Connection and belonging

I sit window facing in the dryness and warmth of the Roseville Whole Foods. My hot coffee and circular English toffees laid before me. I take joy in the atypical California weather. Palm trees swaying back and forth in the wind. Puddles abound. Folsom Lake has reached full capacity. The American River in Sacramento continues to rise. My coffee and English toffees make for a sweet lunch.

I’ve become a California weather wimp. My light pink raincoat is more a fashion statement than a protective layer from the rain. The strong winds and consistent rainfall remind me of long winter day’s in Ireland. A comforting memory.

I came face to face with another reality today.  My sugar addiction. I drastically reduced my sugar intake from mid-January to about May. It was fascinating to watch the weight melt off my body. I got too confident and started compromising. I had gone off the rails totally by August. Cheap hardcore candy and frozen yoghurt were the main culprits.

From mid-January to August I had lost approximately 40 lbs just by cutting out sugar in my regular diet, and by eating a regimented 3 healthy and measured meals a day. No snacking whatsoever.

I dropped from a size 16 and could squeeze back into my size 10 or 8 trousers and skirts that still hung in my closet.

As I sat in Whole Foods I reflected on one of my earliest memories as a child. It involved taking 50 pence from my dad’s coat pocket and buying a big white paper bag filled with candy. I’d eaten it all alone before anyone rose from bed that morning.

Using daily pocket money for candy on the walk to primary school allowed me to slowly suck on candy throughout the school day. Cocoa cola cubes or yellow bon bons were favorites. A 2 oz bag got me through the entire morning.

Today I’m reflecting on what triggered my childhood sugar addiction. We live in a society that is so vulnerable to addictions. And technological connection does not bring emotional connection or social recovery. As human beings we crave and need bonds, relationships, flesh and blood connections, and the courage to be present in our own life and in the lives of others, addicts or not. The following video highlights for me a thoughtful and compassionate approach to how we might perceive and treat people who may be traumatized, isolated, beaten down or addicted.

As I struggle to overcome my sugar addiction today, I ask myself ;

What am I really hungry for, on a deeper level  ?
Why do we treat addicts and addiction in the punishing, isolating way we do today?
Is there a better way for individual and social recovery ?

Thankful for the scars

“So I’m thankful for the scars
Cause’ without them I wouldn’t know Your heart
And I know they’ll always tell of who You are
So forever I am thankful for the scars.”

I AM THEY – Scars

One grey, blustery and overcast day in ancient Ireland, I arrived home from primary school, tired and hungry. One of my peculiar patterns of eating back then included two slices of refined white bread, smeared with Heinz tomato ketchup, and sprinkled with white sugar.

On this particular day I was met at the doorstep by a buzz of visually contrasting colors and activity: policemen in dark clothing and ambulance men in white with stern faces stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn’t get into my house. I was forced to wait outside. I was about nine or ten, perhaps younger. My worn, brown leather schoolbag was snugly strapped round my back and chest. I was frightened. I thought about my homework. My stomach growled. What happened? Who is in there? Is it my daddy? Then I saw my father being carried out of 82 Moylinn on a stretcher. He was groaning and covered in blood. He staggered home drunk from the pub and fell into a glass cabinet. I watched, frozen in fear, as his bloodied face and body was carried away and hoisted up into the ambulance. The ambulance door slammed shut. I stared at the back of the ambulance motionless. The thought that is was bad luck to stare at the back of an ambulance flashed through my mind. I felt sad and scared.

The rest of the day is a fog. Denial is helpful like that. It can protect us. I don’t remember if anyone helped me to process that event. My father’s alcoholism frightened our neighbors as much as it frightened our small family.

Although a naturally joyful, and carefree child, growing up in an alcoholic home, and dealing with trauma like this eroded my self-esteem, self-worth and sense of identity. The disease is cunning and baffling. I became good at hiding from it and others. I lost trust in authority. It was easier to not feel, or think or voice my opinion.

Fast forward to 29 years of age, and a nervous breakdown led to a dramatic spiritual awakening in Ireland. I committed my life to Christ and became rooted and grounded in the Celtic Christian Faith and Traditions. Later on, in Colorado Springs, I discovered the Alanon program. Along with AA, Alanon is probably one of the most powerful spiritual programs developed in the last century. Through working the 12-step program, I learned that the experiences I had within my alcoholic home did not make me terminally unique. I became hopeful that I could heal myself from the wretchedness and gloom of my alcoholic home life.

As I worked the 12 steps of the program, I began to open up emotionally. I felt safe. I developed an emotional vocabulary. As I opened up and talked, I began to release my shame, guilt, self-pity, anger, rage and resentment.

As I grew in faith and recovery, I came out of hiding. I gradually found the courage to speak my heart and mind. This led me on a sacred call to self-discovery. Christian spirituality has a great deal to do with the self, not just with God. The goal of the spiritual journey is the transformation of self. This requires knowing both oneself and God. Both are necessary if we are to discover our true identity as those who are “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

I’m inspired on this journey by others who stay true to themselves and show courage in difficult circumstances. I call it courage under fire. One example is Desmond Doss. He was a conscientious objector during World War II, refusing to touch a gun due to an alcoholic incident in his home, involving a gun. Ostracized at first by his fellow soldiers for his pacifism, he would go on to earn their respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion.

doss_maeda

In action on Hacksaw Ridge during the battle of Okinawa in 1945, Doss, an unarmed combat medic, saved scores of wounded men by retrieving them in the face of Japanese fire. When the order came to retreat, Desmond stayed. On each foray into no man’s land Doss would pray,  “Lord let me find and save just one more man.” His personal sacrifice brought healing. He was true to his religious convictions and God used him to save 75 lives, against all odds. Following his heroic action, the men in his unit refused to go into battle until Doss had prayed for them. He was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Coming out of hiding and staying true to myself required that I embrace the vulnerabilities that sent me scurrying there in the first place. If I retreat from God’s presence, he still wanders every moment of every day in my inner garden looking for my companionship and asking, where are you Jeanette, and why are you hiding? Sometimes I AM hiding in the bushes and the first step out of the bushes is always a step towards being honest with myself.

The five points below helped me to stay true to who I am in my brokenness. I was rescued by the one True God who comes to rescue the broken, the abused, and the wounded. If we surrender to his leading, he will show us the treasure within our scars and “he is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” Ephesians 3:20-21.

I find my true self by seeking God, not myself.
Self-acceptance always precedes genuine self-surrender and self-transformation.
If God loves and accepts me as a sinner, how can I do less?
If I repent and commit to his ways, he will heal and restore me.
Jesus is the True self. I find my true self when I fix my eyes on him.

Survival skills in Ireland’s violent frontier

Growing up in Northern Ireland, in the midst of so much natural beauty, I took great solace in nature and the outdoors. My playful and adventurous feet covered much ground. I wandered up and over rolling hills, and through endless green fields. Woods, apple orchards, streams, lakes and rivers captured my youthful imagination. When my mind was festering with trouble or my heart was torn, I found solace and healing among the silence of hills, mountains and fields. I was born in east Belfast but my childhood began in Craigavon, a planned settlement that was named after James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon,  who was Northern Ireland’s first prime minister. The town was planned to link Lurgan and Portadown and it was close to Lough Neagh Nature Reserve.

The dynamics of terror, however, were bubbling beneath the surface of all that beauty. A ruthless campaign by the Irish Republican Army, aimed at establishing a united Ireland free of British rule, was underway in my immediate community, as it was in all six counties of Northern Ireland and in England itself.

The long-term armed struggle, pitting the most lethal and resilient insurgency in the world against the Northern Irish and British Security Forces, created a chilling, brutal and unpredictable atmosphere. By the 1980s the IRA was a very professional outfit, adept at logistical operations, training and fundraising. On the ground my province was exposed to mortars, rocket launchers, improvised explosives and indiscriminate bombings. Various tactics were employed for either military or political reasons: execution-style murders, undercover assassination units, torture, h-blocks, hunger strikes, disappearances, vague legal guidelines, punishment beatings and the butchering of bodies.

I attended the first religiously integrated primary school in the province. I was also the daughter of a religiously integrated marriage. However, trust in the province between the Catholic and Protestant communities completely broke down as the violence escalated and murder spilled out onto the streets. Trust between the civilian population and the government and its security forces broke down as well. The British army didn’t trust the police. The police didn’t trust the British army. For many years and decades there was a state of anarchy.

As you can imagine I was scarred by the violence and still run into problems today, emotionally and psychologically. From sheer necessity I developed coping skills to overcome the challenges I faced. After years of recovery meetings and counseling I now characterize these coping skills as survival skills. They served me well while I was growing up in this harsh environment. But today in North America they can work against me and stop me from thriving in life.

One “skill” I developed was an instinctive mistrust of others. If trust was given at all it was hard earned over the long haul. It’s common in a deeply sectarian and suspicious environment like Northern Ireland to share as little information about oneself as possible, especially when answering questions. Wrong answers can lead to a beating or prison or worse. This say-nothing approach to life and relationships served me well in Northern Ireland.

However the walls it erected inside my head kept me isolated in the prison of my past. In a freer and more open sharing society like North America these walls kept others out. Sharing freely about your life may be commonplace here but it went against the cultural grain for me.

Over time I’ve slowly learned that I’m responsible for my own healing. It’s my responsibility to knock down the walls. So today, using the principle of Let Go and Let God, I don’t try to force relationships into the small boxes and safety lines that I was forced to live within. Trusting others is a gift. It can be given freely. People don’t have to earn it. Today I choose to trust others.

Another survival skill, developed to counteract the negativity of my environment, was perfectionism. There was a lot of blaming, criticism and counter accusations that ultimately led nowhere. So I became a perfectionist, always on the lookout for inconsistencies in other people’s communication, or in my surroundings. It was paralyzing. I finally learned to break it down and let it go by accepting my own imperfections.

I embraced the biblical truth that perfect love casts out fear. The tyranny of perfectionism doesn’t cast out fear; love does. Love is the best healing balm for anyone coming out of an environment where the enemy has had a field day creating hatred, suspicion, discrimination and deep sectarianism. I choose to love myself and love others. I applied the spiritual truth, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as YOURSELF.

Establishing overly rigid boundaries is another defense mechanism, a survival skill if you will. It was necessary in Northern Ireland, where boundaries, both physical and emotional, were heavily exploited. The border areas of Northern Ireland were a strategic godsend to the IRA. They could commit terrorist acts in any of the six counties up north and easily escape into the safety of the 26 counties of the Irish Republic. These actual boundaries created the emotional ones in my mind.

A rich source of healing for me, aside from nature, is music. One song in particular that speaks to my own rigidity is “Oceans,” by Hillsong. They describe in song a trusting relationship between God and man as a “trust without borders.” This concept challenged me a lot. Spiritually I know that healthy, not overly rigid boundaries brings true freedom. Now, when I feel myself putting up fences against other people as a result of the fear and lack of trust in my past, I cry out to Jesus to lead me to a place where my trust is without borders.

It takes courage to refine my heart and mind. Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities which guarantees all others.”  The root word for courage, from the Latin, cor means heart. Real power has nothing to do with force, control, status or money. Real power is the persistent courage to be at ease with the unsolved and the unfinished. There are many unresolved issues from the troubles in Northern Ireland today that still need to be challenged. There are more questions than answers in many areas. May I approach those unresolved issues of political conflict with the same kindness and courage I’m applying to the most broken parts of myself. May I have the courage to surrender the most broken parts of myself with open hands to the living God who restores and redeems everything and place in his perfect timing.