Friday, November 4, 2016

Saying Thank You

I was recently asked to write a guest blog post thanking someone who has made a difference in my life. My first thought was, “How will I ever choose one person?” I have so many friends who have been important in my life. They have all made a difference.

My next thought was, “Who has made a difference in my life that only they could have made?” And there was one person who came instantly to my mind. My former sister-in-law.

We were married to brothers for 27 years. During those years, there were times when our husbands had issues with one another and times they weren’t even speaking to each other. But she and I always got along.

When my marriage ended in divorce, I was sad to also be divorced from a family I had loved for decades. I still wanted my sister-in-law in my life. And I would have loved to continue being an aunt to my nephews by marriage. I only wanted to divorce the man who abused me. But my ex was an extremely divisive person who drew lines and expected loyalty. I knew there would be unspoken pressure on my sister-in-law to withdraw from me. My ex actually had the audacity to text me after I was remarried, ordering me not to communicate with any of his family.

But when my ex-husband passed away suddenly in 2011, the only obstacle standing in the way of our continued friendship was removed. And we resumed contact.

In 2012 I began exploring the possibility of writing my second book. My former sister-in-law told me she had seen me post on Facebook about it. I wasn’t sure at that point if my cathartic writing would culminate in a finished book, let alone a published book. But the memories were flowing. I trusted her and offered to share my first two chapters in their rough draft form.

When you write about painful truths, as I have in both my books, you make yourself vulnerable to criticism. You have to endure being attacked by people who don’t want the truth to be told or (as Jack Nicholson once said) can’t handle the truth. People label you in ways you don’t deserve. And you anticipate being called a liar by someone.

For anyone who highly values truth, as I do, there is nothing harder than accepting the reality that someone who should know you better actually believes you would even consider writing lies in a book.

I didn’t know with certainty if she would believe how badly I had been treated during those 27 years. But I knew she was a trustworthy person. And I believed she genuinely cared about me. So I decided to risk sharing my writing with her, chapter by chapter, as I recounted memories going back to before we had met. I reasoned that even if I was not fully believed, at least I would have had the opportunity to be heard. And being heard is a big deal to any victim.

After reading the first two chapters, my sister-in-law responded with such compassion. She wanted me to know that they (my in-laws) had no idea I was being treated so badly. They had only heard the skewed versions of our life that he had told them. It did seem odd when he would show up unexpectedly without me. He would often leave as abruptly as he had come. And they knew he had a dark side. But what I was sharing with her was beyond anything she could have imagined. It was important to her that I knew she was not treated abusively by her husband. And she told me she was sorry for buying into the lies she was told. Not her fault, in my opinion. We lived hours away from each other. She couldn’t have known how abusive he was based solely on his difficult personality. But she remembered also being the butt of his stinging jokes and sarcasm at times, and how uncomfortable she was. She dealt with it much the same way I did; by taking it in stride. The only difference was that she saw him occasionally and I lived with him daily.

I couldn’t have confided in her back then for obvious reasons. And I was careful what I shared with my own family for a whole different set of concerns. Avoiding undesirable repercussions was a continual focus for me.

However, a whole new bond was formed between us (for me anyway) through my sharing and her empathetic responses. Her confidence in my honesty and encouragement to keep writing meant more to me than she could have imagined. But I think it even meant more to me than I could have anticipated. Sharing my deeply personal journey and receiving the kind of feedback she consistently offered was both healing and empowering as a woman and a survivor of abuse.

The need for affirmation is strong in someone who has endured many years of emotional and verbal abuse. One of the most painful aspects of my abuse was having my character, my heart, and my motives continually questioned and/or crucified. Malicious and hateful intentions were assigned to me in every instance of conflict. So I became a person who felt the need to chronically explain myself in the hope of being understood.

Years of this abuse results in scars that may fade over time, but are always faintly there. Those scars are partly why I tend to over-explain myself to this day.

After reading each installment (which she acknowledged as quite painful for her to read), she would consistently close with this sentence: “Keep on writing!” She assured me I was going to help someone, which was the primary goal of my writing. I was so comforted and reassured that she knew I wouldn’t make up lies.

S., for your love and friendship, your compassion, your support and encouragement, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Even though we are separated by many miles today and mostly communicate through email, I feel closer to you than during all the years I was still an official member of your family.

You could have walked away and shown no interest in me or my struggles. I’m sure it would have been easier. But you cared enough to want to know my heart and my pain. To do that, you had to be willing to open your heart and to feel pain that wasn’t your own.

Many people choose to look away from the suffering of others rather than to take it in and be immersed in it – even through reading a book. Many people don’t want to be burdened or stressed beyond their own problems.

You are not one of those people. And I’m grateful to have you in my life.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Choose Laughter

I cleaned for several hours today. After my final task of mopping the kitchen floor, I took a deep sigh of "It is finished!" satisfaction and made my daily protein shake. As I eagerly anticipated sitting down to relax with my smoothie, I knocked it over while reaching for a paper towel, dumping probiotic and ground flax seed all over the freshly mopped floor, the kitchen cabinets, the counter, and me.

Protein shake everywhere! I would normally just make an "Ugh!" sound, but today I was feeling especially grumpy (because I was cleaning and I hate cleaning), so I said a "bad" word. John heard me and said, "It must be bad. You don't usually cuss."

I hadn't chosen laughter quite yet.

What felt initially like an enormous mess and setback only took a few minutes to thoroughly clean up. Even re-mopping the floor wasn't that big a deal. Literally, within ten minutes I had made a new shake and thrown my clothes in the washer. But in that moment of, "I can't believe I did that!" it felt like a much bigger deal than it was.

This morning I accidentally locked myself out of an online account because I couldn't remember my password. I requested an email change from the website. I waited and waited and waited. The email didn't come. So I attempted to answer the security questions instead. It told me my answers were wrong. And one of the questions was my place of birth! I knew I didn't give the wrong answer. There is only one answer and I know where I was born! Nevertheless, my account was automatically suspended. And only THEN did it occur to me that the email might have gone to my spam folder. Sure enough, there was the email I needed with the temporary password.

If only I had thought to check my spam folder before I impatiently went on to the next option!

Of course, I couldn't get through to customer service by phone. It's a government site and I got nothing but a busy signal every time I tried. So I sent an email request. Then I got a reply telling me email responses can take up to three business weeks. Ugh.

Yesterday we went to an appointment we had to make five months in advance. It was a very long time to wait. But September finally arrived. And as we approached the building, the thought occurred to me, "I hope we weren't supposed to bring our passports with us." I rejected the thought. No way. Our passport numbers were in our application, which was already approved.

We arrived early, hoping we might be taken early for our interview. And, luckily, that actually happened! John was called back first. But I bet you can guess what happened next. Within a minute or two, he came back out saying, "Guess what? We were supposed to bring our passports with us for the interview." Ugh.

By the way, the account I managed to get locked out of today is the same online account I need to request a new interview appointment. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

I don't actually believe in luck. But if I did, I'd have to say I'm not having a streak of it.

The reality, though, is that my misfortunes are small.

Of course, like you, I have challenges bigger than a messy kitchen floor and a delayed appointment. But everyone has problems.

Not all of life's messes are cleaned up in five minutes like a spilled drink. But often what seems devastating or crushing or maddening on any given day will fade or disappear from memory in a few days, weeks, or months. So why do I frequently waste precious time dwelling on anything I can't control or fix?

Like everybody else on this planet, I have internal struggles that occasionally get the best of me. I think we are the most susceptible to self-condemnation on days when it seems as if we can't do anything right (however small our messes may be). Today was one of those days for me. I know MY mind has an auto-pilot for dwelling on everything I haven't been able to figure out how to "get right." Unfortunately, this default flight plan is actually a holding pattern that circles endlessly, using up fuel but not going anywhere.

For me, the key that unlocks the holding pattern is gratitude. I am blessed.

I will not focus on what's wrong. I'll remind myself to focus on all that is right.

I won't focus on setbacks. I'll focus on the opportunity to live and love ... and clean ... another day.

As I was cleaning up the mess I made today, I consciously reminded myself how blessed I am to have a kitchen to clean and more ingredients to replace a spilled protein shake. Eventually, I'll get to that appointment WITH my passport. And I'll probably never give another thought to the waiting.

But if I do, I know I'll be laughing.

So, it seems to me, the sooner we move on to laughing at ourselves and our imperfections, the better off we'll be.

Sooner rather than later...

   But better late than never.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Upper Hand

In relationships, there are people who care less and people who care more.

Whichever category we fall into, our DNA almost certainly enters in. However, the person who cares least is making a choice; whether consciously or unconsciously. 

A tendency can stem from the instinct to self-protect. It can be learned behavior, a victim mentality. It can be the result of wounds and scars. And it can be flat out pride, arrogance and self-absorption that cultivates this strong desire for superiority. But no matter how well we grasp the psychology of this dynamic, seek to depersonalize it and rise above it, it is still challenging -- at best -- to navigate an honest, loving relationship with someone whose default priority in conflict is often gaining the upper hand.

I'm not simply writing about a concept. I have experienced this again and again over my lifetime. And I've experienced it recently. When a fresh wound is inflicted on top of many old wounds, the pain is magnified. The pain is as familiar as it is deep. 

The pain is not my struggle, though. 

I am good at rising above disrespect and insensitivity because I've had a lot of practice. I've always chosen gratitude over "poor me." 

My struggle is in figuring out how I should choose to respond. 

Years of counseling, books and college courses on emotional health remind me that avoiding conflict is not the equivalent of peace. Sometimes conflict is healthy and necessary. But I am inhibited and haunted (in all relationships) by the fear of not being able to verbally express myself perfectly and uttering words that can never be unsaid in a moment of my own hurt, disappointment or anger. My worst fear is inflicting a wound on someone I love. I never want to intentionally strike or hurt back because I'm hurt. So I either write (because I can choose my words more carefully) or I shut down and withdraw. 

I suppress and wrestle and suppress and wrestle ... until I can rebound, let go, and move on. 

I'm fortunate to have a husband who is my best friend. He listens to me. He gives me insightful feedback when I ask for it (and sometimes even when I don't). Because he is honest with me when I am being sensitive, he has total credibility when he tells me I am not being sensitive.

It's my nature and personality to pursue people, resolution and understanding even when no effort is being made in my direction. I can't think of a single time in my life that I've let pride stand in my way. My greatest struggle right now is in knowing I am going to have to form some new boundaries of my own and guard my heart better than I have up to this point. I may have to accept that the potential for a particular relationship is more limited than I would have hoped or believed. I've come to terms with this reality in other relationships only to have them surprise me and flourish at a time of God's choosing, not my own. With this post, I'm attempting to release this relationship to God in that same way. 

But in spite of the pain and vulnerability that accompanies it, I still want to be the person who cares more. I want to be wise and guard my heart. But I never want having the upper hand to be my goal, much less my priority, in any relationship. 

When I come to the end of my life, regardless of those who do, I know I will not wish I had chosen the upper hand over a compassionate heart. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Thousand Year Flood

Photo by Sarah Patton
I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee, looking at pictures of our neighboring flood-ravaged communities in southern West Virginia on Facebook. I must admit, it’s hard not to feel guilty as I’m feeling thankful for escaping the destruction so many others are experiencing all around me. And, at the same time, I have never felt a deeper sense of pride in claiming this state as my home.

Our entire community has sprung into action, loading vehicles with supplies for our fellow West Virginians. Businesses and individuals, as well as organizations like The Red Cross and The United Way are identifying needs and rallying to meet them. There is such a strong camaraderie and humanitarian spirit here in West Virginia.

Many people have lost their homes, their vehicles. Worse than that, some have lost loved ones. I have not been able to stop thinking about the man I saw on the news last night, whose dear wife is lying in a hospital with burns over 70% of her body. People have been injured, stranded. Many possessions have literally floated down the river.

Public Photo from The Greenbrier's Facebook Page

Our beloved Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs – where The Greenbrier Classic Golf Tournament takes place every July – has suffered extensive damage from what they are calling this “Thousand Year Flood.” 

When John and I moved to West Virginia to open John Howerton Honda of Beckley, we believed there was a greater purpose in our being relocated here apart from simply owning a car dealership. We wanted to participate in the community and make a positive difference in whatever ways we could. We’ve always appreciated how warmly we’ve been embraced by the people of West Virginia and we appreciate all of our loyal customers.

John Howerton and Bill Brooks
Filling Ridgelines with supplies for flood victims is just a small act of kindness where an immediate need is present. But I’m sure we will all have more opportunities to lend a helping hand to our neighbors in the coming days. And I know we will.

Our “Wild and Wonderful” state has suffered from the war on coal. This “Thousand Year Flood” presents another hurdle to overcome. And there are others. But West Virginia is full of people with big and caring hearts. 

We’ll push through our challenges as a team. 
And we’ll be rooting for each other all the way.

Public Photo from The Greenbrier's Facebook Page

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Owning Our Words

Anyone who experiences post traumatic stress due to past abuse understands that being emotionally triggered by someone doesn't mean they have done something to hurt you or cause you pain. It means a certain interaction with them "flashes" you back internally and involuntarily to a painful and/or traumatic past.  

When this physical response happens to me, as it occasionally does, it's usually obvious to me what or who the trigger was. 

I don't always express what I'm feeling, but the physical response is something I have to deal with. I also still have occasional nightmares that connect back to abuse and trauma in my past, even though I have not suffered abuse in over a decade.

I don't make anyone else responsible for what happens inside me. But I do try to help others understand something they have never experienced. People with emotional triggers are not rare. You just may not realize how many people around you deal with them to varying degrees.

One of my emotional triggers is when someone is condescending to me or another person -- it doesn't have to happen to me. It can be a dismissive tone or a choice of words reminiscent of my past. But when an exchange like this occurs, it ignites a post traumatic stress response in my body physically. I feel my heart rate increase, my blood pressure rise, and/or anxiety/tightness in my chest. 

Post Traumatic Stress (PTS or PTSD when it is a full blown disorder) is a very real and lasting condition, even after a person has healed from past abuse and is living a good, healthy and productive life. When a survivor makes themselves vulnerable enough to share this and explain it, the worst thing you can do is tell the person they just take things too personally and they are too sensitive. That does nothing but intensify the relived emotion, breaking down communication even further.

You see, that's exactly what the abuser did to dismiss or invalidate whatever the victim said,  felt, or thought. 

An abuser always changes the subject by making every difference about the victim's sensitivity or proclivity toward taking things personally. And any real dialog or understanding shuts down when this happens because then the victim must either defend themselves, agree that they are the real problem, or just stop trying to express themselves. That's why this is a tool used by narcissistic abusers.

This article explains the trauma a victim experiences in this type of relationship...

I wrote this blog post a couple of weeks ago after a post traumatic stress experience. But I wanted to sit on it a while before deciding if it was something I wanted to share. I actually forgot about it. Then a friend sent the above article to me yesterday. The article describes what I and others have endured in abusive relationships. It connected so well with the thoughts I had put on hold. I knew when I read it that I would finish and publish this post, including the link.

If we truly want someone to feel that we respect and care about them; if we want them to tell us how we impact them; we must own our words and our tone, even when we come across differently than we intend to.

Simply saying "I" could have said that better ... "I" am sorry for my unintended tone ... Those are words that will diffuse anxiety and tension. That will keep communication flowing. I've been on both sides of those words. I know. Just because I suffer from PTS when I'm spoken to a certain way, that doesn't mean I don't ever have to apologize for my words or tone! I apologize often. 

Telling someone they take things wrong, or too personally, or they are too sensitive, but then apologizing for causing pain diminishes the apology because you've already put the pain squarely on them and their sensitivity, disowning your contribution to the breakdown in communication. That's a cop out, not a sincere apology. You may not be a narcissist, but that's what narcissists do!

What leads to more effective communication and another person feeling heard, understood and respected is being able to own our part (specifically) in the communication breakdown, NOT offering an abstract, unspecific apology for pain we didn't cause... 
but also never really tried to understand.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Thoughts on Aging

When I saw this article by BrenĂ© Brown (on Maria Shriver's blog) for Prime: Reflections on Time and Beauty, I was inspired. It is a portrait book that features portraits and accompanying essays of women from the ages of 35 to 104, by American photographer and filmmaker Peter Freed, along with the stories of the women in the photographs. The Prime Book celebrates what it means to be a woman in her “prime” in modern-day America.

I am approaching my 57th birthday next month and I have so many thoughts on aging.

I loved the idea of sharing a black and white portrait with no makeup because it's raw and honest and brave. 

I'm not suggesting I'm letting you see me at my worst. I was having a good hair day and I experimented with different spots in my room for the most flattering light. But after reading the article, I felt a compulsion to go into my bathroom with my phone, wash all my makeup off and take a selfie. Well, several. And I didn't like any of them. This is the best I could come up with after six or seven (eight or ten, who's counting?) tries.

My arms aren't long enough. And I don't like pictures of myself not smiling. (I guess I could have smiled, but the photos from this book are all serious shots.) 

I gave up on actually liking my face without makeup and said "enough." I decided to force myself to make a choice from what I had because, after all, this wasn't supposed to be about vanity. As I compared images, I kept coming back to the one above and then realized I had forgotten to remove my jewelry. Oh well, I'm not a real subject for this portrait book. I'm doing my own thing. And I couldn't bring myself to begin the process all over again when I had an acceptably raw and honest image. (I also wanted to avoid the possibility of John walking into the bedroom and seeing me doing this. He probably wouldn't get it. I probably would have been teased unmercifully.)

I think this is an empowering thing to do for ourselves individually and collectively. I felt empowered by the photos of the other women. I felt like I was looking into their souls. I didn't look at any other woman's photo the way I look at my own. I find all kinds of things to admire in their "naked" images. In mine, I see one eye larger than the other and a crooked nose (above). I see gravity around my lips, chin and jawline (more noticible in the second photo). Lines in my forehead. The one thing that makes me happy visually is that I have finally found a product that helps my eyebrows to grow in thicker and darker. (So, for my friends who are wondering if I took off ALL my makeup, the answer is yes! thanks to RapidBrow.)

But all that is so superficial. Whatever I see in the mirror that pleases or displeases me isn't really me at all. It's my shell. Who I am is what you know through my words and actions. Who I am is found in how I love, help and lift up others. Who I am is found in my heart and mind. And even though my face and body are not growing more beautiful with age, my heart, mind and soul are better and stronger than ever. Dare I say it, I feel more beautiful on the inside than I did at twenty, thirty, or forty. I love who I am inside at 57 more than any age I have ever been, even if I don't welcome the physical changes of aging. 

Being in the prime of life isn't about the tone of our skin or the strength of our joints. Our hearts and souls can be in the prime of life at any age. This is something I'm discovering as I grow older and struggle with my reflection in the mirror. And I assure you I do, no matter how hard I try not to be vain and superficial. But inside my skin, I am more comfortable than ever. I'm learning to accept and even embrace all that makes up my personality, for better or worse. That doesn't mean I won't always strive to be the best person I have the potential to be. It doesn't mean I don't see areas where I consistently fall short. But I'm getting better at accepting my imperfection as part of my humanity. I don't say everything as well as I want to. I probably never will. But I realize that pleasing people is no way to find value as a human being. For every person who is pleased with you, there will be someone you can never please no matter how hard you try. For every person who likes you, there will be someone who doesn't. 

I am still trying to overcome my rejection issues. They go so deep. When I feel discarded by someone, I have a need to understand why they're so willing to let me go (when I want to hold onto them). When a friend pulls away (as friends will do for reasons they don't always disclose) I look for ways to blame myself. I assume I have done something wrong that I don't even realize. Sometimes I feel discarded or rejected when I haven't been. This is toxic. And I know it is rooted in abusive relationships. God has multiplied true friends into my life exponentially over the past 13 years. And yet I still focus on one or two friends who drift away and wonder (neurotically at times) why.

It dawned on me recently, as I was feeling frustration with myself over this, that if I'm going to grow and learn how not to place my value and self-worth in being loved by everyone, God has to give me these experiences and even a few friendships that do not blossom as I hope all my friendships will. I'm learning to accept that I can't be everyone's cup of tea, and that it's perfectly okay. I'm realizing I don't want to be bland enough to survive on every palate. I want to be loved and appreciated for who I am; hopefully more sweet than sour, more salty than bitter, but knowing I am a combination of them all. And that's what keeps me from being bland and nondescript.

So I think I'll keep my passion, even if it is sometimes misunderstood. I will continue to have strong convictions and opinions. I will continue to be and express myself, as I encourage others to be and do the same with me. One thing I can promise is that I will never leave a friendship over differences in opinion. And I will always try my best to understand as much as I try to be understood.

Every once in a while I do wish I could stop feeling everything so deeply for a day or even a week. But God created people like me for a reason. And one of my strongest traits is empathy. I think it's one of my best traits. And I couldn't be that without emotional sensitivity. Every trait is a two-sided coin. Our greatest strengths are, on the flip side, our greatest weaknesses. And I think God designed it to be that way. So we are always reminded of our common humanity, even on our best days.

I am thankful for 57 years of learning and growing, failing and succeeding, and mostly for overcoming challenges and adversity in my life. I'm thankful I have turned the most painful parts of my history into my mission field. I'm thankful for tears and for laughter. I'm thankful for all the blessings I don't deserve. I'm thankful for the love I have sown and reaped. I'm thankful I'm still here to grow older and enjoy my family and friends. I'm thankful for so many healed and restored relationships in recent years. I'm thankful for all the times God's plans were better than mine. I am thankful for God's provision and compassion. I'm thankful for His faithfulness to me because I could never be worthy of it on my best day. I am thankful He is showing me that this life is not about earning love or favor, with Him or anyone else. It's about learning how to let His love and mercy flow into us and then through us, freely to others as He has freely given both to us.

I still wish we could hold onto our youthful bodies. But if it meant staying the same inside, I'd never go back to any other age. 

And that's the truth!