Precious and Free

I took the children to a park we haven't been to in a long time. When they were little, we went almost every day.

The park looks different now: old, weathered, worn-out. Two of the slides had been torn out, the holes boarded up with plywood. There was graffiti on two benches. So many weeds--a missing drinking fountain.

I used to go to that park when I was a lost, floundering young mom desperately trying to rebuild a new life after the cult. I was 25 with 3 kids under 3. I felt so alien in mainstream America. Everyone seemed so normal and I felt like such a freak show. I mean, I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to be friends with a woman who grew up in a cult.

So, I poured everything into my husband and children. I gave all. I clung to the remaining pieces of my disintegrating faith.

T.S. Eliot once wrote: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."

That's what I was doing. I was shoring up fragments, desperately trying to cobble together a life--a way of being--after everything had been destroyed.

One spring, butterflies came to the park. They fluttered over us, dozens of them in the spring sunshine. There were daisies growing in wild abundance that year. And sometimes, while the children played, I just sat quietly under the trees and listened to the sound of wind in the branches above me.

I was so different then, so blindly optimistic, so sure willpower alone could save us and restore us to sanity. We took family pictures in that park. We picnicked there. I was so certain that if I just kept doing the right things, kept praying, kept reading my Bible, kept trying to build a new, religious scaffolding upon which to hang my worldview--things would get better.

I had such dreams then. Such hopes. I kept my focus on outward things, on doing and working and trying. But sometimes, during those quiet moments under the trees I sensed something was amiss inside me---that the cult wasn't external. The cult was within. 

But I didn't let myself go there. I didn't want to see that. I wanted to live in denial. Just before the twins arrived I was reaching this point where I couldn't ignore the darkness anymore. I was keenly feeling the loss of myself. I was beginning to think God had abandoned me...but then, twins!

Suddenly, I had new purpose! I was busy again! Nothing mattered but the new babies. Once again I could stop feeling that deep discomfort about the problem within me. Once again, I gave all. I gave every last bit.

But this time, my body couldn't keep up. I had been placing these kinds of demands on myself since childhood. Cults keep people so busy and frantic that you are living blindly--rushing from one thing to the next without ever slowing down long enough to realize: something is terribly wrong, here. You sense something is wrong but you tell yourself it's OK because you're burning out for God.

Without knowing it, I had simply recreated the chaotic, frantically busy environment of my childhood. I was no longer burning out for God, I was burning out for Little League and PTA and enriching activities for my children! I was also recreating toxic relationships. I became enmeshed and entangled in other people's problems. I tried to fix and solve and rescue people from All the Problems. And then, when they didn't take my advice I became resentful, angry, obsessive and would lash out.

I filled up my life with more things--good things!--but always more things. I didn't know that frantic urgency was unhealthy. All the other good Americans seemed to be doing it! No matter how much I did, I never felt good enough.

What I learned the hard way was that either I'd stop the crazy or my body would stop it for me.

Two years after the twins were born, I broke down. I was depressed and constantly sick. I was chronically sleep deprived and so totally exhausted that it took my doctor commanding me to TAKE A REST for me to finally realize that it was possible to die of "natural causes/burnout" by age 32.

Slowly, I began prioritizing taking care of myself.

The answer to my recovery was not a new religious system and it was not going back to the old one, either. The answer to a healthy life and healthy relationships was not in attending church, volunteering in the PTA or doing more for others.

The answer was to start taking care of myself. The answer was to love myself.

I began with a small step: getting enough sleep at night. Then I began exercising. Then I started eating a little healthier each day. I went back to therapy. I began a 12-step recovery program.

I now understand there are no shortcuts to living a healthy life and having healthy, equal-partnered relationships. I am learning to detach with love from people and relationships that are toxic and unhealthy. I am learning to develop relationships slowly, taking as much time as I need to discover whether I like this new person and how to create healthy, appropriate boundaries for them. I am learning that I can't be everyone's best friend.

I am learning to feel my uncomfortable feelings, the ones that come from building new, healthy habits and patterns of behavior. Like running, building a healthy life feels painful and uncomfortable at first. But there is a difference between healthy, healing pain and unhealthy, damaging pain. Before I started getting healthy, I tolerated unhealthy discomfort: high-levels of drama, spiritual abuse and becoming ensnared in other people's problems.

I'm no longer trying to escape my past or run away from it. I'm no longer trying to escape my present moment. I'm learning to recognize the things I can change and the things I cannot change. I am learning to live less frantically.

I now understand that God never abandoned me. I abandoned myself.

I found God again by taking care of myself. I am learning to trust God again because God loves me unconditionally.

I accept that things will never be perfect. There will be weeds, broken playgrounds and missing water fountains.

But there will also be patches of daisies growing in wild, unexpected abundance, precious and free.