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.

IMG_7670

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.

DSC_5576
Photo by Katie Emma Photography

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.

 

Hope Beyond the Mess

Things are hard here, very hard.

I haven’t been well since I got pregnant. I am currently waiting for my endocrinologist to clear me for gallbladder surgery. The idea that I require clearance for surgery is still hard for me to believe. It feels like pregnancy ripped my body to pieces. For months now my first thought upon waking is, “how much of today will I have to spend in bed.”

I’m so tired of being sick.

12622115_10153383038097963_3620840470990779291_o

I am perpetually afraid of becoming a burden to the people I love, so this season of needing constant rest and assistance is both an emotional and physical strain. My husband is falling down under the weight of my needs, and for all I know so are all the other people I reach to for help. I keep pulling back and telling myself “No, don’t call them, you can do it.” I try. I fail. I end up back in bed, alone with my self loathing, until my depression gets heavy and dark.

During one of my depressive episodes, I sat down with my sister-in-law and told her a dream I’d had earlier that day. I dreamed I overheard everyone discussing how draining I was and how they wished I wasn’t part of the family. I slipped away, devastated that Tim’s family had rejected me, just like my own. I sought out my husband, but he was too involved in his seminary work to comfort me.

I don’t know if she could tell how broken I was, that I was low enough to wonder how much truth there was in my dream. She looked me in the eye and said, “That is direct attack from the Devil, Rachel. Don’t believe it.” She reminded me of how he wants to discourage us, to steal our reasons to hope, and keep us from turning to the God who loves us.

I don’t know where this path of suffering is going to lead me or my family. I don’t know when it is going to end. Finding meaning in all this pain has been a daily battle. But maybe I’m not meant to know the whys right now.

Hope is bigger than whys.

Hope is beyond the mess of my every day. Hope stands beyond my health, my family, my husband’s job, where I am living or if I ever have another baby.

Hope is that I will see my Savior’s face. Hope is that He loves me here in my bed, even when I’m so depressed I turn from the life He gave me. Hope is that He prays for me, even when I’m too angry to pray myself. Hope is that He embraces me, even when I’m too weak to crawl into His arms.

Hope is Him, everything else is a lie.

I Am Resolved

When the new year looms in December people begin to reevaluate how they spent the past year. We look over the good and bad and decide what needs to change. I think what turned me off to New Years Resolutions was hearing too many people say something like, “Okay, so I really need to stop kicking baby goats. Oh look! January is two weeks away. I can kick a few more goats between now and midnight January first, but then I’ll stop for good.”

The idea of “new year, fresh start” is lovely, but every day is a fresh start and every moment you’re breathing an opportunity to try again. Why procrastinate addressing your bad habits if you know it needs to change now. Personally, I stopped doing New Years Resolutions and switched to setting yearly goals. This gives me a years worth of time to break my habits so I don’t have to hate myself when, one week into the new year, I’ve screwed up my diet and have to start over.

I started this new practice in 2015 by writing my 2016 goals down in my journal and dove into the year with gusto. Unfortunately, I made my goals unachievable by overloading myself. When December 31st came I was pregnant, flat on my back, and desperate to keep fluids down. I thought, If pregnancy is going to be this difficult, I’d better make my goals smaller, so I won’t end 2017 feeling like such a failure. I made two goals for the year: 1) live through pregnancy 2) spend more time with God.

Unless this post has been literally ghostwritten, I lived through pregnancy (HURRAY! *throws confetti*). In reality my survival of pregnancy was never in question (though at the time it felt touch and go) so that goal was like those already completed items you put on your “to-do” list just so you can tick them off. This means I really only had one goal.

And to be honest, I flunked it.

It’s arguable that any time is more time, but that wasn’t what I meant. I have always fought against myself to have regular daily time spent on my personal relationship with God. Pregnancy was hard and exhausting, motherhood equally so. I feel like I’ve been non-stop sick since I was three weeks pregnant. It’s frustrating and humiliating and all the more reason to fall into the arms of my creator and father. But I didn’t, not really.

So December 31st rolls past and I’ve failed again, failed to even do the equivalent of a weekly 20 minute phone call to the God who loves me more than I can understand.

Two days later, I’m thinking it over, and the hot tight sensation of panic starts to settle into my chest. I realize I’ve stopped caring. I’ve given up and just don’t care about anything of eternal weight. I’m too tired, frustrated, and drained from everything I’ve been through in 2017. I had so many moments in the past four months where I didn’t even want my next breath that I’ve forgotten the value of time. The panic attack starts. My mind is on fire with self loathing and pity. I wanted to wake my pastor-to-be husband and have him pray over my wayward, sinful self so that I could find hope and salvation.

Then I remembered why I didn’t make New Years Resolutions.

My yearly goal method had become the same limping cop-out that I rolled my eyes at in other people. I was chain smoking my way to midnight with an “I’ll fix it tomorrow” attitude. Tomorrow I’ll spend time with God. Tomorrow I’ll pray. Tomorrow I’ll start reading my Bible. Tomorrow, when I’m less exhausted, less sick, less frustrated, less depressed.

Tomorrow when I have less time.

I stopped waiting. I prayed:

Father,
You know I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. You know I’ve a list of bad habits that could circumnavigate the globe, but I’m here now. Forgive me. I know we’re going to have to do this again, maybe even tomorrow, but you just keep waking me up to what matters. It doesn’t matter if I have to fight through 365 panic attacks this year if at the end of every one we talk until I fall asleep. At least then I’ll have spent more time alone with you.

I had a frank conversation with the God who loves me, the most important relationship in my life that I’d been neglecting. I didn’t wake my husband to do it for me. I stopped and right then spent time alone with God.

I resolved to start over, and immediately did. And that’s what I’m going to keep doing until I get it right, even if I’m doing it with each breath for the rest of my life.

Open and Honest

One area in my life that I’ve been pushing myself to improve is my total lack of social skills. I am an introvert almost to the extreme, and often find myself content with no other company than my few closest friends. Building new relationships is excessively difficult for me.

IMG_5931

I think one of the reasons I find it so hard is that I kind of hate myself. I see myself as a whiney and annoying person with nothing intelligent to add to a conversation and a waste of space in the room. I labor under the assumption that pretty much everyone else secretly agrees with my self assessment, but are too kind to tell me they’d rather I left. So I leave without being asked. I slip away to be by myself where I’ll read or write or knit or whatever.

Most of this self abasement was encouraged in my upbringing by the way the household was run, and during the darkest periods of my struggle with Depression have led me to some very ugly thoughts. Today, the people closest to me often tell me that I hate myself more than anyone else in the room. I question the complete validity of this statement, but I see what they mean anyway. It would seriously be hard for anyone to dislike me more than I do.

Building relationships with the mental handicaps of Anxiety and Depression, along with my severe introversion, is a steep upward climb, but I recently had a breakthrough that I hope will become a new pattern.

My husband and I have changed churches. Again. These past two years have been the most up, down and unsettled period of my life. Though Timothy keeps telling me that now it’s safe to settle for at least the next three years, I haven’t seen enough in writing to convince me to unpack my emotional suitcase. So when kind and friendly faces in our new church body opened their arms to welcome me, I wanted to walk into them, but also wondered what was going to happen to their presence in my life come September. How much do I open up to these people? How much do I fight against my fears of rejection, only to meet with loss on the other end? Because one thing I’ve noticed in the last few churches we’ve gone to, is that once you’re no longer a member, the people who seemed to care don’t care anymore. It’s like you’ve switched from the goth click to the cheerleaders and you’re dead to all that’s past. All the trying, all the fighting against myself to get close to strangers becomes another example of people not actually caring about me, another example of my not being worth anyone’s time.

But what I’m now realizing is that I’m half the problem, maybe even more than half. My fear of rejection keeps my relationships shallow. Why should anyone miss me when I leave the room? They don’t know me, because I fear being known.

And here I am, standing in front of a woman who wants to get to know me, and I’m stuck. Yes, I’d love to go for coffee with you. It would be good for me in so many ways, and you’re being so loving and kind, but how do I tell you that, despite my being an adult, I don’t often drive places on my own? How do I tell you that I have such crippling anxiety disorder, that I’m afraid to schedule coffee with you on a day when I can’t rely on my husband to be around to prevent me coming home to an empty house?

IMG_3365

My new solution. I just do. I just say it, and hope that, if you really want to get to know me, you’ll help me think of another way. So instead of just telling her the easy bit about not having access to a car, I hear myself admit to her, “I have anxiety disorder, and driving is one of my triggers. I don’t really drive more than 20 minutes by myself right now.” And she says, “I’ll pick you up.” And she says, “I can drive you to the church where your husband is.”

Another falsehood I was taught as a child was that I was never supposed to talk about my mental health issues. It’s a secret that I’m ill, meant for just me and my doctors. So the worse my condition got, the more my relationships withered, the less I wanted to try. People don’t understand, I thought. I’m in the way. They must hate me. I’m such a nuisance. I wish I wasn’t me.

The thing I’m learning, a lesson I can take with me even if we do switch to another church in six months, is that a lot people are willing to help and want to understand, but they can’t do either if I’m not willing to be honest.

Honesty. It makes sense, really. Isn’t honesty a foundational pillar of any lasting relationship?

IMG_6921

The Creature Living in My Heart

Sometimes he’s lonely, the creature living in my heart, and takes me to the side.
He insists that I say with him, send everyone away, and then he tells me dark stories about a useless, bent, and broken girl who keeps company with the creature living in her heart.

Sometimes he’s hungry, the creature living in my heart, and builds a fire of rage.
The smoke and heat burn my insides until hate pours from my eyes and mouth, splashing the innocents near me. I loathe myself these days, but he says he must eat and I cannot make him leave, this creature living in my heart.

Sometimes he’s thirsty, this creature living in my heart, and milks my soul for tears.
He compresses my chest until I break down and drip salt and water and blood. He says he must drink and I cannot make him leave, this creature living in my heart.

He wants to own my body, the creature living in my heart, and tells me to vacate it.
I want to say I disagree, that I’ll stay on and he must leave, but the days are growing longer, harder now, since he began to drink and eat and be my only company. I am forgetting who I was. He bids me sleep so he’ll be free, the creature living in my heart.

But somedays he’s quiet, the creature living in my heart, and I forget he’s there.
My hands and mind work best these days. I build cities, unite lovers, and bring justice to evil with my pen and smiles to those who still choose to love me, despite the creature living in my heart.

So I’ll continue fighting the creature living in my heart.
For hope is not beyond me yet, and he is a trespasser in the life that God gave to me. And I believe he will soon grow lonely then hungry then thirsty then wither and fade, so the me that I once knew, that now I only see in snapshots, will live without a creature in her heart.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015