Thursday, August 6, 2015

Flash Back / Flash Forward

Last night, John and I were watching a show on television. There was a moment when an emotionally abusive man (growing more manipulative and threatening with every episode) whispers a few words into the ear of his terrified wife. He says nothing overtly threatening. He doesn't yell or attack physically. But from her body language, the audience senses extreme discomfort. Her fear is palpable. She is intimidated and -- at least in that moment -- powerless to protect herself from him. It was his very presence that triggered her discomfort and fear.

Whether you watch this from the perspective of someone who has never experienced abuse or someone who has, you get it. She has no idea what he might be capable of and she is afraid of him with good reason. But if you have been a victim of emotional abuse and domestic violence yourself, the intensity of emotion is heightened because you relate and identify with her.

It's been more than a decade now since I broke free from an abusive man. I experienced episodes of violence and sporadic incidents of being slapped and shoved around to put me in my place, but the worst abuse I endured was verbal and emotional; rage, mind games, belittling, demeaning, contemptuous words and actions that tore me down on the inside rather than the outside. I know how intimidating even softly spoken words can be. Some of my most painful and vivid memories do not involve a raised voice, but words spoken with calculation to make me feel powerless and worthless. Words that resulted all too often in my groveling.

So when the scene played out, I flashed back. I watched and identified. I didn't say anything to John in that moment, but inside I was thinking, I know how that intimidation feels.

I have no idea if there was a connection between the scene and my subsequent restless night of sleep. I haven't dreamed about my ex-husband in a very long time. (I left him in 2002. He died in 2011.) But last night I dreamed I was married to him again and it was awful. He didn't strike me or yell at me in the dream. He degraded me with his words and showed contempt for me with his countenance. I don't remember specific details about what words were spoken in the dream (which seemed to go on forever) but I always remember how I felt in response to his presence. I felt horrible while dreaming. And I felt horrible when I woke up. Except for one thing. John woke me up to give me a hug.

Oh, thank God, it was a nightmare. My reality is John. My reality is a loving husband who would never intentionally hurt me. Thank God, I got out. Thank God, I went to counseling. Thank God, I went to college. Thank God, I learned that I had worth and value and that God did not intend for me to stay and be abused forever. Thank God, I finally know what it feels like to be loved, respected and cherished by my husband. Thank God, my husband is truly my friend. He has no desire to antagonize me, diminish me, control me, dominate me, exploit me. And he is not threatened by my personal growth or my having opinions of my own. He doesn't need to control my thoughts and opinions or who my friends are. He doesn't accuse me of disloyalty if I disagree with him. He doesn't want to put me at odds with my family.

My feelings are important to him. And he is willing to listen to me when I need to express them. No punishing emotional consequences for needing to communicate how I feel or think.

It's amazing to be loved this way whether you've ever been abused or not. But I dare to say it's more amazing to the woman like me, who has been torn down by abuse. I've told John so many times that nobody could appreciate him more than I do because I know what it's like to have the opposite of our relationship. And I'll never forget.

Flash forward to this morning. I stayed in bed for an hour and watched TODAY after waking up. I felt lethargic as a result of a restless night and my bad dream. I reflected on the past and how long I lived that way (27 years). And then I got a text message: "Shari ... You up?"


"Wanna do a radio interview?"

Our local Women's Resource Center / Shelter is having a fundraising event this Saturday night. GIRLS NIGHT OUT - ON THE RED CARPET. John and I are sponsors of the event and sponsors of the entertainment. So, morning DJ (and our DJ for the event) Will Shumate of WJLS 99.5, along with Dee Sizemore of WRC, wanted to say hello on air and thank me for my/our support of the Women's Resource Center.

Of course I wanted to talk to them and help promote the event!

I came out of my fog instantly.

My first thought was how ironic it was that I'd just dreamed about my abusive ex-spouse prior to this invitation. Maybe not so ironic. Maybe it's not all bad that I still have an occasional nightmare to remind me of where I've been and the opportunities I have today to be an advocate for other women because I truly identify with them. God has brought me through the worst experiences of my life to make me a beacon of hope and light to others. It's a royal position. And I want to make the most of it.

This is the silver lining to all my dark clouds. And I'm grateful. I'm not only grateful that my life today is so very different from what it once was. I'm grateful God has redeemed all those years with the role I now have in helping bring awareness to this issue. It is such a privilege to have this opportunity to contribute something meaningful to the lives of others.

I'm proud to publicly identify myself as a victim and survivor, and most importantly an OVERCOMER of abuse.

Often I hear people say we must forget the past or put it behind us to look forward. I disagree. It's not good to live or camp out in the past, but reflecting helps us appreciate how far we've come. We should never merely forget.

Beth Moore, in her study on Esther, said it this way:

"You cannot amputate your history from your destiny, because that is redemption."

Powerful words combined with this passage of scripture from the book of Esther:

"And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Support from Family and Friends is Vital for Abuse Victims

I was recently asked to write on article for our local newspaper on this topic. It was published today. And I thought I would share it on my blog. I enjoy being assigned a topic. Especially anything that helps victims of abuse and domestic violence.


Breaking free from an abusive relationship is a bigger challenge than most people are able to comprehend.

As a survivor, I've had the privilege of being a friend to numerous victims. Quite often I am able to share the acquired wisdom that comes from personal experience. But other times, friends have experienced abuses I have not; abuses I perhaps cannot imagine suffering. And even in those instances, I am still able to offer support because what a victim needs most is someone who is engaged and who truly cares. When anyone expresses appreciation for my role in their healing, I remind them that all I've done is be a friend. And I have drawn from whatever resources I have to be a supportive friend.

Empathy is possible even when we have not experienced the exact same pain as another. Despite our different details, we all know what pain feels like. Victims primarily need to know (and see evidence) that we care. As one survivor said to me recently, "Just because I was a victim of abuse, that doesn't mean I don't have the same basic need to feel accepted and cared for."

To increase empathy, we need only to remember a time or circumstance in our own life where we may have chosen the pain that was familiar rather than facing our fear of the unknown. That's the tension victims live in daily. The future looks scary, not inviting.

If you suspect a friend or family member is in an abusive relationship, pursue a closer connection with them. Don't disengage. Abusers are experts at nurturing emotional isolation in order to hold their victims captive. Abusers may try to convince their victims that friends and family don't truly love or respect them. Keeping a safe distance may make your life easier, but it will only confirm to the victim that they are indeed alone and perhaps no one cares enough to reach out and risk involvement through genuine connection.

When abusers are unsuccessful in isolating their victims from friends and family members, the walls of their prisons become surmountable. We don't have to have answers to their problems to be a friend. We can be passionately on a victim's side in surviving and overcoming, while completely aware that we can't make their choices for them. In fact, trying to do so would be counterproductive. They have to learn how to take control of their own circumstances, not transfer control from the abuser to us. We must be patient while we wait for them to outgrow the mental prison that keeps victims locked up in abusive relationships.

We must not minimize the gravity of their fears. When well-meaning friends have reduced my anguish to a problem that is solved with a quick and clear-cut solution, it has only made me feel diminished or even dismissed. There's no empathy or compassion in that type of "problem solving." And stating how quickly you would have already left -- especially when you haven't walked in your friend's shoes -- is not only unhelpful, it can be hurtful.  Try to avoid offering simplistic answers or resolutions. Listen without judgment and encourage. I've learned that we never help anyone to feel stronger or less alone by judging, criticizing or imposing our own expectations. Instead, we trigger shame in those who constantly fear they fail to measure up. Victims are frequently tortured by self-doubt.

Most victims have been threatened if they leave. The threats may be to them, their children, their families, their finances and security. But sometimes abusers threaten to harm themselves in a way that makes the victim feel bound to and responsible for them. Shortly after I finally left my 27 year long abusive marriage, I told my counselor, "I don't miss him, but I still love him." My counselor said, "You love him like a mother loves her child. You feel responsible for him."  I know from experience that survivors only learn this distinction fully after we have broken free from our abuser.

It may be difficult to avoid letting your own emotions and frustrations (or dislike for the abuser) motivate your responses. I've struggled with this more times than I care to admit out of a genuine desire to see a victim break free. But our frustration can leave a victim feeling defensive or protective of their abuser. To be a stabilizing presence, maintain a calm focus when a victim confides in you.

Anyone suffering abuse is living in a state of chronic stress, even on "good days." Why? Because life is precarious from one moment to the next. Even when the abuser is not antagonizing his victim, she knows his mood can turn on a dime. The slightest mistake or "wrong" tone of voice can trigger a barrage of verbal/physical abuse, belittling, character assassination, cruelty. She learns to live in a state of heightened awareness, anticipating the harsh lashing out that often results from her slightest misstep. Small differences of opinion bring the dreaded escalation a victim fears. Wrath. Rage. Punishment.

It's like living on an obstacle course.

When overwhelmed, our friends need time and space to safely share their struggles. What may be less apparent to us is how much they simply need a break from the constant emotional strain of day to day life. Laughter is a stress releaser. It helps us cope and rejuvenate in even the most dire circumstances. So consider how you might be able to bring a moment of humor, joy, or peace with your presence.

When we think about legacy, we tend to think of something left behind when a person dies. But a broader definition of legacy would be offering ourselves in making a lasting and meaningful contribution to humanity one person at a time while we are living. Legacy begins the moment we have something to offer. And supportive friendship is a valuable gift we can all offer to others.

 Written by Shari Howerton for the Beckley Register-Herald

Saturday, July 4, 2015


I'm thankful for freedom. I know it's a blessing that most of the world does not enjoy.

We talk so much about rights in this country that many of us as Christians feel very comfortable in demanding "our rights" be protected too. And there's nothing wrong with standing up for what we believe in. I just like to remind myself often that Jesus didn't talk about rights. He talked about suffering and dying to self; sacrificial love and pouring out our lives... in sacrificial service to others.

How many of us are substituting something easier than that as a demonstration of our faith?

I know I'm guilty every day.

I'm thankful for the gift of repentance. I'm thankful He keeps MY need of a Savior before my eyes daily. It keeps me humble. It makes loving and accepting others with different struggles easier when I am reminded of my own need for grace.

No matter how well we live our lives, it is still UNMERITED favor that we receive from God, my friends.

Celebrate your freedom today. But if you belong to Christ, your freedom is so much greater than anything America can give you. We have been purchased with the blood of God. Our sins, which are many, in exchange for the sacrifice of the Only Perfect One.

God Bless us All and make us one as His children, created in His image.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Having a good time with Cody Wickline at John Howerton Honda!

Just wanted to share our four new commercial spots!

The first three are funny little ten second vignettes. The last is our BIG THANK YOU to the community for voting JOHN HOWERTON HONDA the #1 dealership to buy NEW AND USED vehicles in southern West Virginia!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

An Update to My Previous Post on Switching Gears

Dr. Flinn called John yesterday after personally reviewing all of John's test results (blood work and scans), researching other patient experiences with Idelalisib, etc. He was out of town at a conference at our last office visit and our discussion of changing directions was with his nurse practitioner. She was reporting the lab and scan results to Dr. Flinn by phone and advising us of results. But she had also told us that Dr. Flinn would be calling to talk to John personally before his next visit in July.

Dr. Flinn told John that he is only slightly out of remission. After looking at the scans, although his nodes have increased in size they are still very small. And he hasn't had a big spike in his white count. He's just been trending upward very slowly. So it's not that the drug has stopped working. It may just need to be bumped up to the next dose. He is inclined to think that may put John right back into remission and after John said he would prefer to try upping his dose before moving to another drug (with possible side effects he is not now dealing with), Dr. Flinn said he was leaning that same way in his thinking.

I love love love having a specialist who discusses decisions with us and is open to hearing the patient and caregiver's thoughts on these decisions! I never fully grasped why we couldn't try to increase the dose first but when I asked if that was an option, the nurse practitioner had shaken her head no with an expression that I perceived as "definitely not an option." So I didn't press it. But I did hope that Dr. Flinn might offer that option when we spoke in person.

When John told me about his conversation with Dr. Flinn yesterday, I was so relieved. I know there are other drugs and we may still have to transition to something else at some point. But I'd love for John to get the maximum benefit and length of time from the drug he's successfully taken (without side effects) for the last five years. And I don't want to transition prematurely. I trust Dr. Flinn's guidance and if he did not advise staying with Idelalisib, we'd go with his expertise. But it was a great relief to me for Dr. Flinn to say he agreed that increasing the dose was an option that might do the trick (for now, at least).

I knew you'd want to know this happy news! Thanks for caring!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Time to Switch Gears

Well, it's been a while since I've blogged about CLL. But cruise control on Idelalisib has been
interrupted and we are shifting gears.

As many of you already know, John was an early participant in the Phase I clinical trial of Cal-101, now known as Idelalisib or Zydelig. He began taking Cal-101 in May 2010 after failing FCR (chemotherapy). And he has enjoyed remission status for a full five years. I've frequently referred to this symptom free part of the journey as being on cruise control.

Over the past few months, John's white count has been trending upward and his platelets have trended downward. The progression has been slow but steady. Nothing alarming. No urgency. But his CLL is definitely progressing again. Cruise control on this particular drug is ending and we must take another course in treatment.

CT scans this checkup have indicated disease progression in his lymph nodes as well as in his blood. Again, not an alarming increase in the nodes, but significant change in more than one area of his body.

For the next six weeks, John will continue taking the drug and at our next appointment we will discuss new treatment options. I'm sure Ibrutinib will be one option on the table and possibly another clinical trial will be offered.

I have enjoyed taking a break from CLL immersion during our cruising time. I've also known this day would probably come eventually. But I have not worried about it because I believe that transitioning to a new therapy will provide a new remission. There has been so much advancement in treating CLL in the last few years. And there are other drugs similar to Idelalisib that work in the same way but through different pathways. Other patients have transitioned successfully from one drug to another. But in spite of what I know intellectually, I have to admit that getting this disappointing news triggered a wave of anxiety for me. I felt so fragile most of Monday and into Tuesday.

Dr. Flinn was out of town this visit and it was the nurse practitioner who gave us the news. Knowing John's white count had been inching upward and platelets had been low for the first time since beginning Cal-101, I thought I was somewhat prepared for this. I had even anticipated there might be some lymph node change with the scans. John said last week that he thought he could feel one in his neck for the first time. But when I heard the NP say "disease progression" and that John would not be able to continue Idelalisib even at an increased dose, fear grabbed me by the throat and I knew tears were in my eyes. If I even blinked or tried to talk, they would have been on my face.

We were asked a question (I don't even remember what) and John looked over at me for my response. When he looked at me, he made a joke. "Don't ask her," he said, "she'll start crying." It wasn't the kind of question that would make someone cry. But I couldn't say a word. He said later that I had that deer in headlights look and he just knew I was fighting back a surge of emotion. He was absolutely right. I guess there was some small part of me that dared to hope Idelalisib might work forever. And those hopes were dashed.

John has not felt good for months. His fatigue has been severe and he's had a lot of unexplained pain in his body since late fall. Dr. Flinn has done extra blood work to rule out rheumatologic issues. Nothing has shown up indicating any problem other than a "profound" deficiency in Vitamin D. So I've been reading about fibromyalgia and talking to people I know who have it. I've learned of other CLL patients who suffer from this condition. And I've discovered that several good friends battle it as well. John may or may not have fibromyalgia, but he has many textbook symptoms. And fibromyalgia cannot be diagnosed with blood work. It's also possible the pain and fatigue are CLL-related or even treatment related. We'll see if he feels better after transitioning to a new treatment. And we will also consult a rheumatologist about the possibility of fibro.

There are so many things to consider when comparing treatments. In my reading the last few days, I've learned that tumor lysis syndrome (which can be fatal) has been a problem with ABT-199 (a current drug being studied). The drug shows great promise in controlling CLL, but John has one kidney and has already experienced tumor lysis syndrome previously, after his first Rituxan infusion in 2008. It was scary. I really did think I might be losing him that day in the doctor's office. He lost consciousness twice. The first time, he passed out in the elevator as we were leaving and hit his head on the metal threshold as the doors opened.

For those who don't know what TLS is, it's a metabolic condition resulting from a large number of malignant cells being killed by treatment and having to be processed through the patient's body. It can result in kidney failure. And John only has one kidney. I've been trying to protect that one kidney to the best of my ability since his diagnosis.

Ibrutinib is already an approved therapy for CLL and it is successfully controlling disease progression for a large number of patients. It has relatively few side effects. Fewer than Idelalisib, actually. But one of its known side effects for some patients is joint pain. And since John is already experiencing quite a bit of chronic pain, I worry about that side effect.

I don't know what Dr. Flinn is going to suggest, but I'm trying to get back to soaking up the latest information so we can at least know what questions to intelligently ask about the treatment options we're given. And, of course, I want to help John make informed decisions.

I'm a good caregiver and patient advocate. But this week I've been a pretty fragile wife. I've had to ask John to forgive me more times than usual because I get needy when I'm feeling fragile. And I am not always aware of my tone when I'm feeling stressed.

I have the best husband in the world. He's not perfect even though I once thought he was. But he is perfect for me. And he is without a doubt my rock.

This has been a challenging week, but it's also been a good week. I don't think I ever take John for granted. After all the years I endured an abusive relationship, a day doesn't go by that I don't think about how much I appreciate him. I truly am thankful for every day even when it's smooth sailing. But there's something about the waves kicking up unexpectedly...

My gratitude for all that I have today is magnified by the uncertainty of what I will face tomorrow.

While we are both optimistic this is just a bump in the road and new treatment will get his CLL under control again, it's still a reminder that every day is a gift.

I'll keep you posted on the next part of the journey. And thanks in advance for your prayers!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day Thoughts and Wishes

My thoughts on Mother's Day are of course memories of my mom and a little sadness that I only got to have her for the first 28 years of my life.

Losing your mom prematurely is staggering and agonizingly painful at the outset. Over time I've learned to live with being motherless and gradually I began to savor sweet memories rather than sinking so deeply into my loss. But there are some losses I feel today that I could not comprehend at 28.

I'll never know the mother/daughter relationship we might have had through the growth of the last 28 years.

I finally do believe in my heart that she would be proud of the woman I am today. But I don't get to experience it.

I don't get to see my mom hold my grandchildren or tell her about them. I don't get to tell her how much I admire her as a grandma and that my goal is to be as good a grandma as she was.

I'd love to do things for my mom at this stage of life. I'd love to take her for a pedicure and massage. I'd love to take her on a trip ~ just the two of us. I'd love to take her to fancy restaurants (my treat).

I'd love to laugh with her about some of the ways I am exactly like her (because the ways we were different were so big in those first 28 years that they eclipsed the ways we were alike).

I know how much she would love John and wish she could have met him. I wish she could have been at our wedding.

I wish she could have watched me become strong enough to overcome the foolish choices of my youth ... and make better choices.

I wish she could have met all of her grandchildren and watched them grow into adulthood.

I wish I could still go to her house for holiday meals. Nobody did holidays better than my mom.

My list of wishes for what might have been could go on for hours and pages. But more than anything, I really wish I could laugh with my mom as a mature woman. I wish I could reminisce with her about the past and share the wisdom time has brought. I wish I could tell her that I am able to recognize her many strengths so much more than I did as a younger woman. I would love to tell her that I'm honored when someone tells me I'm like her.

I would love to know her more intimately than I was able to know her in my twenties. I would have loved for our relationship to have had time to blossom and mature. I wish we could have been better friends. And I wish I could have had more time to show her how much she meant to me and how much I appreciate her.

If you have your mom and are blessed to enjoy the many possibilities that are losses for me (and others like me), I am not jealous of you. I'm so very happy for you. I wish no one ever had to lose their mom prematurely and go through life without the love (and occasional frustration) of a mother.

What I hope is that you will make the most of the time you've been given. And ...

Today's a great day to start!