Those of you who know me better know that the last 7 years have been an odyssey of personal healing. It all started with an unexpected phone call on my 41st birthday.
With my susceptibility to workaholism, my birthdays never tended to be different than other days. But this birthday was a Monday – and this time I actually took it as a day off. I slept in, prayed, had a leisurely breakfast, and invited a friend over to play some board games.
We were interrupted by a call from Father Sean Kilcawley. Some weeks previously, I had reached out to see whether he could speak in our diocese. He and I had known each other during our post-graduate studies in Rome, but had not stayed in touch. We got to talking about our personal joys and struggles. He shared much about his own personal healing journey, and all the ways that therapy had been transforming him. The Holy Spirit took hold of my heart. It was time.
Those first 4 ½ years as pastor had been brutal. I had lost my stepfather two years previously and then both my paternal grandparents just weeks before returning from Rome. I did not at the time know how to engage grief. With only three days between the flight home and the new assignment, I became the first priest shared by those two parishes. Many people had unrealistic expectations. Some of them hurt me, sometimes in cruel or unusual ways. I hurt others. I kept putting pressure on myself to perform, becoming more perfectionistic than ever. When one trial abated, others would flare up – intense, overwhelming, and bizarre situations that no fiction writer could concoct.
I know now that trauma begets trauma – meaning that my present-day experiences of trauma cause my body to remember what things were like way back when. That also means reacting, coping, and behaving like I did way back when!
All I knew as I turned 41 was that I felt lost and stuck. The conversation with Father Sean was the catalyst. I soon spoke with my spiritual director and found a therapist in the Twin Cities. We met on a Monday, and the journey began. He suggested participating in a three-day workshop – perhaps later in the spring, since the next one was on Thursday. The Holy Spirit prompted, and I was back there on Thursday. I must have asked 12 different people for help– already a significant step on my journey of repentance. I was admitting that I had needs; I was asking for and receiving help. When I humbly acknowledged that I was struggling and needed to take some time away to get help for myself, everyone was incredibly understanding and supportive. And they didn’t seem too surprised. My façade of perfectionism wasn’t working nearly so well as I was pretending!
I grabbed a coffee and sat down that Thursday morning amidst 25 others, all of whom were at a point of desperation. I thought to myself, “How the hell did I get here?” It certainly wasn’t what I dreamed of on ordination day. But the testimonials of the presenters quickly captivated me. Their stories opened up a torrent of my own memories. It was very much a “Road to Damascus” moment. Only in this case it was seeing with total clarity: I HAVE A STORY!
I was amazed at all the traumatic memories that were bubbling up. It’s not like I had forgotten any of them. It had just been so long since I had given any of them any attention. It was like I had shoved them into the junk drawer and jiggled it shut. Out of sight, out of mind.
But my body remembered. Every overreaction, every addictive behavior, every embarrassing moment of sin or weakness, all the sense of stuckness – in all of it my body and nervous system were keeping the score and screaming at me until I paid attention. It took a while, but it eventually worked.
That night we all had homework, in the form of an art project. The presenter reassured the perfectionists in the crowd that everyone gets an A+. He gave us permission to write that in red on the top of our project. I did.
The exercise was the “trauma egg.” We were to take an easel-sized sheet of paper and draw a giant egg. In that egg, we were to work from bottom to top, depicting scenes from our earliest memories all the way up to present day – particularly scenes of abuse or neglect or heartache.
It was difficult getting started (creative expression is often that way for me!). But as I started drawing, the process started flowing. I was stunned at what poured onto the paper in front of me. I still am. Years later I can pull out that project in prayer and notice new things.
There were certainly moments of abuse or guilt or shame. But there was a consistent story of being left alone in the hardest moments of life. I was stunned at the river of loneliness that flowed through the paper in front of me.
The story I had been telling myself included no small amount of lying, denying, rationalizing, and minimizing. For years, I had downplayed how hard it was – the full truth of what it was really like. Sure it was hard now and then, but others had it worse… For years, I had told myself and others that I never felt lonely. I was the proverbial fish who didn’t recognize the ocean he was swimming in!
I felt alive and energized the workshop. It had been a very long time since I felt so connected, so seen, and so understood. My deeper identity re-emerged – a sensitive, intuitive, and intensely curious child who is eager for connection and eager to explore the world. And now there was so much to explore! The adventure was just beginning.
The story I had been telling myself was oozing with shame. I just have to try harder. I just have to do more. I have to get it right – or else… Thankfully I was committed to prayer. But even in my prayer, I was sometimes begging God to help me be “good enough” rather than receiving like a little child.
I left the workshop with permission to step out of my shame. God was big enough to hold me in my brokenness. In the subsequent days and weeks and months, I exchanged curiosity for shame. I desired to understand much more honestly and truthfully where I have come from so that I could walk forward joyfully and purposefully on the road ahead.
What is your story?
Do you find yourself overreacting or repeatedly going back to unwanted behaviors? Instead of seeing those moments as something that is wrong with you, what would it be like to ask your shame to step aside and allow you to be curious about your story?
When Jesus comes again and assembles all the nations, my story and yours will be told. Jesus will tell the full and true story – not the edited version that selectively omits or exaggerates or downplays. If you are like me, there will be moments in your story at which many of us will weep, or be enraged, or be on the edge of our seat with empathy. At the end, God willing, we will see how every painful or shame-filled moment has been transformed by THE story – the dying and rising of Jesus. Where the blood of the Lamb is poured out, all is made new. As scary as it is to think of our entire story being told, it is also incredibly liberating. If we can claim all of it with Jesus, our story will culminate with a hymn of praise to God who has done great things in us.