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

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.

 

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