matthew 13:13, see also Ezekiel 12:2). Unlike these, we are exhorted to see with the ‘eyes of our hearts’ (Ephesians 1:18) – the emphasis is on our spiritual eyes and ears, not our natural ones.

This was probably one of the more surprising discoveries for me in my early days of hearing God’s voice. One of the first times I heard Him speak was while walking through a park near my home. In the middle of a song, the words: ‘Give all your money away’ came into my head. Though it came as a thought just like any thought, I knew the thought wasn’t mine (largely because it wasn’t something I would say!) The voice was quiet and gentle yet firm; instinctively I knew it was God. It was also consistent with what God had been doing in my life and later when I heeded it, brought about incredible miracles.

The audible voice

While I’ve never heard the audible voice of God, a number of those I interviewed recently for my doctoral research say they have. For most of them, the audible voice came at an urgent moment (like when they were about to walk into the path of an oncoming car) or at some other pivotal time of their lives. Yet even on those occasions, God’s voice was not experienced through the ‘outer ear’. When asked if someone else would have heard it if they’d been with them, the vast majority said no. While the voice had been strikingly loud to the person, it had still been heard from ‘inside’ of themselves.

Though it’s hard to know for sure, the Apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus seems to have been similar (if only we could interview him!) Luke, the writer of Acts, reports the story of how Jesus appeared to Saul and speaks to him in a vision (Acts 9:1–7). While there were others with Paul, Luke says they didn’t share the experience, since, ‘they heard the sound’, but ‘they did not see anyone’. Later when Paul recounts the scene for himself, he says his companions ‘saw the light’, but didn’t ‘understand the voice’ (Acts 22:9). Even a powerful experience such as Paul’s conversion seems to be a largely subjective one, only fully received by the audience it was intended.

 The mind as spiritual receiver

Theologian Gregory Boyd writes about the nature of God’s voice in his book, Seeing is Believing. He suggests that the experience of hearing God takes place primarily in the mind or the imagination, and that this is consistent with what Scriptures describes. For example, when Daniel recounts his visions, he notes them as ‘visions that passed through’ his mind (Daniel 7:1,15). They are subjective and internal experiences that no one else can participate in. Hence those who were with Daniel didn’t see his visions (Daniel 10:7). It is also significant that the Hebrew words commonly used for ‘vision’ indicate a unique kind of seeing, something that is distinct from ordinary physical seeing.

It’s important to understand that the experience of hearing God’s voice internally in no way denies its authenticity. Boyd highlights the fact that while modern Western people identify the imagination with make-believe, ancient people and particularly those in biblical times did not. In fact, hearing God’s voice in our minds should not be surprising given that while the Holy Spirit cannot be seen in physical form, we know He abides with us wherever we go (Acts 2:16,17).

On a practical level, this understanding of God’s voice is essential. If we are waiting for an external objective voice, we may be missing out on the still small voice of Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:9–13). Instead of waiting for an audible voice, we need to be inviting the Spirit to enter our thinking and our imagination, to inspire our hearts and stir our thoughts, so that we can be like the people Jesus exhorted us to be; having ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.

9781780781884To read more of Tania’s journey with hearing God’s voice and the impact it has had on her own life, I would heartily recommend her book God Conversations. Do also check out her website

 

How I found my voice

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Today I am delighted to welcome James Prescott to my blog. I have known James for quite a while; we conversed on social media for months before discovering that we live in the same town! We are also both part of the Association of Christian Writers, which provides great support.

 I was privileged to be a part of James’ book launch group and can honestly say I have found his new book invaluable; challenging yet full of grace. So many of the lessons God had been teaching him were ones that He had been speaking to me about too, so the book resonated with me a lot. So I was keen to get James to write a guest blog for me. Here he describes the process of writing his book, and how it helped him to find his voice…

For most writers, the writing of their first book is the culmination of them finding their voice. It comes at the end of that process. But for me, it was completely the opposite.

My first trade book Mosaic Of Grace: God’s Beautiful Reshaping Of Our Broken Lives was published in February. But the first draft was written in the summer of 2013. At that point I’d been writing for a long time – but I’d still not found my own unique creative voice. The idea for a book about grace had come along in the previous nine months, from reading, reflecting, listening to sermons and talking with friends.

In the process I realised there was a message about grace that hadn’t been shared. A new perspective that needed to be given voice. I’d written two e-books by then, so was ready to explore writing a book.

Starting the journey
I had no idea about how to plan, structure or write a book. I had no idea about the publishing world whatsoever. I wrote the book, not expecting it to ever be published. I had no reputation, no following and had no chance of a book contract. Self-publishing wasn’t an option financially. So I was writing merely for myself.

By complete chance, I connected with a book editor on social media. They offered to read my book, initially offering advice. This quickly evolved into them editing the whole book. They’d do private edits on their own time, then we’d do Skype calls working through the text together, editing, rewriting, improving.

Learning along the way
Because it was a very rough draft, with no plan, and I’d got no experience, the book needed a lot of work. There were a lot of rewrites and additions to be made. There were large sections to take out. And this all took time.

Even during this process, I had no idea if or how the book would be published. It was still just an idea, a promise, a dream. But the book was taking shape. And, in the meantime, I was getting a masterclass in how to write a book, and indeed, on writing itself, from my editor.

It took time, but, by mid 2016, we had a final draft to work from. And we were talking about her small publishing company putting the book out.

Finally, this thing was going to happen. And, ironically, I was still learning about grace. The truth of the book was being exposed to me all the time. I began seeing it in every area of my life. I came up with ideas for coaching, for other books, all of which began, in some way, with the simple idea that we’re enough, we belong, we’re loved. We’re accepted as we are, for who we are, not for what we do, what we own, our relationship status or social status.

Taking time out
It soon became clear that writing the book was just the beginning of the process. In 2014, about eight months after I wrote the first draft, I got to a point where I needed a break. My blogging had lost focus, direction and joy. I couldn’t go on. So I stopped public writing. I decided I would simply write privately, for myself, every day – for as long as it took. As long as it took to find my voice, to connect again with my true creative spirit.

It was liberating. I felt alive for the first time. And it was the most creative, fresh period of my life. New material and ideas were pouring out of me. It took time to get there, but, once I did, it was like a new spring of water bursting out of the ground…you couldn’t stop it.

And the irony I didn’t see at the time, was that it was by returning to myself, to my true self – the self which grace said was enough – that I found my voice.

I had written this book, and lived it, and, in the process, had found my authentic, honest writing voice. Grace had literally brought me (in particular my creative side) to life.

An increase of momentum
I wrote a short e-book, which is currently available on my blog for free, about this season of my creative journey, and some lessons I learned. This really launched my blog, and my subscriber list and following grew. Suddenly, I had people interested in my work, people who might buy a book I wrote. And I still had the book I was working on, which I really wanted to share with people.

Grace had helped me find my voice.

Mosaic Of Grace New Cover Black EdgeMeasuring success
When Mosaic Of Grace was finally published earlier this year, there was, naturally, a focus on numbers, on sales, on marketing and promoting the book and its ideas. But when I got people’s e-mails and messages with stories about how the book had changed their lives, how it had been healing and life-giving to them that reminded me again of where this all began. With grace. Those stories mattered, and still matter, way more than the sales figures.

The book’s success wasn’t dependent on sales figures – with just one message like that, I knew all those years of work were worth it.

From start to finish, this book, and everything about it – the writing, editing, publishing, promotion – had all been a process, teaching me about grace. It was a process that changed me, before it changed anyone else. A process that helped me find my voice.

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James Prescott is a writer, blogger, podcaster, writing coach and bestselling author of Mosaic Of Grace: God’s Beautiful Reshaping Of Our Broken Lives, available on Amazon here. He hosts the weekly ‘Poema Podcast’, and you can read his blog, get free e-books and find out more about his books and coaching at www.jamesprescott.co.uk. You can find him on Facebook and also follow him on Twitter & Instagram.

Reflections on writing a series

claire-and-i

The two Claires finally meeting!

Having connected with the author, C.F.Dunn, through the Association of Christian Writers’ Facebook page, and then interviewed her for magazine articles, it was a joy to be able to celebrate the final book – and meet Claire face to face finally (see photo)! I asked her to write a guest blog about her own reflections on coming to the end of writing a series…

mortal-fire-smallI can’t say I knew what I was doing when I started writing my debut novel – Mortal Fire – although I felt compelled to write for a reason I did not yet understand. Nor did I know where the journey would take me. For the first few years I struggled with how I could justify spending all that time writing when I could be doing something more, well, obviously Goddriven, I suppose. After all, working at school with our inspirational special needs students was both a vocation and an immense blessing. However, write I felt I must, and so I ploughed on.

For a good while after my first book was published I didn’t feel like a writer. It must be a fluke, a kindness on the part of my wonderful editor, Tony Collins. It was only when the third book – Rope of Sand – was released that I began to think, ‘Golly, this is real,’ and after book five that I said, ‘I am an author!’

Now that The Secret of the Journal series has ended, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is: how do you set about bidding farewell to a series after hundreds of thousands of words have been lavished on building characters and story lines, setting scenes and constructing dialogue? Well, first of all, by the time you get to the final book, you know your characters – good and bad – and have come to love, respect and cherish them. They might have been a construct of the imagination at the beginning, but by the end they have taken on a life of their own.

If you have been successful in drawing multi-faceted people, they interact with other characters in the series as naturally as you would in real life. Sure, you place them in danger or put them into artificial situations – that is, after all, part of the art of drama – but their reactions should be as natural as if they lived and breathed off the page as well as on it. So, how hard is it to say goodbye?

9780745868773By the time you reach that magic final book – Fearful Symmetry in my case – the world you have created is part of the beating heart within you: you live and breathe it day in, day out over years. As a result, finishing it – wrapping it all up and concluding it – might potentially be traumatic. Yes, it has been a major part of your life and you’ve cried with them, sweated and suffered with them; but does any part of you die with them when you write The End?

Not a bit of it. You gave them life and you’ve set them free in the imaginations of your readers and there your character friends will flourish for as long as the words can be read.

And long before you finish writing that final book, new voices have slipped into your consciousness – beguiling, persistent – and you find yourself constructing a new universe and fresh situations into which you can release them to begin their own journey, and the foundations of a new series are lain.

No longer do I feel all at sea, but understand the greater truth behind that compulsion to write. That understanding has developed and grown along with the series. As I set out on the next journey with my new characters, I know where I’m going and where I want to be and – most important of all – why.

cf-dunn-picC.F. Dunn is the author of The Secret of the Journal series, published by Lion Fiction. The fifth and final book in the series – Fearful Symmetry – has been recently published. An educator at heart, she and her husband founded a school in Kent for children with dyslexia, autism, and anxiety. Returning to her roots as a historian, C.F. Dunn is currently working on the first book in a new historical series set in 15th-century England – a period of complex personalities and turmoil at the heart of the realm, where the king wore an uneasy crown.