April 13, 2015

What If I'm Still Broken?

(Backstory: It's been three years since the start of Mary Brooks' ordeal; last week was the second anniversary of the loss of our third baby.

Chapman's pregnancy, which mercifully began quickly afterward, was marked by severe, unexplained bleeding throughout and capped off with a premature delivery. He had a NICU and separate Children's Hospital stay, followed by months of anxious efforts to help him grow, something he is only finally doing in the roly-poliest way.

Our life is beautiful, but there was a long season when I braced continually for the next blow. I struggle mightily with the knowledge I'm still broken, even armed with my faith, my Savior, my family and the passage of time.

So there's the Cliffs Notes version.)

I don't know how to introduce myself anymore. I used to be simple Anne who went to Clemson, fell in love with her best friend, had a beautiful boy, started a small business and found the humor in each of her awkward moments. I am insanely talkative; of those there were plenty.

Then my life got thrown into a blender. We were tossed about in fits and spurts, more violently in some moments than others, and are just now emerging after years of being smacked against the walls. 

I worry what people need to know most about me is I'm not who I used to be or who you might have known. It's been three years since the first of the dropkicks came, but I'm still someone bruised and more delicate than before. What I see now is viewed through a wholly new lens, colored by what flipped us inside out without warning.

I imagine you're tired of my incessant talking about it. It scares me, as what I've learned, what I've come through, who I've become is the most available part of me.

C.S. Lewis wrote that "[p]art 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." A season of introspection makes you question whether you're truly processing or just dwelling on something others would have swept away by now. There's endless room to doubt.

From day one, I wanted to feel legitimate in my hurt. "This wasn't exactly a scheduled appendectomy," I'd tell myself, "but we're home now. Why am I not over this?"

A wise friend first used the word "grief" to me when Mary Brooks' future was unclear. Grief, I believed, was something for people crying at a graveside; it turns out that's just the clear-cut kind. There are infinite iterations of grief, and it's more than possible to mourn a person who hasn't been buried.

I mourned what I had before things got messy - when I trusted life would be good, because it always had been. When I had that optical illusion I was captaining my own ship, directing and managing what came into my life.

In that long season I mourned my daughter's health, my happy-go-lucky state of mind, my older son's delicate and broken heart, the baby and innocence we lost, the ability to enjoy pregnancy without debilitating fear, the simple conversations I could have with strangers when my greatest troubles were dusty baseboards, dirty diapers and whatever sad story played out on the evening news.

To this day I struggle with whether what I've felt - and what I still carry - is legitimate. Do I deserve to be broken? Hasn't enough time passed? Don't I get to be that old girl again? Because people may not tolerate this much longer...

How could people believe I've earned this much room to process if they don't understand what "this" is? We barely understand it ourselves. How could they give me grace in the meantime if they don't know our story? How can they extend me patient kindness when I can't extend it to myself?

Do I have to describe the scars and ultrasounds and bleeding and expenses and panic and "failure to thrive" and unexpected traumas? If people don't know how the hurts started coming and didn't stop - how could they see me as anything but self-indulgent and a bit off my rocker?

I imagined walking around in a sandwich board with my laundry list spelled out for all to see. Maybe get a facial tattoo so no one could miss the memo? You need to know who you're dealing with, world, and she's all cracked up. She's not in the thick of things anymore, not wearing her mourning clothes or staying up nights, but she may not be "normal" quite yet.

One question has weighed heavy for some time now: What if I'm still broken?

Our brains are designed to function in crises; it's fascinating to me how your body keeps moving, your mind keeps processing things. Not everything, but enough to remain vertical, to put one foot in front of the other when it's necessary. Enough to stay in one piece.

It's after the crisis passes that the bottom can fall out. You're left keenly aware of how utterly broken you are, smashed to smithereens. Your trauma wasn't a simple slice to be glued together; it's a series of rifts, jagged cuts that reopen unexpectedly.

There's nothing straightforward about healing. Even Lewis agrees:
"I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history...
Sometimes you're still healing even when good things happen around you. Circumstances change, celebrations are had, babies come home, everyday life resumes - but there's still a guilt and weight behind what appears to be easy joy.

How long can you feel duplicitous, can you wear two faces alternately? When is the expiration date for what you've borne? Is it when every last ounce of the burden is gone? When the bills are paid off or the stitches taken out or the first anniversary has passed?

While I'm not the best at living it out, my approach and advice for others is this: Look at yourself with the eyes you'd cast on a hurting friend. Would you be gentle? Empathetic? Encouraging and understanding if grief pops back up for "no reason"? How would you speak to her? How many tears would you allow?

Why is it so exceedingly difficult to extend the same heartfelt compassion to ourselves?

My other approach, besides talking to myself (in the non-literal sense when possible) as I would a dear friend, is to accept the ugly with open arms.

Look, simple Anne is gone. Your rage at a long Starbucks drive-through line is going to be lost on me. I've got bigger fish to fry, and that just isn't one. These days I'm going to hear "surgery," and before you get to the part about "three-minute outpatient procedure to put tubes in my child's ears," I'll be planning meals for six months and naming our forthcoming community outreach event.

At some point - hopefully this point - I'm going to have to accept that the wreckage of the last few years is my life. There's no getting the old one back. I can be useful here even as I sort things out. I was called to this place. I am needed and I am equipped.

Maybe exposing my raw edges publicly - and coming to terms with them on my own - opens me up to be more valuable, more vulnerable, more keenly aware of how I can serve others.

Maybe suffering creates for us a new kind of ministry: giving not just of our time or our resources, but of exactly who we are. Shattered, taped together and even unrecognizable.

And maybe there's no timeline or bell curve or fade-out schedule for sadness. What I carry doesn't feel the way it did before I had Chapman in my arms, but it does still feel like something. There are a lot of hard months directly behind me, and that truth doesn't dissipate as soon as the calendar flips.

Our hard season was a loss, obviously. It was a series of losses. The baby we lost was a part of me, a piece of all of us, and then she was gone. I had to grieve that; I had to prepare myself for more sadness when it seemed Chapman's story might not end happily either. But there's a voice inside me that whispers, "You only get to think about this so much before you're wallowing."

I don't want to wallow; I want to matter. I want to let the hurt seep out if it needs to, and reach out in the knowledge that some of you are hurting too.

I know now these aren't our lives; this tale doesn't belong to us. In the simplest sense, I suppose it does, but once things hit the skids you quickly see you're not the author here, just a player - albeit one who can contribute greatly. It's not a story OF you, but THROUGH you.

You don't have to hold back who you've changed into or what you're carrying. The damage you've seen can power your life, your ministry - even if you haven't reached the (likely unattainable) finish line of "wholeness."

I'm here to tell you your brokenness doesn't disqualify you from contributing to a greater plan.

Today I'm walking alongside a friend whose beautiful son has been fighting hard in a NICU since his birth five weeks ago; born with what Mary Brooks had, baby G had three emergency surgeries in his first four days on Earth. I'm replaying the words that propelled me in the longest days. His mama is as in the trenches as it gets; I am saying to her what I needed to hear three years ago, and I'm keeping some things to myself.

The life-or-death disasters are adrenaline-pumped first chapters, but they aren't where it ends. There's so much work to be done in the quiet afterwards. The 'afterwards' lasts a lot longer, and sometimes it proves your mettle more than the emergency. (Though my mettle is counter-intuitive; it's throwing my arms open, my head up and asking to be used even though I still feel empty sometimes.)

I say all of this, every word of this non-fiction novella, both as an encouragement and a two-parted plea: Keep going. And bear with me.

Wherever you are, you can be useful. It's my most fervent prayer that I am useful in each step, shaky ones included, out of this hurricane.
The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
Lewis was a perceptive man. I never felt God couldn't help me, but I do now work to ensure whatever cries I have are punctuated by praise and silence. I want to find my purpose in this, and I can't do that without seeing how far I've been carried and without listening for the One leading me out.

I know I can't do this on my own, and I want not just to take strength from a community of believers - I want to add to it, too.

So - what if I'm still broken? I just don't know. That part of the story is a mystery.

I'm certain I'm damaged goods, but I'm equally confident that's not the only evidence of what's happened here. A powerful story is brewing just as big as the storm we survived.

Whatever your storm is, hang on. And keep moving in the middle of it - you're not a loss to us, wearing us down, using up our grace or testing our patience. No one's writing you off.

You're who you were created to be, cracks and all. And no one sees those scars but you.

(Unless, of course, you make that sandwich board or face tattoo. I wouldn't blame you, and it sure would make recognizing one another easier.)

"There is strength within the sorrow
There is beauty in our tears
And You meet us in our mourning
With a love that casts out fear
You are working in our waiting
You're sanctifying us
When beyond our understanding
You're teaching us to trust

Your plans are still to prosper
You have not forgotten us
You're with us in the fire and the flood
You're faithful forever
Perfect in love
You are sovereign over us
-Sovereign Over Us by Aaron Keyes


Farrah said...

I hope writing it out brought you and others comfort. I've lost 5 babies and I know that sometimes that pain is so I can help others as well as being me to my knees. You are a little broken, we all are as we go through each day. And we all grieve different and for different periods of time but to live in grief all of the time means that you're not allowing God to heal your heart. That's when I think it's time to see a counselor. We may be broken on Earth but heaven is perfect and we are perfect in His eyes.

Hugs to you and your friend!

Elizabeth said...

i have read and reread this and the words I want to express still have not made it from the proverbial pen to the proverbial paper.

I.Needed.This.We.Needed.This. People ask me daily how C is doing and I automatically say "ok" because the last thing I want to do 10x a day is go through her story. It is exhausting, it causes people to look at you with not empathy or sympathy but with "shoot how do I respond to what she just told me" eyes.

I think I will always be broken, I don't know when "this" will be over, "this" is our new normal. I struggle with wanting to be a voice and create change and give back but honestly at this point I am treading water during a tsunami and putting a smile on my face is as good as it's going to get.


In This Wonderful Life said...

This is so great. And so helpful. You are amazing, Anne. <3

Steel Magnolia said...

Yes. You put into words what I have been mulling over in my head and heart for a little while now. I am not the person I used to be, and I am sure that will continue to change. Having a bit of an identity crisis...we all have positive and negative life experiences, but I don't want to be hardened by them. But right now I'm wondering if I've been hardened or just merely transformed. He is the Potter, we are the clay, right? We are being molded into something much more than our former selves. Hard to remember that when emotions get the best of us. Hang in there on this rollercoaster of life, and I'll try too.


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