Tuesday, 25 February 2014

on being real

So there we are. Most of my story - at least the bit that involves my dad - is out there. It's been good to re-visit things I mostly try not to think about anymore, and good to explore how it's affecting my life right now.

Late last year I shared my story with a small group of women who knew me, but knew nothing about where I'd come from. Driving home that day I had a watershed moment. "I don't want to be defined by that story any more. I'm tired of being broken! I want to be defined by who I am in the present ... but who am I, really?"

I know I've been shaped by the past, both the good and the bad. As my husband keeps telling me, "You wouldn't be you if you hadn't been there." And I am grateful for the grace I've learned to give others along the way; for the compassion, the ability to see all the shades of grey between black and white. But I'd like to let go of the fear, insecurity, bad coping strategies (toxic trees!) and low self-esteem.

Deep down a voice still says - you're damaged. Broken. Messed-up. You'll never be free.

I had nightmares when I was around 10 years old that went something like this - I'd wake in the middle of the night to 'see' a cloud of demons over my bed, shaking chains and chanting, "You'll never be free!"

In my early 20's I had a flashback to a day when I was somewhere between 5 and 7 years old. My dad said to me, "Be good, or else ..." and I knew more abuse was the 'or else' bit. From that I grew to believe the abuse was my fault; that I obviously wasn't being good enough - otherwise he'd stop!

The last words I clearly remember my dad saying were, when I planned on going to uni, "Don't bother - you'll never make it!" I sweated through my degree and passed with honors, but his low opinion of me stayed lodged deep in my spirit.

There's been so much healing already. But on my bad days I still believe I have nothing worthy to offer the world. I'm good at many things but not excellent in anything. I love to write, but I read other blogs out there and think, "Who am I kidding?" I can cook, but I'm no Michelin chef. I love being a parent but sometimes I shout at my kids and they cower away from me. As for the best wife - let's just not go there!

I still genuinely wonder what my friends see in me. And I'm useless at small talk. It's hard to talk about tractors or the weather when I really want to know what's going on in your heart. Most people find that intimidating, so sometimes it's easier not to start a conversation at all - but then people think I'm snobby and just don't care. Can't win either way!

Most of all I'm still waiting for that aha! moment when I find the one thing I was made to do, where I can really shine. Like that moment on X-Factor when a garage mechanic from the back of beyond opens his mouth and sings in a way that makes your spine tingle and your soul soar. Even more so when you realise that the world could easily have missed out on his gift.
But he showed up at the audition!

And maybe that's all we have to do - be real with ourselves and with each other, and then help each other get on with whatever it is that we're called to do.

I'm really enjoying a series over on Momastery right now that deals with this very thing - showing up to change the world in our own small way, despite our secret fears and insecurities. Well worth a read!

Friday, 21 February 2014

my dad, part 5: the forgiveness letter

(my dad, part 4: face to face)

Family photo, 1971

May 29, 2006

Dear Dad,

I’ve struggled for a few days in writing this letter because I really hope you will hear my heart.

When Sharon rang me in Ireland to tell me that you had cancer I cried for four days. I couldn’t bear to think of you coping with this news alone with nobody to help you through it. I knew straight away that I needed to come home and see you.

So I’m glad you let me come and visit. I’m sorry that things didn’t go so smoothly, but the only reason I brought up the past was to try and mend the break in relationship between us. I was angry over things in the past and wanted to know how you felt about it and give you a chance to give your perspective.

I’m sorry for doing it now when you’re sick. If only we’d been able to talk years ago, then we could have put all of this behind us and still been involved in each others’ lives. I’m sorry that we’ve both missed out on that – and I’m sorry for the pain and loneliness you’ve been through.

I’ve been confused because I’ve written several letters to you over the years, sharing my life with you. One Christmas long ago I came to your door with a gift and knocked but you didn’t open the door. I thought maybe you just didn’t want to talk with me.

Again, the only reason I brought up the past was because I felt it was an unspoken issue between us that had to be addressed if you in your pain and I in mine were to find healing and peace, and restore relationship, and just be father and daughter again. That is what I want – genuine peace between us because I do love you, and I feel terrible grief because I’m about to lose you, and I know things could have been so different.

You are still dad to me and always will be. As a little girl I looked up to you – I still have copies of letters I wrote from boarding school, asking if you would write to me. When I asked you to give me away at my wedding it was because I wanted to honour you as my dad and I’m grateful to you for accepting and giving me away.

I don’t know what else to say except that I do love you and feel great sorrow that you are having to fight this battle with cancer, without the closeness of family around you. I will try to come again after leaving this letter but if you don’t want to see me I will understand, you obviously have the right to say no.

With love from your daughter,

my dad, part 4: face to face

(my dad, part 3: fallout)

Before I start, I need to say this: I struggled for years to forgive my dad. I wanted to forgive him for my own sake, to get free. But each time I tried, rage would bubble up from deep inside because of the way my dad's choices had ruined my life.

Until, through the fog, I realised two things: first, my pain wasn't entirely his fault. Yes, he abused me, but he didn't force me to self-harm or starve myself. I'd made bad choices too, and I had to take ownership of those.

Second, my dad and I were in the same boat. He was also a victim of childhood abuse; but since he never healed, he passed the pain on to me. If I didn't forgive, I could end up doing the same thing to my kids. 

Fying to New Zealand with my dad, 1976

As a 35-yr-old adult, I was too afraid to visit dad on my own. So I took my sister with me - old habit dies hard!

I tried to visit him once in my teens, when he lived in a ramshackle old caravan on his building site, but he refused to open the door. The second time was just before my wedding, when my husband convinced me that dad needed to give me away. (Long story short, he was right, though it added mega-stress to the day!) But this was the first time I'd been inside the raw cobbled-together house my dad had lived in for the past 15 years.

My dad's face was the same - a face I'd both loved and feared - apart from a patch over his right eye following surgery a few years earlier to remove a brain tumor. But his belly was now large and swollen, pregnant with more tumors.

Impending death has a way of sweeping away years and focusing thoughts; but I found that day difficult because, although we talked, we said nothing. It was a plastic conversation, sidestepping so much unspoken grief.

Afterwards I realised I just couldn't miss the opportunity to be real with my dad.

The next day I asked my younger brother if I could bring up the past during our visit. He rolled his eyes but thankfully agreed.

"Dad, I was hoping we could talk about the abuse."

He went white. "How dare you bring that up at a time like this?" He paused for a few seconds that stretched out towards me like a black hole, waiting to swallow me up. "Yes, I did abuse you, but I was sick then and I won't be held responsible." A few more silent seconds. "Now get out, and don't bother coming back!"

I walked back to my mum's house in tears. Sure, my dad had finally admitted the abuse after years of denying it - a huge plus - but he'd also shut me out.

Over the next three days I wrote him a letter, praying over every word because I knew that without divine help, he wouldn't get what I was trying to say. Then I dropped the letter in his mailbox and cried, convinced it was over.

But the next day he phoned, asking for me. "Thanks for the letter. Would you please come and see me again?"

This time when he opened the door he said, quite simply, "Can we not talk about this anymore?" And I was happy with that - there was no apology, but I knew it was an invitation to peace.

As I waved goodbye for the last time, I knew my dad had suffered in his own way - left lonely, bitter and empty because of the choices he'd made. And for the first time I felt huge, crazy compassion, not only for my dad but for all the other broken, abusive people out there. They were people trapped by pain; God in his mercy wanted to scoop them up in his arms but they refused to be held.

Flying home to Ireland I felt so free on the inside. There was still work to do, but I was a different person and my husband could see it too.

I know not everyone has the opportunity to meet with their abuser face to face - that was a gift. But there are other ways to let go. If you're battling to forgive someone, can I encourage you to read my letter - in the next post - and write your own?* If you can't or don't want to give it to that person, then give it to someone you really trust - or give it to God, and ask him what to do next. It may not be the immediate fix you're looking for, but it's a definite step on the road to healing.

* You won't see much anger in my letter - I knew if I exploded, my dad wouldn't bother to read it 
- and by that time his suffering had defused most of my anger anyway!

Monday, 17 February 2014

my dad, part 3: fallout

(my dad, part 2: bomb blast)

I left for university shortly after the restraining order was placed on my dad. I chose a double major in psychology and education and, after a few hiccups in actually getting there (like my mum's overloaded car burning out on the highway!), I loved uni. I loved the mental challenge, and loved being able to open my mouth and give an opinion without being shot down in flames!

A few things stand out from those years ...
* reading a word-for-word description of my dad's behavior in a textbook one day and realizing I didn't want to spend the rest of my life reliving the moment. Right then I decided a career in clinical psych wasn't for me - but I still went on to finish my degree.
* looking up from a desk in the library one day to find a classmate staring at me with lovesick eyes and feeling my heart lurch in despair. He'd become a friend of sorts, but I hadn't seen what was coming. When I told him "sorry, I can't go there," he told me I'd been calling him the wrong name all year. Oops!
* passing my degree with honors and being offered a full scholarship to go back and complete my masters ... but being so burned out, I couldn't even open a book for the next six months.

In those days if you were unemployed for six months or more, social welfare would call you up for 'volunteer' duty. And so, because of my education major, I was placed as a resource assistant in the special education unit of a local school.

I got to work at around 8.30 each morning and so did the kids. Pretty soon we had a session going where the kids would ask questions and tell me their stories - about gang fights, watching porn movies with their parents, living under their own houses for days at a time ... it was an eye-opener for sure!

I was particularly drawn to one little boy - I'll call him David - who came in with new bruises each morning and always had a story to explain them away. He'd fallen down the stairs, tripped over a ball. He wore the same clothes for weeks in a row and stank of urine.

As the other kids went out to play, David edged closer to me. At first I fought the urge to move away - but his need for love screamed out, so I let him sit close and quiet. Then one morning he limped through the door like an old man, tears streaming down his cheeks. He sat on my knee, reached back and drew my arms around him, hugging his body tight. I held still, fighting back my own tears, wishing him love and courage. It probably wasn't 100% p.c. even in those days, but there's no way I could have pushed him away.

Weeks later the family moved with no forwarding address. But I'll never forget the mirror David held up to me, or the stirring deep inside to use my own life, somehow, to help others through the pain of abuse.

the damage goes deep - image courtesy of IrishCentral.com

After that I left the school and volunteered for a local radio station. But I was still emotionally broken. One night I decided to have it out with God, telling him, "I'm not going to sleep until I know why I'm still so miserable."And I let him have it - pouring out my grief and rage over the years of abuse.

At the end of it came a peace and stillness unlike anything I'd felt before. Then I heard God say, "That's all I wanted - for you to be honest with me." And for the first time in my life I realised I was safe with God - I could be myself and he'd take me just the way I was.

Three years later I moved to Switzerland and spent a year ghost-writing a book for the manager of a retreat center. From there I moved to Costa Rica, South America; and finally to Thailand where I worked with refugees. But my baggage came with me, and oh did I have baggage!

It was in Thailand that I met my now-husband Charles, who spent 2 or 3 months of every year volunteering there. Long story - I'll tell it one day! And that's how I ended up on the opposite side of the world, 100% married, despite telling God that I'd never marry anyone, even if he found me the right guy.

We struggled in the early years ... I'm sure we're not alone in that. Two years into our marriage I was really depressed, sobbing my heart out on the floor of the kitchen each night - until I woke up one morning in early 2003 seeing only shadows. That's also a story for another time - but a reminder that, in the words of Glennon Doyle Melton, "a broken heart won't kill you, but running will!"

I was diagnosed with a rare condition that made the retinas in my eye bubble and burst, like water on wallpaper. I spent the next three months semi-blind, with one specialist telling me I might never recover. I couldn't read, could barely peel a potato, and was afraid to walk because I'd lost all sense of space and dimension. As I sat immobilised on the sofa, I felt God clearly say to me, "Well, you needed to deal with some stuff and I just couldn't get your attention any other way!"

So I listened, for a while. But then my sight came back - bar some damage in my right eye - and I kept right on running.

Then one day in 2006, out of the blue, I had a call from my sister in New Zealand. She had just found out that my dad was dying of cancer. I immediately knew I had to go home. Chances were he wouldn't even see me, but I had to try.

I prayed for just one thing on the flight over - that I could see my dad, say goodbye and make peace with him. I had no intention of bringing up the past. But as it turned out, God had other ideas!

(to be continued)

Saturday, 15 February 2014

in the shelter

We've been plagued by storms for the past week - storms with hurricane force winds, torrential rain, snow flurries, flood waters surging, huge old trees ripped out of stone ditches by their roots and power lines down all around Ireland.

Storm waters rising in Irish coastal towns - photo from The Irish Mirror

We were lucky - out of power for just 24 hours. We did run out of water, but since there was no real damage to our house or garden, that brief interlude of howling winds and huddling around the fire by candlelight was good for us. No half hour of television before the kids went to bed - just telling stories before heading upstairs to unusually cold beds.

The next morning the kids' schools were closed so we all trekked out to a nearby town to wander, eat something hot and recharge our cell phones in a cafe.

We also huddled in the library, just above the town's water wheel. They had a great kids' section with wide curving shelves, rainbow-rugs and a wee wooden table and chairs. My kids had a blast in there and I did too, reading aloud while my 18-month-old wandered around pulling random books off the shelves - yes, we put them back again!

We spent a good hour in there while the storm raged outside. It was shelter, true shelter - hushed and quiet, warm and dry, with friendly faces at the counter even when our teething little one got cranky and howled the place down.

It was such a relief to get home that day and find power and water. We loaded the dishwasher, ran the washing machine, flushed the loo (yippee!) and made spaghetti and meatballs. But a small part of me missed the brief peace of those 24 hours.

As the last breath of the storms played out today I took a quick run into town and bumped into a few people I knew. Their power was still out. Their freezers were full of rotting food. But it was okay, they said, because "we had to talk to each other!"

Fallen giants everywhere - photo from The Irish Journal

Seeing the news headlines tonight - more fallen trees obstructing roads, farm tanks bubbling with three days' worth of sour milk, people being evacuated from their homes - I couldn't get past that feeling of shelter. And I couldn't get a line from this song out of my head, "In the shelter of each other, we will live ... we will live!"

You know that old saying, "It takes a village to raise a child"? Turns out it's really really true - we do need each other. Especially in times like this, when those who've suffered most need the help of those who escaped the worst of the storm.

This week it was our turn. Next week it might be yours.

Seems to me that the same thing happens with emotional storms. Life traumas are often unexpected, uncontrollable, choosing their victims at random. Some of us need a place to sit for a while that's hushed, quiet, warm and dry. Filled with friendly faces, with people who can say, "Don't worry, it's gonna be okay" - because, from their vantage point, it already IS okay.

As the storms abate that's the lesson I'm taking from this week ... let's be that shelter for each other!

Monday, 10 February 2014

my dad, part 2: bomb blast

(my dad, part 1: a broken heart)

Somewhere after that first kiss at 13, abuse became the new normal in our house. Once home from school we kids were constantly on guard against my dad who prowled around the house, mostly naked, hoping to surprise us. My older brother hid in his room; the rest of us moved around the house in pairs, afraid to walk alone. With the abuse came threats too - that if we told anyone, there'd be more serious consequences - and we were innocent and fearful enough to believe him.

(This is proving a hard post to write. I find myself standing back a little, needing distance - so if you find this a bit unemotional - it's not, really it's not! ;-)

The pain and confusion of those days was horrendous. I remember getting out of the house as fast as I could in the morning - sometimes escaping from my dad in my pj's and spending the day hidden in the bushes in a park near our house until I knew the other kids would be home from school. Other days I skipped school because I couldn't face keeping up the pretense of 'normal' when everything was falling apart.

Since my dad was a peeping tom, I'd line the windows and door of our bathroom with towels every time I took a bath. Paranoid? No. My dad built a shower with a glass door facing into our laundry room. We mostly never used it. The one day I did, thinking my dad was out, I looked up to find him watching me through the glass and I shrank away in total humiliation.

My GP prescribed sleeping tablets around that time since I had trouble sleeping - I didn't tell him why - and since the days were so awful I began taking them first thing in the morning. Then one day, so numb emotionally but aching for a way to feel the pain, I dropped a glass in the kitchen and drew a sharp shard across my palm - again and again. This soon became a habit - the only way to physically express what was happening to me on the inside.

There were five kids in my family, and the others' stories aren't mine to tell - but I will say that three of us tried to commit suicide, some more than once, during that time.

The method I chose was slow - I decided not to eat! Perhaps feeling that if I lost enough weight my dad would lose interest in me; or perhaps because not eating made me feel clean, strong and in control like nothing else did.

One day my maths teacher reached out and asked, "Laurel, there's something wrong, isn't there?" For the first time I felt that someone cared, that I just might get help if I found the right way to ask for it. So with a pounding heart I made an appointment with our school guidance counselor. I spent hours in her office before finally finding the courage to 'tell' - and then shrank in fear and relief when she said she had to take action.

So my mum found out and my dad was warned. I'm not sure if social services were called in. But nothing changed. Nothing changed! Until my mum realised just how serious things were and moved us to a safe house. But even that was temporary. The police advised us kids to stay home the first day while mum went to work, but my dad figured out where we were and turned up on the doorstep. I turned and ran out the back door and into a nearby shop with my dad in hot pursuit. The police were called. But my parents talked it out and got back together, and in a quiet moment not long afterwards my dad made sure we knew that, once again, nothing had changed.*

Except that my parents began sending me to weekly appointments with a psychologist - the best thing they ever did. This incredible woman sat me down, listened, and then taught me how to look at my situation and say, "This is awful - but it's not the end of the world." For the first time I began feeling that I might actually get through this tunnel and out the other side.

She didn't talk to me about food - but she did warn me that if my weight dropped beyond a certain limit, I'd end up in hospital. And of course for me, that weight limit was like a red rag to a bull! (Photos from that era that will remain under lock and key until my kids leave home ... or maybe 'til I'm buried! I'm like a stick insect with a Michael Jackson hairdo - what was I thinking?!?)

At 17 I was made dux of our secondary school. An ambulance waited outside the awards ceremony to whisk me off to hospital, where I spent the next month in a solitary room on suicide watch, with windows locked shut and all books and personal possessions confiscated. My only comfort during that time was the sensation of a warm blanket wrapped around me; to this day I'm sure it was God's way of saying "I'm here! I haven't abandoned you!"

They put me on drugs that fogged my brain, but one thing stands out - I refused to let anyone come into the showers with me. The nurses were afraid I'd fall over, but they didn't realise how potently impossible it was for me to let anyone see me like that!!

Then I was sent home - and my dad was still there. I applied for university and he laughed at me, saying "If I were you, I wouldn't bother - you'll never make it!" - which made me determined to prove him wrong.

But before I left home, my mum had a court order put on him while he was away visiting family in another town. He couldn't come back - although he did try, once or twice. So we were technically safe - just a little too late because the bomb had already fallen.

* I should make it clear that I don't blame my mum - not really. In her day the shame of divorce was much stronger and she didn't know how she'd survive on her own. She was also a victim of abuse. The one thing I regret is that she never let us see how overwhelmed and frightened she felt - if she had, we might have had the freedom to express our feelings too. 

(to be continued)

Thursday, 6 February 2014

got the bug :-(

My kids are sick! So no mid-week blog post this time, I'm leaving it 'til Sunday when I may have had a full night's sleep!! xx

Monday, 3 February 2014

my dad, part 1: a broken heart

I posted a link on the Facebook page today - a response from author (and former alcoholic) Glennon Doyle Melton to the death by overdose of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. In her blog post, she calls on all who are emotionally wounded to "stop running from your broken heart. A broken heart won't kill you, but running will."

I can relate to that. For years I ran from memories of my dad. But I hung on tight to the bad coping strategies I'd chosen (toxic trees!), even though I'd half forgotten where they came from, until God brought things to a head in 2006.

Somewhere in the middle of that year my sister rang from New Zealand to tell me she'd learned, from a virtual stranger on the street, that my dad was dying of cancer. At that point I had a choice to make. Take courage and go back, or walk away from the one opportunity I might have to make peace with him.

So this is my story ... it will probably span over several posts and I'm telling it for a few reasons. First, to remember and deal with the roots of my own pain; second, to make a case for abusers who are damaged people, just like us; and finally, to share my l-o-o-ng journey towards forgiveness in the hope that it may encourage others who wonder if they will ever be able to forgive.


My dad, my older brother & me (with the bucket)

I don't have many warm fuzzy memories of my dad, but there are a few.

We kids were born and grew up in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where my parents - who were out there working for a mission organisation - met and fell in love.

We lived in a crude split-level house on a mountain, built by my dad using timber from the mill he'd constructed in the village below. I remember him bringing ants' nests home from the jungle to feed our pet parrots; building a playhouse high in the branches of a tree in our backyard; and playing the guitar before bedtime while our parrots sang along with us from the rafters.

I also remember the day our little cast-iron cooking stove set fire to the thatched roof. My mum rushed us outside to the edge of the mountain while my dad ran barefoot up a ladder with buckets of water, burning his feet - somehow managing to save the house.

I remember hearing how my dad, as a young 20-something, told his parents he was leaving for New Guinea and they begged him not to go, promising him a house and a good job if he'd stay. He refused because he felt called to live for a purpose beyond himself.

Yo! That's me - the blonde with the coconut :-)

But there was a darker side to my dad.

In the very early days I mostly remember his anger - raging, violent anger; and his sheer hatred of my older brother, who was so terrified of my dad he could barely speak to him.

There's also a very early memory of abuse, when I was so young I couldn't fully understand what was going on - so young that the memories are just vague shadows in my mind.

My mum home-schooled me at first, but I wanted to attend a 'real school' with my older brother. So my parents relented and shortly after my 7th birthday my dad flew with me out to the coast and dropped me on the doorstep of the boarding school. I still remember the shock of realising he wasn't staying with me - leading to a year of homesickness, letters home begging my parents to come and get me, and finally sleep-walking and terrible nightmares.

Eventually the school called a psychologist in to administer some IQ tests and my parents were advised to take me home to a more settled environment in New Zealand, to cater for my strange combination of high IQ and extreme lack of social skills!

At around the same time my dad was diagnosed with a serious illness. He and my mum had flown in goats from the coast to set up a livelihood project for the people in our village who were hunter-gatherers, relying on good weather and fate to provide enough food for daily survival. They also poisoned rivers so the fish would float belly up into their nets; and then spent hours begging the spirits for forgiveness when people grew sick and died after eating the poisoned flesh.

My parents wanted to make life easier for them. But the goats came with an unwelcome guest - Brucellosis - a disease which ruined my dad's health. My mum's letters home to her family show the progression from occasional sweats and chills, to extreme weakness and even hallucinations. Doctors eventually advised my dad to leave while he still could. Since he was too weak to walk, the villagers took the front door off the house and used it as a stretcher to carry him down to the airstrip at the foot of the mountain.

Back "home" in New Zealand, we kids were like fish out of water, living in what was to us a foreign country. Since dad was too sick to work, my mum took on several jobs, finally settling as a florist in a business they started together.

She worked long hours while my dad spent most of his time at home - and it was then that the abuse began in earnest. One day, when I was around 13 years old and home sick from school, my dad showed up in the living room, stark naked, asking for a kiss. I knew something was wrong, but out of respect for my dad, I let him kiss me. That was all, that day - but it was the beginning of a nightmare lasting several years that blew our family apart. (to be continued)

Sunday, 2 February 2014

digdeep on facebook

Digdeep now has a Facebook page! If you're on Facebook, it's an easy way to keep up with new blog posts - just head over to digdeepflyhigh and 'like' the page. Links to new blog entries will be posted as soon as they're up, taking you directly to the blog.

There will also be a few extras on the page - a mix of inspirational quotes, photos and links to articles - but nothing too overwhelming! Your comments/feedback on the page are more than welcome.

Thanks so much for reading, and to those who've already left comments so I don't feel entirely alone out here in the blogosphere - thanks for your encouragement! ;-) Laurel.