One word for 2018 – breathe

For those unfamiliar with switching from new year’s resolutions, to a word that sums up intent for the year, I have seen the idea quite widely lately but I was originally introduced to it at the end of 2013 here

It’s shifting from “shoulds”, or “oughts” towards thinking of what you’d like life to look like.  It’s not a harsh standard by which to measure your life, and feel you’ve failed but an intention and a characteristic you want to learn and develop.  Just as New Year’s Resolutions demonstrate that habit changing is hard, but possible, requiring repetitive discipline, this is about a gradual inward change. (We are human beings not human doings, after all.) As a Christian, it is my experience that inward change of my character is almost impossible on my own, but requires the work of the Holy Spirit, not abdicating me of responsibility but enabling me to find the discipline I need to start to change.

It might seem a pretty foolish word to choose – you have little choice in the matter of breathing.  I mean by it that sense that when something goes wrong or someone is panicking, then you might say, “and breathe….”.  I rush in – some of it is personality; I feel deeply and express it outwardly.  It often doesn’t do me any good though – all that catastrophising and over-analysing causes me distress whilst gaining me nothing.  We say it because the action of deep breathing exercises can relax our muscles and still our minds – enabling our rational thinking to take back control from the immediate emotion.  My friends are wonderful for helping me with this – but I long to develop that ability to pause from within.

2018, at first glance, looks tough from where I’m sitting.  Financial insecurity, at least two lots of surgery, a house to sort and sell, on my usual background of chronic illness/disability.  It’s very easy for me to get downhearted and discouraged, caught up in the here and now.

I find the psalms are wonderfully helpful in these sorts of situations.  It’s almost as though you can breathe in the words of God through the psalmist.  There are many excerpts that I love and could use as my quote here – as a musician those that I know well set to music are often my go-to verses, such as these:

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love to those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

Bless the Lord, O my soul                                                Psalm 103:8,11-12,22

For those not familiar with it, this is converted into the most beautiful arrangement by Vineyard, here – it’s a song that encourages me to breathe in the very nature of God as described by the psalmist.

If you were to choose a word for 2018 (or if one has chosen you), what is it?  I’d love to hear in the comments.

 

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Lessons from the streets

Much was made on the news this year about a banquet put on for homeless people in Euston station.  They were able to host up to 200 for a sit down, 3 course meal.  It made the television and papers, with (admittedly distant) photographs of somewhat half full tables.

Quietly – because most of the locations are not made public, and there are no photographs taken and no news crews invited – “Crisis at Christmas” served around 5,500 lunches and a similar number of dinners in their 9 centres on Christmas Day, cooking just under a tonne of turkey.

This discrepancy probably sums up how difficult it is to know what the best thing to do for people in need is, and those of us who volunteer need to look at the organisations we work with and how they operate.  Our time, money and skills are precious and we must commit them wisely.  When I have talked over the years that I’ve volunteered with Crisis with family and friends there are two schools of disquiet about it: there are those that see it as a massive, costly voluntary operation that is little more than an expensive sticking plaster.  This often comes from those with decades of experience in the public or charity sectors. Secondly there are those that resent that the help is offered without discrimination – in the two full days of medical clinics I did I think almost half were from overseas and there were certainly some without visas or with Home Office involvement – I did not ask but it was sometimes volunteered to me if the guest felt it was relevant.  Referrals for detox or housing advice or emergency medical care were also made without prejudice either – and where an individual was not entitled to some of that help they would be fed and offered a bed for the week and hot showers and our in-house medical management anyway.

I understand the first point of view; I find the second pretty objectionable, and entirely incompatible with the teachings of Jesus.

 

I have always learned loads doing Crisis at Christmas – it’s hard to share whilst respecting the tightest standards of confidentiality but if I had to pick three things it would be these:

Firstly, negotiating.  It’s not that this isn’t a skill that is put to the test extremely regularly in my day job; moreover this is my natural consulting style. There’s the patient that doesn’t want to be admitted because there’s no-one to look after their pets (but I think it’s essential); and she doesn’t want the flu jab because her friend said it gave him the flu (which is nonsense, and more importantly flu could kill them); and she is suffering greatly with treatment reactions and wants me to fix it (but she’s still smoking causing the reaction to be so much worse than it would otherwise be).

But this was another level – done in a busy room where other healthcare professionals are seeing other patients, sometimes with a language issue or perhaps significant mental health problems, and with fear and mistrust unlike anything I would usually see.  The streets are a hard place where there is always a trade off, peoples’ motives are rarely what they seem, and the system (of health care in this case but I imagine social care and housing see much of the same issues) is not usually interested, and is frequently incomprehensible to those that feel outside of it.  It forced me to check my motives and my privilege – to be sure I was pushing for someone’s best interests, and to understand that because I am white, born here, and well educated, I really have no idea what life has been like for most of the people I spoke to, however much I try to listen and empathise.

Secondly I realised all over again that when people come together, good things do happen.  A few things sum up Crisis for me – the sewing room, that repairs people’s clothes or adjusts second hand ones from stock, taking up jeans, repairing (bedraggled and old but precious) coats. People playing games, chess, connect 4, table tennis – allowing guests to regress to a childhood they probably never had to start with.  Podiatry – given that I have know people whose feet smell terrible by the end of the day when they’ve showered that morning… multiply that by several weeks, a load of rain, and the same pair of socks, I think they are truly remarkable.

Thirdly, as I fell into bed after my last shift, hurting all over, limping heavily, the enormity of the situation hit me.  I saw probably 30-something patients over the two days, and they are my snapshot.  But with almost 750 rough sleepers under Crisis’ roof, and almost 6000 guests in total*, just in London, (where that’s significantly less than half the homeless population) the need, the pain and the collective despair hit me.  It’s not just a sticking plaster, it’s a wonderful and healing dressing – but it’s over a nasty fungating tumour.  The tumour is government cuts, and it’s the sin in the world, which together lead to a society that just doesn’t care enough.

I can write hundreds of words but Jesus’ words are far better:

‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’                                                                               Matthew 25: 37-40 (The Message)

This is why I believe that there is inherent value in all the work that various groups do to  provide food for people even if they don’t seem very grateful.  Many addiction services describe the revolving door nature of their work but when we care in some way for someone imprisoned by their addiction it has eternal value, even if they don’t get better, then or ever. It’s encouraging to know when the problem weighs heavy and the small part I or any of us can play ourselves feels insignificant, that God sees each person we have treated or talked to, and in that moment he sees us, too.

 

*Currently internal data – when it’s published I will reference it.

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Blue Christmas

So Joseph went up… because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.   Luke 2:4-7 NIV UK.

The season of Christmas can be tough.  Amongst my friends, colleagues, and fellow churchgoers are those who find it hard due to the anniversary of a death, or infertility, or poverty, or perhaps most commonly, family dysfunction.  Around our Christmas table are gaps containing forgotten dreams and relatives lost to death or estrangement; chairs are full of those we rather wish were not there.

So, this fraction of the Christmas story as Luke tells it, is really rather comforting.  Joseph and Mary are going somewhere they don’t particularly want to go but are obliged to, and they are shunned by their family who neither travel with them or make space for them to stay.  The estrangement is such that they would rather Joseph’s young, heavily pregnant fiancee is not just accommodated but delivers in a stable, where animals are kept.  That’s some rejection: we consider you no better than a donkey.

 

I read about “Blue Christmas” services for the first time last year and thought, one day I’m going to host one.  Maybe next year.  It seems they started in the US, where they are held by Catholic, Anglucan and free churches, on or around the 21st December.  Some call them “Longest Night” services, trying to cast off any Elvis association.

The reason I think it’s necessary is two-fold. Firstly that somewhat inevitably our services at Christmas are celebrations full of joy and wholesomeness.  Children are immeasurably cute as angels and shepherds.  The spiritual message of celebrations combines with the secular message of plenty and togetherness, families spend time together, television adverts tug at heartstrings, and most of us have time on our hands as many workplaces shut down at least over the bank holidays.  And some people feel very isolated or overwhelmed indeed.

And secondly, here in Luke is our Biblical pattern – Jesus Christ enters the world not with ceremony or comfort or material abundance, but among outcasts who are poor, isolated and unwanted.  These are the people missing from our Christmases.  So instead of reassuringly jollying those that struggle into our festivities and our homes, maybe it’s entirely appropriate and fitting to sit, today on the shortest day when the darkness is at it’s height, and enter into a Christmas that allows expression of grief and pain and regret.  Let us let those who are lonely or sad bring those feelings to God, because to do so is entirely rooted in the Scriptures.

Here is a man who stands by his pregnant fiancee, believing that this child really is the son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and he is shunned for his belief even by his own family, and she is branded a liar.  As the cast builds it is those that do a smelly job for minimum wage – now they definitely have to work the bank holidays! – and a trio of somewhat non-conforming geeks who are strangers in a foreign land, who are the witnesses of what God has done.  There amongst them, and their limited but heartfelt understanding of the living God, are all the angels of heaven.

Yes, our tears and confusion and all our uncertainty and quietness, are welcome here.

 

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Shape shifting

Learning about myself and my addictive behaviour patterns is one of the greatest investments that I have made in my recovery.  Some of the things that I do are so ingrained that I need help to notice them and bring them into the light so that I can work to make changes.  Some of that help is through a trained counsellor, some comes through my husband and friends, and sometimes through prayer and reflective times with God, the Holy Spirit reveals things without need for human help.  This post looks back at the last 3-4 months of revelation, reflection, and change.

I am going to talk about addictive behaviour patterns.  The more I read about the mind of the addict, and moreover the addictive power of sin, the more I realise I don’t know.  I remain quite fickle, balanced between the two main schools of thought in the spiritual understanding of addiction, knowing it isn’t possible for them both to be right.  To put it at its most simple, the 12 step understanding, which is where I started, and through which millions have achieved sobriety, looks on alcoholics/ addicts as “different” to “normal people” in the way that their brain chemistry responds to substance(s) and therefore also in the way they tend to think about themselves and the world.  An alternative, that I first found in the writings of the evangelical American Edward Welch, is that the way addicts think and behave is really no different to any other sinners: neither in neurology nor in psychiatry but only in the far reaching consequences that their particular weakness to temptation has.  I need to read more and pray more to reconcile this for myself, but I think whatever way you personally think about this and whatever you believe, you can see “addictive thinking” to be equivalent to “temptation thinking” and “addictive behaviour” approximately correlates with “sinful behaviour”.  I might come back to this, to revise my theology, and subsequently my medicine.  For now, knowing in part will have to do.

One thing I do believe is that addicts are shape shifters.  Once people have used something to make themselves feel better and take the pain away, they are always vulnerable to other addictive substances, or processes.  To illustrate substances: the heroin addict who relapses with alcohol, and processes: the high rate of co-dependant relationships formed by addicts in early recovery.

 

Last year, I put on 3 stone, and it’s therefore easy to see what I used as my second ‘drug of choice’ – overeating.  In terms of life events, I had two major orthopaedic operations leaving me immobile and had to say goodbye to my daughter.  I got through all of that without a drink, and the chocolate was certainly killing me more slowly than picking up a drink would have done.  Overeating is a process addiction, according to addiction theory, whereby the action is what is addictive rather than the substance¹, but my experience suggests to me that it is a bit of a hybrid.

Facing what I was doing to myself was the first and hardest thing.  In fact, immobility is not really implicated in weight gain², the reason I’d gained weight was, quite simply, greed.  I was using sugar-containing food, in particular, to produce feelings of temporary fullness and happiness and to reduce pain, because I could or would not live with the emptiness and physical, emotional and spiritual pain I was having.  It was habit, as my husband is a great lover of puddings, and I am a lover of baking, and so the withdrawal, if you like, had to be done surrounded by the substance itself.  All the ways in which I was justifying it, minimising it, and particularly in denial about it, were all old friends – these were thinking patterns that I’d burned well into my neurons, and it seem to take a life of their own, to preserve the status quo above all costs.

Obesity is more common, and more acceptable perhaps, than alcoholism.  It kills you more slowly, but in the end, it will kill you.   The obesity epidemic is probably the single biggest challenge facing Western Medicine not just this decade but probably this century,  and unsurprisingly research opinion is beginning to see Type 2 Diabetes as essentially a physical complication of addictive illness³.

 

Whilst I was immobilised over Christmas and New Year, I started reading about the addictive power of sugar in particular² ³, and it really rang true for me.  What has followed is 11 weeks of a second recovery – and quite a meaningful one, because more than days counted there is health gained, pounds lost (23 and counting) and most importantly, the blessings that come with not being enslaved to something that previously had a hold over me.  The counselling work that had begun has more effectiveness because I am no longer papering over the feelings with chocolate.  I am amazed at how my hunger has decreased, how little I miss carbohydrate-rich foods, how my blood sugar and moods and food cravings have levelled out and left me, and how my eating has become so much less about feelings.

Where do I go from here?  I long to be better-thought-out about these things; about the science, the theology, and to gain wisdom on how these can be applied to all that long to follow Christ and wrestle daily with temptation and sin.  The battle against sugar is far from won, and I expect that having worn the neurological path of quick gratification well and persistently, I will have to continually wear a new path by choice for a long time – whether drinking or eating or shopping: my first response, or default setting, remains pain avoidant.  Continually looking at what I put before Christ is the only true way to daily take up my cross and follow Him.

References:

¹www.processaddictions.com

²Escape the Diet Trap – Dr John Briffa

³Why we get fat and what to do about it – Gary Taubes

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A year since we said goodbye.

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And they do insist you say goodbye. I wrote her a letter using photos of her life, and did as I was supposed to, sat down and broke both of our hearts a little more.  This is the last photo of both of us I have.

The grief over the year that has followed has been the hardest and most awful thing I have ever experienced, and all the worst for being private, unnatural and atypical.  This grief is so complex, grieving despite my girl being alive and, as far as I am allowed to know, thriving, settled and happy. Despite even the hope of seeing her again one day – a hope of which I do not allow myself to live for, because I have no control over how things are explained to her, how black I am painted, or the different person who by 18+ she will be.

Losing my mum less that 3 years ago has taught me a fair few things about grief.  It taught me that grief changes.  Not in logical progression through the grief cycle, although that describes some of the places it takes you.  But it shifts as the months pass, and when you look back over bigger sections of time, 6 months, a year, 2 years, you can see the changes in feeling and thinking.  To lose a parent is in the natural order of things – although my mum at 60 was younger than most of us hope that our parents will live to, it is right for us to mourn the passing of our parents.  But just as no-one should ever have to lose a child, sometimes the worst grief is of the intangible, the things you never realised you had until they were gone, like health, and purpose, and what might have been.

C.S.Lewis’s ‘A Grief Observed’, which I read after my mum died, has actually been far more useful since my daughter went.  He writes:

I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about the toothache and about lying awake.’ That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.

This resonates with my experience – and whilst there have been some joys this past year, they are always tinged with the sudden remembering that this ‘living with grief’, like a greyness that shrouds my soul, is never far off.  I wonder if getting to resolution (or acceptance) requires being able to shrug off the “why?”s and the “what if”s.  The “why” – why me, why did a certain person behave like they did, why is addiction so hard to understand – I think I do ok with.  The”what if”s can be excruciating.  I’m not proud of these thoughts, as I think they walk too close for comfort to self-sabotage, or playing God, but they are slow to remove, moment by painful moment, guided by an excellent counselling relationship through which the Holy Spirit is most powerfully at work.

I talk about her in general conversation less these days.  Initially I couldn’t help it, and it made clear the difficulties of reconciling in the listeners’ minds that I was the parent that potty trained my daughter alone, and handled being left at nursery anxieties, and was pretty clued up on which way to cycle with your little one at what age, and also that same person that could not stop drinking under Social Services scrutiny even when the greatest reason for motivation hung in the balance, and then let that little girl go, for a life that I felt I couldn’t provide.  Admittedly I haven’t got to meet many birth parents, and I am sure there are many that don’t have quite such a dichotomy in their actions, and seemingly within their souls.  But I have found where my safe places are, with those who can sit with spiritual unrest that has no glib answers, where I can let myself feel and remember this beautiful little girl, who remains my greatest pride and joy, and express this odd, hot, painful, twisted grief, for a girl that is gone and yet still there, a grief that, unlike my other experiences of grief, is resolving incredibly slowly, and still burns intensely and deeply.

Where is God in all of this?  He remains my comfort in the anger and pain, my defender against Satan having a field day with my guilt and shame, and my heavenly Father, who hears me when I cry, praying for my daughter’s peace, growth and joy in her new life, and with whom I can be utterly vulnerable in my bewilderment at losing my “best big girl”, praying she is in His safekeeping, both now and always.

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One word for 2014 – Gently

I first read about choosing one word for the year, instead of a list of resolutions, about March of last year, before I was really writing, or doing anything focused and therapeutic.  The idea, I think, was started here: oneword365.com and the site is worth a read, and as they explain the idea of choosing a word is like this:

One word that sums up who you want to be or how you want to live. One word that you can focus on every day, all year long.

It will take intentionality and commitment, but if you let it, your one word will shape not only your year, but also you. It will become the compass that directs your decisions and guides your steps.

After prayerfully considering it (and a brainwave in the shower – that’s the Holy Spirit, right?!) I have chosen “Gently“.

Gentle is a word used in both testaments, usually to describe God in the old testament (eg. in 1Kings 19, God appears to Elijah as a ‘gentle whisper’) and Jesus in the new (eg. Matthew 21, Jesus is ‘gentle and riding on a donkey’).  It is also used by Paul and Peter in their letters as an exhortation that it should be a mark of believers, and a way that others both in and outside of the church should know that God is working in them (Eph 4:2, Phil 4:5, Col 3:12, 1Tim 3:3, 6:11, 1Pet 3:4,15).  It is something that the Holy Spirit can work in us all if we are willing.

A number of wise people in my life have encouraged me to go gently over the past year.  They could see my pattern of ups and downs, peaks and troughs, physically, emotionally and spiritually, could if flattened out lead to more growth, less drama, and a better return to this elusive “normality” that I’ve been longing for.  I guess everyone has seasons in their lives, but this is mood swings beyond that.  I am probably almost cyclothymic, but I am not in any rush to gain any more labels than I already drag around, and I also think that part of it is personality too.  It’s common in addicts of all variety to (think they) have greater highs and worse lows than anyone else, and we become addicted to the drama and the attention that follows.

I do believe I will always cycle but I also think in my ‘toddler years’ of sobriety I can make changes in my behaviour and my thinking that will help me adapt to living sober, and taking an honest look at the part I’ve played, and can take responsibility for altering, is at the heart of that.  Like all toddlers, I won’t always get it right, I’ll get distracted by better toys and fun things to do, and when I fall over, sometimes I’ll still think it’s the end of the world, but gently…. gently, I can direct myself back to the better way.

I start the year in a difficult place of immobility, temporarily cut off from not just the world in general but my church, much of the fellowship and friendship and activities that I enjoy, professional links, my counsellor, and an independent sense of self.  There is much to be regained but if I don’t learn from my mistakes then I already know what the process will feel like.  There could be a great difference in the journey. Toddler steps into the year with no list of resolutions, just one word: Gently.

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Immobility and Christmas competitivity

Out of commitment to the counselling process I’m going through, I’ve not written anything here for 3 months, focusing instead on journalling, and taking the raw form not the formed thoughts.  But currently, I’m during an enforced break – no, not Christmas, but at least 6 weeks immobilised with my left leg in plaster.  It was unexpected, disappointing, difficult, but holds a few blessings in disguise.

I struggle with Christmas.  Unlike most, I don’t struggle with the apparently logical impossibility that some 2000 years ago, the son of God was born to a young Jewish virgin.  I marvel at a God who is both inconceivable and completely empathetic.  Wow.

But it gets drowned, despite churches everywhere trying to keep the message out there, in competitive consumerism.  I’m guilty of some of that, of setting budgets and then breaking them, of seeing and reading perfect family portraits and feeling envious, of feeling pressured to be cheerful and fit everything in.

But like many, just hearing the word Christmas, and from early November, I experience feelings of dread, anxiety and fear.  The reasons are two-fold, one is that my experiences of Christmas as an older child were very negative, and secondly my daughter’s birthday falls on Christmas Eve.  Back to them in a minute.

Much newsprint and blogprint have been devoted to the struggles that many face to make Christmas seem and feel like family-centred bliss.  These impossible expectations cause many, not only but mostly women, to feel inadequate, and lonely.  But on the other hand in the few weeks before Christmas, I have seen or been on the receiving end of this Christmas competitivism being applied to those who find Christmas hard, as if there’s some sort of “my pain and distress is worse than yours” competition that I didn’t know I’d entered.  This just isn’t the way to go about it; what will work is empathy and mutual support, remaining available physically and emotionally to each other through the holidays, and remembering that our Biblical model came from pain and family discord.

I think the difficulty with the “lots of people find Christmas hard” defensive line is the unsaid “and they get on with it!”.  My gut reaction many times in the last couple of weeks, is that, you know, it’s really not a competition.  I find spending my daughter’s birthday without her, the day before Christmas, incredibly hard, and sometimes overwhelming.  I am honest about it in advance, not because I don’t see and empathise with what others are going through, and not because I think I’m special or different for struggling, but because this is my truth and I will not pretend it’s all ok.  What I’ve been learning is that I don’t need to put “I’m sorry but…” in front of “I get very upset on Christmas Eve/ I can’t manage x or y”, or to feel the platitudes of “it’ll get easier” are remotely helpful.  I sincerely hope it will get easier, but just now I need to sit with it.

I miss my daughter – although I know legally she’s not my daughter any more – every day, and especially more on these days.  I remember times of togetherness and they are like this thumping pain in my heart.  Without going into the specifics, things have been very difficult with Social Services the last 3 months with a lot of broken promises.  I have been typecast in black, the birth mother, from whom the child must be protected.  The adopters like white avenging angels are able to keep my court-promised letters from her if they deem it in her best interests.  And my own, repetitive, childhood-learned behaviour is to try for some sort of absolute ‘right’-ness, if you’re not for me you’re against me, chucking out all the shades of grey I’ve spent months learning to paint in.  My other cyclical thinking causes me to want to reject as ‘not on my side’ anyone who dares occupy the grey, and then self-pity can descend, “poor me”, as AA would say, “poor me another one”.  Deliberately, one thought at a time, I am unpicking this and burning some new neural pathways.  I am not bad, and they are being as reasonable as they are able.  Step back, leave it a while, and see how I feel then.  Talk selectively, neither bottling or oversharing, and don’t force others into agreeing.  Let those feelings out, acknowledging them as they are, but not being held captive by them either.

It’s taken quite some time to write this, started in the days before Christmas, because I’m out of the habit, and even though housebound I’ve had other things to do!  But 2013 is ebbing away, and it has been full of pain, heartbreak, and joy.  Not much normality, I’m still not sure what that looks like in my life.  As John Newton said “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, but by the grace of God I am not what I once used to be.”  Amen.

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