Hope Starts Small
This is the second in a series about my journey into and out of spiritual abuse. Click here to read Part 1.
1999-2001. For years now I’ve been slightly hungry and slightly nauseous, always uncomfortable. I’m too thin. And I’m tired. So very tired. 60-80 hours is a normal week and 80-100 happens frequently. I teach, sing, organize events, mentor young women, and train leaders. I live in the same building where I work so only a very blurry line separates my personal and professional lives.
One of the hallmarks of a spiritually abusive organization is its leaders’ insistence on controlling what members do. Those working at one of The Institute’s centers all lived and worked under the same roof with long lists of dos and don’ts. Someone can always find me. And they frequently do. Saying “no” doesn’t seem like an option because it feels more like failure than a healthy boundary. We’ve been told people will go to hell while we rest, and that we can rest when we’re dead.
For two years, I split my time between two full time jobs, one in Dallas and the other in Chicago, a ministry smile painted on my face like a sick joke because, inside? I feel like I’m dying.
I don’t want to die. I’m not even 30. But, I don’t want to live like this anymore. Only problem is, I’ve lived the lie for so long I don’t know how to change. I’ve lost touch with the real me. I feel desperate. Disassociated. And broken. So broken. I have plenty of time to think about it at night as I lie in the dark and can’t sleep. I toss and turn for hours, hating bedtime almost as much as morning.
When I’m afraid to drive by myself because the bridges and overpasses look too much like a quick ticket to heaven, I finally give in. Shoulders crumpled and head bowed under a tsunami of shame, I whisper to my mother, “I can’t do this anymore.” And, I feel like such a failure. I think God must be very disappointed with me. Did you know that the dis-ease process begins with inflammation, and inflammation is triggered in the body by the emotion of shame?
The first doctor I see asks some simple questions and diagnoses an endocrine related issue. He starts me on meds and within 48 hours there’s a part of me that doesn’t hate my life anymore. Amazing what the right thing at the right time will do for you! I make an appointment with Dr. #2 who agrees with Dr. #1, tells me I’ll need those meds for the rest of my life, and diagnoses me with “Multiple Systemic Exhaustion Syndrome.”
“Just how bad do you think you are on a scale of 0 – 100?” the doctor asks. “Maybe 80%?” I mumble. A year later I’ll recognize it was more like 20%. At that time he’ll admit that he wondered if recovery was even possible for me.
When all the tests come back, I learn that my thyroid and adrenals are blown, perhaps beyond repair. My blood sugar bounces me up and down at all hours like a never-ending energy roller coaster. My belly is full of parasites and yeast. I have chronic fatigue. And those are just the things with names.
Years later, MTHFR, a genetic predisposition that makes it difficult to metabolize B vitamins, and heavy metal toxicity will be added to the list. Trauma related to exhaustion and persistent failure to meet impossible spiritual expectations came even later as I began to find words to wrap around how I felt in the midst of those experiences.
“It would’ve been better for you if you’d broken your back,” says Dr. #2. “Because what you need is 6 months of bed rest for starters. The problem with you is, you have the ability to make yourself look as if you’re all right. Unless you learn to tell the truth, they’ll just keep expecting you to do what you’ve always done.”
Telling the truth feels tricky, but I am lucky. My father is my boss and the doctor’s words get his attention. I am relieved of many responsibilities and given freedom to rest as much as needed. The only thing is, no matter how long I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling in my room, I can’t get away from the voices in my head telling me I’ve failed. I tried so hard, but I’ve messed up the formula.
I think it would be better to work myself to death for a meaningful cause – for others – than to raise the white flag and put myself first. I so need a stiff dose of truth!
This picture is from that season. (I’m the one in the back.) Can you see the guarded eyes? Can you tell it’s a weary smile? If not, don’t chide yourself. I was walking wounded through crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands, and I don’t recall even one person ever asking if I was truly okay. (If you’re reading this and you did and I’ve forgotten, I’m sorry! I don’t have many clear memories of this season of my life.) I don’t know if I was that good of an actress, or if I was just surrounded by others busy trying to keep up their own facades. God, give us eyes to see like you do and ears to hear the heart-cries of those around us!
So, before plunging completely into the land of no return, I was pulled back from the brink. Time would tell what could heal and what could not. I would spend the next 6-7 years trying to learn how to live differently in that same work/life situation. But, a mustard seed of hope had been planted.
If you didn’t catch the link in Part 1, I highly recommend this podcast from The Allender Center for anyone who wants to better understand spiritual abuse. This kind of abuse can definitely feel traumatic and the physical body often responds to trauma in predictable ways. For more on the connections between our physical, emotional, and spiritual health, I’ve found this podcast from The Allender Center helpful. And, if perfectionism is something you’ve struggled with too, Shauna Niequist’s excellent book, “Present Over Perfect” is a very helpful read.