The early years of my marriage were a struggle. (i just won the understatement of the year award) I was in my mid 20’s and Elijah was 7 years behind me, and we knew absolutely nothing about how to be married, much less how to merely function as healthy adults in the world. I look at people in their mid-twenties now and I marvel at what babies they are. That’s not an insult, it’s just what happens when you get old. One day I’m sure I’ll look at people in their 40’s and think – oh yeah Baby, you’re just getting started.
For the first three years Elijah had a favorite catch phrase that he said to me all the time. With great frustration and fervor he would say:
“Sallie! Everything is NOT ABOUT YOU!”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. Of course this was about me (whatever this was) If it wasn’t, then why did a tsunami of pain just crash through my heart? If this isn’t about me, then why is it effectively crippling me? Not that I had the wherewithal to even think those thoughts. All I could do is cry and thrash about in hurt and frustration. Nothing in the whole world made sense. Nothing. I was a walking train wreck and I was driving my new young husband mad.
You see, Elijah is a truth teller. Some call him a prophet. (i’m one of those people) So when he said that phrase to me over and over and over in our first three years – I finally started to see a pattern emerge. And when he would interrupt my rant and snap down the truth, I would stop and think about what was going on. I would begin to ask myself what in the world he was talking about. Most of the time I just thought he was being a jerk, but after a few years of him pinpointing moments when “it was not about me” – I started to see what he saw.
When something terrible happened to a friend, and they didn’t want to talk to me about it, I would feel a wide gash of rejection across my heart – but that was actually NOT ABOUT ME. That was about something they were going through. If a friend was hurting, or in a struggle and I started talking about my struggle and all the details of my own pain, they would abruptly shut down and stop talking to me. I was humiliated and no idea why I felt them pull away. That slap of rejection I felt was because that moment was NOT ABOUT ME – that was about their pain, their struggle, it was a moment they were asking me to hold space for them – not one up their pain with my own.
It was a horribly confusing time. I felt the sting and slap of rejection at every turn, which spun me out into quite a state. And when I would cry and moan my lament to Elijah, he would cut right through the chatter and get to the point that I had nothing to cry about because it wasn’t about me. Now, you must remember how young we were – and that we knew nothing about how to show up for one another, or anyone for that matter, besides ourselves. We had so much to learn about empathy, kindness, patience, self control – we were babies, pooping all over the place.
What we didn’t know then, was that Truth without Empathy is oh, so hurtful. And on the flip-side, Empathy without Truth, well, it’s gross and destructive as well. He was absolutely right, those situations were not about me, that was not my pain to carry, or heal, or be responsible for – it was for that person to sort out and I could walk with them as they moved through it, or not. But it was not for me to heal. What made it so confusing for me was how strongly I felt it. When they talked to me, I was in pain and because I didn’t understand how compassion and empathy worked, I thought it was my pain, so I would start digging around in myself, pulling up all of the things I felt pain over trying to purge my pain. It was such a mess.
When friends quit coming to me — oh God, did it ever hurt. What they felt when I would pull up my pain, was something very different than I was experiencing. Instead of feeling heard, or solidarity in a painful world, they felt pulled on. Heal ME, love ME, fix ME! They heard my heart cry and thought they were responsible for healing me as well. So what did they do? They pulled away. And once more, I was gashed through the heart with their rejection. Not only that, now I had uncovered my soft, vulnerable secret places to them. I had uncovered my shame in the attempt to let them know I understood – that they weren’t alone. And I repeated this for years upon excruciating years, until at last I stopped trying. Mainly because no one was left.
The clincher for this was when I called one of those friends because I knew she was going through a tough time. She was on my heart and I wanted to check in on her and let her know I was there if she needed someone to talk to. Her husband answered the phone and said, yeah sure, she’s right here… pause… then – uh, she just left. Searing flames of humiliation and rejection shot through me as I hung up the phone. Later he told Elijah that she couldn’t handle me because I was so needy and clingy. And my world ground to a halt – the sound of wreckage filling the air around me. It didn’t matter how lonely I was. I was done trying to connect. It just didn’t work. It hurt too much.
There I was, alone and confused, in deep searing pain, while my truth telling husband built our business (frankly happy to have anywhere else to be), and I sat in our little house day after day keeping our toddlers (and myself) alive. I survived it. Obviously, I’m here to tell about it now. But survive is the operative word. I shut down my heart, only understanding enough to know that it apparently wasn’t about me, but I didn’t know what it WAS about. And when I went to those I trusted to help me understand? They told me, you’re depressed because you’re looking at yourself – just look at Jesus. So I did. I looked at Him with all my might. I threw myself into seeing only Him, hearing only Him, needing only Him.
Fast forward 3 years or so and I’m at that kitchen table, pulling at my hair, melting completely down, having lost all steam to keep going, now more isolated than I was before, after a storm uprooted a tree and destroyed our house and we moved away from the last fragments of connection I had left.
But wait. I thought it wasn’t about me, Lord! I thought I was supposed to just look at you, not myself. How is being who you made me to be an answer to anything? How will looking at who I am do anything but lead me down the path of utter destruction??
(this is not what my leaders taught me – in fact, it was the opposite – and felt dangerous )
And I was afraid. But to be fair, I was afraid of everything; the dark, dogs, people, conversation, being seen… putting myself out there and being rejected, of finding out who I really am and me and everyone around me finding out that I’m actually very, very bad. I was terrified of looking at myself because what if I start looking and then feel things I hadn’t allowed myself to acknowledge before, because those feelings are bad, and what if I realize I want something I shouldn’t want, because to want those things is unacceptable and un-Godly? What if I start admitting how I feel and have feelings I shouldn’t have? It was a terrifying prospect that in my mind would only end with me being thrown out like the trash I was afraid I actually was.
But if I believed that I heard the voice of God, (which I did believe) and if I believed He loved me and His Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, (which I also held onto with all my might) then I had a choice to make.
Either I take the leap and take a look at who I really am under all this fear, and see what happens, (which seemed unbearable)
I stay here in isolation and pain, confused and hiding. (which was also utterly unbearable)
Up to that point in my life that may have been the bravest thing I had ever done, because of how much I feared was at stake. My whole life, everything I tried to be – the good Christian girl, wife, mother, friend – could crumble. That balance I tried so desperately to strike could topple so easily. What if I lose control? I was grasping the very edges of a bottomless black pit by my fingernails just to keep from falling into the vast nothingness I felt in my chest. What if I fall? Would I disappear completely? Could I find my way back? What if I discovered the truth about myself, and I couldn’t bear what I saw?
All I knew, was that what had been was not working. I had given it my all, I had done all the things I was told to do, I had prayed all the prayers, I fasted, I had danced my heart out in worship, I took St. Johns Wort and all the vitamins, I did the master’s cleanse and drank nothing but cayenne pepper lemonade and salt water, I had tried with everything in me to be good, to finally find the approval I desperately needed.
None of it had worked.
I was failing.
There was nothing to do – but jump.
…to be continued.