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.

 

What a week under par has taught me

This has been a very strange week for me. It all started with my daughter coming down with a very violent sickness bug that has been going round her school. She was up a lot one night being sick, spent the next day very listless but then bounced back. Then my husband and I both went down with it the same night – all night. The next day we were laid out completely, having to call on friends to do our two different school runs. But then he bounced back…and I didn’t. It’s taken me all week to be able to eat a full meal – and I’m still not eating plenty of items as the thought of them makes me feel super sick. I still feel slightly nauseous constantly.

I’ve had to force myself to eat to ensure I’m well enough to look after my kids – and earlier in the week we had the struggle of both kids playing up because our routine was disrupted due to our sickness. Just when we asked them if they could be extra helpful and good they did precisely the opposite – and we both felt too ill to deal with it. To be honest, I’ve been pretty short-fused with them all week. It’s just plain hard work to get on and do all the normal things a parent has to while I feel like this.

But I can also see that this week has done me a lot of good. Just slowing down so I only do the bare necessities has actually made me realise what a lot of rushing about I do – and made me wonder whether I need to do absolutely all of it. I’ve been really challenged recently about the fact that I feel I have my finger in so many pies, how many of them am I actually doing to the best of my ability? And what room is there in my life for those people that really need me to down tools and help them at a moment’s notice?

It has also given me a renewed admiration for people who cope with illness long-term. That is a subject on my heart at the moment, and I’m hoping to write about it soon. How do people who suffer with something day in day out keep their head above water, keep believing and trusting in God’s promises? People like my mum, who struggles with some horrible illnesses and has been suffering from terrible nausea for months and months that no expert seems to be able to get to the bottom of despite countless tests. I was talking on the phone to her after she had been away for a few days with my dad. I was saying how I’d been feeling and what a struggle it had been, and then she told me how she had had to come face to face with her limitations yet again while away. How hard that must be when you are on holiday, as you can’t ever take a holiday from your sickness…

This week has also made me grateful at times. When I first started feeling well enough to eat again I was grateful; when I first felt able to drive again too. When I felt well enough to tidy up a bit I was glad – as the state of the house was getting me down. And the sense of achievement of getting the bits of work done I needed to this week was much more intense than usual – because I’d had to battle through more than normal too. While I did struggle with resentment at times about some of the things I had to carry on and do even though I didn’t feel up to them, it has actually been really nice to hide away and spend most evenings at home on my own or with my husband just doing very little. I think we all need regular periods of time like that – perhaps my next one was so long overdue that God allowed this sickness to really knock me out so that I actually did slow down for a change!

I wonder whether your week has been ‘the same as usual’ or if you can look back and see something you’ve learned afresh. Do you regularly take the time to take stock and think about what your days have been filled with, and what God may have been trying to teach you through your everyday circumstances? I think I look for such things more regularly now that I am writing, but it is certainly a beneficial habit for us all to cultivate…

Truly ‘together on a mission’

This is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit down and reflect on what I learned at the Newfrontiers Together on a Mission conference last week (the reason for that will, in part, be the subject of another blog soon!) It truly was a privilege to be at the bulk of what was the last international conference of its kind. Right from the start there was a sense of expectancy, and God had specific things to say to us as a movement that came through time and time again, through various different speakers.

I always feel so blessed at these events because it reminds me of the wider Newfrontiers family we are part of. I am always struck by the humility of the leaders and speakers, particularly Terry. Indeed that was the main reason we were first attracted to Newfrontiers. And it is great to see how other guys have come through into maturity and authority and are now heading up works within the various continents, but there is still a sense of family across the board. I loved the mixture of both honouring our roots, and founders, but also pressing forward to take new ground.

I was both caught up with and slightly apprehensive of the way that we seemed to hit the ground running. Words came thick and fast about being courageous and having courage as a leader. The natural worrier in me started to wonder what is coming Lord?! But it is so true that as a movement the ‘boys have become men’ and I also felt that challenge me personally. Yes we have stepped up into leadership roles, and my husband has proved he is capable of pastoring the church. I am mentoring and meeting with various younger women… AND YET. Life is going at such a pace am I taking the time to feed myself spiritually? Am I looking after myself and allowing God to speak to me clearly and have that vital input in my life enough? He graciously seems to speak through me when I am ministering to people, but I wonder how much more effective I could be if I carved out a bit more just me and him time…

We were travelling up and down to Brighton each day so usually left at the end of the afternoon session – it meant we could see the kids before bedtime and not get overtired ourselves. But when we heard PJ was to speak on the wed eve we decided to say. And what a great decision that was! I have said in a previous entry that the whole issue of healing is one I can struggle with because of the way my mum suffers, but he gave one of the clearest messages I’ve ever heard on suffering, sickness and healing. Where does sickness come from and where does healing come from were two of the questions he pondered during his own battle in the last year. And God gave him great revelation. Hearing the simplicity with which he explained the relationship between the atonement and healing was refreshing. His talk gave me fresh vision and hope and went some way to lift off the frustration I can often feel when people look at my mum and make a judgement call as to why she hasn’t been healed yet. Definitely a recommendation I have already made to my mum to listen to!

There is so much more I could talk about here but I think there will be plenty more future posts as I manage to grab odd moments to dwell upon my notes.

A whirlwind week

It has been a little while since I’ve been on here – mainly because life has reached whirlwind proportions. And the thoughts spinning around my head also have me reeling from their speed. So I’m trying to catch a moment to slow down and take stock. The last week has certainly been a varied one: I had my birthday, found out my mum was incredibly ill, had a terrible conversation with a magazine editor that left me wondering if Christians really can be that judgemental, shot down to see my mum in hospital, enjoyed a fantastic international day at church and also made some great new contacts with book and magazine publishers.

Each night I have fallen into bed late, absolutely exhausted, only to be denied sleep by my 2 year old, who really doesn’t seem to understand that waking up at night does not equate to coming to say hello to mummy, daddy and his sister! Even with the gate firmly fixed on his door he is still finding a way of keeping us all up at night. I look at him tearing around during each day and wonder where on earth he gets his energy from – and whether I could borrow some of it! In amongst the busyness, and emotional turmoil at times, I worry that I am so focused on different things I am not parenting to the best of my ability. I guess as parents we always have that nagging feeling – could we be doing things better? Are we juggling too much? Our society seems to only accept survivors – supermums who can spin every plate highly successfully and look fantastic at the same time!

That’s not really the reason for this entry though. I could write a series of blogs on that subject – and on the fact that while I believe in a God who can heal today, and have seen miracles in front of my eyes, one of those dearest to me – my own mum – continues to suffer pain from a debilitating disease day after day, year after year. I know suffering and healing are subjects I’m never going to fully understand, but I do have lots of questions I’m waiting to ask God when I do see him face to face! God does seem to have a way of turning things upside down – I travelled to see my mum expecting her to be hardly able to lift her head from her hospital bed but I was greeted by a beaming face as she had just had a chance to talk to a daughter of a patient about her faith and offered to pray for her. Gone was the downcast soul who had had enough of struggling with each breath and here was someone excited and vitalised by her faith once more. She said herself that every time she is in hospital she has such ‘divine encounters’ and that being there had lifted her spirit from the depth of despair. She is still physically in severe pain, but her spirit is back in line with her God.

All of this has made my own spirit go up and down. A high point was definitely yesterday at church where we celebrated the diversity of nationalities within our church. Sam Amara from Nigeria visited us and preached and we feasted on a wonderful array of dishes from around the world afterwards.

Yes it has definitely been a pretty crazy week. And today has continued to be crazy. I’m on my own for a few hours, for which I’m exceedingly grateful to my husband, but busy organising work and what I need to do before heading off to Brighton for the last Newfrontiers International Leaders’ Conference, Together on a Mission. I am excited about what God will do when we are all together – I just hope I manage to stay awake! ;D