It was an unusually hot fall afternoon and I sat in one of my new porch rockers, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. It was my 35th birthday and my husband surprised me with the rockers as a gift. They were the perfect spot to sit and reflect and as I did, the tears flowed freely and unrestrained. In addition to the rockers, my husband asked several important people in my life to send me cards and letters telling me how I’d impacted them. He didn’t know these letters would become such a soft but solid place to land in the middle of an uncertain time.
At the start of the year, I committed to facing head on the pain and sadness I often stuffed or denied. There’s truth to the saying “buried emotions never die” and the emotions I’d buried alive drove me to a place of numbness and rage. I want access to all parts of my heart, and that means flinging open the door on some barricaded closets and dealing with the skeletons lurking inside. With that in mind, I had recently tapped into a well of grief, pain and fear once covered by the hard layers of frustration, denial, rage and busyness.
Life helped this process along a month prior when some mild physical symptoms I was having came to a head. I had been dealing with frequent headaches, achiness in my temples, random numbness and tingling down my arms and legs and myriads of aches and pains. I had ignored the symptoms, not thinking much of them until I got a sizable lump on my neck. At that point, I consulted Dr. Google and then spiraled out. I never considered myself a fearful or anxious person until my consultation with a search engine had me planning my funeral. My mental and emotional health took a nosedive as fear pressed in.
I called my real doctor who ordered a myriad of tests. Through an x-ray, multiple rounds of blood work, a CT scan and an MRI, he ruled out lymphoma, multiple sclerosis and multiple myeloma. We still aren’t entirely sure what’s going on, but at this point my doctor is convinced it’s nothing serious. He referred me to a neurologist for further testing. In the meantime, I’ve acquired heart palpitations and digestive issues because of the worry that ran roughshod over my mind, intimately affecting my body. NO JOKE. I have since been diagnosed with IBS and anxiety—all from new symptoms that cropped up during this whole charade.
Emotional pain demands to be acknowledged and when it’s not, it will present as physical symptoms. We are whole beings, intimately connected, and we must take care of our spiritual, emotional and physical needs collectively or the imbalance will knock our lives off kilter.
And on the heels of my 35th birthday, mine certainly was. In the next several paragraphs I will walk you through this disorienting season, testify to how God showed up and talk about the practical tools I’m using to bring me back into balance.
INSIDE OUT AND CRASHING DOWN
A 35th birthday is a milestone birthday for a woman as a big hormonal shift happens around that time. Prior to my birthday and all the physical issues leading up to it, emotionally I have been working on letting go of some coping mechanisms I used to protect myself. This is scary because we lean on coping mechanisms because they worked for a season! They protected us, comforted us and helped us survive. As we grow and evolve, those same mechanisms that once worked to our benefit now only hinder us. Control and disassociation are two things I’m releasing as I grow. These two practices once helped me me feel safe but now only cause exhaustion, stress and disconnection in relationships. Control left me in charge and invulnerable to others. If I could control people through persuasion, caretaking or manipulation, then I wouldn’t have to risk the pain that could occur through genuine connection. Disassociation worked because when things felt overwhelming, I would simply disconnect and channel my attention elsewhere. I would close the door of my heart that was feeling the pain and simply move on to something else. Overtime, this left me emotionally numb and frustrated in relationships, aching for the fulfillment that occurs when we genuinely show up and stay present. Control and disassociation were such a part of the way I related to others that releasing them felt like losing a part of myself. Have you ever seen the movie Inside Out? In the movie, the main character’s personality centers come crashing down as she moves to a different town and makes the shift from little girl into teenager. I feel like this season of my life has sent my old, comfortable personality centers crumbling into the dust as I learn a new way to relate to myself, God and the world around me. At the end of the movie, the personality centers are reconstructed and more functional than ever as the main character grows, but the whole process was scary and took a bit of time. As I released control and fought to stay present, my fears about my health shined a light on how little trust I actually placed in God.
BRUISES FROM A FRIEND (OR A TRAMPOLINE) CAN BE TRUSTED
One morning as I awaited the results of my latest blood test which would confirm or deny that I had multiple myeloma, I found odd, purplish spots under my arm. I literally freaked out and called my friend. I sent her a picture to which she replied “Brit, that’s a bruise.” I frantically disagreed and said it was a weird place to bruise and wondered through tears if this was actually more evidence that something really bad was happening within my body. She maintained her belief that it was indeed a bruise and I continued to allow my anxiety to take me for a ride. At one point I knew I needed to get alone with God and find out why I was allowing these health questions to sap me of all my peace and joy. As I quieted my heart before God, I felt Him speak “You think you trust Me, but what you really trust is your own ability to get through hard things.” Ouch. The truth of that revelation punched me in the gut as I saw how clearly it connected to the work I’ve been doing in my 12-step style support group. I recently presented my “step one” to the group and was starting “step two.” Step one is admitting we are powerless to things and people outside of our own selves. Step two is coming to believe a Power greater than ourselves will restore us. What if, deep down, I believed that I was the “highest power” in my universe? What if something like a sickness threatened me and I had no recourse in and of myself? Ugh. It was a painful awareness of genuine lack of trust in God. As I repented, I remembered I recently did a flip on the trampoline and caught my arm on the trampoline net. There was good reason for the “purplish marks” under my arm and they were indeed a bruise, as my friend had suggested. When I called her back to tell her what I remembered doing to bruise my arm, she said I was about to have a bruise on the other one because she was going to punch me. Hahaha! I LOVE MY FRIENDS! Which brings me to the three practical things that brought my life back into balance when fear, growth and uncertainty knocked it off kilter. The first practical thing is leaning into community with honest disclosure and openness.
TIP 1: LEAN INTO COMMUNITY
Those letters my husband asked for my birthday meant so much to me because in more ways than one, the waves of life were tossing me around. Those letters reminded me of who I was. As the waves of life relentlessly crashed over me, my friends and family were yelling from the shore, “you’re not going to drown! Just stand up!” The first letter I received was from my best friend Rachel and it came a few days early, before I knew “the letter thing” was a “thing.” One night after I received it, I was laying in my bed long after everyone was asleep, thinking to myself “who am I?” I know who I think I am, who I pretend to be, but who am I really? I’m almost 35, my health may be in question and what have I actually accomplished? As shame vied for my attention during this judgmental self-assessment, the gentle whisper of God beckoned me: “Go read Rachel’s letter… that is who you are.”
Her letter recounted the time when I was seven and led her to accept Jesus and then sealed the deal by baptizing her in my Grandma’s swimming pool. She recounted all the ways we’ve grown through pain, upheld each other through struggle and found ways to laugh it out together during the ups and downs of life. She affirmed me for my commitment to my marriage despite many reasons to throw in the towel. She commended my love for my children and my fierce loyalty. That night when my identity was in question, I physically held her letter to my heart and let the truth of her words provide salve to heal the pain of self-judgement. If you’re going to grow through life, you’re going to need a community to lean into when shit gets hard. I’m so grateful for mine.
There are many other examples of people who have prayed, reached out, gave me words of truth and encouragement to hang on to as fear ravaged me. Without these people and their acts of faith, I would have really went crazy. Instead, I’m squeezing this experience for all it’s worth, ever-grateful for the community I have around me.
TIP 2: LIVE IN DAY-TIGHT COMPARTMENTS
The second practical way I’m finding balance is by living in “day-tight compartments.” As I was walking through my health worries, my dad was one of those invaluable members of my community who called and texted to check in. During one of our conversations, he mentioned a book he read that changed his life since he, too, struggles with worry. The book is called How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. When I was out running errands one day, I returned to find the book on our kitchen island. He had bought it for me, convinced its time-tested methods would help me through this struggle. He was right! The first chapter said to conquer worry by living in day-tight compartments. Use the day to accomplish what we’d like to accomplish, enjoy what we’d like to enjoy and do what we need to get done. Leave the rest for another day because the stress of worry has no power to change things nor prepare us for disaster. It only saps us of our strength to live and drains us of the joy in the moment. The simple idea of living in “day-tight compartments” has revolutionized the way I think about my problems.
TIP 3: EXCHANGE WORRY FOR WORSHIP
The third practical way I’m finding balance is through worship. Worship doesn’t have to be a song or dance, it’s simply a posture of our heart. It’s acknowledging where we end and where God begins; where our capability runs out and where His goodness and grace extends beyond. It’s experiencing the peace that results from the truth that we belong to Him and that place of belonging can dismantle anything we come up against. Worship changes our perspective and takes us out of the driver’s seat and into the place of rest where we don’t have to steer but can simply become. Now when I’m tempted to worry, I worship instead. Sometimes, it’s as simple as praying this short prayer I learned from Brennen Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel, “Abba, I belong to You.”
And through it all, the truth of that belonging is as real as my new porch rockers, the kind words written and spoken which upheld me through some hard times, and the hot, streaming tears of processing pain long buried. Growth isn’t always pretty and it certainly isn’t linear, but may the truth of our belonging settle our hearts enough to hear the voice of God in the midst of our questions and pick us up when we get knocked down.
What are some practical ways you’ve found balance during a difficult time? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below!