“One lump of sugar or two, dear?” My nana would gently call out from the kitchen corridor to the dining room table where her eager grandchildren awaited the arrival of tea-time. The answer was always two lumps, of course. And before those sugar cubes could dissolve within the piping hot tea, my nana would be right next to me handing out beautifully decorated tea cups on top of perfectly placed saucers. I always thought it was a luxury to be able to use her finest tea set, because my five-year-old self had grown rather accustomed to dinnerware of the less-breakable, plastic variety.
Life around Nana’s table was always a special event. And every event needed the finest of china even if that meant the occasional accident. My Nana would just smile, sigh and say “Dishes are for breaking, right?” I was never anxious around her. I could do no wrong.
After a never-ending road trip from California to Kansas, my family would fall out of our van into the warmth of her house knowing the moment our feet grazed the plastic carpet mats we would be treated like guests of honor. The secret was, though, everyone was treated as a guest of honor in her house, even if she had seen you the previous day. And every guest of honor, which meant any and everyone who walked through her door, had a seat at her table.
Every week Nana would make extravagant Sunday night dinners of pot roast and Yorkshire pudding, decadent desserts like her famous homemade apple pies, and the most exquisite cup of tea this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Till this day, the passing whiff of a baking apple pie brings me back to these days, back to sitting at my nana’s table.
While all of her extravagant food and drink was a delight to us all, that was not what made my nana’s table special. She made it special. We would all gather around with laughter, joy and the expected family quarrel or two and my nana would beam with excitement. Nothing mattered to her more than having people, her family, around her table. She would sometimes tell stories to her grandchildren in her soft and rather proper British accent but most of the time she was quiet, taking in the sights and sounds that engulfed her small living room. She breathed love into the space.
For my Nana, her table was communion. It was a time where, without even a whisper of a word, she could show the people in her life that they mattered, they were valued, they were important. She had this warmth when her eyes met yours that could take the chill away from any winter’s day.
For my Nana, her table held the cherished moments where everyone belonged, everyone was welcome, everyone ate like royalty. Everyone was royalty for these moments.
I was only able to come to that table for seven short years before this world lost one of its greatest women. Since my nana’s passing, her table has sat physically empty, but always beckoning us to come together once again, reminding us that we all belong to something bigger than our own lives. In those few years that I was able to sit, to eat, to live at her table, my nana taught me that moments of feasting, of mourning, or of celebrating bring us together and that everyone deserves to feel that they belong, that they are special, that they are cared for.
More than anything, though, I knew my life, at Nana’s table, was important. Nana, after working a whole day on a feast, her frail body weak from hours of standing, would sit at the table without asking for any praise, thanks or acknowledgement for we were the most important part of her day. I always imagined her thinking, how lucky I am to have this family, to have this moment, to have this meal. And then she would look at us all with humanly perfect, sacrificial love and we would know that we were loved. We were loved with a love that will always bring us back to the table.
I’m proud of my 1 for 1 record in the dating world. I found a good partner and kept him, which means I’ve never been dumped. That is, until now. Last week, my therapist dumped me. Talk about a bad break up.
I have been going to therapy for over a year now. A year! That’s a long time. I thought we meant something to each other! We laughed together, she has watched me cry, and she knows about all my thoughts and feelings. We were pretty perfect. Or at least I thought so… Last session, after a twenty minute update on how happy I have been the last month and how I’ve felt more in control of my life, she said the dreaded word… “termination.”
What? NO? But.. but.. my life’s not that perfect. I have more. I need more help. I can’t…
Why do they call it termination, anyway? It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to leap out from behind her bookshelf and escort me out of the office in order to make sure I never come back ever again. Termination. It’s so morbid. Permanent. No one’s dying here, but in that moment as that word slipped out of her mouth, my world of control fell apart. My anxiety is under control. I haven’t had a panic attack in a few months and I rarely have the constant obsessive thoughts that use to keep me up till the early morning hours each night. But termination? I can’t be ready.
I looked at her with my best fake smile and said “Sure, of course I’m ready for that. I’m in such a great place and I’m confident that I am ready to.. ehh, terminate?” But in my head my mind was coming up with every worse case scenario that could possibly result from this decision. What if I stop coming and then I have a major life crisis? Or what if the only reason I have been doing better is because of this safety net that she has provided me? Or even worse what if I’m actually crazy and she is just using this whole “termination” excuse to get rid of me? I snapped back out of that fear whirlwind to make sure that my smile continued to stay glued to my apprehensive face as she replied, all too cheerfully if I may add, “Great! Next week will be our last session.”
NEXT WEEK! Way to really ease me out of this. I only have a week to think of all the possible issues that could possibly arise in the next 20 or 30 years. I’m sure there are hundreds of traumatic childhood experiences, repressed memories, and defense mechanisms to work through, right? I kept circling back to the thought that “I thought we really had something special here and you just want to throw it all away in a WEEK!” Bitch. Oh, sorry. “Yes, yes I’m sooooo ready to move on. I can totally take care of myself,” I replied.
I stepped slowly out of the office that day not knowing how to feel. I guess that’s how it feels when you are dumped. As I rode the elevator down three flights, I contemplated the many ways I could change her mind in next week’s session. Maybe I could fake some family death or tragedy, maybe I could bring up another fight I had with a family member, or maybe I could just get really sick and postpone it one more week. Yeah, that’s it. But as I exited the building listening to my own anxious thoughts ruminate about the different self-inflicted possibilities of remaining in therapy. I finally understood.
She didn’t break up with me. I had broken up with her. She had given me this choice since our first session and I had finally chosen it. Freedom. My life has always been about the approval and advice of others. What does he want for my life? Will she like me if I do this? What can I do to make them think I’m worthy? Constant. No wonder I have anxiety. Over the past few months (with the help of some medication) I have broken down (although not completely) those destructive cycles and released the anchors from my life. Accepting that life is a shit show and moving through the shit instead of pretending that I can navigate around it has granted me a freedom beyond words.
So I stopped walking and busted out laughing. I had finally broken up with the person that helped me find my own freedom. She was the last person that I was fighting so desperately to seek approval from, but she knew that I didn’t need it anymore. I still don’t think they should call it termination, but I do think it signals a kind of death. My old self and ways of operating that I dumped on her and revealed to her die now with this relationship. I no longer have to be that person. I am free to live.
So, thanks, to the therapist that dumped me and thanks for letting me dump you. Because it’s not you, it’s me.
I catch my breath as I brace for a loving, yet abrupt impact. A bundle of energy, joy, and excitement hurdles through the air with startling determination. Such determination is expected from a grown man in combat or a mother protecting her young children. But as I look in front of me I only see a young boy sprinting, as gracefully as a seven year old can, towards my vulnerable frame. Before I know it, he’s in my arms giving me the biggest strangle-of-a-hug I have experienced in my 23 years of life. He hugs me every time like I am never going to see him again. He hugs ever ounce of love out of his small body into my heart. And I know that I have the most special nephew in the world. Isaiah turned seven this week. It’s hard for me to believe that I have been blessed with over three years of hugs from this little guy. And they have never run out. For seven years, Isaiah has lived his life just like he gives his hugs. He runs at whatever or whoever is in front of him throwing caution, and often safety, to the wind to show his love and his trust in himself and unending hope in this world that whatever happens he will be alright, he will survive, he will fly. Isaiah does not worry about the “what-ifs,” the negative voices around him, or even his possible failure, because in his mind he is a super hero. And he is a superhero. He has survived. He has made it through every challenge with resilience and strength. Before the age of three, Isaiah had been in eight foster homes throughout Chicago. But courageously forward, this boy overcame. Isaiah’s adoption was finalized in court last summer and followed immediately by a trip to this boy’s favorite restaurant, Francesca’s, for some delicious calamari (yes, he has good taste). It hasn’t been easy, though. Many nights have been filled with tears, anger and frustration working through the complexities of Isaiah and his experience, but if anything is true about this little boy it is that he does not move forward slowly. His high energy, somewhat short attention span, and courageous attitude makes him always move forward in leaps, bounds, and karate kicks.
And as Isaiah moves forward, tackling any obstacles that try to get in his way, he thrives. Whether it is being an amazing older brother to two rambunctious boys or reading chapter books for hours at a time, Isaiah just seems to live a superhero life every day. My life will never be the same now because he has taught me hope. Not that wistful wish in a sea of pessimism which is often equated with hope. No, Isaiah teaches me that kind of “I’m gonna run as fast as I can, take risks, and love intensely because I know I can survive anything” hope. A super hero hope. For with each Isaiah hug, you can be confident that he understands the importance of tangible hope. A hope that changes everything. A hope you have to brace yourself for.
Happy Birthday, Isaiah!
As a painfully awkward and overly sensitive child, I was no stranger to irrational fears, worries and anxiety. In fact, I often carried with me a long list of the many social situations to avoid for they were all sure to be ways that I would die a slow painful death by humiliation. Don’t worry this list was entirely comprehensive including everything from slipping dramatically on a poorly placed banana peel to calling my second grade teacher “mom” in front an entire class lacking the psychological development of the empathic response [and yes both of which have happened to me]. Although in some ways it may be obvious, being this type of child was only made more difficult by my parent’s choice to attend one of the largest mega churches in Orange County. Therefore, I not only had to deal with negotiating a vast social obstacle course during the week at school, but my only time of refuge, the weekends, ended in a near panic attack inducing obligation to not only socialize for one’s own good but also by doing so show that somehow one was a ‘good’ Christian.
Like most quiet children, I learned to cope by clinging to the few friends that I knew at a church of thousands and sitting in the far back corner praying the whole time that I would somehow be ignored by the overly-aggressive ‘church welcoming crew.’ I’m sure if you have been in a church at least twice in your life you have encountered this posse. Well I had gained a myriad of techniques to avoid the social advances of this well-meaning, but terrifying group. I had found my own way of still enjoying my time at church without having to cross off anything on my ever-growing humiliation list. That is, I avoided this until around 6th grade.
Not only had puberty reared its ugly head escalating my awkwardness to dangerous proportions, but also my church decided that this was the right time for children to publicly declare their “relationship” with Christ. Seems a little fishy since most of us could barely form relationships with our peers, but you know the God of the universe…cakewalk. Anyway, being a good evangelical teenager, but mostly being one that wanted desperately to avoid standing out from the crowd obviously my only choice was to get baptized. [Yes, funny how the way to fit in during junior high was to attend church as much as possible. Trust me, this is why I will continue to have years of therapy.] But, sounds easy enough, right? Well, if wearing an oversized shirt and standing in a kiddie pool in front of all your friends and family while being dunked forcefully in not-so-warm water wasn’t enough social torture, try giving a speech beforehand.
Yes, you read that right. A speech.
Sorry, had to pause for a second to do my breathing exercises because just thinking of this moment gives me all-too-familiar panic symptoms. As if the baptism was not enough, my church required that every teenager that wanted to be baptized give a five-minute speech outlining their ‘testimony,’ which for those of you that are not familiar with Christian-ese means telling your life story of how you “got saved” essentially. Alright, this must be some cruel joke, I thought! Not only do I have to get dunked in water in front of everyone but I also have to pour out my whole life story for a crowd of a couple hundred junior high students. Looking back on this decision, I must have been having an out of body experience because there is no way that I would have willingly agreed to something like this, but two weeks later I found myself anxiously awaiting my turn at the mic with my typed speech in one hand and my list of humiliation in the other, which now had the words testimony starred and circled in red ink at the top.
Looking back on this event, I’m always struck by this unusual phenomenon that I’ve experienced in churches long after this one moment in junior high. Something about hearing a ‘testimony’ of a person that has struggled, despaired, screwed up BUT, by the ‘grace of God,’ made it through the storm and now lives a cookie cutter, joyful life is intoxicating to many Christians. We ask people to stand in front of a crowd of people, mostly strangers with the exception of a cordial smile each Sunday, in hopes that their story will be a Hollywood-type of redemption narrative. A story that truly proves to any doubters in the crowd that no matter what type of despair you are muddled in now, only with a few prayers and some sort of eternal hope in God your life will be a fairy tale. And if it does not turn into this fairy tale ending, if you find yourself lost in despair without a way out, then that just means that you must trust God more and we would rather you wait until you get out of that despair to tell your story, for there is bound to be a happy ending in their somewhere.
I’m sorry if this is sounding rather cynical, because that is certainly not my intent. I also do not want to make light of the many rather miraculous testimonies of redemption and healing that I’ve heard over the years. But, returning to my junior high self preparing my testimony, I was convinced that I had to somehow wrap up my story in a nice bow in order to show that God was somehow present in my daily life, which honestly, in my actual experience, was pretty miserable. God forbid I would admit that in front of my church-going friends, though, in order to face the barrage of answers about finding the deeper meaning or the silver lining in my own struggles. No I didn’t want that, so I got through my testimony ending it with a rather trite statement that was probably something like “and now I can find joy in my relationship with Christ,” whatever that means. When on the inside I had to find a way to deal with my own years of depression, doubt, and self-hatred.
My struggle with depression did not end in junior high; in fact, it is still a constant presence in my adult life. Years of counseling and medication have helped, yes, but I am not naïve in thinking that I have seen the last of this familiar foe. I did not know how to talk about my depression when I was younger, because so much of my life at school, at church and with my friends was about putting on a happy face so that I could move past my troubles, because the only way to move on is to ignore any negativity right? I couldn’t give my real testimony when I was in junior high because it would have included my anger, despair and doubt in God without a perfect resolution or feel-good ending. Luckily I’m not in junior high anymore and my faith has changed and grown along with my understanding of myself.
Moving beyond depression is not the end goal for me anymore, because when I’m honest with myself I know that will probably not be possible for me. My purpose isn’t to find the light at the end of the tunnel, because in my experience I have found peace and connection with my understanding of God in the darkness of the tunnel, not the light. Hope and depression are not opposing forces. Hope for me looks like accepting my own darkness and living there with the realization that in despair redemption is a constant reality. I believe, though, that redemption does not mean overcoming depression in order to be made new, but instead redemption means embracing my fragile state and reaching out to those stumbling along with me in the darkness. Depression is isolating, I mean, it’s not exactly something people like talking about in casual conversation. In my most depressed states, the last thing I want to do is build some sort of community. I want to yell at the world to get out of my face and be alone in my pain. And trust me that is definitely necessary sometimes; I’m not always the most loving person to be around those days. But in those times when the people closest to me, often those that have also experienced these days of darkness, force me to be my most real and honest self with them—even if that just means giving me coffee and sitting in an understanding silence—I find hope and redemption through community. If I were to simply ‘move past’ my depression or pretend like it’s not a constant reality in my life, then I would miss this opportunity for raw human connection. That is God to me.
I write this as a plea to churches obsessed with proclaiming and exalting the next encouraging testimony. While showing people that there is a way out is often helpful and uplifting, you might be doing a disservice to many people in your congregation or even in your life that know deep down there is no end to their suffering. That does not mean hope is not present in their stories, but it means that they are seeking deeper, more meaningful answers than ‘well, at least you know that when you go to heaven there will be no more suffering’ or ‘have joy because you know God has a purpose for you.’ They are waiting to hear the church tell them that despair is a normal reaction to this screwed up world in which we live. They are waiting to be welcomed into community that doesn’t force them to have everything together prior to membership. They are waiting for someone to sit with them in their despair with no anticipation that they will move past it soon. They are waiting for the gospel message that even in darkness redemption is happening. They are waiting for the church to truly embrace the messiness of life, mental illness, and doubt without the hopes that sooner or later they will catch the good news fever and never have to bother with any of these temporal struggles again. They are waiting for the beauty and pain of their suffering to be honored without only seeing it as a means to an end or a temporary state to rise above. They are waiting for it to be okay for a confused, nervous, and awkward teenage girl to be able to give an honest testimony that is allowed to end in the unknown, but persistent hope of the gospel. For I know that: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and that being saved is so much more than a happy ending, but instead a hope that embraces a brokenheart without forcing it to heal in the same swift way in which it was broken.