Do or die

I felt some angst after reading an email.  Why, I questioned, does my perception of people’s responses to me or to situations affect me so much?  Depression dogged me the rest of the day. 

The next morning I contemplated my reaction again.  And an answer dawned on me.  I define myself by people’s reactions.  That is why I have difficulty with opposing viewpoints or a lack of acceptance from others; these things become personal threats.  Not only that, but I always assume I am in the wrong and must therefore change to suit the person or circumstance.

Two events from the past rose to my mind: one a defining moment and one a reflection of my anxiety.  The first took place when I was six years old after my mom returned from her 6 year stay in a mental hospital.  I screamed and cried and clung to the front porch of my grandmother’s house when it was time to get in the car to move to our new home.  Not only had my Granny been my mom and her home my home, but my biological mom was a very scary person.  My first memory of mom is her throwing up in her napkin at the Thanksgiving table after having too much to drink.  She was a ghostly figure who came in and out of my life at various times (when she would try and come back)…I didn’t like her and the instability she created.  I also had overheard my grandmother call her a drunken slut; even though I didn’t know what that meant I did understand the hatred behind those words.  Now I was to live with her and the man who did very hurtful and frightening things to me.

I used to stand on the couch in the living room of our first floor flat and stare out the picture window in what I believed was the direction of my grandmother’s house.  In my mind’s eye I can still see my mom passed out on the floor, and my inner ear can still hear her derisive screams that I look just like “her” (my grandmother whom she hated).  She embraced my sister, talked with her and appeared to care for her.  I was on the outside, and internally I was dying. 

One night I awoke, and my sister was not in the bed next to mine.  Fearfully I groped down the dark hallway and found no one.  I was alone.  Panic enveloped me; it was then my needs unconsciously shifted.   I could not allow this emptiness to happen again.

I changed from a girl who did not fit into a new situation and with a “new” mom to a girl who needed to adjust or die.  When sick, I found mom expressed care toward me.  I learned that neediness got her attention.  I learned to let her do things for me because she smiled and seemed to enjoy it.  I learned to pretend to love her and stand in awe of her.  I learned her ways and conformed to them.  And, the abandonment never happened again.  I was in.  I was no longer who I had been, but that awful circumstance did not happen again. 

The second flashback was setting the table in the kitchen of the house we built when I was a teen.  I would agonize over who’s untensils to arrange first, my mom’s or my dad’s.  I felt the order in which I did that would influence their behavior and love towards me.  Who needed to be placated; who needed to be appeased?  Who was the most unstable; whose wrath did I need to assuage?  Who needed my affirmation most; who needed to be pandered to?  Who would hate me most for not paying attention to them first?  I lived in dread of their anger and chastisement; their disapproval had to be avoided at all costs.  That usually happened when I did something on my own, when I did not figure their responses into the equation of my decision.

Following those memories, I became aware of an emptiness in my chest.  I recalled the picture of me running between my mom and my granny (described in my last post, Running in circles and set on a rock), and I remembered the image of the metal sheet locked and embedded in my torso (described in Taking it).  Those visuals and these flash backs certainly help explain my overwhelming desire to conform to people and situations.  Do or die.  Conform or be abandoned.  Adapt or be hated.  The choices were clear.  Perhaps they will also provide clues to the vacuum around my heart.

Oh Lord, help me get beyond this mode of functioning.  I no longer want to be in this place.

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Running in circles and set on a rock

After almost a week of slogging through life as though partially immersed in a quagmire, this picture went through my mind when I lay in bed reflecting on the day.  I was running on a small, oval dirt track set in small, slightly unkempt grassy field.  Directly across from and facing each other on opposite long sides of the oval stood my Grandmother and my Mom; my racing feet were carving the elliptical pathway as I frantically sped round and round from one to the other.  Along with that image came interpretation.  I was surprised to find I was still living life trying to please them, torn by each one’s demand for loyalty, their extreme dislike of each other and the fear of losing either if I did not conform to their needs.  It was clear I would never reach my goals while continuing my hopeless circular journey.  I needed to break away from the gravitational pull that kept me in their orbit; then I would fly on a straight trajectory toward the dreams of my choice.

That visual then morphed into a slightly different take on the same theme.  The track changed to an old fashioned firefighter’s life net with my grandmother and mom holding either side.  As I sat in the middle, they jerked the rigid oval frame up and down making the inside canvas behave like a trampoline.  There I flopped and bounced at their whim, completely under their influence; the only thing I could do was feel nauseated, disoriented and miserable.  Again, understanding came.  At alternate times in my young life I experienced each as my safety net.  This was essential for me when they separately functioned as my care givers, but I no longer needed them in that capacity.  Now God is my safety net.  After this realization, I saw God reach for me and lift me from my unhealthy status and draw me to Himself.  Holding me close in an upright position, my feet and legs dangling, He hugged me and as though assimilated through osmosis, His power calmed me.  Gently and slowly He set my feet on the rock on which He stood.  My weak legs wanted to collapse, so He supported me, but I was sure the longer I stayed the stronger I would become.

I was reminded of Psalm 40:1-2:

“I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

I have long considered these my life verses (except for the waiting patiently part; that I have not done well).  Time and again I have experienced God lifting me “out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire”; always I assumed I was placed on the Rock.  I may have been.  But, I have never before been given a clear indication that it actually happened.  Now I know; it is done.  I am on the Rock.  And, I will learn how to stand.

On the flip side…

I am doing battle with myself over my last post.  The troubled grandmother of whom I spoke still has a tender place in my heart as my Granny, the woman who took in my sister and me when we had no mother at home to care for us and who raised us to the best of her ability.  That was the same woman who smiled at me and was a consistent foundation when all else was falling apart…the woman who did what she believed was right in the face of daunting odds…the woman who in her 60’s embraced a three month old infant, changed her diapers, washed her clothes and shouldered the responsibility of teaching and training her. ..the woman who, with her husband, decided to add on to their house to accommodate their son and his two daughters when it became apparent their wife and mother was not coming home from the mental hospital any time soon.  That was the Granny I loved.

But, those facts are accompanied by others, such as the effect wrought on her by the dysfunction of her family of origin.  Her obsessive compulsive work ethic and lack of fulfillment was fostered there.  She was the oldest girl of 11 children; in a rare moment of confession she described her situation in this way:  while her mother had babies, she took care of the houe and helped raise her siblings.  When her youngest sister was born, her crib was in my Granny’s room, and Granny raised her; when her ailing grandfather moved to their home, she was the one who cared for him.  Another instance of unusual honesty revealed her unfulfilled desire to become a nurse, implying that her family dynamics kept her from realizing that dream.  She lost a baby girl at birth and never properly grieved her loss… after her husband passed away she never cried….suppressing her feelings was what she was trained to do.  I’m sure these conditions, and many others about which I will never know, shaped and molded her into the woman she was. 

Although her situation may evoke compassion and empathy, it does not erase the fact of her manipulative and controlling nature.  Even though I may somewhat understand that which caused the brokenness within her soul, that does not change the outcomes which resulted from her skewed perceptions and actions.  Even though I may understand the reasons behind her bitterness and the brittle armor she wore, those do not excuse her damaging attitudes and belief system.  No matter what her intentions were, the reality of her actions affected those she loved in very hurtful ways….and vica versa.   Harmful behavior causes injury, no matter how sincere the motivation and intention.  And, when healing is sought, truth must be accepted no matter how much your soul longs to protect the image of those you love.

Add to the pot (already containing Granny’s  internalized, unsettled problems) an alcoholic husband (this is my guess…the silence of the family never allowed discussion), a son who sexually abused his child under her roof, a daughter-in-law who committed herself to a mental institution, and two needy children, and one may begin to understand the cauldron of unresolved issues which boiled under the surface in this place we called home.

What is the result?  Pain and love.  Heart ache and sadness.  Without God, hopelessness; without God, despair; without God, hurts beyond healing.

But there is a God, and He entered my life.  He is the one who defeated hopelessness and despair by coming to this earth, destroying the power of the Prince of this world and bringing light to those walking in darkness. (Isaiah 9:2)  Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 when He stated his purpose as he began His ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19  This is my God who has comforted me in my mourning, provided for me in my grief and has bestowed on me “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” Isaiah 62:2b-3a  This is the God who brings hope out of hopelessness and has the power to make all things beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)  This is the God who lifted me out of the slimy pit and set my feet upon a Rock…the rock of Jesus Christ. (Psalm 40:2)

Continuing on…

I must admit the birth of our amazing granddaughter has provided a much welcome break from the journey on which I have been traveling…her entrance into this world was like coming upon a sunny meadow after trudging for days through a dark, dank forest.  But, I hear the call of my God to continue my journey.  Staying in the meadow to avoid the painful, yet exceedingly joyful, path on which I have been traveling has begun to dry up my spirit.  Where else can I drink deeply from the well of Life but in the gracious will of my heavenly Father?  To meet and experience Him, to receive His ministry, to learn more of Him, to live with Him is far more soul gratifying than anything this world can offer.  So, again I move forward anticipating renewal, His love and His continued healing. (I am also still planning on enjoying our granddaughter!)

To refresh your mind, my last post (prior to those about our delightful granddaughter) was The terror cont’d in which I described concurrent nights of waking visions.  Subsequently, I experienced two more nights of visual revelations.  The first time, I awoke to see my small child crouched behind my grandparent’s living room couch carefully and meticulously using the nozzle tool to vacuum the carpet’s edge (this was one of the chores I was required to do)…and she was crying.  This was significant and unusual, for tears were not part of the culture of our household.  One did what one was told with no questions asked, talking was a rare commodity and expressing one’s feelings was unheard of.  Surprised by her weeping, I realized I was looking through a window into her heart, and for the first time I understood the pain and weariness of her toiling isolation.  She was being trained to take up the baton of her grandmother’s obsessive compulsive work ethic and dreary “I am a rock, I am an island” mentality (to quote Simon and Garfunkle)…there was no room for play or meaningful relationships; to learn to work was of first importance.  In the days and weeks following my newly gained perception, vignettes paraded across my mind of the manipulative drudgery required during the formative years of my child’s life by the ruling matriarch of our family.  In that environment, I learned my value was determined by what I could do, not by who I was.  Any sense of personal worth was wiped away, until the core of my being was filled with emptiness. 

I lived with the memory of her oppression and pain for days until I could bear it no longer.  To experience release, my God once again led me to forgive…to forgive my grandmother for trying to live her life through me, for trying to conform me into her image rather than helping me to grow into the person I was created to be, for not nurturing me and allowing me to be a child. 

Yet there was still a dark cloud hovering over my personal landscape, weighing me down and blocking the light from above.  Asking God for insight led me to realize I was still carrying my grandmother’s onus, the responsibility she had laid on my child to carry her legacy, her traditions, her code of life, the family curses and the family’s bondage.  Her burden had overcast my life with gloom, draining my energy, hiding hope and the wonderful plans God has for me.   

But, I was not bound forever!  At that moment of spiritual understanding, I refused to be her standard bearer any longer; I laid down her tyrannical charge on my life at the foot of the Cross.  There I saw the heavy mists of her powerful control absorbed into that instrument of Jesus’ death as smoke would quickly be sucked into a vacuum…and I gained a deeper understanding of what Scripture teaches when it states that Jesus “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” and bore on that torturous wood the wounds by which we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)  Through His sacrificial death, which defeated the powers of this dark world, her sin and misery was lifted from me, and I bore her burden no longer.

Marvelously made

I am a grandmother.  Amazing.  Truly amazing.  I am in awe of our granddaughter’s beauty and in the goodness of our Lord.  To think this perfectly formed human being grew from the union of an egg and sperm….it is nothing short of miraculous.  I bow in reverence and great thankfulness before her Creator.

“Oh yes, you shaped her first inside, then out; you formed her in her mother’s womb.  I thank you, High God – You’re breathtaking!  Body and soul, she is marvelously made!  I worship in adoration – what a creation!  You know her inside and out, you know every bone in her body; You know exactly how she was made, bit by bit, how she was sculpted from nothing into something.  Like an open book, You watched her grow from conception to birth; all the stages of her life were spread out before You, the days of her life all prepared before she’d even lived one day.” Psalm 139:13-16 The Message (I changed the pronouns to give glory to God for His masterpiece, our granddaughter.)