The message of my life’s experience was to deny that any suffering was taking place—even when much suffering, loss or injustice was present. While I am certain that no-one intended to harm me, the denial of pain was part of how I grew up. My parents and grandparents were devoted to me. Yet the message was clear: don’t feel what you are feeling. Feel something else.
When I was seven my mother came down with mysterious symptoms which we would later discover were part of a debilitating disease. I understood enough to know that the adults around me were frightened and confused. As I began to ask questions, the caring adults around me tried to help me by giving me some instructions: “Be a big girl”; “Take care of your sister”; “Don’t upset your mother.”
The message of denial was repeated enough in life that I learned its lesson well. I recall a high school counselor who sat across from me in the days leading up to my dad’s death. She tried to draw me out so that she could reassure me that our family would be fine. I was worried more about losing Papa and being left with my Mama and sister to care for. And, when I voiced my concerns and began to cry in her office, she quickly removed me from the quiet of her office, through the busy outer office into a back lavatory and left me alone to collect myself.
A few days later I stood in the hallway of the hospital between visits to my dad’s room. Some dear family friends were present to do anything we asked. Their questions were right and their presence was comforting and stabilizing. Finally, my emotions began to spill over and I lost the ability to keep it all in. Immediately a sweet woman rushed to my rescue reminding me that I would be okay and to be strong for my mother. I clammed up and, though Papa died that day and we had two funerals to manage, I pulled my emotions in more tightly and resolutely as the days passed.
Within two years I had tucked my true emotions away and exchanged them for a generalized fear, much stress, hopelessness, depression, fantasy, addiction and a path toward academic failure.
About a decade later, I met the first of many people God would use to draw out my wounds for healing. She took my bland and emotionless recounting of my life stories and modeled back for me appropriate emotions. She seemed sad when I talked about the day my mother got sick. She seemed offended and confused when I recounted how the counselor took me through the office to a lonely place to grieve alone. She wondered how I could have gone so far into depression and addiction without the intervention of those who love me. She modeled Jesus’ care of my suffering. She blamed no one for my condition, not even me, but she had compassion on my loneliness and invited me to accept my own pain.
I began to unfold my secrets to this trusted lady. When I admitted a sexual fall (frequent stuff), she would often ask me what was going on or what I was feeling in the days or moments leading up to the fall. She connected me to my own heart. Instead of covering my empty and confusing emotions with isolation and addiction, she invited me to share my pain with her, and together we would take my pain and shame to Jesus. She coaxed me to speak to Him of my need, and she helped me learn to “listen” for Him speaking back to me. I began to stabilize and joy crept back into my life.
Several years beyond these beginnings I attended a Living Waters event. During a ministry time around the topic of forgiveness, I approached the cross with a confusing bundle of emotion. I was horrified that a large lump of pain was surfacing in a public place and I had no words to describe it. What was this ugliness I was feeling? What would happen if it spilled out in this place where there was no-one I knew? In moments I was weeping uncontrollably and painfully.
Some unknown woman came and caringly laid her hand on my shoulder and prayed silently. A memory, like a photograph, of the day my mother became ill popped into my mind. The praying woman asked me what I was thinking. I told her of the picture and she continued to pray. Jesus met me in that memory. He entered a frozen, painful place and sat down with me. My heart reached toward His heart and I asked my unanswered questions from that day. Rather than give me some flat, revisionist truism in that moment, He told me the truth. Jesus sat with me and listened to my heart of pain. His answers were not easy or happy. He was present with me in the pain of that time and place.
When I arose from that time with Jesus, I was completely different. My longing for security amid feelings of helplessness was answered through His presence and the presence of a prayerful sister. My most persistent anxieties (and resulting addictions) were stilled in the safety of Christ’s presence for me. I was aware that He literally had turned His face toward me and looked at me. Rather than deny my pain, He offered relief as I shared my pain with Him.
I have walked in much greater freedom since then. I continue to learn that Jesus and His real community can answer the real cries of my heart.