Out of the chrysalis

I am thrilled to welcome Tracy Williamson to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog today. She has written with such candour and bravery – I’m sure it will bless everyone who reads it. Thank you Tracy.

Many of us hide our weaker areas behind a mask of self-sufficiency, serving others or being the joker of the group. We bury our weaknesses behind this capable, strong persona, the only part we allow others to see.

But what if our mask is the weakness and the beauty of what God created us to be is what is hidden? Can we really let that mask be removed or even believe there is anything else to discover?

I know this is possible because for the last 35 years God’s love has been releasing the real Tracy from behind her mask of fear and shame.

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

My journey began when I was two and became ill with encephalitis and was in hospital for several months. My balance and co-ordination were badly affected but no one realised that my vision and hearing were also damaged. A child with hearing problems is usually diagnosed when they fail to hear the sounds around them or respond to their family’s voices. I did hear all those things but no one realised that I couldn’t understand what I heard because of brain damage. The effects were devastating for when I started school; instead of being given support as a deaf child, I was judged mentally impaired and treated accordingly by both the children and staff.

When I was 12 I was finally diagnosed as hard of hearing (I am now severely deaf) and given hearing aids. Ironically hearing aids are useless for someone with sensory neural deafness and simply became another focus for the bullies.

Anyone who has hidden in the playground trying to avoid gangs of children chanting names – in my case: spastic, mental, deaf ears – will know that sickening feeling of shame and fear that becomes your identity and the writhing feeling inside when teachers call you up to the front and tear strips off you in front of the class. I didn’t know I was deaf so I believed I was stupid as everyone said. And even when my deafness was diagnosed I’d spent so many years believing a lie, it had become who I was.

My dad died when I was seven and, soon after, my mum met my stepfather. He abused me verbally and sexually, compounding all that was happening at school. You only have to hear negative words a few times before you believe them, and he was shouting daily that I was rubbish, mental, perverted, unlovable….

My shame at his actions went deep and, as I hit adolescence, I hated and crushed my budding femininity. My sister, cousins and friends were developing relationships and social lives but I was hiding behind books, stick thin in baggy trousers and t-shirts.

Who was Tracy? The shame and fear mask was all I had to show people as I didn’t even know there was a beautiful, God-created Tracy, trapped inside.

But God loved me and despite me knowing nothing about faith, drew me to believe in Him during my first year of college. And so began my journey of unmasking and healing.

BEGINNING TO EMERGE

Who was Tracy? Step by step through prayer, love, affirmation, the care of church friends, reading the Bible…God’s power and love began to heal me. I had always loved reading but books had been my escape. What I didn’t know was that God had given me a love of words and the ability to be expressive through speaking and writing. I had hardly ever dared share an opinion as it was bound to be ridiculed, yet God’s healing love has, over the years, set me more and more free

I had ministry from committed friends who spoke His words of truth over me that I was beautiful, chosen, created and uniquely gifted by God – a beloved woman and daughter not a thing to be used and destroyed. As they prayed and loved me I began to emerge, to dare to dress prettily, to speak, to laugh and to love others.

One of the most amazing ways that God taught me to drop my mask was through listening for His voice. His word is more powerful than anything else we can ever hear and sets us free from deep within. One day as I walked to college and was feeling very anxious, I sensed I should stop and look around me and listen. I was in a beautiful location with fields and trees spreading out before me.

He whispered into my heart:

‘I made all this so you could know what I am like, but none of this is as beautiful to me as you are.’

I was stunned! It was my first experience of hearing Him and it shattered the lie that I was ugly and shameful. Step by step I began to come out of my chrysalis and discover that I could be feminine without fear and didn’t have to live as an apology but rather, as a blessing.

After college God called me to work in an itinerant ministry with the blind Gospel singer Marilyn Baker and so I went from hardly daring to speak to sharing my testimony, giving prophecies, teaching in conferences and writing.

BEING A BUTTERFLY

My disabilities had been such a source of mockery that it would never occur to me to ask for help. But through working with Marilyn, and through the muddles that inevitably occur with one of us blind and the other deaf and partially sighted, God showed me that it is okay to have a weakness. It is part of me but doesn’t define me and I actually bless others when I admit I can’t do certain things and that I need their assistance.

Now I happily tell people I am deaf and trust they will try to help me, which 90 per cent of the time they do– and if they don’t respond well it’s their problem not mine!. Friends, especially Marilyn, always type on my iPad what is being said in church or in social times and tell me they love to do it – and we all have a laugh over my hearing mistakes! I rejoice in having a Hearing Dog, Goldie (see photo) whose jacket proudly asserts that he is helping a deaf person. He alerts me to sounds I can’t identify but his special gift is simply connecting me to people in streets and shops that normally I would be cut off from. And I now chat with them without fear that being deaf makes me less.

I am still a work in progress but I know that this butterfly is emerging from her chrysalis, for no mask of fear or shame is as powerful as God’s love.

Tracy Williamson lives near Tonbridge in Kent with her friend and partner in ministry Marilyn Baker, together with Tracy’s Hearing Dog, Goldie, and Marilyn’s Guide Dog, Saffie.

Tracy wrote her first book The Voice of the Father (Hodder) in 1995, followed by four shorter books published by New Wine Press between 2004 and 2008. Tracy has recently completed her sixth book, called The Father’s Kiss, which will be published by Authentic Media in October 2018.

Today Tracy and Marilyn still travel the country and sometimes abroad taking concerts and church services and also leading Rest and Renewal days and conferences on Intimacy with God. See www.mbm-ministries.org

 

 

Who’s in control?

I am delighted to welcome author Fiona Lloyd to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. Having also worn an ‘I’m in control’ mask, much of what she shares resonated deeply with me – and the lessons she has learned are full of wisdom pertinent for all of us seeking to walk with God each day…

I’ve spent my professional life wearing a mask. As a teacher, I discovered early on that letting my feelings show was likely to result in ridicule rather than sympathy, and I quickly learned how to disguise my nervousness and anxiety by projecting a calm exterior. Much as I’d like to blame my erstwhile pupils for my desire to be in control, however, they were only reinforcing a habit that had been honed over many years.

A LEARNED BEHAVIOUR

As the eldest of three children, I constantly felt under pressure to set an example. I was academically able, and drove myself to excel as far as I could. Underneath the studious façade, though, was a shy and reserved little girl who lacked the social confidence of her more gregarious siblings, and felt easily intimidated by the banter of her louder classmates. I developed a fear of unpredictable situations, preferring to put myself in settings where I could feel in control of things.

Often, I attempted to mask my insecurities by being overly competitive, but this in turn resulted in a fear of failure, so that I hated to play any game where I stood a good chance of losing. My driven nature and desire for control had not equipped me to cope with the notion of being proved second-best (or worse). And when I didn’t achieve at the level I’d set for myself, I became hugely self-critical.

BECOMING VULNERABLE

I was in my late twenties – and a new mum – when I became aware of God gently picking away at my mask. I’d gone from being a teacher with responsibility for 200 pupils each week to someone whose life was focused around the needs of one small (and very noisy) baby. Suddenly, I didn’t have all the answers anymore, and – without the requirement to keep myself together at work – I realised I needed to allow myself to be vulnerable. With the support of my husband, I spent time receiving prayer ministry from Christian friends, and started to tackle the pressures and beliefs that had contributed to my mask of control.

This was a difficult and painful experience: it’s something of a miracle in itself that I asked for help in the first place, and even more of a miracle that I agreed to return after the first session. Childhood hurts and disappointments had to be faced and dealt with: my natural inclination is to push things under the surface, so this required a complete change of tack. I also had to let go of my reluctance to be beholden to others and make an active choice to be dependent on God.

The change in me has been both dramatic and slow-burning. Those first few sessions led to me sensing God’s loving presence in such a deep and tangible way that I almost floated home afterwards. But I’ve also had to learn that walking with Jesus is about making good choices on an ongoing basis. It’s one thing to forgive X today, but part of that decision means doing my best not to revisit that particular offence tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that past hurts are always instantly healed – some scars are still tender – but being willing to be part of an ongoing process of forgiveness is immensely freeing.

LEARNING TO TRUST OTHERS

A major factor in letting go of my ‘in control’ mask was learning to trust both God and other people. This felt easy when I was on a spiritual high, but when God seemed more distant, or when fellow Christians let me down, I tended to panic and reach for my mask. Understanding that faith grows and matures in the lean times was a difficult lesson (and one I forget all too easily).

However, as I’ve spent less time hiding behind the safety of my mask, I’ve noticed that people are drawn to vulnerability. In my head, I’ve always wanted to be someone who could help others by being calm and in control as I doled out wise advice, and I’ve been slow to recognise that a toughened exterior tends to discourage others from sharing their needs. This feels super-scary – and goes against all my natural instincts – but it appears that God’s strength really is made perfect in my weakness.

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, was 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 team at her local church.

You can follow Fiona on Twitter: @FionaJLloyd & @FionaLloyd16

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: 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.