Uncomfortable Brokenness

Sitting down at the kitchen table, I glanced at the hundreds of puzzle pieces that seemed to be in a scattered disarray all around me. Although I typically like the relaxing challenge of jigsaw puzzles and the ways that they not only engage my brain but take me into a place of pure joy—today the blue pieces of a night sky and dots of snowflakes seemed to swim in front of my eyes, producing the opposite of peace. Here I found that ALL I wanted to do was fix the brokenness by putting each of the pieces in place quickly. Creating order out of the disorder. 

Contemplating the reasons why I craved to see this holiday puzzle completed, I realized that in the midst of the pain I carry, I too am in a state of wishing that the broken pieces of my life could be put together again. Clean. Easy. And FAST.

Many people on the outside see me as a graduate student, the leader of a non-profit, and someone who smiles a lot. Yet, they also fail to see or even know that internally I might be devastated, struggling, and might not be sure how to take the next step, let alone continue to grieve or even express what is taking place internally within my heart. It’s not that God doesn’t heal, because I believe with every part of my being that God does heal and that His healing is permanent. Rather, just because I am free from my traffickers doesn’t mean that life is easy, perfect, or pain free. Instead, in many ways, as I continue to process the trauma I have survived (which I am still doing), I am realizing that I have even more trauma to work through and grieve. Then there is the journey of working through the lasting effects of the trauma on my body, mind, and soul that I still flashes me back to things I wish didn’t exist. And then there are the hard things that normal people experience as well, including medical struggles, multiple surgeries, infertility, burnout, and recovering from the major accident I survived last year.

It’s all a lot to carry at times and to be honest, I feel so broken right now. Pieces of my life, scattered around in a messy manner of discouragement and disappointment. Why do I still have days of depression, tears, and just sadness? Why do I as a leader feel like I need to hide my pain from others? And why is it easier for me to be patient with a silly 1000-piece puzzle or another person, than it is for me to give myself patience and permission to just be in the stillness of my tears?

I think it’s because society, as a whole, does not like brokenness.

People are uncomfortable with pain—their own and others, because there is no magical formula to make things better and just sitting in grief is not easy or quick. Then as one’s pain continue; cultural stigmas whisper that something is wrong—why aren’t they getting better?

Yet, as I was working my puzzle today, I realized that God’s okay with my brokenness. Although I carry the responsibility to learn what it means to be healthy, it’s not for me to put the broken pieces back together again. Which means that healing is NOT a destination, rather it is a process of experiencing more and more of who God is and has created me to be. Yes, I need to be present in the moment and find the means to delight in the things around me, but it’s okay that I still have hard days—this doesn’t make me less of a person, say that something is wrong with me, or make God less of who He is as my God.

Christmas Lights

Originally published on December 15, 2016 at the Rebecca Bender Initiative.

For many of us, the holiday season has the tendency to trigger memories we would rather forget: feelings of loneliness or abandonment, reminders of horrors we have experienced, or the grief of loss.

I used to struggle with extreme anxiety when I saw Christmas decorations go up in stores and become saturated with red and green tidings of good cheer. I would weep uncontrollably when I saw Christmas lights being put up on the houses in my neighborhood. And as people gathered with excitement around me (including posting pictures of their loved ones on social media), it was my habit to silently retreat into my introverted shell so no one could see the raw depth of my grief.

Over the years, though, I have slowly learned to appreciate the beauty of a fresh snowfall and the magic that it produces on Christmas morning. I have opened up and have allowed myself to feel the pure joy that comes from entering into a family’s tradition of decorating their Christmas tree, as well as embracing the innocence of making Christmas cookies for the first time. And in the midst of this… I have slowly softened and have allowed God come in to heal some of the deepest pain I have experienced.

I am not fully healed, nor do I see complete healing as a destination that I will fully achieve on this side of heaven. But as I choose to bow my pain and my healing journey to the Lord, one of the things I am learning is the fact that He not only heals deeply - His healing is permanent. God doesn’t go halfway with the healing He brings. Instead, God takes each of us on our own healing journeys and intimately meets us in the midst of our needs.

One visible way that I see healing in the midst of this holiday season is the fact that I have been humming Christmas carols for the past two months, I have longed to put up a Christmas tree (which is something that my husband and I can’t do this year due to moving), and I can now look at Christmas lights with peaceful joy, which is a complete miracle.

It was several years ago while being triggered by Christmas lights and the memories associated with the ways that they were used by my traffickers to indicate that I was open for business, God told me to go for a drive around the neighborhood; He told me that He wanted me to show me something.

As I got in the car, I remember the tension in my body and the intense pain cloaked around my heart. But instead of turning around and going back into the safety of my house, I put the key in the car and while the engine was gently humming, I heard God whisper that He wanted me to drive down the streets with the most Christmas lights on them. I was mad. Why would He ask me to do that???!!!

Slowly as I drove around the snowy neighborhood, instead of seeing the trauma’s from the past, I saw the beauty of colors I had never seen before. I saw childlike simplicity. I saw joy that brought a small and tender smile to my lips. And I saw what God wanted me to see. I saw Him!

I wrote the following poem when I got home and reflected my encounter with Christ.

Christmas Lights

As I look at the Christmas lights shining on houses and trees, A cloud of darkness descends, because of what these lights say to me. They speak of pain, sin, and stain inflicted by man's sick, selfish greed. In desperation I plead "Heavenly Father, speak to my hurting heart and tell me what these lights mean to Thee"

He said "Daughter, look at the lights as you drive around tonight, and I will tell you what each color means to me, in the beautiful twilight. Christmas lights reflect My love, light, and hope I bring this season bright. So despite what has been said and done "look on them from the viewpoint of My sight." 

"Daughter, first of all, remember that Christmas is a celebration of Me, As a little helpless babe, I came to earth, to pay your sins penalty. So, every time you see a RED light bulb... a beautiful reminder let it be, of the precious blood I gave and the victory I won on Calvary.

"The light from the WHITE Christmas light you see, brightly radiates to everyone my transparent purity. Daughter, you've been washed clean by my blood totally. No matter the past, you're clean and shine My purity."

"The BLUE light that radiates, reflects that you are royalty my princess fair, I'm the King of Kings, who looks after you with love, concern, and care. I love you so much to see you hurt, My heart it does tear. Please come to me, rest in my arms. I promise to speak peace to you there."

"YELLOW, as it shines, is an earthly reminder of My Kingdom bright. Darling Daughter, I've known every time you have felt that there was no hope in sight. Remember, though, your time here is but a moment. New hope I have given -- live in Eternity's light."

As I drove around looking upon the light of the warm ORANGE glow, I began to hear beautiful angelic voices flow. They were singing "Glory to God..." in praise and adoration. So now, whenever I see this warm winter light, I will worship the giver of Salvation.

With open ears, I wait in wonder to what the Lord is going to teach me with GREEN, I hear Him, but in my weak frailty, I'm having trouble understanding fully what He means. He is telling me "Daughter, though your life I want to do something amazing, beyond what can be seen. Trust Me, I'm making something beautiful in my arms rest and lean.”

One of the last things said before the trip was over was a challenge to me."Daughter, you are a bright shining light in a world of darkness what you walk free. Light overcomes the darkness. So let your light shine for all to see. When they see My light radiating through you people will return to Me!"

* * * * * *

The tears well up in my eyes as this journey with my Lord fades away. Although I am home now, the lessons I have learnt will forever stay.

I never knew that Christmas lights could ever be so pure and bright, but they are - because I now see them from His sight.

With joy I will gaze upon each Christmas light I see, and think of my Savior and all that He did for me.


More Than A Number

Originally written and published August 31, 2017 on the Rebecca Bender Initiative.

In 2015, at a wellness check, my doctor found a large tumor on my thyroid and after my specialists got the results back from the biopsy, I ended up in emergency surgery to remove not only the mass, but my entire thyroid gland. The morning after surgery, when I woke up in the hospital, my endocrine surgeon was standing at the foot my bed. During that conversation I was told how to take the thyroid medication that would become the start of the rest of my life. Unfortunately, several months later it became widely apparent that my body was having great trouble absorbing my thyroid medication and because it was not working correctly, I ended up gaining a lot of weight very quickly.

A few months ago, as I hit the emotional two-year anniversary of my total thyroidectomy and celebrated the stability I had recently gained with new medications, the thought that went through my mind was, “Yay I am finally able to do the things I used to do before surgery and I am finally overcoming the weight that I had gained through this journey.” I was really excited!

Sadly though, a few days later, I ended up in severe car accident on a major highway here in Colorado. Being sandwiched in the middle of two trucks is a very scary experience, but what has been even more challenging is the depression that has cloaked me as I work through the long-term effects from this accident—including the inability to run, work out, or even drive and type normally. This string of unfortunate circumstances has ultimately resulted in multiple doctor’s appointments where I have had to stand on the scale numerous times for nurses to write down my weight or where have had to tell how much I weigh to technicians performing tests. And in the midst of this, each time I stand on the scale or recite how much I weigh, shame covers me like a heavy blanket.

Honestly, this shame has caused me to shy away from writing this blog, because once again I have been bombarded with the internal struggle to accept the season I am in with my physical ability and weight. Once again, I am having to say that although I do not engage with anorexic patterns of thought and behaviors right now, it is easy to engage with unhealthy thoughts that try to control my being once again and could easily lead me back down that road.

Outwardly I can say that the number on the scale does not define me, but then I get self-conscious when clothes don’t fit and I have to go up a size. I get worried when I cannot exercise like I used to before everything happened, or when my medication doesn’t work properly and I begin to see the number quickly go up.   

It’s hard. In fact, it is incredibly difficult.

My entire life I have felt like I could never measure up to the cultural ideals of beauty leading me to struggle on and off with anorexic patterns and behaviors ever since I was a young child when I was being sexually abused, used in child pornography, and then trafficked. And over the years, thought patterns situated around starving myself to meet an unattainable image, be in control, liked, accepted, or loved, used to consume my being. Although I hated the ways that these thoughts were branded onto my mind, I could not escape the ways that they led me to eat tiny bites like a bird, obsess about the number on the scale, and run to burn calories that were almost non-existent within my body.

It wasn’t until four years ago, shortly after I had finished my first half-marathon, that I started to understand the seriousness of my eating disorder. This led me into a conversation with my therapist and several trusted individuals about my anorexic struggles.

Since darkness ferments secrets, bringing my eating struggles into the light and being honest, with myself and others, was one of the hardest battles I faced. Yet, this step also brought the most freedom. Light created an environment where my eating disorder was no longer hidden and through this action it began to lose its power. After I entered into this place of intentional work, my therapist partnered with a nutritionist to help me stay accountable, teach me about normal serving sizes, create healthy associations to food, and learn how to eat healthy in a well-balanced way. As my therapist and nutritionist helped me to untwist the negative ways that food was used against me, we began to talk about the ways food was not safe and was part of of the trauma I experienced. For example, my trauma had led me to believe in a twisted fashion, that choosing to starve myself was better than being forced to not eat. Food (or the lack thereof) was used to either punish me and/or manipulate me into the person that my traffickers were strategically creating—a puppet in the hands of a masterful puppeteer.

Through putting in a lot of hard work, time, and effort in therapy (and at the dinner table)—my life has changed drastically. My anorexic behaviors no longer rule my life! I have learned that food is good for me and that my body could not live, function, or survive without it.

I do admit, when life gets stressful and is difficult (like the past couple of years) the first thing that I think about is my weight and mindlessly start entertaining thoughts about how I do not like what the scale says, which then in a domino fashion leads me to think about ways that I could lose a few pounds. Despite these thoughts, since I have gotten stronger and have gone through multiple layers of my healing, the ways I respond to these thoughts have changed. I can now say that although I have them, they do not define my existence. Yet, it remains a battle that I must face and fight on a daily basis. Several ways that I fight these thoughts include:

1)    I am real and honest with God about my struggles. At first, when I realized the seriousness of my eating disorder, I was terrified to take off the mask before God and other safe people in my life. It took courage, but as I got on my knees and entered into a deeper place of authenticity and intimacy with Jesus, I found myself not only freer to enter into conversation with others about my struggle, but I started to see the ways that my past history of abuse was correlated with the present. Being real with God did not make things magically better and I still had to fight for each bite I ate, but I saw His power in a profound new way.

2)    I choose to believe that the number on the scale do not define me. When I train people I often tell the audience that my past does not have the power to define my future, but then I stand on the scale at the doctor’s office and the number that pops up defines me for not only 24 hours, but for the next couple of weeks. If I am going to walk in the truth that my past does not define the future then I also need to walk in the truth that my weight does not have the power to define who I am. I am more than a number!

3)    I am accountable to trusted and healthy individuals. Over the course of this journey, being accountable to safe, trusted, and healthy individuals was and continues to be really important for me. As I have given these individuals permission to ask the hard questions they have fought this battle with me on the front lines. Through this, I have come to learn that healthy relationships do not equal perfection, but rather healthy relationships create an environment for holistic healing to take place.

4)    I choose to see my body as a gift. I might not always like my weight, pant size, or physical ability—but I have made the choice to see my body as a gift and take a posture of gratefulness for what I do have. Yes, I have real limitations and yet, I still have so much to be grateful for… God has given me so much!

I have learned there is no quick and easy fix for eating disorders, but if this is one of your battles, know that you are not alone—there is hope! Through choosing to fight this battle, I believe, you will be able see yourself as more than a number.

Defined by Hope

As I sit at my kitchen counter, my eyes keep going back and forth between the updates I am receiving on the fire that is happening in southern Colorado and the things in front of me that I need to do, including dishes that need to go in the dishwasher, dirty counters that need to be wiped, emails I need to write, and an organization to lead.

But I am struggling to focus.

The neighborhood where our land, the only piece of property that my husband and I own, is being burned to the ground as I write. I feel my breath disappear. Although I know fire fighters are working hard, the burn area grows bigger and bigger as the smell of thick smoke permeates my mind and cities across our state. 

Throughout the past twenty-four hours’ tears have freely fallen from my eyes. Life is not perfect. Yet, somewhere inside of me, I tell myself that I am supposed to know what to do and say in this moment, because I’m in school to be a mental health professional and I’m writing a book on different ways to embrace hope in the midst of life’s disappointments. But as flames larger than trees arise, I can honestly say that I am struggling to embrace the future. I am struggling to say, God even in the midst of this you are good. Instead, I have pounded my fists on the counter, I have yelled out in hurt and anger. I have responded with deep grief.

Earlier today, my husband, John and I held each other and just wept.

Dreams of us camping this summer and building a house amongst the tall pines are gone not just for this year, but the next year, the year after, and the year after that. Who knows how long it will take to rebuild the community or even if the community will be rebuilt. No longer is the area paradise on earth, rather after the flames die, embers will be all that is left behind with the charred pieces of decay and the deep dark burn scar that has become so common in Colorado.

I don’t know how to grasp the news surrounding what I am seeing—the devastation, despair, and heartache. I don’t want it to be true, but the haze in the air says otherwise. My heart hurts for us and for those we know who have lost everything, including their homes and livelihood. 

In the midst of the destruction taking place, even as the flames burn, we received an email from a man who owns several pieces of property close to ours. Writing to us and others called friends, he states: 

“This beautiful, wonderful, magical area will be changed. In some ways, it may be blessing. All the fallen trees will have gone. New trees can sprout. New growth will rise from the ashes. Trees will grow back. Animals will return. This is a special place and I believe it will continue to be, but no doubt it will be different.”

Through this email, I feel a new perspective rise inside of me. Hope in the midst of disappointment. The fire is still burning; the scars left behind both externally on the land and internally in each person’s heart are deep. People on Instagram are writing that they have lost the cabins where they grew up and asking others to pray. Random strangers on Facebook are sharing the memories they hold dear and externally expressing their grief, while the news shows individuals crying in complete shock. Yet, somewhere, somehow, and in someway there is hope. 

I just took a break from watching the news and watered the green plants and pretty flowers sitting in my living room. As I did, I found myself praying and turning my eyes to Christ. Although I prayed that not only rain will fall and that God would protect the firefighters battling this fire, I also prayed that hope will arise in my heart and in the hearts of other people who have been devastated by this fire, including the person who just wrote on Facebook that he lost everything in the Black Forest fire we had in Colorado in 2013 and now has lost his property in this fire. Why does it feel like some people never get a break? 

It was here, as I finished watering my plants with water droplets hoovering over the lush leaves, I silently find myself choosing hope. I have gotten through many hard things in the past and I can get through the pain of this one. Because it is true that in the midst of the fires, new trees can sprout, animals will return, and new growth can take place. The same thing is with each of us. In the midst of our personal fires, hurts, disappointments, pain, and scars, healing and redemption is possible. Ashes do not need to define us, we can take steps towards hope.