gratitude

Dissonance

I remember attending my first Twelve Step recovery meeting ever. It was an open meeting, and I attended with a friend. I listened. I learned a lot and felt that even though what people were sharing didn’t totally apply to me, there was something warm and familiar about it all the same. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

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With my friend Nicole in 2009, not long after I began working the Steps

A few months later, I understood that warm and familiar feeling to be home. I related to the feelings shared, even though the details were different, because I had been affected by similar problems and situations.

I never stopped the Twelve Step movement in my life after that. This summer, I celebrate my eleventh year in recovery. When I attended my first meeting, I was dating an alcoholic (I later married him, and subsequently divorced him). He insisted I find my own program of recovery because I was driving him crazy. Truthfully, I was probably driving him completely nuts, regardless of his behavior and his contributions to the chaos in our relationship.

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How I spend my time today

Fast forward 11 years. A lot has happened in the gap, but one thing has remained steady and constant in my life–my relationship with God and my growth in recovery. Divorce, financial ruin, relocation, grad school, pregnancy, major health concerns, marriage, legal stress, parenthood, entrepreneurship … you name it. Life happens to us, right? That doesn’t change just because we choose to align ourselves with healthier people, attend Twelve Step meetings, and pursue a better path for ourselves. Life keeps happening. Will we avoid as many potential pitfalls if we’re making better choices? Probably. But life rolls on, and we cannot prevent that.

I’ve observed something interesting over the past decade which sometimes seems strange. A dissonance, a distinct difference, even tension between the way I view (and choose) to view the world, and the way others view and choose to view it.

Why the dissonance? Why the difference? Why the vast chasm?

Yes, I follow Christ, and that certainly sets me apart from a large group of people who do not. But it’s not those people I’m referencing here. There are many of my friends and family members, most of whom follow Christ, who truly seem to be unable to relate to my perspective and worldview. What’s changed? Me or them? If it’s me, what is it about me that’s changed so much?

I’ll never get inside others’ heads to figure this out entirely–and honestly, I don’t want to–but I do find it interesting. Here’s one thing God brought to my attention a few weeks ago: When two people have experienced reality entirely differently, it is nearly impossible for them to perceive the world similarly. 

I chatted with a friend of mine who works in Christian ministry a few weeks ago, and that’s when this really hit me. He shared with me a situation that occurred years ago when many folks in ministry conflicted over changing a denominational policy. Some of the people stood by their beliefs without becoming petty or criticizing individuals (maintaining a polite, cordial attitude toward others involved). But a few people lashed out at the group, posted hateful messages online, and demonstrated the exact behavior that makes Christians cringe in embarrassment. We lamented about the situation together.

“I don’t know why, but that’s just one of those hot button topics that always gets people going,” he mused.

“Yeah, I guess so. I can’t relate to that anymore. I think there was a time when I had an opinion about that stuff… not now. I can’t even muster an ounce of concern about that if I try.”

I wasn’t being sarcastic. I was serious. My entire perception of what really matters has completely changed. I really did join in on splitting doctrinal hairs in the past, and I enjoyed those conversations and would defend my soapbox to the bitter end. And not just that–I used to pride myself on serving as vigilante of almost everyone or anything. I loved that stuff. I LOVED THAT STUFF. If you’d asked me the question, How important is that, really? I would have responded, It’s VERY important!

Then I lived in alcoholism for a decade. And I faced PTSD during that time from multiple incidents of sexual assault and other situations. I finally sought counseling and help through the Twelve Steps, but not until my life began to crumble into bits at my feet. It was not the best time of my life.

When your reality has been lived in mire, in fighting dark spiritual battles for quite some time, your perception changes. First world problems aren’t problems at all. You don’t have room on your plate for things like bickering, gossip, and scandal.

Yet even when you move from darkness to light–and thank God, that has happened for me–you may still feel permanent dissonance between the way you see the world and the way others see it. Does that mean those who don’t see it the way you see it are wrong, or that something is inherently wrong with you?

Not at all. It’s just a reminder that the world is varying shades, that not every human experiences trauma, and that God works through each of us differently. It’s a reminder that we cannot go to the bakery expecting to purchase hardware. That we can’t expect people who’ve never been in a pit to feel comfortable sitting next to us in the bottom of one while we work our way out, one Step at a time. It’s a reminder that God goes before us, plans in love, and converts what was meant for Evil into our Ultimate Good.

 

 

gratitude

Turning points

Dear One,

When you died about one month ago, you caught me off guard. You became suddenly ill, and 24 hours later, you were eating pizza, fruit cake, and pudding cups in heaven.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI can’t say I didn’t see it coming. There was something inside of me that whispered, “Go see her more often” about one year ago. I don’t know if it was in reaction to Big Jim, my father-in-law, moving on to The Great Resting Place, or if it was because Maggie finally became a better traveler and visitor. Regardless, I’m eternally grateful for God’s voice nudging me to visit you more often.

Even though you suffered from mental illness, you were almost always pleasant, welcoming, and in good spirits. Your little smile and bright eyes let me know you were enjoying our time together, even if you preferred that I do most of the talking. When you had something to say, it was always smart, quick-witted, and on point.

I remember two turning points in my relationship with you.

One was when Mom and I visited you at the time of her high school reunion. We stayed with my uncle, but we came to see you almost all day long while we were there. As the day evolved into evening, we knew we needed to head to Mom’s reunion.

As we drove away from your apartment, Mom continually expressed that she just didn’t feel right about going and leaving you all evening.

“Mom, then we just don’t have to go to your reunion. What are you going to regret if you don’t do it in 10 years?”

That was about 10 years ago. And Mom still doesn’t regret turning the car around, picking up a pizza from your favorite diner, and surprising you by spending the evening talking and laughing, just the three of us.

The other turning point was when we visited after your mother died. We didn’t attend the funeral, but we’d been invited to look through her belongings to see if we wanted  specific items before they were sold or given away. I’ll be honest–prior to that day, I lacked compassion for your mother and only saw her in negative light. Something about sifting through an entire apartment’s worth of silent items spoke to me.

Then we visited Mom’s cousin. I wanted to do nothing–even though I was only a junior high student at the time–but sit and listen to Mom’s cousin recant your life experiences, both as a child and into adulthood. These were stories you had never told me yourself, and chapters you rarely flipped back to, probably in an effort to avoid those memories. Being sent to live somewhere else as a child–not knowing why. Undergoing exploratory, inventive procedures in a time when doctors didn’t understand that what they were doing did more harm than good. Being homeless. Feeling alone.

When we remembered you the evening after you died, these untold stories are what I reflected on in my mind–not because I wanted to focus on what felt sad and painful, but simply because these moments made you who you were. I can be grateful for you even though parts of you were broken.

I do not regret who you were nor wish to change my time with you. I know all of you, and I accept all of you. You were always enough.

 

gratitude

How to move

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI woke up humming a tune.

“Whippoorwills in the willows…” I love that little song. It takes me back to a sweet time in my life when I had fewer cares and responsibilities, a time when love enveloped me like the warm comforter I nestled in as I awoke with the June sunshine streaming in through my bedroom window.

I have always heard “be where your hands are.” My mentor wrote this line to me this week, “Let your head be where your hands and feet are.”

Same essential meaning, but it hit me differently. Yesterday morning, I found myself nearly paralyzed in bed. This inability to move (and unwillingness to get up–it was half inability and half desire) only lasted for about five minutes, thankfully, but it was long enough for me to pause and reflect on the cause. I was unable to get up and make my daughter a cup of strawberry milk and to make my coffee for five minutes because I was humming a little sad tune from a movie I watched during a beautiful time in my life. I was reminiscing. And I was grieving.

When my head and thoughts are reflecting on the past and meditating on memories, I am completely incapable of being in the present. I’m unable to move. I’m unable to go forward. I’m unable to take actions. I’m unable to do stuff. I’m unable to have fun with my kid. The entire time I was floating through the memories of hearing that song then—and humming it again 18 years later—my daughter tugged on my arm, jumped in my bed, and even told me jokes. I half-listened, half-smiled, and half-replied to her. I was half-there. But I’ve been taught that half measures avail me nothing. And living a half life isn’t really living my life, either.

If I’m grateful for the RIGHT NOW, I’m capable of getting up, getting out of bed, and making strawberry milk and coffee in the morning without any problem, without any hesitation. I can do that when I switch my thoughts and focus from back then to right now.

Sometimes I do that easily, as I did yesterday morning, by simply making a mental choice to stop thinking about the past. Sometimes it’s not as simple, quick, or easy. I need to reach deep into my toolbox for help. I pray and work through the Steps of recovery, admitting I’m powerless over my desire to live in the past. I admit that I’m incapable of being where my hands are and ask for God to restore me to sanity. That’s expressing willingness. I say, “Help me, God!” I’ve never known a time when I’ve asked God desperately for help, and He’s pooh-poohed my genuine, unselfish request to make a change.

Another practical way I focus on what I’m grateful for—which switches my focus from then to now—is by paying attention to what I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. And I give thanks to God for those things right away, and usually aloud. Does that make me seem like a weirdo? Maybe, but usually I’m home with my daughter, so who really cares? I’ll thank God for the smell of hot coffee as it’s brewing, for the warm sunshine on my blanket, and for the sparkle in Maggie’s eyes every morning. When I’m thanking God with my mouth, my mind doesn’t have as much control over me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m then capable of reading, praying, and meditating and putting first things first. I can make homemade muffins for the cutest four and a half year-old girl in the world. When my head is where my hands are, I’m grateful for where my hands are. When my head is living in 60-second snapshots from the past, I’m not able to see our gray kitten’s fur standing up on end, chasing a bird. I’m unable to hear Maggie giggling while chasing him across the yard. I can’t laugh in response. I choke down fresh farm eggs and homemade chocolate cake; food is bland when I’m in a time warp, either reliving something sad and beautiful or wishing I’d made different choices.

Thankfully, I’ve been taught how to live here. I’ve been taught how to live HERE, where my hands are, where I exist, in reality, where the clock is ticking on the table next to me.

gratitude

Mighty kind

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Kindness is the mightiest force in the world,” according to One Day at a Time (299).

In the past, I didn’t feel kind. I didn’t even feel like being kind. I felt like stabbing my ex-husband’s eyeballs with a handful of forks. If you know me now, you may be laughing and trying to imagine me doing this. You may be thinking, “Now Bethany… surely you’re exaggerating!” No. I am not.

That anger and resentment masked my disappointment, bitterness, depression, anxiety, sadness, and fear. I was in pretty sad emotional shape a decade ago (and in the preceding years as well). Thankfully I chose to reach out, get help, and get better.

I have learned I have a choice in every situation. The truth of this notion made me sigh (or gag) for a few years. Martyrdom had become a way of life. I couldn’t see the efficacy in changing my ways because it was tough to take actions and let feelings follow, and I was afraid to admit my part in problems, particularly in relationships. It was much easier to let men, bosses, or relatives take the blame, allow all of you to feel very sorry for me, and go on with life.

I didn’t just omit the truth of my mean part in situations. I also behaved in mean ways. Just ask one of my exes. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me… I’ve been cruel, cold, and calculating.

I haven’t just struggled with being kind in intimate relationships. I still find it tough to be kind—even courteous—to family members who don’t live life the way I do. When someone interrupts me repeatedly, or when a relative tells racist jokes in front of me, I absolutely do not feel motivated to treat them as God’s precious children or want to pinch their adorable cheeks and bless their little hearts. It’s really my problem because “when I am disturbed, it is because I find… some fact of my life… unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment” (Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, 417).

Kindness blooms from acceptance.

Acceptance really is the solution to all my problems.

Another root of kindness is gratitude. “When I focus on what’s good today, I have a good day” (Big Book, 419). Three long years of creating detailed, original gratitude lists helped instill this principle in my heart, but it’s still easier when I feel disgruntled to focus on the problem rather than the solution. When I choose to focus on the solution, I feel better. Many times the quickest way out of a grump is to create a gratitude list. Sometimes I write the items on paper. Many times I pray aloud and say, “Thank you, God, for the chance to stay home and spend time with Maggie right now. Thank you that she cared enough about my reaction that she asked me to quit writing and to come see her new space heater. Thank you for the 30 minutes to write this morning before James left for work.” Hearing myself express gratitude verbally brings me back to where my hands are; the present is where I find the solution.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I am thankful, I treat people around me with kindness and compassion. When I am thankful, I am more likely to accept others as they are. And lastly, when I am thankful, mindful, present, and accepting, I like myself. This is something I struggle with but am willing to grow toward today. In moments when I like myself, I’m kind to myself. I don’t lash out in my head with judgmental and critical statements. I smile more often. I relax. I listen well. I laugh. And when I love myself, I love others well.

And kindness and love really do cover a multitude of sins.

gratitude

Say yes

I found myself whispering, too, even though I wasn’t the one hiding in a closet while a drunken man beat on the door.

“Bridgett, it’s okay. You’ll be okay. You do not have to answer that door. DO NOT answer the door, okay?”

Bridgett cried snotty tears on the other end of the phone.

“But why won’t Tim just wake up? I don’t want to be here! I don’t want to be here!”

At fourteen years-old, I felt helpless to rescue the nine year-old little girl whose alcoholic stepfather had passed out on the couch. His friend knew she was inside the trailer and seemed determined to enter the home. I may not have been old enough to understand everything, but I knew enough to know something was sinister; when a child expresses that level of fear, reality lives in it.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

So I just talked to her, sitting in the hallway of my parents’ home, cradling the old white phone—yes, attached to a cord, which was attached to the wall. In the middle of July, my parents were working, and without transportation, I couldn’t physically rescue her. But I could make her feel a little less alone and give her the option of not answering the door that day.

Ten years later, I worked for a TRiO program at a private liberal arts college. My job included helping underprivileged high school students excel academically and prepare for college. I supervised tutors, coordinated records with high school counselors, taught summer courses in writing, literature, and ACT prep material, and much more. I didn’t go to work expecting a student to disclose his homosexuality to me (he’d never disclosed it to anyone else before).

Jon, an attractive young man, sauntered into my office on a hot June afternoon.

“Miss Bethany, I’m pretty sure I’m gay.”

Deep breathing. Lots of deep breathing. A very beloved friend in college had chosen me to disclose similar information during college, and I’d blown it. I mean, I had ROYALLY blown it and had responded terribly, making a joke of the entire situation because I felt uncomfortable. I always wished I could go back in time to respond differently; I just didn’t know any better at age 18. This was clearly God offering me a chance for redemption.

“Oh, Jon, that’s a major thing. Have you told other people? Do your parents know?” The kid was only 16.

“No. No one knows except my… well, sort of my boyfriend.”

More deep breathing. Trying to do the deep breathing without looking like Kristin Wiig on Saturday Night Live.

“Okay. I’m glad you told me. Do you need to talk about it?”

The lock on the floodgates broke wide open. I listened to his story for about 30 minutes. At the end of his story, I referred him to the counseling coordinator. When he left my office, I felt spent and grateful.

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Toga party for Oral Communication, 2015

Fast forward another decade. While teaching college as an adjunct English instructor, I discovered students feel more safe writing out their secret horrors, traumas, and worries than they do talking about them (try encouraging a college student to schedule an appointment with a paid professional counselor or student services worker and check out the non-verbal response). And what do I teach? English composition and oral communication courses.

Since 2013, I’ve been gasping, crying, and praying while grading certain essays—and not just due to poor grammar and mechanics.

In 2014, I taught Esther, a beautiful non-traditional student. She worked odd jobs to support her children and family. After the semester ended, we kept in touch. She stopped by periodically with books for my daughter, cookies or other baked treats, and cards. She couldn’t afford these gifts, yet she gave anyway. Recently, her dream man (boyfriend) became abusive within their relationship.

“Miss Bethany, I just want you to know you were right… I love you, and I want you to know I’m taking care of myself.”

I shared my experience, strength, and hope with her and suggested options for self-care and protection.

“Esther, no matter what you do, I will always be here for you and love you.”

I could fill an entire book with stories like these (with names changed, of course).

I read an article recently about keeping the awe in our lives. I don’t know how to get rid of it because God keeps using me. God never stops tapping on my shoulder and whispering in my ear.

“Right here.”

Every time, I’m blown away. I absolutely can’t breathe for at least a moment because I recognize if I move when He says move, something miraculous happens. What will it be? I don’t know! It’s a mystery. I love it. I just take action—which many times redeems my own past—and God fits me into a gigantic unfinished puzzle.

Let me never say no. Please God, let me say yes. Let me never refuse the opportunity to use whatever You have given me to help someone in need. Let my gratitude for my own redemption fuel me when I feel afraid, hesitant, or greedy.

 

gratitude

I’d rather be wrong

Recently, one of my friends reached out to me to inform me that she’d been viciously attacked by her boyfriend (now ex). She described the bruises, and she admitted she felt scared for her life.

“You were right about him.”

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

In the pit of my gut, I winced.

There was a time when I reveled in being right… being right during factual debates, being right at work, being right regarding hot, controversial topics, and being right about you, your life, and your decisions. I thought I knew best for everyone and made sure they knew it.

Over the course of the past decade, I’ve hesitantly accepted that I don’t even know what’s best for myself. I’m rarely right. But for years, I lived in denial, made terrible choices which affected many people, and suffered. I’ve stopped playing God and have turned my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand Him.

A childhood friend killed herself a few years ago after battling depression and enduring domestic abuse. Two years before, I’d reached out to share my experience with similar problems and offered the solutions which had worked for me.

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine. I’m just worried about him.”

Another childhood friend died last year in a sketchy incident involving drugs. One year prior, I’d hugged him desperately in tears at a funeral. I begged him to get himself into a 12-step recovery program. I told him I thought he might not make it otherwise.

“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m doing fine. I haven’t done anything in months.” Alcohol emanated from his pores.

A woman I know and love came to me and shared about her marital struggles. I shared my experience and encouraged her to seek help and concoct a plan for starting a new life for herself. She stayed for another year. Her eyes are still dead.

Being right is the worst feeling in the world now.

If there’s any time I’d prefer to be wrong, it’s when I’m watching someone I love die. But recovery tells me the path to serenity is simple, but not easy. I wish there were an easier, softer way. But I haven’t found one.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

I want to see people I love live. I want them to feel deep-down, unshakable peace and serenity. I want them to laugh. I want them to sleep at night. I want them to focus on the solution and not the problem.

I want gratitude to overwhelm them and cause them to weep without shame every single day.

It’s not for those who need it. It’s for those who want it.

And God, I want it.

gratitude

The gratitude word

*Today’s blog post is a guest post written by my lifelong friend and former neighbor Leslie Ferguson Thomas. I’m always thankful for Leslie’s contributions to my blog, but I’m more thankful for her ongoing friendship, her perspective on life, and her willingness to share it. Leslie’s husband is currently battling cancer; please keep them in your prayers this holiday season.*

On the day the surgeon told us he was pretty certain my husband Josh had cancer, I was anything but grateful. I was angry. For a few moments I was consumed by it. I wanted to scream, curse, and cry, so I did all three. This year has been crazy. I won’t spend time on all the details, but basically my husband has been diagnosed with two different types of cancer, had three different surgeries, and just started chemotherapy. That is not to mention all the other typical “life” things that have happened this year.

Josh and LeslieI have always considered myself a pretty positive person. People have even accused me of being the “Pollyanna type.” I try to smile often. I have never seen the point otherwise. I try to lift myself and those around me up. I do my best. I have always been one of those people who always thought my ship was about to come in, dreams were meant to be followed, and life was meant to be spent doing what you love. I believed that regardless of the cost.

I have always believed in God/a Higher Power.  I am in awe of all the things that happen in our world. All the perfect timing, the rhythm of everything. Sunsets leave me in awe. A sunset is a continual reminder to me that we are loved. Why else would so much thought and energy be put into simply coloring the sky at night? I am sure there is a scientific reason to it all, but still I am always humbled by the sunset.

This year my “positivity” has been rocked to the core. And honestly, I no longer see myself as a “positive” person. I am positive of nothing. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know what this next moment will bring. How will my husband feel today? What challenges will we face? Will the income situation work out? Will I be able to get clients when I start my counseling practice? Will Josh and I grow old together? Will we be able to have a family?  I don’t know any of that. I don’t consider myself negative either.  I just am!!! And today just is what it is!!!

So that shift left me feeling empty. Everybody kept saying be positive. I suddenly didn’t know how to do that anymore. I still don’t. I feel like something inside of me has changed. It has changed so deeply, and I don’t know that anything will change me back. This is where gratitude has come in and has truly helped me. To me positivity is about believing in a certain outcome. I am sure others may have a different perspective on it. I just can no longer cling to certain outcomes, but I can be in this moment. I can be grateful.

JoshWhat I have found is that even in the worst moments, I can list things to be grateful for. I can look at the sunset and be in awe. I can go to our favorite lake, and be in awe and grateful for the trees. I can sit beside my husband, and be grateful for our relationship. I can be grateful for the way life is changing me. The way I have become stronger, and am more driven than I ever been. I can be grateful for how Josh’s body has healed, how strong he is, and how our relationship continues to get better and better.

“Gratitude” is my new saving grace. I am grateful for the country I live in. I am grateful for possibilities. I am grateful for the people who have helped us, checked on us, and encouraged us. Gratitude has also taken a huge weight off me. I don’t have to believe in anything. I don’t have to be positive of anything. I just have to stop and look around. Gratitude is about being in the present.

So now even in my worst moments, I try to remind myself of all I have to be thankful for. There is so much, and gratitude helps me to immediately center myself into this moment. And this moment is really all we have.

I think the most important part of gratitude is to never make yourself feel guilty for having a hard time with it, being upset, or feeling whatever you feel. I try hard to even be grateful for the emotions I wish I had less of. Gratitude to me is about being gentle and just opening our eyes to all of the good stuff around us.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody- lots of love,

Leslie

Visit Leslie’s blog at www.anembracedlife.com