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!

 

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.

A Blessing for My Body

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For so long I knew you to be my enemy.

You were attacking me, as my health continued to decline-

or so I thought.

Now I know you were just trying to keep me alive.

You gave me warning signs that all was not well-

and you were compensating the best ways you knew how.

 

And so today, I honor you.

May you keep restoring me to balance,

day by day.

Bless you for teaching me how to care for myself.

Keep me in tune with your signs, that I can accept

the gift of equilibrium.

Remind me when I wander outside my capacity

that not everything is my job.

Allow me to experience the fullness of my breath,

that I am alive:

no matter how great fatigue’s presence is today.

On Cutting Back and Simplifying

Last Wednesday I started a cleanse.  Most people set a New Year’s resolution to change their diet, but my birthday is in January and so I never do that.  February is a good month for me, and this year I waited until after Valentine’s Day!

Some people ask me, “Why do you do this when you cut so many foods out anyway?”

And my answer is, “I want my body to function as optimally as possible.”

Because I have a chronic illness, this takes a lot of work.  Throughout the year, I reintroduce new foods to see if my body can handle it.  Then some coconut milk ice cream, tortilla chips and popcorn slip in.  To many people these little changes are no big deal.  And yet for me, it’s helpful when these foods are purged for a complete month out of the year, for my body to reset.

Version 2

It’s helpful to eat very simply again: meats, vegetables, soups, healthy fats and minimal fruit.  No baking. Eating out less often.  Declining some people’s invitations.

I used to think these decisions felt like “missing out.”  Now my body’s wisdom just tells me that simplifying is what it really wants.  And the benefits of the cleanse can be felt within a few days: less brain fog, deeper, more restful sleep, greater concentration, and more energy.  And if I’m honest, these are the gifts I truly long for.

It’s scary to cut back at first.  I know that the first step is facing into how tired I actually am, even with all the improvements in my health.  There’s still fatigue there, and some days it’s still a lonely reality.  Yet healing does start with observing, noticing, and lingering with reality, in whatever form it chooses to be.

So for the next four weeks, I’m intentionally making room.  Making room to focus on myself, to be present in my fatigue, to celebrate healing and to say no.  I’m choosing to be more still, to move more slowly, to sink into yoga more deeply.

I thought that when I started this healing journey, that healing meant back to doing more.  It’s actually come to mean, making space for doing less.  Simplifying actually brings greater layers of wholeness into my life.