“People don’t like to talk about things they can’t see. Like feelings or cancer. But we all have our own experiences with the intangible, even if it’s just fearing them.
When my secret feelings threatened to take me down into the black hole I kept shoving them into, I realized feelings might be more important than I had originally thought. For 10 years, I hid big, dark, angry, broken feelings from myself and the world. I was trying to will myself out of having them, because if I acknowledged their legitimacy, that meant I had to acknowledge that my husband–the megachurch pastor–was my abuser. And I was his victim. No, thanks! I’d much prefer to pretend everything is fine and our family is blessed.
But my feelings wouldn’t go away. They never stayed in the black hole I cast them into. They kept coming back like a boomerang. Spinning my head and heart in circles, knocking me off center. I was a wreck. I didn’t know left from right, good from bad, healthy from abusive, myself from the woman in the mirror. Who am I anymore?
I promised I would never divorce him. I was an outstanding Evangelical Christian woman. Being a wife and mother was my calling and I wasn’t about to give that up because my clearly disturbed husband couldn’t stop screaming at me, calling me names, and abandoning me all over the city stranded (sometimes with our children). No way! I was more virtuous than that. I had fervor and strength from God. Or did I?
I battled with that question for years while I fought to find peace in my mind and body. I did everything I could think of: read self-help, pray more, workout, eat better, make friends, journal, sleep, travel, practice gratitude. But those damn feelings of hollowing hopelessness, aching disappointment, and crippling fear just would NOT go away. It was maddening. I felt crazy. He told me I was crazy. I was losing my mind, my ability to think, process, and cope. ‘These feelings have to go!’ I thought. But really, what had to go was my marriage.
It was my feelings that finally led me to the truth: None of this is OK. My kids are not miraculously being shielded by God from seeing how their dad treats me. And I am not gaining favor in heaven by enduring this cruelty. It didn’t happen overnight. Coming to terms with reality after carefully crafting such a picture-perfect alter reality was no small undoing. I was devastated. I sobbed in the bathtub every night for weeks when I started to give in to the feelings of all that I had lost by being married to an abuser. I ached from the choices I had made to completely self-abandon and choose his needs over mine for a decade. And my babies! How was all of this affecting my innocent children? It was paralyzing… feeling all of the feelings.
It took me 10 years from ‘I do’ to divorce, but I finally left my abusive marriage. And I never looked back. I’ve always known that feelings can lie, that’s why I didn’t want to believe them when they were chasing me through my years as a wife. But what I’ve learned since my divorce is that feelings do serve a purpose. Emotions are data. They’re the very essential part of our biological makeup that keeps us alive by warning us about potential danger (emotional, physical, mental). Sometimes they give us false alerts to potential threats–purely going off past experiences rather than actual facts about a new situation. And other times, when we’re so disconnected from ourselves and we can’t tell what’s hurting or helping us anymore, they become our only line of defense.
There is nothing new under the sun, and this goes for emotions too. They’ve always been around along with disease, pain, heartache, death, longing, joy, laughter, and new life. I now know it’s the things we don’t talk about that become the things that isolate us the most. Humans were made for connection. When we hide our truth, our voice, or our reality from the ones we love, everyone suffers. Turns out, there is actually NO virtue in silently suffering. I learned that the hard way. So now I do things differently.
I speak. I ask questions. I feed curiosity. I stand up. I choose truth. I don’t back away from the darker parts of humanity: the broken, lost, needy, hurting, sick, grieving. I lean in. And not just for other people… but for myself. Part of my journey has been to reconcile and integrate my past (learn from it and transfer that to wisdom for the future). During that process I have had to make some serious commitments to myself. See, when you’re a hardcore self-abandoner like I was, you have some making up to do! I had to go to class! On MYSELF. I discovered who I was by committing to a year of self-learning. I asked questions, took notes, practiced self-care rituals, and learned how to choose me for the first time in my life. Then I lived it.
Life has become playful again through my self-discovery process. I’m not afraid of my feelings anymore, so I don’t have to keep quiet about them. I never knew I could be this free. Not just emotionally, but relationally, mentally, physically, spiritually. There are NO limits on me anymore, because I don’t allow them. I don’t have ANY toxicity in my life because I don’t allow it. And I am no longer running from my feelings because now I understand their purpose: to teach me. They don’t call the shots in my life, but they give me pause to get curious about MY experience in the world. Then I decide what happens next. When I learned to pay attention to all the parts of me (not just the pleasant ones) and I chose to accept them for what they are (pieces of me, not who I am), I unlocked an unstoppable force: my authentic self.
Feelings, cancer, mental illness, suicide, anxiety, divorce, death, fertility struggles, disappointment… we don’t like to talk about them. They are often the ushers of shame, pain, and insecurity. But they are also the very parts of us that make us human. And human beings are an incredible species. We become even more beautiful when we embrace all parts of our humanness–the light and the dark.
And this is what my kids will grow up knowing: each one of us is complete and invaluable just because we are breathing. Let’s respect that in each other and in ourselves.”