Eavesdropping

Last week, I was eavesdropping on a conversation in a public library while I was waiting for my tutoring student.

I knew quickly that the woman answering the questions lived with a chronic illness.  She was describing in vague tones, how her poor health was affecting her entire life.  She spoke of the struggle to still see what she had, not only what she had lost.  She still had her husband and her part-time job.

The conversation shifted slightly when the older woman asked how she experienced God right now.

Her response was simple, but telling.

“I want to know that He’s looking out for me.” 

There was a raw honesty in her pain and desperation.  For this is what we all want.  This is what we all forget.

Is he really a friend?  Does he care? Will he show me that there really is light in this world, not just darkness?

The woman  in chronic pain held back tears as she said, “it’s so hard to find daily support right now.”

 

 

As I listened, I got teary-eyed.  I’ve had that exact conversation so many times.  And yet this time being an observer, I experienced such appreciation and love towards both women.

The gift the woman with chronic illness gave was honesty and desperation.  The gift the older woman gave was a calm, empathetic presence and knack for listening and asking timely questions.  She gave the space for silent hope to be born. She is hopeful for the younger woman who can’t be hopeful for herself right now.

What I experienced in that ordinary moment of waiting was Christ on earth. Nothing less.

Two women both giving and receiving.  Both women willing to sit in sadness, to accept reality. Yet in their talking, hope, this invisible force was growing.  This space the women created was beautiful.  A space that Christ can be seen for who He actually is. One woman at the end of herself, another willing to affirm silently to herself that this is really where life begins.

I was assured as these women left, that this space they created together, was actually the incubator for joy. Not culturally-defined joy with bubbly, extroverted personalities, and an overabundance of laughter (although none of these attributes are wrong!) But a deep-seated joy, that can only begin as one lets go.  As chronic illness tends to strip away the people and work and facades we cling to, there is always the opportunity to begin again. To let go, to accept, and to begin again.

I am thankful for this moment of eavesdropping.  To see how close the Divine was to these women, even though I’m certain that he felt so far away.  I can only hope that some people experienced the closeness of God, as they witnessed me over the years angry and crying in many coffee shops across the city.

–For all those who have listened to me in my hopelessness, who hoped for themselves and for me.

The Beginning of Summer

Friends, I wanted to thank you for the many gracious responses from my last post.  This last month has been a healing one, full of big and small steps.  It’s been a time of winding down work and enjoying a week off at the end of May.  It’s been a time of full days, and then other days without any plans.  It included lots of reading, yoga and walks outside.  Time perusing book stores, making yummy desserts and eating great food!  A day trip to Columbus to celebrate a friend’s wedding and Bloomington to watch the Indiana State Track Meet.  It’s been a month of hard conversations-but important ones.  A time to talk to health professionals and fill in some gaps in my treatment.  It’s been a month of seeing small outward glimpses of my own inner work.   Of hearing my voice more clearly, seeing greater assertiveness rather than hesitation.

One of the hardest pieces of living in the aftermath of sexual assault is the shame that turned into feeling alone.  Like I was lacking some core piece of belonging.  Intellectually I knew the statistics-I knew that I wasn’t alone in my experience. And I also knew that there are a lot of supportive people around me.  And yet my body was telling a different story.

Here is a piece by John O’Donohue that is a beautiful blessing, which speaks mostly to belonging to yourself, which of course then extends to belonging to others.

For Belonging

 

May you listen to your longing to be free.

May the frames of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams.

May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart.

May you find a harmony between your soul and your life.

May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted.

May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time.

May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.

May you never place walls between the light and yourself.

May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you, mind you, and embrace you in belonging.

Breaking the Silence

 

I wondered about the day I would write this. Or if I ever would. Neither option is better or worse, but instead it’s about listening to the tones of one’s own healing story, and lean deeply into one’s intuition.

And my intuition is telling me to speak.

I was sexually assaulted by a female physical therapist two years ago today under the guise of medical treatment. I had just been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s 3 months before, and the doctor who diagnosed me referred me to this woman who worked in his building.

Last fall, I started following the Larry Nassar case and the US Gymnastics cover up of the rampant sexual assault in this sport. I felt several emotions: both a sense of validation and sadness. What happened to me has happened to hundreds, if not thousands of girls or young women. I am not alone, and yet part of healing is delving deep into the systemic injustice of assault and the silence that is interwoven into the story.

Sexual assault is bad enough. And then to worsen the injury, I, along with many women who have already testified in the Nassar case, have sought out the help of authorities, only to be silenced or shamed or told that “this is a reputable medical procedure.”

I won’t ever forget the day I got a letter in the mail from the female lawyer in Indianapolis, that I reported my assault to. A simple template letter just stating that she would not take my case. What happened to me apparently was not assault, but a documented medical procedure.

A response like that really messed with my head. Intuitively I knew this wasn’t true, yet I still was left to feel stupid. I was left to feel like I didn’t know the difference between medical procedure and assault. That somehow I was supposed to come to a place of acceptance that vaginal penetration without gloves or lubricant was supposed to heal my severe menstrual pain, what I was being treated for. The medical and legal system had let me down.

That acceptance never came. And since I’ve spent considerable time healing the past two years, I’m in a place where I can speak. This Nassar case feels personal for several reasons other than the fact that I find myself within the stories these brave, strong women are telling. I grew up 90 minutes from MSU, and personally knew several female athletes who attended Michigan State and had injuries sometime during college. I seriously hope none of them saw Nassar. I also currently live in Indianapolis, headquarters of U.S. Gymnastics, now the hub of an enormous cover-up.   U.S. Gymnastics stayed silent for way too long, and spoke too late.

I’ve spent many months thinking “What would be helpful about me speaking up?”

First, the answer must be that it’s healing for me and I must be strong enough to enter into the hard conversations that come afterwards. Because I know that many people will not get it or know what to say. Some may treat me differently afterwards or avoid me because my speaking out made them uncomfortable. Many don’t understand why a survivor of sexual assault needs to speak out for his/her own healing. But ultimately I am not speaking to the ignorant or the uncomfortable. I’m speaking to the people who know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m speaking to say, “I felt alone too, but now I don’t. And I don’t want you to feel alone either. The silence has harmed us both long enough.”

I’ve also learned that in taking the risk of telling a few people privately, the response has been loving and kind.

For those who are reading this, and want to be compassionate through words, but feel fearful about saying the wrong thing, here are a few pointers of what to say and what to avoid, at least in addressing me at this time. Every survivor may have their own different set of preferences.

-Please don’t ask questions. I’ve given all the information I want to give in this post.

-Please do not spiritualize assault. It is wrong. Period. Mentioning God’s redemption adds insult to injury.

-Please do not speak if you are shocked or overwhelmed. Projecting your own charged feelings about assault onto a survivor is very harmful.

-Please do not offer up a general, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” I know that this statement is said with the best motives. However usually, someone who hears about an assault wants to feel useful, in order to remove the uncomfortability that naturally surfaces. I am not asking anyone to do anything in particular, just be a person who can receive my story as truth.

-Please do not make referrals. I have a strong support system. I am in therapy and yoga. I am making healthy choices for myself.

-Please be yourself in your response, giving dignity and not pity.

-Please, if you see me in person, feel free to say, “I read your post, and ….” I will feel honored, not embarrassed.

-Please, even though this list is long, do not be overly worried about saying the “wrong” thing. Maybe consider, “if I was in Alyssa’s place, what would be the most loving thing I could hear?” Please, speak love.

 

 

Cancelled Plans

I have cancelled many plans the last six weeks or so.  Late spring is a temperamental season for my body.  Some days I have energy, other days I don’t.  Some days the pollen and mold counts are high, and I’m doing everything I can to make it through the work day, just to rest enough to hopefully still keep my commitment to yoga.  Some days my students are more trying, zapping my energy faster.  Some days I react to a damp building, and some days I’m going into a situation where I know I will have some sort of reaction.

 

And I go back to the word that’s so hard to say sometimes: No.

No, a word that swims against the cultural norm.

No, a word that a 27 year old shouldn’t have to say so much.

No, a word I often say with tears in my eyes.

 

No, a word I am learning to befriend.

No, a word that helps me pay attention to myself day after day.

No, a word that isn’t a threat, but an opportunity to shed some of my “shoulds.”

No, a word that my friends know how to accept well.

 

Recently, I received the gift of acceptance from a friend.  She is getting married next month and I had to cancel attending her bridal shower because I just needed to rest that day.  On top of that, she stopped over on her lunch break for a quick cup of tea and to open her gifts.  Before she left she made sure to say, “You know, if you can’t attend my wedding because you’re not feeling well, it’s okay.  I know you care about me.”

My friend knows me well enough that she realizes that attending her wedding could be difficult for me.  But my saying no at times doesn’t threaten her.  She accepts it in stride and she knows that many times I say No, I really want to say Yes.

Friendship actually is about presence and absence.  About get-togethers and cancelled plans.  About silence and conversation.  As I’ve adjusted to a lifestyle that’s sustainable for a life with chronic illness, I’m still enough to grasp the nuances of relationships and the commitment of friends.  I know that my silence and the times I have to say no, actually do add something to a friendship. The times where I’m confined to my bed, unable to be with people, has allowed me to re-imagine how I can communicate my care and concern without actually being present much of the time.

The kindness and acceptance of others helps me in turn to be kind to myself.  I’m hoping over time to see cancelled plans as an opportunity to sink even deeper into stillness, to honor myself by resting, and by doing these things, bringing more peace to myself and my relationships.

Below is a picture of a walk I took with Cash last weekend, when I basically cleared my schedule for the weekend in order to read, rest and walk.  He was one happy camper!

 

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Simple Questions

Last week I listened to a podcast, where the person being interviewed expressed that the words of her yoga teacher were still rattling around in her mind:

“How tender do you want to get? How soft do you want to become?”

Those words made me stop.

I want to be a person who can receive. Someone who can be present, accepting the simple moments as they come and go. I want to be able to be still myself, so I realize what I need and want, and not be so terrified of my fatigue.

I want others to know that they are so important, that I’m willing to get close enough so that they change me.

And yet I’ve lived enough to know that this vulnerability is costly.  My generation values authenticity and vulnerability and yet it’s hard to be the first person to speak, the person to say, “I’m not okay.”

These months have been ones of seeing myself more honestly, seeing my protective walls, and knowing that they don’t just come crashing down in a moment.  It’s more like a slow melting away.

Receptiveness doesn’t mean being a push-over, just as sacrifice means that one must first recognize that there is a self to sacrifice. Without a discerning eye, receptiveness could look like people pleasing and helping could be avoidance.

So I keep returning to stillness, to myself and the Divine, to see how much my ego actually is at work and to see my own goodness and worth more clearly.

Sometimes receptiveness looks like receiving love, being affirmed, being reminded of how valuable I am just for being me. It could mean a hug, a compliment, being still enough to receive this moment, and the unknown that comes with it.

In order to be soft, I want to live into my body, knowing its joys and its pains.  I want to feel what I’m actually feeling, when my jaw tenses up, when my shoulders scrunch to my ears, or when I can actually touch my toes! I want to know when my breath is shallow and when its full. I want to listen to the emotions that rise up in me.

As I daily pay attention to myself, I will be more attune to others, having extra capacity for laughter and tears.

For in times of vulnerability, there is a shared tenderness, and we both could become softer as a result.  Of course, the choice is ours.  We have to be willing to sit “on the mourner’s bench” as Nicholas Wolterstorff likes to say.

The one who is tender speaks bravely, inviting everyone else in the room into a softer, gentler place.

Into a more expansive view of the world.  Into a new emotion, understanding, or empathy.

But there is no force. She could be met with unhelpful silence, misunderstanding, pet answers.

But she also could be met with love and acceptance.  There is great risk in seeking to be tender.

Yet there’s also an invitation to everyone else in the room.

Do you want to be tender and soft too? Will you join me on this journey of honesty, risk, and feeling deeply?

 

 

Learning to Sit in Silence

Ever since I got back from Omaha, I have tried to maintain  two 20 minute silent prayer sits per day. Forming a habit is a messy process, so sometimes I forget, other days I only do it once, and I’ve played with the best times of day.  I’ve also attended a weekend meditation workshop at my yoga studio, and picked up some pointers there.  One helpful hint was to meditate before dinner, but that doesn’t really work for me because I’m so hungry by the time I get home!

 

But even though this habit is imperfect and in-process, it’s still forming.  I wake up, and these days I’m trying to wake up without an alarm, and hit my sounding bowl 3 times.  I sit with my back against the wall, on my yoga mat and I close my eyes, placing my palms on my knees.  Some days I hold a more traditional meditation practice repeating a mantra, accepting all the thoughts, emotions and sensations that come up.  Other days, I practice centering prayer, which is more about releasing those thoughts, emotions and sensations, returning to my sacred word, not as a mantra, but when a thought or emotion comes to mind.  The focus is on letting go.  I repeat this same practice right before bed.

There are not really “a-ha” moments.  It’s just a practice in being still. It’s a practice in letting go, so in my active life I will know how when the time comes.  Contemplation and action are not truly separate.  However, even in only intentionally practicing this for one month, I am noticing some shifts.

In silence, it is much easier to embrace the reality that we all are one. And that at the core of our being, we are full of love and goodness.

Not every day, but slowly, my mind can come to stillness more quickly.  In the beginning, I felt like I was constantly returning to my sacred word because my mind could not come to quiet.

It can be quite emotional.  Being quiet and still in our culture is hard!  Hard memories have come to the forefront of my mind.  There has been some freedom for me in letting them go in my prayer sits, but processing them in counseling.

My true self surfaces in these prayer sits and I’m asked to shed my false self.  Letting agendas, plans, titles, and relationships fall away is both scary and a relief.  I am more than what my culture, family, or friends say about me.

Simply, it’s an embrace of the unknown.  And in this quiet space, my perception slowly shifts.  I see reality differently. Once I emerge from my prayer sit, hopefully, I am more grounded, and over time full of compassion for myself and the world.

When Chronic Illness Feels Like a Downward Spiral

For about two months, I’ve slowly been getting more and more fatigued.  It’s undramatic, yet noticeable.  I’m at the point where I have significantly limited my activities outside of work hours.  My goals are to keep up my healthy rhythms, eat, sleep, go to work, and rest at night.

It’s a hard place to go back to. It’s limiting and requires and embrace of solitude that I don’t really want to face right now.  My limits are even more apparent than usual, inviting me to pay heed to them and rest.  It means facing difficult memories about my illness and coming to rest in a reality that “Everything is going to be okay.”

There have been beautiful things about these last two months: a trip to Omaha, a baseball game after work, early morning walks, reading before bed, an Easter meal at my sister’s apartment, a walk at Eagle Creek, an unexpected card in the mail, a friend bringing me a meal, even though I had to cancel dinner plans.

However, what is difficult about experiencing wonderful memories in the midst of relentless fatigue is the numbness in the body.  I feel as though I’m watching the memory and I’m not truly part of it.  It’s fatigue’s curse.  There’s a sense of disconnection from the body that causes anxiety and a sense of separateness that can be overwhelming.

 

After living with chronic fatigue for the past 10 years, I’m learning to grieve and pay attention to the subtle, mundane ways I feel energy leave my body in a day’s time.  Not for lack of boundaries or overextending myself, or a poor night’s sleep.  Simply because going through life’s tasks can be exhausting.

Some days driving 15 minutes can wipe me out. Sometimes having music on is too overstimulating. Thinking about cooking a meal can put me on edge. Brain fog caused by seasonal allergies can send me to rest on the couch from after work until I go to bed.

I can see though that with each downward spiral, I seem to have more tools to deal with my state of health.  That means that in the upward swings, I have made great strides.  I’m going to yoga and sitting for meditation twice a day. I practice abdominal breathing.  I have a few more people who know and want to learn more about my illness.  I’m back in therapy, working through some intense memories of my healing journey.

Even in these days where it’s a struggle to make it to work on time, I’m seeing my students flourishing, whether I’ve worked with them for 3 months or over a year.  Often, they mirror back to me my own condition.  With dyslexia, “a chronic learning disability,” as one of my students framed it the other day, means that some days reading is harder than usual, for no apparent reason other than fatigue.  Other days it’s easier. Many days I have the eye to see what they don’t.  That they are making small strides.  That their self-confidence has improved tremendously. That they are reading and writing more fluently, even if they still don’t like it. That they are learning more about their strengths and weaknesses and how to monitor their emotional reactions to mistakes they make.  They are learning to persevere and to bring a sense of humor, rather than self-consciousness to the learning process.

If, I take a longer view, I too am flourishing, even though it doesn’t feel like it, or it’s hard to notice.  I’m glad others are noticing for me. I’m glad I work with kids, who remind me daily how to be more childlike. Working with limitations brings out the full range of emotions–and yet I know this reality of honoring my limits, and finding that this is where my strength lies, is a necessary good journey.  The feelings will come in time. But I do want to take notice, express my grief, and be willing to face into the unknown with a quiet confidence, a peaceful mind, and a rested body.