It’s hard to believe we are halfway through January already.
I mentioned in my first post of the year that I wanted to focus this year on that little vision I had of the upside-down-ness of the kingdom of God, and it was so interesting to me to listen to a weekly podcast series that I subscribe to on the Fruit of the Spirit and to hear the speaker use the same exact phrasing – upside-down-ness – when describing the beatitudes and joy. How the spiritual things we are to pursue are precisely the opposite of those things the world would encourage us to seek after. It’s when these common types of themes and phrases are running through a few different things that I’m doing – books, podcasts, sermons, devotionals – that I know that God is speaking to me. Telling me to listen up – He has something he wants to show me.
And this leads me to talking about the healing work that He was able to do in my heart and mind last year.
I have talked here before about growing up with dysfunction. In a dysfunctional environment, there is usually one disordered person that everyone works to keep happy. This person is allowed to act in a chaotic, unpredictable way. This person is not required to respect other people’s boundaries or choices. This person is not expected to tell the truth, keep his or her word, to be logical or mature, or to be accountable to anyone. In that kind of environment, there exists a false definition of love. In this system love means not talking about the problem. Love means giving in to their demands and manipulations. Love means not making the disordered person upset. Love means playing a role and not being allowed to diverge from that role. Love means pretending everything is perfect.
My disordered person was my mother. I had tried and tried to fix the relationship. I had pointed out painful experiences, hoping that she was merely unaware of her behavior and how it affected me. I’d asked for change. The problems were all because of me, she would tell me, because I was keeping my emotional distance, maintaining a record of wrongs by bringing up past hurts, and not forgiving her. I was not loving her according to the rules of the system, and so I believed that I was the problem. Even though the behaviors never changed, I thought I just couldn’t figure out how to forgive. When my third child was just a newborn, I went to a counselor asking for help to navigate this relationship that I, for the life of me, could not seem to figure out. I thought I was broken.
The first appointment was the most validating experience I’ve ever had in my life, as I described a few of the recent interactions I’d had and watched the therapist’s jaw drop. The scenarios I described were just two of many confusing and bizarre encounters I could have chosen to share. “So this isn’t normal everyday mother-daughter conflict?” I asked. No. It most definitely was not, she assured me.
Over the course of many other sessions with her, I learned about dysfunction. I learned about cluster B personality disorders, and suddenly everything that didn’t make sense before became clear. It was like I’d spent my whole life seeing things blurry but thinking that was normal, and finally someone gave me a pair of glasses. The counselor assured me that all of my instincts to keep my emotional distance were good. I started to learn how difficult it is to navigate a relationship with this kind of person. It wasn’t just me.
But not too long after I started learning these things, I became pregnant with our twin daughters and subsequently lost them both, one after the other. This was – and still is – one of the hardest things I have ever experienced , and I knew I simply could not get through it, care for my young family at home, and do the work required to manage the relationship with my mother. I didn’t have the strength for all three; something had to go. I initiated no-contact with her during that time and it is still in place to this day. As commonly happens in these types of situations, I’ve also had to sever relationships with many other family members from that side of my family, as they were unable to understand or respect my decision. I know they were just being loyal to the dysfunction, but it meant profound grieving on so many levels.
So what about the healing?
Well, I knew that I made the right decision to put my own healing from the loss of our daughters and my family’s needs for me to be emotionally healthy for their sake above my troubled relationship with my family of origin. But I was left with this lingering guilt and anxiety. I had this constant tug-of-war that played in the back of my mind: one side – the logical, rational side – saying that the decision I had made was healthy and good, and the other side – the anxious side – saying, but now I am really in trouble.
Over the course of the six years since I made that initial decision, that tug-of-war has been on a constant loop in the back of my mind. I’d read articles about dysfunction and feel like my rational side was winning the war, but then the other side would gain strength and I’d doubt myself. I’d go to a counselor and every time expect them to say I was wrong for not being over it now and getting back in contact. Only they never did. They’d say, “You’re absolutely right to keep your distance and prioritize your family.” And I’d go for a while on that reassurance, with my logical side winning the tug-of-war. But over time, I’d doubt it again and find myself back with a different counselor a few months or years later doing the same thing.
It was exhausting. I had no peace. I lost sleep. I ground my teeth. I’d get headaches and carried constant tension in my shoulders and neck. I had churning and upset in my stomach. I felt anxious and frightened in any similar situation to the dysfunction of my childhood. My adrenal glands suffered from the stress, and extreme fatigue and exhaustion have plagued me for the last several years. I took last year “off” from relationships and situations that I knew were stressful and just tried to rest – mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Then, in the summer of last year, I felt God telling me that it was time for a change. Time for some work. I didn’t know what kind of work or change this would be and started a running program hoping that maybe exercise would give me some more energy. Maybe after all my resting, I’ll be good and ready for something like this. Unfortunately, running is not the right kind of exercise for adrenal fatigue, and I felt worse. I decided to go and talk to a counselor again.
After my first appointment with this new therapist, I knew that this time was going to be different. She recognized that I had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She practiced a kind of therapy called EMDR* and said she thought it would help me. At the same time, I learned about a new podcast series from Sonja Corbitt called Healing the Father Wound. The timing of these two things, my season of rest, and the prompting for a change was yet another time that God orchestrated things to tell me to pay attention – He was at work.
The title suggests a father wound, but Sonja described how wounded relationships with either of our parents have a negative effect on our relationship to God as our Father. No parents are perfect, of course, and I know that my own mom was doing the best that she could. Even her disordered ways of relating to us were things that at one time were helpful for her in navigating her own dysfunctional family situation. But I was left with a fearful, striving, do more, work harder, never good enough view of my relationship with God. I was left with PTSD that happened when my sensitive self experienced rage and withdrawal of affection from someone who was supposed to be caring and the belief that I must be fundamentally flawed, a difficult person through and through. I also believed the lie that rocking the boat or addressing the problem and setting boundaries with the dysfunctional system was selfish, sinful, and unchristian. I think that was the hardest part to wrestle with. Proof that I should have just gone along with the whole unhealthy drama and not spoken up. Proof that, even when I was drowning from the death of my daughters, I should have continued to put the dysfunctional person and her needs first.
The EMDR therapy was emotionally hard work, as was the Bible study. Both stirred up memories, wounds, fears, and negative beliefs I’ve been carrying about myself. Both left me in tears on a regular basis as I wrestled with all of these things and prayed that God would finally heal me. I learned about trauma bonds in both places and that this was probably the reason for my constant anxiety and lack of peace. The bond that had been created with my mom was “This situation feels really unhealthy and difficult, but if I don’t continue to stay in it, I’m not safe.” It was that unsafe message that I kept feeling in my head, even though my logical, rational side knew I lived several states away and was a 44-year-old woman now. A few days after a particularly difficult session of EMDR, the tug-of-war game stopped. The message that I wasn’t safe just switched off. I can’t really describe it other than to say that I suddenly didn’t feel the constant back-and-forth battle in the back of my mind. It felt peaceful. I knew that the healing had finally happened.
I finished my counseling appointments in the fall and have not experienced any PTSD symptoms since then, and I have been thanking God ever since.
This was a long post, but I’m so grateful for the tremendous change that has taken place and I’m hopeful that some of the information I’ve shared might help someone else who has had a similar experience. ❤
*This post contains Amazon affiliate links to items that were helpful to me. I receive a few pennies at no extra cost to you if you purchase something through my link.