Beauty in Sorrow

 

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It’s the end of September as I write this, and fall is finally making its way to Mississippi. The past few days we’ve been able to walk outside without feeling like we’ve stepped into an oven. The cool breeze feels like refreshing grace after months of intense heat.

Today is the perfect day to sit on the front porch and visit.

I’ve invited Tara Dickson to visit us today and share a bit about her fight for hope. She’s walked down a path of sorrow in losing her husband to brain cancer earlier this year. And yet in her post today, she speaks of finding beauty in the midst of sorrow.

You can connect with Tara on her blog, Bruised But Not Broken, at taradickson.com

Click here to read Tara’s beautiful words.

 

 

Broken Places

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Picture by Angela Ewing

When we are sitting in the darkness with our unanswered prayers, our unfulfilled dreams, and the ache of empty places in our heart it is easy to lose hope. It is easy to believe that things will never change.  It is easy to believe that God doesn’t see, doesn’t hear, and doesn’t even care.

The truth is God does see. He does hear our prayers. He does care.

He gathers our tears in His bottle (Psalm 56:8), He is for us (Psalm 56:9), and He works in the broken places to answer the deepest cries of our heart.

I’m so excited to have Becky Spies as my guest today. Becky shares how God beautifully redeemed the broken and hurting places in her life in her post That Time I Got A Letter From God.

You can connect with Becky at her blog girl, redeemed at beckypricespies.com

Becoming a Hope Warrior

I am so excited to welcome Linsey Ewing today. Linsey is my cousin (which makes her FABULOUS in my book) and, even more important, she has a story of hope that she is just beginning to share.  Linsey’s courageous post gives an inside view of her fight for hope in the midst of being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

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“Hope warriors are people who know their own brokenness, who aren’t afraid of the brokenness they see in others. They are people who say ‘I am with you. You are not alone.’”

When I saw these words on Erin’s blog, I gave a mental cheer.

I’m a Hope Warrior!

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I believe hope is an essentially human quality—what separates us from every other creation in the universe. For a time, though, I forgot this little maxim of mine, and I gave up hope, or I thought I did. I stopped listening to myself and I failed to recognize the great power I had within me—the power that hope gives us.

Now I know I’m a Hope Warrior and I do my best to use that power every day. I’d like to share my story with you, my struggle for hope and how that hope was, for a time, a bent and twisted thing, and the freedom that I’ve found in real hope.

I’ve struggled with depression all my life. Even as a young child I withdrew from people, partly because I am intensely introverted, partly because I would occasionally receive an emotional blow from some heavy, age-inappropriate topic and needed to retreat to process it.

My depression became more pronounced through my adolescence and young adulthood, when hormones and general angst didn’t do me any favors, and I fought it through every means available.  I went to therapy, took prescription medication, and self-medicated with a lot of alcohol and a little drug use.  Several of those things worked, while I was using them, but none of them treated the underlying problem, mostly because I never realized there was an underlying problem.

Though I got several “diagnoses,” no one explained to me that I had a disease that would require constant attention and treatment. As a result, I would go to therapy or take anti-depressants for a few months, feel better, and stop treatment until it got so bad that I needed help again. And I only got help when it was really bad—when I stopped functioning, couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t get out of bed for a week, or had self-harm fantasies.

The worst of these times was March 2012. In the first months of that year, my life flipped upside down, and I was under extreme pressure.  I completely broke down, as I believe anyone would have under the circumstances. I was encouraged seek help, which I did, and I was put on yet another anti-depressant. This time I stayed on it.

Six months later I met some friends at a local bar for drinks. When they were ready to go, I told them I was going to finish my beer and I’d be right behind them, but I didn’t leave after that beer. I stayed another five hours. I drank more beer. I drank a total of eight 16oz cans of beer. I closed the place down, talked to everyone there, almost went home with someone to whom I’d given a fake name, and all but danced on the bar.

At closing, I got in my car and drove home. I passed two police cars, one of which had someone pulled over, but no alarm bells went off. I missed my driveway and had to back up and try again. I walked in the door and fell in my bed fully clothed including shoes.

When I woke up, I couldn’t believe what I had done—literally couldn’t believe I had acted that way. (Remember how I said I was an intense introvert?)  I hate talking to strangers. I don’t like bars and will only go if I’m with a friend or a small group and don’t have a choice. I’m not a drinker since my early college (self-medicating) days. I am a rule-follower—it’s not like me to drive drunk or be heedless of authority figures around me.

This behavior was so far outside my character it was like I’d been possessed. I was so ashamed of myself that I spent that Sunday wallowing in self-hatred. First thing Monday I began making calls, trying to find a doctor to help me figure out what happened.

Many months and mental health professionals later, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, untreated and undiagnosed because I had only ever presented with symptoms of depression and this was my first manic episode. It did, however, mirror an earlier period when I was drinking heavily (self-medicating with a depressant) and acting out wildly, but at that time neither I nor anyone around me was aware I was acting out of character. Basically the depressants (prescription or otherwise) only treated half of my disease, causing the other half to manifest disproportionately.

Bipolar also explained other behaviors that I now know are hypomanic (still potentially harmful, but not as obviously reckless as behaviors typically associated with mania), but that I had always assumed were character flaws or strengths: bouts of frenzied spending; inability to manage my money;  times when I would start a dozen projects without completing any of them; times when I would take on more than any reasonable person could expect to accomplish—and pull it off; losing time; and soaring feats of creativity and accomplishment.

Those words, “Bipolar Disorder” were like a death toll for me. Those words meant I was crazy and I would never be normal. They meant I would have to keep this filthy secret about myself, because I would be judged from the moment anyone knew and no one would ever love me. I knew I’d never be able to have another romanic relationship, because who would want to be with someone crazy? I knew I’d never be able to have children because I wouldn’t be able to take care of them, plus I could pass this disease along.

I no longer knew what parts of me were me and which parts were the disease. I suddenly didn’t know who I was anymore.

In my mind, depression was an ok thing to have (remember I’d never thought of it as a disease), but Bipolar Disorder was a disorder, something that I’d have to live with forever, from which I could never be cured or healed, for which there was no hope.

Speaking of hope, isn’t that supposed to be what I’m talking about?

Yes, but Erin’s quote is also about brokenness—recognizing it in ourselves and others and being unafraid of it. I’ve never been afraid of others’ brokenness, but I was terrified of my own. I thought it was my fault for being sick—not that Bipolar Disorder explained why I did sometimes did “bad” things, but rather it was the reason I was a bad person.

I lived with this mentality for four years, and I got so used to living with it that I stopped noticing how it affected my outlook and attitude.  In those years I had more big life-changes, and in 2014 things really started to go downhill fast. I stayed depressed—my medication kept me out of bed most of the time, but I lived in daily fog of unhappiness. When I paid attention to it at all, I blamed the depression on my external circumstances—my living situation, my home, my job. I never acknowledged that things were steadily getting worse, regardless of what was happening in my environment.

Then my amazing therapist recommended (actually, she more or less twisted my arm off) I enter a outpatient day program to see if we could get to the source of the problem. What finally convinced me to try it was when she looked me in the eye and said “We are missing something. Your quality of life is shit.” I realized she was right, and I hadn’t noticed.

Some other things I hadn’t noticed until I was in the program was how little I was doing to help myself—how little hope I had, and how twisted and wonky that hope was.

I never hoped to get better. I never hoped to be understood, accepted, treated fairly, or acknowledged as a human being rather than a disease. I never hoped to be loved for my true self. I never hoped to be successful or to do meaningful work. I never hoped to get married or have children.

Here are the things I did hope for: I hoped it would go away. I hoped swallowing pills would remove my symptoms—I was right to take my medications, but I never paid attention to what they were (not) doing for me, so I failed to participate in my own treatment. I hoped that other people would read my mind, that they would research my disease and find ways to help me with it, but I was unwilling to communicate about or research it myself. I hoped that people would love me in spite of my disease and for myself alone, but I withheld myself from them. I hoped that I would not get depressed or manic, but did nothing to prevent it. I hoped people would reach out to me, but I withdrew from them and sometimes even punished them for asking questions. I hoped that therapists and doctors would cure me, but I did little to help them understand what was wrong.

But this story has a happy ending. Now that I’ve completed treatment and embraced my Hope Warrior status, I’m happy to say that I’m healthier than I have ever been, and my hope is fat and healthy. I can contemplate my own brokenness without fear, or even sadness.

I have accepted that I have an incurable disease, that it is part of me but doesn’t define me, and I believe I am great because of and in spite of it.

The best news is I have TONS of hope. Here’s the thing though—the hope I have these days isn’t always big or grand—I can’t always manage to hope for world peace—but it’s real and realistic, and that’s the cool thing about hope. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be there.

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Here’s what I hope now: I hope my story helps you, whether or not you are mentally ill. I hope for some of you I put words to things you didn’t even know were in your heart, as Erin’s words did for me. I hope you see that the following list can apply to any situation that seems hopeless, not just facing Bipolar or another disease:

Oftentimes hope for me means getting out of bed in the morning, not going to bed in the afternoon, or setting a 30-minute timer for being in bed. Sometimes hope means hanging on when I know things will not look better in the morning or for many mornings after—when I know tomorrow will be just as bad if not worse than today.  It means having faith that, when I’m doing things that hurt me, I will eventually stop—that at some point I will come back to baseline (or “normal”) and I will be able to sort out whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into.

Hope is forgiving myself for making those messes and planning for future messes. Hope is strategizing ways to keep myself safe when I’m not myself. It’s asking for help from those who love me and trusting that they do love me, even when I feel most unlovable.  It means being open and honest about what I’m going through, with myself as well as with others. Hope means knowing I have a disease that is at best manageable, not curable, that it does and will affect me every day of my life, but that does not mean every day has to be affected by it.

The hardest part of being a Hope Warrior is knowing that my friends and family do not understand, not because they don’t love me, but because they are not me. They don’t understand because they are ignorant, and that is not their fault. They don’t feel and see and know what I do. If I want them to, I have to tell them, but my powers of description are limited, and I need to realize that they will never completely understand. My parents will continue to ask questions that hurt me. My friends will continue to invite me to do things that would be harmful to me. They can’t remember everything, and they are not responsible for my care.

Hope is remembering, when those things happen, that it does not mean I am unimportant or unloved. Hope is caring for myself instead of waiting for others to do it for me. Hope is choosing to see love as it is given to me, not only how I would prefer to receive it.

Hope is hard.

That’s why it takes a Warrior.

What Is A Hope Warrior?

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My sister and I grew up watching Wonder Woman fight for justice every afternoon after school. We cheered as she deflected gunfire with her bracelets and wrapped bad guys in her Lasso of Truth. We spent many hours playing Wonder Woman, fighting against imaginary villains. We made bracelets out of duct tape and used rope for our own Lassos of Truth.

Our parents loved the Superman movies. At the end of these movies, everyone in the theater would clap and cheer when Superman saved the day.

Our family enjoys watching the old Batman television shows. My kids love it when the words “ZAP” and “POW” pop up during the fight scenes. And then there’s the way everything is labeled. The secret entrance to the bat cave, the bat-shark repellant that appeared on batman’s belt right before he battled a shark, the buttons on the bat computer.

It is inspiring when someone stands up to evil and wins, especially against unbelievable odds. We clap and cheer for our favorite super heroes, even though deep down we know victory is sure. Superman always saves the day, Wonder Woman always gets the bad guys and Batman will not rest until the villains are in Gotham jail.

In real life, however, the struggle doesn’t follow a script. We don’t figure out a solution between commercials. The warriors don’t have to change into a certain outfit to fight. And the villain doesn’t always have “bad guy” written all over him.

In real life, fighting for hope is a constant, costly battle that wears on us-mind, body and soul. A Hope Warrior is someone who engages in that battle because they do not want despair to have the last word. Hope Warriors have a quiet, fierce strength born out of a belief that circumstances do not define a situation.

Hope Warriors are as different as the battles they face, but they do have a few things in common.

Hope Warriors are real.

They don’t hide behind the word “fine”, and if you say “How are you?” they will probably answer honestly.  Sometimes they even let loose on the expletives, because honestly, sometimes the thing that best describes a situation is a well-placed four letter word.

Hope Warriors Feel.

Hope Warriors aren’t the ones who hunker down and just try to make it through a situation. They feel the emotions. My friend Sara Littlejohn tells me often “Up and out, Erin. Let the emotions come up and out.” Stuffing emotions doesn’t make us strong. It makes the pressure build up until we reach our breaking point or look for ways to stay numb. And we weren’t meant to live life numb.

Hope Warriors go to counseling sessions because it will help them. They do the hard work of repair so that healing can happen. Hope Warriors step toward healthy. And they want that for those around them.

Hope Warriors reach out to help others.

As we fight for hope we recognize Hope Warriors around us and we cheer them on. We know how hard it is to keep hoping and we know that hope is worth fighting for. Hope Warriors need each other because there are days when our circumstances mock any bit of hope we feel.

Hope warriors are not people who have it all together. They are not people who give surface answers to the messiness of life. Hope warriors are people who know their own brokenness, who aren’t afraid of the brokenness they see in others. They are people who say “I’m with you. You are not alone.”

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Are you wondering if you are a Hope Warrior? Take a look at your life. Has there been a time when you’ve stood before the darkness in your life and yelled (or even whispered) “You. Will. Not. Win.”

Hello there, Hope Warrior. I’m so glad you are here.

 

 

 

 

On Extractions and the Rich Power of Words

I want to welcome Tammy Gonzalez to the blog today. I love the way her story reminds us of the power of words – the negative ones we speak to ourselves and the life-giving ones we receive from others. Tammy is a fellow Hope*Writer. Be sure to connect with IMG_1405her in the links below.

 

These days, I tend to wonder about a lot of things.

In part, this is due to my age and stage in life.

In part, it’s due to experiences of this past year.

And in part it comes, quite simply, from the pervasive hopelessness that seems to overtake me more often than not.

Caught in waves of questions, guilt, and self-condemnation, I wonder if I’ll ever get past this, if I’ll ever be able to embrace grace and move forward, and if I’ll ever really and truly be able to offer something of value to those around me. I’ve been frozen, unable to concentrate well. And all too often I’ve hidden myself in games of Spider Solitaire rather than allow my mind to explore the rough and ragged areas of life that I’m trying to avoid.

But at least—and this is huge—I can now read again.

For a while, it was all I could do to take in a short blogpost. Finally, though, words penned by authors as diverse as Henri Nouwen and Shauna Niequist have begun to make their way into my soul, resonating with some of my deeper places and helping me to see beyond the desolation that has seemed intent on consuming me these past several months.

And believe it or not, an infected tooth was the catalyst for this step forward.

I had been trying to run—from myself, my thoughts, my reality. Then came last Friday, when after weeks of discomfort a problematic molar finally had to be yanked out, and with it came a significant amount of infection that had been hidden between the roots.

The extraction was actually somewhat painful. An hour’s worth of attempts to anesthetize the area had met with only partial success. So by the time I arrived home, I was feeling just a bit sorry for myself, and eventually a few tears gave way to a waterfall and I was pouring out my lament to God, finally confessing my frustrations, my regrets, my heart that was breaking from words spoken to me and by me, a heart breaking from my own failures and the failures of others. Literally and figuratively, it was a watershed moment.

But that moment was just the beginning. The entire weekend was punctuated by times of tears as I dealt more directly and more humbly with my regrets of the past months and even the past years. God kept at me, relentlessly yet beautifully: a conversation with my dear friend Lisa about laying it all out before God and trusting Him to cleanse, heal and forgive; a night of live worship, soul-stirring music and prayer led Chris Tomlin, Matt Redmond, Max Lucado and others at The Forum. Many rich words, many bittersweet tears.

Through it all, there was a sense that God was moving, that the infection that had been pervading my soul was being slowly extracted, not as quickly as the infection that had been yanked out with the tooth, but it was being extracted nonetheless.

And it didn’t stop there. I encountered Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart and was blown away by what I found there:

The struggle is real because the danger is real. It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness…

The encounter with Christ does not take place before, after, or beyond the struggle with our false self and its demons. No, it is precisely in the midst of this struggle that our Lord comes to us…

Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature.

This is a journey. In reality, it’s a journey I’ve been on for quite some time. I’ve taken a number of detours, and I’ve circled the same area more than once. But it feels so good to once again take in the richness of the written word, to delight in Niequist’s essays on life, friendship and food, to be touched to the core by Nouwen’s wise, insightful counsel that seems meant just for me.

Words. Words of life, words of hope, words spoken by friends, words penned by strangers and set tomusic or placed in print.

Words all used by God.

I’m taking them in again—in part due to an infected tooth—and I am so immensely grateful.

Tammy Gonzalez is a wife, mom to three kids (one of whom is already in heaven), and a teacher to the homebound in Southern California. One of her greatest delights is seeing how God fits together the details of our lives in awe-inspiring ways–through random conversations or the voice of nature, through world events or ordinary moments, through heights of joy or depths of despair. 
You can connect with Tammy at her blog, Seeking What’s of Worth, or on Facebook

What Does Fighting For Hope Look Like?

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When I go running, this hill is my nemesis.  It really shouldn’t be called a hill, because “hill” is a pleasant word. This land feature is a specimen of suffering, whose purpose is to inflict pain. It steadily inclines and curves so that when I think I’ve reached the top, I’ve really just hit the bottom of the next incline.

Sometimes I hit this hill with gusto. I lean into the incline and focus on making it to the top. Sometimes I walk up the hill, enduring the incline and reminding myself that I can make it to the top. If I  sprained my ankle on the way up the hill, I would painfully hurple up the hill. As long as I keep moving forward I know I will make it to the top.

The way I tackle this hill looks a lot like the way I fight for hope. Sometimes I fight for hope by pushing back the darkness, strong and  warrior-like, with a victorious war cry. Sometimes I move slowly forward, whispering against the darkness, enduring the battle, hoping it will end soon. And many times I hurple. Last week I hope-hurpled as I ate a container of chocolate icing while writing about hope. Speaking truth to myself is good. Stress-eating on chocolate… yeah, that’s a hurple.

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But no matter how I fight, with the war cry or the whisper, and even with a chocolate covered spoon in my hand, I am still fighting.

Each time you and I choose truth over the lies of the darkness, we are fighting for hope.

We fight for hope when:

We order a salad at Wendy’s instead of the #1 Combo super sized with everything fried.

We speak truth.

We file for divorce after years of manipulation, affairs, abuse.

We do something that scares us, like audition for a musical, or run a 5K.

We set a goal of losing weight and move toward that goal one meal at a time.

We don’t give in to despair as we walk with a loved one through cancer.

We believe God can bring beauty into hopeless circumstances.

These are just a few of the ways I’ve seen Hope Warriors in my life fight for hope. These are all completely different, but three truths form the foundation of each decision:

I am worth fighting for.  

I don’t want to live numb anymore. 

This battle will change my life and the lives of those around me for good.

Fighting for hope looks different for everyone. It can also look different for the same person in different moments. That’s why the guest posts in this series are so important.

Sharing our stories is powerful. Sharing our stories awakens the courage, compassion, and hope that is inside each one of us. Seeing someone else fight for hope shows us that the fight is possible for us as well.

 

 

 

 

Standing Against the Waves

Today Natalie Ogbourne joins us to share about her fight for hope in the midst of discouragement and despair. Natalie is a hope*writer who loves being outdoors. Be sure to connect with her through the links at the end of her post.

Something was changing with my husband’s job. We didn’t know what, but it was obvious our days in our comfortable little house and our comfortable little life were ebbing away. Every afternoon when he walked through the door, I arched my eyebrows and asked, “How was your day? Anything interesting?” And every day, he would tell me no.

En route to a family vacation, my husband spent a day in meetings at his company’s headquarters. The kids and I poked around downtown, measuring the hours until we could pick him up and head south. They relished the freedom from school and I reveled in the knowledge that on this day I wouldn’t have to ask the loaded question, that he wouldn’t have news, that I wouldn’t have to think about our future for a whole week.

And then he got into the van. “They asked me to come back here,” he whispered.

I should have seen it coming.

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When we arrived at North Carolina’s outer banks, the cold November Atlantic rolled out like a white carpet and invited us in. While the locals wrapped themselves in sweaters, we donned swimsuits and headed for the water.

By day I reclined on the warm sand and wondered what it would mean to move. At night I propped myself against the pillows and scoured the internet for acreages.

Eventually my family pried me from my perch on the shore. One timid step at a time, I waded in, first up to my ankles, then my knees, then my hips before I braved the bracing swells and plunged in to join their quest to break past the place where the waves broke so they could ride their rafts back to shore.

It wasn’t as easy as it looked.

It required some semblance of balance. And timing. And strength. Endurance and comfort with water.

None of these come naturally to me.

I figured it out, though, and managed to maneuver back to where the surf met the sand, where I let go of the board, stood up, and stepped forward.

“Wait, Mom,” my son called. As I looked his way the ocean surged and knocked me down. I was no match for the force of the wave . It pushed me under, swirled me around, and spat me out. I crawled toward dry sand abraded, bedraggled, and breathless.

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I hadn’t seen it coming.

“I tried to tell you to wait for the wave to pass before you stood up,” my son said as he reached to help me up.

I’d have been fine if I’d waited. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come naturally to me either.

Inside ten weeks we’d packed up and bid our farewells to our old, comfortable life and fallen off the moving van at our new one. We’d relocated before—three times. I knew it wasn’t easy, that it required balance. Timing. Strength. Endurance. And none of those come naturally to me.

Easy or not, settling in was our only choice, so we unpacked. We located the grocery store and the park. Found doctors and dentists. Procured library cards and visited churches.

It’s a slow process, settling in, but I stood straight and stepped forward only to be knocked down and pushed under, swirled around and spat onto the shore by a wave which left me abraded, bedraggled, and breathless.

I didn’t see it coming.

Never had I felt like a stranger for so long. Never had a connection felt so hard. Never had a felt so alone, so alienated from people and abandoned by God.

Years I spent that way, struggling to stand, only to get swept off of my feet by the force of a wave and emerge from the water more disheveled and disheartened than when I set out.

And then I noticed that there’d been a voice, one that I’d missed with all the noise from the waves, a voice whispering, “Wait.” I’d heard it early on, but  dismissed it because it didn’t make sense. I’d heard in in a friend’s encouragement that these things take time, but discounted it because she’s never moved. I heard it echo in words about mounting up on eagle’s wings but disregarded it because, frankly, I didn’t believe it applied.

I didn’t believe it applied because I didn’t know settling in could be this hard. I didn’t believe connections among God’s people could feel this impossible. I didn’t believe anything could be more necessary than companionship in our new hometown.

The voice spoke louder when—after five years of fighting the waves—I opened a book I’d been meaning to read for ten years and remembered that God’s people have always been waiting for something, that it’s by design that we wait, that perhaps what we wait for is not always the most necessary thing.

And there I began to crawl away from the waves to wage war against despair. I fought not with anger but with hope, with the belief that there could be a purpose in the waiting, with the knowledge that there was indeed something more necessary than human companionship.

There is the companionship of God.

Natalie Ogbourne is fascinated by the roads we wander and the lessons they teach. She writes about life’s journey—about faith, family, and adventure—and especially the places where they intersect. She’s a conflicted outdoorsy type who prefers high heels to sensible shoes and struggles to pull herself away from all those urgent things which demand attention indoors. And because she loves hiking and the places our roads take us, she’s always got her eyes open for a skirt that will stand up to the trail. 
Connect with Natalie at: