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We lived on 34th Street in Newark, Ohio. The small house sat in a neighborhood built in 1950 for war veterans. In 1969, we moved in. I was two years old. The Ohio National Guard Armory sat at the end of the street, right next to the train tracks. Lisa lived in the grey house across the street.
My mom, my dad, and baby sister lived in that house. We had a dog named Snoopy who ran away and a dog named Heidi that we dressed in our infant onesies. We had a red and white swing-set in the backyard where my mom told me stories about the worm band having a parade underneath the dirt.
I talked into a tape recorder pretending I was a DJ on the radio and copied song lyrics out of Tiger Beat magazine. When the army trucks caravanned down the street, Lisa and I would sit on the curb in front of my house and pump our arms up and down to persuade the drivers to honk at us. We spent summers climbing the tree in her front yard, writing stories in old phone books from the Armory, riding our skateboards in the parking lot, and playing 45’s of the Rolling Stones. Oh, how fast I ran across the street the day Elvis died to tell Lisa’s mom. She was ironing in the living room and refused to believe me.
“Turn on the TV,” I said.
Back and forth we went between the two houses, and if we weren’t sleeping over to watch Night Owl Chiller Theater, we were flicking our lamps on and off in Morse code from our adjacent bedroom windows. And when the train went by, I lay terrified in my bed. The whole house shook, and the shadows on my bedroom wall scared me.
I often think fondly of those nine years as the era “before.”
Before my family broke apart. Before I lost my voice. Before I forgot who I was. Before I was in constant survival mode from all the chaos of divorce. Because the before was just pure me. That’s what I’ve been trying to get back to – that girl that had ideas and wanted to have fun and “help people.”
In the middle, I was surviving. My dreams were forgotten. I didn’t think I had talent. In my pain, I switched from wanting to help people to needing to validate me. See me, notice me, tell me I’m worthy. Self-medicate. I became the resident expert of pretense—“the act of giving a false appearance”.
My fascination with old movies spurred me on; the women of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s looked good no matter what they were doing. They could be cleaning house, hanging from a cliff, running from a killer, or screaming at their husband, but by golly every hair is in place and every word poetic. Elizabeth Taylor was stunning as she lost her mind in Suddenly Last Summer.
That was my goal. To be stunning as I lost my mind.
Pretense is an ugly, easy devise to hide and push people away. It’s quite easy once you get the knack for it. But oh does it kill the soul. Oh does it become Master of the domain. Oh is it ever hard to release. The middle was one long detour in lipstick and great hair.
The era after is where I found myself one day at the therapist’s office at the age of 44 explaining that I could not move forward. I felt as if I was sitting in the middle of a metaphorical sidewalk, not able to get up and do life and not knowing why. My whole being had shut down; my emotions, my passions, my purpose. I was just sitting there, needing someone to take my hand and help me up. When I did finally get up, I felt as if I was stuck in a maze and every path lead to a wall. I was emotionally and spiritually boxed in.
I’ve spent the majority of the last several years untangling—obsessing over, is probably more accurate—the beautiful mess from “during;” the era of wrong turns, detours, and falling off cliffs. A lot of self-imposed chaos and needless amounts of fear and shame.
It wasn’t all bad. I managed to marry Frank, a man who is a gem of a man and is absolutely perfect (for me), and we raised our two favorite people on the planet, Tiffany and Vince, who are now smart, beautiful and funny adults. Raising our kids brought a lot of happiness. We threw birthday parties and went on vacations. They participated in soccer, dance, swim team, school plays, and many clubs and activities. They are amazing people, and the four of us have a good life.
But my underlying bitterness and depression was growing and sabotaging the joy that was available. The lens of un-forgiveness clouded my days and memories as hazier and gloomier than they actually were. I was so worried about what traumatic event would pop up next and so full of feelings of rejection and abandonment and bitterness that I missed out on friendships, opportunities, and serving the community. I said things like, “It’s their fault my life is this way. They did this to me.” My health was affected, my marriage was affected, and my parenting was affected. But most importantly, I missed out on being fully who God created me to be. I missed out on feeling completely alive by and taking life by the horns.
That was a big waste of time.
It was also a self-centered view of life.
Survival mode is brutal; I was able to keep it up for many years until I conked out at age 44 when I said to the therapist, ‘I just can’t do this anymore. I’m stuck. I don’t know who I am or what I have to offer. I’m done.’
I needed to do the painful work of forgiving and setting boundaries. I needed to accept God’s forgiveness for my behaviors and decisions, and in turn, I needed to offer forgiveness to those who hurt me. I needed to choose to be grateful. This is the healthy and healing kind of pain. Digging into your roots to pull up the false beliefs—the lies—that someone else planted and you inadvertently adopted that you’re not good enough and you need to try harder or that the good life was meant for other people. Shame is manifested in all sorts of ways: perfectionism, pretense, comparing, workaholism, addictions, constant health issues, busyness, and hiding from life.
The sad part is that my story is not unique. There are many situations that suck the life right out of us, but the point is that life doesn’t have to be so hard. We make it way harder than necessary because of our lack of identity in God.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say life will be easy. Or that if you follow Jesus all your problems will vanish. No. We live in a broken world with real problems. God doesn’t take our problems away; He walks us through them with dignity and grace if we allow it. He gives us his Spiritual tools – disciplines – to use in every situation of life: forgiveness, gratitude, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and humility. These tools bring meaning and stability and growth. They help us see life with a God perspective full of joy.
I found an old picture of me on my red and white swing. I wished that little girl with those big, brown, curious eyes could leap frog over the middle part of life and just skip the whole thing. But then I wouldn’t be writing this journal. I wouldn’t have learned the lessons or built the character or understood the grace. Oh, the grace. Sweet, Jesus.