Faded Photos

I spend a lot of time during my workday fighting the question away: “What if this is my future?”

I visit clients in inpatient units, or living in one-room apartments with a shared bathroom and living space. And I wonder, “How are we different? How can I draw some clear distinction between you and me so that I can assure myself we’re not the same and that I won’t ever end up like this?”

What if the worst happens? What if I can’t make myself be okay and everything spirals out of control? What if I become my clients? What if I end up being deemed “unable to live independently”? What if I lose my dog and my car and my home? What if everyone I love leaves me for the third time in my life?

I don’t have parents who will let me live with them. I would end up in that linoleum floor bedroom, living in a house with people who hear voices and have been in Western State and have tried to kill their parents because they heard God tell them to.

I’m so scared.

And also, I look into my client’s bright green eyes- the only thing about him that isn’t dirty, and before I leave I hear him say, “Drive safe. And make sure to buckle up. And don’t talk on your phone while you’re driving.”

And there’s the client who was so excited about getting to pass out Halloween candy that he was already sitting in a chair by the door when we came to see him at three o’clock this afternoon.

And, dear God, they’re PEOPLE. People with hearts and minds and desires and joys and fears and a need to be loved. People created in the image of God.

And there’s the client who plopped his twenty-year-old family album on my lap and had me flip through it. “That’s my family,” he said. And he pointed them all out, naming them off.

He carries this album with him from hospital to transitional housing to hospital again because it reassures him he belongs somewhere. It helps him believe he is part of something that matters.

And yet, while I smile at the faces of his family members and thank him for sharing this with me, secretly my heart aches for him. Because the faded pictures from twenty years ago are all he has of his family, really. They rarely come see him. They never call.

And I also feel like I can relate to that in a sense. How often am I falling to sleep at night, metaphorically clutching a photo album to my chest and telling myself, “I’m loved. I matter. I belong.”?

It’s a poor substitution for the real thing. And yet, what else do we have, he and I? If we let go of that, we’ll be gulping pain like a drowning person gulps water.

So we cling to what we have. We take what we can get and we try to stretch it over us and make it be enough, like a blanket that’s too small to cover both my shoulders and my toes at the same time.

And so here I am tonight, tears streaming down my face. It hurts.

But there are good things.

How excited Arlow is to go to daycare in the morning.
How I think I’m going to like my job.
Clients who say funny things.
Coworkers who are kind.
A good book.
Coming home at the end of the day to discover someone (my neighbor?) left a box of dog biscuits and toys on my porch.

And yet, I would give anything to be eight years old again, even if just for tonight. I’d give anything to have someone tuck me in and kiss my head and rub my back and ask me about my day.

And yes, I will close my eyes like I do every night and imagine God bending low to do that. I will imagine Him kissing my head and loving me better than any earthly parent ever could. And I will tell Him about my day.

But it’s still a faded photo album. A too-short blanket.

And I’m so scared my ability to tell myself, “This is enough,” isn’t going to last.

And then what?

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Working With Jesus

My clients are smelly.

They are missing teeth, their shoes are falling apart, and their clothes are filthy. They are all diagnosed with psychosis. They are unpredictable.

“How am I going to do this?” I thought on my first day of work. “How am I going to love these people who smell so badly I can’t even breathe around them?”

And then, the gentle whisper I’ve grown so familiar with: “These are the kinds of people I hung out with.”

Jesus wasn’t deterred by smelly people. He embraced them. He didn’t struggle to breathe around them, He dined with them.

Then, and now, He pulls us close. He never uses anything as an excuse to keep us at a distance.

Sharing in this experience with Him, trying to love the people society typically rejects, makes His ministry here more real to me. It awakens me to another aspect of how He loves us. How kind He is. How gentle. How approachable.

And when I stopped allowing myself excuses not to love my clients, that’s when God stepped in and started helping me see them the way He does.

There’s the man with the kind eyes and long, curly beard, who asked me to stretch my hand out so he could look at my ring, and who then excitedly said: “Your ring kind of looks like mine!” And we compared out similar rings- the blue opal set in sterling silver. “My sister got mine for me!” he said. “And not even for my birthday or Christmas, but just because!” And my heart wrenched with affection for him, because underlying his words was this: “You and I have something in common!” And also: “Someone loves me.”

There was the woman with the beautiful hair and gold fingernail polish who said looked me dead in the eyes, furrowed her eyebrows, and said, “Someone’s been shitting in my sink and putting bong water in the coffee.” She then followed that up with: “Also, I don’t need my medication anymore because I’ve been eating candy now.”

And the woman with the blinged-out Halloween shirt and cranky face who was irritated that we were interrupting Ellen to talk with her.

And the woman with the backpack and book about joy, whose voice was tinged with pride when she said, “At my volunteer job, none of my coworkers know I have a mental illness. They treat me like I’m just like them!”

And by the end of this week, I found myself thinking, “Maybe I can love these people after all.”

I have prayed so long: “Lord, I NEED YOU!”

And I wonder if maybe this job is part of His answer to my prayer. “Okay,” He smiles. “Here I am.”

And daily I’m learning to see Him in the faint smiles and gentle eyes and unpredictable words of my clients who are crazy in the most endearing way.

 

 

Snot And Suffering

There’s dog snot on my pillow, and I have to be up in a couple hours anyway. So, insomnia.

thumbnail_image1(He sleeps with his eyes open when he’s not feeling well, apparently. Isn’t that cute creepy? ;-))

Anyway, the wide awake-ness has me thinking. Or rather, trying not to think, but seeking God on the real issues underlying the stuff on the forefront of my mind.

Such as:

Do I believe God can turn it all around?
Yes.

Do I believe He will?
I don’t know.

Do I believe He always does the best thing for me?
Yes.

…Do I believe the best thing for me might be endless suffering?
I don’t know…

Just The Two Of Us

“Hi, sweetheart,” I say. And I take Arlow’s face in my hands, look him in his gentle brown eyes, and then kiss the top of his head.

I involve him in my day, inviting him to join me in the kitchen when I’m cooking, and on the couch when I’m watching a movie, and giving him the dryer sheet to play with when I’m putting away laundry.

And when I have to leave the house and he cannot come with, I say, “I’ll be right back, baby. I love you.”

When he’s sick, I lay beside him all night, not for a second thinking to use his snotty nose and puke-y breath to keep him at a distance. And I keep my hand on his head and pray for him, and make sure he keeps breathing.

I love my dog more than anyone loves me.

*

The night stretches out long, long, long ahead of me.

And how do I fill the hours in this empty house? A girl can only spend so many evenings painting her nails.

Truth And Panic

When my brain gets swirly with all the things I can’t control, and panic floods my chest, and my prayers start sounding like: “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!” and: “It’s not okay!”
…When that happens, I close my eyes.

“Tamara,” I ask myself, “do you believe God is real?”
Yes.

“Do you believe He knows your heart?”
Yes.

“Do you believe He cares about your heart?”
Yes.

“Do you believe He can do ANYTHING?”
Yes.

“Do you believe He is good?”
Yes.

“Do you believe He is, in all His ways, Love?”
Yes.

I do.

*

I talked to my therapist about how, when I was a child, I was cuddly, and needed lots of love, and also easily hurt.

My siblings would tease me and, rather than get mad, my heart would break. I interpreted their teasing as a lack of love because I loved them, and I knew I would never treat them the way they were treating me. So, heartbreak- characterized by screaming and crying. Because I was a child. And children don’t come to this earth just instinctively knowing how to deal with heartbreak.

But my parents didn’t know how to deal with it either, turns out.

Mom would drag me to my room because, she’d say, it didn’t matter what my brother or sister did, all that mattered was that the way I was handling it was inappropriate. My emotional reaction was too big for the situation. (Although, in my defense, any negative emotion in that house was considered inappropriate.)

And I’d be even more hysterical as Mom tried to get me to my room. I’d hold on to the stairwell wall, begging my mom not to put me in timeout. “I want a do-over!” I’d wail. “Let’s start the day over!”

But she’d always win, of course.

And I’d be in my room, and she’d lock the door from the outside so I couldn’t get out. Because she knew I wouldn’t stay in there. I wanted to, HAD to, fix it- and not later, but right that second. I had to make it be okay.

So I’d pound on the door, panicked, screaming: “I’m sor-rrry!” But no one ever came.

And I wonder if God is calling that to my memory, not because it still hurts, but because it helps me be compassionate with my present self. It helps me understand why I feel the way I do. And it helps me see that some of who I am today has been learned, yes, but some of who I am is just the way God designed me.

I have ALWAYS been a sensitive, kind-hearted person.

I’ve always needed lots of love and I’ve always been quick to interpret others’ behavior towards me as proof that they don’t love me.

I’ve always had big emotions.

And when those big emotions came, they have never been seen as “okay”, but something to apologize for. They’ve always been something people have used to withdraw or ignore me until I could “pull it together”.

As a result, I’d feel, not only like I was drowning in my emotion, but like I was doing it all alone. There in my bedroom as a child, or now in my home, whenever I feel anything passionately, I believe two things: 1. My emotions ruin my relationships because no one can love this version of me, and 2. No one cares how I feel.

I learned as a child that people leave you when you feel. And that has been reinforced in my life as I’ve grown up. People leave.

And the underlying message is, of course, “I’m wrong.” Even when I don’t consciously believe it, part of the panic I battle in those “emotionally intense and all alone” moments is, “I am wrong for feeling. I’ve ruined everything. I need to make them love me again.”

I never learned to sit with what I was feeling, but to instead panic about it and and NEED to fix it RIGHT. THIS. SECOND. And when I can’t? When everything good feels gone and I’m powerless to do anything about it? That feeling is… I can’t even describe it.

I am still just that little girl, pounding on her bedroom door, begging someone to answer it and reassure me I’m loved–no matter what–and that it’s going to be okay.

Love has always, always, always felt fragile to me. And I’ve always, always, always felt hard to love.

*

I took Arlow on a walk this evening, and watched him play in a fountain, lit up red and pink and blue.

I watched him try to figure out why the water kept disappearing and then reappearing. He’d get close to sniff the place the water just was, only to run over to me when the water would shoot back up, startling him.

And I laughed, aloud–cackled, really–all by myself, while people watched.

And we walked through red and yellow and salmon colored leaves.

“This moment is a gift,” I told myself. And I was relieved to find that, not only did I know that to be true, but I could feel it as well.

And inside of me is so, so much sorrow. And my instinct is to panic, to wail against it like that child locked in her bedroom.

But I’m trying to let God parent me, to do the parenting that my mom and dad were unable to.

And He says, “You are tender-hearted. This is a good thing. You are kind and thoughtful and you have big emotions. This is by design. It is all part of who I made you to be.”

He tells me that I am not put together wrong. I am not unlovable. I am not wrong for feeling.

And I hear Him, but I am still filled with the panic of my child self, pounding on that bedroom door for someone to come and love her and hold her and tell her it will be okay.

And then He opens His arms up wide.

And I get to choose whether or not to let myself be held by the One who showed up for me, or keep staring at that door.

And He pulls me close, my heart still beating like a rabbit’s, and He asks me all the questions I listed above. Do I know He loves me? Yes. Do I know my heart matters to Him? Deeply. Do I believe He can do anything? I do.

And He doesn’t try to talk me out of my panic, He just speaks love over me.

And as I remind myself who He is, I can breathe again.

The sorrow is still there,
but I can breathe.

Living A Life Of Love

I wet my finger with anointing oil, and then I reach over and draw the shape of a cross on the top of Arlow’s head while he sleeps.

He wakes up, startled, seeing the bottle and my hand coming towards him and fearing I’m going to clean his ears. Which reminds me that yes, I do need to do that. But not right now. Right now is for putting my hand on top of his head and praying for his health.

And I don’t say words, but I don’t need to. I just present my heart to the Lord and He does the rest. With my hand on his head, I breathe out all the love and tenderness I have for him. I breathe out the fear I feel that he’s still not completely healthy. And I breathe out gratitude and awe that God gave him to me.

I reach over and feel something like swollen lymph nodes on either side of his neck. Can dogs get swollen lymph nodes?

I hear his raspy breathing as he settles back to sleep, the Ear Cleaning threat gone. He’s still sneezing and coughing during the day. No more throwing up, but definitely still battling something.

I told my friend the other day that there’s something about having to clean up throw up, and cuddle a snotty-faced boy, and choosing to draw him to me even when he smells like sickness, that makes me love him even more deeply. It grows and shapes into some new breed of love- a love that is, regardless of any other factors or the loved one’s “worthiness”, wild and untameable.

My friend kind of smiled at that, imagining, undoubtedly, cleaning up after a dog who’s throwing up every five minutes. Then he said, “I don’t know that would have the same impact on me.”

And I realized in that moment that he was right. It didn’t make sense. I started to backtrack and explain myself, saying, “Well, no, I don’t like barf or anything, that’s not what I mean…”

I’ve given it more thought today though. Why did such a miserable experience have that affect on me?

And then the whisper of the voice I’m so familiar with after these long months: “It’s because, in what you were doing for Arlow, you recognized Me.”

Yes. That was it. My heart recognized my “laying down my life” for Arlow as, ironically, life-giving.

That is an unreal, mind-blowing revelation to me. Maybe the song is right- maybe we really DO find our lives (our purpose, motivation, joy…) when we lay them down! Could it be that the more I deliberately and intentionally give my life to Jesus, the more life I’ll have?

Maybe the fullest, happiest life is the one that’s daily being laid down!

*

Laura talked the other night about hoping she looks like her Father. Maybe that’s the “sweet spot” of life- when we make looking like Him our top priority.

My prayer has so often been: “Help me know You more. Help me love You more. Help me want to be alive.”

And there’s nothing wrong with those prayers, of course, but now that the depression is improving and I have a little more energy and a lot more joy, I feel like maybe God is showing me the answer to all of those prayers is the same: modeling Him.

“Come, child,” He says. “Let’s go into this world together and be LOVE. Then you will know and love me more. Then you will rediscover your life.”

I don’t know. I feel like maybe I’m seeing a glimmer of truth, or truth in a newer, deeper way, but I am still mostly comprised of a lack of understanding. I feel like I am looking at this truth, examining it, turning it over in my hands, and then trying to stretch it to make it cover the whole of life. “Let me see how I can apply this to everything so that nothing hurts anymore and everything makes sense and there’s a solution for every problem!” my brain wants to say. But, of course, in a world designed by a God who is bigger tan our comprehension, the mystery of it will always exceed what we understand.

Which, I believe, is by design. A reminder that we don’t have to see the whole picture. Nor do we have to understand to obey. We just have to hear what God is saying to us in the moment we’re in.

After all, fullness of life isn’t found in understanding, it’s found in Him.

And so, Lord, I lay down my desire to understand. I lay down my desire for it to “make sense”. I choose LIFE- in all its messy, holy, tear-stained, laughter-filled, glory. I choose to be where You are. I choose to let You lead me and unveil my life as I love and serve You.

*

My heart recognizes how I love Arlow as hinting at how He loves me. I think that’s why I found not just life, but comfort, in tending to my boy. I felt like I was doing for Arlow what Jesus daily does for me, even though I’m often unaware.

How many nights has He bent low and drawn the shape of a cross on my forehead with His holy hand? How many times has He drawn me to Him when human instinct would be to push me away because I’m snotty-faced and stinky, (metaphorically speaking… I hope 😉 )? How many times has He come face-to-face with my messes and said to me, “I can clean this up.”?

Arlow doesn’t understand why he doesn’t feel well, and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever feel well again because he’s a dog and this present moment is the realest one to him. He doesn’t understand why I’m feeding him oatmeal and baby food, or why I haven’t taken him for a walk or to daycare. He doesn’t understand why I left him at the vet’s and they shaved part of his leg and poked him and gave him an IV. He doesn’t understand.

But he doesn’t try to. Nor does he grow suspicious and depressed. He just trusts that I am, in all my ways towards him, motivated by love.

In so many ways, God uses Arlow to speak to me. About sacrificial love, and what fuels life, and how sometimes, even when motivated by love, this life will hurt and not make sense.

And Arlow’s helped me see things more simply, too. For example, he’s shown me that none of the “whys” matter when you trust the one in charge. And none of the day’s hard stuff is any match for the joy of having arms who will hold you at the end of the day.

And so tonight, I will sleep- my dog snotty and snoring on my chest, my hand atop his head, praying.

And in the spiritual realm, though I cannot see it, I know Jesus is doing the same. I am settling down to sleep, resting in His love and goodness and presence. And He is here, His hand atop my head, praying.

 

*

Linking Up with: http://www.givinguponperfect.com/2016/10/real-autumn-life-works-for-me/

Things That Cling: Lint And Me

Sometimes I feel like my body collects heaviness as I move through my days.

The table of laughter and conversation, which I was not invited to be a part of.
The house I had to go by myself to see about renting.
The rude driver.
The Friday night alone at home.
The $900 spent at the vet.
The dog who still isn’t feeling well.

I feel like black pants moving through a white lint and cat hair filled world. (I excel at analogies. I know.)

And how often is The Thing not even really the issue? How often do the experiences of my day hurt so badly because they reinforce things I fear or believe?
“You’re all alone.”
“You’re no one’s child.”
“You better learn to be okay with doing life by yourself, even when it’s hard and scary and you don’t know what you’re doing because no one ever taught you to be an adult before your mom got sick and died and your dad abandoned you.” (Run-on sentences? They are the things of my brain.)
“You have to fight and beg and claw and scrape at this life if you want anything good.”
“Everyone leaves.”
“There is nothing special or purposed for you.”
“There’s nothing lasting or safe to trust in. Everything is fluid and ending. Everything is loss.”
“You are not enough.”

I am this tender, trying-to-heal heart doing life under the suspicion: “Everything hurts and it always will.”

And although my brain would argue vehemently, does that not hint at a belief that God can’t be trusted?

*

I sobbed into a pillow last night. I cried like my tears were a burning acid in my heart, and the more I could get out, the healthier my heart might be. I cried tears that doubled as prayers.

And then I stood. I stood, arms out in the shape of a ‘t’, and begged God to come and rid me of all that clings to me and threatens to weigh me down. (Everything in me wanted to stick with my earlier Black Pants analogy and say I begged God to be my lint-roller. But I didn’t. Until now. Because at least I have partial self-restraint.) “Here I am, Lord. All of me. These heavy limbs and weary heart. I give it all to You,” I said. “Undo me. Heal me. Take away my pain. Draw me to You.”

And then I reached my arms upward and said over and over again: “You are good, You are good, You are good.” Preaching to my soul. Speaking truth and life over my pain.

I don’t know what I’m doing. In life. As an adult. As this person in this body with this life here in Washington.

I don’t know how to carry this heavy heart with me through my day and through experiences that constantly bump up against the wounds I’m working so hard to heal. Can healing still happen when the wounds keep getting poked at?

I don’t know. I don’t know anything and I hurt.

But God.

But there is this God who holds it all together. Who knows and sees and allows (for my ultimate good) every single thing that happens to me. There’s this God who desires my healing and my life to overflow with joy.

There’s this God who says illogical, irrational, crazy things, like that suffering produces hope.

There’s this God who says not to try to comprehend what is happening through our own limited understanding, because He is greater and bigger than what we can conceive.

There’s this God who says the story He is writing is good, even when my heart and the news and so much of what I see over the course of my day is anything but good.

I’m Black Pants in a white fuzz world. Which is ironic because I refuse to buy black pants for that exact reason- ain’t no one got time for such impractical wardrobe choices; I got things to go that don’t involve picking at lint all day.

God is teaching me something, even now. He is healing my heart, even while it is screaming.

He is restoring me to life.

*

I told my therapist the other day, “The pain in me is screaming.” It’s hollow and gaping and making a sound that is more inhale than exhale.

But when my depression was worse, when life felt not worth it, this pain in me has its own gravity or force, like a black hole. It wanted to suck everything into its scream. But not anymore, hallelujah. Now it exists as its own separate part of me. It isn’t all-consuming.

“The pain in me in screaming,” I said. And then I added, “But so is the joy.”

I am equal parts on-my-knees-weeping-with-sorrow and hands-reaching-towards-heaven-rejoicing.

Because:

The table of laughter and conversation, which I was not invited to be a part of.
But the text message conversation that made me laugh. The “I love you, always.” The learning to trust that love means something; that love doesn’t always walk out.

The house I went to see about renting all by myself.
But the person who sent me a list of questions to ask the landlord while I was there, who said she was sorry she couldn’t be with me. And the person who prayed with me beforehand, that I’d hear God’s voice clearly when I went to see the place.
And the God who smiled at me as I stood there in that tiny home with its brand new kitchen, holding my yellow post-it-notepad with questions scribbled on it, trying to look like I wasn’t feeling scared and sad and out of place. The God who clearly whispered: “This isn’t the one for you.”
And the ability to trust Him enough not to get ahead of Him, afraid nothing else would ever come along and that I better take this not-right-for-me home before I was left with nothing at all.

The rude driver.
But I have a car that’s paid-off and reliable. And the driver was rude, yes, and not being safe, but God protected me.
And He is teaching me that other people’s emotions or thoughts or opinions aren’t reflections of who I am; they aren’t problems for me to solve or things I need to internalize and apologize for.
He’s teaching me to breathe through my natural desire to get hot with anger. He is teaching me to pray for these people who are mean, and not in a pious/removed/too-holy-for-anger way, but as a healthier, more productive way of dealing with the anger than swearing. Because the problem of the mean driver is actually a bigger problem, and that is the problem of his soul.

The Friday night alone at home.
But I have a home I love. And there was the sound of rain outside. And tea.
The eventual receding of the panic and tears. The ability to breathe in trust. How every time I get through intense emotional situations, I come to a place of deeper peace and surrender.
And God is parenting me: “Emotions come and go. Let them. Remember, you were laughing earlier today. You’ll laugh again. You’ll feel hope and peace again.”

The $900 spent at the vet.
But I have pet insurance. And people who love me and Arlow, and who have hit the pause button on their day today to pray for us.

The dog who still isn’t feeling well.
But the friend who called and said she’ll bring me chicken broth for him tomorrow. And the other friend who called and gave me advice on how to keep his vomiting at bay so that we could both get some sleep tonight.
And the gift of loving a pet so deeply. And how that is a small reflection of the way God loves me.

*

Mourning what I don’t have, while wildly grateful for what I do.

Panic that leads to peace.

Suffering that leads to hope.

This God who is so much bigger and so much more good than my broken heart would at times have me believe.