The Paradox of a Smile

I got a lot of interesting feedback from my last post.

Mainly bewilderment. I blame myself. I use this blog as a way to flex my writing muscles, but if you ever read one of my novels or my recent poetry, you’d notice a difference in tone.

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For instance, my current work in progress contains a character with PTSD. One of the ways I insert her struggles into the novel is by interrupting her thought process with flashbacks. When she’s triggered and begins to lose her grip on the present, I drop tiny hints at what she’s thinking. A sentence. A word. Little bits disrupt the narrative to give the reader a taste of what it’s like to have your mind revving up into the frenzy of a triggered panic attack.

Basically, my writing voice leans more abstract and poetic than I tend to be here. My last post felt normal to me but made many well-meaning people think I go to therapy for my acne.

I struggle with symptoms of PTSD, which I left too long untreated. Six months ago, the triggers multiplied, culminating in my inability to view my own face in the mirror. I don’t see me anymore. I see red blotches that echo past trauma. Makeup doesn’t help. The haircut didn’t help. I just can’t look at myself right now.

I’ve exorcized the house, one room at a time, and covered all the mirrors with towels.

You probably think I’m overreacting. So rip off the crude curtain and make me stare at myself, at the hot red slap on my pale European ancestry, the angry flush of heredity that makes me hate my skin. I’ll try to crawl out of it while you watch, clawing my way to the surface before the scream suffocates me.

~ Rachel Svendsen, Rosacea

I avoided treatment because I feared the outcome. I guess I needed to become ill enough that I wouldn’t care.

I just want to be well. I can hardly keep up with the few things I’m still involved in and dread adding anything new. I’m too exhausted to keep up with relationships or daily duties. I’ve questioned my will to keep trying.

I needed help. Part of that was a doctor prescribed mandate to eliminate as many triggers as possible. Some of those triggers were relationships. This move generally goes unsupported. People turn it on its head and the abused individual is forced to forgive in ways that permanently tie them to toxic relationships. You’re told to be stronger, to stop “making drama” or harboring hatred.

I questioned myself so much that my therapist actually bid me stop. He told me to imagine I was a soldier injured in battle. I’m now in hospital, fed, warm, resting, and hating myself for abandoning my comrades. I cannot obey the call of my guilt. I’m wounded. Things have changed.

Abuse changes things. It breaks relationships in a way that cannot always be mended into a happy ending for all.

In closing, one of the most confusing responses I received was people finding it impossible to insert my wild, tormented rantings into the mind of my smiling social media face.

First: I fear this is a danger in our Instagrammed society. Never, NEVER assume someone’s life is idyllic because of their social media. We’re programmed to just show the comfy parts to the world, a sort of emotional keep up with the Joneses we’ve been enacting since the beginning of the Facebook generation.

Second: Living with a mental disorder is to forever walk the line between okay and falling apart. Healthy people don’t understand how this feels. That’s why it’s so hurtful to tell a depressed person, “I get sad too sometimes.” Depression is more than that. That’s also why I write my abused and mentally ill characters semi-poetically. It’s my attempt to capture the jolt and jar of walking through the day with a fractured mind. That’s what my last post was about, so if it confused you, I guess it was almost meant to.

Third: Just because I’m ill and suffering doesn’t mean my life has no joy. The LORD has filled my life with loving, supportive people, essential to my survival during this time. I have a beautiful daughter who gives me endless snuggles and fills my ears with bubbling laughter. I have a warm, generous husband who holds me when I cry and scream. I have hope in a God who promised me Eternity in His healing presence.

A smile can hide brokenness, but it’s not always just an act. Sometimes it’s just a testament of survival and God’s grace.

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Photo by Katie Emma Photography
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Rosacea

 

I’m having so much difficulty, as of late, finding a way to vent my pain. It’s currently backed up in my head in the form of an endless scream. I drown it out with books and cooking shows and crushing candy. Plastic screens and magic black squiggles that envelope the here and take me anywhere else. The pages flip, the colored squares pop and for a moment I can make myself believe I’m accomplishing something instead of standing still.

If you bothered to pry me up, to shake me out of anywhere to here, I’ll admit I’m not okay. And if you make me stand in front of a mirror, you can watch me fall apart.

I dragged myself to my therapist’s office and blinked awake long enough to let the scream out for a diagnosis. Then I shut it back inside, handed the prescription to my husband, and took my diagnosis down to the place where the scream began.

I’ve exorcized the house, one room at a time, and covered all the mirrors with towels.

You probably think I’m overreacting. So rip off the crude curtain and make me stare at myself, at the hot red slap on my pale European ancestry, the angry flush of heredity that makes me hate my skin. I’ll try to crawl out of it while you watch, clawing my way to the surface before the scream suffocates me.

Yes, I could make a believer out of you. I could show you the madness that creeps around the edges of my I’m-just-fine. But nevermind, I’m just drama and attention wrapped in the paradox of attempting to live life unseen.

So I’ll swallow the scream and let you think what you want of the diagnosis, the prescription, and me. And I’ll wait for the day when the trauma is cool enough that I can take down the towels, look in the mirror, hear silence and see nothing except rosacea.

 

A Pastor’s Wife, A Millstone, and A Cup of Tea

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:27-31

One Sunday of my childhood, my mother pointed out a married couple and said with a shake of her head, “He could be so useful to the Lord if it wasn’t for his wife.” After that, whenever I heard him preach or pray, I would pity him. Just imagine what he could be if his wife wasn’t such a weight.

When my husband told me that he felt the Lord calling him into full-time ministry, I didn’t doubt for a minute that this was what the Lord wanted from his life. It was weeks later that I realized if the Lord was calling my husband, he was also calling me.

The church we attended at the time had a long list of requirements for pastor’s wives, including a demanding homemaker skill set that I still utterly fail to meet. I’ll never forget the disapproval they showed me after my husband announced he was going into seminary. One person cornered me to ask how I thought my nose ring would affect my husband’s ministry. They were upfront about how they felt, nearly telling me outright as my husband and I shuffled our way out the door on our last Sunday there.

I began to question what I brought to the table. “Nothing,” was my only answer.

I’m not a good teacher or public speaker. I’m insecure and easily overwhelmed. I’ve been suicidal and have issues with panic disorder and depression. People I loved emotionally abused me, so I’m wary of close relationships. I am an ugly sinner and a recovering Pharisee.

They were right. Even without a nose ring, I am not “Pastor’s Wife” material. I would be the weight that prevented my husband from being used by God. People were already shaking their heads at me.

I considered scrubbing myself up, but I’d spent the first 25 years of my life living an outward spiritual lie. I didn’t want to go back there. So I decided I’d just continue to read my Bible and quietly worry about how my insufficiencies might weigh down my husband.

We started attending Milford Bible Church during a turbulent period of my life. My messy pregnancy rolled into a slew of postpartum health issues that left me virtually bedridden. My husband fought to keep our family together while I watched from bed, more and more convinced that I dragged him down.

A millstone round his neck.

With the return of my health came opportunities for me to get involved at church, but more importantly, opportunities for me to help my husband. Once again, I cooked the meals, kept house, and cared for our baby. I hoped rhythm would return to life.

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My new equilibrium tottered when God led us to settle in PA. Leaving New Jersey wasn’t in my plan. I love it there. It’s less rural, there’s less snow, and my family is there. But God lit the path that led us to buy our first home in the Poconos. I comforted myself that he would continue to show me the same care he showed during the previous two years of struggle.

The week before Tim’s first Sunday morning sermon at Milford was a disaster. The house was in chaos from ongoing unpacking. The holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving to New Years holds multiple emotional triggers that make me tense and depressed. Monday I had a meltdown, sobbing myself into hyperventilation. I fell asleep, huddled and trembling beside my husband and got up the next morning already broken and tired. I prepped myself to blast through our overscheduled week, only to discover on Tuesday evening that the week would tax my physical health as well.

Saturday night, I’m sitting with my friend Debbie, swallowing my new antibiotics, and wishing I had a river I could skate away on. Her hand touched mine. She gave it a little squeeze and told me it was a blessing to be in my home.

Her laundry was in my dryer. I’d fed her pancakes for supper on paper plates. My sofa was covered in unfolded laundry, my counter with Thursday’s dirty dishes. Her only real company was a semi-comatose me, but still, she was thankful to be in my home.

I nearly cried as I confided to her my dream of having the kind of home people would feel comfortable stopping by on a whim. A safe place to run to when they’re hurting or lost. A place of comfort and joy and a warm cup of tea.

She told me it was those things to her.

Sunday came. I was so nervous for my husband that I nearly vomited. He took several deep breaths before he started, just enough to make me worry he’d never start at all. Then he opened his mouth. The Lord spoke to me through him, not for the first time, but for the first time from behind a pulpit.

He became a Pastor to me while I cried my way through his sermon. Debbie’s words fed back into my mind. Quietly in the pew, I felt the Lord confirm his calling to my husband and to me.

A young lady stopped me in the foyer and asked me what I thought it meant to one day be a Pastor’s wife. I blinked at her while memories of nose rings and suicide notes rolled through my mind, then said, “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Even with the confirmation of God’s call, I still don’t know what it means to “be a pastor’s wife.” Maybe it’s nothing more than being a support to my husband. But more and more, I think that something I add to our ministry is my brokenness.

I am so messed up. So sinful and slimy and God, please I need your grace! So when people come to me with mess, I get it, because of all the mess I’ve been through. I can show others the same patience I hope they use when dealing with me. And sure, someday I’ll probably get that tattoo, but the hurting people who need a hug or a cup of tea don’t care about the permanent semicolon on my wrist.

I’m not a millstone. I’m the shattered bits an artistic God can use in a mosaic. God uses broken things. It magnifies how awesome he truly is.

Now Im just a beggar in the presence of a King I wish I could bring so much more But if its true You use broken things Then here I am Lord Im all Yours - Matthew West

Thank You #NaNoWriMo 2018

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers across the globe shoot to get 50,000 words of a new novel down before 11:59pm, November 30th.

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I first heard about it in 2015. That year I wrote the first draft of a middle-grade novel called Land of the Golden Raindrops. In 2017, I wrote the first draft of a YA novel His Brother’s Keeper. This year I took some old notes I’d written back in High School and decided I’d rework them into an adult fantasy novel.

I knew November would be busy, so I tried to plan ahead. I started my outline and made some character notes. I felt confident that I had a vision of where the story would go, at least, enough of one to be getting on with.

About a week in, I was stumped. The characters weren’t speaking to me, and even with all my old notes, I was beginning to realize that the story just had no point.

I spent a few days trying to digest what this meant. I recalled reading about bestselling authors who gave up on projects, things they’d started then realized just weren’t going anywhere. Or an early novel they’d tried desperately to publish, then put aside to write something new, only to discover it was their subsequent novels that people wanted to read.

I shrugged and said to myself, maybe this is just one of the projects I’m going to have to walk away from.

Since pregnancy, my writing time has been minimal. I decided to do NaNoWriMo 2018 because I thought it might help me work writing time back into my schedule. Now I was staring at a novel that I thought I needed to trash.

I didn’t want to quit. I wanted my 50,000 words.

I toyed with switching to another project, but I’d squeezed out a meandering 18k, and I was losing days. If I started over I might never finish.

I’d read before about the work part of writing. The “just get it on the page” days. I’d read a million quotes about how you can edit a crappy sentence but you can’t edit a blank page.

So, I sat myself down and turned my narrowed eyed stare into the heat of my glowing laptop screen. Get it on the page, I told myself. Just get something on the page.

I rambled for an hour. Asking myself questions about the setting and my characters and what the story was about. After two hours of writing, I had my first real scene. Not just a jumble of conversation or an explanation of setting, a whole scene with characters interacting and purpose and movement forward towards a potential plot.

The next night, I put the baby to bed, booted up my laptop, and did it again. Night after night I plugged away. I’d start by typing jibberish and end with full scenes. My characters woke up. My plot and story arch came into focus.

I realized what I was writing about.

I’ve heard some writers make fun of NaNoWriMo as a silly sort of exercise. That you could just be working on your novel at your own speed and don’t need to drop everything for a brand new project every November.

Personally, I love NaNoWriMo, because every time I do it, I find myself learning something new about writing. And even if this year’s novel does end up as an unused file on my hard drive, I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn from NaNoWriMo 2019.

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Looking Back with Button Eyes

Coraline horrified me as a child. So much, that I purposed never read Neil Gaiman again. Years later, I read Neverwhere and he immediately became one of my favorite authors.

I decided to revisit Coraline this year. I spent my read trying to dissect what it was that upset me as a child. I mean, it’s intentionally creepy. The heroine, Coraline, is a self-proclaimed explorer who finds a hidden door in her old house. It leads to an alternate version of her life, with an “other mother” who has buttons for eyes. The other mother invites Coraline to live in this new world forever. All she must do is allow her other mother to replace her eyes with buttons.

But I remember it being more than the danger and suspense of the plot that unsettled me. The feeling went deeper, into a dark place I feared to explore as a child.

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picture by pointblizzy

She seemed lonely to me, forgotten and ignored. She had no friends her age to play with and the adults dismiss her frequently throughout the story, even when she’s in danger. Her interactions with her father reinforced the story’s atmosphere of abandonment. He always seemed to have his back to Coraline when she spoke to him.

Enter the other mother who is eager to meet all Coraline’s needs, including Coraline’s desire for affection. But the intensity of the interest is unsettling, stalker-like. A silent watching and waiting, that quickly turns dangerous.

“It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Back then, Coraline read like the story of a girl offered the choice of living as outcast or prey. That is what made the book true horror to me. Ghosts fade in the daylight and demons can be exorcized, but if everyone abandons you, then loneliness is always.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

I often describe my childhood as silent. I combated my loneliness by retreating behind the door of my imagination, where I lived my hours in daydreams of closeness and acceptance. I had a whole other family in my mind, whose button-eyed gaze never looked through me. I wasn’t superfluous to them; I was loved.

Coraline disturbed me because I would have traded my eyes for buttons. In some ways, I already had.

During my reread, I paid close attention to how her real parents treated her and saw that they weren’t as neglectful as I’d remembered. There is, however, enough repetition in the text of her father turned away and of her desire for physical touch, that I don’t blame my younger self for picking up on it. It’s difficult to filter out the part of a story that speaks directly into your life. What encourages me most now is how, despite his neglect, she turns to his wisdom to cope with the oncoming darkness.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

Coraline’s story is actually about how bravery comes from fear. Fear is essential to bravery, for without fear, bravery has no purpose. This is a lesson Coraline learned from her father. He helped her choose to face her fears by walking back into the claws of the dark.

“‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.'”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Coraline’s parents may have denied her the closeness she needed, but she was still able to learn from them, lessons essential to her survival and maturity. Dysfunctional, even broken, families have something to give.

My childhood will remain silent. But now, in the family I’ve chosen to be part of, I can fight to fill the rooms with love. I know the mistakes of yesterday because I lived them and braved their shadows alone. And as Coraline reminded herself that she was brave many times before she believed it, I will preach the pain of my past to myself again and again until it makes me stronger.

I will be brave. No, I am brave.

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It’s Autumn Again

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Autumn is the seasonal gala, when nature adorns herself in a flash of warm color before falling asleep under a blanket of winter.

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Ellie and I were both asleep last Autumn. She was too young to see the sunset of falling leaves, and I was too ill to go outside and revel in my favorite season.

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We take walks most days. We see turkey and deer and chipmunks. She points and grunts behind her binkie.

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She loves to be outside, to unearth the acorns half-buried in the driveway. She grabs sticks with leaves attached and shakes them like a wand covered in ribbons and bells.

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I pick up leaves from the cool pavement and dewed grass. I show her the varied colors and shapes. I hand her newts and caterpillars.

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I’m not entirely accustomed to the rural feel of life out here, but I begin to see the draw when I’m standing beneath a canopy of mottled leaves, or marveling at the color and texture in one patch of moss.

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It’s breathtaking.

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all photographs © Rachel Svendsen 2018

Facebook Memories

Facebook memories are one of many garbage notifications I get on my phone. Why do I need to remember that article I posted a link to back in 2010, or one of three hundred book memes that I liked, shared and posted.

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Over a week ago, a photo from 2015 popped up in the feed. It was my feet and the screen of my laptop in front of a window that looked down onto a snow covered lawn. The caption read, “Writing at the library.”

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Nostalgia choked me, not for this moment specifically, but for the time in my life it represented.

Our life on Young’s Drive is enshrined in my memory as ideal. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t compare my now life with life then and feel deprived of something beautiful. The apartment, the town, the pace of life. Those Friday nights, just Tim and I, curled up on the floor with paper plates covered in take out, a board game spread out between us. Evening walks, and hours spent reading and writing and sitting in my favorite library.

Every walk we take is not like the ones down Corcoran street. Every library I visit is not organized properly. Every meal we cook, every game we play, every day I live is not as lovely as…

I lowered my phone, letting the sunlight framed memories slide away and looked over at my sleeping daughter. Downstairs, I could hear my in-laws voices, indistinct but comforting, like the warm smell of a fireplace floating in the winter air. My husband was asleep next to me. The house began to settle and still around me until all I could hear was the sounds of my two love’s breathing and my fingers clicking softly as I typed.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been sick for so long, all these days I’ve spent depressed and disheartened, I’ve been reaching for what seemed a perfect time to erase all the pain and exhaustion of my current life, falling to a point so low that I actually look forward to seeing my daily Facebook Memories notification.

But Young’s Drive wasn’t perfect. I was locked in a codependent relationship that sapped my marriage. I felt like an outcast in my church, and went to sleep every night feeling like something was missing from my life, something more than just the empty bedroom that was supposed to hold in it the baby we lost.

Now is different with blessings and pain all it’s own, but what I would miss out on most if I were to trade then for now is the wealth of personal and spiritual growth I’ve gone through to reach this place. And though this time of pain and sickness is not yet over, God never promised us comfort in this world.

But…

…I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. …For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-23 ESV)

Yesterday may be worth remembering, but it’s not worth sacrificing today’s blessings and even sufferings for it’s sake. I’m going to count my now blessings, and put aside then as well as my fears for tomorrow. For my hope is beyond all this and today is enough.

Pardon for sin, and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine with 10,000 beside.
Great is Thy Faithfulness, Great is Thy Faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

~ Thomas Chisholm

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