Embracing the broken

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

‘How do you feel now?’

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

‘Are you feeling better?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I was wrong.

People long to see authenticity

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

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

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

The perfect parson’s wife

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

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

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

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

We’re allowed to shout at God

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

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

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

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

I forgot about lament.

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

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

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

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

Their unmasking leads to their healing.

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

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

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

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

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

The hope that will never let us go.

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

Post-natal depression unmasked

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Haven’t you got enough faith?’

‘It’s a choice, surely?’

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

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

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

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

Popping to the shops became a nightmare.

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

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

‘No.’ I replied. ‘He’s a monster.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

I began to heal.

Post-natal depression was my illness.

It wasn’t a choice.

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

It wasn’t difficulty adjusting.

It wasn’t a lack of faith.

It wasn’t laziness.

It wasn’t failure.

And there is hope.

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

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

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

 

Unmasked: 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.